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By Bobbie Whitehead

Gardeners wanting to extend their growing season can do so by using row covers, or plant protection blankets, as well as building simple unheated greenhouses called hoop houses.

Row covers enable growers to either plant earlier in the spring or continue to grow into the winter because the lightweight covers hold in more heat, protecting the plants from frost while allowing them to profit from the sun and rain.

Hoop houses, however, can enable growers to plant and harvest certain crops year round, some experts say.

For the small or large garden, growers can find any number of row covers at gardening supply centers.

Among the types of row covers, gardeners can choose from a variety with some that allow for more sunlight than others, greater air circulation to keep plants from overheating as well as protection from pests.

Using row covers, hoop houses helps to extend season

Row covers, left, protect plants from frost.


Below, left, clay tiles can protect young plants from cool temperatures and frost. Right, a young broccoli plant covered with a clay tube.

Simple row covers can be held in place with metal anchors, dirt, large rocks or bricks to secure the covers in the soil – some covers include anchors. For fragile plants, gardeners and growers can use wire frames, which extend from one side of the row to the next, to hold up the row covers. For sturdy plants like cabbage or broccoli, frames usually aren’t necessary.

To offset the expenses, wire coat hangers can be used to create a wire frame if the row width and plant height aren’t too great. Once the frames are pushed into the ground, the grower then pulls the covering over the plants and frames and secures it.

“Covers should be removed from the crops when air temperatures beneath the cover reach 80°F,” writes Diane Relf, horticulture extension specialist, and Alan McDaniel, horticulture extension specialist of Virginia Tech, in their article “Season Extenders.”

Once the covers are no longer needed, gardeners can store them and reuse them the following year.

For gardeners and growers serious about extending their growing season or growing 52 weeks a year, they can create what are called hoop houses, also called “high tunnels,” which are unheated greenhouses.

These types of greenhouses can be created inexpensively using PVC pipe and plastic covering stretched across the piping. With hoop houses, growers and gardeners can cultivate certain vegetables through the winter as well as begin their growing season earlier, either in late winter or early spring.

With some handy building skills, a grower or gardener can create a hoop house relatively inexpensively.

Researchers, extension agents and growers, among others, collaborating on a U.S. Department of Agriculture project for developing hoop houses for the Central Great Plains have a web site, http://www.hightunnels.org, that provides plans for building hoop houses and information on what grows best in them.

Hightunnels.org explains that “production during the winter season is possible, but this is restricted by severity of winter weather, what crops are grown, and availability of supplemental heat.”

One other solution Hightunnels.org suggests is using row covers over crops in hoop houses as additional protection against low or freezing temperatures.

Aside from fabric row covers and hoop houses, growers and gardeners of small plots can use individual plant coverings such as plastic covers, clay tubes, wood boxes or glass covers. Clay tubes were used many years ago by some gardeners and are simply a large clay pipe cut into sections. Mostly used in the early spring to protect young plants from any late frosts, the clay tubes can serve to protect young or small plants from frost in the late fall and can help in the winter.

Because the clay holds heat, the warmth from the sun during the day heats up the clay and provides some warmth to the plants in colder night temperatures. The opening at the top also allows for sunlight during the day, eliminating the need to remove them during the day and replace them at night. For those who can’t find clay tubes, even old clay pots can serve to protect young plants.

The protection provided, though, does depend on the area climate, the temperature and the types of plant, as Hightunnels.org has noted.

For additional information on row covers or hoop houses, visit the following links:

1. http://aunaturelfarm.homestead.com/index.html

2. http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-381/426-381.html