Do you think gardening in winter just isn’t possible in your area because it’s too cold with too much snow? You may be surprised to learn about these cold-weather gardening methods to harvest food year-round.
Watch this video (or listen to the podcast) with Rick Stone of Our Stoney Acres who lives in Utah (above 4,000 feet) to learn how he grows and harvests fresh produce from his garden all year long.
About Rick Stone
As mentioned, Rick and his family live in Utah at an elevation of over 4,000 feet on a quarter-acre lot in the suburbs. Using his cold-weather methods, he’s able to garden in winter and harvest fresh vegetables year-round.
Rick considers himself a gardening nerd. He loves being in the soil and watching things grow. He’s a master gardener but says that much of his gardening knowledge came from (and still comes from) learning from the mistakes he’s made.
Over the last 25 years, he’s learned a thing or two and has become passionate about teaching people to start their own vegetable gardens that will open the door to a world of organically grown fresh fruits and vegetables. He’s the principal author and creator of Our Stoney Acres. Along with his wife AJ, their goal is to help you become a better gardener.
Can Anyone Grow Food Year-Round?
I asked Rick if he thought anyone could grow food year-round and he said that yes, it’s possible, but it will get more difficult, and you will be more limited in what you can grow, the colder the winters you have.
Zones 3 and 4 will be much more difficult than say zones 5-7 and will need some special structures such as hoop houses and/or cold frames. But yes, he says it’s possible. Where there’s a will, there’s always a way, right?
Methods for Gardening in Winter
A cold frame is essentially a box with windows that will keep the weather out but also allows the light and heat in.
Rick prefers wooden boxes made with plexiglass. He says the wood helps insulate, while the plexiglass lets plenty of light through.
Some people will even build a box using straw bales with an old storm window on top to capture the light.
If you live in a climate that doesn’t get too cold in the winter (doesn’t dip more than a few degrees below freezing), you may get away with simply putting some heavy fabric row covers over your garden to protect from light frosts.
This isn’t possible for many of us, but it’s worth mentioning because row covers can be a much less expensive option.
Rick also utilizes row covers inside his hoop houses and cold frames for an added layer of protection. He says with each layer you add to your crops, you’re increasing your growing zone by one. So if you’re in zone 5 and you have a cold frame with a row cover inside, you’re essentially now in zone 7 for your plants.
It’s not a perfect science, but a good general rule of thumb to keep in mind.
Mini Hoop Houses
A mini hoop house is simply a hoop house you build directly over your existing garden beds or rows. You can take PVC pipe, attach it to your beds, cover it with plastic and tack it down to the ground or the garden bed frame.
You can grab our plans for an easy DIY hoop house here. We wouldn’t consider this a mini-hoop house, but it’s the same general idea and you could certainly scale this down to fit the size bed you need.
Greenhouses and High Tunnels
These are always an option for winter growing, however, because Rick lives in the suburbs, he doesn’t have the space for these, and most of the people he comes across also don’t have the budget for a greenhouse.
If you have a greenhouse or high tunnel then utilize them and be thankful for them. You can use this guide to learn how to heat a greenhouse without electricity. But don’t feel like they are your only option when it comes to winter growing.
The photo above is of our DIY Hoop House where we plant our warm-weather-loving crops.
Can you extend the growing season without additional structures?
It is possible to extend the growing season without having additional structures. I know many of us have a lot going on, and building structures, even cold frames, is not in the budget. So I asked Rick what his opinions were on extending the growing season without additional structures.
His answer was to utilize row covers. They’re inexpensive and can help protect plants from light frost.
In fact, they’re what Rick uses in his own garden. As soon as the snow melts in March, he’ll plant his hardy vegetables like carrots, spinach, kale and chard, then cover the garden with a row cover and just let them go.
Doing this extends his growing season and allows him to plant about six weeks sooner than normal.
You can utilize this method on the other end of the growing season by using row covers into the fall. By adding them in the spring and fall, you’ve essentially added three months of growing season to your year.
Though mulch does a good job insulating your crops, it won’t necessarily extend the growing season.
Though it will help retain heat in the soil in the fall (for a short period of time), it won’t help the soil heat up earlier in the spring.
In fact, the opposite is true. The mulch actually inhibits the soil from warming up and delays germination and root development.
As long as you’re aware of this and take proactive measures, mulch can be used.
Cloches are great for protecting individual plants. You can use simple items such as a milk carton turned upside down, a clear plastic bin turned upside down, or you can purchase specific cloches. Rick’s favorite cloches are called “Wall O Water.”
Rick really loves the Wall O Water cloches which allow him to plant tomatoes four to six weeks before he would otherwise be able to. The cloches have pockets that you fill with water. The water absorbs the heat during the day and acts like an insulator as temperatures drop overnight.
How important are timing and crop selection to season extension?
The key to growing through the winter months is understanding that the growth has to be complete prior to the cold setting in. You want your vegetables to reach a harvestable size just as the first frost arrives.
Then, you essentially use your garden as a storage space to keep your produce fresh and protected until you’re ready to harvest.
For example, Rick planted carrots approximately eight weeks prior to his first frost. Toward the end of October and early November, he was able to begin harvesting them and he continued to harvest them throughout the winter months by protecting them with the methods listed above.
The goal is to harvest the last of your carrots just as you’re starting your early spring planting.
The thing to keep in mind is that plants don’t stop growing due to the cold only, it also has to do with the hours of sunlight. Once you dip below ten hours of sunlight each day, your crops will become dormant and stop growing. So if you don’t have those carrots at a harvestable size, they’ll just stop growing and won’t begin to grow again until the daylight hours increase in the spring.
Tips for Planting Crops in Early Spring
There is one major step you need to do when planting crops in early spring. Much like the warm-weather crops that need to be hardened off, any seedlings you start indoors will also need to be hardened off prior to planting. (Learn how to start seeds indoors and when to pot up seedlings.)
