Category Archives: garden planning

Fall gardening basics – part 3 – cold frames

Here's a lovely cold frame featured on grannyearth.com

Cold frames are among the simplest and most useful ways to extend the growing season. As James Theuri, University of Illinois Extension educator, notes in an earlier post, they are basically a box with a covering to let light and heat in during the fall and winter months. If money is no object is your gardening, there are lots of places to buy kits, but if you would like to save a little money and are willing to do a little scavenging and work, it’s pretty easy to find the materials you need.

There’s nothing like an eagle eye during trash day to scrounge up wood and glass. Windows and other sources of glass and lumber are pretty pricey at the hardware store but they seem to routinely find their way to landfills anyway. If you’re looking online, Craigslist, freecycle and a number of other places post free stuff all the time. There are just a couple of things to bear in mind as you’re looking around.

The length and width of the box can be adapted to any glass source and garden size, so it might make sense to find your top first and then cut lumber to accommodate the size of the light. (Old windows are a good choice if you can find one for cheap or free, although they are not perfect – the frames can accumulate rain and they really weren’t designed to be sideways.) On the other hand, there is near-universal agreement that you want the box to taper down in size from back to front (and that the box be facing south) to make the most of winter sunlight. Eliot Coleman recommends a 12-inch board for the back of the box and an 8-inch board for the front.

There are lots of plans for cold frames online, but they tend to be a bit more complicated than is necessary. (Nevertheless, if you like a blueprint, you can find some here and here.)  Lots of people blog about their cold frames and extending the season and it’s definitely worth sticking “cold frame” into a search engine and learning about different people’s experiences.

For example, the folks at Lunaria Gardens have a great explanation for how to build the easiest cold frame ever. Savvy Gardener has a nice rundown of the many protective options available for extending the season – some that are even easier than a cold frame (although you probably want to keep a close eye on something like a glass covering over a plant). This video also features a couple of different cold frame designs and there are a few other videos related to it to choose from after watching.

Lunaria Gardens' easiest cold frame ever

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Fall gardening basics – part 2 – seed saving

By Nancy Pollard, Horticulture Educator, with Steven G. Canavis  University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener alumnus

Why collect seed?

Collecting and sowing your own seeds can be a fun and gratifying experience for the home gardener.  At first, the details may seem overwhelming, yet as you gain experience, and are rewarded with new seedlings, you may find yourself inspecting your flowers closely in anticipation, and seed saving could become second nature to you.

Home gardeners can collect their own seeds from their own plants.  Information that is normally found on commercial seed packets can be located in books or websites.  While your choices are limited by how many plants grow in a particular garden area, joining a seed exchange group increases the availability of saved seed for your future planting.  The joyful thought of watching seeds magically sprout next year, or the great disappointment if they fail, encourages us to look into best practices for collecting and storing plant seeds.

How to Collect Seed

The first step is to choose healthy plants with high quality seedpods and fruits for seed collection.  Healthy plants show vigorous growth, exhibit resistance to pests and diseases, produce good quality fruit, and produce high yields. As the chosen plants finish flowering, look for swelling seedpods or ripening fruit.  Wait until they are fully mature.  It is important to collect only fully mature or ripened seed.  Sometimes, nearly mature seeds may ripen off the plant, if they remain in their seedpods.  If picked too early, the embryo will not survive the drying out process, or if picked too late, the wind may blow away the seed.

Fine, nylon-mesh bags work universally well for collecting seeds and seed structures.  Paper bags work well for seeds, cloth bags for panicles or dry fruit, and open baskets for fleshy fruit but be sure not to squash the fruit.  Do not let seeds become hot or moldy.

Seed propagation preserves and promotes genetic diversity. The result of the sexual union of flower parts (male and female).  Each contains an embryo, a packet of energy and a protective coating.  Some annual flowers and vegetables have been developed to come as true to type as possible from seed, others will result in a wider variety of offspring types. Plants reproduce either by seed or by vegetative parts.  Asexual or vegetative propagation duplicates exact copies or clones of a given plant resulting in no genetic variation.  Vegetative propagation includes layering, division, cuttings, grafting, budding and tissue culture.

