Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
February, 2011
Regional Report

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Make plans now for adding a coldframe to your garden.

Look and Listen - Spring is Almost Here, Get Ready to Plant!

It may have been a tough winter, and the odds are good that there is still snow and ice to come, but a walk out in the garden will tell you that the corner has been turned. Already, the birds are beginning their spring songs. The snowdrops have been blooming for weeks, and the late-planted garlic and shallots are finally pushing through the frozen ground. The buds on the earliest blooming trees and shrubs are fattening up. And, yes, even the earliest daffodils are showing green.

Most gardeners decry winter, but I tend to enjoy the respite. Still, if past experience is any indicator, in only a few weeks, when that late February to early March warm, dry spell seems to occur in our area, I'll be out readying and planting seeds in a plastic-covered raised bed. My mother always had a simple homemade cold frame where she planted lettuce seeds at this time of year. Over the years, I've experimented with dozens of different purchased and homemade versions. Now, with the increased interest in vegetable gardening, there are more possibilities than ever for extending the growing season.

The Simplest Coldframes
The goal for most of us when trying to extend the growing season is to provide some protection from the weather for those plants that naturally grow best with cooler temperatures. We're not talking tomatoes here, but, rather, lettuce, arugula, kale, radishes, and Chinese greens. To that end, we're just trying to somewhat buffer cold temperatures. If you have access to some square bales of straw and an old window, you can set up a very simple cold frame. Take it a step further and build a wooden box, preferably higher on one side than the other, the better to maximize light, and attach a discarded window with hinges on the higher side.

In the "olden days," gardeners would bury a layer of manure under a layer of soil. As the manure decomposed, it put out heat, thus creating what is known as a hot bed. Today's gardeners have the option of adding an electric heating cable.

A search on the Internet will yield a variety of free plans for making your cold frame. Or choose from the many wooden-, plastic-, or metal- framed versions that are commercially available.

Modern Technology Provides Other Options for Extending the Season
Clear plastic sheeting and what is known as garden fleece (it resembles the fabric used for interfacing by those who sew) have opened up other options for growing spring and fall vegetables for more months of the year. When I first started using these, I simply inserted heavy wire into the ground and covered them either with plastic or fleece, creating low tunnels. Over the years, I've evolved to a system of using PVC pipe to create my tunnel. I cover the tunnel with plastic and lay the fleece directly on the crops. Another approach is to cover the tunnel with the fleece and skip the plastic. Special clips are available for holding either one in place, or you can simply use rocks, boards, or bags of sand. The downsides to tunnels is the deleterious effects of wind and the sometimes frustrating aspect of getting inside to weed and harvest.

Hoophouses Are Hot
Over the last decade, relatively inexpensive structures made of metal or plastic arches and covered in plastic, a poor man's greenhouse, so to speak, have become immensely popular, both with home gardeners and market farmers. Generally, these are unheated. The advantage to these is that a gardener can walk and work in them. Once again, you can build your own or purchase one. For more information about hoophouses and links for plans, go to a website provided by Washington State University at

If you find yourself longing to get into the garden, there isn't any better project in the upcoming months than to choose a system for extending the vegetable garden season. There are pros and cons to any system, but whichever you choose, my guess is that you'll soon be harvesting fresh lettuce and radishes and planning for what you'll grow next.

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