Spring Has Sprung

…With A Cold Shoulder

I took the day off from work yesterday and the weather was on my side.  Still plenty of snow on the ground but the temperature had soared to nearly 60°F.  The honeybees should have been out and about now with a temperature this high, but alas, none to be seen.  So I decided to inspect one hive.  Intrinsically I knew I had to face my fear somehow.  It’s better to know early than not know at all.  I suspected they may have died of starvation since the weather has been inconsistent.  That forces the bees to consume their stored food faster leaving them with nothing inside and nothing for them to forage outside.  But I wasn’t expecting what I saw.  There were no bees in the hive.  None at all.

I ended up opening all the hives.  My worst fear had come true.  There were only a few dead bees in each hive which was otherwise empty.  There were plenty of capped and uncapped honey frames in each hive but no live occupants.

First sadness hit, then depression, then self-doubt….what did I do wrong?  I’ve been taking a mite count throughout the season and it’s been very low.  We provided clean water.  We provided food, with the supporting evidence of plenty left over in each hive. The only thing I did not do was treat them with chemicals.  But I have never treated them from the start.  They were fine and happy for many years, from one generation to the next, living their lives naturally.

I’m still sad and depressed but giving up is not in my nature.  I will clean up the empty hives on my next day off and have them readied for new occupants.  New honeybee packages are coming in next month and I hope we will work well together like their long gone relatives.

But there was a bright part of the day…I finally dug my way to the igloo, my cold frame.  What was left in there were carrots, Mustard greens, a few Pac choi too.  The lettuce I had sown in January had come up, barely reaching half an inch.

The path I had to dig to get to the cold frame
Pulled some fresh carrots from inside the cold frame. Small but tasty.

I pulled weeds out, watered the soil a little and sowed a few more seeds: Mizuna, Mustard greens, Radish, Arugula, Chinese broccoli, and more lettuce.  They should start to sprout in a week and within a couple more weeks I can have my first salad of the season.

Sowed some seeds after pulling carrots and clearing some dead vegetables

Our resident Eastern Bluebirds are also looking for a nest box in our yard and haven’t given up despite harassment from the House sparrow.

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds enjoy their meal and keep their eyes on their prospect home

As the Buddhists say, ‘all is impermanence.’  There will be more honeybees.  The garden is still there and this year’s seedlings are all sprouting high in the house and itching to get their feet in the ground outside.  I really can’t complain.

 

Hello Spring

With Snow On The Ground

We had around two feet of snow last Tuesday and most of it is still on the ground.  The daytime temperatures are hovering between 30 and 40°F which isn’t helping to melt it.  Today is the official first day of spring but outside, you would never know it.  It’s more like ‘Hello spring, where are you?’ to me.  Crocuses, Hellebores and Snowdrops were completely buried under.  My little cold frame looks more like a little igloo in the garden.

It’s not only me that was fooled by nature, the Robins have already made an appearance despite the snow.  The American Goldfinches have started to drop their winter coats.  We try to help them by providing food and water when there isn’t much out there for them besides endless snow.

A male American Goldfinch, amidst snow fall, starting to show their bright yellow plumage, their summer color.
Cold frame is covered with snow. I’ll try to dig my way there to see how it looks inside.

I had sown some lettuce seeds inside the cold frame a couple of weeks ago because I wasn’t expecting to get this much snow around now.  I’ll dig my way in there tomorrow to see how they are doing.

Though it doesn’t look like spring outside, a new cycle of life, a new season, has already begun inside the house.  This is the time I usually start tomato, pepper, eggplant, Swiss chard and kale seedlings.  The first three need to be done around 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost so they can have enough time to grow, bear fruits and ripen.  As for the Swiss chard and kale, they like cold weather anyway so I can put them out in the garden early.

Variety of tomato and pepper seedlings for the new season
Variety of Swiss chard and Kale seedlings

Next, is prepping tropical plants in the basement for their summer outdoors.  Spring should come around the corner and stay within a few weeks.  But who knows? We had snow in April.

