Monday, October 18, 2010

Cold Frames (Winter Comes)

"The days are getting shorter, the air is getting colder, and while you sip your rum and coke, kid, you're just getting older." - Jason Webley, Winter.

I've been thinking a lot about the upcoming Winter. Apart from the fact that it's likely to be horrendous, (for Seattle anyway), I've actually really appreciated having noticeably different seasons again. South Florida has two seasons, the Wet Season (aka Hurricane Season) and the Dry Season (aka 'Winter'). But here, trees change colors, plants flower and then die, mushrooms begin to pop up everywhere with the first late-Summer rains, the sun tracks lower and increasingly weakly across the sky, and growth is notably stunted in most of my remaining garden plants. It smells differently this time of year, and it makes me realize: Winter Comes.

First up, after harvest I decided to repot my hops. They were rootbound, and I was thinking of different ways to get cheap, large pots to put them in. Solution: 18 gallon Laundry Tubs from Fred Meyer, $5 each. Now they're sitting pretty in much bigger pots, with some fresh potting soil. Hopefully the harvest will be better next year.

The tomatoes began to show serious signs of Late Blight about three weeks ago. We let them vine ripen as long as we could, but we got a sunny weekend day and decided it was time. So we picked all the tomatoes that were in good shape, ripe or green, and have been storing them. They're slowly ripening away inside, and they're pretty darn tasty. My guess is they'll last at least another month.

The basil that was planted with them and spent the entire summer kindof sad and stunted suddenly took off. Then two nights ago it was 38 degrees. Now they look pretty sad. One last round of pesto and that's that. Got a few more zucchinis too, but they were getting pretty serious powdery mildew, so I pulled them. Not wanting a glut of zukes I only planted two plants. Unfortunately, at the end they seemed to put up only female flowers so while there were several proto-zukes possible, I couldn't pollinate them. Lost quite a few that way.

With Summer's veg wrapping up I was faced with a decision. One option would be to let some of the beds go fallow, planting a cover crop of Rye, Vetch, Peas, and so on. Then mow that down in the Spring, mulch it on in, and arrange some cloches to get things off to a good start in, say, April. Some portion of the beds could also be planted with hardy, overwintering crops like leeks and kale.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that I'd like to see what I could grow in our maritime winter. We tend to rely heavily on the supermarket during the Winter, importing bright and shiny fruits and vegetables from far, far away. But it wasn't always like that. What about here? Maybe I could manage some fresh salads past the New Year? Maybe with a little thought and a little effort I can grow a lot of my own food this season, and store the rest in the form of my potatoes, and root veg from the Farmer's Market.

So step one was acquiring plants. I signed up for a Winter Plant Start CSA through Cascadian Edible Landscapes. These folks are really friendly and helpful, and you can usually find them at the Ballard Farmer's Market selling plant starts in the Spring, right up until the first berry harvests begin. I love their idea of a plant start CSA. The investment helps them plant without needing bank loans and to plant more of what people actually want, and it removes some of the guesswork of sales. We get a box of great starts, picked to be just the sorts of things that will grow really well, right here, right now. For about $30 we got, near as I can remember:
  • Six Std. Broccoli starts
  • Six Mixed Variety Broccoli as well
  • Six Collards
  • Six Asst. Kales
  • Six 'Eros' Endive
  • Two pounds of organic cover crop seeds
  • Two heads of seed garlic
  • A start of Sorrel
Plus I picked up some leeks and six Brussels Sprouts starts at Swansons. Couple that with some Mild Mustard Green seeds and Mache seeds and I've got the Winter Garden going.

I managed to find enough pots for the kales, collards, broccoli, and brussels. Frankly, if it stunts the kales or collards I'll consider it a blessing. I pulled the big Red Russian kales that grew up all Summer from random seeds in a mesclun greens mix. They were huge, over three feet tall and several feet across. This provided shade for lettuce underneath during the Summer, but by now we were sick and tired of kale, and shade was no longer our friend. They had to go. Added some of Walt's Organic Rainy PNW Blend in and planted mache and mustard greens in its place. The scattering of salad seeds began to pop up all over, which made me happy.

Then the squirrels came.

It's that time of year where they bury little caches of food around, digging up any patch of open looking dirt. Scattering and mauling my little lettuces. Grrr.

The solution appeared one afternoon when I drove by a neighbor's house. They were in the midst of some remodeling and there, on the street corner, were two sliding glass doors and a 'Free' sign. The wheels began to turn and I ran back and hauled them into the garage.

Cold Frames! Basically, cheap mini-greenhouses. A solar oven for plants. The glass traps light and keeps excess wind and rain out. On colder nights, or if it snows, the plants will be significantly warmer and protected from the harshest of Winter. With any luck I'll have salad through February, and be able to start plants earlier in the Spring. Ideally I'll get tomatoes in a couple weeks earlier, without resorting to my semi-effective penny-conscious cloche, and have a head start on other things as well.

So this weekend I got some lumber, conscripted a friend and got to building.

The basic idea is that it's a collar that sits on top of the existing raised bed. In fact, it's exactly the same as the bed, with a few minor adjustments. To make two, 2' x 6' frames I needed:
  • two big old thick sliding glass doors
  • four 2" x 12" x 8'
  • two 2" x 6" x 8'
  • two 4" x 4" x 8'
  • 3" wood screws
  • six 6' long 1" diameter sections of foamy pipe insulation
Basically, cut the 12" plywood to a 6' section and a 2' section. That's the sides of the base. Cut the 4x4 into four 12" sections and four 16" sections. These are the corners. Screw the 2' sections onto the 4x4s, one short one on one end and one long one on the other. Then screw the 6' sections of 12" onto the 4x4s, front and back, forming the frames. Cut the 6" boards into 6' and 2' sections. Screw the 6' sections onto the back side of the frames, where the 16" 4x4s stick up. This creates a slope that will allow rain to drain off the doors. Cut the remaining 2' long 6" boards on the diagonal, and screw the triangular pieces down on the sides. Then run around and staple the pipe insulation around the edges. This isn't so much to make it more airtight, as it is to protect the glass. I don't want to have to clean up a broken sliding door from my lettuces. The frames really don't need to be airtight. Which is good, because fine woodworking this was not...

The frames just sit on top of the existing beds. When it's cold out, say it's snowing or we have a cold, clear night, I can close them. The rest of the time they get propped open a bit with some removable sections of scrap 4x4. This keeps them from getting too hot and humid. Once the rain really starts up I'll open them completely every few days to water everything. To muck around inside them, pick things, weed, etc., I can prop them up against the siding of the garage and they seem pretty secure. The glass is really, really thick and heavy.

Hopefully they'll work out. Unfortunately, there's nowhere in the yard that gets really great full sun, so I hope the added shade from the lip of the frame doesn't hurt too much. It's a balancing act between providing space for the plants to grow tall, and shading them while they're younger. They have about 12" of headroom in the front and closer to 20" in the back. But one of the cool things about this is that conceivably these are just basically planter boxes, so in the future I could always put them in the yard as such, if say, there isn't enough light for them to work well where they are or if we move somewhere with a spot of full sun.

As for flaws, I overbuilt them a bit. They'll last a while but they take two people to move. And the glass is heavy, and I'd like an easier way to open them up fully. I may also paint the inside black, to harness more heat, or coat it with tinfoil to reflect some light into the darker corners.

So that's the situation. Will I have fresh Salad in February? We'll see how it works out.


Trish said...

way to go bro! could you rig a hinge for the glass doors and maybe use the little lifty side things they have for truck bed covers to make the doors easier to open and close?

Post a Comment