Sunday, 24 April 2016

Stretching the spring

We had a guest staying with us who was a massive help on the property, and her industrious hard work, plus, the fine weather of spring, has allowed us to re-do much of our garden. We now have a potato bed, have torn down much of our wooden garden, and will be putting it back in brick. We took the berry bushes and transplanted them to the back edge of our land, where we planted them in a newly built raised bed. We'll be creating a thorny hedge along the cow fence, creating our own barbed-wire hedgerow to keep out our neighbours' cows in case they get adventurous.

Our guest also planted some of the willow shoots we pollarded some weeks ago, and they will fill a gap in our hedgerow. I will put cardboard between the shoots to keep the weeds down, and lay down the now-rotted boards that made up our garden beds; as they compost down, they will feed the young trees, and we will be able to lay them down, year after year, into a hedgerow, a solid living wall of wood.

We used to have shower doors made of plexi-glass, or transparent plastic, until one of them came off the hinges. We could spend a lot of money to put it back, or we can just use a shower curtain and use the two-metre-long, one-metre wide transparent slab to make a cold-frame.

Cold-frames are ideal for people who lack the space or extra money for a greenhouse or poly-tunnel, but they allow you to do the same thing: to let you grow plants in a space that will let in sunlight but trap heat. Even when the temperature outside dips below freezing they keep out frost, and allow the gardener to more easily control water, pests and wind-blown seeds.

A cold-frame is just a box with glass or transparent plastic on top, ideally with a top slanted toward the south, and a bit taller than your waist so you don’t have to stoop to get into it. Fill the box with earth and plant seeds inside, and over the slanted top secure a sheet of glass or whatever you have. You could install the window frame with hinges at the top for maximum convenience, but just taking off the glass gently will do.

To keep seedlings going during the winter, you can insulate the back and sides with anything from straw bales to foam. You can also do what the Victorians did and pile in manure under the bed, which generates a lot of heat when it decomposes. Put soil on top for the seedlings, and you give the baby plants warmth from above and below.

Around this time of year, most of us are only just beginning to put in our plants outside – and we still have the occasional frost. Plants are at their most valuable when they are seedlings, and can perish quickly with a drop in temperature, a deluge of rain or a nibble from a passing critter. Seedlings are also expensive to buy; you can grow annual plants from seeds, but that means that you lose up to a month of growing time.

Cold-frames solve this problem, allowing you to start your seeds early under conditions that you control, while it is still cold and miserable outside. The additional month of growing time means that you can get a richer harvest than you ever thought you could in this country.

After the seedlings are out, moreover, cold-frames remain useful for growing warmer-weather plants – Victorians grew tropical crops in Britain this way. During the winter months, it allows your crops to continue growing without threat of frost.

If you want to start small, though, you can create cloches, transparent coverings for one or a few plants each. Victorians, again, mass-produced glass bells to cover plants to create a microclimate inside. You can do the same thing, however, with soda bottles.

To make a cloche, cut the bottom off an old two-litre bottle and place it around a seedling in the garden. Once the bottom is off, the plastic becomes very flimsy, so you might want to bury the edges several centimetres deep to keep it stable. Alternately, you can place a ring or solid structure inside if you have one, something that will keep the bottle in place but allow the seedling to grow. Or you can place it around a flowerpot whose diameter is smaller than that of the bottle.

Cloches, like greenhouses, allow you to regulate the amount of water a plant receives – here that means not getting waterlogged in the rainy winter. You might want to keep the caps of your soda bottles in a drawer, so you can put them back on at night if it gets too cold.

A step up from a cloche is a row cover, something to put over an entire bed. We clamped flexible plastic piping over our raised beds to make hoops, draped clear plastic over them and secured the plastic to the wood below the hoops with staples. Alternately, instead of plastic, you could put horticultural fleece over another raised bed– we did both this year, and it worked so well that our corn salad survived the darkest part of winter.

Photo: Grapes growing in Ireland, thanks to greenhouses and cold-frames. 

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