“To see things in a seed, that is genius.” Lao Tzu
There’s snow on the ground, AGAIN. But being around these guys in the basement, you’d think it was spring.
This past fall we were on a tour at Swainway Urban Farm when our pal Milan, from Peace, Love, and Freedom Farm, asked Joseph Swain who inspires him. It was a great question and without hesitation, Joseph cited Eliot Coleman, the guru of Four Season Farming. I was somewhat familiar with Coleman’s work from articles he published in Mother Earth News, but we promptly checked a few of his books out from the library and haven’t looked back.
In Four Season Harvest (1999), Coleman offers advice on sowing seeds and raising seedlings in the coldframe. Knowing full well we are in for a few more weeks of very cold weather, we decided to give his method a try today as temperatures soared above 50. As promised, I picked up a soil thermometer and found the soil was fluctuating between 45-60 degrees for the past few days. Perfect for kale, beets, onions, chard…
With the coldframe already cleared of old growth and the soil smooth, we laid a 2-3 inch blanket (about 1 yard) of Happy Frog Potting Soil over all but the small section where we transplanted some seedlings earlier in the week. We set the seeds down in well marked rows and gave them a drink. And now, we wait.
It used to be if I heard the term “seedbed,” my thoughts turned to performance artist Vito Acconci’s (1972) work of that title. If you don’t know it, look it up. (Just be warned, this work is not appropriate for all readers.) I won’t go into it here except to say, that I have new understanding of the term. These seeds are warm and cozy and we’re going to do all we can to keep them that way.
[Quick note on the transplants. They seem to be doing okay. We moved a few straw bales that were lying around to the west and southwest sides of the coldframe as a windbreak to help these
next last few weeks of winter. The transplants aren’t growing as fast as the seedlings still sitting in the kitchen, but they are holding their own, gaining inner strength and waiting to flouirsh as soon as temperatures stabilize. As soon as the grow lights we got are installed, we’ll move some of the guys on the windowsill under there and then they will really start to take off. Can’t wait!]
You can’t go anywhere this time of year in Central Ohio without hearing folks begging for the end of winter. Yesterday the temperature reached above forty degrees – for the first time in a very long time – and the sun shone brightly so Cora and I suited up and ventured outside to move our bodies and get some fresh air. The melting snow was calling her, the coldframe was calling me.
As I lifted the lid, the smell of fresh soil rose up with it. There was not much alive in there, a few kale plants that made it through the polar vortex were stretching up towards the light, taller than I had seen them in awhile. Some arugula was showing signs of rejuvenation but were mostly brown and wilted. We pulled all these old suckers out to make way for some new seedlings. (I briefly thought about leaving the the kale, but flashbacks of the cabbage worms that were feasting on them in the fall quickly changed my mind.
It was so nice to have our hands in the soil again. And the soil was warm!
Dan built our coldframe in the Summer of 2012. We used it that fall to provide shelter for some greens. Last spring, I started a bunch of arugula, kale, and spinach in the box, some of which I moved out to the garden when the weather got warmer. These were my first experiments with season extension. I had read a few articles about such practices in Mother Earth News, but mostly I was just testing things out and seeing what worked for me. This year is a bit different. I’ve been doing lots of reading and have greater expectations for the frame as a result. Now that I know what it’s capable of, I’m ready to put this thing to work.
My first experiment of this season involved a thermometer, my garden notebook, and the flashlight app on my phone. As Cora was marking rows in the soil with the back of her hand rake, “just like Big Anthony!” in Strega Nona’s Harvest, I dashed inside to find an indoor/outdoor thermometer I picked up last weekend. I placed it in the sunny corner of the frame and shut the lid. 15 minutes later, it read 86 degrees! Amazing. It was 47 outside. I moved it to the shady side and checked again in a few hours (64), after the sun went down (47), just before I went to be (40), and first thing in the morning (39). The temperature went down overnight, but I could tell the soil was still warm. (Shopping note: buy a soil thermometer…)
The sun was out again today. I took a few of the spinach and kale seedlings I started inside and put them in a few inches of potting mix laid on top of the soil in the frame. I also left a few plants in the frame in the plastic cells I started them in. I closed the lid and went to farm school. The topic of the evening was, appropriately, season extension. At some point the instructor was speaking about hardening off seedlings before putting them out in the spring to acclimate them to heat and sun and I thought, oh no! The seedlings I moved outside probably needed something similar to prevent them from getting shocked by the cold. So, when I got home, I grabbed the first thing I saw, a bright orange plastic sled, and placed it over the little guys hoping it would act as a kind of low tunnel, adding an additional layer of protection.
[Morning report: The sled frost cover seemed to do it’s job. The temperature in the frame dropped to 35 overnight, but the plants don’t look wilted or burnt at all! Daytime temperature is suppose to jump to near 60 today and then dip down again tonight so we’ll have to do some venting and then frost protection again at night. My guess is these little guys are going to be stronger for all these early experiences, but we’ll be sure to let you know how it works out.]
Tonight, I started a Master Urban Farmer workshop series. The class was scheduled to begin yesterday but a winter storm forced a late start. I hope this isn’t a bad omen for things to come this spring. I guess I’d prefer to focus on the kale seeds that germinated on our windowsill in 48 hours. Either way, we have our work cut out for us.
I found out about this series of classes when local gardening guru Trisha Clark suggested I contact Mike Hogan at the OSU Extension about taking a GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) course to learn about safe handling of produce for distribution. Mike recommended the seven week workshop series, which will cover GAPs as well as lots of other things one would need to know to start an urban farming project of any size or scope – from site selection and soil testing to management of labor and marketing goods for sale. Tonight’s session provided an overview of urban farming in the 21st century with a focus on Columbus (I’ve been reading a lot about the history of urban farming nationwide and will share some of that another time), setting goals and objectives, and identifying a site.
I think my favorite part of the class, however, was the introductions. With over forty people in the room, I wasn’t sure we’d get to any of the course content if we all had a chance to talk about who we were and why we were there. However, I was inspired to hear about community gardening initiatives around the city that I hadn’t heard of before like an international garden for new immigrants and workforce initiatives for developmentally disabled adults. I also got a sense of why other individuals and their families are joining the food revolution, much of which echoed my own – everything from the pure love of growing one’s own food, to a desire for self-sufficiency, to wanting one’s grand-kids to know where their food comes from. It was welcome inspiration.
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
Like much of North America, we’ve been experiencing record cold temperatures in central Ohio this winter. This has folks all over town dreaming of warmer days. And gardens. We’re doing more than just dreaming. We’re sowing seeds.
The past few years we’ve been planting things earlier and earlier, but this is definitely a new record.
The past 48 hours we’ve been priming a few spinach seeds Jodi picked up at the City Folks Farm Shop seed swap a few weeks back. We have some nice south-facing window sills in the kitchen we’re going to try to grow them on, but if that’s not enough light, we’ll move them under the grow lights. Next week we’ll plant another round.
There are few things more magical than watching things grow up from seeds. With the weather as cold as it’s been around here, we could all use the distraction.