No matter where you garden there never seems to be enough time to grow all the fresh vegetables desired. Planting earlier or just providing plants with some added warmth on chilly days and nights can reduce the time from planting to harvest. Southern gardeners will enjoy the additional time for harvesting heat-sensitive plants before the stifling heat moves in and plants begin to decline.
Prepare the soil as soon as it can be worked. Cover the prepared soil with clear plastic, row covers or high tunnels for several weeks when planting earlier than normal. This warms the soil for planting and helps germinate many of the weed seeds. Lightly cultivate to remove the young weed seedlings without bringing more weed seeds to the surface. You’ll be pulling fewer weeds throughout the growing season.
Once the garden is planted, enlist some of these season-extending helpers (gardeners.com). Homemade and commercial cloches, cold frames and row covers can help you plant earlier and harvest later in the season.
Row covers made of spun fabrics let air, light, and water through while keeping the plants warm. Anchor the fabric with landscape pins, stones, boards, or other heavy items. Leave enough slack in the fabrics for the plants to grow. Lighter weight garden fabrics also protect plants from insect pests like cabbage worms and bean beetles.
Garden covers take this method one step further. These structures fit over plantings in the garden, raised beds or elevated planters. Look for those with durable greenhouse fabric covers that let water in and keep excess heat out. These types of structures protect plants from cold and wind, speeding up your harvest by as much as 25%.
Raise the roof on these structures with high tunnels and plant protection tents. These are perfect for growing tall plants like tomatoes. As temperatures rise, the tops can be ventilated or in some cases replaced with a mesh that keeps out insects and critters, while providing plants enough room to reach full size.
Or maybe you just can’t wait for that first red ripe tomato and only want to jump start a row of greens. Garden cloches have long been used for this purpose. They capture the sun’s warmth to protect plants from frosty weather. Gardener's Supply Company’s Early Season Row Cloche Set allows you to expand your protection to the desired size. These clear PVC plant protectors have water wells to capture rainwater and gently disperse it to the plants below and vents for managing the temperature.
Further boost your tomato harvest with red plastic mulch, red tomato teepees and tomato boosters. University researchers found using red plastic mulch increased the individual fruit size and weight and overall tomato harvest by as much as 20 percent. They found the red plastic mulch reflected certain growth-enhancing wavelengths of light back onto the plants.
With a bit of extra effort and investment you’ll be harvesting fresh vegetables long before your friends and neighbors. Then be sure to keep these season-extending devices handy to use again in fall. Protecting plants from those first few fall frosts can keep you eating garden-fresh tomatoes, peppers and greens well into winter.
Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio segments. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine and was commissioned by Gardeners Supply for her expertise to write this article. Her web site is www.MelindaMyers.com.