Archive for the 'cool season gardening' Category

Container Gardening and Season Extension

Sharon July 28th, 2009

I love containers – you’d think that with 27 acres, I’d not bother with them, but the more I farm, the more I love container gardening. 

 All my first garden experiences were up on balconies 2, 3 or 4 stories above the street.  Let’s also note that none of these buildings had elevators, so I can remember precisely what it took to carry all the container soil mix I ever used up those stairs.  Still, it was worth it – I loved my balcony container gardens, and grew everything from strawberries and roses to zucchini and tomatoes.  I never got out of the habit, and right now there’s a jungle of containers growing everything from hen and chicks (which I grow just because I like it) to sungold tomatoes, from gotu kola, lemon verbena and rau rom and other tropical herbs to purple orach, jalapenos, eggplant, carrots and kale. 

I’ve also got self-watering containers that hold larger plants – tomatoes, okra and sweet potatoes.  When pots spring leaks or boots get worn out, I’m likely to stuff them with soil and let something grow in them.  I’ve got the habit of putting things into pots, and I couldn’t do without them – particularly because they are one of my best season extension tools.

I can get a significant jump on the season by planting out into containers, early, since the containers can so easily be covered up or brought into the house to avoid a late frost.  My first harvest of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant always come from pots, sometimes as early as the fourth of july for the tomatoes.  These same plants are often the last ones producing into the winter, as the potted cherry tomatoes are brought under cover for a few weeks of late harvest. 

I am fortunate to have a deep, sunny, south facing window in my living room, and that area is reserved for the most beloved of my indoor plants that provide me with food and flowers all winter long.  My house is extremely cold – that spot is often in the 50s, so precludes some heat lovers, but my citrus plants, a few overwintered tomatoes and peppers (which won’t produce anything over the winter, but which will get started very early in the spring), my rosemary, scented geraniums and a few other beloved plants get that precious spot. 

But you don’t have to have southern exposure to overwinter plants indoors – a surprisingly large number of plants will take eastern or western exposures – my lemon verbena, for example, does rather well in a partly occluded western exposure, and I can overwinter begonias and my beloved “Hidcote Beauty” fuschia with northern exposures (I know, they aren’t food, but flowers in winter have value too!).  Food plants that will tolerate lower light conditions include many greens (which produce happily on my very cold, east facing sunporch), turnips and beets (which can be forced to produce greens even in north facing windows – just put them in a pot of mixed sand with a a little compost, and keep harvesting leaves all winter), and peas, which won’t produce any peas, but will produce delicious pea shoots in an eastern or western exposure indoors in pots.

Any shelter at all – even being backed up against a sunny wall – will extend your season somewhat most years.  Cold tolerant parsley, mache and arugula often over winter for me in my mudroom, set on top of the piles of firewood and taken in to be watered occasionally.  This is by no means draft proof or warm, but they are not fussy creatures.

With container plants, I can have my first tomatoes in July and my first hot peppers a week or so later – early season salsa.  I can keep African Basil going all winter long, and drink lemon vebena tea, picked that morning.  I can place flowers on my sabbath table.  I can harvest greens until January, and then start again in March from my unheated porch.  I can overwinter tender plants – from the fig that lives on my unheated porch to the citrus plants that would rather have warmer, but who grumpily give me lemons to enjoy all winter.

It does take some experimentation to learn to overwinter plants in containers – one needs to harden off plants coming into the house, just as one hardens off plants outside – the plants have been used to moister air and more sun, so gradually shift them indoors.  Selecting varieties for container growing is an art in itself – some plants respond very well, others not so much.  Often plants bred for containers do better, but it is always worth trying new things.  Look for “dwarf” “space saving” and “suited to container growing” in descriptions in catalogs.

I’ll write about greenhouses next, but it is important to realize that you don’t have to have a greenhouse – even an apartment with an east/north exposure can have window boxes with plants that are protected to extend their season by a few weeks or a month.  Even a north facing window can grow some food plants, and some beauty.  We are going to have to adapt our houses to help provide us food in cold and dry times of year if we want fresh things – beginning the process of adaptation by bringing in some things for winter is one way to take a step forward.


