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Archive for the ‘coldframes’ Category

bean-seedlings-blogIf you are new to vegetable gardening, or even if you are an experienced gardener who has moved to a new climate, it may be hard to decide when to plant. It is easy to make a list of what you want in your garden, but when to put the seeds or transplants in the ground is the conundrum. There are many things to consider, but the most important is to know the average first and last frost dates for the area you are considering. If you have been keeping temperature records, that’s great! However, not many are that diligent. Not to worry, others have that information available for you. I am sure you could find it through the weather service or your local Cooperative Extension Service, but I’ve found that a quick way to get temperature and precipitation information is through plantmaps.com. The amount of annual rainfall is important, also.

Seed catalogs are a great help when deciding plant dates. At the beginning of each crop section in the catalog there is generally an information box that will guide you on planting. It might indicate that you should wait until after the last spring frost to plant a particular crop, but start the seeds about six weeks before you expect to put the transplants in the ground. So, count back six weeks from the date you have chosen to indicate your last expected frost and you know when to start the seeds in your house or in your coldframe. At the resource page of my website you can download a free Plant / Harvest Schedule to help you with your planning. You fill in your own crops and dates. p-h-sample-garden-w-cover-crops-blog

More confusing is when the planting information directs you to plant as soon as the soil can be worked. In that case I would look to what the soil temperature should be and the seed catalogs will indicate that.  FYI, the soil temperature is generally about 60° around the date of your last expected frost in the spring. Find more information at my post How Important is Soil Temperature. You can use a compost thermometer or a household kitchen thermometer to take the temperature of your soil several inches deep.

2017-catalogs-blogThe catalogs I have are Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (Virginia and local to me), Sow True Seed (North Carolina), Fedco (Maine), Johnny’s (Maine), High Mowing (Vermont), Seed Savers Exchange (Iowa), Territorial (Oregon), and Bountiful Gardens (California). I like to source my seeds as close to home as possible, but sometimes there are items or varieties that are available further away that I seek out.

It is good to have an overall reference book in your home library that you can consult for growing information for specific crops. In my early gardening days I was given a copy of How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method edited by J.I. Rodale and the staff at Rodale Books. I still look to that when I have questions about a crop. In fact, I wore the binding out on my first copy and now use a copy I found in good condition at a used book store. A more recent book that is a terrific reference and one I turn to, also, is Pam Dawling’s Sustainable Market Farming. Pam is growing in the mid-Atlantic region but much of her information is applicable to a wider geographical area. You can find books specific to your region. Ira Wallace, of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, authored The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast. Timber Press has published growing guides for seven regions of the U.S.

Here in Virginia, some crops, such as kale, can be planted in both the early spring and in the fall. It is too hot for these crops in mid-summer. My main crop of kale is planted in late summer for a fall and winter harvest. About March, as the days begin to warm up, overwintered kale will bolt, meaning it will send up a seed stalk that will flower and, if left alone, will produce seeds. Generally you would clear out those plants to make room for spring and summer crops, unless you plan on saving seeds. Seeds for my spring crop of kale will go into the coldframe sometime in late February, to be planted out in the garden when the seedlings are big enough—late March or early April.

A friend recently asked about growing in North Dakota, specifically at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. She will be visiting there in late July and wanted gardening information. According to plantmaps.com, the last spring frost there is the first week of May and the first fall frost is late September.  I consulted The Old Farmer’s Almanac gardening calendar at http://www.almanac.com/gardening/planting-dates/states and found that when she gets there it will be time to plant lettuce, radish, spinach, and Swiss chard for a fall harvest.

In Zone 7 we can harvest lettuce until about Christmas and kale and collards all winter under a single layer row cover. The temperature rarely dips into the single digits, and then not for long. According to plantmaps.com, at Standing Rock in Zone 4b the temperature could go as low as minus 25°. Only the most cold hardy of greens could survive, and then with multiple layers of cover. It is important to research what varieties would do best under those conditions. For extended fall planting and harvesting times under rowcovers, consult Table 16 pages 205-207, in Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest, 2nd edition. It helps you determine your planting times according to your first expected fall frost and, also, if you have one or more covers over your crops.