Even if it’s a cold-hardy crop, they’ve been started indoors which is likely a temperature between 60-80° F. If you’re planting them out and the nighttime temperatures are dipping down toward 20° F, the simple shock of the change in temperature will kill them.
To harden off your plants, take them outside and expose them to colder temperatures for an hour. Then, bring them back inside. The second day, take them outside for two to three hours, then bring them back in. Continue taking them outside, increasing the amount of time they’re out for about a week, and bringing them back inside each night.
Your plants should then be able to get planted into the garden (protected with whatever method you’re using) and survive just fine.
Tips for Planting Crops in Late Summer for a Fall or Winter Garden
One of the biggest hindrances of planting a late summer garden is space. Most of the crops grown over the summer months will still be producing, so you don’t want to rip them up in order to plant crops for winter harvest.
If you have plenty of growing space, this may not be an issue, but for Rick, living in the suburbs on a quarter-acre lot requires creativity.
Where Rick lives, his average first frost is October 1, so he should be planting his fall/winter garden on August 1. But much of Rick’s garden is still filled with growing crops.
One trick he uses is to start his potatoes earlier in the spring in order to harvest them by August 1st to allow for space to plant carrots and spinach for this fall/winter garden.
But the biggest tip for winter gardening will be to start seeds indoors. Using your grow lights and your seed-starting setup, start some lettuce indoors on August 1, then you’ll be able to transplant them outside under the protection of cold frames, hoop houses or row covers in late September or early October, once the rest of the garden has been cleared out.
Learn more about which crops you can plant for a fall/winter garden here as well as crops that will NOT survive a frost here.
How can you utilize microclimates to extend your growing season?
You’re always going to have areas on your properties that are warmer. For most, it’s the south side of a house, a fence, or maybe even a hillside.
Finding those places where the snow melts first in the spring is a great indicator of the warmer zones on your property. It can take time to learn your property, so make sure you’re being observant.
If you don’t have any microclimates, or maybe they’re not where you need them, you can create a microclimate by building a fence or a brick wall and placing the cold frame on the south-facing side of that structure.
It’s also important that where you’re growing has the maximum amount of sunlight exposure throughout the day. Since we’re already dealing with less intense sunlight, we have to capture as much of it as possible in that cold frame.
Hardiest Plants to Grow During the Winter
- Swiss Chard
- Napa Cabbage
- Bok Choy
- Mache (or Corn Salad)
- Clay Salad
- Brussels Sprouts
What Can I Grow Indoors?
Rick mentioned that his family experimented this year with growing lettuce indoors in a south-facing window. They started the seeds themselves, then transplanted them to a pot near the sunny window and successfully grew lettuce for their family all winter indoors.
Many of the items listed above will work for growing indoors, especially the leafy greens and herbs like home-grown parsley and home-grown cilantro. However, root vegetables and other brassicas that require “heading” likely won’t do well.
One of the biggest hang-ups people have is looking at a garden that’s covered in snow and thinking there’s nothing they can be doing in the garden right now.
Get out of the mindset that you can only grow a summer garden. Start experimenting and trying some of these tips. If it fails, you’re only out a little bit of time and the cost of some seeds.
Where to Find Rick
- Our Stoney Acres Website
- Online Gardening Academy
- Free Mini Course on Fall Garden Planting (in July)
More Gardening Resources:
- 10 Gardening Mistakes People Often Make
- How to Attract Pollinators
- Seed Starting Problems (& How to Fix Them)
- Get a Jump Start on Early Spring Gardening
- How to Start Seeds Indoors
- Garden Planning Basics
- Garden Planning Tips and Strategies
- 7 Tips for Starting Your Garden
- Gardening Doesn’t Have to be Hard
- Making Raised Garden Bed Rows & Super-Charging Your Soil
- Is No-Till Gardening Right for You?
- Turn Your Sod into a Garden with the Lasagna Method
Josh: Hey you guys, this is Josh with Homesteading Family, and welcome to this week's episode of the Pantry Chat: Food for Thought. Carolyn is not with us today, but I am really excited to have Rick Stone here. Rick considers himself a gardening nerd. He loves being in the dirt and watching things grow. He's a master gardener, but says much of his gardening knowledge came from and still comes from learning from the mistakes he's made. Over the last 25 years he's learned a thing or two and has become passionate about teaching people to start their own vegetable gardens that will open the door to a world of organically grown fresh fruits and vegetables, and y'all know that that's one of the things we're all about here at Homesteading Family.
Now, Rick's the principal author and creator of Our Stoney Acres, along with his wife AJ, and their goal is to help you become a better gardener. So I'm really excited to have Rick here today. We're going to be talking about ways to extend the growing season in cool weather areas, hopefully help you get your garden going earlier this year. Hey Rick, it's really cool to have you here. How're you doing?
Rick: Good. Good to be here. Thank you for having me.
Josh: Oh, absolutely. This is just such an important topic. When we first moved up here to North Idaho and some of the folks we were getting to know heard we were growing out of outside of the main growing season, like June to maybe early October, they thought we were pretty weird and just most people put seeds in the ground in June and got going, but there is a lot more we can do with our growing season. You're in a cold season, right, outside of Salt Lake City, Utah there?
Rick: Yeah, yeah.
Josh: Yeah. And we are not just confined to warm weather.
Rick: And this is actually one of my favorite topics. I love season extension, mainly because I love the fact that I'm getting and growing vegetables at times of the year that people just don't normally even think about it. I mean right now in my garden, I've got a cold frame full of lettuce and other greens that are coming along that we'll start harvesting here in the next week or so, these are ones that we overwintered for this time. We're just finishing up our carrots, we've got a big cold frame full of carrots that will probably finish harvesting up in the next couple of weeks. And then we kind of shift into spring planting extra early, and I know it sounds like March seems like a really early time to be planting, but if you throw in a few of these simple ideas, it's pretty easy to actually really extend your growing season.
