There’s more to love about October than Halloween. In fact, this is a great month for growing fall vegetables, whether that means planting new crops or simply extending the growing season for summer planted crops such as tomatoes. Growing fall vegetables – and keeping them alive in the ground through the winter season – is a great way to save money on your grocery bill and eat fresh produce year-round. In fact, the fall and winter seasons are often easier to grow cool weather crops in. One reason is there is less pests. Simply make sure to plant the crops you wish to overwinter in late summer or early fall so once the first hard freeze arrives, the plants are already full grown. The key to keeping them alive is using a combination of frost cover and 6 mil. plastic. Hoop houses are nice, but you can make your own small hoop houses with metal or plastic conduit or even tomato cages.
It doesn’t take a lot to keep frost off of plants, which is half the battle of keeping them alive. Simply covering them with row cover is enough depending on how cold it gets and the severity of the frost. For example, last night we had a killing frost here in my Indiana garden. The vegetable plants in the open garden – with the exception of carrots, kale and peas – were killed. The plants under the row cover and 6 mil. plastic were fine – including the tomatoes. I typically start with the row cover. It does two things – keeps pests at bay and protects the plants from light frosts. Once the night temperatures begin to fall below 50, I go ahead and add the 6 mil. plastic. I do not use greenhouse plastic, just the regular clear plastic I use on my house windows during the winter months – just be sure it is 6 mil. I do vent the plastic during the day so the plants inside do not get hot enough to die. Once the daytime temperatures are down in the 40’s, I quit venting the plastic. I know some people go ahead and vent their hoop houses, but since I want to keep some warm weather crops alive as well, I do not.
It is also important to not cover some plants too early in the season. Kale, Brussels sprouts and Jerusalem artichokes come to mind. I also leave my potatoes in the open garden and often do not plant those until sometime between the last week of November and the last week of December.
Gardening Tip: Plants such as Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes), Brussels sprouts and kale taste even better once they have been bitten by several light frosts. Winter grown radish and lettuce are much more tender than those grown during the regular growing season.
As you can see, these tomato plants – and their fruit – survived just fine under the plastic cover and the row cover. In fact, I was able to harvest a basket full of tomatoes today – and they were firm. The most important thing I have learned about keeping tomatoes alive under cover is to make sure that both the row cover and the plastic are secure to the ground. You can even put a little dirt over the edges of the plastic to help with this. I also tend to leave my hoop houses closed day and night once the daytime temperatures hit 50 degrees.
Gardening Tip: Choose varieties of tomatoes – such as Siberian – that can handle the cooler temperatures. Don’t be afraid to experiment. I have also found that cherry tomatoes seem to be more cold hardy than some of the larger types. Once you find a tomato that holds up well during the cool season, save those seeds. Remember that plants adapt to their environmental conditions and over time you will get tomatoes that last longer and longer into the cool season. The key is to save seeds, replant those seeds the following year and save the seeds again. It may take several years before you have the ideal cool season tomato.
In addition to the tomatoes, I also harvested radish. I find the two radishes that perform the best for me are the watermelon and the black Spanish which is a winter radish. There were young carrots and lettuce in the garden that were close to being ready to harvest. When it comes to growing carrots, I like the purple varieties. The kale was doing fine, as were some cabbages, radish pods and Japanese red mustard that was growing under cover. One thing I need to let you know about the Japanese red mustard it is reseeds itself – everywhere. I don’t mind this in my garden but if you prefer to keep things neat and tidy you may want to avoid this plant or at least prevent it from setting seed.
Gardening Tip: Here are a few plants that do well during the winter months under cover – potatoes, salad mixes, carrots, spinach, radishes, turnips, beets, peas, leeks and onions.
So you see, growing vegetables year-round is not rocket science. In fact, anyone – even you – can do this. All it takes is a simple cold frame and selecting the right vegetables. While it is true that the tomatoes, peppers and other warm season plants won’t make it until spring in an unheated hoop house or cold frame, they will survive several more months allowing to continue to harvest fresh produce from your own garden instead of paying the high prices at the grocery stores. The cool season crops won’t have any problems at all making it through the winter as long as you keep the soil moist and the plants protected with both row cover and plastic, even here in United States Department of Agricultural hardiness zones 5/6.