The summer nights are cooler in Standing Rock than they are here in Virginia. Besides warm nights, we have high humidity here. Our rainfall, about 44” annually, occurs fairly evenly throughout the year. Standing Rock gets only about 14.5” per year, mostly from April through October. Other places might get the bulk of their rainfall in the winter. More plays into your success in your garden than just knowing the frost dates, but that is a good place to begin to know your climate and when to plant. If you want to start keeping temperature and precipitation records for your garden, I have worksheets for that on the CD that comes with my DVD, Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan. There is also a download code for these record sheets in my book, Grow a Sustainable Diet. Getting better acquainted with your garden this way will help you understand what Mother Nature is saying to you when you are there. Listen carefully.
homeplace earth

 

 

FEBRUARY 3, 1017 UPDATE: I was alerted that the map that appears on plantmaps.com is the USDA Hardiness map for 1990. The USDA updated their maps in 2012. Scroll to the bottom of that map and you will find a link to the 2012 map. There is also a link to the updated map in the right sidebar. Plantmaps.com has maps for countries other than the U.S., which should be helpful to many of my readers around the world.

 

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20" long compost thermometer with a 1 3/4" face

20″ long compost thermometer with a 1 3/4″ face

Spring is here and I know you are anxious to be in the garden. As soon as the temperatures begin to climb it is really tempting to get seeds in the ground. Before you take that step, however, I encourage you to make sure the ground is ready for your seeds. Of course, you will loosen the soil and add compost and, if necessary, organic fertilizers, but did you take the temperature of the soil?

Seeds are naturally programmed to germinate and grow within a certain range of temperatures. Within that range they will grow faster or slower, depending on their comfort zone. It has been my experience that just because it is the right time to plant on the calendar, it may not be the right time to plant according to the soil. The temperature of the soil is more important than the date on the calendar. When I was a market gardener I would be anxious to get sugar snap peas in the ground in early March. I would put in another planting two weeks later. If the weather had been too cool, the first planting may not come into production until the second planting did. I learned to pull back the leaf mulch that covered the bed over the winter and put down a sheet of plastic two weeks before planting the sugar snaps to warm the soil. If the weather has been too cool and wet there is the danger that the seeds will rot and not germinate at all. Peas, beans, and corn are most susceptible to this, which is why you might find those seeds for sale coated with fungicide. Steer clear of fungicide coated seeds and plant at the right time. Beans and corn like the soil to be 60° F (15.6 °C) and cowpeas would like it if you wait to plant until it warms to 65° F (18.3°C).

If you have mulch covering some of your garden beds, go out and stick your hand in the soil under the mulch and then put your hand in the soil in a bed without mulch. You will feel a noticeable difference in the temperature. During the winter an organic mulch such as leaves or straw does a good job of protecting the soil and providing habitat for the earthworms. However, when things begin to warm up in the spring the mulch will insulate the soil from the sun’s rays. Removing the mulch two weeks ahead of planting will help to warm the soil. I am not so much in a hurry these days, so I don’t use plastic to further warm the soil, but it is an option. With my system of cover cropping, when the cover crop is finished, it is naturally time to plant the next crop.

thermometer with a 5" stem and 1 1/4" face

thermometer with a 5″ stem and 1 1/4″ face

You can monitor the temperature of the soil with a thermometer or by sticking your hand in the ground. Even better, go barefoot. There’s nothing like the whole body experience. You might want to use a thermometer until you can gauge the temperature by touch. I use either a 20” long compost thermometer with a 1¾” face (top photo) or a thermometer with a 5” stem and 1¼” face that I bought at the grocery store. I keep the long thermometer stuck in the soil somewhere so I don’t lose it. Usually it is in my coldframe, where it is right now. The nice thing about the compost thermometer is that it is easy to read without bending over too much. The small thermometer has so many uses. It comes with a plastic sleeve that has a pocket clip –handy if you are going to be carrying it around. The one you see in the photo is the one I use to monitor the temperature in my solar food dryer. It sticks through a hole drilled for that purpose with just the gauge showing on the outside of the dryer. A small thermometer such as this can be used in the kitchen, which is why you will find it in the grocery store.

