Low tunnel_submitted.jpg

A low tunnel, like the one pictured here, can protect plants from frost and light freezes to extend the gardening season into the fall and winter. Broccoli is currently growing in the tunnel. (Wes Henry photo).

At a time when Kentucky’s golden crowns are just beginning to nod to the unkempt places, gardening for most folks isn’t as exciting as it once was in spring.

The garden itself tells the story in many a backyard or side lot. The weeds fill the rows, zucchinis are the size of baseball bats and spent cucumber vines bear over-ripe and yellowed fruits laid bare.

Yet, the garden season is far from over. To this gardener, the best is yet to come — fall gardening.

At this writing, the full moon rules until the end of the month. Summer’s midpoint was Aug. 7 and it is the time for a second wind — to be cleaning up any neglect and planning for those last plantings, ones that can take some cold weather and even get better along with it, in the garden.

Broccoli and cabbages are two regulars for fall, but there are also the lettuces and greens. My favorite is kale. Plant these in the low tunnel after the new moon comes back into force on Aug. 30.

Until then — in the proper sign of course — it’s below-ground producers like beets, carrots, turnips and such — root crops — grow so very well this upcoming time of year, especially carrots.

I have had my best harvests of the orange fingerlings, hands down, in the fall. Early as it is, you could even get in a couple plantings yet this year of your favorites and be confident you can be successful with the use of a growing method that works wonders on not only extending the season, but making it better — the low tunnel.

Low tunnels

Used in years past with much success, a low tunnel is simple, but efficient. Think of it as a mini-green house. They’re quite inexpensive and if you take care of the materials, most of which can be of the repurposed kind (frugality is a virtue), you can get years of service from one investment.

To make a low tunnel I use either No. 9 wire cut long enough to arch over the plants and give your crops about a foot of head space when mature; or I also use ½-inch PVC pipe which is sold in 10-foot lengths.

Stab one end of the pipe or wire in the ground about a foot from where the plants will grow and arch up and over the bed to the other side and push it also into the ground at the same distance from where the plants will be.

For now, the only reason I would cover my plantings would be to keep the cabbage moth off my plants of that type — cruciferous or cole crops. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages and the like, are of this family. Their name meaning “cross bearing,” for when the stalks are cut crosswise one can see a cross within, and the blossoms are in the same shape too with four petals.

The cover for now would be the lightest row cover or “canvas” as we used to call it. Preventing the moth from getting to the crop prevents egg laying, which prevent the worms — cabbage loopers — from destroying the crop.

Thicknesses vary with row covers, and the thicker it is, the better the warmth-holding ability. These increase the temperature and protect the plants from the drying effects of frost to come and yet still allow the rain in.

Remember, these plants are frost tolerant, but not frost proof. As the season progresses and the weather consistently gets colder, you can replace the canvas with plastic. You can get rolls at home centers and 6-mil tends to be a standard thickness for durability.

In my prudence and thrift, I have recycled great sheets that once surrounded new mattresses, and this works very well. Be aware that the plants can also cook if it gets warm and sunny. So, be ready to open the ends or remove it if sun and temps demand it.

Once it gets really frigid for extended periods of time not even these frost-tolerant plants will survive. Yet, some can “over winter.” Over wintering can mean storage as well as becoming dormant only to resurrect into the earliest spring harvests.

Those root crops, even though the tops have died back, can easily be kept in place and be fresh veggies for the table when it seems all but impossible.

Just before the ground freezes and the bitter cold arrives, remove the low tunnel and mulch with a thick layer of straw (use those bales from the Halloween decorations) then cover with plastic or a tarp anchored by rocks or bricks for safe keeping.

Imagine stepping out into the snow and uncovering a fresh bounty for a warm and hearty winter’s meal. I know it’s hard to right now, huh?

One last tip in this great gardening time, again, remember to watch for bugs and worms there’s a great army right now until frost. I use the safe and organic Bt (Thuricide) for the worms and soap for the aphids and things (one teaspoon blue dawn dish soap for each quart of water).

With cover and care you can garden and harvest in the Fall and Winter to come, for now and later, even here in Ol’ Kentucky.

Wes Henry is a Frankfort resident. He can be reached at john.henry@pb.com.

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