Sunny, cold days have been the norm in Seattle for a number of weeks, which is “unseasonal” for us here in the Maritime Northwest. And it’s having a punishing effect on my overwintering edibles.
Starting with a snowstorm the second week of December, we’ve had what I’d call a hard winter, as “hard” relates to frost and freeze, that is. Many nights in the low 20s or even teens, and days when the thermometer barely tops 32. Freezing.
The effect has been mixed, according to today’s survey, done in balmy 42-degree sunshine. I opened the zippered front of the long plastic cloche, expecting to find slimy messes where my lettuce and radicchio starts were living, along with a seeded bed of mustard greens. Across the path, floating row cover blanketed a bed seeded with corn salad (mache). All had been alive after that December snowstorm, but I hadn’t uncovered these areas in weeks. Here is my delightful find:
You’re looking at Winter Density lettuce and Palla Rossa radicchio under the cloche, and Vit corn salad sprouted densely on the right, where the corner of the floating row cover has been removed. Definitely winners in a harsh environment. The existing leaves probably wouldn’t be desirable, but they provide a good base for new growth, which will find its way into late winter salads.
The cloche, which doesn’t look like it would provide much protection, is also a winner. It’s sitting on a raised bed made of stone, which helps radiate heat back into the bed, and I’ve placed stones in bare spots within the cloche to add to that effect.
However, a trek to the back 40 brought down my mood a bit. The purple sprouting broccoli has been shivering with just a smattering of straw mulch around its stems. It had bounced back after the snow melted in mid-December, but since then it’s been in severe retreat due to the cold nights. I should have covered it, but went away for Christmas, when the first cold nights really set in, and by the time I returned I figured it was too late. The cold has continued, with a brief letup, and I hope for the best. But here’s what it looks like right now:
Behind the broccoli, though, are two A-frame cloches, one covering carrots and the other beets. Although the edges of the cloches are frozen into the crusty soil, I can see green leaves through both of them, giving me hope that these two root crops are hanging in there.
Speaking of the crusty ground, it needs to be pried open like a stuck car-door in order to rescue a parsnip or two. But it’s worth the effort, as those roots have been nice and sweet.
Other above-ground plants have not fared well. A bed of parsley in an open cold frame is matted against the soil, although might recover. Slimy mounds that once were ruby chard hold less hope. Onions and celery root look OK, but haven’t been pulled yet. Kale, usually a staple in our winter garden, is suffering.
Taking stock of the successes and failures, I can see things I should have done: more mulch around the broccoli, maybe a floating row cover or cloche over it. Definitely much more protection over the poor chard. But just keeping myself warmly clothed on my rare forays out into the crisp weather has been enough of a challenge. I’ll chalk it up to experience and hope the broccoli will finally bounce back. Warmer weather is on the way; this week’s forecast is for high 40s daytime, and mid-30s overnight. I’m ready.
In my Seattle garden, fallen leaves are drifting up around the edges of my vegetable beds like Technicolor waves lapping at the shore. Time to deploy the season extension.
This time of year, nature is getting ready to go dormant. Despite the occasional warm, sunny day, the weather pattern is changing. Shorter days (and longer nights), cooler temperatures, glorious rain, from drizzle to downpour, all signal the change in plants. Growth slows down. Cell walls begin to thicken in the plants, mirroring our defensive layers of fleece and wool.
Stave off the inevitable decline in your vegetable garden by covering those plants that are actively growing. The ones that will feed you salad this fall can be nursed along for a few more weeks if covered with a cloche or a cold frame.
The root crops that are going to be overwintered will be aided by a blanket of garden fleece, also known as floating row cover. Later this fall, you can pull off the FRC and cover those beets and carrots with a cloche, giving them more protection during our coldest time.
The kale, cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts will benefit from a top-dressing of compost and straw mulch, between the rows and around the plants. This step can be taken for all the fall and winter veggie plants, but isn’t as necessary for those under a cloche or cold frame until the weather really reaches our daytime winter temperatures of 45 degrees. Still, I often do this now around my salad greens too, just since I’m out in the garden with the straw at hand. It’s often more pleasant to do it on a nice fall day than try to wait for a break in the winter rains that will take hold in November.