Josh: Yeah, that is really cool. You're harvesting fresh vegetables in Utah in early March. What's your elevation there?
Rick: So we're at about 4,600 feet here. So we're not super high, but we're considered zone 6b, we live closer to the river and so we get our frost a little bit earlier in the fall and later in the spring because we're down kind of in the valley, but it's a decent cold. We're obviously not as cold as a lot of people, but we have a decently hard winter.
Josh: Yeah. Well, that's a real encouragement, if you can be harvesting some vegetables in early March in Utah at 4,600 feet, then a lot of the folks out there can do that as well. And I think the other thing people should know about you, is you are also in a, I think, suburban environment, right?
Rick: Yeah. So we live south of Salt Lake City just in one of the suburbs of Salt Lake City, essentially, on a quarter acre lot.
Josh: Yeah, you guys. And that's one of the things we try to share with people is you don't have to move to the country, I mean a lot of us want to and a lot of people are and that's good, but there's so much you can do right where you're at home there with a few skills.
Rick: For sure.
Josh: So we're going to dive into that a little bit today. But what's some of your favorite crops to grow?
Rick: In the wintertime, out of season, I really like, obviously summertime, tomatoes, potatoes are actually one of my favorite. Part of that is because I grew up working for a potato farmer and that just kind of got ingrained in my soul, I guess. But this time of year though, our favorites are kale, and I know most people don't like kale, but if you haven't had kale in the middle of the winter, it's a totally different beast. The cold weather changes the taste a lot. We grow a lot of spinach this time of year because it's very hardy. Carrots, winter carrots are just amazing, we call them candy carrots. All my family and in-laws come to our house to try the carrots just because they're so much sweeter this time of year. That's one nice thing about off season is everything tastes better because the cold usually causes stress in the plant that converts starches into sugars, and so you usually get a lot sweeter vegetables this time of year.
So this time of year, spinach, carrots, kale, Swiss chard. Lettuce, we're not quite into the lettuce season yet, lettuce isn't as hardy as some of the others, but those are the things this time of year that we really enjoy growing. And then coming up really soon, we'll be planting our brassicas and things like that as well.
Josh: Right, nice. Did the carrots, did you plant those in the fall and then you're full on wintering?
Rick: Yeah, and that's a big part of the whole season extension is the timing and getting the timing right. If I were to plant them in January, they wouldn't do anything until March. So those carrots were planted the 1st of August in our area, it's usually about eight weeks before your first frost is when you start doing that planting. So we planted those about August 5th, and then we usually start harvesting them about mid-October, 1st of November, right around there and then we'll harvest through the winter.
Josh: Nice. Yeah, that is nice to have a supply of fresh vegetables, and I know a lot of people do that. We struggle with that because the amount of snow that we get, I don't know how much snow you get there or what you see people do, but we'll have anywhere from a foot to two and a half foot of snow on the ground all winter. And so for us, I haven't figured out a way yet to grow those carrots and be able to harvest them reasonably, besides the fact the ground freezes about two foot deep as well.
Rick: So one of the things that will help is some cold frames. So we grow all of our winter stuff either in a cold frame or a hoop house. For you guys, you're probably a little bit too cold for a hoop house to help you through the winter at least. But a cold frame, if you can get it in a good position where it's protected, maybe up against the south side of a building or something like that where you can keep the wind off and hopefully keep the snow down a little bit, those cold frames will actually stay.
And depending on, if you have a cold snap, like we talked about sometimes you'll have some temperatures that drop down below freezing or below zero, at those times you actually want to leave the snow on the cold frame. That will act as an insulator. But when things start to warm up, you go out clear that snow off and then the ground will very quickly thaw inside the cold frame because your temperature's in the cold frame are going to be 30, 35 degrees warmer than it is outside, so your ground will thaw and makes it really easy to harvest things like carrots and turnips and stuff like that.
Josh: Nice. That's real confirming of something we're working on, we start playing with it last summer, but we've created some terraces right in front of our house and we had a slope that was just useless, but it was south and southwest facing. And at the first years on the property we watched the snow melt first on this slope, it just had the right angle toward the sun and the right orientation as far as west southwest. And so we actually terraced those spaces and we've been using them for kitchen garden things closer to the house, but that's the next iteration is thinking about cold frames on there to accomplish that. So that's cool to hear you say that because that's-
Rick: Yeah, and I would definitely, for your elevation, I would say you want to go with cold frames, not hoop houses. Hoop houses are great, they offer a lot of protection and they can really help to extend your season, in the dead of winter they're just a little bit too unprotective. So cold frames are the way to go.
Josh: Yeah, they wouldn't hold up to the snow. And our terraces, we've got about five foot of width, so that's where cold frames done right, kind of tucked into the slope part, not the flat part leaves us a walkway. So I'm trying to figure out now how am I going to engineer these because we could actually have a lot of them, they're not super big, but we could do a lot of them on the terraces. So that's kind of the project right now is just in my mind, what are we going to build them out of? How are we going to engineer them? But that's good to know because that's definitely where we're headed to try to extend season a bit.
So let's dive in here to ways to extend the growing season in cool weather areas, and we're just already there talking it through here. Is it possible to grow some type of crop year round in an area like yours and mine?
Rick: Yes, for sure. So the colder you get, obviously the harder it gets. People that live in like zones 3 and zones 4, it's really pretty limited what you can grow in the wintertime. You're down to the most hardy crops, which are going to be spinach, kale, Swiss chard, carrots, and mache, which is a green, a leafy green. It's also sometimes called-
Rick: Yeah, Mache, or sometimes it's called corn salad.
Josh: Okay, yeah.
Rick: Those are the hardiest of the plants and anybody should be able to get some harvest from those year round. And obviously you're going to have access issues with snow and things like that, but you should be able to get those to make it through the winter even in those coldest areas.
