I sought signs of vernalis in my garden today. Figured it would be an appropriate thing to do on the vernal equinox, also known as the first day of spring.
Vernal literally means “of the spring,” from the Latin vernalis. And I’ve long been known to toss around Latin phrases just to show off. Carpe diem! Although anyone who tasks me with plant i.d. can quickly tell that my gardener’s Latin is suspect, to say the least. Caveat emptor.
But on the first day of spring, as the lengths of day and night are at their equinoctial point, is a good occasion, ipso facto, to assess vernalis.
In a walk after lunch (post meridiem) I found evidence in many facets of my edible garden, which should not have surprised me. Every spring that I have been alive, and to my knowledge every spring throughout eternity, sprouts have risen and buds have popped in flore as the earth rises again to life. Ad nauseum, ad infinitum.
And here, in images, is the documentum. Q.E.D.*
* Disclosure: I had to look up some of those phrases — okay, most of them — to make sure I was not misusing them too drastically.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And I took the plunge into the chillier (45 degree) wet soil under the floating row cover to grab some carrots, yellow and orange.
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.
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.
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…
Want to get planting earlier, warm the soil, protect starts as they harden off? You need a cloche or a cold frame. I have just the thing: an easy tunnel cold frame that you can build without much cost or skill.
First, go window shopping. Not peeking in windows of downtown stores — shopping for windows at building salvage places. A great one in Seattle is Second Use, where I’ll be leading a workshop this Sunday on this very topic.
Second Use, the ReStore and similar shops in many cities are great places to find inexpensive materials for garden building projects. They reclaim old window sashes and doors when homeowners are doing remodeling. They also have random collections of building materials, like wood or stone for raised beds, pipe for cloches, mesh for trellises and even old bathroom fixtures you could plant in, if you want. For the sake of your neighbors, please try to resist.
So here are the basics of a simple, lean-to window tunnel.
Find two window sashes of the same size.
Aluminum-framed ones are great, because they’re lightweight, and won’t rust in wet weather and soil contact. But they’re hard to find. Wood window sashes are great, with a couple of caveats. Find ones with solid putty that holds the glass securely. Look for recent ones that don’t have peeling paint. Older windows, before 1973, will likely have lead paint, and that can flake off into your garden, and is a hazard for the environment, you, your kids and your pets.
I’ve found some glass-fronted cabinet doors that work great. It’s less likely that lead paint was used on interior projects, and these are varnished on one side. They’re not real large, but big enough to grow a three-foot row of something, or to easily cover one flat of seedlings.
Carefully drill two small holes into the edges of one side of the frame. Into those, screw round eye hooks. These should match on each window, so when you lean them together in an A-frame shape, the eye hooks almost touch.
Set up the windows on a garden bed, then run a heavy-gauge wire through the eye hooks and twist it up to hold the windows in place. This will prevent them from collapsing into the bed and crushing your plants.
On each end, pile straw to cover the triangular-shaped hole. This will provide enough protection from wind, and will help hold in the warmth that will have been gained during the day. You could also lean full bags of mulch against each end, or find some other way to block those openings.
For a warmer solution, cut a piece of 6-mil plastic to fit each end, stretch it tight and staple it on. Or even cut triangular plywood ends and screw them into place. Adding something permanently to the end makes it more difficult to move the cold frame or take it apart for storage.
This simple building project will raise the soil temperature under the windows by 5 degrees or more, helping you plant earlier and provide a warmer environment for seedlings. Just don’t forget to water, and look at it daily to make sure it’s working properly.
Want to see more ideas and shop for salvaged products? Come to my talk at Second Use on Sunday, April 6 at noon. Better yet, come early and shop the plant sale that is accompanying the event. I’ll show slides of many ideas, give a couple of demos, and then we’ll walk the store to find the hidden treasures.