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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Late winter garden

Thinking about year-round gardening and winter gardens might conjure up images of kale surrounded by snow, and last year's carrots being dug out from under the mulch in January. These are wonderful components of a year-round garden. Once spring begins to show its face, we turn our attention to planting for the new growing season. But what do you harvest after the winter garden has pretty much been eaten, and the new growing season is in its infancy?

This year I tried fall-planting some seeds that I knew wouldn't mature on time for the dead-of-winter garden. I also left some key plants in the ground during autumn harvest. Of course there are also a few precious perennials that don't mind the cold weather, either. Today I'd like to share how these methods have translated into an active late winter and early spring garden.

Outside of the garden, my composted manure pile is frozen hard as a brick. But here in the aspen hotbed, the soil is supple, and these Egyptian walking onions are hanging in there.

New onion greens are coming up, sprouting from onion bulbs that fell off the top of last year's walking onions. (This is a perennial onion.)

During harvest time last fall, I left a few onions in the ground, which now means green onions in late winter! (This onion variety would normally be viewed as an annual, but I'm growing like a perennial.)

Today I harvested the first radish of 2016, in the tipi greenhouse. Note how sickly the top of the radish looks, and yet underneath the soil was a beautiful salad-ready radish. I planted this seed last fall, and it sprouted and grew just a little before winter hit. Little did I know that it has been steadily growing, perhaps as the days have started to get a little longer and milder.

Last autumn, I accidentally sprouted a bunch of onion seeds (they got wet), so I laid them in the soil in the tipi greenhouse. Now they are coming to life! Soon I will be cutting green onions from their tops. It's an accident worth repeating.

I had no idea that this purple kohlrabi was hanging in there, in a cold frame that my Dad made for me, using a window from a workshop upgrade. This winter garden produce was missed during the core of winter -- and therefore is available for spring, when I've only just put kohlrabi seeds in the soil. I think I'll let it grow a bit bigger.

This is a third generation garlic plant -- each year, I keep leaving it in the soil, and it provides me with lots of garlic greens as one of the year's first salad offerings.

And now for the dark side of our microclimate: it isn't all peaches. Warmer soil means that we ALREADY have lots of slugs, pill bugs, and who knows what other competition for our goods. However, I'm working on making room in my heart for pill bugs, since they mainly like to eat dead and decaying matter, similar to earthworms, which will help the garden. I hear that they can also take in heavy metals, so they can do some serious good. (They also like tender young shoots... I will plant twice as many bean seeds as I actually need, and hopefully there will be enough seedlings left after the pill bugs are through.)  Slugs however, seem to take more than they give. I'm working on appreciating the fact that they serve as food for some of the birds that enjoy the garden. 

All in all, cultivating a milder, more moist microclimate is worth it to me.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


It may seem like your garden is fast asleep underneath the snow, but a rapid melt can reveal a surprising amount of vitality and growth. These nubs of chives were invisible yesterday; today the snow has receded and revealed that they were far from dormant underneath their white blanket. These chives are growing out in the open, with no protection from the elements.

The edges of snow are pulling back, and the amount of green I am discovering is frankly knocking my socks off.  Also, this is our first spring starting the year off with cold frames and covered beds in place. The intent of the frames is to protect from the elements and to capture some of the heat being produced by the slow-burning, subterranean hot beds. Let's take a look around for signs of life in the frames:

The same story of growth beneath the snow was played out in this bed, which does not have a top cover but does have 1' wooden slab walls all around it. Last year's blackened chard leaves lie in stark contrast to vibrant orange stems, ready to spring up with new life.

This red Russian kale was tucked up against my mini cold frame and made it through the winter with just a sheet over it.

I didn't even know that this onion had been busy growing inside the cambered cold frame. It was last year's onion, and escaped harvest due to being completely obscured by tomato plants (the jungle effect). Now we have green onions to enjoy! They are amazingly nutritious and of course taste great.

This is the west half of "Bill's bed," where today I finally harvested the last of last year's carrots, and planted some lettuce seeds in their place. When I opened it up, I found a few plants that made it through the winter and are starting to perk up a bit.

Yes, only a bit! Although these plants may appear to be in a sorry state, this is a vision of beauty to me. These yellow and white Swiss chard and kohlrabi plants are primed to grow radiant as soon as the weather grows just a little milder. In the meantime, I see it as a beautiful mess.

What a difference some rough slabs and a cover can make!

Over on the east side of Bill's bed, more Swiss chard has overwintered. 

Also in the east half of Bill's bed, the garlic is up! I peeled back the leaf mulch to find the plants much bigger than I would have expected at this time of year. 

I'm not sure if there is a more hopeful sight in February. 

And for those beds where the snow seems more stubborn...

Black plastic!

Stay tuned... the garden is awakening.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Subterranean Hot Bed Valentines

Wishing you a Happy Valentine's Day, from my awakening garden to yours! 
The snow is starting to melt... it won't be long now. (I took this photo last week.)

This is what I'm seeing out the windows as I write. Perhaps a little less spring-like, but I'm still going to plant beet seeds in one of the covered beds this afternoon! Planting is my Valentine's tradition: first direct seeding of the year. The soil is still frozen as hard as a brick in many places, but in the covered beds, it is soft. The seeds will wake up as soon as they feel ready.

This is a potato I pulled from the garden last fall at sunset... and saved for Valentine's Day here at the Wood for Food blog. All of the photos below were taken throughout the past year, except for the last one.

This is what it looked like close up. What says, "I love you," more than a heart-shaped potato? ;-) Hey, I guess it depends on who you are.

Some people like roses...

...and I do too. But I also like magenta colored Swiss chard!

And shiny red onions that reflect the blue sky.

Whatever your favorite way to say, "I love you," just make sure you express it. 



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About the title of this post: Big thanks to Kristin Ackerman for sharing the apt name, "Slow-Burning, Subterranean Hot Beds," to describe the Wood for Food garden.  Till now, "Hugelkultur" is the name I've been using to denote the use of rotting wood, since it is the technique that inspired the main idea of my beds. Hugelkultur denotes hills above the ground, with hügel meaning hill in German. Since I've built my hugelkultur underground, it does not form a hill. So, "Slow-Burning, Subterranean Hot Beds" makes a lot of sense for the way that I'm gardening.