You can find a chart showing a list of crops and the minimum, optimum, optimum range, and maximum soil temperature conditions for each in How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons. A chart I find interesting is Days to Appearance of Seedlings at Various Soil Temperatures from Seed Planted at ½” Depth, compiled by J.F. Harrington. You can find it with an Internet search. It shows the number of days it takes for each crop to germinate at different temperatures. For example, peas will take 36 days to germinate at a soil temperature of 41°F (5°C), 13 days at 50°F (10°C) and 9 days at 59°F (15°C). You can see how warming up the soil will contribute to an earlier crop.

tomato,pepper, and zinnia seedlings in the coldframe???????????????????????????????

coldframe seedlings–tomatoes, peppers, and zinnias

Peppers, on the other hand, are shown to take 25 days to germinate at 59°F, 12 days at 68°F (20°C) and 9 days at 77° F (25° C). If you plant pepper and tomato seeds at the same time, the tomatoes will germinate first—in 14 days at 59°F, 8 days at 68°, and 6 days at 77°. I start my seeds in my coldframes, which provide cooler temperatures than starting them in the house. I put tomato, pepper, and other seeds of warm weather crops in my coldframe during the last week of March. Since I save much of my own seeds, I am developing strains of each crop that will germinate in cooler soil. The healthy plants that I take out of the coldframe are the ones that have germinated and thrived in the cooler conditions. The peppers that I have been most successful with in the coldframe are Corno di Toro and Ruffled Hungarian.

By saving your own seeds, you can develop strains of your crops that will germinate and grow under the conditions that you want to work with. Experiment with planting times and conditions in your garden. I would advise, however, to only take chances with what you can afford to lose. If you go into it with that attitude, you won’t be disappointed.

Homeplace Earth

 

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Homemade wooden flats for seed starting.

Homemade wooden flats for seed starting.

If you have been following my work, you know that I start my seeds outdoors in coldframes, rather than indoors in flats. However, it was not always that way and, since I have fielded questions about seed starting lately, I thought I’d pass on the seed starting methods I employed when I did use flats.

For many years, when I started seeds for transplants I would use recycled containers or plastic flats and their inserts for the soil mix and seeds. In 1992 I became a market gardener, selling produce to two local restaurants. I knew I needed a better way to produce seedlings and followed Eliot Coleman’s advice in New Organic Grower to use soil blocks. I made wooden flats to the specifications in the book. We have a table saw and plenty of scrap wood, so the only out-of-pocket cost for the flats was for nails. The flats had only three sides to facilitate removing the soil blocks.

After a few years of working with soil blocks I decided I needed to produce more transplants in the same space, plus I didn’t want to buy sand and peat moss for the mix. In fact, I didn’t even want to bother making the mix. I did like the idea of wood flats, though. So, I turned to the advice of John Jeavons in How To Grow More Vegetables (HTGMV). The soil mix he recommends is half soil and half compost, which I already have in the garden. Fill a wooden flat, level it off, and plant the seeds—much easier than making soil blocks. I put a fourth side on all my soil block flats and made some new flats to the specifications in HTGMV. The flat on top in the first photo is a Coleman flat with the fourth side added.

You can make flats any size you want, but first think of how and where you will use them. The Coleman flats were sized specific for soil blocks with the inside dimensions 8 x 18¾” and 2” deep. That was just right for 36 two-inch soil blocks. The inside dimensions of a Jeavons flat is 14” x 23” and is 3” deep. There are Master Charts in HTGMV that indicate how many transplants of each crop that can be started in a flat that size. If you depended on those Charts for your planning, you would want to make that size flat. Filled with moist soil, the Jeavons flat would weigh about 45 pounds.

