"The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves." - Bill Mollison

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Extending The Growing Season

I was asked to elaborate on the construction of our row covers, and having considered doing a post on this subject in the past I was finally encouraged to do so. Season extending row covers allow us access to fresh salad greens at least until early January and often all year depending upon the weather. Regardless of the amount of snow received, if diligent in keeping the row covers free from snow, I am also provided with a place to plant greens, onions, brassicas and other cold hardy crops in the very early spring.

We also have a few cold frames and will be constructing more in the future and although they do have some advantages over the covered rows they cannot cover the amount of space needed and are also not as versatile especially in the sense that they cannot be easily removed when no longer needed.

It has been my experience that many winter greens, especially less mature (smaller) ones, can survive numerous freeze and thaw cycles. The trick is to provide them with adequate protection from the elements as the, wind, rain, and snow will take their toll on the crops long before cold temperatures will.

The design I chose for my row covers is simple yet effective, easily put up and just as easily dismantled and stored away for the season. Our garden rows are approximately 4' wide and anywhere from 10-60' long. I use 1" poly irrigation pipe for the tunnel frames and 4 mil, 10' wide plastic for the covers.

The pipe is cut with a hacksaw into 8' 4" lengths, to allow for taller growing greens such as Swiss chard and certain brassicas.

This fits nicely over my 4' wide rows as well. The hoops are held at ground level with 12" wood stakes that are cut from the many maple saplings that grow on our property.

The stakes are pounded at an slight angle about 6" into the ground and the poly pipe fits snugly over them.

Normally the hoops are placed 3' apart all down the row. Going forward I will be placing the hoops every 2' as we have had record snowfall the last couple years and more support is needed. At 3' apart the hoops will easily hold up to 2' of dry snow or a little over 1' of heavy wet snow before they are compromised.

A length of rope is staked to the ground at each end of the row as well as being securely looped around each individual pipe in order to prevent them from sliding back and forth.

A 5-6' long pole with a natural V shaped notch or one that I have cut is then placed at the end of each row to further stabilize the entire structure.

To further strengthen the pipes a piece of rope or twine can be attached to both sides of each hoop in order to allow it to handle more downward pressure.

Neither the ropes or end poles are necessary if snow is not an issue. I use 10' wide clear plastic sheeting as that allows for an extra 1' on each side of the row that can be held down with brick, rocks, or wood. In the winter I just use the snow to my advantage as the other weights often become frozen to the plastic.

The plastic is cut lengthwise so that it overhangs each end of the row enough to be held down with another weight.

There are a few issues with this type of season extension. The snow can accumulate faster then you can remove it and the structure may collapse under the strain. While shoveling the snow off it is easy to tear the plastic. I find that a piece of duct tape attached to each side will fix any rip and often wait until summer to repair the tears as I am able to dry the plastic in the sun and this really helps the duct tape to bind with the sheeting. Some of my tape jobs have lasted over 3 years now.

One of the biggest problems is the plastic freezing to the ground, my only solution to this is to patiently wait until a warm day allows for the removal of frozen ice and snow. Lastly, the plastic sheeting can be blown off when the wind catches it if not held down in enough places.

Although row covers as season extenders take some effort, the choice has been made to use them as it affords us the ability to procure fresh produce from the garden much longer then otherwise possible and also fits into an ongoing goal to provide for ourselves. As our quest for food self-reliance progresses, we find ourselves increasingly reluctant to consume food from sources other than our own garden. The availability as well as the quality of the produce offered in the supermarkets is most disturbing and I would just as soon not have to wonder what is in, on, or being done to our food. Below are a couple other posts I've written regarding cold weather gardening.

There Is Nothing Like Salad Fresh Out Of The Garden In January

Winter Greens


Chiot's Run said...

We just made hoops for our raised beds. We're hoping to use them to extend the season as well. I did have some spinach that overwintered very well just under a floating row cover. All I did was take off the snow occationally.

