January 26, 2014

Snow Day Games

Let's play a guessing game!
Guess what I'm doing in the snow?

I’m not making an igloo for the neighborhood stray cat. I’m not chucking snowballs at the neighborhood kids. I’m not making AT-AT snowmen. Nope.

I’m checking on my garden…in a foot of snow.

For real, everyone! I have attempted the (nearly) impossible this year — a winter garden in my very own DIY cold frames. Cold frames are basically just boxes with glass or plastic covering the top to reflect the sunlight and warm the box. And that part, worked like a charm. Even in this crazy polar vortex, my cold frames did not go below freezing!

Cold Frame Winter Garden | Tried & Twisted

I simply placed my cold frames in a row in the garden, planted seeds, watered, and watched things grow. Some quick differences between regular gardening and cold frame gardening:
  • Regular watering – since the ground is covered by glass, you will need to water regularly. However, I did not need to water nearly as often because the sealed box held moisture much longer. 
  • Temperature – the reflected light causes the box to heat up much faster than surrounding air temperature. Too hot, and you’ll have pre-steamed greens. If the internal temperature of your boxes is above 80, simply open up the hatch to air it out. 
  • Insulation –  The boxes work best to keep the temperature above freezing when the frames are sealed. At the ground level, piling a little mulch insulation around the base of the box helps to seal the snow and cold out. I also left a layer of fall leaves on the surface to help the ground stay warm.
  • Sunlight - When snow covers the windows at the top of the cold frame, this adds natural insulation from the worse of the cold. However, plants do need sunlight, so if snow covers the box for more than a week, I do brush off the snow to let a little light it. 

Winter gardening was all new to me this year. The cold frames have worked better than I expected for some things. But nothing works perfectly the first time, so I have much to learn for next year.

Taking a peek inside my cold frames in the middle of winter, here is what I found to greet me.

Kale through the winter!
Kale has been well eaten by me and the caterpillars.

My fall crop kale is still growing and thriving in spite of the cold and in spite of my habit of eating it all the time. So, my first time experiment suggests that fall crops really benefit from the protection of the cold frame to last longer and longer into the winter.

I will warn that a place safe enough for the kale crop is also a place safe enough for kale-eaters, like the fuzzy green caterpillars that have gotten at least a three-lives extension to their lifespan thanks to my cold frames. With a little prevention next time, I won't have to share my kale with anyone who has more eyes than me.

Now onto the winter crop! This crop produced more individual carrots coming up than I have ever seen before in my little garden. It almost made me want to cry with pride. 
So far the winter crop is still too small for a salad, but it's not a bad start for Spring.

Until December, all of my delicate baby spinach, lettuce, kale, and carrots were growing just fine. But then the polar vortex hit and they all just…stopped. They haven’t frozen, haven’t wilted, or pulled their roots out of the cold ground and run to Florida. They’ve just stopped growing. Maybe carrots just weren’t meant to share the same air temperature as penguins, and maybe this is the biggest my crop will get. 

Or maybe they’ll start growing again when the outside air temperature goes above 10 degrees.

The mystery continues, but just like a Sherlock season-ending cliff hanger, I’ll explain everything in my next garden update in the Spring (don’t worry; I won’t make you wait two years).

Considering how well the seeds grew into seedlings in November and December, I believe that the cold frames will be really handy for getting an early start to my Spring crop, allowing me to plant and start the crop far earlier than zone 6 weather usually allows.   

Now, if you'll excuse me--I'll be eating this delicious kale lasagna fresh from my winter garden.

Not a bad harvest for a day out in the snow. Try doing that with a snow ball! Just no good. And not nearly as much vitamin A or vitamin C.

If you’re interested in making your own cold frame, I’ll share how I made mine sometime next month in time for your Spring crop.

Have you ever tried gardening in cold weather? Any tips and suggestions to share?

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