Once you move into the zones 5, 6, 7, then it really broadens out, there's a lot more greens that you can grow, a few more root crops that you can grow as well all year long.
So the most important thing is to get them planted at the right time because they don't do a lot of growing during the wintertime. You have to have them ready to harvest essentially before that really cold weather settles in, otherwise they're just going to sit over the winter and then start growing again in the spring.
So as long as you get your timing right and choose the right crops, if you live in zone 3 and you want to grow broccoli in the wintertime, it's not going to happen. It's just not hardy enough. But kale, yes, or mache or carrots, those things will do really well. So broad range, there's actually about 30 crops that will grow during the wintertime depending on where you live. It just kind of ranges from where you live.
Josh: So if you're working in a cold frame, and we're going to talk here in a method about different methods, but if you're working in a cold frame, so you got to start those seeds six, eight weeks depending on the plant to get it to maturity or real close to it. You don't necessarily have to go by last frost though because the cold frame's going to extend your season. But you can still push it back a little, would that be right?
Rick: The last frost date, the choosing to plant six to eight weeks before your last frost date, gets you to the maturity at the right time, even with the cold frames. The problem is not the cold, it's the light. So once we hit about the 1st of November, and obviously that depends on how far up you are latitude wise, but once we hit about the 1st of November, we drop below 10 hours of sunlight every day, and once we hit that 10 hour mark, everything except for mache stops growing, there's just not enough sunlight.
So it will continue to grow a little bit, but just a little, there's no aggressive growth during that time with the sunlight being so low. And so that's the key, so we have to get them to maturity before we lose that sunshine and then we protect them over the winter, basically we put them in cold storage using those cold frames.
Josh: Okay, cool. Well let's talk about then different methods for cold weather gardening, kicking off with cold frames, we're already here. And I think maybe give an explanation of what a cold frame is and then what are some options for cold frames?
Rick: Okay, great. So basically a cold frame is a box that we put on top of our garden beds, whether it be a raised bed, an in-ground garden, whatever it is, it's a box that we put on top. Normally it will have wooden or some type of solid sides with a glass top. It can be plexiglass or it could be glass and a lot of people use old storm doors and storm windows to make those from, that's an excellent option. The ones I have, when I built them, I didn't have any windows available and so I just bought some plexiglass at one of the big box stores and made the lids out of that plexiglass.
But the idea is box that will keep the weather out and insulate and then windows that will allow light and warmth in on a sunny day to help those plants to maintain themselves through the winter.
And the cold frames can be built out of all kinds of different materials. You can actually buy them online. Those usually will be out of polycarbonate and they'll have polycarbonate sides as well. I haven't ever used one of those and I'm not convinced that they're quite as good as a wooden sided one because I don't think that the polycarbonate is going to offer you quite as much insulating value and protection. So I like mine, mine are all made out of two by wood, so two by eight in the front, two by 12 in the back, so that they've got a little bit of slope to them and that thicker wood gives a nice insulating value to it.
And then depending again on what your winters are like, you can add some insulation to that if you wanted, you could put some of that foam insulation in. You could put straw bales or hay bales around it. I've also seen people that have just made cold frames out of straw bales. So put four straw bales together, some type of window on top, and that's a good use for old storm doors and windows and you just put those on top and that will work really well too. But the whole idea is to keep the weather out and the sunlight in.
Josh: Yeah. Cool. No, I like that. I like the straw bales and just, you can get really scrappy with this, you can certainly make them look really cool and really good, but you can also get really scrappy and stack up materials to make it happen.
Rick: As long as it keeps that wind out and lets the sun in, you're good.
Josh: Yeah. Cool. What are some other methods besides the cold frame itself here for cold weather gardening?
Rick: So one of the easiest things that you can do to extend your growing season, and this obviously isn't going to... People that live in like a zone 7 or a zone 8 can get away with a lot of just the heavy fabric row covers, sometimes they'll be called Agribon, just the good thick, heavy frost covers will extend your growing season an amazingly long amount of time. You could add six weeks to the end of your season and the beginning of your season just by using those row covers, depending on where you live, especially in those warmer zones, protect things at night. So that's a really simple way to do it.
Then we have mini hoop houses, which are really, really good, especially for those of us that live in zones 6, 7 and 8. The 7 and 8, a lot of people that live in zones 7 and 8 will be able to extend through the winter just using hoop houses. And size will vary, but usually you're going to just put some hoops over the top of your garden bed and then cover that with a plastic and tack it down good so that it doesn't blow around in the wind and that will provide you with a lot of protection. And then of course when it gets really cold, you can always throw that heavy fabric row cover in as well for an extra layer of protection and you can do that in the cold frames also.
Josh: So when you say mini hoop house, like range of size, because you're not talking the high tunnel or like-
Rick: No, so the high tunnels is next on my list. Many hoop houses are usually going to be no more than about four feet tall off the top of your bed. Mine are about three feet tall, but I have them hinged so they open up away from the bed so that you can get in and work and everything like that. The nice thing about the hoop houses is, is that you can grow some of the taller crops longer, so things like kale and Swiss Chard and things like that, that get a little bit taller. And then in the spring or in the fall, it's a great option for you to extend your brassica season as well, so you can grow your cabbages and your broccolis and your Brussels sprout inside those hoop houses also.
Rick: So that's a really good option. Then you've got the high hoops, which I'm not, so don't take this the wrong way, because I live on a city lot I'm an advocate for small and simple and inexpensive, but a high hoop is a great option. So if you have the space to grow in a high hoop, those are going to be the same scenario, only you're going to be able to walk inside them. So those will usually be made out of electrical conduit. You bend that into the hoop shape and then you're going to cover that, usually in that case you're going to use a greenhouse quality plastic over the top. You're going to have to set up some venting systems, some door access and things like that. Those can be a lot of fun.
