I love a fresh, crisp fall day. Many of us would agree that it would be the best season of the year if not for the fact that it is a stepping stone to the inevitable: winter.
Who knows what this fall will bring, given the wacky weather high jinks we've experienced this year. But let's pretend for a moment that everything will go as planned and there won't be snow sprinkled on the peppers tomorrow morning (please, gods). We can't control the weather or stave off the inevitable, but there are a few methods we can employ as gardeners to hold back the effects of seasonal change and keep the garden party going a while.
You're already one step ahead if your garden is a raised bed. They warm up slightly early in the spring and tend to stay warmer as the fall cools down.
A thick layer of mulch such as straw, buckwheat hulls or shredded newspaper keeps the soil and surface roots warm through nippy nights and breezy fall days. An actual blanket made of burlap gets the job done too, but can get awfully heavy when wet so be sure to cut big holes to keep it off the crowns of plants. An even better blanket still is black plastic. The dark colour attracts the sun's rays and the plastic holds moisture through fluke fall droughts.
In lieu of cumbersome blankets, which can be difficult to manoeuvre in small spaces, try an assortment of store-bought and homespun contraptions that can be fitted over individual plants or entire beds to trap warm air and create the effect of a miniature greenhouse. Hoop houses are toasty-warm tunnels made of metal or plastic hoops draped with a clear plastic tarp that lets light in and keeps warm air from escaping. You can buy them ready-made from garden suppliers such as Lee Valley (www.leevalley.com), or make your own inexpensively using bendable metal shaped into arcs or dollar-store hula hoops cut in half. Push the arcs into the soil intermittently to support the length of the tunnel and cover with a big sheet of plastic. Secure the plastic in place by stapling to the sides of raised beds or with clips purchased at the hardware store.
Greenhouses made to cover individual plants are called cloches. Fancy glass cloches are nice to look at but expensive at $30 to 40 a pop. Never mind: You can make as many as you like in a variety of sizes for free from plastic water bottles rescued from the recycling bin. Simply cut off the bottom and set the cloche over tender greens or frost-sensitive plants that you would like to keep in the garden just a little bit longer. Keeping the cap in place locks warmth inside; you can also remove it to water your plants and let heat escape on particularly sunny days.
Cold frames are the way to go if you would like a shot at keeping particularly cold-hardy greens such as mâche, kale, spinach and arugula producing food straight through into the winter (and beyond). It's really nothing more than a low-tech box with a hinged glass or plastic lid. The trick is to dig the box at least a few inches into well-draining soil and give it a south-facing position. Open the lid when it gets too hot and insulate both the sides and top with newspapers, straw and old burlap sacks when night temperatures drop below freezing. They're not exactly practical when growing up on a roof or in pots, but compact versions set on top of a planter box will ensure at least a few extra homegrown salads this fall.
For more gardening tips, visit Gayla Trail's website, www.yougrowgirl.com .
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