My wife may be a “master gardener” but we have a lot of room for improvement and learning in the gardening department. It’s our second year gardening in this yard, and our first year in our community garden plot, and we’ve learned a lot. While I may not be as obsessively photographing everything we eat, our big win is in eating nearly everything we’ve grown. Sometimes that seems like half the battle. Here’s a small taste of what we’ve been harvesting from the yard lately:
Everytime I look at fresh peas from our garden I hear Gordon Ramsay saying (in his nicer Master Chef voice), “THE MOST AMAZING FRESH PEAS!”
I’m pretty sure Ramsay would agree with me that those Chioggia beets are stunning.
Your garden might seem like it’s all the same climate, and the USDA Hardiness Map doesn’t give any insight on this matter, but there are a lot of factors that affect how a plant will do in a particular spot. Proximity/distance to buildings, foundations, pavement, slopes, types of soil, larger plants (esp trees), fences, and so on can all affect the microclimates of your yard. Some areas are exposed to drafts and breezes. A south-facing wall with a reflecting foundation and an adjacent heat-sinking driveway might be good for an early springtime start, but brutally scorching in the summer. If everyone cuts across the yard at the same point, your soil is going to quickly become brutally compacted. Dryer vents, downspouts, and temperature fluctuations can cause major Life Events for your plants, so it’s important to identify areas where you can get a little boost or avoid something gnarly. Moisture, temperatures and wind can vary wildly within the same small yard. Microclimates are an important idea in permaculture, which is the subject of at least eight books on my bedside table.
Since we haven’t lived here for a year, most of the microclimates of our yard are a mystery. Mostly, we are looking for the least shady areas with maximum heat — because our yard is in Olympia & has some mature trees – so we don’t really have enough sun or heat. What does our yard look like in the summer? The sun will move, the trees will leaf out, there will be a lot less rain, and I have no idea what to expect. This is a year that I anticipate we’ll do a lot of learning. Not to imply that I’m totally a lazy farmer, but if I can get microclimates to reduce my workload at all, it’s worth it to me.
While I often exclaim about the relative worthlessness of our pets, I have occasionally found a use for the dogs in the garden. Last summer, they did a remarkably good job of chasing the birds, squirrels and wildlife that would try to steal our garden’s bounty. This year, so far, they have dug up some plants I probably didn’t want to keep anyway, and helped me identify some of the most important microclimates in our backyard.
You see, we have two small, shivering, heat-seeking, under-the-blankets, “Get me a sweater PLEASE” kind of dogs. If you need to find the warmest spot in the house, unleash the hounds. The same principle applies to the backyard. From about 10am to 2pm, this corner is THE place to be.
Surrounded on two sides by heat-reflecting fences, this corner is sheltered from the wind, gets a lot of light and warmth, and would be a really great place to grow heat-loving plants…. if the dogs weren’t likely to kill anything I plant there by sleeping on top of them.
Clementine is giving me the look that says, “Yes, I HAVE always dreamed of napping on top of a watermelon vine, thank you for asking.”
When you have an itchy green thumb and spring seems a long way off, cold frames start to look really good. Krista has long been an advocate of building some for our yard, although I have been a little lazy about it because I’m focused on other stuff. But during our visit to the NW Garden & Flower Show this weekend, I got a metaphorical bee in my bonnet about cold frames. We might be building some as early as this weekend.
Cold frames are a good way to extend your growing season – either into the fall/winter, or starting earlier in the spring. They generally have sides that block the wind, and some kind of lid made of glass that can be propped open for ventilation. Place the cold frame facing south if possible, and put the glass on an angle to capture the most sunlight. I most often see old windows repurposed into cold frames. Open the cold frame on warm, sunny days to avoid cooking your plants. We’re fortunate to live in a place with a relatively mild winter, so a few cold frames might be the answer to our need for year-round, garden-fresh produce. The idea of a cold frame is so basic, I’m not sure why we haven’t built a bunch already (oh, just sheer laziness).
This lovely, flowery cold frame came from the Arboretum Foundation’s Winter Garden ( i think), or maybe it was the First Breath of Spring garden from the Puget Sound Flower Growers. I can’t remember, unfortunately. This cold frame looks pretty sturdy, and that device for propping it open is fancy – I would probably use a stack of old bricks or a mossy stick from the apple tree. This is the type of cold frame you could lift off when freeze danger passes, and put in the garage until next year. The construction is fairly simple – if you can cut a diagonal line, and handle a hammer, nails, screw driver and some hinges, you could probably make this in an afternoon.
Seattle Tilth & Jessi Bloom build a great “little farm in the city” in their demo garden, and it included this cold frame. I love that it’s painted a bright cheery spring green. Fancying up a garden is highly valued in our house. An old wheel props it open, instead of a custom propping device. It’s hard to see from this angle, but this cold frame is full of dirt – this is the kind of frame you need to leave in one place, not pick up and put away. The dirt is close to the glass. I love that it is a highly functioning container. Since there’s not a lot of headspace, once those seedlings get going, the glass should be open to let them grow. This would be most useful with slow-starting spring plants, who need help getting starting but can handle being open to the elements pretty quickly. You might make this so that the glass comes off completely in the summer but reattaches next spring.
This style of cold frame was assembled entirely from recycled materials in the RE Store space. Old bricks, cinder blocks, and an recycled window are all that’s used to piece this together. Even I could make one of these! There are some gaps around the edges, so be more careful with the corners if it needs to stay warm in the winter. This is ideal for early spring and late fall growing. It would be more of a pain to re-locate than a solid wood frame, but you could theoretically move all those bricks to any location you desired. The best thing is the price tag… this could be assembled for free if you can scavenge the materials.
