26. Season Extension and the NC Cooperative Extension Service

  • Learn More: North Carolina Community Garden Partners, www.nccgp.org

“Season Extension for Community Gardens”

My notes from the presentation by Nicole Sanchez, Commercial Horticulture Area Agent, NC Cooperative Extension; NCCGP Board Member at the 2nd annual Nurturing Sustainable Community Gardens workshop in Durham, NC.

The practice of season extension “enables gardeners to increase the length of time produce can be harvested from the garden, both at the beginning and end of the traditional growing season.” While many commercial growers can easily and often must apply any of a myriad of season extension practices, various simpler & still effective extension methods are available to the gardener and small scale grower. Some of these methods include: Plastic Mulch; Cloches, or “Water Walls”; High tunnels; Low Tunnels; Cold Frames; the use of location and proximity.

Raised vegetable beds covered in plastic mulch.

Raised vegetable beds covered in plastic mulch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While season extension “enables” gardeners to increase the “length of time,” it can not transplant time. Essentially season extension moves the “book-ends” of the season, the start and end, lengthening the middle time, the productive time, but it cannot take what is grown in the summer and move it to the winter. That is a whole other practice altogether for another post and time. So, to reiterate, in the big picture for most NC gardeners, season extension can take the starting time of March and move it into February or take the October end of the season and move it into late November or mid December. Ms Sanchez calls it moving one growing zone south, at most two, but says you cannot use it to successfully grow productive tomatoes in February.

Season extension, according to Ms Sanchez is also useful for tempering the daily temperature extremes we experience here in North Carolina. During the summer months temperatures here are pretty steady throughout the day and night; warm nights and hot days. Shade cloth and mulches can help mitigate that. During the cooler winter months, however, we have a very different situation where it might be freezing or frosty in the night and early morning, but reach as high as 60 or 70 during the day. Get enough sunny 70 degree days and most lettuce and coles will begin to bolt. Get enough frosty nights or mornings and the tender greens will be ruined. Using simple techniques such as hoop houses and cloches can protect plants from these daily extremes and provide a milder microclimate more conducive to the plants health and productivity.

Perhaps the simplest and easiest season extension technique displayed is the proximity and location of plantings to structures or other larger plants. Planting shade loving lettuces and greens near a house, shed, or greenhouse can itself provide temperature control against mild or harder frost. Consider sun angles as well when planting and you have provided added shelter by really not adding or building anything.

Cold Frames are a small yet wonderful way to provide greenhouse-like conditions for starting crops without the huge expense and area needed for proper greenhouse control.

Hoop House

There are so many simpler and efficient ways to extend the growing season but none of it can replace or supplant basic plant knowledge; one cannot expect to successfully grow a hoard of cabbage and lettuce just because he/she places some hoops and material over these plants in the dissipating heat of September. Know your plants, Sanchez says. Improper application of these methods can result in devastating results to crop yield and plant health. However, armed with proper and basic plant knowledge, the gardener/small-scale grower can successfully apply the proper methods to the proper plants for desirable results.

a bit more about NC hardiness zones

In North Carolina the traditional growing season is roughly March to November regardless of the gardening zone determined by the USDA. According to the USDA, North Carolina is covered with 5 different hardiness, or growing, zones; 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, & 8a. These Hardiness Zones, Gardening Zones, Growing Zones and Plant Zones refer to defined geographic regions that can support specific plants, flowers and trees. The zones define a minimum range of temperatures that a plant or tree can survive safely in that zone. The most commonly used Hardiness Zones were defined by the USDA.

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