Stretch Your Growing Season into the Fall with Season Extension Techniques and Cold-Hardy Vegetables
As short as our growing season is in Fairbanks, it’s worth thinking about how you can prolong it. You can protect your plants from frost and cold using a range of season extension techniques: frost cloth, low tunnels, cold frames or hoop houses.
Frost cloth comes in a variety of weights. You can place it either over wire hoops or directly on top of plants as a “floating” row cover. You’ll need to anchor it somehow so the wind doesn’t blow it away — boards, soil or clothespins work (if you use wire hoops).
Photo by Heidi Rader
Frost cloth, or row cover, comes in a variety of weights — the heaviest can protect plants down to 24 degrees.
Low tunnels are constructed from metal hoops and can be covered with frost cloth or plastic.
This cold frame is made out of recycled windows, which provide greater insulation than plastic.
Photo by Heidi Rader
Cold frames can be insulated and/or heated (hot bed). You can even make a rudimentary cold frame with straw bales. If you’re willing to add heat to a cold frame (known as a hot bed) or high tunnel, you can extend the growing season even further into the winter.
Hoop houses and high tunnels are another option. They provide a little less protection than cold frames because they are usually constructed from simple structures and use a plastic covering.
If you have extra room in your greenhouse, you can plant cold-hardy vegetables in mid- to late summer, but it might be hard to take precious space from your tomatoes and cucumbers when they are at their peak and give it to the lowly corn salad (mache).
Eliot Coleman, an expert on winter gardening, says that when the average nighttime temperature is zero, in a high tunnel it will be 11 and in a cold frame it will be 14. While researching high tunnels at the UAF Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, Fairbanks Experiment Farm, in 2005, I found that on the day of the first fall frost the minimum temperature inside the high tunnel was 29 and outside the high tunnel it was 24.
Last year at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm weather station, the average temperature was 44 in September and 24 in October, and the lowest temperature was 21 in September and 4 below in October.
Use a season extension technique that provides enough protection to keep the temperature above 15, below which most winter greens will be barely edible. Based on temperatures recorded last year, this will be easier to do in September than October.
Choose cold-hardy crops. Claytonia and mache, both winter greens, are the hardiest of the cold hardy. Watercress, chard, baby salad greens, collards, kale, bok choi, tatsoi, arugula and various types of chicories are also cold hardy. Beets, carrots, leeks and scallions can also be harvested into the late fall.
Don’t wait until the temperatures drop to plant your late-season crops. Plant them in mid- to late summer, depending on days to maturity. Plant them early enough to give them time to establish roots and mature some, but not so early that they have already reached their peak during the regular growing season. If you wait too long to plant, their growth may slow so that they never have a chance to reach maturity before it gets too cold.
Spinach often performs better in the shoulder seasons in Interior Alaska. Long and hot days tend to promote bolting in the summer.
Photo by Heidi Rader
Dr. Michael Orzolek, a high tunnel specialist, says that air temperatures below 32 can slow maturation of leafy lettuces by 10 to 15 days. Baby salad greens would normally mature in 28-30 days and head lettuce would normally mature in 42-58 days.
Try these simple tricks to enjoy nutritious greens and vegetables longer this year. And, of course, these same techniques can also be used in the early spring.
Heidi Rader is a tribes Extension educator for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service and the Tanana Chiefs Conference. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For answers to gardening questions, contact the Tanana District Extension office at 474-1530.