The depth of the Coleman flat is 2”. The depth of the Jeavons flat is 3”. That might not seem like such a big deal, but it is. Although I continued to use the Coleman flats, I preferred the Jeavons flats for the depth and saw that the plants did better with the extra space for their roots. If I used the Coleman flats, I had to pot-on the transplants to deeper containers sooner. I think my ideal flat would be closer to the Coleman dimensions, but 3-4” deep. However, the deeper the flat, the more soil mix is needed. Jeavons recommends making 6”deep flats half the size of his regular flat to transfer seedlings to that need to grow for a few more weeks before planting in the garden, such as tomatoes and peppers. A full size flat that was 6” deep would be too heavy to manage easily. You could also make 3” deep half-size flats.

wooden flats-BLOG

Summer transplants enjoying the shade under the tree.

I stopped experimenting with flat sizes when I realized that I could just plant the seeds in the coldframes and dig up the transplants to plant in the garden. Sometimes I use wood flats to put my coldframe grown seedlings in until time to set out into the garden. I might do that if I need the space in the coldframe or to protect the seedlings from insects. Caterpillars occasionally take out my peppers in the coldframe, so I watch for the seedlings to come up, then transfer the seedlings to a flat. I want the seeds to germinate in the coldframe and begin to grow there so they will be acclimated from the beginning. When I pull out the seedlings for the flats I can choose only the best and wouldn’t have wasted flat space on ungerminated seeds or poor seedlings. Sometimes, however, if the seedlings need more space and I have it in the coldframe, I’ll spread them out there until time to go into the garden. If I do put seedlings in the flats, they stay outside until transplanting.

Peanuts started in wood flats ready to be transplanted in the garden.

Peanuts started in wood flats ready to be transplanted in the garden.

I transplant corn and peanuts and have to be careful about where I start the seeds to make sure voles don’t eat them before they germinate. Sometimes I’ll use wood flats for that. The photo with the peanuts shows flats 6” deep, but with Coleman’s dimensions. Peanuts germinate quickly and were not going to be in there long so I didn’t fill the boxes with the soil/compost mix to the full 6”. However, their roots would have quickly outgrown the 2” deep flats. When I was selling at the farmers markets I discovered that a 6” deep half-flat made a good container for potatoes at the market. It held about 15 pounds of spuds.

Although I no longer sell at the market, I still do quite a bit of gardening to feed my husband and me, as well as experiment with new things. I like to take advantage of the rhythms of nature and do things that involve less work and less stuff. Starting seeds in the coldframes fits in well with that philosophy. However, if I need them, the wood flats are handy in my shed. I still have the flats I made in 1992, minus the ones I passed on to my daughter and daughter-in-law to use in their own gardens.Homeplace Earth

UPDATE: More about wood flats at Mother Earth News.

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after the frost foodThe first hard frost of fall has come. I think it happened here on October 24. I can’t say for sure because I was in Ohio visiting family. I knew the seasons would be changing in the eight days I would be gone. In preparation for leaving I was busy cleaning up the garden, which goes hand in hand with building compost piles, and planting cover crops. When I returned on October 30 the leaves on the trees had changed colors and the newly planted cover crop seeds had sprouted.

When the first hard frost comes in the fall, everything changes in the garden. The pepper plants that were so lush the day before are now wilted, along with so many other warm weather crops. That doesn’t mean your garden is finished for the season, however. This is the time for the cold weather crops to take center stage. I look forward to the frost bringing out the sweetness in the carrots and greens. In fact, I don’t worry about growing carrots to harvest in the summer anymore because we are so spoiled with the ones we have in the cold months. For the next six months we will have sweet carrots fresh from the garden. I’ve previously written about how I grow my winter carrots.

Other fall and winter crops that we eat fresh from the garden are beets, Jerusalem artichokes, collards, kale, chard, and parsley.  There are more root crops that I could add to the list, if I had grown them this year. Those crops are turnips, Daikon radish, and kohlrabi. No doubt, some of my readers could add more choices. With onions and garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cowpeas, and peanuts from stored harvests, there is a wealth of food one can eat without further preservation. Our winters here in Zone 7 are not so mild that we don’t need protection for the greens if we want to have a continual harvest. Even at that, picking once a week is what to expect, and less frequently during the weeks of the least daylight, so more area needs to be planted for winter harvest than needed for a spring planting.

