Winter Is Probably Still Coming

The hoop house may have been a bust, but my cold hardy vegetables are none the wiser. The kale, chard, carrots, and beets are all growing happily.

A little too happily.

I haven’t done a big harvest in a while, and the kale has been getting away from me. My hope is that the hoop house will pull through this time and keep it alive into the winter, but I’m not putting any money on it.

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Instead, I’m freezing my leafy greens before New England gets a chance to. I’m not giving up entirely, so I left enough leaves that everybody should be able to keep growing, making for some strange shapes.

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I found myself with more loose leaves than I could ever carry in my arms. Luckily, I was lazy and never put away the containers from my poor doomed peppers and eggplants. I threw together some festive arrangements and headed home.

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Late season kale is a haven for little powdery bugs. I’d sprayed for it a few months ago, but the kale kept on living and the bugs eventually came back. I washed, leaf by leaf, until I was completely sick of kale. And then I washed for another hour or so.

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Meanwhile I boiled a big stockpot of water and, batch by batch, blanched my leaves for two minutes. This supposedly kills any microbes that might be hanging around. It also turns everything a healthy green.

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From the boiling water the leaves went straight into an ice water bath to halt the cooking process. From there they went into a colander and I went to the freezer to dig around for more ice.

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After the first batch of leaves, the water turned a distinctly orange color. Is this because kale is so high in iron? Er… yes. Let’s say that it is. Because I honestly have no better ideas.

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After draining the cooled leaves, I gave them a good squeeze to remove excess water and mould them into handy portions. No one wants a solid gallon of frozen chopped kale. I don’t care who they are or what they think they need.

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I let the leaf balls sit on their cookie sheets in the freezer over night. In the morning I had some very sturdy and very frozen balls of solid fresh leaf. I packed them away into freezer bags and stowed them in the freezer. In all, it was three or four hours’ work for an amount of vegetables that would cost me a few dollars at the store.

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No wonder people usually just buy food.

 

The Tragedy of the Hoop House

Remember my hoop house? Remember my palpable excitement and hope for summer vegetables well into the winter?

I remember, too.

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Sadly, it was not meant to be.

I think I severely overestimated the hoop house’s ability to store heat. I’d read so many warnings about overheating, I made sure to leave the ventilation flaps open when the sun was up. On the night of the first frost, I dutifully went down (after the sun had set) and closed things up snugly. It was dark, so I don’t know if my plants were already dead when I tucked them in for the night, but it’s a pretty striking image.

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In retrospect, it makes sense that if the air inside the hoop house is cold when you close it up at night, it’s not going to heat up much. Plants produce a tiny bit of warmth when they respire, but nothing like a breathing animal would.

I remember covering blueberry bushes with my dad to protect the blossoms from late spring frost, and I was under the impression that this would have a similar effect. I think the difference is that we draped sheets over the blueberries, making a barrier directly between the blossom and the cold air, blocking heat transfer. The hoop house is a big room, with lots of head space for cold air to swirl around.

We also covered the blueberries before the sun set.

The pepper plants, though wilted, still kept their vivid green color. I thought maybe they could be saved, until I actually touched the peppers.

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It was like squeezing a stocking full of Cool Whip. The slightest pressure made it distort, and I had to be careful not to put my thumb right through it. A stocking full of Cool Whip would have been sturdier.

The eggplant plants were stone dead, but the fruit fared better. I managed to salvage three small ones.

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I left the plants in the ground for a week in case of a miracle, but none came. The cold weather plants, of course, don’t know what all the fuss is about and have been doing fine. With any luck I can keep them going and the hoop house won’t be a total bust. Going all-in on greens and roots, I ripped out the frosted plants and sowed some seeds. They came right up! I have tiny lettuces.

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And tiny radishes. I’m a little worried about the shortening of days. Even if they’re warm enough, these guys may not have enough sunlight to grow. We’ll have to wait and see.

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Funnily enough, the plants that did survive were only an afterthought. I brought all my healthiest specimens down to the “safety” of the hoop house, but they wouldn’t all fit.

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The scragglers had to stay up by the house, where I hastily covered them with the leftover plastic the day before the frost to give them a fighting chance. I didn’t attach the plastic tightly, and they had air circulation all night. They also had something I never even considered: a shared wall with our house. They made it through the first frost and subsequent frosts with no problem.

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I even have a brand new baby pepper.

Winter Is Coming

Inspiration is a funny thing.

Gardening Know How asked me to write a piece about building hoop houses. I didn’t know a single thing about building hoop houses. So I researched it, and then I wrote my authoritative article, and then I built one of my own. In that order.

This little guy is my boyfriend, Ben. I enlisted his help because he loves building projects, and he loves trips to the Home Depot. He’s never been too keen on squishing around in foamy buckets of fermented fruit, so this was a good opportunity to do something together. 20151004_142425

We’re hovering right around the first frost date for our area, depending upon who you ask. Some say it’s as early as October 3rd, and some say it’s as late as October 31st. Looking at the forecast, I’m more inclined to believe the latter. This wild map suggests that it varies by a few weeks within the city, with the line following, as far as I can tell, the contours of the hills.