And again, those can vary from 10 feet long to 80 feet long. I've got a friend who lives just a little bit south of us that has one that he grows in and he's got a couple of acres and so he got the space for it and it's a 60 by 25 foot hoop house that he's put together that's really, really nice.
And then of course you can grow in greenhouses. And so everything we've talked about you can do in the high hoops and the greenhouses, I don't normally push them just because I'm an advocate of cheap and simple, where greenhouses and high hoops end up costing thousands of dollars where cold frames and mini hoop houses are in the hundreds.
Josh: Yeah. I mean, it's going to depend a little bit both on how much land you have, but also your needs, your family may not need to push that hard and grow that far all through your climate, but where like us where we'd love to get to the point of having a high tunnel, we're regularly feeding 12 to 16 people at the dinner table and would love to extend our season better. We do a decent job at it, but that high tunnel would help us with that a bit.
What do you think if you're going to that scale, and this is just a little off I know where you usually go but it's helpful for people thinking of it, the high tunnel and then being able even inside the high tunnel to do mini hoop houses or row covers to get that double or even triple layer in these colder environments like we're in.
Rick: So one of the people that's kind of the father season extension, his name is Eliot Coleman, and he does a lot of that. And at first the work that he did was high hoops with cold frames, and then he found that in his, he's about a 5, I think he's about a 5a, 5b, he found that with the high hoop, all he needed was heavy fabric row cover inside. And for each of those layers you gain about a zone. So if you live in zone 5 and you put a high hoop with heavy fabric row cover, all of a sudden you're gardening in zone 7 inside that environment.
And so I think that's a fantastic idea if you have the space, and I would love to have that much space. We're actually looking at a slightly... Our family's all around here in the city, so we're stuck kind of in the city, but we are looking for a little bit bigger lot so that we could do a little bit bigger scenario there.
Josh: Very cool. Okay, so moving on, and we started to talk about this a few minutes ago, how important is timing and crop selection to season extension?
Rick: So massively important, that's the most important and the first step. Like I say, there's about 30 crops total that can be extended further than we think. They're all cool season crops. Obviously the warm season crops, your squashes, your beans, your tomatoes and peppers, once it gets to freezing, they're done. But all of these cool season crops have varying degrees of hardiness that we can use and gauge. So kale, super, super hardy. Spinach, super, super hardy. Broccoli, frost hardy, but not really hardy. When it gets down in the twenties at night, even the mid-twenties at night, all of a sudden broccoli's in trouble. But kale is not going to blink at 10, it's not going to have an issue with that at all.
And so you choose the right crops and then getting them planted so that they're harvestable at the right time is super important. So if you want to fall crop of broccoli, you're going to get those in, you're probably going to want to put starts in the ground about six weeks before your last frost date, and then you're going to protect those with a hoop house, that's going to extend your harvest season probably into November. And then once those are done, you're going to move on to your spinach and your carrots and your kale and your lettuce and all of those different crops.
But most of what we're talking about, in fact all of what we're talking about, is cool season crops. So it's brassica family, leafy greens and the root crops. So carrots, turnips, beets, radishes, parsnips, those are the crops you're going to choose.
And then generally timing, with the exception of the brassica family, the timing is you're going to plant seeds about six to eight weeks before your last frost date, is kind of what you're targeting. And that should usually give you the time that you need to get those grown to maturity, then you protect them, you put that when the cold weather starts arriving, you cover them up with the cold frame or the hoop house and away you go.
Josh: All right, I like it. So what about utilizing microclimates to extend your growing season?
Rick: So that's actually a lot of fun and you have to get to know your yard or your land a little bit. You're always going to have areas in your property that are warmer. For us, it's up against the house or right up against the wall or at our last place we had a big fence. And so obviously all of these we're talking about south side of all those things. In other cases, you may have an area where you have a hill that protects from the wind and keeps things a lot warmer. You may have up against a barn or some type of outbuilding or something like that where you'll find that it's significantly warmer in those areas and that that's going to help you to extend that growing season.
And especially when you get into the colder zones, those are the things you really want to start looking for is you want to find those places where the snow melts first, and those are the areas that are really going to do well for you microclimate wise.
Josh: Yeah, and that's a huge one in knowing your property. If you're new to a piece of property, you got to give a little bit of time but observe in the spring, I mean all through the year, but in this case observe in the spring and where things are warming up. And even go out and walk around and if you don't have snow on the ground, walk around on a cold day when the sun comes out in the spring and you can go find your areas like you're talking about Rick, that... I mean man, just even five degree gain can be huge.
Rick: Oh yeah, that can be a big difference and especially when you throw a cold frame on top of that. So it's a huge deal.
Josh: Yeah, and this isn't really in the notes, but you can also create a microclimate if you don't have one and you're looking for one. You could put up a fence or a boarded wall or some panels or something south facing. If you don't have one where you need it, you could create something like that, to create a little microclimate.
Rick: Exactly. Especially if you do something that's brick or rock, because during the daytime that's going to retain heat, at night it's going to put it off. And so those are really good options.
Josh: Yeah, people sometimes take, if you get into a hoop house or high tunnel, people get into sometimes not just that mass, but barrels of water. But essentially creating that mass, that can collect that heat and then let it off through the night.
Rick: Now remember with season extension, one of the most important things is that sunlight. So just because you've got an area that's nice and warm in the late afternoon, that might not be the best because it may be getting that late western sun, but it might only be getting three or four hours of that late western sun during the wintertime, and that may not be enough for you. So make sure that you've got a good even exposure and you get sunlight, hopefully all day long when we're talking about season extension.
During the summer you can cheat a little bit more, but during the winter we have, some places have nine or less hours of sunlight. We got to have all of that sun hitting that cold frame.