kale-row cover-carrots-BLOGI don’t cover the carrots and beets with anything so as not to encourage voles to move in. They are planted early enough to be mature now, so only need to be held in cold storage in the soil. For protection from harsh winter weather for the greens I use low tunnels made from plastic pipe and old greenhouse plastic. This type of cover is easy to erect. The ½” plastic pipe can be inserted into larger size plastic pipe stuck in the ground or put over pieces of rebar. The rebar and larger plastic pipe is cut to 2’ lengths and put half in and half out of the ground. If you leave rebar in the ground without a hoop over it, be sure to cover it with a plastic bottle, piece of plastic pipe, or an old tennis ball. You don’t want anyone to get hurt if they stumble upon it. You can find rebar precut to various lengths in the building supply stores near the cement blocks. Plastic pipe comes in 10’ lengths. I cut it to 8’ to form a hoop over a 4’ wide bed. These pipe structures also have a pipe across the top and a cord (anchored to the bottom of the hoops) that goes over the plastic cover to keep it in place. More details about that are at my blog post Managing a Cold Frame, Low Tunnel, or Mini-greenhouse. The plastic is held to the end hoops with clips made especially for that purpose. They are nice to have.

row cover clip

row cover clip

Having this bounty of food available in my garden all winter is the result of careful planning done sometimes a year in advance. To have the cabbage family greens at a good size now is sometimes a challenge, since they would have been started during hot weather. I have to keep a vigilant watch to pick off cabbage worms and harlequin bugs during those weeks. The seeds are started in the coldframe, not because they need protection, but because the coldframes are my seed starting areas. I do, however, sometimes cover the coldframe with a shadecloth if the weather is too hot and sunny. Once established, the best plants are transplanted to the garden beds. The winter covers don’t go on until cold weather hits. I’m just now bringing the covers out. A big advantage of using this type of low cover, rather than a greenhouse, is that the covers are easily added, removed, or vented, allowing the plants to get the full benefit of the natural climate, including the rain.

If you don’t have this variety of food available in your garden after the frost, and would like to, start making notes now and work on your garden plan to make it happen next year. Go ahead and prepare a bed and put a cover on it now, or at least put up the hoops and be ready for a cover. In late winter you can use it to get off to an early start. Put the cover on two weeks before your planting time to warm the soil. When my community college students planned a season extension structure for their projects, many of them constructed their designs, but put in transplants and seeds too late for a fall or winter harvest. However, often they found they had a very early spring harvest from those plants, especially with things like spinach. If you have the time and inclination to prepare now, it will put you one step ahead for early planting next spring.Homeplace Earth

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coldframe filled with seedlings

coldframe filled with seedlings

Coldframes are great solar powered seed starters that you can use year round. If you’ve built one, used it in the spring, then left it to become overgrown with weeds for the rest of the year, now is the time to rethink that. This can be your go-to place for transplants all season, plus a place to harvest winter salads while waiting for the next round of seeds.

I generally start planting in my coldframe in early February with cabbage, collards, kale, chard, and other cool season things. If I am starting onion seeds, I might plant them in the coldframe in January. My next round of planting is for the warm weather crops, such as tomatoes and peppers. These are started about the last week in March, however this year it was April 5 when that happened. This year was a good year to not be in a hurry, since the weather was unseasonably cold and damp for longer than expected.

When I started seeds under lights in the house, I used to start tomatoes and peppers on March 1. They would require a lot of attention and watering. When it was getting close to time to plant them outside, I would have to harden off the plants—get them used to the outdoors—before they actually got planted in the garden. I’ve seen people having to do this with greenhouse plants. They would lug them in and out of the greenhouse each day. Whether you are taking them in and out of your house or a greenhouse, it’s a bother either way.

