Organic gardener growing food and flowers, lovin' pollinators and birds.

Maximize your harvest with 'Growing Under Cover'

Photo credit: Niki Jabbour, used with permission. 

Whether you are pushing the growing seasons or protecting your crops, Niki Jabbour is a definitive source on the matter. 

"The past two decades my climate has changed noticeably in terms of earlier springs, hotter and drier summers, more frequent storms, and new types of pests arriving in my northern garden," said Jabbour. "Using garden covers has been an easy way for me to adapt to these changes and help ensure the time, work, and money I put into my raised bed vegetable garden results in maximum, year-round production." 

Items such as cloches, row covers, shade cloth, cold frames, and hoophouses, as well as larger protective structures like greenhouses and polytunnels, can be used to create controlled growing spaces for vegetables to thrive.

Jabbour's newest gardening book, "Growing Under Cover: Techniques for a More Productive, Weather-Resistant, Pest-Free Vegetable Garden," features solutions for growing a variety of edibles to jump start the growing season, eliminate pests and grow healthier plants. The book includes photos and explanations of how to incorporate these items in your garden.

I was excited to add this exceptional gardening resource to my personal library, and reached out for ways to jump in and get started right away. 

Photo courtesy of Storey Publishing. 

JM: No matter what size garden you have, you offer a variety of techniques for protecting plants from insect pests. As we enter this growing season, what do you recommend gardeners have at the ready?

NJ: Keeping several types of garden covers handy is garden insurance, especially in spring when the only thing predictable about the weather is that it's unpredictable! The most useful and versatile covers are row covers, which are lightweight and allow water, light and air to pass through. I use them to protect from frost, but if you buy lightweight row covers you can also float them overtop pest-prone crops like potatoes, cabbage, and broccoli to deter cabbage worms or potato beetles. Most lightweight row covers allow 85-90% of light to pass through which means they can be left in place for months. 

Another essential spring garden cover is shade cloth. I float 30 or 40% shade cloth on lightweight wire hoops overtop my spring greens like lettuce, spinach, pak choi, and arugula. These crops bolt, switch from leaf to flower production, as the weather warms and the days get longer and that makes them taste bitter. Using shade cloth to reduce sun exposure and reduce the temperature beneath the cover can slow bolting and extend the harvest for a couple of extra weeks. 

Photo credit: Jeff Cooke/Cooked Photography, used with permission.

JM: In your book you talk about the importance of caring for the covers by keeping them clean. Why is this an important step that gardeners should not skip? 

NJ: Gardening can be dirty work and after a season in the garden, row covers or greenhouse poly sheets can be grimy from protecting your plants. This can look messy but dirty covers also block light which affects plant growth. I give my row covers and poly sheets a quick clean whenever they get dirty; usually once or twice a year. To make it simple, hang them on a clothesline or fence and hose them off, or lightweight row covers can be put into the washing machine on a gentle cycle. Once clean, let the covers dry and then fold and store them in a shed or garage until the next time you need a little garden protection. 

Photo credit: Jeff Cooke/Cooked Photography, used with permission.

JM: Is there a "right time" of year to add a cold frame to your garden? 

NJ: Anytime is the best time to add a cold frame to your garden! These year-round food factories are such a great way extend the season in early spring or from autumn into winter. My suggestion is to build a cold frame whenever you have time because they can be used all year round. In early spring (6-8 weeks from the last frost date) I’m sowing seeds of cool spring veggies like carrots, beets, chard, turnips, lettuce, and scallions for extra early harvests. In mid-summer I sow carrot seeds for a bumper crop of fall and winter carrots. In autumn, I plant seeds or seedlings for quick growing, cold hardy greens like lettuce, arugula, spinach, and kale. Just be sure to place your frame in a spot where it will receive plenty of light - even in winter - and face it towards the south. 

Photo credit: Jeff Cooke/Cooked Photography, used with permission.

JM: I like how you use cloches to protect smaller plants - and they don't need to be expensive. Can you share more about what makes a good cloche? 

NJ: Cloches are simply miniature greenhouses and while you can buy glass or plastic cloches, you can also upcycle items like milk or water jugs, soda bottles, salad containers, or jars. These are fantastic for small plants, especially in spring. I pop a cloche overtop newly transplanted tomatoes and peppers for those ’not so spring-like days’, or use them to shelter a small head of leaf lettuce or kale. You can even use cloches in a container garden - they’re so versatile! 

JM: Your book offers an extensive list of crops that benefit by being grown under cover. Do you have a recommendation for a low-maintenance edible for those new to growing crops under cover? 

NJ: For first-time vegetable gardeners I always recommend keeping it small. Plant up some containers or begin with a raised bed, and then start with a couple of easy-to-grow vegetables like bush beans, leaf lettuce, peas, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, or zucchini. Yet even new food gardeners can benefit from using garden covers like row covers or a mini hoop tunnel over top a raised bed. They make it easy to protect from uncertain weather and create a microclimate around your plants, encouraging early, strong growth. 

"Growing Under Cover: Techniques for a More Productive, Weather-Resistant, Pest-Free Vegetable Garden" is available through Storey Publishing as a print edition and an Ebook. For more information, click here. I purchased a copy of the print edition to review. 


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