Josh: So that was a question that came up is, can you put in an hour? Generally regular season, most crops need six to eight hours, a lot of them direct sunlight. But this time of year you're looking more for nine, 10 direct sunlight?
Rick: As much as you can. As much as you can, because the sunlight is so much less intense. And even though an area might have eight hours of sunlight in the summertime, direct sun, it has light all day long in the summertime. I mean, it'll have light 12 to 14 hours a day in the summer. In the wintertime, the max it's going to have is like nine hours. So we got to have as much exposure as we possibly can. So no trees, no shade, no shadows when we're talking about beds that we're going to be growing in the wintertime in.
Josh: Yeah, cool. Let's talk about extending the growing season without additional structures, just for people, and this is what we've done over the years as we've gone through our journeys, just trying to figure out how to do it because a lot of times we haven't had the money for structures and still aren't ready to do some of the advanced things or even create enough cold frames for the amount of food that we need, that's actually a pretty sizable project, so we're starting little ones. But what are things that people can do to help extend the season without additional structures?
Rick: Well without structures, the first thing would be go and buy yourself some fabric grow covers. So for example, right now, 1st of March is when we're filming this video, as soon as the snow melts, we've got about six inches of snow on our garden right now, but as soon as that snow melts and the garden dries off a little bit, I'm going to go out and plant. So I'll plant some carrots, I'll plant some spinach and some lettuce and some kale and some Swiss chard, things like that. Those are going to go in and then I'll throw a heavy fabric grow cover over them and just let them go. Those are all low light requirement plants and I'm just going to let them grow and they're going to grow underneath that fabric grow cover, and I'll get a harvest weeks before anybody else in our area because of that protection.
So those will really extend, and they'll do the exact same thing on the other end of the season. So if you get the timing right and you get that planted, then cover with those fabric row covers, you're going to be looking at an extra six weeks of harvest just without structures, without anything else. So you can add three months to your growing season, six weeks on either end with some simple fabric grow covers.
Josh: Yeah, that's super simple and attainable right there.
Josh: Very cool. Some other strategies, what about mulch?
Rick: So mulches, they'll help retain... The problem is that mulches can sometimes do the opposite for you. So if the ground's warm when you put the mulch on, it'll retain the heat. But once that heat is gone, then the mulch is going to prevent the sunshine from warming the soil up as quickly. So you have to be careful with mulches.
There's a lot of different cloches out there that you can use. You could go just as simple as a milk carton, cut the bottom off a milk carton and cover up areas. I have done some gardening under clear totes, so you get those big totes and turn that upside down, and they obviously have to be clear, and you just put that down in your garden and you can grow under those. There's a product called Wall of Waters, and there's a whole bunch of knockoff. The original was called Wall of Waters, and they're a little bit hard to get, but there's a whole bunch of knockoff varieties that essentially, they're a water filled cloche and they have these little cells in them and you fill those cells up with water. And those are great for extending both your growing season for greens and cool season crops, but you can also use those to protect even things like tomatoes and get an extra early harvest of your tomatoes.
I plant tomatoes in those about four to six weeks early every year, before my first frost, inside those cloches, and then I'll have tomatoes in early July. And I don't do that for all of my tomatoes, but I'll usually put about four plants in under those cloches. So that's another great way to extend your season without having to have big structures, is any type of cloche or cover.
Josh: Yeah, very cool. What about, and we covered this, but maybe if you can go through the list again, just those hardy crop choices just in case people missed it. What are these earliest ones that you're talking about, when the snow melts you can get out there and kind of run with them?
Rick: Okay. So basically any green, so collards, kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, spinach, mache or corn salad, there's one called claytonia. And then all of the Chinese greens, so pak choi and bok choy, napa cabbages, all of those are going to do really well really early in the season. The hardiest of those will be spinach, kale, mache, Swiss chard, then lettuce and the Asian greens kind of come in after that. So all of those are going to do really well.
Then you've got the root crops like carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets and radishes. All of those are going to stand up well to the cold temperatures. And then you'll have the brassica family, basically. So here we're talking broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, all of those are going to do really well. Collards and kale are also in that family, but they're even hardier and so you can get those in earlier than you would the others.
So that's a good starter list for you. You've got things like rutabagas that do pretty well, but their timing is really kind of funky, they're more of a fall crop. And turnips are great, especially in the fall. They'll be pretty hardy as well. So lots of fun stuff that you can grow. And then there's dandelion and mizuna and a bunch of random ones that we don't hear as much about.
Josh: Do you ever grow any perennials? Leafy greens like... Oh gosh, now they're all going to evaporate out of my mind, but Good-King-Henry and sorrel, do you play around with those at all for...
Rick: So Good-King-Henry, I'm not familiar with. Sorrel, we have done before and our chickens loved the sorrel. We liked it, the problem is you're never going to eat a sorrel salad.
Josh: Yeah, yeah.
Rick: It's kind of really strong and stuff like that, and so that would be something that you would do on a fairly limited basis. There are a few other herbs, parsley does really well and winters really well. Cilantro, although it doesn't overwinter, it's one that you can get planted really early also, and especially if you give it some protection, it will do really well in the spring and it won't bolt as quickly if you can do that.
Josh: Yeah, cool. What are some crops that people can grow indoors over the winter if their garden is in snow?
Rick: So this is fun and... I'm going to take another drink here, I apologize, I've been fighting a cold for a week.
We have been doing a lot of experimenting the last few years with that, and especially we kind of upped our game this year just because we're mostly plant-based and so we eat a lot of salads and a lot of greens and lettuce prices have been out of control. And so we wanted to really experiment with lettuce indoors, and we've had a lot of success this winter just with the south facing window. Now admittedly we did start with starts, so I fired up my seed starter in November instead of in January like I normally do, and we started planting lettuce under the lights. And then we moved them into a south facing window in our kitchen, we've got kind of a corner window that has an east and south exposure to it, and we've had greens growing different types of lettuce, we've tried some spinach as well and it did well, all growing just in that sunny corner window all winter long.
