Getting started on an edible year is so simple, really. Here are five key thoughts from my upcoming talk this Saturday at 10 a.m. at Swansons Nursery, “Plan and Prep for Your Edible Garden.” Hope you can join me!
I often joke that the worms are my only pets, and to a degree, it’s true. I feed and care for the tiny red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) that live in bedding instead of in the ground and eat my kitchen scraps. This time of year, that means helping them stay warm on the coldest winter nights.
Here in Seattle, we often get our coldest weather in January, after which the Longest Spring on Record™ breaks bud in February. So I have to bring my garden through a month of cold. For the plants, that means an extra layer of floating row cover on the veggies that are surviving in the cold frames and cloches.
For the worms, that means insulating their box.
What to use
It’s as simple as wrapping the bin in some insulating material. You can use straw bales, bags of compost, or whatever you have sitting around that would keep out the cold.
I use half-inch expanded polystyrene (EPS) rigid insulation. It’s light, easy to work with, and provides just enough help. And it is weather-resistant, as it is rated for ground contact (used to insulate concrete) and to not retain moisture (used under the siding to wrap houses).
A 4-foot by 8-foot sheet is about $10, and can be cut to cover the sides and top of the worm bin.
As the photo shows, it is covered on one side with a metallic facing material. On the white side, it has a clear plastic facing. Both surfaces are weather-resistant. I install it with the silver facing in, hoping that the heat radiating from the worm bin will be reflected back into the box. There are other types of EPS without the silver facing.
Cut and tape
I measure and cut pieces to be roughly the size of the four walls and the lid. The four wall pieces are held to the box with duct tape, which can be cut and left on the pieces when I remove them. Thus you can reuse the material many times.
Cutting this product can be a little messy. I use a sharp utility knife, but it still creates a ragged edge, because the material is made of tiny chunks of foam pressed together. No doubt a contractor would have a special tool for this, but it’s not worth it for my limited amount of use. Cut almost all the way through the material, then flip it over and carefully cut the facing on the other side. Clean up the foam bits that flake off.
The ragged edges will tend to flake off a bit more as you work with it and store it. For a cleaner look and more longevity, wrap the cut edge in duct tape.
The top is set on the lid of the box and held down with heavy objects. This makes it easy enough to feed the worms without having to tape anything to the wooden box, as the tape would either pull the paint off the box or leave residue behind.
Two more tips
The worms have their own defensive reaction to the cold: they huddle together. In the winter I often find them in one warm mass in the center of the box. The collective heat will keep more of them alive. So to help your worms survive better in the winter, feed only rarely, and do it at the warmest point in the day. Dig a hole in the center of the bin and bury the food, covering it well.
Also, make sure the bin is completely full of bedding (leaves, straw, shredded newspaper, etc.). The bedding will also act as a great insulator.
If you’re just thinking of building a worm bin, check out the plans for a standard-size wood box (the one in my pictures) at the Seattle Tilth compost resources page. That section will educate you about compost, and there’s also a plan for an “off-the-shelf” worm bin that you can keep indoors.
For more details on caring for your squirmy pets, pick up a copy of Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof.
Here’s a last-minute gift idea for the garden gnomes in your life: give them ideas.
Winter often causes discontent among gardeners, being forced by the weather to put the growth on hold. So why note spend this time learning new techniques and brushing up on your skills?
I was involved in two great projects this year that you could get for your gardener, and I also would like to submit my two gardening books for your consideration.
Online class: My new Craftsy class “The Extended Harvest: Vegetables for Every Season” is on sale for half price. In fact, all of their great classes are on sale, including many other gardening classes and photography, art, cooking and craft topics.
Filmed in my garden, my 7-lesson, 2-hour video class takes viewers through techniques for year-round edible gardening. It was fun to make, and I hope you will enjoy learning from it.
Book: It’s a topic close to my heart: also the theme of this website and my book Cool Season Gardener, which you can find at many bookstores and garden nurseries.
Guide: I had the privilege to serve as editor for Seattle Tilth’s major overhaul of the Maritime Northwest Garden Guide, which came out early this year. Wow, what a project.
Primary author Lisa Taylor and I put our heads together and packed the guide chock-full of all the education, tips and techniques taught by Seattle Tilth, the region’s premiere center for learning how to grow your own organic food.
Book: My early work with Seattle Tilth, as a volunteer in the garden and a student, exposed me to the regional heirloom vegetables that became the topic of my first book, Edible Heirlooms.
Our affiliation with Abundant Life Seed Foundation and Seed Savers Exchange exposed me to the world of heirlooms, which sparked a lifelong love for growing, appreciating and eating heritage vegetables.
The class is quickly ordered online, and the Garden Guide and my books are widely available at bookstores and garden nurseries.
May this winter’s ideas generate a fruitful garden in 2015.
A salad composed of your own greens and herbs is a fine thing in winter. It brings to mind the lighter eating of spring and summer, and provides a fresh complement to hearty winter fare.
