Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cold frames and Hotbeds

Fighting the forces of nature takes energy, growing cold tolerant winter veggies works with nature. A cold frame simply provides additional protection, allow you to get a jump on, or extend the season by up to 4 weeks at either end. In our zone 8 climate we can get by with row covers alone.
A hotbed or forcing bed uses the addition of heat to further increase the growing days.
Hotbeds have been used for many years to bring on delicate plants in cold weather. They where most commonly used by Victorian gardeners to force crops like Melons, Cucumbers, Strawberries, and Radishes. In fact any crop that was needed in the kitchen by the cook out of season could be grown in a Hotbed.
There are techniques known to gardeners years ago, which have been lost to us modern,’ advanced' gardeners. We are used to out of season fruits and vegetables from around the world, readily available in our grocery stores.

Fresh vegetables harvested from home, taste better and have not lost any nutrients in travel. Many winter vegetables are poor shippers; so if you want quality leeks or kale you have no choice but to grow them yourself. , many vegetables store more sugars when they are exposed to cold temperatures. Also, In addition, you know what has, and hasn't, been sprayed all over your own plants!

Plants grow better with protection in winter, you can choose to simply cover them when temperatures drop too low, below -5C, even without cover many cold hardy plants can tolerate freezing. and enjoy a very simple nearly protection free winter garden, or push the envelope depending on how much energy you would like to put into it.

Heat will be required to germinate many seedlings, but for instance you could sow carrots in Nov, mid Jan, and mid Feb with heat cables, or a manure hotbed. This may not be practical for the home gardener, as it would be easier to plant in Aug and store in the ground through winter. It may be more practical for getting a jump on the season with crops that need a long summer season, or to keep greens in production all winter.

The most effective, and cheapest coldframe is one which uses two layers of protection. This can be achieved with a high hoop or framed structure with plastic stretched over it, and another layer of row cover or plastic suspended directly over the plant. You can keep the lower layer off the plants with stakes, or # 9 wire frames bent to suit.

There are many plans for coldframes available in the library or on line. They should be located in a sunny South or West sheltered exposure. Flat top models should have a minimum of 10 % angle on the cover, and be at least 12" to 18" deep. Heat may be added by cables or setting the frame over a manure hotbed.

winter veggies in Victoria

Winter Veggies

Too cold to grow veggies in winter, days too short, you say?

Victoria is blessed with a mild winter climate. Our coastal influences create a unique microclimate; in fact we share our planting zone with California, Arizona, into Texas, and then across the Southern states.

Short days and low light may not be quite the barriers we think. Take a quick look at a world atlas. The 44th parallel passes through the south of France and the Ligurian coast of Italy on the sunny Mediterranean. In other words, by being on the similar latitude, we have the same day length as those solar paradises. Our ocean influence doesn’t afford us the same high temperatures as the Mediterranean, and we get more winter rains, but we are still blessed.

Happily there is a group of veggies that prefer the cold, there is no reason to stop gardening when our heat seeking favorites tell us they have had their day in the sun.

When you are choosing winter varieties it is important to look for clues on seed packages, such as low light, frost tolerant, stands all winter, suited to short day length. Good sources of seed are British, and Dutch as they have a long history of growing winter vegetables, and share similar climate. In fact our latitude affords longer days for better growing than our European friends enjoy. We have some great local seed companies, and are developing our own varieties, and growing traditions.

West Coast Seeds

Saltspring seeds

Seeds of Victoria

Full Circle seeds

A big advantage of winter gardening is that most hardy plants continue to yield well into the spring. This gives you a big head start over gardeners who wait till Spring to plant. You will have been harvesting for months and they will be placing their first seeds in the cold ground. Winter vegetables are harvested Oct- April, filling in where the spring planted garden leaves off.

In Victoria you can have fresh salad greens 12 months of the year, and grow more than 30 winter hardy vegetables.

Broad beans
Broccoli, Sprouting Broccoli
Brussels sprouts
Chinese cabbage, Oriental greens
Corn Salad (Mache)
Cutting leaf celery
Endive, Raddichio
Leaf Mustard, mustard Spinach
Leaf turnip
Rapini, broccoli rab
Rutabagas, turnips
Scallions, sweet onions
Swiss chard, leaf beet
Add to the list hardy perennials
Bunching onions
Sea kale

Some of these do not produce crops till spring

A year round garden produces all winter, and is most effective in early spring. Forget the panic to get in the early spring planting, (except for the peas), you can be harvesting instead. Why not wait for the warm weather to plant your spring, and summer veggies.

