Winter Gardening


Over the past couple of days we were hit with a big snowstorm.  I think we got about a foot or so of snow, strong winds and single digit temps.    Today was sunny and 15 degrees so it was a great day to make a video today of some of the things I have going on in the way of winter gardening:

Last year I built an insulated cold frame in a woodworking class with an old window.  I used it to start some seeds in the late winter, which worked out pretty well.  It’s keeping some arugula, beets and spinach alive right now but I think it doesn’t get as much sunlight as it should for a few reasons.   Either way, it’s working


Petco had a sale on aquariums earlier in the year so I picked up a 40 gallon one for as many dollars.   Honestly, you can probably find used aquariums on Craigslist or whatever for dirt cheap but I figured the price wasn’t too bad and if I did decide to do an aquaponics system, I could use it for that during the other three seasons.    I like the idea of using an upside down aquarium for a greenhouse because it’s really simple AND effective.


Close up of arugula and spinach under the aquarium

The greenhouse I’m using is this one:

So far I’m into it.   It’s a little over $200 (Amazon’s free shipping really feels like a deal on this one), 8′ x 6′ and 7′ high.  It was easy to put up and it held up just fine with the heavy snow on it and the winds blowing.   I bought the stakes and put a couple of them in.    I need to put a thermometer in there, but it definitely feels a lot warmer in there than it does outside.   I have 4′ x 8′ garden beds and it fits comfortably over one of them, with enough room to move around on one side.  You can enter from the front or the back, so it’s easy to get around.

I’ve got snow peas, pac choi, turnips, beets, carrots, spinach, lettuce and radishes as well as some random dill, cilantro, onions and some kind of brassicas.

I go out and check on the plants just about every day, but I think I could get away with letting them go for a week or so between visits.   They don’t need much water because the covering keeps a lot of the moisture in.   The greenhouse is very humid and the aquarium always has condensation.

We’ve had some warm days this winter and some cold ones that probably would’ve killed these plants if they weren’t protected, but from what I read solar exposure is the key factor for winter growing over warm temps.   My plants are growing slower than they would in the spring, but that’s because the days are so short.

I read this book a month or so ago, which gave me some good insight on winter growing as well as some interesting history about market gardening and great photos:

I think it’s geared towards commercial growers over backyard growers, but there’s still a lot of good info in this one.

I’ve been using what I’m growing very sparingly, just because it’s not growing very fast.   I’ll have a small salad every now and then or a few leaves of kale with a stir-fry.  Oh yeah, I’m still using kale and collards from the garden, but that will be gone in a matter of days.   The arugula tastes really good right now, the weather makes it a bit milder.   The stuff that we had growing through the summer tasted like gunpowder.

Leafy things are doing better than roots.   I thought my radishes would do better, but they aren’t.    The spinach looks great and I’ll probably start eating it next week.   There’s quite a bit of it too, so if the sunlight picks up I might be able to make it until spring.

It will probably get consistently colder from here on out, but since today was the winter solstice we’ll get a little more daylight each day.   My original goal was to at least make it to the new year, but it looks like that shouldn’t be a problem.   Maybe I’ll check back in later in January.

So that’s what I have going on right now.    It’s nice to have something to tend to during the winter and to be able to go out and see that vibrant green in the middle of the snow.   EAD, Jack Frost.

Early Progress in the 2012 Gardening Season

So far things are looking good and all the warm weather has me thinking that spring will be here at any moment, but I know that mother nature can throw a curve ball every now and then.   I’m hoping that in the next two weeks I can start things from seed like radishes, beets, turnips, greens and lettuce.   We’ll see.

Last night I picked up enough lumber to build 3 4×8 garden beds.   I’d like to have those clobbered together within the next two weeks and then start procuring soil/yard debris to fill them in.   Last year I used a ton of sticks and leaves as filler material at the bottom of the beds, which meant that I needed less soil.  It also means that I’ll have more decaying organic material and a store of water, per the principles of hugelkultur.     I’m not sure if I’ll have enough room for a fourth bed (bringing the grand total to eight beds), but if I do I’m sure I’ll put it in.     The beds are fairly easy to construct, so that’s not a big deal.  It’s just a matter of finding the time and decent weather.

While going through my current beds, I found some carrots that appear to have overwintered, as well as a lone onion.    It appears as if my kale, spinach and swiss chard overwintered as well and is beginning to show signs of life again.

In my woodworking class I finished my cold frame – this thing is a beast.    I came into the class with a general plan based off 99% of what’s out there on the internet, which is “clobber together a box, get a window, put some hinges on it and fasten it on”.   That idea wasn’t good enough for the instructor, so he got out the drawing board and designed a plan for it (I’ll post pictures shortly).   As far as posting plans, I’ll have to see if I can come up with something to modify some of the cuts as equipment that is probably not readily available to the average DIYer was used.      Five or six people signed up for the class and for the past two sessions, I was the only one that showed up so the instructor was able to put a lot of time and effort into the plans.    I think this one is definitely sound enough to get some things through the winter.

I put the cold frame out and started some spinach, butterhead lettuce, dill, swiss chard and radishes.   So far nothing has sprouted, but it should be a matter of days before I start seeing things.     It would be nice to start getting a few things from the garden around the first-middle part of April – we’ll see.

The soil cubes are off to a good start and I’m getting some sprouts.   I’m going to start some more shortly to get some herbs going.    Right now we have cabbage, a few Italian broccoli plants, a couple cauliflower seedlings and brussels sprouts as well as a mustard, collard and swiss chard seedling.   I should be looking good there.   In a few weeks I’ll start some tomato and pepper plants.

I haven’t ordered my trees yet, but it’s looking like we’ll have the largest mini-orchard in Central Iowa.    I have about $600 worth of plants in my Raintree Nursery wishlist.   I’ve been sitting on it for a few days to see if I *really* think I need everything, but I think we can handle all of those trees, I think they’ll be worth it, we’ll be able to take them with us when/if we move and it should be fun.     Planting that many trees into large containers will be a chore, but manageable.

I need to get a new rain barrel after last year’s collapsible one broke.   This was my fault – I put it on uneven ground and it filled up during a storm and fell over – the force of the water tore the top off.   I bought a collapsible one because I thought I was going to use it at an offsite garden.   Had it been on level ground, I think it would have actually been a good piece of gear to have, considering you can easily store it away in the off season and it would be good for temporary situations (renters, offsite gardening, etc).  Here is a link to it:   Smart Solar Rain Barrel  .    Iowa Prison Industries was taking reclaimed 55 gallon drums and adding the necessary hardware to them and selling them at a low price ($20 if memory serves me right).

I also need to procure some hardwood logs soon in order to get some mushrooms started.   I totally dropped the ball on this one last year.   Mushrooms do better in wood harvested early in the spring, so I need to start getting serious about this one.    I know of a property I can check out for fallen/about to fall branches and if that doesn’t work, I might contact a park ranger and ask if he knows of any recently fallen trees I can take from.   You never know…

So everything is starting to come together right now.    I think we’re set for a good year in 2012.