Eating fresh food from your garden is a bit like drinking good coffee: Once you’ve had it, you can never go back to drinking freeze-dried instant or to eating tasteless fare from the frozen food aisle. But what if your growing season is woefully short? (When I lived in a Colorado mountain town at an altitude of 8,750 feet, we joked that the seasons were composed of “July, August, and winter.”) If you’re like most gardeners (and me), your idea of gardening is to plant enthusiastically in the spring and then burn out completely over the summer. By fall the garden is a neglected brown wasteland, and you’re in the supermarket reaching for a bagged salad that sparks fear of a potential E. coli recall in your heart. But with the following tips you can garden through the seasons with less effort and more fresh food.
Start your seedlings indoors a month or two before the date of your last frost. It’s a fun project to do with kids, and a bit of mood booster for those of us who start to feel seasonally affected during February. To grow sturdier seedlings, use grow lights. You may have to move seedlings into bigger pots as they grow, so keep an assortment of different-size ones on hand. (Here’s an opportunity to use up those cottage cheese and yogurt containers in the recycle bin. Poke holes in the bottom for drainage and use organic potting soil from the local garden center.) Move the seedlings to bigger containers when they sprout two leaves. Before you can plant them outside, you’ll need to “harden off” your seedlings (acclimate them to the outdoors and prevent shock) by putting them in a protected area, such as under a row cover, for one or two days. No luck with homegrown seedlings? Ask around at local nurseries for organic “starts” or small plants. Better luck next year.
Don’t get frosted! If you’re going to plant early, keep an eye on the weather and watch for early frosts. You can also cover up your precious plants by using cloches (you can make a reasonable substitute for those pricey glass bell jars by cutting the bottoms off two-liter plastic jugs), floating row covers (available at nurseries), or a cold frame, which is like a big picture frame you plant under. Some gardeners build cold frames out of hay bales, topped with glass or transparent plastic. Maximize sun and warmth by sloping the lid toward the south. I’m designing a cold frame using old windows that we saved rather than discarded after a home remodeling project. Note: Don’t use toxic materials, such as railroad ties, which can contain creosote. Ditto for pressure-treated lumber, which can leak chemicals such as arsenic into the soil.
Keep sowing. One trick to keep your garden going longer is to do “succession planting,” or planting at intervals so that new plants replace mature ones. Some veggies, such as lettuce, can be planted every couple of weeks!
Keep weeding. One of the biggest problems in gardening (believe me, I know) is running out of steam, and there’s nothing as energy zapping as weeding. Keep it at, because weeding is like cleaning up as you cook: There’s nothing worse than a kitchen full of dirty pans or a garden full of weeds when you’re tired. Don’t forget to use a high-quality mulch (such as shredded leaves from your trees), which will keep the weeds down and decompose into something yummy for your soil.
Plant veggies for fall. Depending on where you live, sow cool-weather-loving plants that you can harvest in the fall. Spinach and broccoli are two good bets. Here’s the tricky part: You might have to shade these plants from too much sun! Use row covers or even other plants to provide shade.
Keep picking. Don’t let your zucchini get as big as gorillas. They don’t taste as good, and once the plant starts producing seed it will stop producing fruit. If you have too many zukes, give some to your neighbors or a local food pantry that accepts fresh foods.
Grow cool-weather-loving greens under your cold frame, if your area’s climate allows. Begin planting as the weather cools, and choose plants that love “sweater weather,” such as broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, chard, and beets. For advice on cold frames, what vegetables to plant, and why ducks are fun to have around, I like Eliot Coleman’s book The Four-Season Harvest. Food for thought: Coleman grows stuff all year long in Maine — without heated greenhouses.
Save cash and precious genes by saving seeds. Collect seeds from your celebrity plants (the robust, tasty, and gorgeous ones) because you’ll want to pass on those genetic traits. Speaking of genetics, harvest seeds from plants grown from “open pollination” plants, not hybrids. Hybrid seeds do not breed “true,” but revert to the original plant parents, not the variety you planted. Do you still have seed packets left over? Take a tip from seed banks, which store seeds in a cold place, and put your leftover
seed packets in a jar in the refrigerator. This will help you get a few more seasons out of them. For books, supplies, and more information about seed saving, try the Seed Savers Exchange website.
Enjoy the food you’ve stored. (We’ll look at this topic in more detail in Chapter 4.) Cozy up with some seed catalogs and plan your spring garden. Update your garden journal. If you live in a cold climate, don’t let your garden be lifeless: Hang some bird feeders. Make a fuss over your houseplants.
Depending on where you live, you might still be plucking salads from your cold frame.
Go ahead and try your hand at an indoor herb garden. Just don’t take advice from me, aka The Handmaiden of Basil Death.
Make your “fireside read” a book about sustainable food.