Over-Wintered Spinach

The days are getting markedly longer now at the end of February.  We are about 3 weeks away from the spring equinox, when the days and nights are the same length.  Nevertheless, there are still significant cold snaps (last night on the full moon for example it got to 15C below!).

Despite these cold snaps, the days are routinely starting to get above zero.  Low pressure fronts tend to bring snow which changes to rain – that is the forecast for tonight.  (As an aside, this is a new pattern of weather for February compared to 15-20 years ago.  Is this caused by climate change?  One would certainly think so.  It is getting difficult in our area to do winter sports, like cross-country skiing or snow shoeing.  Even ice skating on ponds and lakes can get risky.)

With the increased day length, our spinach in the unheated greenhouse is starting to come out of dormancy and show signs for growth.  Three greenhouse beds over-wintered under row cover (held up above the plants by a thin frame of wire and bamboo).  Spinach is incredibly cold-hardy.  Very cold nights never seem to cause any damage.

In a few more weeks, we will begin to have a bumper crop of spinach for everyone who helps in the gardens!

The only over wintering damage to the spinach was caused by moles or voles in one of the beds (we discovered their tunnels under the soil), who chewed the plants right down to the base of the stems.  Anyone have suggesting on how to catch voles in a live trap?  Fortunately the plants will survive and begin to re-leaf in the coming weeks.

 

Winter Chores – Prepping for Bee Season

Winter is the time that many beekeepers sort through their inventory of supplies before things get busy in the spring.  At the Transition Garden, we are planning to expand our apiary to two hives this coming year, and we purchased new hive boxes. We also ordered a new colony (a ‘nuc’) from a respected bee breeder in the area.

The prep work includes painting the new boxes, lid and ‘bottom board’ as well as preparing frames with new beeswax foundation for the bees to build out new comb for storing their honey.  Painting in an empty greenhouse is perfect because the heat drys the paint quickly!

Soil Amendments and Wood Ash

Some questions have come in about soil amendments and using wood ash.  I can provide more perspective here, but the topic of soil amendments in particular is huge and ultimately depends on your existing soil’s condition. Do your homework as there is always more of a learning curve.

In Transition Garden, we send soil samples most years off to the Nova Scotia Analytical Testing Lab in order to get a full run down on nutrients, pH and other characteristics.  Alternatively, you can buy soil test kits at most garden centres.  This information is your best guide to understanding how to build your soils.

It is always a good idea to increase the level of organic matter in the soil as much as possible.  Compost, well rotted manures and leaf molds are some of your best sources.  Soils high in organic matter will have a rich soil ecology of microorganisms that will in turn increase a plant’s health.  They also retain moisture better during summer dry spells.  Through the use of tons and tons and tons (literally) of composted manures, we have built Transition Garden soils to a 12-15% organic matter content.  For a gardener, rich soils are literally your main capital asset.

Some of the better and more common organic soil amendments include bone meal, blood meal, seaweed or fish emulsions, green sand and rock dusts.  Investigate each for their levels of N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) which are the 3 main nutrients required by plants.  They are generally lower in these levels than chemical fertilizers, but are better at building soil ecosystems.

One suggestion that came in:

Leafy greens: need nitrogen

Fruit bearing (like tomato, peppers, potatoes, cucumbers, squash):  need less nitrogen and more phosphorus and potassium

Root veggies: need lots of phosphorus and not much nitrogen

Wood ash is good in soils, but not too much – use sparingly – 10 to 15 pounds per 1,000 square feet.  This is the amount you may get from one cord of firewood.  Also, stir some thoroughly into compost piles.  It adds phosphorous, calcium and reduces soil acidity.

Happy planning, Bob

 

 

 

When Do We Start Seed Trays?

It’s just about that time of year to begin plans for seeding vegetables into trays.  I was out in the shed pulling out some ’72 trays’ (they have 72 cells in each tray – the best size here for most transplant production, compared to trays with 50 cells, 128 cells, etc.) and clear plastic lids.  There’s a whole lot of trays and pots of different sizes that we have accumulated over the years.  I even found an old wooden tray labeled ‘Univ. of Wisconsin’ from my days there doing research in botany.  I also made sure we have enough potting mix for the upcoming season (we use Promix BX, available in most garden centres).  And of course, we will need our seeds.  Word is that seed companies are already getting overwhelmed, so don’t delay in your ordering!

Even though its snowing outside today, there’s 6-8″ of snow on the ground, and night time temps are well below zero, seeding time is here for some crops – starting under grow lights, for later transplant into a greenhouse.  Its a timing issue.  If you begin seeding in the second half of February, be sure to use a grow light, and be sure that you can move them into a greenhouse (or cold frame as a minimum) by the second half of March.  Letting seeds germinate on a window sill is usually a recipe for disaster, because they will stretch towards the light and become weak-stemmed or leggy (the botanical term is etiolation).  You need the light intensity of a grow light to eliminate this problem.  I set mine on a timer for 16 hours of day length.

Two days ago, I started the very first seed tray – our ‘ultra-hot chill’s’ – red ghost, red 7-pot, bhut jolokia and orange habenero (all with scoville units over one million!).  These seeds are finicky.  They need at least 29-30 degrees to germinate in high humidity.  I have them on a heating pad, under a clear plastic lid which has a temperature sensor inside.  That way I can monitor their conditions, and try to keep a uniform temperature in the 30-32 degree range.  Even at that temperature, they may take up to two weeks to emerge.

Next week, we will begin seeding onions and other varieties of peppers, including sweet bell peppers.