Dry seed pods   With dry seed pods, extract the ripe seeds by hanging them upside down over a paper bag in a shaded, dry, airy place and wait for the seeds to fall.  An occasional gentle tap will help. Cut clustered seed heads such as those of marigolds whole and lay on a newspaper to dry.  Whenever you harvest your own seed, remove as much of the chaff and other vegetable material as possible before storing.  This material, if sown along with the seed, tends to rot and may encourage fungal diseases.

Moist fruit   For moist fruit, such as ripe tomato or cucumber, the seed is surrounded by a sticky, gelatinous substance called mucilage.  When the fruit is fully colored and ripe, scoop out these seeds and wash them in a fine strainer under running water to remove the mucilage.  Allow them to dry in the shade.

If the mucilage is difficult to dislodge, with a gloved hand gently rub the seed against the wire mesh screen of the sieve.  Once the mucilage is removed, place the seeds to dry in a single layer on absorbent newspaper in the shade.  Turn over so both sides dry or dry both sides at the same time by suspending the seed between layers of mosquito netting.  Label batches of seed to keep track of what is drying where.

How to Store Seed

Clean & Dry  Only clean and well-dried seed should be stored.  The two deadly enemies of stored seed are warmth and moisture.  So, inspect the seed one last time before it is stored. Is it the very best you could collect?  Is it clean, dry, and free of chaff and other debris?  To keep stored seeds cool and dry, store them in clean, airtight containers or in small paper bags in the bottom drawer of your refrigerator.  Paper bags, unlike plastic, allow the moisture to escape from the seed, so mold and rot is less likely.  The cool refrigerator temperature slows down the natural respiration and deterioration of the seed.  Clearly label the containers with the name of the plant and the date and place of its collection.

Cool & Dry   How long seeds last in storage depends on the type and quality of seed saved and the storage conditions.  Some deterioration is inevitable.  Aim to use all stored seed next year or within two or three seasons from the time of collection, as sprouting or germination rates will go down with time.  In general, the lower the humidity and temperature in storage, the longer the viability of the stored seed.

Reference:  Manual of Seed Handling in Gene Banks, Biodiversity International 2006

Find out more about the University of Illinois Extension service at http://web.extension.illinois.edu/cook/

Fall gardening basics – part 1

For many gardeners, September is the month to put away dreams of fresh vegetables grown with your own hands on the dinner table, but this is more a matter of custom than capacity. The good earth is ready and willing to continue to yield bounty for us, and, with a little additional effort, will do so into the last month of the year.

Extending the growing season is a practice that has gone on for thousands of years all over the world. Sixth century texts from China describe gardeners there producing food “in the most unpromising spot and time,” and there are written reports that the Roman elite enjoyed such delicacies as cucumbers in the winter months.

We don’t have to be among the elite to enjoy fall and winter vegetables, and it might not even be too late this year to sneak in some simple planting and watering before cold truly descends upon us. Illinois Extension service Educator James Theuri says that, although we’ve had a cool season, the heartier of the cooking greens may still be worth planting.

“It started off being cold late into the month of May, when we should have been planting. Now it has started getting cold too early again – September should be warmer than this,” Theuri said.

Theuri recommends some of the heartier greens for planting outdoors right now.

“Something like mustard greens could go in the ground – those ones are tough,” explained Theuri. “Maybe a few others could be attempted, like kale and collard – the cooking greens.” Theuri also recommends lettuce for those still itching to plant.

Across the region, the traditional planting season is winding down, but Theuri said those of us in Chicago have a couple of advantages that extend that season a bit.

“Chicago has a micro-climate of its own,” Theuri said. “It’s a concrete jungle out there, and concrete absorbs a lot of heat.