 

 

 

Cold Frame – Spring

Early Start

I finally had a chance to do something in the garden.  My spring itch has subsided a little bit once I had the chance to get my hands dirty.   The garden is still covered with a foot or so of snow that is slowly melting away.  We made a path to the bird feeder a few weeks ago and today I made an extension path to the vegetable garden.

I opened up the cold frame for the first time today.  It has been closed up for the last three months.  I had good intensions to grow and harvest vegetables in winter but I couldn’t get access to it.  With three feet of snow covering the vegetable garden and temperatures that dropped to below 0 degrees Fahrenheit and sometimes double digits below, I didn’t expect to see anything alive in there.  I also haven’t been able to water inside since I closed it up.

This is what our cold frame looked like in winter.  Snow covered up to half of the frame.
This is what our cold frame looked like in winter. Snow covered up to half of the frame.

The temperature was hovering around 40 degree and I managed to dig my way there so it’s a good day to check the inside.  As soon as I pulled the tape off and opened the plastic ‘door’, I could feel the heat rushing out.  To my surprise, there were some red lettuces, mustard greens ‘Dragon tongue’, Mizuna, Red Russian Kale, Swiss chard and some carrots that survived the ordeal.  Not in such a good shape though.  These are the ones that made it through winter as seedlings and now they are not much bigger.  There are also some new seedlings that sprouted up.  I have no idea what they are.  My best guess is either Broccoli Raab or Pak Choi.

The survivors: Mustard green 'Dragon tongue', Mizuna, Swiss chard 'Ruby red'.  A lot of their leaves have dried up
The survivors: Mustard green ‘Dragon tongue’, Mizuna, Swiss chard ‘Ruby red’. A lot of their leaves have dried up. Even without watering for the last three months, the soil in side is still moist.
As much as their leaves look very fragile, this red leaf lettuce pulled through.
As much as their leaves look very fragile, this red leaf lettuce pulled through.
I pulled one of this Mustard green 'Dragon tongue' and tasted it.  It was surprisingly sweeter than in summer.
I pulled one of this Mustard green ‘Dragon tongue’ and tasted it. It was surprisingly sweeter than in summer.

I took my time cleaning up inside the cold frame; pulling up the dead, clipping off dry and rotten leaves, and pulling up weeds and moss.  Then I put new seeds in.  The day time temperatures are still around 30 and 40 degrees fahrenheit and at night will drop down ten points or more most of the time.  However, the temperature inside the cold frame is much warmer because of the heat trapped inside.  So, this is a good time to put seeds in to get a head start for salad and transplanting later on.

I’m happy and satisfied getting my hands dirty.  In two to three weeks, we will have baby greens for salad.  The vegetables that survive the winter will also be big enough to harvest for soup and stir-fry.

After cleaning up, sowing new seeds and watering.
After cleaning up, sowing new seeds and watering.
Ready to close up again.  See you in a couple of weeks or when the weather allows.
Ready to close up again. See you in a couple of weeks or when the weather allows.

By the time we finish with the greens, the temperature outside should be warm enough to transplant Swiss chard and kale to their permanent spots.  The following are the seeds I put in, most of them do well in cooler temperatures.

  • Lettuce: Green Oakleaf, Danyelle (red leaf), Black Seeded Simpson
  • Swiss chard: Fordhook giant, Ruby red
  • Kale: Red Russian, Nero Di Toscana
  • Radish: French breakfast, Sparkler white tip, Red meat
  • Edible Chrysanthemum (Shungiku or Tang Oh): Round leaf, Serrated leaf
  • Chinese broccoli
  • Pac choi:  Green, Red choi
  • Komatsuna
  • Arugula ‘Astro’
  • Carrot ‘Short ‘n Sweet’
  • Mesclun (arugula, red Russian kale, endive, chervil, Raddichio, red romaine, and Bibb)

Winter Vegetables

Getting Ready For Winter

There is not much left in the vegetable garden especially after temperatures dropped below 20º F.  I didn’t have time to cover the plants outside the cold frame: Mizuna, Broccoli Raab, Scallion, and Mustard Green.  But they perked up a little bit once the temperature climbed above 50º F.  Heavy snow is predicted for today so I harvested some Mizuna and Swiss Chard and steamed them with fresh tuna yesterday before they got buried under the snow.

