Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Mid-Week Tweets

Monday, October 26, 2015

Winter gardening: Low tunnels for the home garden

If you live in the northeast, then you've probably already put your garden to bed for the season. If, like me, you can't bear to say goodbye to the supply of fresh veggies you enjoyed all summer long, I'm here to tell you: it doesn't have to end!

There are lots of ways to extend your growing season if you live in a cold climate (we're in zone 5b or 6a, depending on who you ask). You can eke out a few extra weeks just by throwing a sheet over your crops when a light frost is predicted. You can keep some vegetables like carrots ready to harvest in the ground by covering them with a thick blanket of mulch. But if you really want to keep growing things like braising greens, salad greens, and herbs long into the winter, you're going to need either cold frames or low tunnels.

Cold frames are familiar territory for most people. We've been using them for years, but I've been increasingly frustrated with them. They are labor intensive to build compared to the amount of veggies they hold. Worse, they are finicky--if you don't judiciously open them on warmer sunny days, your veggies will overheat and fry. If you open the cold frame but don't remember to close it by day's end? Buh-bye winter garden.

This year, we decided to try out a different season extender; the low tunnel. Low tunnels look like miniature green houses. They are built out of some sort of flexible pipe (we used electrical conduit, or EMT) and covered with frost protecting row cover and/or greenhouse plastic. We built four 16' long low tunnels this year, at a cost of approximately $10/tunnel.

Building the tunnels

We closely followed instructions from Johnny's Selected Seeds, with one major difference; we didn't use the hoop bender they sell. Instead, we made a jig using a quarter sheet of plywood and a lot of screws arranged in the arc of the hoop, as shown in this Instructable.

How to grow in your low tunnels

Know when to plant

If you want to enjoy fresh salads in the dead of winter, you have to plan ahead. Plants stop growing once the hours of daylight drop below 10. These dark months are called Persephone Days, and you can find out when yours begin here: . For me, it's November 11th. You want to make sure your plants have reached harvesting size by this date; to do that, check your seed packets for "days til maturity" and count back from the beginning of your Persephone Days to determine the latest you can plant each crop.

Alternatively, you can take advantage of the warm soil underneath your low tunnels to plant very late for an earlier crop in the Spring. So, you could plant spinach at Thanksgiving and expect to be harvesting it a few weeks earlier than normal in the Spring.

Plant a lot

Since your plants won't be growing during the winter, you need to have more plants in the ground than you would during the summer, so you can keep harvesting even though the leaves won't replenish.

What to plant

What you plant will depend on your area, but here's what I've got in my winter garden this year: 
  • Cilantro
  • Onions (for greens)
  • Curly kale
  • Red Russian kale
  • Arugula
  • Spicy salad mix
  • Hakurei turnips
  • Carrots
  • Broccoli raab
  • Lettuce mix
  • Bok choi

Have a green winter!

Seeing those vibrant greens chugging merrily along in the middle of a long cold winter can really keep the winter blues at bay, and so can all the nutrients in that fresh food! Do you have a winter garden? What works well for you? What hasn't worked so well?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Garlic harvest 2015

From just 5 heads of seed garlic planted 3 years ago to this year's harvest: 22 lbs of delicious New Mexican garlic.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Tiny house update: New, upcycled roof

Tiny houses get a lot of wear and tear. They are exposed to the elements year round, taken on and off the highway, and get a lot of foot traffic on a very small surface area. Our Whittled Down Caravan is five years old now, and it is due for some maintenance. The first thing that failed, in our case, was the canvas roof. This is probably a surprise to no one.

The Whittled Down Caravan originally had a canvas roof, made of high quality and expensive Sun Forger waterproof and mildew resistant canvas. Well, it turns out that "resistant" does not equal "mildew proof". After our first season on the more humid east coast, the canvas started to get mildew spots. After another year or two, our once beautiful roof looked pretty gross, and the waterproofing was failing.

We tried a few methods to refresh the waterproofing, and tried our best to ignore the ugly mildew. First, we bought tent waterproofing stuff in an aerosol can from the hardware store. That worked for about three weeks. Next, we tried a mixture of beeswax and linseed oil. That waterproofed it all right, but it also magically weakened the canvas, shrinking it until it literally ripped itself to shreds.

The new canvas is beautiful, and we thought about replacing it. But $300 and a lot of labor every couple of years to replace the roof didn't seem practical, and we no longer even had access to an industrial sewing machine, which is necessary to sew through this hefty material. We began to explore other options. A regular old tarp would work, but it would be ugly and the UV would probably destroy it in a season. Then we remembered hearing that you can purchase old billboards online. These large pieces of heavy duty, UV-treated vinyl would likely last longer. And as it turned out, we could get one in exactly the size we needed for the roof.