We will not begin to seed most crops until mid-March.  In that way, we can grow them out directly in the greenhouse without the need for grow lights.  These will be mostly the cold hardy spring crops – more on that in upcoming posts.

Spring is coming soon!  All the best, Bob

Late Winter Harvests

It mid-February at the Transition Garden.  We just celebrated Chinese and Tibetan New Year’s on February 12th and now its almost Valentine’s Day.  There’s 10 inches of snow on the ground from the last storm and night time lows are in the range of -6-12C. The bees are tightly clustered in their bee hive and sipping the honey that keeps them warm.  Two deer came through last night rooting around for any vegetable stems to chew on that they can find under the snow.

We spread some wood ashes from the woodstove on some of the beds to provide nutrients and help lower the pH.  Calcium is the most abundant element in wood ash. Ash is also a good source of potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium. In terms of commercial fertilizer, average wood ash would be about 0-1-3 (N-P-K).

While the outside garden is fully dormant, we have been at it in the greenhouses. The lower greenhouse has 3 beds of over-wintered spinach still ripe for picking.  In another short few weeks, it will begin to awaken from its winter slumber and begin actively growing again.  Its seems impervious to the cold and always yields some harvest. The workshop greenhouse is undergoing a thorough cleaning in preparation for the upcoming transplant production season which begins in March. Its also time to inspect our extra bee equipment, as we may need to rebuild some honey frames or hive boxes in preparation for spring nectar flow.

Of course, winter is also the perfect time for sprouts and micro-greens production in order to keep salad fixins in the fridge.  One of our favourites are the micro-green mixes from Mumm’s Seeds, soaked for 6-8 hours and then planted into 1/2″ of potting mix on a cafeteria tray.  Be sure to drill a few holes in the tray for drainage and keep them under a strong growlight.  It takes about 10 days for a great crop which can be harvested with scissors.

Stay tuned for more regular updates as we get into the growing season!

Spring turnips

Wow, we picked our first spring turnips today! Little young ones with a turnip about 1/2″ in diameter.  In another 1-2 weeks they will mature out to full size spring turnips of about 1 to 2″ in diameter.

These are fast varieties – almost like growing radishes.  We use either Hakauri or Market Express varieties which have a growing season of about 40-45 days.  They were planted in mid-March in our unheated greenhouse.

We like them really young, and tend to harvest them early.  We very lightly steam the whole plant (tops and all) and add a bit of soy sauce for seasoning.  Yum!

Spring spinach

In the Transition Garden, we planted spinach in late September in our unheated 20′ x 24′ greenhouse.  We were picking this spinach in late November and early December, and let it rest in January and February in a dormant state.  Despite unknown varmints (perhaps voles) that got in there over the winter and dug up many of the plants, many others survived.  We began picking again in mid-March onward as the plants began to come out of dormancy and grow again.  In early May, now they are growing like crazy and we are picking a lot.

However, spinach knows when its time to think about seed production, and we are now seeing the first plants beginning to put up their seed stalks.  The plants are aware of the increased day length and warmth.  In the trade, this natural phase of ‘going to seed’ is known as ‘bolting.’  Its also sign that our continuous harvest time of leaves is drawing nigh.   We can see the seed stem beginning to elongate in some of the plants. The leaves have also gotten smaller and are more arrowhead shaped.

In another week or two, it will be time to do one last thorough harvest and pull out the plants to make way for summer crops like tomatoes, peppers and basil. We will leave a handful of these spinach plants to continue their process, go on to flowering and produce seed. We will then harvest the stalks and save the seed late in the season.

Food Security in the Bay

Check out the Facebook Group discussing food security in St Margarets Bay:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/foodinthebay/

It’s only a few weeks old and there are well over 100 active members.  Let’s keep the conversations going about food.

Its becoming increasingly obvious that our highly aggregated and centralized food supply chains are vulnerable to continued disruption.  For example, a recent Bloomberg report pointed out the problem that has been developing for decades:

“…The problem is consolidation, and with Tyson, JBS SA and Cargill Inc, three mega-corporations that control 66% of America’s beef, as much of it is processed in just a few dozen meatpacking facilities across the US. Only a few companies also dominate pork and chicken.

There have been at least 12 closures of meatpacking plants in April because of virus-related issues among employees. This has resulted in at least 25% of pork and 10% of beef processing capacity coming offline in the last several weeks,…”

Grow you own, and know who grows the rest for you.  It’s the most resilient system that has been proven by history.

The early spring greenhouse

Think about getting a greenhouse of some kind, if you don’t already have one.  Building infrastructure like that is an important part of scaling your food production.  While there is an upfront cost, it will pay off extremely well in the years ahead.  Just think about the cost of vegetables for the grocery store or farmers market.  You can spend quite a bit very quickly, and these costs will only increase.

With a greenhouse, you can get both a significant jump on the growing season by producing transplants early on, and you can use the greenhouse during the warm summer months for production of the heat-loving plants like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and basil.

This is our early transplant greenhouse (approx 8’x16′), with double wall polycarbonate glazing.  By mid-April, it is already full of seed trays and pots of all kinds of things.  In another two weeks, some of these transplants will begin to go out into the garden – cold hardy leaf lettuces, bok choy, cabbage, broccoli and onions.  We will continue to grow out the tomatoes and peppers, which we started in mid-March.

Some years we have produced as many as 7,000 transplants out of the smallish greenhouse!

If you don’t have one yet, visit others, talk with the owners, look at vary types and decide for yourself how you might proceed based on your budget and space.

Happy greenhousing!