Welcome winter! The colorful splendor of fall leaves has tapered off, frost is a more frequent morning sight, and suddenly it is dark out by 4:30pm. But remember that the winter solstice is the official beginning of winter, on December 22nd, after which the days start to incrementally lengthen even while the two coldest months still approach.
What is an urban farmer to do? All the books and calendars say this is the time to review crop notes to know what worked well and what didn’t, to plan next year’s garden, and to pore over the glossy (or not) seed catalogs. At least, that’s how it works for much of the country.
But here in Thurston County, with the relatively mild winters, there’s no need to stop gardening. This is a great time to work on garden infrastructure projects, some of which can help you get a head-start on spring gardening and they’ll come in handy for extending the season next fall or even grow all through next winter with some planning and selection of the right vegetables and varieties. I won’t go into greenhouses and glasshouses here; the following are all things that a handy gardener could build in anything from an hour to a half-day.
Row covers are the simplest to construct; simply bend lengths of pvc pipe into holsters on the sides of the raised beds (or set into the ground) and cover with clear plastic sheeting cut with enough excess to tie or weigh down. They do the job of keeping excess rain off the crops, thereby reducing slug infestation, fungal diseases, and nutrient leaching from the fertile ground. They also protect from wind damage and give a few weeks’ head start in spring and extend it a few weeks in fall, and they can to some extent mellow out the very coldest freezes. The most common complaint is their shabby appearance, which can be mitigated with a little more engineering and different materials.
Another simple structure is a cold frame, which is typically a low wood box with old windows set on hinges to make a clear cover. They offer approximately the same amount of protection from the rain and cold as row covers, but with two main advantages. For starters, they won’t blow away in one of the many blustery winter storms and they won’t collapse under the weight of our occasional snowfalls. Besides that, there are opportunities to really dress them up and make them presentable by using beautiful vintage windows full of character and nice hinges and handles. There’s much more creative opportunity here, and the structure will last longer than plastic, so it’s worth the investment of time to make them look special. Cold frames can also be insulated on the sides to give even greater protection from the cold. As a bonus, plant basil and peppers in them in summer; they’ll perform much better than usual with the extra heat and protection.
For the more adventurous, there is a low-tech way to take the cold frame to another level: a hot frame. Okay, don’t be thrown off by the name; if truth-in-advertising applied it would be called a lukewarm frame. But it’s simple. In early spring, move the cold frame away from its site, excavate the topsoil (set aside in wheelbarrows) to a depth of about two feet. Fill just over half-full with fresh horse or cow manure, and then replace the topsoil to fill in the rest of the pit. Set the frame back in place, and direct-sow seeds or starts in the topsoil. Use the remaining topsoil to line the outside walls off the frame for some insulation. The manure decomposes and gives off heat for a variable period of time, and the seedlings’ roots stay protected from the excessive heat and nutrients that typically burn a plant’s roots.
Hot frames are especially helpful for people who don’t have sufficient south-facing-window space indoors to start seeds in pots, or who couldn’t be bothered with the whole mess of indoor lights and heat mats and watering and drainage pans. Once the seedlings grow up and the weather has mellowed out, they can be transplanted to their ideal location. The process can be repeated in early to mid-fall, by removing the topsoil and the now-composted manure, replacing it with fresh manure and then the topsoil, and planting fall and winter garden starts in the topsoil.
To optimize the utility of all of these structures, be prepared to do some planning and research your vegetable selections—in some cases even the variety of vegetable can make a big difference. Here’s where we get to spend cold rainy days or nights drooling over the beautiful seed catalogs that are starting to come in the mail. But I’ll save that for next time. Until then, get out there and enjoy the beautiful Pacific Northwest, whether it’s your garden or a forest.
Rob Thoms is an Olympia resident and co-owner of The Artful Gardeners, where they design and build nourishing gardens for the body and spirit (www.theartfulgardener.net). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for edible garden and urban farm coaching and consultations.