Sunday, April 21, 2013

My Garden - 21 April 2013

It was cool and very windy this weekend but I was able to get some work done on my garden anyway.

I had covered my garden with about four inches of mulched grass and leaves in the fall and that had rotted down to less than two inches. There was much more mulch left than in previous years; usually there is barely a trace of material remaining after the six months have passed.  That could be because it was so cold this winter and it was a long winter. 

So I tilled it all under, which took three passes with my tiller. Mixing the remaining material into the soil should speed up its final decomposition. While this is happening though the nitrogen levels in the soil will drop. The good bacteria in your soil use nitrogen as fuel to decompose organic materials. So I will give it two weeks before I plant anything in the main garden bed. But I did plant some things this weekend. How will they grow in a low nitrogen soil?

First, I have to remind you that I have an active three-bin composting set-up. Right now I have one 64 cubic foot bin full to within inches of the top. I have one full bin that is about half way through its decomposition but is cold right now (no active decomposition) and one 3/4s full bin about half way through its decomposition. I cut my grass with my lawn vacuum attached, which sucked up and mulched grass, twigs, pine needles, and leaves. I added this to a half full bin and mixed it all up to aerate and level out the moisture content. Within 12 hours it was a hot, active compost pile. This Saturday I mixed it again to get oxygen into the mix and it was steaming hot. I will mix it once a week and it will cook down very quickly.

So I have no shortage of aged, rich compost and that will supply all the nutrients new plants will need until the rest of the garden soil breaks down and is stabilized. I also saved all my wood ashes from my fire place and have five gallons of ash to add potash to the soil. Potash is very water soluble and it washes out of the soil with rain.

I like to add walkways in my garden to keep it clean and avoid compacting the soil. It is true, I do lose some growing space but the soil under the pavers holds moisture and nutrients for the plants that grow near them. Secondly, I can pick them up and move them at any time, which I will do with successive plantings. The two blocks I set up here did not have a mulch cover on them all winter. In this area I amended the soil in the fall and then covered the space with clear plastic. So it had all winter to break down. It the rear-most block I planted Yellow Onion sets. There are fifty onions planted four inches apart and one inch deep.

In the front bed I set in four tomato cages and planted pea seeds around the base of each. The peas will grow and climb the cages. Peas are legumes. Legumes take nitrogen from the air and "fix" it to their roots. When the peas are finished and harvested I will cut the plants off at the ground and all that free nitrogen they collected will remain in the soil for the next (successive) plants I put in there.

I laid plastic down to warm the soil and speed up the decomposition process. I will plant potatoes there next weekend. I bought seed potatoes for the first time in maybe twenty years. I normally just store 15-20 small potatoes from one year over the winter. I keep them in a cool, dark space in a paper bag and they sprout at each eye. Then I plant them deep and the sprouts convert to roots and top growth. How they know to do both I have no idea but it works. However, since I lived in The Netherlands last year I have no carry-overs and am starting from scratch. Seed potatoes must be conditioned before you can plant them. On Wednesday I will cut up the seed potatoes so that each piece has two eyes. Then I will set them out in my apartment to dry. They will be ready to plant on Saturday. If you just cut them up and plant them, many of them will just rot in the cold, wet soil.

This picture isn't great but you should be able to see radishes on the left and spinach on the right lower parts of the bed. This is inside my new cold frame. Unfortunately, I don't live at my house full-time and the soil is a bit dry. I watered the ground Saturday and Sunday so hopefully the onion and lettuce seeds will sprout soon too.

This is my strawberry bed. I planted 22 plants on Sunday. I am a little disappointed with Gurney's, they shorted me three plants. I paid for 25. I planted them 15 inches apart and used a cup of compost in the bottom of each plant hole. Now I am hoping that we don't get a serious freeze before the plants are set and growing.

These are my three blueberry bushes. I planted them five years ago and they are now about four feet high and three feet in diameter. They will produce about a gallon of berries this year, maybe a bit more. When the berries actually form, in June, I have to cover them with bird netting to keep them from being eaten by the birds and other small animals.

Here is a money-saver for you; free plant propagation. I have two raised beds, in wood boxes, that I used two years ago to root cuttings from some trees on my property. I rooted a dozen willow and a dozen hybred-populars. I hope to plant these around my property this spring. This could also be done with fruit trees, berry bushes, and decorative plants to save you money and grow more food. On Sunday I also "heeled in" a dozen hemlock rooted seedlings.These came from The Arbor Foundation. My mother-in-law made a donation to the foundaton and received 12 seedlings.  I did not have time to plant them in the yard so I did a temporary planting in my box. I can then pull them and plant them when I have more time. 

