Cold climate gardening can take a bit more preparation and thought, especially in the shoulder seasons where the potential for frost is real. Here we offer ten of our top cold weather gardening tips that can help you extend the season and have a successful harvest! Using these tips will ensure you can grow a successful garden anywhere, even in the sub-arctic!
Pay Attention To Low Temperatures
Low night temperatures often have the risk of bringing about frost, which is condensation of humidity that then freezes. When this freezing water settles on your plants, it can be disastrous in many cases, killing off or severely harming your plants. When you’re ramping up for the early gardening season, as well as late in the gardening season, it’s important to know what the low temperatures will be every night. Freezing temperatures, and even slightly above freezing, can bring about frost conditions. Many news outlets will offer information about frosts, as well, so you might want to check what resources you have. When frost conditions exist, you might want to bring sensitive plants inside or take protective measures.
Extend Your Season With Frost Tolerant Plants
There are many types of plants that are frost tolerant, and even some that improve their flavor with a bit of frost! These are great for early and late season options that can extend your gardening season outside of the typical frost boundaries. Commonly frost tolerant vegetables include sweet peas, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. Root vegetables are also often a good choice with carrots, onions, turnips and parsnips offering a bit of early and late season survival. There are some vegetables that grow and/or improve with frost, these are commonly spinach, kale, collard greens, Swiss chard and endive. Mature rhubarb will often survive even hardy winters, offering a nice early season treat.
Harvest Before First Frost
The late gardening season is always a bit challenging as it can often be hard to predict exactly when the first frost will set in. While first and last frost dates are commonly known for various areas, they do not necessarily mean a frost can’t set in early or late! As you near first frost in the fall, pay attention to frost alerts and low temperatures and harvest your bounty before that frost sets in. If you don’t, you run the risk of losing out on all that hard work. If you absolutely need to extend your season, you might think about using frost cloth or other protective measures to get those last few days of maturing.
Use Frost Cloth To Extend Your Season
Frost cloth can often help prevent frosts from settling on your plants. Unlike a greenhouse or cold frame, frost cloth offers simple frost protection for your plants without much infrastructure. You can simply cover your plants with a bit of cloth, securing the cloth to either the plant or the ground. This is particularly useful for getting a jump-start with your warm weather plants, such as tomatoes and cucumbers. It can also help with final maturing of plants such as squash as the late season frosts begin to set in, but the weather hasn’t turned towards winter. It’s a good idea to have a roll of frost cloth handy just in case an unexpected frost settles in.
Use Cold Frames Or Greenhouses
While this is a luxury for many gardeners, it’s often not all that expensive to build a cold frame from PVC and poly greenhouse material. Greenhouses can easily raise your gardening zone by two levels and can offer at least a month or two extension for your gardening season. Keep in mind that greenhouses often need both cooling (vents, fans) for high temps and a source of heat when ambient temperatures fall below a specified level. Cold frames often simply have a goal of preventing frost damage and often aren’t air tight. Also, greenhouses don’t necessarily have to be expensive. See this link for how we built two climate controlled greenhouses for less than $100.
Use Varieties That Do Well In Cold Climates
While it may be common sense to plant vegetables that are frost tolerant, some areas (like zone 1 here in the sub-arctic) present challenges for certain types of plants. Some plants, like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, often need extended periods of warm temperatures to allow flowering and fruit creation. Low night temperatures can often prevent flowering and fruiting for these plants. When growing these types of plants, using varieties that are known to fruit and flower with lower temperatures is important. It may be desirable to seek out specific seed suppliers that offer these varieties as the seeds you will commonly find may not adequately fruit or flower in your area.
Use Raised Beds To Keep Soil Warmer
Raised beds are known to increase soil temperatures by a fair bit, which can really benefit a lot of plants in both growth and germination phases. Raised beds don’t necessarily have to be enclosed in wood, they can be simply hilled ground or wide-raised-row techniques. It’s helpful to use a tiller to move the soil into hills or wide raised beds and you can gain new soil by tilling out your walkways somewhat deep. Raised beds allow the sun to warm the side of the soil, which can keep the soil well above the rest of the ground. In the sub-arctic here, it’s wise to orient your raised beds such that the sun has the greatest surface area to warm up.
Build A Container Garden
Similar to raised beds, a container garden is extremely flexible and offers warmer soil temperatures than bare ground techniques. One of the best things about container gardens is you can move plants to areas where they’ll do best (e.g. full sun or partial shade) and when frost is a danger, you can simply bring your plants inside. The most important thing with container gardens is to ensure that the container size is large enough that the plants won’t dry out too quickly. It’s often better to slightly oversize a container than to under size it. Also, It can be somewhat costly to fill many containers with soil, so making your own with compost, top soil, sand, perlite, vermiculite, peat moss and/or coco coir can be a cost saving opportunity.
Get Started Early With An Indoor Setup
If you intend to grow your garden from seed, it’s often necessary in cold climates to get started early indoors. Many plants will benefit from an extended season and growing your own starts is a way to significantly reduce the cost of operating a garden. An indoor setup requires a grow light, but you can also use CFL based shop lights as an alternative. If you want good results, more light is better than less light and a better lamp is recommended. An indoor nursery can easily be set up in a corner of your house and with some care, doesn’t have to be a messy adventure. We often get started around March when frost and snow are still quite prevalent in our area.
Plant After Last Frost Dates
In the spring, the weather can often be unpredictable and will change on a daily or hourly basis. If you want to ensure the success of your garden, wait until after your known last frost date to plant everything, particularly any plants that are not frost tolerant. While in some seasons you can cheat and get ahead with an early planting, it’s also quite possible that an unexpected frost could set in and destroy your early seedlings. Cold weather also will slow down germination rates, so you might not be saving much in the way of time anyway. We’ve pushed it in years past and used frost cloth and other techniques to manage the frost, but it’s a lot of extra work and your plants will not necessarily benefit from getting planted too early.