Usually sometime in January, I start dreaming of native wildflowers and the many pollinators that visit them. One of my favorite native herbaceous plants is Monarda fistolusa aka Wild Bergamot or Bee Balm. This plant is in the mint family and smells similar to the bergamot used in earl gray tea. In this painting, a skipper butterfly is having a nectar/pollen snack on Wild Bergamot. Not sure what type of skipper it is, but my guess is – Zabulon Skipper.
From my experience this past year, Rainbow Swiss Chard seems to be quite a versatile plant. It can take summer heat, as well as winter temps in zone 6a. I can’t think of many plants that can grow inside an unheated greenhouse in both summer and winter. In summer, temps in the greenhouse can reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In winter, I kept the plants inside a cold frame inside the greenhouse (2 layers of protection), so lets assume temps as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit at times.
Pictured here are Rainbow Swiss Chard plants harvested from the greenhouse on January 20th, 2021. The only issue is we just don’t eat as much Swiss Chard as lettuces and other salad greens. In that case, I probably won’t grow as much Swiss Chard going forward and I’ll look for other vegetable plants that can withstand similar temperature extremes, which we do eat often. Any suggestions?
I decided to harvest entire plants, instead of the cut-and-come-again method, which works well with Swiss Chard, because the plants were being heavily invaded by aphids. Perhaps I’ll try the Neem oil to see if it is effective on the aphids on the few Chard plants that I did not harvest. Either way, it is time for a fresh start. I’ll probably sow Broadleaf Endive seeds (member of the Chicory family) in this cold frame shortly and they should come up beautifully by March.
I feel like lumber is way overpriced and I hear there are shortages too. I’m not against big box stores, but I’ll avoid them if I can. Either way, I just didn’t feel like driving to Lowe’s or Home Depot. The woods behind our house seem to be nearing the end of the “Stem Exclusion” stage of forest succession. In this stage, resources, such as sunlight, become limited for certain tree species like Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), which were some of the first tree species to appear in the early stages of forest succession.
Most of the Red Cedar in these woods are now dead because they were shaded out by larger tree species like Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) and Black Cherry (Prunus serotina). Some of the Cedar-skeletons are still standing; others have been blown over by wind. I have mixed feelings about harvesting the cedar trunks from these woods. On one hand they make a nice natural looking raised bed that will help feed our family. On the other hand, I am removing material from these woods that is essential to the detritus food web, even if just several pieces.
During winter in New York State, I start dreaming of fresh greenery as early as December. Going up to the greenhouse in winter feels like an escape to a tiny island of verdure. A mini vacation to someplace different. But not all plants can survive winter in Zone 6a in an unheated greenhouse. However, varieties of kale, such as “Winterbor”, Swiss Chard (“Rainbow”), Tatsoi, and many other “cold hardy” greens can easily overwinter in an unheated greenhouse, or even outside if the winter is mild.
The harvest shown in the photo was originally planted in August and September. The plants don’t grow much during the “dark months” (Nov, Dec, Jan), but come February and March; they can really take off and start to grow rapidly, thanks to greater amount of sun available at that time. It will be fun to experiment with sowing new seeds in February, in the greenhouse, and leaving some of last year’s plants.
In the previous post, I described some vegetable gardening failures at our previous residence – a “hail mary” project doomed from the start due to lack of light. We were fortunate to move to a new house with some sunny areas on the property. Today, there are some new failures, but there is more success today than failure. I don’t think it is possible to be a gardener and not experience failure, but that is also what makes success more enjoyable once we attain it. The space I chose to plant a new vegetable garden was once used as a volleyball court by the previous owner, so it was already nice and level.
Still, I had 2 main issues to contend with – deer and weeds. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love all plants, but I don’t want certain ones crowding out my cucumbers, if you know what I mean. Deer are cute too, but I don’t want them eating the fruits of my labor. Sorry, but y’all gotta go!
Here’s how it went:
To prevent most weeds, I put a layer of cardboard down to smother out the sod grass. Next, I put wood chips down over the cardboard to create a weed-free-lawn-free-soft-to-walk-on space on which to garden. Now we have a space that doesn’t need to be maintained at all – no mowing no weeding, no nothing. And, it smells great thanks to the decomposing wood chips, if you like that sort of thing. The wood chips also add organic matter as they break down.
To prevent deer from entering, I put up a tall, yet cheap and simple deer fence. If it must be anything, it must be tall. Deer can easily clear a 6-foot tall fence while pirouetting backwards in their sleep. I’ve also heard that they can clear an 8-foot fence under extreme circumstances, like when frightened. For the fence, I used 10-foot T posts and tough deer netting. After pounding the posts into the ground, about 7 feet apart, the height of the fence was about 8.5 feet. Not unstoppable, but pretty good in my opinion.
Lastly, I built a gate/door out of PVC pipe by connecting the pipes together with straight joints and 90-degree joints where needed. I then lined the gate with chicken wire. The gate opens and closes, as it pivots on a steel 5-foot rod. A couple climbing carabiners hold the gate shut. I may improve upon this system in the future, as it feels a bit improvised, yet not inconvenient.
In the 1st year of this project, I built several raised beds and supplemented most of the remaining open space with large growbags. 3 out of 5 raised beds contain “teepee trellises” – a cost-free way to grow vegetable producing vines vertically by tying together 3 or 4 sturdy dead branches. In addition, I used twine to create little step ladders to help the plants climb. These beds would be used to grow cucumbers, pole beans, and butternut squash (I also snuck a few zucchini plants in there). The cucumbers were a big success, but I’m still not sure about the pole beans and butternut squash. I’ll make that call at the end of the season.
One of the other raised beds was used to grow several kinds of lettuces (Green and Red Salad Mix, 2 types of Romaine, and Tropicana), arugula, russian red kale, endive, broccoli, carrots, and beets. Not all at the same time, some in successional plantings. This too turned out to be successful (except for the broccoli). And my favorite and final raised bed was set aside for the strawberry. I say favorite because I don’t need to do anything to it, as these ever-bearing strawberries will keep coming back with more vigor year after year, without my intervention.
The 10-gallon and 20-gallon grow bags were reserved for 3 types of tomatoes (Cherry, Homestead, and Brandywine), all of which are indeterminate types (meaning they’ll keep growing and setting fruit until the frost kills them). The tomatoes got a late start due to a very cold May, but they did alight once they got going. Banana peppers lived in some of the other grow bags and they did quite well. Only 1 Bell pepper made it to maturity and is slowly making its way.
Sweet potatoes, red potatoes, and white potatoes were planted in the remaining growbags. The Sweet potatoes seem to be doing quite well, but we will know for sure in the fall. I decided to harvest the regular potatoes because something completely devoured the plants. Luckily, I got a decent harvest anyway.
So, there we have it – more success than failure so far in a garden that was thrown together quickly during a mild winter. Next, I’d like to build some more raised beds and figure out a way to use the space more efficiently. I’m also thinking of growing blueberries and blackberries in this space. I have already been using the garden as a small nursery to grow plants for a native plant meadow project in our yard – another exciting project that will replace a bit of lawn with native plant habitat.