The main reason to do this season extension and mulching work is to protect our plants from the colder temperatures, pounding rains and desiccating wind.
A few weeks ago I put in a late batch of lettuces and raddichio into a long hoop-house cloche. With the unseasonably warm weather, I’ve been able to take that off for days at a time, and the veggies are nearing harvest. Now that rains and cooler weather are predicted, I’ve put it back on again.
Often at this time of year I’ll set up the cold frame over a bed with starts. It’s amazing to check the soil temperature inside the cold frame and in the bed next to it. Inside the bed, the temperature of the soil will be well above 60, while in the open garden the soil temperature is inching down toward the mid-50s. Capturing that warmer soil temp, keeping it from dropping so fast, is a key benefit to season extension.
Also this week we’ve had a couple of days of significant rain. At times, it’s come down pretty hard. A soft rain is great for watering the beds, and I open the season extension devices for a few hours in early afternoon if a light rain is coming down. The best situation is a nice soft rain for an hour or two, followed by a clearing and light breeze, so the plants dry out. Regular moisture on the leaves and stems of fall veggies can promote rot. If I can’t get the timing right to open the season extension during a light rain, I hand-water the beds as needed.
And I always keep the devices closed during a heavy rain. Over time, heavy rains will compact the soil, leach out the nutrients, and reduce those soil temps — all things I’m trying to avoid. Score another benefit for season extension.
The winds are also gusting this time of year. Combined with cooler temperatures and rain, the wind can be hard on tender vegetable crops. The worst effect is when it blows the top layer of
mulch away from the base of the plant, exposing the plant’s fine root system. Those roots will dry up, making it tough for the plant to survive, much less grow. Such stress will invite pests, and can trigger the plant’s desire to bolt and go to seed.
One final idea concerning season extension: what’s good for the plants is also good for the pests. In this sense: the pests love the warmer, drier location too. I’m picking a lot of slugs and snails out of my season extension devices right now, and off the plants. I need to be diligent about this, because they’re all drawn to the warm place with plentiful food. As the temperatures continue to drop they’ll become less of a problem, but right now, I need to pay attention if I want to keep those fall crops around for my autumn dinners, and not just be feeding the pests.
Fall in the maritime garden is a time to appreciate our weather. The change is usually not abrupt, giving me a chance to also adjust my own pace to the slowing rhythm of nature. But the decline into winter is inevitable, which is another lesson. At this pace, it seems more possible to stay in the moment, enjoying the color and patterns of those fall leaves as they naturally mulch the margins of my garden.
Grab that sliver of sunlight between showers and get out into the garden. Fleece up and tidy the shed on a rainy day. Scratch out some thoughts on next year, with notes on this year’s successes and duds.
There are some November tasks for us Maritime Northwest gardeners. But this season is also a time to take it easy and practice “slow gardening.” Moving at slug speed on these chilly wet days seems most appropriate.
Granted a glorious Sunday afternoon last weekend, I rallied to rake out the last open space in my vegetable beds and plant garlic. Three varieties, six rows, 48 cloves. That should keep us in spicy sautés for most of next year.
The rest of the open space got filled up with favas. I had a box full of the thumbnail-sized beans saved from last spring’s harvest. They sat for six months waiting for this occasion, so I could no longer deny them their special purpose: Get under the soil and send up next year’s crop!
Favas are one of the few vegetables whose seed will sprout in our chilly November soil. Garlic, of course, needs a little chilling to trigger its emergence. I’ll see the fava shoots in a few weeks, but the garlic won’t poke through the straw mulch until January. It always warms my heart to see it during that coldest month, just as I am starting to notice the days lengthening beyond the solstice. Another season beginning.
A few more tasks that are getting some slow action on these short November days:
Sorting the bees. Yes, you read that right. I’ve had a box of Orchard Mason bees wrapped loosely in a mesh bag on my basement shelf since I brought them in in early fall. Now it is time for them to be transferred to the refrigerator for the winter.
The task is simple and rewarding. First, I open the stacked grid that holds the bee nesting tubes, paper sleeves in which they laid their eggs and mudded up the holes. I pull out the paper tubes and carefully peel them open to reveal the bees in their cocoons. (Since the eggs were laid in the spring, the eggs have hatched, the bee larvae have eaten the pollen deposits left with their eggs, and the larvae spun their little cocoons.)