This winter will be the second year we put up a cold frame.  Last year was our experiment in growing vegetables in winter under a cold frame without extra help from a heater.   We started the whole process very late last year and the winter was extreme, but we still had salad when it was freezing outside.  The frame nearly collapsed from heavy snow piled on it but it was very encouraging to be able to have fresh greens from our own garden in March.  We have assembled everything early this year.  We also added supporting bars to the hoops so we won’t have to hold our breath during a heavy snow fall.

Our cold frame last winter had become a little igloo.  The frame slightly collapsed inward from heavy snow.
Our cold frame last winter had become a little igloo. The frame slightly collapsed inward from heavy snow.
This year's cold frame with three additional supporting bars.
This year’s cold frame with three additional supporting bars.

I’ve sown Chinese Broccoli, Kale, Swiss chard, Chinese celery and Arugula in this plot in early September.  They’re growing quite nicely.  Mustard Green ‘Dragon Tongue’ sprouting up from fresh compost I added to the plot is a pleasant surprise.  Pac Choi seeds sown weeks ago also sprouted but turned out to be Mizuna instead.  This mislabeled seed package has become my problem lately since I frequently forget to label the seed pod packs when drying them.  Unfortunately they all tend to look alike.  Too late to sow another Pac Choi in there for this winter; they wouldn’t sprout until next spring.

Arugula and Swiss chard seedlings in early September.
Arugula and Swiss chard seedlings in early September.
Arugula and Swiss chard in late October
Arugula and Swiss chard in late October

Slugs have eaten all lettuce seedlings.  My second batch will have to be in the house as baby greens instead of full grown lettuce.  I put a beer filled container in there but only two slugs took the bait.  I think they only go for fresh beer, not the one that their comrades have already drowned in.  I picked off a few more fat slugs yesterday and don’t know when my next chance to check inside the frame will be, hopefully it will be cold enough to slow their metabolism down.

Chinese broccoli looks perky and happy in there.
Chinese broccoli looks perky and happy in there.
Swiss chard among Mustard green 'Dragon tongue' and Edible Chrysanthemum
Swiss chard among Mustard green ‘Dragon tongue’ and Edible Chrysanthemum

Now the slugs have moved on to devouring the Mustard green ‘Dragon tongue’ seedlings (above image).  Surprisingly enough they won’t touch the Edible Chrysanthemum sowed since spring.  It’s a vegetable worth growing because I can sow it once in spring and keep harvesting it until late fall.  I cut them again yesterday but left enough stems to see how they will weather this winter in the cold frame.

Snow is coming down today and expected to be around a foot by its end.  Hopefully I can make a path to the cold frame and pick some salad tomorrow.

 

Great references for growing winter vegetables:

  • Four-Season Harvest: Organic vegetables from your home garden all year long by Eliot Coleman
  • Salad Leaves For All Seasons: Organic growing from pot to plot by Charles Dowding

 

 

Benefits Of A Cold Frame

Early Bounty

We set up a cold frame for the first time last autumn but it didn’t do much for us this winter because we installed it so late in the season.   However, it provided us with a place to start our vegetables early.  The seeds were sown in March when some days were still hovering around 20ºF here.  We were able to pick our first salad of the season in April when  temperatures outside were in the mid 30ºF to low 50ºF.

The weather is still unpredictable.  Temperatures have been swinging between 70ºF daytime and a low around 40ºF at night.  It’s still too cold for many vegetables to germinate outside, but I have sown scallion, Mustard ‘Dragon Tongue’ and Oakleaf lettuce in the plot outside the cold frame and it seems to be taking them a little bit longer to sprout.  But I can wait as I still have a lot of vegetables to pick from in the cold frame.

Aside from being able to grow leafy vegetables in the cold frame on an early schedule, I’m also able to use it for strengthening the seedlings.  Plenty of sunlight can get through the plastic but not direct sun and it stays warm enough in there to avoid stunting the growth of the seedlings.  I have to be careful to open it up during the day when the temperature reaches above 50ºF.   It becomes a sauna in there if I don’t open it.   Too hot or too cold is never good for growing anything.