So I may be a few weeks early. Or I may not be. I have too many frost sensitive plants that are just starting to produce in earnest to want to cut it close, though.

Construction was a breeze. My plot is roughly ten feet by three feet. We bought four ten-foot lengths of PEX tubing and sunk them deep into the soil. This made a tunnel just high enough to cover everybody. The trellis didn’t make the cut, but the cucumbers and melons on it had all but given up for the season, anyway. It was a mercy killing.

The cross beam was… improvised. Across the top we zip-tied three wooden stakes I’d been using as a trellis. The ends were still wet with dirt. The plan is to replace them this weekend with an irrigation pipe of some sort. But for now the stakes are performing admirably.

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We draped a single translucent plastic tarp over the whole thing. It’s ten feet wide, so it overlaps just right with the sunken ten foot poles. It’s roughly a million feet long, so even with plenty of slack to fold up securely on either end, we cut off quite a bit extra that I plan to rig up into a smaller enclosure for my container garden by the house. We attached it to the structure with a bargain bag’s worth of plastic clamps.

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And that’s it! From inside, it looks like a veritable tropical paradise!

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From outside, it looks like that scene from Independence Day.

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“Release… me…”

After just a few minutes, it definitely felt warmer inside. It was a windy day, though, so I suspect this came more from the plastic functioning as a windbreak. I’m sure the plants will appreciate that as the wind gets nastier.

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There was some room on the end where I’d ripped out the cucumbers and melons. I had planned on planting peas there, but since the trellis didn’t make it into the enclosure, it wasn’t in the cards. Rather than planting something new, I decided to fill the space with as many hot weather containers as I could fit.

This is my secret garden – the three-foot-wide strip of concrete along the side of my house. It gets full sun, it’s not in anyone’s way, and while it’s a pain to water, it gives me a steady supply of tiny eggplants.

Plus, the cat loves it.

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After some agonizing, I picked out my strongest producers and carted them down to the garden. I fit three eggplants, a pepper, and a tomato, which I removed from its cage and stretched lengthwise along the kale. You can see one little arm reaching up in the distance. Quarters are tight, but they live in buckets. They’re used to it.

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And that’s that! The thing that distinguishes a hoop house from a greenhouse is that it’s labor intensive. Where greenhouses rely on heaters and fans to regulate temperature, hoop houses rely on the sun and wind. The sun is absorbed passively. The wind, however, is left to human intervention. The ends have to be opened up daily to allow for air circulation, otherwise the heat from the sun will get so intense it’ll just cook your vegetables where they stand.

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Since it’s still warm out, I’m leaving the ends perpetually rolled up, and I’m treating the hoop house mainly as surprise frost protection. Once the temperatures start dipping lower, I’ll have to roll the ends down at night and up in the morning. With any luck, this will keep the warm weather guys alive long past their unprotected neighbors. With even more luck, pollinators will be able to find their way into and out of this thing.

I’m expecting the eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and squash to give up the ghost eventually. The days are going to get too short and the bees are going to go into hiding, and any tomatoes I eat in January will come from California. For the leaves and roots, however, I have high hopes! With some mulching, and maybe a flap cut into the roof in preparation for access through the many feet of inevitable snow, there’s a chance I could be eating fresh vegetables on Valentine’s Day.

It’s just like they say: Beets are a girl’s best friend.

Containers Galore!

Summer weather has hit New England, which means I can finally transplant my hot weather plants outside. This is good news for my seedlings, which are getting so big the word “seedling” has become generous. It’s even better news for my living room, which has been slowly returning to nature as the eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, -grow operationand melons get more and more unruly. Here they are back in April, when they were already getting a little big for their britches.

As they grew I gradually moved them to bigger containers, which I precariously stacked and arranged so each one would get its place in the sun (or grow light). When daytime temperatures started getting reasonable, I took to hauling them down to the driveway from our second floor apartment, one armful at a time, to harden them off. Which of course meant schlepping them back up the stairs in the afternoon before big bad night came.

But now summer is here, and I’m tired of schlepping, which means it’s time for all good eggplants to get out and enjoy the weather, even if the nights get a little chilly from time to time. I managed to fit one tomato, one eggplant, and two peppers in my garden plot where the radishes had been, but since I may have gotten a little carried away with my cold season vegetables, that’s all that’s going to fit. Which means container time!-eggplants

I used some old store-bought containers I had kicking around, but since I’m going for mass production (on a one-person scale, at least) I quickly ran out. I visited the florist department at my local grocery store where they were kind enough to unload a bunch of big used plastic buckets on me for free! After I’d drilled some drainage holes in the bottoms, I had a huge supply of big and sturdy containers for my vegetable plants! As a bonus, they’re black, which means they’ll hold the heat better and hopefully trick my hot weather plants into thinking they live at a lower latitude than they do.

I’ve got a row along the south-facing wall of my driveway, and another row along the south-facing wall of the house, which I’m calling the Secret Garden. Really it’s a three foot wide strip of concrete between the house and the neighbors’ yard, but I’m doing my best to glam it up.back garden 2

Glamorous.