So if you have a few things growing or surviving in the garden, or in cold frames and cloches, here are some tips on making the most of them.
When picking winter lettuce, arugula, spinach and Asian greens, harvest late in the day. If possible, wait until the season extension device has been open for a while to let it air out. Letting fresh air wash over the greens will crisp them up and dry out the plants a bit, so harvest will be easier.
Pick the bigger leaves, which are more crisp, but also more prone to breaking. This will allow the plant to send more energy to the smaller leaves to size them up, rather than having to sprout new leaves.
Discard any leaves which have wilted around the base of the plant or are losing their color. Trim off wilted leaves so they don’t cause rot to spread to the stem or other leaves.
Make a note of what is doing well. Some lettuce varieties fare so much better than others in winter. Continuity (aka Marvel of Four Seasons) is a winter star. The light-green ruffly Simpson is strong, and Little Gem romaine and Bronze Oak Leaf both stand up exceedingly well. However, Forellenschluss, one of my favorites, is surprisingly tender. I still grow some of it, just for its speckled leaves.
Heartier greens also show up in the salad bowl. Radicchio adds spice, rainbow chard and beet greens add color, and the smaller, more tender leaves of kale or other brassicas, in small quantities, contribute desner, heartier bites.
I’ve also found that the cultivated arugula with its wide, heavily lobed leaves does much better than the wild one with spiky leaves.
Don’t stop there, however. Hopefully, you will also have some herbs to spice up the salad. I always have flat-leaf Italian parlsey, thyme and oregano, and sometimes sprigs of agastache or snips of green onion too.
After each harvest, I will note the best plants in my garden journal, because as sure as the sunset I will have banished all my memories of winter when I am planting next year’s winter salad, in shorts and a t-shirt on a long summer day.
An afternoon harvest is important, too, because the plants will contain fewer nitrates. Nitrate-nitrogen is accumulated in plants because there is lower physiological activity on short winter days. Nitrates have been cited by some as health problems, although I could not find studies conclusive enough to feel that idea is absolutely proven.
A recent study by a Washington State University researcher, which I detail in my book, showed a higher level of nitrates in winter greens, especially Asian greens of the Brassica genus, but also lettuce and spinach plants. To err on the side of caution, I follow the WSU researcher’s results and tips.
The highest concentration of nitrates was found in plants in the morning, with lower levels found after some respiration and photosynthesis by the plant during the day.
Higher amounts were also found in the hearts of head lettuces and in the petiole section of the leaf nearest the stem, compared to the leaf blade.
Older spinach leaves had much higher concentration than younger leaves.
Varieties with smooth or semi-savoyed (crinkled) leaves had lower concentration than heavily savoyed leaves.
Eat winter-picked greens as soon as possible after picking, as nitrate levels were shown to rise as the vegetables aged in room-temperature conditions.
When picking for a winter salad, I also check for pests, and remove slugs or snails.
If the row of greens is dense, I might pick by thinning, taking out every other plant. This will give the remaining plants room to spread out, and reduce competition for soil nutrients, which also are limited in winter.
More room around the plants means better air circulation, which will reduce wilt and rot from moisture accumulation on stems and leaves.
Check the devices
A winter harvest is also the time to check and see how the season extension devices are performing.
I’ve found my cold frame soil to be right at 50 degrees now. The plants inside are fine, after covering them with a double layer of floating row cover during our recent week of temperatures at or below freezing.
I’m amazed by the Triangle Tunnel, one of my newer designs that I put in the DIY building plan section of the book. Small lettuce starts are showing good growth, which is better than I anticipated from this simple, plastic-covered A-frame. Perhaps it’s because of its size: the amount of air inside is modest, so the radiating heat from the soil can easily keep it a bit warmer.
Finally, my two cold frames are both performing well, but the one put directly on the ground is doing better than the one attached to a wood-sided raised bed. The soil in the ground CF is more moist than the raised bed CF. In that one, the soil is drying out and getting a little crusty. I need some straw mulch around the plants in there to solve those problems.
Harvesting a salad is a great reason to get out and examine the winter plants in the garden. Besides finding out how the season extension devices are faring and what the snails are eating, you get a healthy, fresh addition to winter dinners.
I got out the plant blankets.
Going into last weekend, it became pretty clear that we were headed for a cold front, so I pulled out a few extra pieces of floating row cover and visited my cloches and cold frames. I laid the FRC directly on the plants, doubling it over the salad greens like lettuce, which are my most tender crops.
Sure enough, cold and snow came a-calling.
Two types of cloches protect plants in my front yard.
And the hot caps are still doing their job.
Meanwhile, in the rear garden, all the season extension devices are white. Not a lot of solar gain getting through them, but the snow makes a good insulator against the cold.
Some plants were not bothered at all…
while others took the seasonal change pretty hard.
And as to the fate of many of the plants, only time will tell. I will not be opening the season extension devices and pulling off their extra blankets until the weather warms back up to its seasonal temperatures of mid-40s daytime/high 30s nighttime.