Baby, it’s (almost) cold outside!

6

Frosted Leaves

It’s fall. Big time. Temperatures are dropping along with brown and orange leaves. The tomato plants are bending beneath the weight of green fruit hoping for enough time. (I’ll be picking them before we get frost.) The zucchini, cucumbers and beans are all distant memories. And all I can think about is sowing seeds.

Yes, that’s right, sowing seeds. Today I planted seeds in the main garden and before the weekend is over, I’ll have planted many more. Why? Because I’m experimenting with four-season growing! Specifically, I’m working on crops that will overwinter for a spring harvest and crops that we’ll be able to harvest in the midst of snow.

Overwintering

Back in February when I mentioned to some fellow gardeners that I was planting garlic in containers many of them said “You know, you’re supposed to plant garlic in the fall!” I did know that. What I didn’t know last fall was that I was going to be starting a market garden this summer, so I didn’t plan ahead. Since then I’ve discovered that several types of veggies overwinter well, meaning that you can plant them in the fall, leave them in the ground over the winter and harvest them in the spring. I will definitely be bringing you more in-depth info on overwintering in the next few weeks.

Row Covers in Snow

Our winter garden might look like this! Click on this picture to learn more about the Ann Arbor, Michigan garden featured in the blog Last One Eating.

I’ll be overwintering the following crops:

  • Peas
  • Spinach
  • Asparagus (which likely won’t be ready to harvest for 3 more years)
  • Parsnips
  • Scallions
  • Carrots
  • Potatoes
  • Onions
  • Garlic

From what I’ve learned, attempting to overwinter potatoes is a bit risky. I’ve never done this before, so we’ll see how it goes.

Winter Harvest

Here’s something I’m really excited about – growing veggies in the winter! I’ll be using several tools and techniques to see if I can successfully grow some pesticide-free veggies for our family to eat in December, January and February. I’m hoping that things will go well enough that I’ll have extras to sell to those of you who are interested. (The price of food is expected to skyrocket this winter due to the drought this past summer. Wouldn’t it be awesome to buy some fresh, local, affordable, pesticide-free veggies in January?)

As part of my first year plan, I intended to build a hoop house over a portion of the garden this fall. A hoop house can also be known as a polytunnel, polyhouse, hoop greenhouse or high tunnel.
According to your friend and mine, Wikipedia.com, a hoop house is:

“A tunnel made of polyethylene, usually semi-circular, square or elongated in shape. The interior heats up because incoming solar radiation from the sun warms plants, soil, and other things inside the building faster than heat can escape the structure. Air warmed by the heat from hot interior surfaces is retained in the building by the roof and wall. Temperature, humidity and ventilation can be controlled by equipment fixed [inside].”

Hoop House

To learn more about the hoop house pictured, click the picture to pop over to One Straw.

My hope was to test a theory I heard that using a hoop house in addition to polyethylene row covers can enable a Michigan gardener to grow plants in winter as though he/she is growing in Tennessee. Or was it Georgia? I don’t know, but you get the idea: solar heat + insulation = veggies in winter. Unfortunately I’m not in a position to be able to build the hoop house as planned, but I do have enough polyethylene row covers to keep six raised beds snug over the winter.

How snug? Weeeeelllll… I’m not sure. Finding out will be part of the experiment. At present, I would guess that ‘snug’ may only be a few degrees above freezing on the coldest of Michigan winter days. So to tip the scales in favor of veggies that can produce in these conditions, I’ll be using a few more tricks.

Cold Weather Tricks

First, I’m going to be planting cold/frost-tolerant plants including peas, lettuce, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, leeks, carrots, turnips, broccoli, spinach, beets and radishes. These are more likely to make it in ‘snug’ conditions than warm weather plants like zucchini or tomatoes. And I specifically bought varieties that are known for their overwintering tendencies. {UPDATE 10/05/12: For a detailed list of the plants we’ll be growing this winter, click here.}

Second, I’ll be making use of something called a hotbed. Before those of you with wild imaginations get too far ahead of me, let me (and Wikipedia) provide a little insight into what this hotbed thing is all about.

“In biology, a hotbed is a pile of decaying organic matter warmer than its surroundings due to the heat given off by the metabolism of the microorganisms in the decomposing pile.

A hotbed covered with a small glass cover (also called a hotbox) is used as a small version of a hothouse (heated greenhouse). The bed is often made of manure from animals such as horses that pass much undigested plant cellulose in their droppings. Thus hotboxes are to cold frames what hothouses are to greenhouses.”

My plan is to “convert” six of our raised beds into hotbeds by removing the soil, digging down a ways, adding manure and compost, returning the soil and covering the bed with our polyethylene row covers. The thermal heat trapped by the row cover, along with the warmth of the hotbed should be enough to keep our cold-weather-tolerant plants happy if the snow is flying in January. There are several projects involved here and I’ll do my best to provide you with detailed information on each as the plan progresses.

I can’t believe I’m looking forward to winter…

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