This one worked so well that I’m tempted to get a larger one that will cover the entire vegetable plot.  Maybe I could go through winter without ever buying salad from a store.

Plenty of Pac Choi and Red-leaf lettuce in there with flowering Broccoli Raab in the background
Plenty of Pac Choi and Red-leaf lettuce in there with flowering Broccoli Raab in the background
French Breakfast and Cherry Belle Radish with Kale and self-sown Dills and Calendula
French Breakfast and Cherry Belle Radish with Kale and self-sown Dills and Calendula
A lot of Mizuna, Arugula and some Kale
A lot of Mizuna, Arugula and some Kale

 

Cold Frame Unveiled

It worked!

Last year was the first time I grew vegetable in a cold frame.  It was an experiment in extending the growing season without using a heater.  I started late in autumn so the seedlings didn’t have much of a chance to build up strength.  The winter was also brutally cold with temperatures dropping below 0ºF for several days at a time.  Two feet of snow completely blocked the path to the cold frame and turned it into an isolated igloo-like structure.

I didn’t expect anything to survive in there.  The weekend before last when it rose above 40ºF, I decided to open the plastic cover for the first time.  To my surprise, some red leaf lettuce, kale and broccoli raab I had sown last fall survived.  The parsley I transplanted there also survived.  The cold frame actually works.  If I had started it early in the fall and had access to it I would have had a better outcome.  I still have more to learn as well as adjustments to this system.

Almost three months of no watering and most of the soil was still damp though parts of the top layer had dried up in places.  The plastic cover is not just to keep the cold air out but also to keep the heat and moisture in.  After opening it, I kept the plastic cover open on both ends to allow fresh air to flow through and for me to be able to water the soil inside.  Then I sowed Pac choi, Arugula, Chinese celery and Mizuna inside.  The Pac choi sprouted first, six days later.

I opened the cover again this weekend and kept it open for most of the day as it wasn’t very windy and the temperature stayed above 40ºF.  I also put in spinach, French radish and Cherry belle radish seeds.  If everything works right in the cold frame, I won’t have to wait much longer for my first backyard salad.

This is the cold frame looked in winter
This is the cold frame looked in winter
Broccoli raab in the cold frame
Broccoli raab in the cold frame last weekend
To my surprise, some Red leaf lettuce also alive in there
To my surprise, some Red leaf lettuce also alive in there
Kale seedling from last winter
Kale seedling from last winter
Pac Choi seedlings from seeds sown a week ago
Pac Choi seedlings from seeds sown a week ago

The Cold Frame

An Attempt to Stretch The Growing Season

I still don’t know how this experiment will end up.  The whole thing started when I wanted to extend the growing season here in the north, growing winter vegetables without a heated greenhouse.  After reading books about growing vegetables in winter, especially when one of them took place in Maine ( Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman), I decided I would give it a try.  Maine is colder than where I live and if he can grow his vegetables inside a cold frame without a heater, then why not I.  That was my encouragement.

It hasn’t done much so far but that is my own fault.  I started too late in the season.  This cold frame requires two people to set up and we hardly have days off together so the project was put off until late October.  Did I mention the wind?  Don’t try to set this thing up when it is windy, especially a cold wind.  Seeds I sowed in there like Pac Choi, Scallion, Swiss Chard, Red Kale and Arugula sprouted up a few inches and then seemed to stop at this stage.  Those that have grown or were transplanted in there like Toscano Kale, Chinese celery, Swiss Chard and Parsley seem to be alive and haven’t frozen.

Cold frame in the snow
Cold frame in the snow
Kale
Kale

The Kale and Chinese Broccoli I grow in that area earlier are doing fine with 20ºF outside.

Pac Choi
Pac Choi

It remains to be seen what happens with even lower temperature coming this weekend.  The weather forecast is predicting that the low temperature this Friday night will be -4º F.  If they survive, it will give me more incentive to start earlier next fall.  I miss fresh Pac Choi and Mizuna!  If it doesn’t work this winter, I still be able to use the cold frame to start seedlings earlier next spring.