Season Extension Techniques: Cheap and Dirty Options

Sharon July 21st, 2009

I want a greenhouse.  No, I want a glasshouse, a true British style Orangerie and succession houses (and, of course, the extensive grounds to accompany it, and the private fortune,  as long as we’re dreaming).  I dream of wandering in winter into tropical glory, and plucking ripe grapefruit from the trees for my breakfast, while the scent of jasmine permeates my senses.

Ok, revisiting *this* planet, the one I actually live on, and the one that’s already suffering because crazy people want to live in the tropics when they don’t,  what I’d really like is an attached greenhouse on the cement slab that comes off my kitchen.  But the slab would have to be insulated and we’d have to find the money and the time to build it, which may happen eventually, but has not yet done so.  What I’d grow there would be cool season vegetables and seedlings in the spring.

Or I’d like a hoop house.  This is more viable, but requires some infrastructure work we haven’t gotten to yet.  My goal there would be to keep things over the winter in large beds, and maybe eventually go back into the CSA business, this time in winter.  But I don’t have that either.

I mention all these things I *don’t* have because I think it is important to realize how even in many quite cold climates, it is possible to use very simple, very low cost strategies to extend your season.  Despite all these things that I don’t have, let me tell you what I do have:

- I have fresh green vegetables grown by us from March to December or January, every single year.  This is in upstate NY, where our winter lows hit -30.  First frost is early October, last is usually late May.

- I overwinter produce every single year, including both hardy root crops and greens like kale, spinach, leeks, etc…

- I have two lemon, one keffir lime and one orange tree, a fig and a pomegranete, along with many smaller tender plants.

- I have fresh things of high nutritional value to eat all year round, produced here.

 - I start virtually every single one of my seedlings here, in the house, and use only a couple of hanging lights.  I use no lights in overwintering my tender plants.

- I have nursery beds for starting hundreds of perennials, fruits trees and berries over the winter.

I mention all this to give people a sense of what is possible with very little effort or input.  My tools for doing this include:

- Two “pop up” greenhouses (ie, they can be set on top of a raised bed or flat crops, one little stand up greenhouse (ie, a plastic cover over a plant rack that sits on a porch.

- Self-watering containers on a poorly insulated sun porch

- some greenhouse plastic and old window frames and some floating row covers

- Lotsa mulch and bales of hay

- My unheated, uninsulated garage

- A couple of south facing windows

- Willingness to experiment

I’ll talk more next week about growing food indoors during the winter, and making use of your home – this week I want to talk about simple structures to extend the season outside the house.  Now obviously, this won’t work the same for everyone – someone, for example, who lives in a much colder climate may not be able to overwinter anything – but they might be able to use the same techniques to get a month or two more growing season.  In other places,  you could do most of what I do outside without any of these things.  But the techniques themselves should be available for you to consider and evaluate.

 So what are some of these?  Well, the first one I can think of is mulch – yes, plain old mulch.  If you live in a cold climate, where the ground freezes, insulating the ground so that it doesn’t freeze, or doesn’t freeze as deeply can keep plants going a surprisingly long time.  Deep mulch on dormant plants marginal or not usually perennial in your climate, for example, can allow you to grow many perennial plants you didn’t think you could grow.  Eric Toensmeier grows hardy bananas in Massachusetts with deep mulch (think a bale of straw or two).  Less extreme, I’ve overwintered rosemary outside in good years and maintained a Maypop.    Figs can be overwintered with deep enough mulch (ie, enough to cover the whole plant in dormancy, wrapped well to keep the mulch on in winter winds.  Mulch is often underrated – your carrots, your beets will survive, if not a whole winter, a surprisingly long time with enough mulch.  This only works with plants that are either perennial or root crops, generally – eventually lack of light will kill everything else, but that covers a surprisingly large number of items.