When to plant

Most winter crops are sown in late July or August. They fit into the planting schedule after the salad greens, radishes, and peas are finished, and after the storage onions and garlic are pulled.
Main planting windows

Mid – June
Sow the large, long-lived cabbage family vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, purple sprouting Broccoli, winter Cauliflower, and cabbage.

Early July
Seed carrots on the July holiday they will mature late fall and provide fresh carrots over the winter. This is also the time to sow beets, rutabagas, and other roots, as well as radicchio, kohlrabi, and leaf beets

Early Aug
The end of July through the beginning of August is a good time to plant fall lettuce, kale, Chinese greens, spinach, mustards, and other leafy greens as well as onions.

Late August
Sow corn salad, arugula, cilantro, and lettuce for harvest in mid winter. In warm years you can continue planting into Sept, but may not be as productive as earlier planted crops.

If you miss these dates not to worry, the worst that can happen is that seedlings will be too small by the time growth stops to provide much of a harvest. All is not lost, because the plants will grow again in February. They will still provide a crop much earlier than spring planting.

Crops must be up to a certain size before growth slows, which usually is when day length drops to under 10 hrs, Oct 30 to Feb 11th. Hardy vegetables should be up 6" before first frost in order to withstand the winter weather. If your starts are behind you will have to help establish them, all you need is a thin layer of plastic to protect plants.

Plants under cover grow faster, cover also helps avoid damage from wind and rain, and waterlogging

Straw or leaves makes great protective mulch, and helps prevent crowns from heaving, or damage to root crops.

Many cold hardy leafy greens can freeze solid without being damaged. Most hardy greens can tolerate temperatures to –5C without protection.

Extending production to year round is the best use of space, and efforts.
If winter/spring harvests are important, start your garden plan around them. You can use charts, to start your planning backwards from fall. Plan where you want your winter crops, and make sure you plant early maturing spring crops there.

1/3 of your garden would be a good starting point for winter garden planning. The best areas are the most sheltered, and best drained.

Drainage is essential to the winter garden; this is where raised beds have a great advantage

Sunlight, it is important to find the sunniest spot. You may find that because of the low angle areas that are shady in the summer may now have light. A south wall would be ideal.

Protected areas work best, beside a rock wall, south walls, under overhangs are usually slightly warmer and less windy, and foundations hold heat.

The most important trick to learn about these vegetables is to not harvest while frozen. Whereas a few veggies can be harvested frozen most will thaw as mush. If you wait till the weather warms to above freezing they will be perfectly fine.
The best way to harvest leafy plants is one leaf at a time. You can achieve 4X the harvest by weight using this method. The plants are left with the maximum leaves to continue growing. As harvesting leaves continues through the winter the plants will get smaller, as there is little replacement growth, but as it warms up in February longer day length and warmth will begin to stimulate growth. By April these established plants would be growing rapidly

Crops that remain in the ground over the winter are the easiest to store.
Carrots, leeks, beets, parsnips, daikon, rutabaga, and celeraic

Tops of vegetables like carrots die down in Nov so mark rows, and where you left off harvesting.

All plants will benefit from mulching, but you may still want to cover some plants. When the top layer of soil freezes it expands the cycle of freezing and thawing can tear fine roots, and heave the crowns of plants. Cover the entire bed of root crops that has died down in November will protect the tops from frost damage. Straw or leaves makes good mulch. Adding a sheet of clear plastic should be enough for those really cold spells,
That comes along.

Winter gardening management

Crops grow slowly in the winter so should only be fertilized with compost, a good organic or slow release fertilizer. They don’t require much during periods of slow growth but will appreciate it being available when they begin to grow again in Feb.

Fertilize your cold frames, the same as your garden soil. There are plenty of good organic fertilizers available, or a top dressing between crops, of limestone, rock phosphate, green sand, and alfalfa meal is adequate for all but heavy feeding crops like spinach. Cottonseed meal will replenish heavily depleted soils. Well-finished compost can be added at a rate of 20L per (5-gal bucket) for every 12 feet of 30’ row.

Enjoy your winter gardening, you will have done most of the work in the summer, and can relax and harvest. Watering will be nearly non existent, do remember to check water on plants under protection.
Most of the summer pests have gone for the season, except perhaps for those darn slugs.

Harvesting will be as needed, think of your garden as a big refrigerator. Fresh greens from the beds, and root crops are stored in the ground.
You will be saved the processing and rushing of harvesting the glut of summer bounty.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Starting my Veggie Garden

Today is the day I start my Veggie garden! It is not that today is the perfect time, it is just time for me. I haven't been the veggie gardener I once was, so I have vowed to get serious about it. I have a tiny veggie patch, a few raised beds, and of course spots here and there in the flower and shrub borders; it's not the 1/4 acre from my past, and that's OK. I, like many have gotten side tracked from the backyard vegetable patch, busy lives take their tolls, but food is important and I miss it. There is nothing like garden ripened produce on the table eaten only hours after harvest. I won't digress too far down the 100 mile path today, but you know the issues, we hear them constantly, so I have decided to take action, enough said.

