Extend the Harvest Season

Prolong your harvest with tips and techniques for vegetable gardening after the season ends.

It’s that time of year. The yard’s bursting with lush plant growth, and although the days are sunny, they’re becoming shorter. Fall is around the corner.

For those of us who’ve nurtured a vegetable garden for months, we finally get to enjoy the fruits of our labor—sun-warmed tomatoes, pumpkins the kids planted and more zucchini than we can give away.

Then, before we know it, frost comes calling. And the show is suddenly over. Once again, the harvest season seems like an all-too-brief window. But it doesn’t have to be.

Here are some tips to use when planning next year’s garden—ideas that extend your summer harvest in the “shoulder seasons” of early fall and late spring.

Cold Comfort
It’s disappointing when cold weather moves in and damages your plants, but there are ways to cheat the season.

Covers capture and retain the heat of the sun, while maintaining soil temperature—factors that help nurture growing, ripening vegetables. The solution can be as simple as laying down a few inches of compost or mulch around your plants, and as complicated as rigging plastic row covers.

To help individual plants, try cloches of plastic or glass; just remove them at mid-day if the plants appear to be overheating, and be sure they’re on overnight. A nifty plastic cone contraption called a “Wall-o-Water” is also a good option. Available at garden centers or from mail-order suppliers, it utilizes the insulating qualities of water. Another favorite is a cold frame—you can buy a ready-made one, save money with a kit or even build one yourself from wood and an old glass window. These protect plants at night and in cold weather. When buying or building, make sure there’s a provision for raising or lowering the lid during warmer days.

You can use these protective techniques in early spring, too, if you wish to give your crops a head start.

Successive Success
A planting-schedule change at the start of the season can make a major difference. Instead of planting everything at once, stagger your start days. This can be as simple as planting half your vegetables around Memorial Day, and a second round a week or even 2 weeks later. Or plant a row a week over a period of 4 or 5 weeks. This tack works beautifully in supplying you with a longer, continuous harvest period. Once you’ve mastered and enjoyed successive sowing, you can get more sophisticated with it. At the very least, you can label rows in the garden with start dates, so you remember what you planted when. If your garden is large or you get ambitious, plan and track everything on paper or a computer spreadsheet.

Smart Choices
Here are two easy ways around this problem:

1. Grow several varieties. When you’re reading seed catalogs or standing at the seed rack in your local garden-supply store next year, read the fine print. Look for “days to maturity.” This is an estimate of how long it will take from sowing to harvest (actual results may vary somewhat depending on where you live and weather conditions).

Try picking two or more varieties with significantly different dates. Or stagger the planting types, for instance, planting a pole bean versus a bush bean. This way, you can plant everything at the same time but enjoy an extended harvesting period.

2. Seed out heirloom varieties. Many modern vegetable varieties are deliberately bred to ripen all at once, or at least within a window of a couple of days. Old-fashioned cultivars, however, are quirkier and may be slower to germinate or mature. For example, ‘Brandywine’ tomato plants may ripen their fruit over a period of a week or weeks. All you have to do is check on the plants periodically, picking only the ripe ones.

Keep Track
Even small veggie gardens benefit if you keep a journal for planning. Take notes all season, and record information on the varieties you grow, including the suppliers’ “days to maturity” figures mentioned, planting and actual harvesting dates, weather conditions, various plant’s susceptibilities to pests or diseases, and any other details you learn along the way.

This information will serve you well in future seasons as you make smarter decisions about selection and care in your own garden. Tailoring your efforts to your growing conditions is what ultimately leads to the best, most productive harvests.