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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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coldframe 4 lids onI have known for the past two weeks that the subject of my blog would be coldframes—I don’t always know what I’ll write about that far ahead. However, I thought the title would be Coldframe Transplants. Before I began writing the new post I reviewed my previous posts about coldframes and realized that I had written much of what I would say this time in Use Your Coldframe All Year last May. So, I encourage you to read that post. I had taken some good photos of my coldframe in April and realized that I could focus this post on coldframe lids.

The coldframe in the photo is 4’x 8’ and has four 2’x4’ lids made from twinwall polycarbonate panels. They were made from one 4’x 8’ twinwall panel that friends gave me when they were replacing the glazing on their solarium. I have considered putting wood frames around the twin wall panels to protect the edges, but haven’t gotten around to it. With a coldframe this big, using one panel for a lid would be awkward to use and to store. My previous coldframe was 3’x 6’ because I was given a piece of glass that size that I framed in wood. One advantage of that lid was that it was heavy enough not to blow off in the wind when I had it lifted on one side for venting. A disadvantage of that lid was the weight and size when I stored it in the barn for the summer.

coldframe-4 lids openI have never liked using hinges on coldframe lids because hinges would limit their use. I want to be able to move the lids around or take them off completely. When I taught at the community college one of the projects I assigned was to plan a season extension structure for a 4’x 25’ bed—complete with a drawing of the design, list of materials, and how it would be used. If the students chose to use a series of coldframes I always warned them I would take off points if there were hinges on the coldframe lids. Sometimes you need to take them all the way off. If you tilt them back, as in this photo, there needs to be room for them behind the coldframe.

coldframe vented at the topThese panels are relatively light. If I had them lifted on one side to vent, the wind may blow them off. It can get pretty windy in the spring. I was gone for five days the second week of April. Things were just coming up in there, so I wanted to keep the lids on while I was gone. However, looking ahead to the weather, it looked like some days would be quite warm. I decided to turn the panels parallel to the long sides of the coldframe and lower them a bit, leaving a vent space at the top. That would keep everything warm enough, but not too hot. It was nice that the day before we left for the trip we had an inch of rain—with the panels off.

coldframe lids stacked - BLOGSometimes I stack the panels on the coldframe if I want to vent it a little more than I did when I went on the trip recently, but still keep some protection there. If I was going to vent that way more than a day or two, I would not stack the panels, but take two away so as not to prevent light transmission. The extra panels can lean against the side or back of the coldframe, ready to put back on when needed. When I store the panels for the summer they only take the footprint of one panel.

Your coldframe lids might be old windows or wooden frames covered with plastic. Consider all the different ways you might use them before building your coldframe, so as not to limit your possibilities.  By this time of the year, you may be frost free and can store your lids for the summer, but your coldframe will still be of service as a space to grow transplants all through the growing season.Homeplace Earth

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melting snow 2-18-14A recent snowfall gave me an opportunity to take some new photos. Things can come and go right before our eyes, and if we don’t take the time to look carefully we’ll never see them. I like to take photos of the snow melting to remind me of the variations in soil temperature and the micro-climates we have everywhere. I mentioned soil temperature in my post on Phenology. This garden photo was taken on February 18. The weather was warming and the first place the snow began to melt was on the south side of my garden beds, which run from east to west. When I see this in late winter I’m reminded of the idea I’ve always had in the back of my head to make the soil on a garden bed slant towards the south. This could be done in the fall and the bed would be ready early in the spring, or even late winter, for planting. The soil would warm first on the whole bed. With a cold frame on top, things could get off to a really good start.

melting snow in coldframeSo far, however, my coldframes have stayed on flat ground. The covers slant, since the front (south) side is 8” tall and the back (north) side is 12” tall. On February 20 I took this photo of the coldframe which had no cover for the winter because it wasn’t planted. The snow had melted everywhere except the places with the most shade. Since the sun is so low in the sky during these winter months, it casts a longer shadow. If I would have had a cover on that coldframe, the snow would surely have melted everywhere in there. However, the front of the box would still be shading the strip of soil beside it. The sides of the box cast a shadow, also, but only for part of the day. The east side (foreground) is shaded in the morning and the west side is shaded in the afternoon. The strip to the south (with snow) stays shaded all day until spring when the sun is sufficiently high enough in the sky to peek over the edge all day.

You could solve that problem by using a clear plastic row cover. With clear plastic coming all the way to the ground you don’t have that shaded area on the inside; however, the structure itself will shade just to the north. You can see that by the row cover in the topmost part of the coldframe photo. The area to the north of the coldframe is also left with a bit of snow where it is shaded. I don’t have plans to plant anything directly to the north of these two structures, but it is interesting to note. When I plant seeds in the coldframe I plant many rows. I run these rows across the short way, north-to-south. If that bit of shade on the inside is enough to affect anything, it won’t affect all of one thing.

melting snow by board fenceOther interesting snow / shade spots are to the north of our board fence. You would think that since there is space between the boards, the sun would reach through. There is also a line of snow to the north of the hazelnut hedge in the upper left of that fence photo. There is a wire fence there and the hazelnut trees have lost their leaves, but it is still enough to leave a snow line.

You don’t have to have snow to notice the shaded areas, but it is a whole lot easier. When I took the first photos on February 18 the snow had melted in the front yard, but not in the back yard (north side of the house). On February 20 when I was out with the camera I noticed that half the snow had melted in the backyard. There was still snow in the area that showed up as a shadow on the snow in my photos two days earlier. Last summer I paid particular attention to the sun and shade there in the flower bed near the house (very last place for the snow to melt). I was looking for a space to plant a few cotton plants that I wanted to keep separate from my other cotton. I determined that the sun was high enough, and would be that way long enough, for the cotton. It was with careful consideration that I put those cotton plants there. That would have worked, too, except that the summer was extremely cloudy and even the cotton that was planted in the sunniest part of the garden didn’t mature. Oh well.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the days getting longer and spring will be here before you know it. The sun will cross the sky a little higher each day, making the shadows not quite so long. If you pay attention to the little nuances occurring in your garden you will be off to a good beginning as you start your seeds and set out transplants.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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