Along with the bees in those tubes are a couple of interlopers that need to be removed. Spiders have laid their eggs in some of the tubes. No big deal, except I don’t really want those hatching on my basement shelves.
More concerning are the mites: hundreds of mites have glommed on to the bee cocoons. If left with the cocoons, they would attack the bees when they emerged, and decimate the population.
Fortunately, right now the mites and the bees are pretty dormant, so as I pull the cocoons away from the paper tubes, I brush off all the mites.
The clean cocoons are then counted and stored in a plastic bottle inside a plastic bag in my refrigerator. The bottle has some vents cut in the lid, and the plastic bag contains a damp paper towel that I’ll refresh from time to time. Refrigerators are low-humidity places, and my bee cocoons need a bit of moisture to survive.
Weeding the beds. Winter weeds grow more slowly, but so do your vegetable plants. And with less nutrition available in the soil, your winter vegetables don’t want the competition from weed roots. I clear a space at least a few inches around the base of each winter veggie. I also run the fork along the edges of the raised beds and pull out any grass that is encroaching. It seems to really spread if left to take hold over the winter.
Some of the less harmful, more beautiful weeds like viola tricolor (Johnny Jump-up) get left in the beds between the plants. They can be good filler to shield the bed from winter rains, and I can use the flowers to brighten up my winter salads.
Mulching the fall and overwintering veggies. After I weed, I try to tuck in some straw or other light mulch around the base of the plants.
This provides a number of benefits:
And it looks nice!
Servicing the watering devices. I garden in a mostly mild winter climate, but sometimes we’ll get a hard freeze or a week of snow, so I need to protect against freeze damage.
First, I make sure my drip irrigation system is drained to avoid having the pipes burst. (Water is one of the few things that expands when it freezes.) I also check the downspouts and gutters to make sure there’s nothing clogging up the system that fills my water catchment. I clean and store my ceramic bird bath so it doesn’t crack. Finally, draining the hoses and storing them in the garage each winter will help them last many more years.
I appreciate the slower gardening days of winter. I can review some of these tasks as I peer through a rain-streaked window, looking to the western sky for that actionable opening of blue.
It’s a wonderful day to be a rain chain in Seattle. The “pineapple express” we’re experiencing right now is giving it a workout.
But what about me, the gardener who is chomping at the bit to get my spring vegetable crop in the ground. I’m going to have to content myself with some other useful tasks that can be done under cover.
Here are three tasks for the rainy afternoon:
1. Sterilize pots for transplanting. I’ll need larger pots for my tomato and pepper starts, once they’re up to transplant stage in a few weeks. To prepare, I’ll wash the pots now, and sterilize them in a water bath that contains a bit of bleach.
2. Visit the nursery for some starts. I love to plant seeds of my favorite veggies, but have a short attention span when it comes to getting them to eating size. So I will buy a few starts of the same crops I’m growing from seed. The nursery starts will be producing a couple of weeks before the seeded plants are ready. And I get a longer harvest.
3. Sharpen and oil the tools. Probably the most important rainy-day task, and one that will pay dividends through all the busy gardening seasons.
The shovels, hoes and clippers can use a good sharpening with a metal file. First, remove the rust with steel wool. If bad, use 80-grit sandpaper or a brush attachment on an electric drill. Wear goggles if using a power tool.
Then, determine the original bevel that the tool had when it came from the factory. If I hold it up and look down the edge of the blade, I usually can see the angle of the bevel, even if the tool is dull. I’ll hold the mill file at that angle and work it down the blade, from the center toward each end with multiple strokes. When it’s shiny and sharp, I’ll flip the tool over and run the file once or twice along the back side to pick up the shards of steel left behind by the sharpening.
Any tool with wooden handles will benefit from cleaning, sanding and a coat of oil. Wash the handles with water, use 100-grit wood sandpaper to smooth out the nicks or splinters. Then apply a coat of linseed oil with a cloth. The tools last much longer if given a little tender loving care.
When the spring weather is just too cold or wet to get out into the garden, spend some quality time in the potting shed, or visit the nursery for a dose of greenhouse-grown starts. The sun will probably come out tomorrow.
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.