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Archive for October, 2010

There is a morning every fall when the vegetable gardener grabs his/her coffee/tea and heads out into the garden. The harvest is starting to slow up and there is an extra bite of chill in the air. Soon, a white blanket of frost will cover your beds. For some gardeners, it marks the end of the year. For stubborn gardeners like myself, we want fresh, pesticide-free veggies from the backyard, and as few produce as possible from Mexico or New Zealand or Russia where fuels are consumed to haul them thousands of miles to the local grocer. We’re not localvore zealots, but if possible, we want to keep veggies growing until a really hard freeze.

This year, I had to face frost for the first time in over a dozen years. I wanted to build a frost blanket system that I could not only use for short veggies, like lettuce, but also for taller plants like broccoli and cabbages. Next year I will use the same system for a shade cloth to protect veggies from our scorching sun.

Here’s what I came up with:

Frost blanket framing using PVC pipes

Frost blanket framing using PVC pipes

A Quick Math Primer

We will use the forumula > 2∏r < (the circumference of a circle, where ∏=3.14) to determine how much PVC pipe to make a semi-circle over a row. This is just to get started because your semi-circle may be more semi-elliptical to account for taller plants. Let’s simplify ∏ as the number 3.

Therefore, a half circle is 3 times 1/2 the width (i.e. diameter) of your bed, or even simpler, 1.5 x width of the bed. For the above bed where the width is 4ft, the minimum pipe length should be 6 ft (1.5 x 4).

 

Half inch PVC pipe fits well over rebar

Half inch PVC pipe fits well over rebar

Half inch coupler joins PVC pipes

Use a half inch coupler to join PVC pipes.

Low, Med, High, Super High

By using inexpensive half inch couplers, you can adjust the height of this frost blanket system to match the height of the vegetables you are protecting. Remember that you want the blanket to get as close and low to the vegetables as possible without touching them. It’s the warm air pocket that insulates the plants, not the blanket.

My Frost Blanket System

  1. Purchased 10ft x 1/2″ PVC pipe. Easy to bend and cut. Made two lengths of 18in sections off each pipe to use as extensions.
  2. Also bought 1/2″ PVC connectors to put on one end of the pipes. Allows to change the height of the system.
  3. 3/8″ rebar in 1ft sections, but you may want 18″ or 2ft if you have soft ground.
  4. Remay cloth for the frost blanket. It is 67″ and you can buy different lengths. If you need a tall cover, you may need to double the frost blanket as the standard width is 67″ (5ft 7 in.)
Remay cloth for frost protection

Use Remay cloth for frost protection.

Rocks hold down Remay cloth

Rocks hold down Remay cloth. Clips or old garden hose segments fasten to PVC pipe.

Other Frost Management Tips

  • Water often (avoiding the leaves) and well. Water is your veggies’ defense against frost. Keep the ground moist.
  • If you can water with warm water from a garden hose that is out in the sun or if you have a small bed of fall veggies, water with warm water at night before you go to bed.
  • Mulch with hay or newspaper around vegetables to keep soil warm.
  • Don’t forget to remove the blanket if you have a warm day.
  • Instead of using expensive clips to attach the Remay, you could take an old garden hose. Cut 2-3″ lengths and make a slit down the middle so it can go around the PVC pipe.
Remay cloth clip

Remay clips can be bought or made from old garden hose sections slit in half

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Gardeners often spend a fortune on fertilizers during the season to keep plants healthy and well fed. Yet some of us leave the soil unattended in the winter and early spring only to start the cycle all over again.

Crimson Clover patch

Plant cover crops like clover to put nitrogen back in your soil!

A few years back, I became a fan of cover crops to add nitrogen and to keep soils active and healthy during the normally “fallow” season. (Note that I live in an area of California where our growing season is almost year-round. However, there are certain green manures, such as hairy vetch and rye, that are suitable for colder climates, provided they are planted early enough before the winter.) As I was spreading some clover I got to thinking about the cost of cover crops vs fertilizers. The numbers shocked me.

Comparison of fertilizers vs cover crops:

Fertilizer Price Nitrogen Extra Info Price/lb N
Berseem Clover $8/lb seed 125 lb nitrogen/acre 30 lb/acre $1.92/lb
Banner Fava $6/lb seed 150 lb nitrogen/acre 200 lb/acre $8.00/lb
Common Vetch $8/lb seed 110 lb nitrogen/acre 90 lb/acre $6,54/lb
Blood Meal $2/lb 12% none $16.67/lb

Table disclaimer: these figures were taken from a variety of sources that are all subject to some scrutiny. Territorial Seed Company publishes information on cover crops in their catalogs and how much you end up paying for any of the items can vary drastically and how much REAL nitrogen you get from a crop can also vary significantly.

That said, unless your Clover does VERY poorly, you are going to get better results since it is 20 times less expensive with conservative numbers. We purchased Crimson Clover for $1.5 /lb by purchasing 10lbs. Plug in those numbers and we could be paying $0.36/lb of nitrogen.

One important thing to note is that you should choose your cover crops carefully. According to this article in Organic Gardening, some cover crops like rye are allelopathic, meaning that they suppress the growth of neighboring plants. And it’s also important to wait 2-3 wks after turning under your cover crop to make sure that the nitrogen will be available for your veggies.

And now for the punch line: Now I understand the lyrics to “Crimson and Clover”: you are supposed to plant it OVER and OVER! Who woudda known Joan Jett was a gardener! 😉

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We planted our “tater tower” Kennebec potatoes on May 22nd of this year and harvested today – Oct. 8th (~ 4 1/2  months from sowing to harvest). Here is a photo journal of the process of taking it down. But first, lessons learned:

  • Planting about 3 lbs yielded a little over 10 lbs.  Hate to admit it, but this is *pathetic*. We should have gotten at least 6X, ideally 10X. Here’s a Gardenweb discussion on potato yield.  However, we got some really nice large ones, unlike those we planted on the ground.
  • We think some potato seeds rotted in the middle and never made it out to develop plants. Wondering if we should make the tower wide and skinny next year, and packing the straw less tightly to let the plants grow easier through the wire mesh. We found most of the potatoes along the perimeter of the tower.
  • Clay + sand = bricks. We thought the sand would loosen the clay (doh). We will not make that mistake next year! The whole idea of building the tower was to reduce the strain of bending over & digging for potatoes, and minimizing casualties (spade stuck in potato). But there was still too much clay in this structure. We were cheap and did not use enough of the topsoil, nor did we buy seed potatoes especially suited to clay soil.
  • We could have planted twice or even thrice as many potato seeds in this configuration – so next year, we’ll have a denser planting.

 

 

Potato tower July 18

Potato tower in the height of summer - July 18th

 

 

Tater tower right before dismantling wire walls - Oct. 8th

Tater tower right before dismantling wire walls - Oct. 8th

 

 

Pulling apart wire walls of potato tower

Pulling apart wire walls of potato tower

 

 

Demolishing potato tower

Demolishing potato tower was not as easy as we thought

 

 

Digging for golden potatoes

There's gotta be a potato in here somewhere ...

 

 

Finding gold! Potatoes in tater tower

Here's one!

 

 

More golden potatoes

More good-sized golden potatoes

 

 

Potatoes liked to grow along perimeter of tower

Potatoes liked to grow along perimeter of tower

 

 

Tater tower halfway demolished

Tater tower halfway demolished

 

 

Basket was full but not brimming over with potatoes

Basket was full but not brimming over with potatoes

 

 

Tater Tower Froggie

Found 3 frogs in our tower - sorry but you'll have to find another place to live!

 

Here’s a quick video:

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