As I’ve gotten older, I like to think I’ve gotten smarter and not just lazier. I realized that I don’t have to start my tomatoes so early. The plants that come from my coldframe are acclimated to the cool soil and to the fluctuations of air temperature from day to night. I can keep the lid on, vent it, or remove it totally, as necessary. I do not put hinges on my coldframe lids for that reason. If they are light enough to be blown off in the wind, I use hooks and eyes to hold them in place. I can start more plants in less space than I ever could starting them under lights in the house.

tomato seedlings started in coldframe, moved to flat

tomato seedlings started in coldframe, moved to flat

Our last frost date here is about April 25. This year, however, frost hit in some places on May 14. It is good to have plants already tuned in to what nature is doing in times like this. A cold snap like that would be more damaging to tender plants raised under lights, than to hardy plants grown in a coldframe. Sometimes I pull plants out of the coldframe and put them in pots or wood flats to finish growing out so that I have room to start more seeds. I only do that if the weather conditions are such that the ones I pull out don’t need the protection of a coldframe anymore. I had done that this year with the tomatoes to make room for the sweet potatoes in the coldframe.

Peppers grow slower and need warmer conditions than tomatoes. When I turned to the coldframes for my transplants I wasn’t sure how it would be with peppers. I’ve since decided that this is a great opportunity to develop a pepper that will grow this way. Otherwise, why would I want to fool with it? If I save the seeds each year, I will have developed a strain that will grow well, no matter what nature brings. I like thick walled sweet peppers and Ruffled Hungarian is one that does well in the coldframe. I originally bought a few locally grown plants at a health food store in 2008 and have been saving the seeds ever since.

It is time to have the tomatoes out of the coldframe, so what’s next? I mentioned that the sweet potatoes went in after the tomatoes. I often don’t plant the sweet potato slips in the garden until about June 7. I’m always anxious, wondering if they will come up in the coldframe or if I should have started the sweet potatoes in jars of water in the house. Then the slips appear and take off. So, if you are anxious, also, have faith. When the weather is right, they will grow. Sweet potatoes like to be warm, so I keep the coldframe lids handy for longer than might be necessary. Learn more about growing your own sweet potato slips at https://homeplaceearth.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/grow-your-own-sweet-potato-slips/

corn seedlings in vole-proof tub

corn seedlings in vole-proof tub

I use transplants for corn and peanuts and worry about voles getting them in the coldframe. Although I have taken measures in building my new coldframes to keep out the voles, I still worry about these seeds, so I start them in large plastic pots, the kind trees come in. I like the kind with a lip on the rim to keep climbing critters out.  These pots are scrounged, I didn’t buy them, and they are useful for many things. When the corn and peanuts are out, I can put other seeds for transplants in there or plant flowers and herbs to enjoy through the summer. Since I’m using them at a time when no protection is needed, I don’t have to worry about a cover. These extra containers are good to have when my coldframes are filled and I want more seed-starting space, once the danger of frost has passed.

Once all the warm weather plants are in the garden the coldframe is the place to start transplants for later squash plantings, more flowers and herbs, or for brassicas plants intended for fall and winter harvest. You no longer need the winter lids to keep things warm, but you might need some shade. If you don’t have shadecloth, you can use an old bed sheet to shelter the seedlings from the sun. The key to this kind of planting is having a plan that shows everything that will be in your garden for the year. For a refresher for that kind of planning, read my post on Making a Garden Map. You will know what you need ahead of time and can plan your coldframe plantings accordingly. My post on Succession Planting will also give you some ideas for using summer transplants.

potato plants to grow out in coldframe

potato plants to grow out in coldframe

If you really aren’t interested in having a continuous supply of transplants though the summer, plant a crop in your coldframe after the last spring transplants come out. I have built a new coldframe to replace an old one and have planted potatoes in it to see if I was successful in keeping out the voles—otherwise, the sweet potatoes would be in there and I wouldn’t have had to put the tomato plants in flats. You could shade your coldframe and plant lettuce or just throw in some buckwheat. In thirty days the buckwheat will be flowering, making the honeybees happy and keeping the weeds away. In early September I plant lettuce in one of my coldframes to provide salads through December. I want that space to be clear for the January/February plantings. I plant the winter greens-kale and collards—under low tunnels. If they were in the coldframes, they would still be there when I wanted to start seeds.

Think of your coldframe as a place to harvest transplants all through the summer, not just in the spring. Consider it an important part of your garden and keep it filled.Homeplace Earth

 

 

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