Next up – the crazy easy solutions – cut the bottom off a plastic milk jug (dug out of someone’s recycling bin, of course) and put it over a favored plant.  Add a few stakes and a piece of plastic sheeting or a floating row cover, and enjoy a month’s extra time with your greens.   Stuff will also do better in sheltered spots or microclimates – that place along the edge of the driveway that is too hot for much of anything in summer will be just the spot for the stuff you want to overwinter.

There are lots of products out there to help you, including regular and fleecy row covers, cloches, and there are plenty of little greenhousey things you can buy.  These can be helpful, but make sure you are getting good quality stuff – you want heavy duty plastics designed to tolerate sunlight and snowload (if that’s relevant), and not to wear out, or row covers with long term lifespans.  Using plastics and petroleum based solutions can be acceptable, if you are getting a decent return out of them and they are the best available option – but using cheap plastics and replacing them every year is worse in many cases than transporting food from warmer places, so choose wisely.  I like the stuff sold by Johnny’s Selected Seeds for season extension.

The cold frame is a great tool, and my favorite model is the easiest to build – the hay bale cold frame.  TAke four or six or however many bales of last year’s hay or straw (that has been kept dry).  Lay out the bales in a rectangle around an existing bed, or fill them halfway up with soil and compost.  Take a window or old glass door (do not use anything that might have old lead paint on it, ever) that fits over the top, and cover it up.  Tah dah!  This kind of frame almost never overheats, because the bales don’t fit together tightly enough to prevent air from being vented, but the bales also insulate the soil well enough that things overwinter beautifully.  And in the spring, after a winter of sitting there, all the mulch is nicely decomposing and makes great organic material for your garden, and is already right where you want it.

This trick is tough if you have to put it in the front yard of your suburban neighborhood, so you might want to build a cold frame that looks prettier, like this:

You can also use a hotbed – this is a cold frame, filled with uncomposted manure, mixed with high carbon material, where the heat of composting keeps a cold frame or open bed warmer than it would be otherwise.  The composting material is covered with a layer of soil to keep the plants from being cooked, and the hotbed provides warm soil in cold times.  Because the heat of decomposition gradually declines, you will want to use this for short term, rather than long term warmth, to keep something going longer or to get a fast maturing crop ready.

There are lots of cheap greenhouse plans out there – I’ve not enough experience to know which are good, but I do have some concern with many of them in places that experience heavy snow loads – I’ve seen too many collapsed hoophouses and plastic greenhouses around here, and all are too expensive and resource intensive to be used for only one season.  This design seems sturdier than some of the cheap options I’ve seen (note, I am *not* advocating that you use their resource intensive strategy of electric heat (ugh!) and lights, just that I think the design is a bit better than some cheap options I’ve seen) but again, make sure you are doing something that will last, unless you are using all used and scavenged materials that would otherwise be landfilled.  I don’t want to see a lot of people investing time and money in new 6 mil plastic and concrete, only to waste them and their embodied energy.

If you can afford a serious greenhouse, well, I’m jealous ;-) .  There are a lot of options out there, from simple hoophouses to serious glasshouses that really do look like the Restoration era glasshouses of my dreams ;-) .  I’ll cover greenhouse options next week in a separate post.  This is about the cheap and dirty options – ones that get you a lot of food.


Variety Recommendations

Sharon July 14th, 2009

Ok, we’ve already talked about the fact that a variety that overwinters beautifully in, say, Oregon or North Carolina won’t do well in Saskatchewan or Maine, so let us begin with the assumption that varieties are regional and specific, and use this thread to share widely our wisdom about what grows well in cool seasons in our particular region and place like it – that is, I’d be really grateful if you’d tell us what has overwintered well for you, or done well in fall, and also where you are and what your climate and soils are like “ie, high desert climate, cold winters, hot, dry summers, alkaline soil zone 5″ or whatever.  There’s not enough of this information out there.

