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Friday, March 6, 2015

Vegetable Jail Season Extension

It's so much more fun to have gardening friends to share ideas with. 

When my daughter and I first began the effort to turn our knapweed patch into a garden, Jackie Chambers recommended the book, Gaia's Garden, by Toby Hemenway. Gaia's Garden was precisely the window I needed at that point in my journey, beckoning small scale agriculture to merge with ecology in a way that I know I'll run with for the rest of my life.

Jackie Chambers and I enjoy exchanging ideas as we each ponder the best ways to extend the growing season where we live. In this blog post, Jackie interviews me about my most recent experiment, which combines protection from cold weather with protection from marmots and other wildlife species that have a proven track record of simply not sharing

 (Who, me?)
   Above: My daughter and I caught several marmots in the garden last summer and relocated them.

I was excited to tell Jackie about this dual purpose experiment, and she wanted to see what these bed covers look like.

Left: Simple base frame, made from old 2x6 lumber
Middle: Base with simple lid frame made from 1x2 lumber, with hardware cloth stapled on
Right: Clear plastic bag slipped over the lid to extend the growing season

This is the first marmot and cold weather protection frame I made. I used old lumber that had been sitting behind our shop for years, leftover from the previous property owners. This wood was on its way to rot out of sight behind the shop, but now it will live out its last years with a new purpose. 

This is the general design I'm planning on using this year. I figure that I can always build a sloping base for these frames later if I decide I want them angled toward the sun. I love modular projects that can start out simple and then be improved upon and added to over time. The rest of this post is written in question-and-answer format.

How large are they? 

Julie: At this point, they vary from 3x3.5' to 6x8'. I'm into using whatever I have available or can trade for instead of buying supplies, whenever possible. The
 guiding factors on size have been the width of the hardware cloth, the length of lumber available, and the size of the garden bed they will be used in.

1. Width of the wire: I happen to have 3' wire mesh on hand, so all of my lids need to be 3'1" wide. If you are buying whatever you need, then you'll have more options of course. Keep in mind that you can have rows of lids across a single base frame. So I've got one base frame that is 6' wide, accommodating 3' wide lids. 

2. Maximum length of lumber: Again, I'm using what I have on hand. Since none of my slab wood was more than 8' long, my largest base frame is 8' long.

3. Size of the bed where the frame will go: I like to leave at least a foot or two of growing space around each frame to account for my sacrificial plants. These are the radishes and other easy to grow veggies that keep the marmots happy enough that they don't feel a need to dig under my base frames. Here's hoping! So far this tactic has worked well for me.

The largest lid turned out to be kind of unwieldy at 3x6 feet, so the other half of the large base frame has two smaller lids instead. This has definitely been a learning process!

How tall are they? 

Julie: For height, the question is, what do you want to grow? Also, how many months of the growing season require protection? It's amazing how many veggies don't need a lot of vertical space even through harvest time, as long as you aren't raising seed to save. I'm making an effort to save seed in the feral parts of my garden, and to focus on the harvest of foods within my growing frames. the width of the board determines the height of the bed cover. I like the boards for my base frames to be at least 6-7" wide, which makes a frame tall enough to accommodate radishes, beets, greens, strawberries, etc... and maybe even Tiny Tim tomatoes! (My all-time favorite high elevation tomato.) Carrots will need more height eventually, but not till later in the summer!

If you used 2x4's and ended up with a 4" tall base frame, it would still give you quite a lot of time before your plants outgrew the height. For example, at our elevation and exposure, carrots are not going to be 4" tall until the danger of a hard freeze is well in the past. You can always stack another frame on top for additional height.

I'm focused on making these as low profile as possible, to avoid having any more of my contraptions ending up in a tree. Live and learn, adapt as needed!

This frame is 7" tall. I had no idea that making a 6x8' frame would be such a workout! I think moving it was the most demanding part of the whole project, but I finally did get it in place. Afterward I felt like I'd been playing rugby, not building a super simple garden project! Here I am positioning the frame, trying the lids out, seeing if it's all going to work... 

This is the first one I've made using slab wood. I used a skill saw to rip a straight line along the edges, so the frames would have a square surface to rest on. My husband ran the other sides through the table saw, but some pieces I straightened on both sides with a skill saw -- since I'm a southpaw who doesn't like the backwards feel of the table saw. Somehow the backwards feel of the right-handed skill saw is less disconcerting.

How long do you leave them in place?

Julie: I have to protect against marmots till July if they estivate, or all summer if they don't. Sometimes when you irrigate, the marmots opt out of summertime hibernation!! (Why sleep when the eating is good?) Whatever plants I cage, those are the plants that end up feeding us, and they often need caging on an ongoing basis... thus, "Vegetable Jail." Then the season extension comes into play in September again,  so I may just leave the frames in place throughout the growing season. I'll pull the plastic off when it gets warmer out. (Above: One of the marmots we relocated, after we set it free.)

How long does it take to build one?

Julie: I can build one in an afternoon. It'd be a lot quicker if I wasn't ripping boards length-wise! I think once I get the hang of it, I could build a smaller one in a couple of hours.

The soil in the rest of the garden is too frozen to sink a shovel into, but inside these frames, the soil is supple and ready to plant.

This spring, when the marmots wake up, I'm going to be ready for them. And in the meantime, I'm direct seed sowing some of the veggies I would normally need to start indoors (or start much later), in the relative warmth of these covered beds. 


  1. Those are fabulous - I have a tip for when the veggies get a little taller and still need protection, and that's to use old bird cages - my garden looks quite hilarious when all the cages are in use to keep the squirrels, mice and pocket gophers at bay. I love your blog, and the great ideas you have to share!

    1. Thank you, Jacki! That's a good tip... I can just picture your garden with all the bird cages! I have looked at bird cages at antique and second hand shops and been very tempted. I have small circular cages made from hardware cloth with reemay or netting clothes-pinned around the top -- I bet it has a similar effect on the landscape look, LOL. Whatever works! Thanks so much for your encouragement and for keeping in touch.


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