There’s also the Lake Michigan off-shore air temperatures that keep the city warmer.

“One issue is soil temperature – soon the first four inches of soil will be too cold for seeds to germinate, according to Theuri. “Soil temperatures at about 4 inch-depths of soil are at about 62 degrees now,” Theuri said. “We start worrying quite a bit when temperatures are in the low ’40s. Then it’s getting too cold for seeds to germinate.”

Extend your season

For those gardeners who are looking for more than a few weeks of luck to sneak in a mini-crop of greens, though, Theuri recommends one of the more common season extending structures to turn those few weeks before cold settles in into months of growing – well after that first frost date.

“If you don’t want to chance whether you’ll be successful or not … the thing to do then is to cheat mother nature,” explained Theuri. “If you can cover those plants with some sort of structure, that will protect them against storms, cold snaps of temperature [and the] wind chill factor … one of the simplest of them all is called the cold frame – it’s just a box with a covering that will allow light through.” That covering can be made of glass, plexiglass, or plastic, Theuri said. The covering, known in fancier circles as the “light,” can be something as simple as a storm door window. Theuri said he spotted just such a window going into the trash one day, salvaged it and now grows lettuce into November and December each year in an 18-inch-high cold frame (on the south side of his office building, he noted, where there is a micro climate that ticks temperatures up a few degrees), where he estimates the temperature is up to about 10 degrees warmer than outside.

James Theuri grows vegetables well past the fall growing season using this simple cold frame.

A slightly more complicated alternative to the cold frame is the tunnel, which is a series of hoops made out of wood, metal or pvc piping and covered with a plastic sheet. “High tunnels” act as mini-greenhouses, with everything you need in a greenhouse but the temperature control – the man-made temperature control, that is. Low tunnels will come to the knee or waist and are a little less convenient as they cannot be stood up in.

Either way, it’s the heat being trapped inside that does the trick of extending the season, Theuri explained. “The cold frame itself has a greenhouse effect – traps the heat in there,” he said. “That’s why you never want to leave a human being or a pet or a plant inside a car in summer, because the car traps in the heat and does not let the heat get out. That’s the same principle with a cold frame.”

Your fall crop will even benefit from something as simple as a blanket from the house on a chilly night, Theuri added.

“Row covers – you can just put down row covers or blankets or bed sheets over plants if you know it’s a frost night and you can protect them,” he said.

If a gardener is willing to keep an eye on the thermometer and employ some of these simple plant-protecting solutions, they are in for a treat, Theuri said.

“This is a much more enjoyable time to garden,” according to Theuri. “One, it’s not so hot. Two, you don’t have so many insects hanging around. You don’t have so many diseases. The weeds, once you pull them out, don’t have a chance to come back as fast.”

And there’s another bonus.

“If you are successful with your crops, the cool season vegetables, some of those crops taste sweeter …They tolerate the cold by accumulating sugar in the leaves … they taste even better,” Theuri said.

Fall planting roundup

Here’s a partial list of the vegetable seeds James Theuri recommends for fall planting:

mustard greens, kale, collards, lettuce, kohlrabi, chard, turnips, cabbage, and spinach

Now get to it!

 

Thanks to James Theuri for the photographs.

Seed purchase sharing added to the blog

Seeds for everybody!

We’ve added a page to our blog to give people a space where they can talk about ordering seed together. While we aspire to a seed network free of a profit motive, we also want to participate in an inclusive community, which means making things easier for everybody by working together. Also, we just don’t have the gadgillion seeds we’d need to meet everyone’s needs!

So, you can link to the “group buys!” page above (or here) and start or continue a conversation about what kinds of seeds you might go in on. As an incentive to get the network going, we’re able to offer a cost match for the first $25 worth of seeds folks go in on, meaning you save money a couple of different ways. We will work out logistics and the specifics of seed orders, as they seem to coalesce, off-blog (most likely via an online group). In the meanwhile, all questions can be directed to southsideseeds@gmail.com and any comments can be posted here.

