Most conventional gardening is aimed toward producing a variety of foods in the summer. Then autumn comes, the days grow darker and colder, the annual plants die down, and the gardener hibernates until spring.
It is true that most of us living in temperate climates cannot easily grow food all year round, but we can certainly harvest it. That is the key to fresh home-grown produce every day of the year. Instead of sowing merely in the spring, the four-season survival gardener sows year-round, adjusting what is grown with the awareness that even hardy plants won’t grow much during winter. However, if plants are grown strong enough before winter hits, they can be overwintered.
As the conventional gardener watches his summer crops start to flourish and bloom, the four-season gardener is busy sowing or planting autumn crops. That includes, of course, autumn specialists such as winter squash, pumpkins and shelling beans, but some plants grown as early summer crops make excellent autumn crops as well:
Other plants only come into their own during autumn, but reward you with a harvest that can last well into the frost nights—sometimes into early spring:
- Chinese cabbage
- Lamb’s lettuce
- Brussels sprouts
As autumn draws to a close, the four-season survival gardener is not only still harvesting but still sowing and planting:
- Spring onions
- Early cropping broad beans
- Early cropping peas
It is only when spring arrives that the four-season gardener briefly walks hand-in-hand with the conventional gardener.
Cold Frames, Row Covers & Plastic Tunnels
If you live in a snowy climate, be aware that most of the hardy winter plants mentioned above do not mind a little snow. In fact, they probably prefer a bed of insulating snow to a dry, cold, windy winter.
That said, you will be able to get more out of your overwintered plants if they are protected from blizzards and ice to keep as much heat in as possible. Not to mention a covering will make it easier to harvest during snowy days. If you do not have a greenhouse, there are still many things that you could do.
Row covers are the most basic protection that you can offer your plants. This thin fabric will not necessarily keep much heat in, but it will even out the temperature a little and protect your plants from the worst of the wind.
A cold frame is an excellent tool, especially for overwintering salad leaves. This simple device is a box with a glass or plastic lid that can be bought at a garden center or built cheaply from an old window. It works like a miniature greenhouse by creating a sheltered micro-climate with a tiny warmer.
Plastic tunnels come in many different sizes, from walk-in polytunnels to small row cover tunnels. They are a cheaper, but less sturdy, alternative to the cold frame.
Whatever method you choose, the protective effect is increased by doubling your methods. Placing a plastic tunnel inside a greenhouse or a row cover inside a cold frame will raise the temperature slightly.
When you put in a lot of time, energy and money, it is easy to get discouraged by any gardening failure. This is especially true of autumn and winter gardening in temperate climate because of how easy it can be to fail.
The first time you sow your autumn and winter crops, you may be tempted to imitate experts online and in books, but unless they are local to you with the same climate, you may end up failing miserably based on faulty advice. Those experts aren’t operating with the same temperature and first frost date as you are. What you need to pay attention to is the length of time estimated for each species and variety that you wish to grow, from sowing until harvest. That is how long before your first frost date that you must, at latest, sow. Otherwise, you may watch your seedlings grow quickly in the warmth of late summer evenings but fail to bloom as the chilly winter nights take hold.