Due to the sporadic weather in early spring, in the past I have skipped right past the cool weather crops. I was afraid that it was too cold to start seeds outdoors. Not this year! To help get my garden off to an early start, I’m trying out a few different season extending methods. For this blog post, I am going to explain how I am using a plastic storage bin season extender in my early spring garden.
I think it is important to look into cost effective options. Don’t let a small budget stop you from trying to grow food on your property or in your space.
Instead of waiting until after my last frost date to get out and plant, I’m going to start planting in March. Where I live, the end of March is eight weeks away from my last frost date. Yikes!
This year I am trying to up my vegetable growing game. Early spring in New England, zone 5 has its challenges including late season frosts mixed with days in the sixties (sixteen degrees Celsius). The weather can be warm and sunny one day and blustery and bitter cold the next. To help balance out the extremes in weather, I’m going to try a few different season extenders.
Learn Through Experience
Oftentimes, we wait to start doing something until we have it all figured out. I am by no means an expert, but I’m going to give this a try. I find that I learn best through a mix of researching and just going forward with a project, even without all the answers. A lot can be learned, through the process of trial and error!
What is a Season Extender?
A season extender is a device that you place over the soil to create a warm environment for plants to grow inside. Plastic bins, milk jugs, hoop houses, and row covers are all examples of season extenders. Gardeners use them because it lets you plant crops earlier or later than you normally would be able to in your area.
These protected coverings, keep your plants protected from snow, frost, and very cold temperatures. For my experiment, I am using two inexpensive options along with a more expensive DIY build. This article will focus on using a storage tote, while future articles will discuss using plastic roofing and a DIY hoop house.
Importance of Knowing Your Last Frost Date
Before we get into the details of the setup it is important to understand your last and first frost date. Since most of the crops people plant in early spring are annuals, you have to make sure they can take the cold temperatures. If you want to learn more about frost dates, check out this blog post.
What Crops Can You Plant in Early Spring?
Crops such as kale and cilantro are all frost hardy. This means that if they are left outside uncovered, and you get a frost, they will still survive. Now, it doesn’t mean that you can sow seeds directly outside, in the dead of winter, unprotected with snow on the ground and they will grow. Seeds need some form of heat to germinate.
But, It means that they can take some frost and still survive. The back of a seed packet provides information about if a plant is considered frost hardy. It also states the recommended planting time for your area. This previous blog post provides more information about reading a seed packet and selecting seeds for early spring.
Can You Plant Earlier than the Recommended Planting Date?
Yes! However, you will want to provide some form of protection for your plants. This is when season extenders come in. By covering your seeds and plants, you can fool them into thinking that it is warm enough to start growing.
Even with limited supplies on hand, you can create a season extender. This spring, I’m going to use clear plastic bins, clear plastic roofing, and a raised bed hoop house. To watch me plant up my raised bed and protect it using plastic roofing material, make sure to check out this video.
Making use of an Extra Storage Tote to Grow Vegetables
A large clear plastic bin or tote can be purchased for under $10. Since I will not be modifying the bin, I can use it as an actual bin when I’m not using it to protect plants. I love when tools can serve multiple purposes.
Try out something new
Get creative and use what you have if you are unsure if it is going to work. I’m hoping that through trial and error I can find a system that works for me in my growing climate. Then when I’m planting my spring garden next year, I can use that method.
Plastic Bin Season Extender Requirements
- Needs to be clear or opaque to let in the light
- Durable so that it doesn’t blow away or collapse
- Leaves room between the top of your plants and its surface
- Lift-able to allow air flow
Goal of a Season Extender
- Protects plants from cold weather
- Traps warm air and moisture in a small area
- Lets you plant and harvest for weeks before/beyond your frost date
Benefits of using a Storage Tote
Probably the most widely accessible option is some type of plastic storage bin. In my garden I am using one large bin and a long rectangular bin. Even a small plastic container designed to hold shoes would work. Just remember, you want to use a clear bin.
To keep my bins in place, I added a brick at the top of each. We can get some strong winds when a cold front moves through in the spring. I am hoping that the bin will create a more consistent environment for my plants compared to our sporadic spring weather.