Have at it!

(The photo above is from the mural “Childhood is Without Prejudice” by Will Walker.)

Seed swapping on the net

The universe of folks swapping seeds and publicizing their local seed swapping efforts online is pretty large. Some, like the Philadelphia Seed Exchange, are simply a great example to us as we get our own efforts off the ground. Many, however, are places where you can get involved in seed exchange beyond our humble efforts.

Mas du Diable is a good example of a site that offers individual seed exchange but is also a super-inspirational place to check out generally. The site features the author’s four-seasons kitchen and seed saving garden in a dramatic landscape in France. The blogroll is definitely worth checking out, and the gardening log is really instructional in terms of its simplicity and usefulness.

"Mas du Diable" from the multitalented blogger Laura Hudson - go to the link on the Mas du Diable site to see more inspiring painting!

Bifurcated Carrots is a treat in a different way. There is also a lot here about the author’s space, but what attracted us was a pretty compelling essay about the need for an online seed network, along with a couple of other features. Like Mas du Diable, the author also swaps seeds via the site, but suggests browsing the archives to get a sense of what is available and to send an email with requests. The next coolest swap-related item on the blog next to the essay is a great list of links to folks who have been inspired by it and become a part of an online network. Check them out!

The iVillage GardenWeb seed exchange is the inspiration for our approach. It’s simplicity seems to us to be the best way to get a whole bunch of people (we hope!) to start swapping seed with one another. There are lots of other trading categories listed on the site and plenty of other things to explore there, so be sure and browse, if you have it to spare.

Bifurcated Carrots takes the idea of seed exchange networking online to an important level; Kokopelli is also inspiring but in a somewhat different way. Their mission is to unite gardeners worldwide to share seeds with folks in Third World countries. It’s a truly worthy mission and a beautiful vision that just scratches the surface of what gardeners around the world could do if we work together.

We’d love to hear from you about websites that have inspired your seed saving and swapping efforts! There’s so much out there that we can undoubtedly learn from each other’s explorations.

Virtual swap added to the blog

We’ve looked at a whole bunch of online seed exchange methods and come up with what we think is the easiest and most swapper-friendly method for trading seed online. You’ll see a new tab above marked “swap here!” that will get you to the online swap page (or, lazybones, just click here). Please restrict comments on that post to swap offers and seed requests.

That’s not old seed – it’s elderseed!

Ken Dunn from the Resource Center stopped by the Op Shop this past week with a bounteous gift that transformed a conversation we were having about some seeds in the seed exchange collection. What Ken brought was a bunch of seeds that have a few years under their belts, especially a whole lot of Burpee’s Fordhook zucchini.

Burpee's Fordhook zucchini for days

This changed a conversation we had been having about a few tomato seed packets we had in the mix that were more than a year or two old. Thanks to Ken’s generous gift, they went from an anomaly to a few of the many seeds in our newly launched elderseed exchange program.

Fordhook zucchini seeds, our featured elderseed

Checking the vitality of seeds you’ve had for a few years is pretty easy to do, and what could be more in keeping with the principals of the Op Shop IV’s urban agriculture ethic than to seek out seed that would otherwise be cast aside and let it flourish, perhaps so that its own seed might contribute to the exchange in the future?

Ken laid out the basics of how to test the seed, and we visited a University of Illinois Extension service page to make sure you had a place to check out details. (It’s the first paragraph under “Planning Tips” at the bottom of the page.)

Basically, you moisten (not soak) a paper towel and line up 10 seeds from the packet you are testing on the towel. Fold the towel in half and keep it in a warm place (like on top of your fridge).

The Fordhook zucchini seeds, ready for testing

Whatever sprouts after a couple of weeks (keep the towel moist with a spray bottle the whole time) is what will grow. Depending on how many sprout, you have a rough percentage of how many of the seeds you have that will germinate.