If you've ever dreamt of enjoying the taste of homegrown goodness in every season, right now in the perfect time to strategize. Dig in with homesteader Meg Austin and discover tips and strategies to help you achieve year-round gardening right on your homestead.
Guide to Growing Year Round on a Homestead
It all started with a few small pots perched in a sunny bay window, just a beginner's attempt to get a jump start in the cold months. Were the plants leggy and a little pitiful? Well, yes, in fact, they were. But they survived! And it gave me the confidence to push forward!
After my first semi-successful winter of indoor gardening, I invested in a shelf with grow lights to grow greens indoors, plus get a jump start on my spring garden by growing my own seedlings.
And now? Let's just say I've taken the plunge into full-blown gardening, complete with a greenhouse that's practically become a second home and a sprawling raised bed garden bursting with life year-round.
In this beginner's guide, I'll walk you through how I keep my homestead blooming and producing year-round.
Get to know your gardening environment
My style of growing food is to work with Mother Nature as much as possible. The times I’ve tried to fight against the seasons and bully my way through, it’s rarely worked out in my favor.
Get to know your climate. What are the seasonal temperatures like both the highs and the lows? Will you have strong winds or powerful storms? How sturdy does your garden setup need to be?
If you are living in a windy area like me (here in Kansas), you don’t want to be using season extension methods that could blow away!
A sturdy greenhouse, however, serves me well. So do the cold frames my husband built to cover a few of my raised beds during the late fall and early spring when the soil temperatures are mostly above freezing.
How to extend the growing season in the cold months
This October, we had two hard freezes. Normally, we won’t even have a light frost before November 1, so just be aware that any frost dates you have researched can actually be off by several weeks.
When we are preparing for an early freeze, I cover as much as I can with covers, frost cloth, and plastic. Before the temperatures begin to drop, usually just before dark, I gently tuck all of the plants under the covers. If it is going to be windy, I’ll secure the blankets with bricks or stakes. I remember learning from my dad, who is a fourth-generation farmer, that generally, there will not be wind on nights when there is an early freeze.
Fall gardening: radishes, salad greens, and snow peas
As my summer crops begin to phase out, I begin thinking about the future. Most of my cucumbers, tomatoes, and squash are finished by late July, so that is when I try to squeeze in more veggies.
Sometimes this is warm-weather plants, like another round of cucumbers or zucchini, but more often than not, I try to plan ahead and plant things that don’t mind the cold weather at harvest time. My go-to crops that can germinate and grow in the heat but will still be standing if it freezes are radishes, salad greens, kale, and snow peas.
I direct sow these seeds into my raised beds or flower pots. If it is something I can harvest before winter, I’ll plant it outdoors. For things that I’m going to try to overwinter or extend my season even further into the bitter cold, I’ll plant in a grow bag or large pot. I can keep them outside until the weather tells me it’s time to move indoors. Snow peas are a plant I love to start outside and then move indoors later. They are particularly lovely in hanging baskets, with their curled tendrils trailing down towards the floor.
Another option that works well in spring and fall are cold frames. These can be as simple as old salvaged windows that can cover the garden beds like little mini-greenhouses. I’ve found that they do very well with occasional frosts, but once the soil temperatures are consistently below freezing, it’s tough to keep going.
The two biggest challenges that I’ve encountered with starting seeds in fall is that the grasshoppers can be a nightmare, and the hot, windy days keep the soil dryer than I’d like. Always make sure to provide pest protection like row covers, and check your soil often to see if it needs water.
Winter gardening: salad greens, microgreens
In gardening zone 6B, I really can’t grow anything outdoors during the winter months. This is when my grow light setup, greenhouse, and a sunny windowsill really come into play.
Let’s start with salad greens and microgreens. These healthy plants are not just a place to drench with ranch dressing; they're a nutritional powerhouse and it feels so good to have access to homegrown greens year-round!
From the crisp crunch of romaine lettuce to the peppery kick of arugula, they bring a variety of textures and tastes to your plate. And here's the kicker: salad greens are incredibly easy to grow indoors, making them a top choice for year-round gardening.
What salad greens grow well indoors?
When it comes to indoor salad gardening, you'll be excited to hear that a wide variety of greens can thrive in your home. The best part about these greens is that they can be harvested at any stage! Snip them when they are just a few inches tall for microgreens, or let them grow to maturity in grow bags!
Some of the favorites among indoor gardeners include:
Lettuce: From classic iceberg to loose-leaf and romaine, lettuce is a staple for indoor greens. I typically buy bulk bags of seeds for Rocky Top, Buttercrunch, Little Gem, and Rouge D’Hiver.
Spinach: Nutrient-rich and versatile, spinach is a must-have for any indoor garden. I’m not picky about the variety.
Arugula: Known for its peppery flavor, arugula adds a zing to your salads and sandwiches.
Kale: This superfood can be grown indoors, providing you with its impressive health benefits year-round. My favorite varieties are curly Blue Scotch, Red Russian and Lacinato.
Microgreens: Hear me out, I think microgreens are the perfect plant to grow indoors. They are small, compact and grow very quickly. From sowing to harvest is generally 2-3 weeks or less! If I had to pick one salad green to get my family through the winter, it would be microgreens. Arugula, broccoli, radish, romaine… you really can’t go wrong!
