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When should I cover fall crops?

Potato onions

Quick hoops over tomatoesThe great thing about row-cover fabric is that it's breathable, so you can cover crops even when you're enjoying beautiful sunny days. But there are always so many tasks involved in putting the garden to bed for the winter that I tend to wait to erect our quick hoops until we absolutely have to. But when exactly is that?

The first time to consider erecting quick hoops is just prior to your first frost. If the forecast says you might get a light freeze followed by a week or more of summer weather, it's often worth protecting at least a few tomatoes and peppers in hopes of extending the harvest. Sometimes you get lucky and can eke out summer crops this way until Thanksgiving! But for the last several years, our first frosts have been killing frosts --- down into the mid twenties. At that temperature, a row cover isn't enough to protect tropical vegetables, so I don't even try to cover them up.

Row cover and lettuce

The next most sensitive crop is baby lettuce. While most fall vegetables require planting so early that they're mature and hearty by frost time, leaf lettuce can be eaten as little as month after planting. So I seed our last bed in early October, then protect those seedlings during even the lightest freezes. As you can see in the photo above, I'm sometimes lazy and simply lay a piece of row-cover fabric over this baby-lettuce bed, turning it into a quick hoop later when the other leafy greens need protection too.

Which brings me to the main event --- erecting the quick hoops that allow us to eat leafy greens all winter some years. In this case, it's not so much a single hard freeze that will harm your crops as extended cold weather. For example, Friday night dropped down to 21, but I only saw very minor damage on a few uncovered lettuce leaves and no other harm in the winter garden. On the other hand, once we begin to see freezes every night, it's time to cover up the older lettuce, the kale, and any other leafy greens you want to be harvesting after the winter solstice. I'll probably put up our quick hoops this week just to be on the safe side.

Brussels sprouts

How about brussels sprouts? In the past, we haven't covered these plants at all since my goal is for the plants to produce through November and December and then be eaten up when deep freezes hit in January and February. Some of our plants are running behind schedule this year, though, so I might cover them up and see if we can extend the season. That's where Mark's tipi-tunnel experiment will come into play.

The fall garden produces so much bounty for so little work that I consider it low-hanging fruit...as long as you get the timing right. So mark your calendars now --- start planting leafy greens in August, cover them in October or November, and your winter meals will look 100% brighter all winter long.



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