If I could stay out of the garden until early June, I might get by without using season extenders. But by the end of April my fingers are twitching and I’ve simply got to start planting. Having worked at Gardener’s Supply for over 15 years, you might imagine the motley assortment of gardening equipment that fills my basement, barn, and outbuildings. I have tried just about every contraption out there. These days, my essential season extending equipment includes hoops and various row cover fabrics, hot caps, and a greenhouse.
Horticultural fabrics play a very important role in my garden. I use Garden Quilt to cover broccoli and lettuce plants, which are set out in late April when overnight temperatures still dip into the teens. I also use Garden Quilt when it’s time to plant tomatoes and peppers (mid-May). I keep them covered with it until the end of May, and then switch to the All Purpose Cover, which stays on until mid-June.
Once I start planting the bulk of the garden, I haul out the big box of All Purpose fabric (each piece neatly folded after last fall… right!). New transplants always get covered for a few days. (I never bother hardening things off. Who has time to carry flats in and out every day?) Using horticultural fabrics lets me plant when I have the time to do it, without risk of transplant shock – even on sunny days. (I can’t wait for a cool overcast day – if it’s Saturday, it’s planting time.) Wind protection is also a key benefit. My garden is in a very windy spot, and fabrics keep tender transplants from being battered. I usually use wire Support Hoops beneath the fabrics (the hi-rise hoops are my favorites). Hoops allow me to stretch the fabric tightly so the wind doesn’t catch it. Earth Staples are essential. Clothespins are also useful.
I use Hot Caps of various kinds to cover cucumbers, zucchini, and melons. I suppose I could cover them with fabric, too, but since I usually have only a few of each plant, I find hot caps are easier.
Tomatoes are always a challenge in Zone 4. For the past couple years I’ve used the following system with great success. Set out your transplants in a row and put a Folding Tomato Cages around each one. Take a long length of Garden Quilt. Use clothespins to attach one end of the fabric up the side of first cage at the end of the row. Run the fabric down one side of the cages, wrap it around the last cage, and continue back up the other side of the cages. Close the circle where you started. Then fold the fabric over the top of the cages from one side to the other and secure it with more clothespins. Your tomatoes will be inside a snug, custom-sized cocoon. As the weather warms up, you can fold back the fabric on top for better ventilation. I leave the fabric around my tomatoes until mid June – even longer if the weather is still cool.
I use my greenhouse (A 10′ x 12′ Northern Light) for seed starting, and grow salad greens in the in-ground bed from March through June, and again from September through November. Last summer, I planted all my eggplant and a couple bush tomatoes in the in-ground bed. I’ve never had so many eggplant, and the tomatoes in the greenhouse were the only ones that escaped early blight. Greenhouses are the ultimate season extenders. But that’s a whole other story.