Learning by killing: Rainy-day musings on straw-bale coldframes
Vermont is finally getting a good dose of rain today, so I took the opportunity to come inside from the garden I'm responsible for as the kitchen/garden intern at Yestermorrow Design/Build School. It's time to get caught up on all of the things I've been neglecting since March. Entering the scribbles from my garden log into a digital document tops my list. Even though most of my directly seeded plants are just starting to peek out, I am shocked as I look back even a month to see how much I've learned and how far things have come. Some entries are pretty bleak:
March 10: "It's been 3 weeks and I have only one sprout from 3 packets of Walla Walla onions. I guess it's true that old onion seeds don't germinate much."
April 12: "Most of the Brussels sprouts and cabbage lived through the hard frost last night...except for the runt Brussels."
April 26: "I planted a bunch of asparagus in the last few days. I did the first few upside down, so I'm not sure if I got any of them right. They may not take."
April 27: "The flowers in the hanging baskets aren't going to make it. I put them in while they were too small and then fried them in the sun. Oops. I think they were a little weak anyway."
April 29: "I'm very sunburnt on the tops of my arms and the backs of my legs."
May 19: "I killed my summer and winter squash on accident by leaving it out last night in the frost. Damn it. I also think the peppers in the cold frames have had it...I didn't give them enough time to harden off before putting them out. The transplanted fennel is also dying because I waited too long. It's a death day. This sucks."
Last week I was feeling so demoralized. I have been working long hours and it felt like nothing was happening, but looking back on these entries and looking out in the garden, I can see that the plants are starting to pop. And as a more veteran grower reminded me the other day, "It's still only May in Vermont. Just wait. And besides, if you're not killing any plants, you're not learning anything."
As I look over the hundreds of seeds I've started, I can see that most of them are in fact making it. I can brush my hand over the tops of my basil and catch a divine whiff of Genovese, cinnamon, lime, and lemon basil wafting up at me. Even though I killed a bunch of tomatoes and peppers, I started so many that I have more than I know what to do with and am giving them away. My new flats of squash are germinating, and I think they'll take the place of their downed brethren just fine. Onions are coming up in droves. Hardy brassicas have taken hold and with the peas, are the first things to look like they're happy in the garden.
Inspired by the Permaculture Design Certification course I took here in mid-April and helped by a donation, I planted many perennial plants: strawberries, herbs, fruit trees, blueberry bushes, raspberries, and asparagus. The tomatillos came back strong from a sad cold snap and look like they could take just about any other abuse I could dish out to them in my newbie ignorance. Even my poorly planted asparagus is sending tender shoots up. I have stuck flowers all over the campus and in and among the veggies; it should be beautiful and I hope the bees love it.
Yestermorrow doesn't have a greenhouse (yet), so I had a few experiments going to see which method would help my seedlings out the most. There have been three main areas where I've sprouted and kept them: the south-facing windows in our conference room, under a small set of grow lights, and inside coldframes. All three have worked fine, but I have been especially happy with the coldframes I made. I started hardier plants in them that don't mind a little chill, and set out other plants that need more warmth to germinate. Building them from wood would have taken a lot more time than I felt I had, so I decided to use straw bales. From its straw-bale building courses, Yestermorrow has tons of leftover bales. Our facilities manager brought me in some old windows he was not using.
Assembly was really simple; I just set the bales up in a rectangle the size of the window frames and was done. One of the areas had a stone wall on the back of it, which I think helped to hold in some of the heat of the day through the night. They worked really well, but definitely needed to be opened up completely in the daytime; the temperatures frequently climbed over 120 degrees — plant-killing temperatures — if I didn't open them up. On really cold nights, I would stuff any cracks between the window frames and the bales with extra straw; on a couple wickedly cold nights, I filled up jugs with hot water and put them in the coldframes just before I closed them. This really helped to hold some heat in through the night. My one complaint was that I am constantly picking straw out of the plants. It hasn't hurt anything, but it is a little annoying. When the weather truly warms up, I will be able to dismantle them as quickly as I set them up. We just had our last frost two nights ago — well, I think it was the last frost — so maybe, just maybe, in a couple weeks I will be able to take them down.
The next big projects, aside from getting my plants in the ground, are to finish building the tomato trellises I have in the works and install some drip irritation in the garden, hopefully using water from rain catchment that a few other interns and I are looking into. All of those things need to happen on the same timeframe: ASAP. I'm thinking that if the rain continues tomorrow, I am going to be getting soggy.
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