I'm hoping the hoops will also work well to cover with netting in the summer to keep the critters out of the beds.

Mr. H. said...

Hello Susy,

The hoops do come in handy, and you should be able to use them to keep those deer out. I am thinking of setting some up over my strawberry bed this summer as we always have to protect them from the birds.

Sounds like you are going to need those row covers for the cold as well...20°'s brrr.


randi said...

Wow. Ask and ye shall receive..I commented yesterday but I guess it didn't come through so let's see if this does. Thank you for the detailed step by step, looking forward to attempting a couple of these babies. Please keep the posts coming!

Mr. H. said...

Hi Randi,

The hoops are really simple to put up, but I would just try one or two until you see how much effort is involved in the snow removal aspect of the operation.

Also, it is extremely important to let them air out upon occasion as they can get a bit damp inside. They can also heat up really fast in the sun, and must be opened on sunny spring or fall days.

Here is a more elaborate way to set up row covers over at Dan and Val's garden blog.



Cheryl said...

Oh my stars, if you can grow greens under all that snow, there should be hope for me here in Texas.

Mr. H. said...

Hello Cheryl,

Thanks for stopping by. The nice thing about snow is it's like having free insulation all over your garden. I would send some your way but it would probably melt before it got there.

Have a great day,


Orangespear's Oasis said...

how do you water you crops when they are covered?
and what is your favorite way to irrigate your crops?

thanks for advice

Mr. H. said...

Orangespear's Oasis,

We begin to cover our crops in late October when the weather becomes cold and usually don't have to worry about watering too much at that time of year.

In the spring, when it can be both warm and cold the ground does tend to dry up and the covered crops do need to be watered. We simply uncover the rows and water them as needed with either an over head sprinkler or by hand with a hose. Our springs are usually pretty rainy though and we really don't have to water all that much.

My favorite form of irrigation is with a drip soaker hose. Most of our tomatoes and peppers are watered that way as they can be grown in a straight line and benefit from not having their leaves wet. Most of our other crops are still watered overhead as we do not have the ability to water with that many soaker hoses yet.

If you live in a climate that has really cold winters, like we do, be careful about watering anything in the winter as too much moisture in the soil will cause the plants roots to freeze. It is ok for the soil to be a bit dry that time of year.

Diane said...

Did you find that the 4 ml plastic holds up pretty well? I used 6 mil last yr and it kinda crumbled by the time I took it off, plus it was a booger to pull up. I'm guessing the 4 mil is more pliable???

Mr. H. said...


I use the 4 mil because it is cheaper and easier to work with. Honestly, when it is freezing out that extra 2 mil doesn't really make much difference anyway. Some of the plastic I put on this years garden has been used for four years now, four very nasty winters at that. This will be the last season for most of the old stuff though, taping it only works for so long.:)

Anonymous said...

Mr. H,
I have always wanted to make a cold frame -okay have Bat to make me a cold frame. At first I thought old window but then Bat was worried about grandchild -did you make this out of window or the plastic? Thanks

Mr. H. said...


I have four cold frames this year and they are all made with a plastic top. Plastic is much easier to work with, and you will not have to worry about breaking the glass.

Glass would provide better insulation but only by a few degrees. Also, if you get lots of snow I would definitely consider plastic as it will hold up much better long term.

That said, I do have some glass sliding doors that I plan to use for a cold frame one of these days.:)

Kevin Kossowan said...

Always glad to read about how other folks are succeeding at extending the seasons. Thanks for sharing.

Smart Dogs said...

This is exactly what I was looking for! I want to make covers for my raised beds to extend the season here in Minnesota. These look like they're sturdy but inexpensive and easy to make. Perfect!

Mr. H. said...

Smart dogs - We now use 6 mil plastic and the hoops are little closer together but they do work really great. If you try using them I would be curious to know how they worked out for you.

SmartDogs (Janeen) said...

OK. I'll update when I make them and again after they've weathered a bit of cold weather.

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