The Early Bird Catches the Arugula… And the Chard, Spinach & Lettuce too!

February 19th, 2011 § 10

Arugula in the Hoophouse, January

Let’s start out with a bit of honesty, shall we? The four season harvest isn’t for wimps. Winter gardening  —growing plants in temperatures below freezing to sub-zero, beneath plastic sheeting— isn’t a natural act. And although I enjoy a good game of woman vs. wild, sometimes winter gets to be a bit much around here. Shoveling decks, terraces, walkways and woodpiles is a lot of work. And now that I’ve added potager path-clearing and hoophouse roof-raking to the list, I’ve created quite a snow-removal burden. So why do it? Because the taste of fresh arugula and the smell of damp earth on a cold February day is —as the people at Mastercard say— priceless. And I think a jump-start to the short, northern growing season is worth a little extra work (OK, so it’s a lot of extra work).

Look at that delicious earth! Would you believe this photo was taken just yesterday…

Inside this unheated hoophouse the smell of sweet, springtime soil fills the moist air!

Raking out hoophouse soil to prepare for late winter crop sowing

Over the past three years —cooking more at home and experimenting in my kitchen— I’ve become more and more interested in four-season vegetable gardening. And although I haven’t made the leap to a heated greenhouse yet, I’ve found that with proper timing, I can keep some crops going in my hoophouses year round. Greens sown in late fall will germinate and then continue to grow (albeit much more slowly) throughout the short, cold days of winter. Tender crops are out of the question of course, but tasty root vegetables sown in early autumn can be harvested from cold houses straight into the new year. Seedlings require light to grow —10-12 hours of daylight is a good rule of thumb— so the sowing of seed is suspended during the weeks leading up to —and about a month and a half after– the winter solstice. But come late January, February and March —when the days are getting longer, and sunlight is getting stronger — I can begin sowing cold-hardy, late winter crops in my unheated hoophouses, for early spring harvest. Yesterday I planted a variety of greens in house #3 (arugula, chard, spinach, lettuce and mesclun mix), and I pulled spent crops and turned soil in house #1 to prepare for more planting (carrots, radishes and other crops) on my next free afternoon. If you are interested in learning more about the four-season harvest and winter vegetable gardening, I highly recommend Eliot Coleman’s books. And if you’d like to build a hoophouse of your own this spring (I now have four, with three currently in use) click here for basic plans. I’m hoping to upgrade to a larger, walk-in cold house this year.

Hoophouses protecting early fall-sown crops in late December, just before the snow (automatic back vents help moderate temperatures)

Sowing crops in hoophouse #3: Mid-February

Gardening in winter is all about science, but it sure feels like magic when you can reach your hand into sweet, sun-warmed earth on a cold and windy day. And it’s even more spectacular when you’re enjoying your own salad greens and root vegetables —harvested from an icy, snow-covered garden— at dinner in January and February. Winter pasta with fresh arugula, root-cellared onions and olive-oil preserved, sun-dried tomatoes —all from the garden— now that is priceless…

Arugula harvested from the hoophouse

Pasta with freshly harvested arugula — plus caramelized onions, braided & stored in the root cellar and sun-dried tomatoes, preserved in olive oil— all from the garden…

Here’s the potager, with house #1 and #2 buried by nearly 3′ of snow and ice. I still can’t believe they didn’t collapse. And yes, I shoveled them out all by myself. Sadly, Alfred hasn’t left Batman for me yet. I can’t figure out why…

Mountains of shoveling…

Followed by more shoveling…

And bringing in wood…

But who wouldn’t appreciate the beauty that makes it all worthwhile…

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Article and photos ⓒ Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

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The Electric Gardener: Guest Post by Ted Dillard of The Electric Chronicles…

October 18th, 2010 § 3

“Get that evil, oily, smelly, loud machine out of my garden!”  This was the response I got from a dear friend and gardener, as I pointed my 1967 Gravely tractor with the “Power Plow” attachment –– a tool that can only be described as a food processor for soil–– towards the task of turning her vegetable garden one spring. Here, I thought I was being such a nice guy. She was a soil-studies major at the University of Maine, and lord help you if you called it “dirt”. My friend’s contention that the grease, oil and airborne pollutants coming out of my venerable old tractor is bad for her plants is far from unfounded. Small engines have virtually no anti-pollution and emission controls required. As a result, “A 2001 study showed that some mowers emit the same amount of pollution (emissions other than carbon dioxide) in one hour as driving a 1992 model car for 650 miles (1,050 km).[10]. Another estimate puts the amount of pollution from a lawn mower at four times the amount from a car, per hour” (from Wikipedia) – not to mention the noise.

So what are the alternatives when power tools are necessary in the garden? The mower above was found on Craigslist for free – a little electric mower that wore out its batteries.  I picked it up and tossed some of my old scooter batteries in, and voila- I’d saved the thing from the landfill, used my old scooter batteries for something worthwhile, and got myself a cordless electric lawnmower.  This got me to thinking —I know, a dangerous thing— how much of a normal compliment of yard and garden equipment could be electric, or could be converted to electric?  I’ve been using a corded electric lawnmover and weedwacker for years. From the perspective of noise-control alone, it’s a wonderful alternative. An electric lawnmower simply makes a whirring sound, and depending on how close your neighbors live, you can run it in the early hours of a weekend morning with no fear of waking the entire neighborhood. For a small lawn or garden, and with a little practice and observance of the prime rule of electric corded lawnmowing (always turn the handle towards the cord source, never away), it’s a perfect solution. You don’t get how much the smog coming out of a mower affects you —personally— until you use an electric machine, and begin to notice that you can breathe, your ears don’t ring and your clothes don’t stink.

But what else is out there? A simple search for “electric garden tools” reveals a staggering array of stuff: from lawn mowers and string trimmers right on up to electric chippers, log splitters, chain sawsrototillers, and the list goes on. Many of the tools are for a small urban or suburban lawn or garden, and some of them are pretty robust. Most of the big tools are corded, so you’re limited to using them within 100 feet or so of your outlet, and this does take some getting used to. But, hearing the birds singing while you’re mowing the grass is —well, to coin a phrase— priceless! Battery powered tools are also an option, and in terms of charging, solar kits are getting remarkably affordable – so are wind turbines.  And, the stuff can be bought at places like Northern Tool.

Interested in further exploring the possibilities of electric power tools, battery charging systems and other environmentally-friendly garden and home solutions? For more information and specifics on solar, wind and battery technology (and electric motorcycles too!), visit Ted Dillard’s awesome blog, The Electric Chronicles, for more details.

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Article excerpt and photo at top ⓒ 2010 Ted Dillard

Thank you Ted Dillard !

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