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Ask a Gardener: Plant covers help extend the growing season

With garden amendments and animal feed now coming in bags that are nearly indestructible, it is sad to think of all of them ending up in a landfill. Happily, due to some creative thinking, there is now a way to not only keep the troublesome bags out of the garbage stream, but a way to use them to the benefit of any gardener.

Turn them into tarps. You know, those invaluable things that you can pile high with clippings or pulled weeds. Other uses could be when you’re combining soil mixtures, or repotting and not wanting to get dirt all over. Tarps are also good in pulling heavy plants around to find just the right place for them.

OK, we’ve talked about how invaluable they are. Now, here’s the kicker. Make them by stitching the heretofore only thrown-away bags. Double stitch the bags together, and you’ll have created a unique and incredibly useful garden aid. You can make it any size. Give them as gifts to gardener friends, or sell them at flea markets or bazaars. I know they’d be a hit!

Another great way to both use up what would only be trash is to save hardwood clippings you make from trees or woody shrubs or fruit trees and use those as stakes for floppy annuals or perennials. It even works for some vegetables, for example, bush peas. Don’t cut off any smaller branches coming out of the main stake; they do a great job of keeping things in order.

I carried things a bit too far a few months back, and used willow stakes to keep my chickens out of a few raised beds. Worked beautifully, but by the end of the season, every single one of the stakes had rooted. I quickly removed them and relocated the healthy starts around the edge of a new pond. Win-win!

Question: I am confused about what is best to extend the season for my vegetable garden. What would work best?

Answer: Cool-season gardening is a fun challenge. But with sufficient forethought and planning, you’ll be in position to get some fresh greens throughout the fall and winter.

The most common season extenders are cold frames, cloches, hot caps and floating row covers.

A cold frame is a box-like structure, with a roof of either glazing (old windows) or clear plastic. You can find pictures of varying styles online. Cold frames can be made entirely from recycled materials, as well as newly purchased materials. As the cold frame is set directly on the ground, you have the choice of growing in the ground, or in pots or other containers. Be aware of is ventilation and watering requirements. Believe it or not, there are many days outside spring and summer that are warmish. This means you have to pay attention to the plants in your cold frame, and water or ventilate as needed.

Cold frames have multiple uses: growing winter vegetables; warming the soil and getting an early start in spring; covering a nursery bed for seedlings that will be transplanted; and hardening off potted seedlings.

A cloche is more portable than a cold frame, and more compact and easier to store. The most common design is a hoop made with flexible hoops that form a tunnel. The cloche is covered in plastic.

Cloches can help with warming and drying the soil, staring spring plants earlier, growing hot crops, controlling pests and growing fall and winter crops.

A hot cap is a single-plant covering of glass, plastic or waxed paper that can protect hot crops, such as peppers, tomatoes and eggplant, into the winter.

Floating row covers are typically made of spun-bonded polyester fabric that allows in light, air and water when placed loosely over a planting bed with the edges held down. Floating row covers can warm and dry the soil slightly, do a fine job protecting against insects, shade crops in hot summer heat and protect plants from frost in the fall.

No matter which season extender you choose, be aware that it will last for multiple years if cared for and is a major piece of ammunition in a gardener’s arsenal. So experiment a bit, something that every gardener does with relish. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Q: I read somewhere, I don’t remember where, that there was a plant that was great both as an ornamental and a berry-producer. Do you know what that might be?

A: Yes, and I have 60 of them in my garden. They’re called aronia, or more commonly, chokecherry. It’s a deciduous shrub, intensely green, quite polite about staying about 4-6 feet tall, and though it suckers sometimes, that’s nothing that can’t be taken care of with a sharp shovel.

One thing I love about aronia is the brilliant red it turns in the fall. And, of course, the berries. They are blueberry-sized purple fruit that grow in clusters, making it easy to harvest. In spring the plants are covered in masses of small white flowers, and every bee for miles around will be feeding off the nectar.

When the berries are intensely purple they are ripe. Though not sweet, I have found that they are a perfect pairing with the overly-sweet apple juice we produce. And here’s the best news of all. I had my aronia tested for antioxidants and found that they contain 25 percent more than blueberries, commonly thought to have the highest percentage of antioxidants in berries.

Aronia plants produce copious numbers of berries. If you can’t use all of them, the birds will be more than willing to help.

Seldom do you find a plant that is as valuable both as an attractive landscape specimen and as an edible food producer. What aronia doesn’t have is disease or insect-susceptibility. They are definitely low maintenance.

Commercial growers in the U.S. are developing markets for aronia juice, and are even working on crossing aronia plants with pears to sweeten the berries, as sweet is the American preference. Aronia is used much more in Europe and in China. I highly recommend you plant one or two aronia. You’ll see why.

Q: I have the most shaded yard in Bellingham. But I still want to grow some vegetables and flowers. And I’d rather do it closer to my home as a community garden is not close. Any ideas?

A: Yes, if you live on a street in Bellingham with a sidewalk and a parking strip. In almost all neighborhoods, the parking strip gets a good amount of sun, which makes it prime planting space for flowers and vegetables.

You need to be careful not to grow plants that will block sight lines for drivers. And don’t put plants in that will droop over into the street or the sidewalk. You also want to be a good neighbor and make your garden attractive.

Sometimes the soil in parking strips is questionable. It might have oil, salt, or simply be tamped down to a hard surface by foot traffic. If you suspect any of these conditions, it might be better to build a few raised beds. They are easier to maintain, let you confine soil amendments and water, and make it easier to work on.

I highly recommend you get hold of a copy of “Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew. His system works, and it takes much of the trial and error out of vegetable gardening.

Before you get too far, I suggest you drive around a little. You’ll see many examples of good and not-so-good parking strip gardens. Take some time to come up with a plan. Plot if out on paper. Amend your soil.

Plant. Maintain. Water. Harvest. Good luck!

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