And finally, branching out a little from the cold frames, we spotted a propagation bench in the RE Store exhibit space. This is basically a cold frame on legs used to start seedlings. This is also made from recycled and reclaimed materials. This might help us bridge the gap between now (no all-season outdoor growing space) and the day when we buy/build our dream greenhouse. Krista suggested that we build a series of propagation benches to serve as a mini dog run / roofed dog area, and I thought that was brilliant. Have you met our dogs? They hate precipitation. Since we live in the PNW, this makes for miserable little dogs 5 months of the year. A dog run+propagation bench could bring harmony and joy to our household, in so many ways.
Do you any cold frame gardening? Do you have any advice for me?
So, first of all it’s 9 degrees. Fahrenheit. Not like how I speak in hyperbole and I say, “It’s like 9 degrees!!” and I mean, “It’s really cold,” but like the real NINE DEGREES outdoors. I feel totally and completely lied to, since I left the east coast for promises of “mild winters,” a promise that remains unfulfilled.
Pittsburgh winter (two years ago):
Olympia winter (last year):
The only difference I see is that in Pittsburgh, they plow the roads.
Of course, inside it’s plenty warm, partially because we have small, warm pets who love to cuddle and partially because I am in love with our programmable thermostat and high-efficiency furnace.
This isn’t about our updated energy-efficient heating system, however. This post is actually about our apple tree. Really, the apple tree is barely ours. We’ve only lived here a few months, and I don’t think anyone in our house even ate any of the apples. It was sorely neglected by the former owners, and I was probably going to try to prune it and break my limbs working on it, and then pay not only my medical bills but also a certified arborist to come finish pruning it. So basically, this was going to be an expensive old apple tree. But it’s an apple tree, so what can you do? You certainly can not just cut it down, even if it is right in the middle of what might otherwise be your perfectly lovely garden space with raised beds and a little footpath. No, you can’t cut it down. You have to keep it and give up the dream of gardening in your apple tree-shaded backyard.
Unless there’s a big wind storm and the tree just falls. Then, it’s the best of all possible options. You are alleviated of guilt, and the garden space is returned to your green thumb’s ambitious care.
Here is the tree, just a few months ago, with children laughing nearby, apples ripening on its branches, and small dogs scampering in its leafy shade.
And here is the tree today, just resting on its side in the morning sun like it hit snooze and overslept the night after a raucous partying.
So, Rest in Peace, old apple tree. I hope you have a long, quiet winter in the big orchard in the sky. And thank you for missing the garage, the house, and even the compost bin. We’re super grateful that your downfall did not become an insurance claim.
This is our backyard, with a pole for the clothesline & the apple tree. This is a “before” picture. Let’s check back in 1 year. I had high hopes that we could put in a fall/winter garden when we moved, and not miss a whole season of growing stuff. I was naive and ambitious. It’s not going to happen. We’d be lucky if I mowed the lawn or cut back the ivy before the rains start. I did trim the hedges yesterday, though (electric hedge trimmers = not very much work). There’s still a chance I might put in sets of garlic, but that will probably be the extent of my fall/winter gardening efforts here. I want to spend the winter researching, planning, and getting ready so that we can start the garden 110% as soon as March rolls around. It seems far more likely to happen if I give myself 6 months to plan.
I have a lot of guilt about tearing out plants that are currently in the yard. They aren’t doing well. The soil isn’t great and they’ve been neglected for too long, as the former owners were not big garden people. But still, they are alive and doing their best, and I feel guilty just tearing them up. So then, finding new homes for all the rosebushes, butterfly bushes, azaleas, coniferous border plants, bulbs, hedges etc. becomes its own project. I am not sure how other people handle this when they get a new house & hate the yardscaping. Maybe I’m just soft?
There’s a new magazine called Urban Farm (from the editors of Hobby Farm). There’s only one issue so far, but it’s great. Urban Farm is based on the idea that you don’t need a lot of acres to produce food, with an emphasis sustainability, organic growing, and self-sufficiency. We also subscribe to Mother Earth News, which is I love, but a lot of projects are geared toward people with a little more space than we have. It’s inspirational to read Mother Earth, though, and I like the creative challenge of trying to scale down some of their projects to our 1/5 acres.
Fortunately, our library has a ton of great gardening books. Lately, I’ve been reading Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square-Inch Gardener’s Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting, which is full of good ideas for mediocre/difficult spaces. We actually have some really promising garden spaces and I know we are very lucky compared to apartment dwellers, renters, and people with concrete yards, but there is a lot of food for thought in this book. Yesterday, I also picked up Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, about traditional low-input gardening methods for higher yields. Gardening When It Counts should be an interesting read. The author is opposed to popular intensive vegetable gardening, like crowded raised beds (hi, that’s what I do). If there is really an easier, cheaper, more sustainable way to grow food, I’m probably willing to try it, but the top soil in my yard is not promising. (see above: all the plants in the yard are struggling)
And to round out this conversation, I’ve been watching The Good Life on a recommendation from the new green blog. The Good Life is a comedy from the BBC in the 1970s about a suburban couple that decides to quit the rat race and go self-sufficient. Don’t worry – I’m not getting any crazy ideas; their house is paid off! It takes place in the 70s, but it seems very timely and modern. As we see more and more people turning back to sustainable, locally-produced food and trying to consume less and produce more to meet their own needs, there are inevitably going to be conflicts with Homeowner Associations, local laws and restrictions, neighbors, and the limitations of our own knowledge and abilities. Anyway, it’s a good show, and it gives me something to watch besides Lost, which I have been watching entirely too much of. Have I mentioned lately that we love netflix instant streaming? Instant Streaming & the ROKU are easily my favorite technical innovations of the last year.