Here are some of my own observations about growing here, in zone 4/5 (5 official, 4 for elevation), on my wet, thin soil in my wet, cold climate ;-) .  I had a good chance to experiment with varieties during the years we ran our CSA.

Best cold tolerant salad greens: Forellenschuss, Winter Density,  and Marvel of Four Seasons Lettuces, Mizuna (too bad I find the taste boring), all arugulas, vit and big seeded maches, beet greens (start a new crop since the little ones are best), sorrel, any mustard, pinky lettucy gene pool mustards.

Best spinach: Vert and Bloomsdale Winter

Best cold tolerance in broccoli: Umpqua (OP) and Blue (Hybrid)

Best cold tolerant root varieties: Flat of Egypt and Lutz Longkeeper beet, all parsnips, Diamante Celeriac, Golden Ball and Purple Top White Globe Turnip, Oxheart and Meridia carrots (the latter are designed for overwintering – they didn’t quite for me, but did very well), any salsify and scorzonera, Gigante Kohlrabi.  Also Yellow Mangels lasted quite a long time in the ground for me – and I thought they were tasty, if a little mild.  Goats liked ‘em too.

Best fall producing pea varieties: Alderman (tall vine shelling) and Sugar Ann (snap)

Best cold tolerant leek: Blue de Solaize

Best cold tolerant favas: Lorraine

Best cold tolerant cabbages and kales – All kales  (red and white russian  are pretty hardy – red has even overwintered for me, but they do winterkill before the Tuscan and Siberians for me), Coeur de Blue, Glory of Enkhuizen, Stein’s Late Flat Dutch Cabbage, Even’star Collards, Vates Collards

Best Mustard: Osaka Purple and Green Wave

Best tomatoes for overwintering in pots: Red Robin, Balconi Yellow

Best hot peppers for overwintering in pots: Fish (this is the only one that doesn’t end the winter looking sad), Korean Dark Green, Thai Hot

Best basil for overwintering: African Blue

Best eggplant for overwintering – Pingtung Long, Fairy Tale

Ok, how about the rest of you?  Share your wisdom!


Starting Seeds and Transplanting Fall Crops in Summer

Sharon July 14th, 2009

The hardest part of fall gardening for most people is getting seeds to germinate and plants to tolerate transplanting during summer conditions, so they will be ready when things stop growing in the fall.  This is genuinely a tough project for a lot of us – and tougher for most people than me (given that we have yet to break 80 since May, and most of our nights feel like early September, I’m not sure that I’m going to have to do much, but this is unusual) – hot, dry weather makes it nearly impossible to get a lot of crops into the ground.

 One of the first tricks to use is the same one we cold climate folks use to get our plants ready in winter – start the seeds indoors.  This obviously is only true if some part of your house is cooler than the outside, but since that is the case for many of us, find the cool spot and plant your seedlings there.  Up to a certain point, larger seedlings with more extensive root systems will handle transplant better, with a good, moist start.  This isn’t bad advice for those of us up north, either, when dealing with particularly light sensitive plants that are prone to bolting – some of these, like many asian greens don’t transplant well, but us northerners who are often our fall crops at the height of the long days don’t want to see them bolt immediately – so growing them inside, where they get less, but sufficient light may actually give them a boost.

 Another thought are shady beds, particularly under deciduous trees.  One of my best garden beds is under a large white paper birch that shades our kitchen window.  It is a lovely tree, with the added virtue of leafing out late and losing its leaves early – so it allows in the sun while we want it, and cools the house when we don’t.  I plant greens in these shaded beds, and they do well all summer, and then as things get cooler, enjoy the burst of additional light that puts on new growth in the fall.

You can make structures out of shade cloth, or if you don’t have shade cloth, make something out of an old, threadbare sheet and some bits of wood lying around.  You have to move it on and off, but the difference in temperature and light absorption can be critical. 

Mulch is powerful here – not only does it help soils retain water, but it also keeps them cooler than they would be without it.  Straw mulches are particuarly valuable because they reflect light back, rather than absorbing it. 

