The local organic farmers all have greenhouses, but still they talk of "waiting for the light" before they sow seeds of cold-hardy vegetables in late winter. What they mean is that they are waiting for days to become longer and brighter, which happens quickly starting in mid-February. Where I live in Virginia, each day is now two minutes longer than the one that came before. In Liverpool, Jeremy’s garden is gaining four minutes of light with each passing day.
This is excellent news for the big four of cold-hardy vegetables: mache (lambs lettuce or corn salad), spinach, kale, and cabbage. When given sturdy protection from ice, snow and cold winds, I have often seen these little guys survive temperatures as low as 10°F (-12°C). The seedlings must be started indoors because soil temperatures remain too cold to support strong germination, but enclosures that trap solar heat help warm the soil, too.
Wind-Proof Cold Protection
After experimenting with many methods, I have come to rely on three simple set-ups – a cold frame, plastic-covered tunnels reinforced with arches of wire fencing, and bed toppers made from old windows. Here are the pros and cons of each.
- Cold frames block wind beautifully as long as they have a heavy lid that won’t cave in when loaded with ice, snow or heavy rain. I have built several cold frames over the years, and each one has gotten better than its predecessor. The frame I’m using now has a tempered glass shower door for a lid, so you could sit on it and it wouldn’t break. I bought the shower door used, and built a wood box to fit its dimensions. The shower door came with hinge attached, and I was able to figure out a way to screw the hinge onto the box. The great thing about this frame is its absolute dependability. On the down side, it’s heavy and bulky to move, and I have little use for it once summer has begun.
- Reinforced tunnels made from arches of wire fencing or concrete reinforcing wire, covered with plastic securely tucked in at the edges, also do a great job protecting hardy seedlings. Simple hoops covered with plastic will not do; the wet snows typical of late spring will smash such a tunnel flat, and gusty winds can do wretched things to slack plastic tunnels. But if you already have tomato cages made from concrete reinforcing wire, you can easily bend them out into arches and then cover them tightly with plastic. When weather turns very cold, I usually cover such frames with an old blanket to help them hold more warmth.
- Window frame toppers have become my favourite way to push the season because they offer the sturdiness of a cold frame with the convenience of tunnels. My windows came from an old house, so I carefully cleaned away old paint (which probably contained lead), added a coat of latex to seal in the old paint, and re-caulked the panes before bringing them into the garden. To install them, it takes me about ten minutes to set up a frame of staked boards and slip in a couple of windows. I can ventilate these window-topped beds from the side, by leaving gaps in the frame, and/or from the top, by spacing the windows a finger’s width apart.
When you match up cold-hardy vegetables with durable winter protection, you can get a serious head start on spring. Have you discovered ingenious methods that solve late winter challenges in your garden, perhaps using recycled materials? Post them below to share them with GrowVeg’s growing international community of food-minded gardeners.
By Barbara Pleasant