Three Rainy Day Garden Tasks

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.Rain chain

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.

Project: Insulating a Worm Bin

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.

bedded worm bin

The bedded worm bin, with a decaying pizza box to keep my plastic digging tool on top of the bedding.


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.


Post-holiday yard frosting

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.

Cloche with snow

This long commercial cloche got a thin layer of snow. The Brussels sprout plant to its left is fending for itself.

And the hot caps are still doing their job.

hot caps

The three hot caps are protecting the small kale, but the tall Lacinato kale behind it shows wilting from reduced moisture content, a defensive mechanism against damage from the cold. That “dino” kale should perk up after the weather warms.

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.

season extension in snow

Season extension devices, covered in white.

Some plants were not bothered at all…

Tall broc

This purple sprouting broccoli is still standing tall.

while others took the seasonal change pretty hard.

Frozen favas

This cover crop blend included fava beans, which had gown to 18 inches but were frozen in the arctic blast. The rest of the mix (cereal rye, crimson clover and Austrian field peas) should bounce back.

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.

carrots covered

The carrots got covered with floating row cover and a small cloche. Behind them, a wire mesh holds down a layer of leaf mulch that covers the recently planted garlic crop.


Giving thanks for the garden

Thanksgiving morning I went out early into the garden for a few final herbs for the turkey stuffing, and a warm rain misted my face. I zipped open the cloche to send the breeze through the salad greens, ready for picking.

Cloched salad greens

Bronze oak leaf lettuce, black-seeded Simpson lettuce, spinach and arugula are cozy under a sturdy plastic cloche.

Over at the cold frame, which is bursting with more salad, the soil thermometer read 52 degrees. The tiny Cascadia peas in the back, which I intended to overwinter for next spring, are flowering.

cold frame salad greens

Green deer tongue lettuce, Forellenschluss lettuce and bok choi are the three main crops in the cold frame.

And I took the plunge into the chillier (45 degree) wet soil under the floating row cover to grab some carrots, yellow and orange.

Winter carrots

Chablis yellow carrots and an old standard orange Nantes carrots are sweet and crisp under floating row cover.

I took a tour around the yard to see how the other veggies are faring under my various season extension devices. Found the small Siberian kale (which, in defiance of its name, had been floundering on its own) was looking pretty perky under a row of three “hot caps”: a plastic dome and two dirty yet effective glass bells.

Hot caps

Blue Siberian curly kale under plastic and glass hot caps.

Finally, the dino kale, which did not get the nod as part of the Thanksgiving feast, impressed me as usual with its rich bluish color and bushy sprouting of dark new leaves.

Dino kale

Lacinato “dinosaur” kale standing tall in a bed mulched with straw.

Seeing all the greenery, basking in a warm mid-’50s breeze on a day that was to reach nearly 60, clearly there was a lot to be thankful for.

The rain didn’t dampen my mood as I chopped the herbs into the stuffing mix and readied the turkey for the oven. Note to self: next time, go a little heavier on the herbs: though ours are garden-fresh, they’re just not as pungent as those from our local farmers available at the market.

We sat down to a dinner that included a half-dozen types of produce from our garden, the rest from Northwest farmers, and wines from the region. More thankful feelings all around.

Later we enjoyed a stellar pumpkin pie that Susie made from our own “Cinderella coach,” the heirloom Rouge vif d’Etampes pumpkins that had been decorating our table since Halloween.

As the holiday waned into a big football win by our hometown Seahawks, I saw the warning on Cliff Mass’ weather blog about a cold snap coming. I made a mental note to get out into the yard again on Friday morning to add a little extra protection to the plants.

Cool-season gardening means paying attention to those rumors and reports, and timing it just right to make sure all your effort doesn’t amount to a soggy pile of wilted leaves after a cold snap. Or a bout of snow, which was also in the forecast…

Stoneface in snowStoneface side

Aren’t Vegetables Amazing?

We had an unexpected snow here on Sunday, which was pretty significant. Late in the season for us, and it was more than just a dusting. So here’s what happened with my winter veggies.

I know I talk a lot about plants preparing themselves for winter, but these two photos of kale during the snow and after it had warmed up will show you the resiliency these amazing plants.

Kale in snow

Kale rejuvenated

Same plants, I promise you!

Here’s the overall brassica bed in snow. Notice how the Brussels sprouts and dino kale in the background have also closed up to protect themselves.

brassica bed in snow

And here it is after the snow has

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gone, and we returned to our normal, rainy, near-50 degree F. weather today.


They look positively chipper, don’t they?

Not to be outdone by brassicas, the Little Gem lettuce that I’ve been nursing all winter also fared quite well in the storm. Here are my two cold frames — the triangle tunnel and the box cold frame — after the snow has gone.


Box cold frame with lettuce

In these photos you can see the extra steps I took to keep these alive. In the triangle tunnel, I added floating row cover right on the plants, and then an extra, commercial tunnel cloche under the tunnel. Thank goodness it fit great. In the box cold frame, I added a layer of floating row cover, just laid on the plants. This was easy and took just a minute.

Two final photos. Today I took a close look at the dino kale (Lacinato), and saw a lot of bright green shoots coming from its tops. Is there

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a better indicator of spring?

Dino kale new shoots

Dino kale new shoots 2

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