Even a piece of board can make a big difference if you are germinating seed in hot weather – water deeply and cover the row of seeds with a board and check daily for germination, removing the board as soon as the seed are up.

Moisture is critical – transplants or seeds will do poorly if allowed to dry out before their root systems can reach down into deeper subsoils.  Consider making trenched garden beds – instead of raising your gardens up, if your climate is warm and dry, make them in low ground, where moisture can pool.  Water regularly, ideally directly at root level, particularly when seedlings are young. 

Look for varieties that can take some heat as well as cold – those in warmer climates than ours may not struggle as much to overwinter greens  – thus, instead of planting winter density lettuce, you might do better with thai green or marvel of four seasons, both of which have some bolt resistance built in.  Several people mentioned that “ice bred” plants didn’t do well for them in their warm climate – I’d tend to expect that – if the plants get stressed early, and are bred mostly for tolerating cold, they probably won’t do well over the winter where the falls are long and warm. 

This means a certain measure of experimentation – don’t assume, if you live in Oklahoma or Georgia, that what you want are the cold hardiest varieties – you may instead what something that generally does well in your area.  If you have the space, do variety trials and compare – this information will be enormously valuable to your neighbors and friends nearby, and may be useful to your local cooperative extension and any local seed companies.

If you can, wait to transplant seedlings until you can expect some moisture and cooler weather.  If that isn’t possible, harden your plants off, just as you would if you were planting them out in springtime in a cold climate – gradually accustom them to getting a little bit dryer, and put them out initially in a shady spot, only gradually moving up to the amount of light they’ll get. 

Season extension for hot climates – that is, finding ways to extend the season through the warm, dry periods, seems to me less fully developed in gardening literature than cold season gardening.  I realize that some of this information is available locally, but it seems less well dispersed – and yet, making sure that food keeps coming through the hot dry seasons when little grows is just as esssential as storing for winter.  Balancing the two – timing the fall crops around the heat of summer, is a delicate balancing act.


What Fall Gardening Actually Looks Like (or Should Look Like)

Sharon July 7th, 2009

Here’s what I’ll be doing this week in July here in zone 4/5 – this information will obviously have to be adapted to your zone, location, microclimate and grip on reality ;-) , but at least it gives you a sense of things.  And maybe writing it down will make me actually do it all.

 - Transplanting cabbage and brussels sprouts started at the beginning of June

- Transplanting a mid-season crop of lettuce

- Eyeing my garlic, and looking greedily at its space, so that when it comes out I can immediately replace it with something else. 

-Starting the next crop of lettuce from seed indoors (inside, because it is cooler there, to keep it from early bolting).

- Transplanting the next crop of broccoli

- Thinning the broccoli that will produce latest in the season (we eat a lot of broccoli)

- Starting peas from seed in newspaper or coir pots

- Starting Marshmallow, Valerian, Meadowsweet, joe pye weed and other wetland herbs from seed – they will be second year annuals next summer (this may not apply to other people who don’t want large quantities of these crops, but also would work for any perennial flower you might want, as long as it gets settled in before frost.

- Planting a late crop of scallions and lutz winter keeper beets.

- Thinning the rutabagas and keeping the weeds out of the parsnips

- Planting a late crop of cornichon cucumbers and one of bush beans for preserving

- Planting napa cabbage for my fall kimchi

- Building a hay-bale raised bed for my carrots, so they can have the loose, sandy soil they crave, rather than the rocky stuff that came with my property.  Carrots will get planted next week.

 - Underplanting red and white clover among my crops as a living mulch and cover crop.

- Sowing buckwheat as a cover crop.

- Adding composted chicken manure to the as yet unreadied section of the garden on which I will be planting more stuff next week.

Other stuff will have to wait until next week – the last fall planting will start at the beginning of September, when the last crop of radishes, spinach and arugula go in.  But that’s getting ahead of myself.


Next »