And so my wife said, as long as it looks nice, it's fine. And so we got some of the nicer Smart Pot, the kind of colored fabric Smart Pots and some clay pots and just have that window loaded with lettuces. So if you've got a good south facing exposure, you can do that.
If you really want to get aggressive about it, you can buy some grow lights and you can grow things indoors. The problem I have with that is I feel like the input is probably not worth the output in those situations. You're putting so much energy and power into those grow lights, just to get lettuce.
Josh: Do you think it would be cost-effective, talking about lettuce prices going up, if you were growing... And I'm asking because I'm actually thinking about doing this fall and winter as actually, just because we have our seeds starting racks and then they sit empty all winter. And I'm like, you know what, what about taking some of the flats and growing microgreens in them under the lights? It's four to six inches tall, bed of soil, it's a couple inches deep, just to get some easy fresh greens right there off the kitchen. I mean, is that viable cost wise, what you're talking about, the energy?
Rick: Okay, so microgreens, different scenario. So let's go back to, really quickly... And I've never done an analysis, and I guess I should because I'm a geek at this, but just the really powerful grow lights put off so much power and so much energy that I don't know that it's cost-effective. When we start moving into microgreens, those don't need the grow lights. Those can just grow under shop lights and then we're not putting out nearly as much energy. An LED shop light doesn't cost very much to run, and you only need to run it for about 12 hours a day.
And so when we start talking about microgreens, that's a different scenario, because they're quick to grow, they're very dense, they're very nutrient dense, so there's a super big bang for the buck with that. And so microgreens are a great way to do that. We've had a lot of fun this winter experimenting. We've grown microgreens for quite a while, about 10 years on and off, but this year we got really serious about it and we started expanding into things like sunflower and buckwheat and beets. We've got some cilantro that I've yet to try because cilantro tastes like soap to me, but my wife wants me to grow some. On top of we grow broccoli and radish and things like that. And so there's a lot, and when you start looking at the buckwheat and the sunflower, those are pretty bulky greens. There's a lot to them and so those can really...
And the other thing is if you want to start your own business, depending on where you live because you've got to live somewhere where it's trendy, but there's a lot of people that grow microgreens and make a pretty good living growing microgreens as well. So if you wanted to grow and sell microgreens, that's another scenario that you could do, if you can find a market for it as well.
But if you're just talking about providing your own food, start a tray of microgreens every three days, depending on your family size. For us, we start about once a week because it's just the two of us now. But if you're a big family like you, you could start about every three days, start a tray of microgreens and you'll just constantly have stuff to harvest.
And then the other thing that you can do indoors is sprouts. And there's a lot of benefit to sprouts, the nice thing about sprouts is the only input is a little water and the seeds. So you don't have to have light, you don't have to have any of that, you're just putting some seeds in a jar and rinsing them off twice a day and they grow in about five to seven days, you've got a harvest of those as well. So those are good options too.
Josh: That makes a nice salad right there, some microgreens and some sprouts.
Rick: You get some lettuce from your window and-
Josh: Yeah, the window, or like you said, the shop lights. So yeah, that's definitely, we're going to convert our seed starting racks that sit dormant all winter to some strategy this next year. Right now they're filling up, and that was one more I wanted to ask you.
For some of these strategies, what about starting early enough indoors in the flats under lights to then transplant some of these crops out at that early, early snow melt? Extend that season even more so that instead of seeding, you're talking about how you concede some of these things soon as the snow melts. And some of them are going to transplant better than others and I realize that, address that if you want. But some of those, can you go ahead and start them indoors four weeks even further ahead?
Rick: Yes, exactly. So right now I have... About the 15th of January we started kale and a Chinese green called tatsoi. We also started a bunch of lettuce. Some of that lettuce is going into the window, others of it is going to be going out into the cold frame soon. So all of those plants are about six weeks old now, and so they will be... I'm waiting for this weather to break, because we're still... As soon as we start seeing fifties again on occasion and it's starting to jump up, then I'm going to start hardening those off and those will go out in either a cold frame or a hoop house really soon.
And so you can definitely do that, especially with the greens. All of your kale, your Swiss chard, your spinach, your lettuces, all of those, you can get started those indoors, as long as you're careful to harden them. You've got to get them... Because they're growing indoors and loving the fact that it's nice and warm and all of a sudden you take them outside and it's 20 degrees at night, that's going to be a problem for them. So you do have to spend some extra time making sure that you get them acclimated to that colder weather before you transfer.
Josh: Right. Yeah, that'd be a little shock factor there.
Rick: Yeah, for sure.
Josh: Okay, let's see here. Tips for transforming a garden from summer to fall. So a lot of stuff we've been talking about you can do right now, people right here in March can get started and go for it, super simple.
But kind of thinking forward to exiting main crop season, what are some tips for transitioning there and challenges people face? To help them start thinking about extending the season on the other end.
Rick: So one of the biggest challenges in the fall is space. Because my prime planting date for most of my fall crops is August 1st. Well, my garden is full of stuff in August and our first frost isn't until about October 1st, and so I've got my tomatoes and my peppers and all of that kind of stuff still growing. I do intentionally, I plant some potatoes extra early so that I'm able to have those harvested about the 1st of August so that I've got some place to get some spinach and some carrots and things like that planted.
But the biggest challenge there is space, and that's where your seed starter comes in. So my seed starter, I usually turn the lights on about January 15th, and I end up turning them off about October 15th. And that's not including microgreens.
So if I say eight weeks before your first frost, you want to plant lettuce, but you don't have anywhere to plant lettuce in August, and besides that it's hot in August, use your seed starter. Same date, August 1st, you're going to plant, and then you'll transplant those out in mid-September, maybe even as late as the 1st of October, you'll transplant those out into the garden under the protection of your cold frames and hoop houses. Then by the 1st of October, your summer garden's kind of ended, your cucumbers are gone, your tomatoes are gone, you've got space again.
