With more penny-pinching people interested in vegetable gardening this year, consider this: You're really lucky to live in central North Carolina.

Lettuce in the fall and spring, tomatoes into October and November -- it's warm enough here to go at least three rounds with your garden each year. And you can make the most of growing your own food by planting throughout the growing season, and even cheat Mother Nature with a little attention and effort.

Craig Mauney, a horticulture agent with the Forsyth County Agricultural Extension, said some cool-season vegetables are surprisingly hardy throughout the coldest months of the year. He harvested greens from the extension's demonstration garden last winter. "Sometimes it would freeze, but we had lettuce all winter. I wasn't able to eat every week out of it, but at least a couple weeks out of the month."

One way to extend your gardening year is by building a raised bed with a small plastic hoop house over the top as protection when it gets cold -- and something you can remove when it gets warm. Use tough, clear plastic over flexible PVC piping or garden poles. And you'll need a place where you'll get at least six hours of sun, and eight in the summer.

"It's fairly easy to have three-season gardening here in Forsyth County. It's just knowing the plants," Mauney said.

Think seasonally, too -- mulch can protect plants from drought in the summer, but it can also extend cooler-season crops in the fall.

The bottom line about trying to garden all year -- or close to it -- is that you shouldn't depend on harvesting produce from your garden in the dead of winter. But it doesn't hurt to try. "If you get a killer frost in the fall, you're probably going to lose your crops anyway," said Terry Wooten, a local master gardener. "You know North Carolina -- you can have any kind of weather."

Here are suggestions to start thinking, growing and eating your own produce spring, summer, fall and if you're fortunate, winter:

Spring:

□ Now is the time to start planting cool-weather crops -- broccoli, Swiss chard, peas, cauliflower, spinach, arugula, radishes and more. There's a mind-boggling array of lettuce. Be aware that warmer weather often gets here faster than you think it will, causing lettuce to bolt or turn bitter. Certain varieties of lettuce, however, such as buttercrunch are more durable, Mauney said.

April 26 is our frost-free date, but you can plant earlier because many plants can handle a light frost.

If you want a fruitful spring garden, you should get your seeds and transplants in the ground as soon as possible. When you begin planning for next year, you should aim for mid-March.

□ You can start planting your summer garden -- tomatoes, eggplants, summer squash, cucumbers and peppers -- in mid-April, by early May at the latest. Wooten plans on planting his around April 13.

□ Stretch out your planting. Plant a row of carrots, then wait a week or two and plant another. "That way you don't have this big abundance at one time," Mauney said.

Summer:

□ Tomato time! Enjoy it! And extend it by planting some later in the season. Cut a "sucker" (side shoots that grow in between the main stem and branches that you want to trim off your tomato plants anyway) off an existing tomato plant and start a transplant (stick them in moist soil). Or you can start new transplants with seeds.

Wooten has harvested tomatoes as late as Thanksgiving.

The trick is to get them in the ground so they get enough sun and warmth while they're young, just as the older tomato plants are starting to bear green fruit in late June.

Your second batch of tomato plants needs to be large by September, as the days start getting noticeably shorter, Wooten said.

"Any tomato that you can get started and get a good root system, it'll last into the fall and start putting out.

"I try to plant them early enough that they still have some…warmth so they can get started."

He recommends Carolina Gold as a particularly hardy and cold-tolerant tomato.

□ In late July and in early August, start planting your fall garden. This is a reprise of your spring crop -- more lettuce, more spinach, more kale, Brussels sprouts, more cabbage.

Plant a little deeper because the soil will be drier.

Fall (and onward):

□ As the nights get colder, you can preserve lettuce by covering the plants with a sheet at night. If you use plastic, make sure you take it off in the morning or the plants will get too warm. And some people think hardy greens such kale, chard and collards actually taste better after a frost.

□ Carrots will last longer than you think. The tops will die off in a frost, but the vegetables will usually be safe underground -- mulch over them and remember where they are. If you're lucky, you'll be able to harvest some into December and January.

"You could actually get in there on a warm day and dig up some carrots," Mauney said.

□ Brussels sprouts grow well here all winter, Mauney said.

Cabbage is also hearty. Mauney lost a few in his demo garden -- in 10-degree weather.

■ Laura Giovanelli can be reached at 727-7302 or at lgiovanelli@wsjournal.com.

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