When I was hosting "Fresh from the Garden" on the DIY Network, we grew a lot of different kinds of produce. Many were the classic favorites of summer: tomatoes, green beans, corn, squash and peppers, to name a few. Because all the vegetables in the garden were TV stars, they had to look their best at all times, too. This put a lot of pressure on me since there are many variables beyond my control. As a gardener, you know that Mother Nature always has the final word.
Although I managed to get through three years and 52 episodes with a near-blemish-free record, this was still a real-world, working garden. I used eco-friendly practices then, just like I do today. Although that was certainly good for the environment, it did require the utmost vigilance on my part to head off any potential problems early in the process. Of all the challenges a garden can throw at even the most experienced veteran, dealing with rapidly changing weather is likely the most nerve-wracking experience. Yet even then, there are a few ways to extend the season along with the pleasures of gardening that go along with it.
Anytime I knew cold weather was on the way, I'd get out my row covers as the first line of defense. These thin, lightweight covers allow air and light in, but provide just enough insulating protection to keep those few extra degrees of precious warmth contained near the plants and in the soil. The row covers alone helped keep the frost off the leaves. Without them, my plants could have easily turned to mush. For a more season-long solution and greater warmth retention, a heavier layer of clear plastic stretched over hoops works wonders for keeping plants toasty under cover.
Another trick, which had year-round value, was to use a thick layer of mulch around my plants. In summer it kept the roots cool and moisture in the soil. In late fall and winter, that same mulch helped keep the warmth in the soil and prevented the ground from freezing. For cool-season plants like spinach, on those extra-cold nights, I'd spread a layer of mulch directly over the plants. This protected the foliage that might otherwise burn from exposure to extreme cold and wind. I know some gardeners keep their spinach covered this way through the winter, and the plants don't seem to mind a bit.
Sometimes, I'd cut off the bottoms of plastic milk jugs and place the jug over small plants, secured with a dowel or stick through the spout or down through the handle. I was always amazed at how well such a simple step worked to protect them. In fact, it insulated so well that I'd have to be sure to remove the jugs in the morning, or at least the caps. Otherwise, that same shelter that protected my plants through the night might be the very thing to cook them the next day.
Page 2 of 2 - One of my favorite ways to extend the season each winter was to plant in cold frames. If you're not familiar with the term, just picture a big wooden box with a glass or clear plastic lid on top, such as a storm door or window frame. Although not necessary to do so, I'd put straw bails around it to provide extra insulation. Having cold frames allowed the opportunity to garden year-round and over-winter less-hardy plants. I'd plant directly into the soil within the frame or simply put potted plants inside it for protection from the elements. Either way, it was usually enough to keep them from freezing to death. However, just as with the plastic milk jugs, I always had to be sure to vent the frame in the morning so the plants wouldn't cook.
Finally, for a relatively carefree winter vegetable garden, I was always sure to plant plenty of cool-season crops like kale, collards, turnips and Brussels sprouts. In my Zone 7 garden, they breezed through the winter with no additional protection.
Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information, visit www.joegardener.com. DIY Network is part of Scripps Networks Interactive, which shares common ownership with The E.W. Scripps Co., the parent company of Scripps Howard News Service.