And so using that seed starting setup is a great way to take advantage of that fall timeframe, because you can get things started indoors, they're probably going to like it better anyways because it's not going to be a hundred degrees, and then you'll get those transplanted out as it starts to cool off and progress into the fall.
Josh: I'm trying to name now, because we have this spot in our, it's in a hallway now for us, it was in the kitchen for a while, where we've got these two racks and I don't know, they've got eight, now 10 shelves on them. And it's pretty much going to become a year round garden itself. Just doing some of the things you're talking about here, and it's almost like its own other garden now, and sometimes it's feeding a garden or sometimes it's just feeding you directly.
Rick: Yeah, exactly. My seeds starting set up this year, because I was doing this experiment in the windows, I turned my lights back on December 1st. So they were off for about a month, is all. I turned the lights back on December 1st and started growing. So that indoor setup can really be an important part of the whole season extension.
Josh: And I really like that because you're taking a space that you've probably got dedicated anyways now and you're using it to provide more food for yourself and to a lot of people. Whether it's cost of food or just want a nutrient dense food, you've now got another area that you can put to work indoors, we don't tend to think of it that way, so there's a little bit of a paradigm shift. But how useful that space becomes more than just starting seeds once a year, potentially.
Rick: Yeah. And especially if you look at a lot of the microgreens and the sprouts, they're so nutrient dense. You get so much bang for the buck where you don't have the normal fresh vegetables. Obviously we're all canners and things like that, so we've got our canned vegetables and our stored potatoes and things like that, but we're missing some of those nutrients. And if you utilize that seed starter set up for microgreens and sprouts, you're adding back those nutrients into your diet.
Josh: Yeah, especially in winter climates like ours. I don't know how it is there in Salt Lake City, but we don't get a lot of sun. And I really feel that right about late February, early March and you just like, oh man. So that can add a little bit.
Let's see here. How about, just as we start to wrap up, are we missing anything, any other must share tips here that can help people out for growing in these shoulder months and into winter?
Rick: I think we covered everything pretty well. The thing that you've got to get out of your head, and it frustrates me, I literally just yesterday we sent out an email saying, here's what you can be planting in March. And I always get responses back with people posting, they send me a picture of their garden, ha ha, ha, I'm not going to be doing any planting in March. Well, my garden looks like that too, and guess what, I'm going to be planting.
So you have to get over the mindset that it's impossible in your area. Now, if you live in zone 3, it's going to be really hard, but most of us live in zones 4, 5, 6, 7, there is so much that you can do in season extension. And even if you don't want to go through the wintertime, using a hoop house and those fabric row covers to stretch out that season to add that extra three months, I mean literally six weeks in the spring and six weeks in the fall's, that's three months, that's some people's summer garden, that you can add to your growing season.
So don't think just because I live somewhere cold, I can't do this, because you can. I have students all over the country and up into Canada that are very successfully growing gardens right now in very cold environments. And so you have to get out of that mindset of, oh, we can only grow a summer garden in our area. You got to get out of that mindset and start experimenting. If nothing else, what are you going to lose? If you buy a fabric grow cover, you're going to use that for a whole bunch of things anyway, so you buy a fabric grow cover and you get those seeds planted and it doesn't work, you're out 50 cents, because you're going to use the fabric grow cover in other places.
So start experimenting and start getting after it and figuring it out because there is so much you can do, I don't care where you live. I mean, you'll be able to extend that growing season a lot.
Josh: Nice words of encouragement. I mean Rick is just a wealth of knowledge, and so Rick, I want to take a few minutes here as we're wrapping up and just let people know, what are the resources you have to offer people? Where can they find you? What do you have going on for people that want to dive in deeper here?
Rick: Okay. So our main website, which is kind of what we started with, it's ourstoneyacres.com, so O-U-R-S-T-O-N-E-Y-acres.com. That's our main site, we've got hundreds and hundreds of different vegetable gardening articles on there, A lot about season extension there as well. I'm on Facebook at Our Stoney Acres, Instagram as well. And then we do have a YouTube channel, and that is Our Stoney Acres. You can just search that and it'll come up and we've got hundreds and hundreds of videos for you there as well.
And then we also have our education website, which is called the Online Gardening School, and it's at onlinegardeningschool.com. And that's where we have our for sale courses and things like that.
So one thing that I did want to talk about with the season extension, and this'll sound funny, but I have a master course, a year round gardening master course, and we teach it in July. And I know we just spent all this time talking about winter gardening, but we teach that class in July because I want you to know what you need to know and get ready for the fall planting season, which is for most of us, you're going to be planting sometime in August for that fall planting, fall and winter planting.
And so that master course, we have a little mini course that kind of gives you a taste of it, that we'll include a link that you can go and it's a free mini course that's about 45 minutes long, goes through a lot more about these different crops and things, and that's a good place for you to get a start on that as well.
Josh: Cool. Well we will link to all of that for you guys down below and just want to strongly encourage you to go check Rick out. He has been a huge influence on Carolyn and I and our gardens and some of the strategies and even some of the things that I'm saying we're going to do are coming from Rick outside this conversation, so he can really help you guys learn a lot and boost your production and your gardening efforts. So really encourage you to go check out those resources.
And Rick, it's been really exciting to hang out with you and I'm looking forward to meeting you in May as we look at some future endeavors and maybe a class together, so really excited about that. And you guys all have a great day and a great week, and I will see you soon.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Pantry Chat: Food for Thought. If you've enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate and review.
Speaker 3: To view the show notes and any other resources mentioned on this episode, you can learn more at homesteadingfamily.com/podcast.
Josh: We'll see you soon.
Speaker 3: Goodbye.
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