*This post contains affiliate links. If you click on one and make a purchase, I may make a small commission at no cost to you. Thank you for supporting this site.*
The number of days between our average last freeze of the year and the average first freeze of the year is 70 days. If you’ve got gardening knowledge, you’ll recognize this as the length of a growing season in North America. That means most of my gardening for the year is done in just 70 days.
Since most of my crops take at least one month to be ready for the table (lettuce and such), then if I am only eating fresh produce from my own garden during my growing season, I am limited to about one month of eating fresh foods.
With this scenario, one might think at first glance that our family doesn’t eat much of our produce fresh, or that we shop for our produce. Neither of these cases is true. In fact, we eat fresh produce from our own homestead pretty-much all year long.
Even in a harsh, cold climate with a short growing season, these techniques can help anyone to eat produce fresh from their own homesteads nearly all year long.
*For the purpose of this article, “fresh” is defined as produce–fruits, vegetables, and nuts–that are in their “just picked” form, and unprocessed. Canned, pickled, fermented, dehydrated, and frozen produce are not considered fresh.*
Here are four techniques to try and master to prolong the time when you can be enjoying fresh produce on your homestead.
Extend Your Growing Season
You can extend your growing season in two major ways. The first way is to extend the beginning, or spring growing season; the other way is to extend the end, or fall growing season.
In the spring, you’ll want to extend your season by warming your soil, and the air around it earlier than it would on it’s own. You may also use warmer water to take care of your new seedlings.
These goals can be accomplished by the use of raised beds, greenhouses, high tunnels, grow boxes, poly tunnels, and low tunnels.
If you don’t have any of these, you can try warming your soil by laying black plastic over a planting area for a few weeks before you plant your seeds and seedlings.
You could also try cutting the tops off of gallon milk jugs and using these to warm the soil and air immediately in them, for single seed/crop planting. Again, you would want these in place for a period of time before planting with one.
(Related Reading: How we made mini-greenhouses.)
Your goal in the fall will simply be to keep the plants themselves from freezing. Again, fall goals can also be accomplished with the use of raised beds, greenhouses, high tunnels, grow boxes, poly tunnels, and low tunnels.
If you don’t have access to these items, you have many other options depending on the crop you grow.
- Anything planted inside a tomato cage (tomatoes, peppers, etc.) can benefit for a little while by a water wall. I have seen some people just wrap their cages in layers of plastic or saran wrap as well (though I have never tried this myself).
- Cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, and other similar vegetables can be covered with cloches. These are harder to find, but are often affordable when bought from a second-hand store or yard sale (as many people actually don’t know what these are, and so are very willingly to nearly give them away).
- Have vines along the ground like watermelon, cucumbers, or pumpkins? You can cover these with sleeping bags, tarps (if it isn’t too cold yet), or I even use burlap bags in some parts of my garden.
- Don’t pull your corn stalks. I have found corn stalks to be wonderful insulators. If you grow beans, pumpkins, or other squash in with your corn stalks, these stalks can actually insulate the crops inside for quite some time. I have also planted sensitive crops between rows of corn before and found that they are protected in the 30-32° range.
- If you’ve planted in pots, you can bring them inside during cold nights. I have a friend who grows tomatoes in pots, and just pulls them into her garage during the coldest nights. In the past she has had to turn a heater on in her garage, but most nights she doesn’t.
- Pull it in close. Another technique if you plant in pots is to pull it in next to your porch. Sometimes the air right around your door will keep from freezing when the weather is just starting to dip.
Grow Produce Inside Your Home
Growing produce inside is very appealing, but it does have some set-backs.
First, pots take room. Often homesteaders are limited by space, so pick plants that give you the most bang for the space.
Utilize companion planting, and remember that some produce take bees in order to give you edibles. Without bees inside your home, a bean plant won’t give you beans. Tomato and peppers can be hand pollinated, as can various squash.
When deciding what to plant in pots, always do your research first. Some plants just don’t do well in pots. This year I tried to grow kohlrabi in containers. One grew fine and fast while none of the others even tried beyond just sprouting. I didn’t expect any of them to make it, so that one was really a treat.
Lastly, take your light conditions into consideration when itching to start an indoor winter garden. High in the Rockies, we have nearly continual cloud coverage. It’s wonderful for keeping our summers cool, but it means there really is very limited light during the long winters. I can get many plants to sprout indoors, but without the light they desire, they just grow long and spindly and never fill out or thrive.
If you don’t have good light in your winter, you’ll want to invest in some grow lights to help you out.
Utilize A Root Cellar
Root cellars are a wonderful way to keep much of your produce in a fresh usable form through the winter, and depending on the crop and weather, even into the spring.
While root vegetables are generally what come to mind when thinking about storage, there are other crops that also keep in a cellar, at least for some amount of time.
Root vegetables we keep in ours include potatoes, carrots, radishes (short term), turnips (short term), beets, and garlic. Our onions are braided and kept hanging in a cool dark corner of the pantry, but many people will keep them in their cellar as well.
Other crops we keep in the root cellar include apples, zucchini, pumpkins, squash, watermelon, corn (short term), beans (short term), green tomatoes (until they turn red), cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli.
Learn To Forage In All Seasons
Since we don’t plant until June 1, we don’t start to get food from our garden until the lettuce starts to ready in early July. Rarely is there anything left in the root cellar by July.
To compensate, I’ve learned to forage in the winter for the few things we can find through the snow, like rose hips and juniper berries. In the spring we can find morels and meadow mushrooms if it’s been wet, and then by the first of June, we start to find asparagus and rhubarb.
Yes, we can get rose hips and juniper berries earlier than winter, but we find that if we wait, it’s a “fresh” treat for us.
If you’re still in the dreaming stage of homesteading, then I’d encourage you to add bartering and/or purchasing locally. Even if you can’t grow your own your own produce yet, you may still be able to get fresh produce that you can store in your root cellar (or pantry, garage, well-house, spring-house, box in the ground, etc.).