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.
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.
Usually, early January is when I get the impulse to start growing things. How do you decide what to grow? For some it might be the exclusivity of growing something rare. For others, it might be the dream of self-reliance by growing most of what they eat. Or, it may simply be the challenge of getting things to germinate that do not germinate easily. For me, it is whatever has caught my attention this time, but usually there is influence from the realm of “grow it to eat it” or “grow it for the native ecosystem”.
And, occasionally I get distracted by shiny things like a cat after an orb of light reflecting from a piece of glass. For instance, I recently sowed the all too common Nasturtium because, well, they’re pretty. But subconsciously, I may have decided to sow them because they “grow before your eyes”. What else would be as fun to watch unfurl in green splendor in the middle of winter? The best part is that when the round peppery leaves start to stretch out of control, I get a snack. You might think that there are better things to munch on, but I have seen this plant used in “serious” restaurants as both garnish and salad ingredient.
This year, the “grow it to eat it” influence seems to be at the forefront of my plant obsessed brain. After I completed the greenhouse in November, I got to work on planning a vegetable garden. Throughout the winter, I have been driving T-posts in and building raised beds (and a garden gate made from PVC pipe). But that wasn’t enough, so I grew sprouts in a mason jar and microgreens under LED lights. Both the sprouts and microgreens were a success, despite some aphids that showed up unannounced. Later, I found a ladybug in my daughter’s room and then I unleased it on the aphids, which seems to have declined in numbers drastically since then.
Recently, I had a bout of the “grow it for the native ecosystem” syndrome. I raided the fridge for any remaining native plant seeds. I was determined to sow any 3-year old seed reserves because some species may no longer be viable after a few years. I grabbed Paw Paw (Asimina triloba), Gray Birch (Betula populifolia), Striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum), Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Late Purple Aster (Symphyotrichum patens), and Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). I sowed these seeds in plastic trays inside the greenhouse under another mini-greenhouse to experiment with giving the plants a jump start on the season. When it warms up enough I will move the tray out into the main greenhouse.
What will I do with these plants? Care for them for a little while, plant some where I can, and hopefully give most away to friends and family. The recipients of these plants might be curious about them because these species aren’t typically sold in commercial nurseries, though species like Paw Paw are quickly gaining popularity. The plight of the honey bee and the monarch butterfly seems to have been heard loud and clear. Maybe most are ready to hear about what it means to garden with native plants.
We have always dreamed about having a greenhouse. Build it out of wood and PVC pipe? I’d like to, but I’m not there yet. So, as a first time go at it, I decided to get a greenhouse kit, which included aluminum, plastic parts, and polycarbonate panels for assembly. We went with the Palram Mythos 6 x 14. At this time, it sold for around $1,000. Not too big, not too small, and most importantly – “not a permanent structure”!
After a bit of research, I learned that a sturdy wood or concrete base is highly recommended. I have seen YouTube videos where people put up that same greenhouse without a base and it seemed functional. Without a base, you would need to make sure to anchor the greenhouse to the ground to prevent it from moving in inclement weather. Also, the ground must be perfectly level to avoid assembly issues.
For my base, I used 4″x 4″ untreated cedar. Cedar is a naturally rot-resistant wood, which makes it a great choice for outdoor projects. Of course, it will rot after a few years, so I’ll need to replace the base eventually. I hear pressure treated wood is fine too because they no longer use arsenic, but I didn’t want to take the chance.
For site preparation and base construction, I used this tutorial from ACF Greenhouses for general reference and modified as needed. Before constructing the wood base, I leveled out a roughly 8’ x 16’ area using a hand-tiller (to remove the grass), hard rake, and tamper. Next, I laid down a weed barrier where I planned to put the base. I cut the cedar wood to fit a 6’ x 14’ greenhouse by making a couple of 45° angle cuts to connect pieces in the middle where needed. The corners of the base were connected using a ratchet wrench and 8” lag screws. Plenty of mistakes were made along the way!
Time to assemble the greenhouse! Warning: there is (at the time I am writing this) a typo on the front page of the Palram Mythos instruction manual where it indicates greenhouse dimensions in inches for the 6’ x 14’ model (the inches do not equal the feet specified). You can imagine the rage when I thought I had to redo the base and the relief when I realized they had made a boo-boo.
It took about 15 hours to put up the greenhouse by myself, but I’m not very swift. If assembling by yourself, I find the hardest part is getting the long sides of the greenhouse to stay upright until the cross-bar is installed at the top to secure each side. I used a wheel-barrow and some chairs on the outside and inside of each side to hold it up until I installed the cross-bars. Generally, the greenhouse assembly for this model is pretty good, no major headaches.
I had also purchased an anchor kit to secure the greenhouse to the ground, but I realized I did not need it, so I returned it. Instead, I secured the greenhouse to the wood base with wood screws. Shortly after, we had 45 mph winds overnight and it did not budge. I only had to re-adjust one of the roof panels that became slightly displaced.
We then got 13 inches of snow, including a 2-inch-thick layer of ice. The greenhouse held up nicely through it all. I went out to clean the snow off the roof a few times just in case, and to let light in, but the ice remained until it melted. I plan to use the greenhouse to get a head start on sowing seeds for spring and to grow cold hardy crops like kale and spinach for late fall and winter harvest!