No matter where you live, if you enjoy gardening and grow your own vegetables, herbs and other plants, you probably wish the season were longer. Who doesn’t love picking luscious red tomatoes right off the vine, or finding an abundance of crisp, green cucumbers hiding under their fanlike foliage?

Gardeners who live in the chilliest plant zones, though, have a definite disadvantage, as they may be forced to wait until May to sow their first seeds into the soil, and later watch their vibrant garden production come to a chilly halt as early as the first frost. Sad days, indeed. But as the headline notes, there are ways to extend your growing season and increase your yield.

It may look a little different from your traditional gardening routine, but in no time at all, you can begin implementing a few simple DIY projects to keep you in peppers, cantaloupe and beets longer than the seed packets say is typically possible. In fact, you may be able to start your gardening season as much as six weeks earlier and extend it nearly as long on the other end. Besides being a cheaper and altogether healthier proposition than buying grow lights for your basement, all you need is a little bit of ingenuity for a lot more food.

Mini Greenhouse Effects

In early spring, when frost is still clinging to the grass, trees and rooftops, most gardeners are busy perusing seed catalogues for new varieties, but you can be planting them. Some vegetables, like peas, onions, lettuce and other leafy greens, enjoy a little nip in the air, but others, including tomatoes and bell peppers, do much better when the soil they’re planted in is warmer. That’s where these simple, dome-shaped structures come in handy.

Cloches, cold frames, plastic-covered tunnels and other garden “hacks” can help facilitate a much earlier harvest. Depending on your needs, they’re lightweight and relatively inexpensive to build, but strong enough to withstand cold nights, wind and freezing rain. As Mother Earth News explains, they give plants a “leg up” via free solar energy:

“Simple plastic cloches or plastic-covered cold frames raise nighttime temperatures 4 to 5 degrees, but you can double that number by throwing on an insulating blanket in the evening. Or triple the protection by adding black water bottles, which release stored daytime warmth after the sun goes down.”1

Questions about such projects usually deal with what materials are needed, whether they’re difficult to build and how expensive they’re likely to be. Luckily, you might not even have to hit the store at all, but instead use what you already have on hand.

A ‘Cloche’ Is Like a Hat for Your Plants, Protecting Them From the Elements

In the 1920s, women often wore close-fitting hats called a cloche, which in French means “bell.” A bell-shaped dome over garden plants, also called a cloche, can trap the warmth of the garden soil and air during the day and keep plants warm during chilly nights. They can protect an individual plant, a row of plants or a whole section, depending on such factors as prior planning, garden size, plant placement and available materials.

Something as simple as a translucent milk jug or clear plastic juice bottle with the spout cut off qualifies as a cloche to cover single plants. Save them or ask friends and family members to save them for you, too, rather than just throwing them away. Recycling centers may also have some available. They’re easy to stack in your garden shed to use from year to year. Mother Earth News suggests another idea:

“Before cutting off the bottom of any jug, I make a V-shaped slit in the top of the handle. Later, I can shove a long, slender stick through the slit and down into the soil to help hold the cloche steady in the wind.”

Plastic cake covers, cardboard boxes, old margarine containers, old Styrofoam coolers, baskets, upturned flower pots — anything that fits over the top of plants without bending or crunching them can work as a cloche.