Is it possible to garden year-round?
Yes, even in Nova Scotia. Niki Jabbour has developed an all-seasons approach to edible gardening, despite her Halifax location, where frost can linger until May and return in October.
Jabbour — a vegetable gardener and the host of the radio show “The Weekend Gardener” — doesn’t use a trowel and pruning sheets in her “vegetable garden tool kit.” Instead her essentials are an assortment of fabrics and the supports she drapes them over.
In a place with a short traditional growing season, Jabbour might have been content to master cool- and short-season vegetables. But once she started down the tool-kit route, she kept pushing, and pushing.
Now she counts on reliable harvests of coveted Lebanese ingredients such as cucumber melons (also called mekti, or Armenian cucumbers) and perennial Syrian oregano (to make za’atar). They’re grown for her in-laws, immigrants from that Mediterranean subtropical zone.
In the process of stretching her growing season, Jabbour has reaped some benefits: She’s learned how to outsmart squash bugs, flea beetles and cabbage worms, and even much larger pests, like the deer who visit daily. Her zone-cheating, season-extending tool kit is an effective barrier against more than just weather.
Jabbour’s limits-pushing adventures started about 18 years ago with the impromptu use of row cover one October. She was planting garlic and noticed a patch of arugula still going strong despite recent frost. She covered it with some fabric and harvested arugula until Christmas.
That success got her thinking. She read any books she could find on the topic, including the classics: books by Helen and Scott Nearing, New England homesteaders who chronicled their experiments in a series that began in the 1950s, and by Eliot Coleman, a gardener in Maine with 50 years of experience in four-season vegetable production.
She searched out seeds from northern companies that were appropriate to her short season and ordered the gear those authors had used. “If you’re going to invest money and then time in the right seeds,” she said, “why not invest in the insurance, too?”
Wise words for now, when your seeds are (with any luck) on order and the soil awaits — although it is probably still frozen. Are you prepared with the insurance, too? Jabbour suggested her most-used basics to get you started.
What to grow, and when
Successful zone-cheating and pest prevention depends on matching tools with garden goals. Is your obstacle heat, frost, insects or animals?
In a short-season area, where it’s hard to mature a full harvest of heat-lovers like peppers, eggplants and melons if frost descends early, a mini hoop tunnel covered in greenhouse plastic sheeting is an effective defense.
A crop that benefits from a certain kind of protection at one end of the season — like tomatoes — may need something else at the other end.
“It’s hard to have a fabric-covered mini-tunnel over a full-grown tomato plant,” Jabbour said, “so I might just wrap them in fall in lightweight or medium row cover attached to their wooden support stake.”
Lightweight row cover offers defense against insects, as does that plastic mini-tunnel — but inside the tunnel it’s too hot in summer for crops like lettuce, cabbage and broccoli.
Knitted shade cloth blocks some light, depending on the weight chosen, which makes midsummer seeding easier.
“A lot of crops for fall and winter harvest are planted in summer, when soil is hot and dry — which seeds don’t like,” Jabbour said. Shade cloth slows soil-moisture evaporation, aiding germination, and also slows bolting of spring lettuce, arugula and spinach as summer heat arrives.
The three basic materials
Jabbour recommends investing in three things when you start experimenting: a lightweight row cover, a knitted shade cloth and durable, clear plastic sheeting.
When you’re buying the material, “think farmer quality,” she said. “I want to use less plastic and other such materials, so I would rather pay more and have the durability.”
Start with the fabric row cover: Jabbour recommends Agribon AG-19, which lets in 85% of the light and is rated for insect protection and light frost, offering about 4 degrees of insulation for temperatures down to 28 degrees. For insect protection alone, the lighter Agribon AG-15 lets in 90% of the light, but with less heat buildup, so it can remain in place in summer.
Next, choose a black or green knitted shade cloth, offering 30%–50% shade.
Jabbour’s third essential: 6-millimeter greenhouse-quality plastic that’s UV-treated and rated for a four-year life span. Garden centers may sell this by the running foot, or you can order a roll with friends. Skip the special greenhouse repair tape; cheaper clear packing tape is fine, “just be sure to patch any holes on both sides,” Jabbour said.
When you’re not using your materials, clean, fold and store them. (Accumulated dirt reduces light transmission.) “I lay the plastic down and mop and hose it off,” Jabbour said. “And I hang the fabrics and hose them down, or machine wash them on delicate.”
Choose the right support
Materials fashioned into hoops can straddle beds and support the covers. On Jabbour’s 4-foot-wide beds, 10-foot lengths bent into hoops will rise to about a yard high at the center, depending how deep the ends are buried.
Many gardeners start with 9-gauge wire, which is more than adequate to support lightweight covers for pest control or shade. “I use wire in shoulder season or summer to float stuff on,” Jabbour said, “but not in winter.”
Half-inch PVC conduit is a step up, in easy-to-bend 10-footers. Jabbour has been upgrading to half-inch galvanized electrical conduit.
The key to a tight-fitting cover: special greenhouse snap clamps made for the job, about three for each hoop. In windy conditions or to keep insects out, the bottom edges must be buried or weighted down with lumber or rocks.
For mini-tunnels from which she harvests carrots, Asian greens and other crops all winter, Jabbour rolls 1-by-2-foot boards in the hem and screws that into the raised bed’s edge.
When to apply and remove covers
To outsmart spring frosts and keep out insects, put your cover on at sowing or transplanting time. “With seeding, you could wait,” Jabbour said. “But hey, the extra warmth may hasten germination and growth.”
A caveat: Cabbage worms, flea beetles, squash bugs and other insects may overwinter in the soil in some life stage. So crop rotation — moving brassicas, cucurbits or nightshades to a new place in the garden every year — must be paired with row-cover use. “Otherwise, it backfires,” she said, and pests are trapped “with their favorite food.”
Some crops require pollinator access to set fruit. With cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, etc.), for instance, Jabbour removes covers when the plants flower. “By then, they are usually robust enough to withstand a little pest pressure,” she said.
Lightweight fabrics may discourage larger pests like rabbits, woodchucks or deer. You could also invest in bird netting or chicken wire as an extra-tough cover that’s effective against birds, chipmunks or squirrels wanting to dig seeds or uproot seedlings.
Try a cold frame
If you want to upgrade to something semipermanent, try a cold frame, Jabbour suggested.
It’s a versatile tool — whether it’s portable or partially buried in the ground, store-bought and made of polycarbonate, or built from rot-resistant wood with a poly lid. “You can start seeds, care for seedlings, push spring and fall, overwinter half-hardy plants like Syrian and Greek oregano or even my artichokes, and force pots of flower bulbs,” she said.
Jabbour has several, and enough other gear to defend and extend most of her raised beds, as well as a 14-by-24-foot polytunnel tall enough to walk through. And her cloches — most of them plastic gallon water bottles with the bottoms removed — are like individual greenhouses for tender transplants.
One caution about assembling your own vegetable garden tool kit: Each success may embolden you to take on another, more-elusive goal. Fig forest, anyone? Ms. Jabbour’s in-laws certainly hope that’s what’s next in the ongoing experiment.