Solutions for Self-Reliance

Extending the Growing Season in the Spring

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Our food supply lines are incredibly fragile. Since the 2000s, oil prices have dramatically increased, and as we all know current corporate agribusiness requires oil to survive. Without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and gasoline for transport, the entire system falls apart.

In the meantime, as oil prices rise, food is going to jump along with it. You may remember back in 2007-2008 when gas prices jumped. There was a corresponding jump in food prices all around the world.

Facing rising food costs, one of the first things that resilience-minded people gravitate toward is how to grow their own food.

However, it is easier to grow food in some places than others. Regions of the world with a long cold season may not be able to grow enough food to survive with a garden alone.

Having a strategy to extend the growing season will ensure that you can produce enough food for you and your loved ones, and potentially even make extra money, when the supply lines fail.

What does extending the season mean?

For most of the continental US, the growing season lasts for six months from May to September. It is possible to extend things out further, at least two months, with just a few simple tricks. If you can successfully extend the season out by three months, you can produce 50% more food! In some areas of the country, such as the Deep South, you could feasibly grow food all year long with the right tools.

The most important signals a seed needs to sprout is temperature and the presence of water. If the surrounding soil is not warm enough or wet enough, seeds won’t sprout. After sprouting, if the air temperature is too cold, some plants will get damaged or die. We need to trick the seeds into sprouting early by providing an environment they like and protecting them once they emerge. If you can control the temperature, you can control the health of the plant and, with some practice, get a successful harvest.

Starting earlier in Spring

In this article, we’ll be focusing on how to extend the cool growing season. The first thing you should do is find a way to warm the soil in early spring. At a minimum, the soil temperature needs to be 40 degrees for most cold-hardy vegetables like lentils and peas.

There are several ways you can warm the soil:

  • Spread clear or black plastic over your soil and weigh it down. After a few early warm days, remove the plastic and stir up the soil to move cooler soil upward. Repeat until your soil temperature is warm enough for your early crops. Invest in a soil thermometer. You can start doing this in January and be planting by February if all goes well.
  • If you have one, you can place an old storm window over a raised bed and really crank the heat up fast.
  • If you are a row gardener, you can build a hoop house out of plastic and PVC and lay it over your rows. This is a good winter project.
  • If you have built a greenhouse, keep it closed with a thermometer inside. Watch it every day and night until the interior temperature stays above freezing.
  • If you really want to go old-school, scour antique shops for glass cloches. These bell-shaped glass vessels rest over your seeds and act like mini-greenhouses.

The second thing is to start growing your seedlings early inside. Once they are sprouted and the soil is ready, transplant them into you warmed bed. The steps to growing seedlings can fill another article, but keep these things in mind:

  • Don’t let your seedlings get too leggy (long-stemmed)! They’ll fall over after transplanting and grow poorly. Keep your grow lights close to your seeds
  • Be sure to harden off your seedlings properly so they don’t die after transplanting.
  • Watch the temperature carefully! As the temperature warms, take the cover off a little while each day so they don’t bake. This is probably the trickiest part of growing things early. If things get too hot too fast, you’ll end up with dead plants.

Extending cool weather crops into summer

Cool weather crops include things like radishes, lettuce, spinach, and cabbage, and they hate the heat. If you leave a grown lettuce in the heat too long it’ll put up a seed stalk and turn really bitter. If you want to try and have some fresh lettuce around when your tomatoes are coming in, here are some tricks.

  • First, make sure you have a plant variety that is labeled “heat resistant” or “slow to bolt”. You’re gambling a bit by planting late, so this will give you some insurance.
  • Water more than you think and mulch well around the plant. The extra water will keep the soil from getting too hot and will give the plant the water it needs to resist the extra heat. Mulch will keep water from evaporating too quickly.
  • Build a shade cage over the crops. This is much like building a hoop house, but using window screen or even cheesecloth as a cover instead of plastic. You could even have the same frame pulling double duty by using clothespins to attach the cover to the frame.

The sooner you can grow your own food, the sooner you can insulate yourself from the shocks of food price swings. Growing food is a very deep and complex topic. The sooner you can start, the sooner you’ll be ready if and when your grocery store shelves are empty.

In the next article, we’ll talk about extending the season for summer crops.

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