So ......I pulled up my new found Lazy gardeners excel sheet to see where I stand. I will share a link from, Gayla Trail's site. All you need to do is input your last frost date, and the sheet does the rest. You can download it for yourself.

I am late for a few things, so I will skip a couple, put in some late, and grab starts from the nursery for others. The good news is it's the perfect timing for beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, Swiss chard, and parsley. It's always the perfect time for something, whats important is not where you jump in, but that you do.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Getting started

Getting started

Growing vegetables is again being considered an important thing to do. I am glad to see it becoming a part of urban life. We are being called back to simpler times, and the joys of harvesting perfectly ripened produce at the peal of freshness, and grown by our own hands.

You need not be an expert to grow vegetables, and as with much in gardening trial and error is the process of learning. A few simple concepts will get you on your way.

Selecting a site for your garden is the first step. Veggies require good light; I recommend a minimum of 6 hours direct light per day minimum. Leafy vegetables, and root crops can take less light, whereas fruit crops like tomatoes, peppers, and squash may require more.

Creating or preparing the garden bed; begins when the soil is workable in the spring. Clean up the bed of any weeds, pull mature plants, or any that have produced seed already. Small seedlings may be turned into the soil without problems.

If you are creating a bed from a section of lawn you have a couple choices. Turf makes a great addition to soil, if it is buried deeply. This is a big job, weigh this option and decide for yourself. You may want to consider composting the turf, and dressing the beds with it later.

If you want the immediate benefit of the turf, you must double dig it in. Double digging is accomplished by first removing a section of turf, and setting it aside. Then you must dig a hole or trench where you removed the sod; the earth from this is again set aside. You are ready to start the process. Remove a new section of sod, and place it grass side down in your first trench or hole. You are ready to bury it with soil excavated from your next trench, where you just removed the second strip of sod. Continue double digging until you have buried your last sod strip. The remaining hole is finished with the addition of the set aside sod, and soil from your first excavation.

When you have a clean bed prepared you can dig in your compost. Composted manure’s, or sea soil are good choices if you haven’t made compost. If your soil is heavy clay, dig in lots of organic matter at this time. An easy way to assess your soil is to squeeze a handful. When you open your hand the lump should hold together but break apart with a flick of your finger. If it stays as a lump it’s too heavy, if it will not form a lump it is too sandy. Organic matter improves both conditions.

Next falls you can apply fresh manure, mulches, or grow a cover crop if you want to provide extra care to your soil. Cover crops or mulching help prevent weeds, erosion, and provides fertility, and organic material to the soil. Cover crops with legumes, or clover fix nitrogen into the soil via a structure on their roots. Fixed nitrogen comes from the atmosphere, and has the benefit of not leaching out with rain. Caring, and replenishing your soils always pays back dividends.

When your beds are turned, and amended you can think about planting. You should not grow the same crops in the same place year after year so this is where you should learn something about crop rotation, and how to group crops. Crop rotation is the practice of rotating a group of related plants to a new location each year. A common 3-year schema is root plants, brassicas, and the other plants not in the first two groupings. You may also have a permanent section for things like asparagus, rhubarb, berries, or fruit trees. If your space is limited rotate above ground plants one year with root vegetables the next. The brassicas family of plants benefits from alkaline soil, we are acidic here in the Pacific Northwest so the addition of lime is recommended.
Now for the fun, choosing and planting your vegetables. The best rule of thumb here is plant what you like. Seed packets are your best source of information, follow the instructions, they will indicate row spacing, and other criteria. You will need to know your frost dates. Instructions base the planting time on this date. Farmer’s almanac is a wonderful source of planting information, and has a frost chart for various locations.

You will note that it is recommended to start many seeds indoors. This is because our growing season is too short, and plants like tomatoes need a head start to reach maturity before fall. You can start seeds inside, or buy already started plants in spring. A windowsill is rarely bright enough to start seeds. It is usually better to set yourself up for seed starting indoors. You will require some simple equipment, and sterile medium. A weak seedling will be disappointing when transplanted to your garden. I usually buy my tomatoes, peppers, and basil as starts, and grow the rest of my veggies from seed directly outside.

Local nurseries, libraries, or online sources can answer questions about fertilizer, and watering. Enjoy! learn as you grow.