So, for 10% of the cost of the canvas, we ordered a billboard on the Internet. When you do this, you have no control over what they send you. I'll admit, while we waited for it to arrive I fretted. What if we get some hideous beer ad with scantily clad women all over it?

 Well, we lucked out. When the material arrived, it turned out to be a misprint. The billboard was almost entirely white, with just a single stripe of smudged printing running across one end. Not bad, and it's hard to argue with a significantly cheaper, upcycled roof.

My biggest fear was that the light wouldn't shine through like it did with the canvas. It's definitely a little different inside, but there is still a nice glow.

So, we have our new roof, and it's been temporarily installed. We have some more work to do before it is road worthy again.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

DIY seed starting setup

A few days ago I wrote about my low tech approach to an earlier growing season. Here's a glimpse at the higher tech side of our operation.

I have to confess, I have always been a miserable failure when it comes to starting seeds indoors. I am really, really good at killing seedling. It's usually neglect--forgetting to water them, mostly.

Over the last few years I've been putting some effort into successfully starting seeds indoors. It's really crucial for saving money in the vegetable garden, and the bigger mine gets, the more important this becomes. On the other hand, the equipment for properly starting seeds requires some startup costs as well. I think part of the reason I haven't had success in the past is that I stubbornly refused to get things like a grow light and heating mat. The windowsill method just doesn't work so great, at least not in my drafty old house.

Still, I'm not one to just go out and BUY ALL THE GEAR. I did buy a grow light, a CFL bulb that uses less electricity and should last longer. But seedling heatmats at $40 each? That was beyond the pale. So, thanks to Tristan's hardware hacking skills, we were able to go the DIY route. We got a few of those ugly old warming trays from the 70s at thrift stores. You know, these guys:

We hooked them up to an inexpensive temperature controller, controlled by a thermometer probe placed in one of the trays.

YSTD® LED Digital 110V Temperature Controller Temp w/ Sensor Thermostat Control Relay

Our seed starting system currently has three heat mats for less than the cost of one commercial grow mat.

So what am I growing with this groovy system, you ask?
  • Northampton Italian tomatoes 
  • Joe E. Parker chiles 
  • Thai Hot peppers 
  • Paprika peppers 
  • Eggplant 
  • Tomatillo 
  • Luffa 
  • Lacinato kale

This year I have kept more of my seedlings alive than ever before (knock on wood). I also planted twice as much as I needed to hedge my bets, so that I'd still have plenty when I did inevitably screw up. I started everything in flats and transplanted what I needed when the first set of true leaves emerged.

Now that I've gotten better at seed starting, I'm running out of space! Next year I'm going to need more grow lights and/or a greenhouse to start everything I'd like to grow.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Perennial vegetables: A low-tech approach to an earlier Spring harvest

Here at the Whittled Down House we try to eat as seasonally as possible. In the winter, we get a CSA that delivers 50 lbs of veggies a month, November-February. We dutifully eat these potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips and whatnot as best we can, but I have to admit that by February I would rather use these tubers for target practice than dinner.

Here in New England, we're traditionally left with 2-3 months of down time between when the stored root vegetables run out and the first Spring vegetables are ready in the garden. There are plenty of season extending techniques that can be used to close this gap, but perhaps the easiest is simply planting perennial vegetables. These delicious, low maintenance crops are ready to harvest before the early greens in my garden have their first set of true leaves. And there's no greenhouse, hoop houses, or other technology required. You just plant them and eagerly await their appearance when the snow recedes.

Walking onion
There is more we can do to ensure we have some fresh green veggies earlier in the Spring. But for now, mid-April is when we get our first taste of the growing season to come. Ramps (wild leek), walking onion, and sorrel are first, followed shortly by fiddleheads and asparagus. Our perennial arugula is starting to gain momentum, as are the first nettles of the year (in addition to being a medicinal, you can steam nettles and use them as you would spinach).

Sylvetta, perennial arugula

There's really nothing better than walking around my edible forest garden in early spring, watching these incredible, tasty plants make their grand entrances. After months of starchy root vegetables, their bright green, vitamin-packed leaves are just so delectable.


Ostrich fern


 Tonight we had our first meal of the season with garden vegetables. Polenta with ramps and shiitakes (grown by a friend of a friend). We ate our meal outside, in the garden, surrounded by the incredible perennial vegetables that will be feeding us for the next several weeks. Spring is here--hooray!
Ramps from our garden, shiitakes from a friend of a friend

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Spring is in the air

Signs of spring are everywhere here at the Whittled Down house. 

 The cat is enjoying more time outdoors, surveying her territory from her special rock. 

My ramp patch, now in its third year, is looking bigger and better than ever. 

The garlic we planted in October is already six inches high, and very appreciative of the serving of compost it received. 

Our new vegetable garden, which we began to make in the fall by sheet mulching, is coming along. Some of the beds are finished and planted. We are still laying paths and finishing the beds in about 25% of the garden.