I like the idea of using a plastic tote because they are cost effective and you might already have an extra one on hand. Gardening doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive.
Direct Sowing Seeds in the Spring
In the spring you can either purchase plant starts or direct sow seeds into your garden. Starting your own seeds indoors is also an option. For this experiment, I am going to direct sow my seeds. It is still too early to purchase starts from a store and I don’t want to set up grow lights indoors this year.
Honestly, I am really curious to see if this is going to work. Planting seeds directly into the garden means I can skip the hardening off step that is required when acclimating starts grown indoors to the outside. Plus, I don’t have to take up space in the house to start seeds under lights.
Choosing the Right VARIETIES
I selected these varieties to plant in my early spring garden because they can all take some frost. Covering seeds, seedlings, and plants with a plastic bin will help keep the air around them warm. But, it doesn’t provide a great deal of insulation. This is why I planted frost hardy plants. The air and ground inside the bin might drop down towards freezing if the outside temperatures dip too low.
Regulating Temperature in a Plastic Bin Season Extender
If the daytime temperature is just above freezing, my plan is to prompt the bin open using a brick. When daytime temperatures rise close to 50°F (10°C) I’m going to completely remove the bin. I think leaving it on when it is that warm outside, will make the air too hot inside the bin.
At night, if the temperatures are going to drop close to freezing or below, I am going to place the bin over the plants directly onto the ground. If the nighttime temperatures are close to 50°F (10°C) or higher, I will leave the bin off. When temps are above freezing, but below 50°F (10°C) I can leave the tote on but prompt it up so air can enter the bin.
Remember There Are No Set Rules
I’m not going to stress too much about the exact temperatures, because again these plants are frost hardy. Since I am direct sowing seeds under the season extender, the seeds can take warmer temperatures. Once the seeds grow into seedlings then plants, they will appreciate the cooler temperatures.
But What if gets too cold?
When the temperatures drop below freezing, I am going to gather some leaves and dirt around the bottom of the bin. If your bin sits flat on the ground, you could probably skip this step. However, if your ground is uneven and there are open gaps at the bottom I think this step is important.
The goal of a season extender is to trap the heat from the day to keep the plants warmer at night. If there are gaps at the base, all of the warm air will escape. Its all about finding a balance between stopping them from roasting and keeping them from freezing.
Keeping it Cool
If cold hardy plants are exposed to cold temperatures (close to freezing) they can survive, but they will just grow slowly. This means, if I notice that the air inside the bin is too warm, I will take it off even if it is cold outside.
It can get very hot inside of a clear plastic bin even on a cold day when the sun is shining. All of the crops I am trying to grow, like cooler temperatures. They will suffer if it gets too hot and might even (bolt) go to seed early. I am definitely going to try to avoid that from happening!
Gather Inspiration from other Gardeners
There are so many great ideas floating around out there on the internet from other gardeners. I love watching Roots and Refuge’s videos on YouTube even though they are located down South and I am up North.
If you are looking for more inspiration for how to use plastic bin season extenders in your garden, Roots and Refuge has two videos on this topic, one and two. In these videos, Jess explains how you can grow salad greens through the winter months using only a plastic bin with a lid and a bag of garden soil.
Their farm is located in central Arkansas, zone 7. Up here in zone 5, I could use that same method, but would need to add more insulation because our winter temperatures are much colder. However, it is still fun to learn and grow from other gardeners!
Learning By Trial and Error
Sometimes we get overwhelmed with the process and forget the importance of just trying something. Worse case, the plants will suffer and not do well, but you learned something new. There is value in trying new things. In many ways, gardening is an experiment and a learning process.
Applying KNowledge Learned To the Next Growing Season
Every year you will gain more knowledge and become more comfortable trying out new ideas in the garden. Last year was the first year I attempted to grow spinach. It bolted before it even set out its first set of true leaves. I was disappointed to say the least, but I went into this gardening season knowing that spinach needs cooler temperatures to grow.
I am excited to see if the seeds I planted in the plastic bins germinate and grow into actual plants. Even if they don’t do well, I will be one step ahead of where I was this year when I plant veggies next spring.
Stay tuned for more blog posts on this topic. As the growing season progresses I will keep you updated on how the crops are growing.