Grow your own for a secure supply of clean, pesticide-free food. Stay tuned for updates on my garden.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Build a Cold Frame

What is a cold frame? In its simplest form it is just a box with a transparent cover, which allows you to start seeds or plants outside when it is still too cold to plant in the garden. The transparent cover lets in sunlight, which warms up everything inside of the box and the soil. While the sunlight is not as direct or as strong as it is in the main growing season, it is enough to get plants started or even to grow cool season crops like lettuce, spinach, radishes, and onions, to name but a few.

I have wanted a cold frame for many years. My dad had one when I was a kid but I don't remember how successful he was with it. I used plastic sheeting in The Netherlands to create something similar to a cold frame and it was very effective.

Being a bit of a cheapskate, I wanted to build one for as little cost as possible. Below is my project.

Keeping cost in mind, I choose to use 5/4 inch deck boards for my box. 2x6s or 2x8s could also be used and would have a better insulating value but they would cost twice as much. I bought seven 5/4"x6"x8' boards for my project. What I have found over the years is that these boards are saturated and if you build something and let them dry quickly outside they will warp and split something terrible. So I now stack them in my garage with slats between them and the top board weighted down so that they dry slowly and evenly. The weights, in this case pavers, keep them flat as they dry. It took three weeks to dry them and I put a fan on them for the last couple days.

To cut down on waste and to get the biggest number of square feet inside the box, I cut my boards so I had a five foot piece and a three foot piece. That would give me 15 square feet of soil surface once the box was put together. If I had cut the boards in half, two four foot pieces, I would have 16 square feet of soil surface but it is very hard to reach to the back of a four foot box. You should always cut treated lumber in a well vented area so that you aren't breathing in the fumes and saw dust. I used my garage with all the doors open. It gave me a flat work area and plenty of fresh air.

Always use a square to get 90 degree cuts and accurate measurements. It is not fine cabinetry but it will certainly look better and be stronger with accurate cuts. I used my battery powered circular saw, one of the best free scavenged items I have found. It was perfect for this project. But you could do this with a plug in circular saw, a table saw, or even a hand saw. I did finish a few cuts with a hand saw so that I wouldn't have over-run cuts.

I used two inch deck screws to attach all the parts. Treated lumber, and being outdoors, will rust plain screws or nails in a short time. I prefer screws to nails because they hold tighter, stay tight longer, and can be taken apart easier if you make a mistake (which I did) or you need to make an adjustment. Deck screws are self tapping but I always pre-drill screw holes. That eliminates splitting. I used a bar clamp to ensure the boards were tight together. The box should be as air-tight as possible to retain the heat.

Each corner was braced with a 2x2 instead of trying to screw the flat boards together. This is much easier and far stronger. The long sides had a third brace in the center, which you will see in the next pictures. My boards were not perfect, they seldom are, and so I chinked between the boards with sisal twine, much like wooden ships were chinked, or lapped, in the old days. When the twine gets wet it will expand and completely seal the small gaps. I used a putty knife to force the twine into the hair line gaps.

 As you can see in the photos I set the box on a foundation of brick. It is not necessary but I like the look and it helps to protect the bottom of the box when I am working the soil with tools.

Here you can see the two center braces to strengthen the long side of the box. The front brace is on the inside and the rear brace is on the outside. The rear brace is on the outside because I installed a long mirror inside the box, as you'll see below.

For this spring I just used a plastic bag that I had in the garage to cover my lid. It came from a large poster my son bought. Perfect fit. The lid is another 5/4x6x8 that I ripped to two inches and then cut to length. The center piece is one inch wide. The top frame is glued and screwed together and is quite sturdy. I attached the lid to the box with four small hinges. You can see the mirror inside. This will reflect light from the back of the box to the front during the early part of the day. This lights up a shadowed area.

And here is the finished Cold Frame. I will install a latch on the lid so the wind doesn't blow it open and I have ordered an automatic opening device so that the box doesn't over heat and cook the plants. Everything combined was less than $50 plus the opening device was another $44. It wouldn't be necessary if I lived there full time; I could raise and lower the lid as needed.

Last weekend, after placing the Cold Frame in my garden, I planted onion, radish, lettuce, and spinach seeds using the square foot gardening method. I should have some plants growing by next week. I'll keep you posted.