Simple Structures For Getting Seedlings Going Early In Spring


This spring (2014) Bob and I decided to take the plunge and spend no money on food this year.

In some ways it’s quite scary, because we have only been on our current garden site for 2.5 years, and the orchard is barely producing…. However it feels like time, and we have any amount of beautiful raw milk, amazing eggs, and meat as well as vegetables. We’ll be doing more wild fruit/nut harvesting this summer, and we’ll be taking very good care of our bees and stevia plants, and making better use of the solar drier.

In the mean time, spring is a challenging time to begin such a thing because it is the leanest time of the year in the garden and orchard.

I immediately began thinking of ways to get a few of our basic summer crops producing earlier than usual here. Our winters are cold here with many very heavy frosts that can be brutal. Two springs ago we had a frost on November 30th and another in March. Not long enough to get a good tomato crop in or long keeping pumpkins etc etc.

My favourite garden structures man is Elliot Coleman , who has written many organic gardening books and I like his style, he is into Biointensive, uses hand tools and does a beautiful job, and he is especially good at getting year round vege in super cold conditions using simple structures. Four Season Harvest is his book especially about doing just this. His main theme is that every layer you place over your crop, takes that crop 1 climate zone warmer… and he shows us how he does it in Maine in 30 below. He actually earns a living selling fresh salads all year round in that climate.

We don’t get 30 below, but I would like to have tomatoes for the Solstice and courgettes in October, and loads of tomatoes over a long period for saucing etc etc…and eggplants and all those summer vege that need long warm growing periods.

I don’t like expensive structures, and I do like appropriate technology!

My priorities are

  1. to get courgettes (Crookneck squash are way by far my favourite in a small garden.. Gail will say her favourite is Long Green Bush Marrow because they not only taste good as courgettes but also as marrows!) as early as possible, my storage pumpkins will be gone by September. We only really need 1 good courgette plant, so I’m going to get somebody to help me build a cold frame,…. I’m going to copy Elliot Colemans design .. wooden sides with a glass top that can be lifted and held up on hot/warm days. That is a start, but I still need to actually germinate the seed and grow the seedling to 1 month old before it goes into the bed. I have a plastic cloche on a wooden bench, which we planned to turn into a passive solar cloche this Spring, (we still might but in the mean time I thought OK each layer of cover takes us up a climate zone. … and I covered my trays of early seedlings with bubble wrap plastic at night, inside the plastic cloche, (actually wrapped the trays right up in the plastic by placing the bubble wrap on the bench so that the trays sit on it and then around and over the top and tuck it in under the front edge at night) and left it on in the day time if it wasn’t hot and sunny. Each day I check them out and it is really clear that it has made a big difference to the warmth in the seed trays, even in heavy frosty nights there is still a little warmth in the morning.

Then I remembered that a friend starts his seedlings off in deep trays that have 6 inches/ 25 cms of fresh horse manure under the soil, then I thought, why don’t I place some boards around the cloche bench and fill the bottom of the cloche with 20cm sand, a heat sink that will heat up during the day and release heat at night to even out the temperature…. Making life for tomato and pepper and eggplants seedlings possible in August in a cheap plastic cloche for no cost in the frost….. heavy enough frosts to turn all the flowers on a 30 year old magnolia black!!!!

  1. My second priority is to get some tomatoes and bush basil in and producing by Xmas… I have planted Henrys’ Dwarf Bush cherries,(also excellent croppers over a long period, and super tasty , great for children’s gardens too, or growing in pots or edges) which only grow to be very very small bushes, easy to cover with a cold frame and the same with the Greek Mini basil. I will use a 1 sq m cold frame once they are ready for the garden, ( 25 tomato plants and a few mini basil plants) and will see how I go growing seedlings in my cloche with a sand bench, and bubble wrap plastic inside the cloche. If Bob gets back in time it may even get the water filled barrel greenhouse underneath the sand bench.

  1. My third priority is to be able to plant out my pumpkins, peppers and eggplants early enough to have a long growing season and high quality long keeping pumpkins, and good crops of peppers and eggplants. My main effort will go into getting the soil in top condition because the more you have the right minerals in the right relationships the faster your plants grow and the higher the quality is the better they will keep. That is of course and ongoing process but were making god progress there ( my next blog will describe that journey of growing soil) secondly choosing cultivars I know are relatively reliable in a short growing season. My choices are Delicata squash, very early maturing and keep until May. Buttercup, my old favourite and it keeps until June.( Gail would say Red Kuri and it is an amazing cultivar, sweet like Buttercup but not as dry, in fact I’m going to grow some of them this year too) Then for long keepers I like Butternut because it keeps so well, tastes so good and is always reliable.( Chucks Winter is my ultimate long keeping butternut type pumpkin but it needs a longer season than we have , best in the warmer parts of the country. Then it’s good to have some variation when it gets to June, July, August and pumpkins become daily fare so Crown will be my choice although quite boring compared to Hopi Grey, which needs a good long summer but is amazing to eat, and Grey Hubbard, which I haven’t grow enough to really know it etc. Crown is reliable, high quality flesh and a super god keeper. OK so I’ve got that part all sorted, the seedlings will be grown as my others on the fancy cloche with a 20cm sand bottom on the bench, and if necessary bubble plastic to germinate them, and they will be grown in there until they are good size seedlings. At that point, around Labour weekend, I’d like to be able to plant them, in the garden , and to do that they will need protection. I’m going to use my old tried and true system of covering the beds with hops and making an on the bed plastic cloche, way way easier than cold frames which are heavy to move around and expensive etc. I will use my old recycled metal cloche hoops we’ve had for years, place them 1m apart along the beds, cover with plastic leaving enough at each end of the bed to bunch it up and peg down with very strong pegs made of bent ( in a vice) concrete reinforcing, and then place over the top of the plastic more hoops in between the others. This top layer of hoops means you can get tension on the plastic and so open the cloche as much or as little as you like each day depending on the weather. Tension must be kept on the plastic and you need the heavy pegs at each end to do that. I’ll have 2 x10 m beds of pumpkins covered, and another on my rock melons and early cucumbers, and another 10 m bed of peppers (My favourites for flavor are Yugoslav paprika. And Sweet Chocolate , and in the far side of the garden so they don’t cross or make my sweet peppers hot I will grow Hungarian Yellow Wax and Jalapeno, so I have hot frying peppers and hot peppers to make fermented chilli sauce) and eggplants covered as long as need be. I have all this gear stored away and it gets used year after year, so is not a great cost.