“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.
Four days ago I planted some cucumber seeds, among others. I placed the tray on the DIY Warming Mat Dan and I made a few weeks ago.
I peaked under their saran wrap blanket this morning and saw nothing. This afternoon, this.
One of the things we’re most excited about experimenting with this spring and fall are tunnels – high and low. Tunnels are used to extend the growing and harvesting seasons. A tunnel over a garden bed creates a microclimate which magically transports the soil and air 500 miles south. So, in the spring, we can use low tunnels to get a jump on the growing season, and in the fall, we can use them to protect crops from the frost. The tunnels will behave similarly to our coldframe.
Last week, Jesse Hickman of Local Matters – Columbus’s leading non-profit dedicated to “transforming the food system” and a co-sponsor of farm school – offered to lend me a low hoop bender the organization owns. I jumped at the opportunity and made use a few recent sunny days with temperatures over 30 degrees to give it a spin. I stabilized the bender on picnic table in a green space behind a bank and a funeral home at the end of our block and set to work. Dogs from adjacent lots were barking at me and I was waiting for the bank security to come ask me what I was building. All part of the urban farming experience, I suppose.
As Jesse predicted, my first attempt at bending the 1/2 inch electrical metal conduit was a wonky, lopsided mess. But I quickly got the hang of it and we now possess 16 hoops 4 ft in diameter and 4 feet high. Hope to install these guys the second week in March and move some seedlings into them. Will also be experimenting with direct seeding under the tunnels. Stay tuned…
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.]
A few years back, Dan bought me a compost bin for my birthday. It was a bit unconventional as far as gifts go, and I went totally gaga over it. Neither one of us is too particular about holiday gifts and years go by when one or the other of us misses a birthday or anniversary. Valentine’s Day doesn’t even make it on the radar.
But we did work on something together this past week for the farm that seems worth mentioning in honor of this day dedicated to spreading the warmth of love; a heating mat for seed germination. We borrowed the plans from The Vegetable Gardener. Dan did the carpentry, Cora and I ran the drill. The mat will help us raise the temperature of our coco as we start seeds for heat-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers. We’ll be testing it out this weekend on some marigold seeds. Stay tuned.
The seasonally-changing sign outside City Folks Farm Shop, our local urban homesteading store, currently reads “Experience the Germination Sensation.” It captures the magic I feel when we see seedlings peaking their heads out of the soil, or in the case of these little guys, out of the coconut husk fiber. So, the only question left to ask, “Are you experienced?”