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Planning Season Extension using Permaculture Principles

One ceremony of winter I adore is receiving my seed catalogs in the mail and beginning my garden dreaming and planning in earnest.  And I know for many, the ritual of drooling over varieties and choosing vegetables to grow this year is commencing in homes and gardens everywhere.  This might be my favorite part of the year “in” the garden.


But are you ready to begin planting those seeds when they arrive?  What preparations have you made?  Are you ready to begin eating fresh vegetables from your own garden as EARLY as possible?

The holidays may provide some time to work at home improving the design and infrastructure of your garden space in order to extend your season and get the most out of your new seed packets.  So, let’s talk season extension!  I have a few basic Permaculture principles to help you prolong the harvest from your garden.

Permaculture Principle : Observe and interact

You have likely already made a note of your sunniest spaces in the garden.  Have you noticed any variations in frost dates?  Is there a spot that never seems to get much frost excepting the deepest days of winter?  What area always gets hit by a late frost?   What winter weeds begin to grow first and where are they located the most densely?  While thinking over these questions : make notes!  Notes clarify and aid in the planning process.

Permaculture Principle: Catch and store energy

You will need to build or acquire a structure for meaningful season extension.  That might mean a small greenhouse to some, or a cold frame or floating row covers to others.  However, if you start now you can plan an approach that will give you the most impact for your time and money.  A semi-permanent structure may be the best bet for a long term solution to season extension.   Utilizing southern aspect or thermal mass (masonry works great or water filled milk jugs painted black then placed in the cold frame) to catch heat and release it through the cooler night temperatures is a great way to implement this principle.

Permaculture Principle: Design from patterns (large) to details (small)

Seek to place your season extension beds within the context of your garden successfully.  They must have as much sunlight as possible but they also should be near the home or other areas of activity (Zone 1 in Permaculture-speak) where they will be tended regularly.  Proximity to resources like water and compost are essential to successfully utilizing these beds.  It also helps on spring days when a cold frame’s internal temperature might skyrocket requiring ventilation.  You only have to forget once to nuke your plants.

In addition, the pattern that best suits your garden design might be a mobile cold frame that can be utilized over different beds during different times of the year.  This use will inform the design of the cold frame itself, i.e. wheels.  Another example: when utilizing a thermal mass like a masonry wall the greenhouse, lean-to or cold frame will require attachment to the wall in some manner.  Again the choice of location determines the design.

Permaculture Principles: Integrate rather than segregate and Obtain a yield

Whatever your season extension methodology it should fit into your larger garden plan.  Beds should roll over into summer crops or seedling production as the early crop finishes or becomes hardened off.  Perhaps a green manure will be planted or the covered area is ventilated for summer and a shade cloth is added for extended lettuce production into summer.  Whatever your choice, make that area productive (Permaculture Principle: Obtain a Yield) with a crop for humans, animals or a crop for the soil.

In review, observe and note your micro-climate when selecting where to utilize permanent or semi-permanent season extension structures.   Catch and store energy to aid in keeping plants warm through cold nights or days.  Design from patterns to details by allowing your larger choices like location or cost to determine your season extension method.  Integrate your season extension into your current garden plan.  Finally, obtain a yield; harvest your fresh vegetables and enjoy.

These are only a few of the principles Permaculture design utilizes to create a permanent functioning garden ecosystem.  Remember, when planning an extended garden season we are seeking a resiliency of function.  We are maximizing our thrift by utilizing water, sunlight and wastes to produce a yield.  The addition of a well placed cold frame or lean-to can bring fresh vegetables to your plate earlier than you ever expected. Enjoy!

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