Helpful Supplies for Growing Salad Greens Indoors
Getting started with indoor salad greens is really simple. Here's what you'll need:
- Potting Soil: You’ll want two types of soil, seed starting mix or coco coir, plus a high-quality potting mix for transplanting the seedlings after they sprout and are a few inches tall.
- Sunlight or Grow Lights: Place your indoor garden near a sunny window, or use grow lights to ensure your greens get the right amount of light. LED grow lights are more energy efficient than fluorescent lights.I use a 5-tier metal stand with 10 LED grow lights.
Tips for growing indoors
It can be challenging to learn how to grow vegetables indoors. I still occasionally struggle with humidity, air circulation, and even aphids.
Treat your indoor garden like it’s a high-maintenance pet. Check on it often! Pay attention to the leaves, soil, and stems. You can learn so much just by observing your plants!
For example, if your stems become very tall and start to lean or fall over, this is a sign that the plant has had to stretch too much to reach adequate light. Always keep your grow lights a few inches above the tops of the plants to prevent ‘leggy’ stems.
Another problem that many gardeners will face at some point is mold growing on the soil. There are a few factors that can cause this, but most often, it’s due to over-watering or poor air circulation. I practice bottom watering, which means my pots are sitting in a tray with a solid base (1020 tray without holes).
I pour the water directly into the tray and then set my plants in the water. The soil will slurp up what it needs, and after thirty minutes, I can drain off any extra.
I keep a fan running at all times around my indoor garden. This helps the plants grow stronger because of the wind but also helps the soil to dry quicker.
When to start seeds indoors
Have you ever heard of the ‘count backward’ method for starting seeds? Let me tell you about it, and then you can decide if it’s right for you.
First, make a plan for what you’d like to grow in the upcoming season. Ideally, this should be done during the winter, and seeds should be ordered as soon as possible.
Look at all of the seed packets and read on the back when it says to plant. Most will say, “Start indoors 6 weeks before the last anticipated frost” or something similar. Arrange the seeds in piles based on when they need to be planted.
Mark on a calendar or planner your last anticipated frost date. If you don’t know when this is, simply type “your zip code + last frost” into Google, and it should pop up! Once you have that date, count backward each week from that date until you find your 12 weeks until the last frost date. Now match your seed packets up with the date they need to be planted and mark it on your planner! If you are new to seed starting be sure to check out this Seed Starting 101 article.
Tip: I like to use a photo organizer to store my seed packets. I can label the individual organizers either by vegetable type or by the date I need to plant them.
Spring Gardening: Let’s grow everything!
The spring garden begins WAY before the weather starts to warm up! When we refer back to our 12 weeks until the average last frost date, it shows when to start if we want our garden season to be maximized or extended.
In addition to looking at the planting date, you also will need to pay attention to whether or not the plant wants to be started in the garden or started indoors. Some plants, for example, tomatoes, thrive when grown in a controlled environment before they are tucked neatly into the garden. Other plants, like pumpkins, really don’t like to have their roots disturbed and will actually perform worse when transplanted.
Greenhouse Growing: Extending the Garden Season
Let’s talk about greenhouses. A small greenhouse is a great way to grow food year-round. A greenhouse gives homesteaders like me the freedom to grow even more seedlings than I could with just my shelf of grow lights. I use both, along with cold frames and covers for my beds.
My greenhouse is a 12X16 footer, and it’s almost too small for me, to be honest. I’m keeping it, but in hindsight, I should’ve gone bigger. If you are shopping for greenhouses, there are so many different styles and sizes available. I know I sound like a broken record, but before you buy a greenhouse, identify your climate considerations.
Using supplemental heat, I am able to grow cold-hardy plants during the winter and start my garden veggies for spring. Snow peas trailing from hanging baskets, their tendrils creeping along the rafters, brassicas in 7 gallon grow bags, tiny seedlings in 32-cell trays. It’s amazing how many plants I can smoosh into every nook and cranny with a little determination!
Summer Gardening: Enjoy the bounty!
Summer gardens are the best! Everything is popping, from the flowers to the green beans. Now is the time to water, weed, and fight pests. This is usually the busiest time in the garden, because we are not only planting and tending, we are also harvesting and preserving.
The main consideration to keep in mind during the hot summer months is to get to know your garden. How do the plants look when they are happy and thriving? What insects are hatching or munching on the leaves?
Get to know what is normal so that you can quickly identify problems before they really get big. Sometimes, in late summer, it begins to feel like the wheels are falling off the bus, but every new experience will make you better the next year!
Season extension during the summer isn’t really something I really have to worry about where I live, but I do use shade cloth and irrigation to help keep my veggies growing during the heat.
As I work with nature instead of fighting it, I’m not able to grow any salad greens outside or in the greenhouse during the summer. My strategy has to switch to indoor growing, which isn’t difficult because I already have my grow light shelves set up. Another thing I do to have fresh greens with our meals is I grow more microgreens and sprouts. They are super fast and easy!
And there you have it! This is the rhythm I’ve found that works for my family to grow food year-round by using simple season extension methods. We’ve covered quite a bit, and I’d love to hear any questions you have or any tips you have found for extending your garden season!
Let’s get really good at pushing our fall crops a little further, growing indoors during the winter, and starting our spring garden early using the methods we’ve talked about!