A rare moment of Leo Christmas peace.

A rare moment of Leo Christmas peace.

I owe a big apology to everyone for unabashedly blog-fading in the past few weeks. The holidays, combined with colder than usual temperatures and regular old work, has made any sort of gardening impossible. I hope to be back in the swing in the next week or so. Here’s hoping that you have had a fantastic holiday.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013. Alternating sun and flurries. High temp: 35 degrees F; low temp: 15 degrees F.

We got lucky for Venture Crew's campout this past weekend—7 inches of snow!

We got lucky for our Venture Crew’s cabin campout this past weekend—7 inches of snow!

We got a thick blanket of snow this past weekend, and that, combined with Christmas prep, has kept us busy. But it’s time now to look back at last March, when we started talking about an outdoor kitchen, one of our big successes this year. We didn’t actually start working on the kitchen until much later, when the weather was much warmer, but we really needed this time, early on, to discuss options, designs, and equipment.

On Day 73, I started a vermiposting bin, which worked so well (as an indoor composting option) that we are doing it again this year.

All through March, we experimented with regrowing napa cabbage, green onions, onions, and celery from  the root ends that normally would go on the compost heap. These trials led to mixed results: More food did grow, but yields were not amazing. Still, it is free food.

On Day 87, I finally came up with what turned out to be design for our potager garden. Many sketches preceded this one, and again, it was incredibly important to have plenty of time, when there are no other garden chores to do, to just think and dream.

The oaks are always the very last trees to lose their leaves.

The oaks are always the very last trees to lose their leaves.

 

Friday, December 13, 2013. Four to six inches of snow coming in tonight! High temp: 35 degrees F; low temp: 27 degrees F.

After the last few frigid days, it feels almost warm outside. We’re coming up to about 56 degrees in the cold frame, so we’ve thrown a wool blanket over the top to help keep the heat in for the weekend. As things aren’t growing in there at all, my goal now is to keep the soil unfrozen so that it and the seeds that are already planted are ready to sprout whenever they feel like it.

More year in review…

One of our ugliest yet most successful gardening projects this year.

One of our ugliest yet most successful gardening projects this year.

On Day 37, we got a wild hair: Why not turn a plexiglass-topped patio table, heavy-gauge plastic sheeting, and some large bricks into a greenhouse? I don’t want to get all braggy, but this strange construction was very successful in growing lettuces and spinach from February through April. Radishes and kale did not work at all, although the kale finally did take off and flourish in April.

We used large, flat plastic trays (recycled surgical dressing trays—free) with slits cut in the bottom to hold a mix of top  and potting soil, which I did have to purchase, together with the plastic.

We are in Zone 5, and this was placed on a full southern exposure on a concrete pool deck and against a concrete block wall, so too much heat rather than not enough was our usual problem. But ventilation, watering, harvesting, and general maintenance was a breeze.

Our tipi greenhouse.

Our tipi greenhouse.

On Day 56, we bounce to the other extreme: the failure of the tipi greenhouse. Actually, I think this project’s bad timing (erected and planted in frigid February) had more to do with the outcome than its design did. To make this work, the tipi needed to be in place the previous fall so that the soil temperatures stayed up, or we should have set it up in March, let the soil warm for a few weeks, then plant. Also, it was difficult to work in the tipi: I had left a small pad of straw to stand on, but it was awkward to lean out and water and plant. I’d like to try this project again in 2014, just to see if my theories on timing were correct.

But it was a very inexpensive project, and it was ever so nice to be in the tipi’s warm, moist shelter on cold days.

 

 

 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013. So cold and so clear. High temp: 22 degrees F; low temp: -1 degrees F.

This is how we began the year and this blog on January 1, 2013: pruning the apple trees.

This is how we began the year and this blog on January 1, 2013: pruning the apple trees.

The end of this blog’s first year is near, and with outdoor jobs so slim due to unusually frigid weather, it’s a good time to reflect on what worked as well as what didn’t.

Day 5: We built a very simple cold frame with hay bales and old storm windows. Once we figured out how to keep the mice out, our design, which grew spinach and lettuce directly into slashed open bags of top soil, worked great. We harvest from and replanted in the frame until April, when we could plant the regular gardens.

 

Day 7: We cut 4 large plastic barrels in half lengthwise to make 8 very portable cold frames. These half barrels have been very useful all year. In addition to protecting plants from late frost in spring and early frost in fall, these have been used to warm soil in early spring, protect seedlings from rabbits, and extending our greens harvest far into winter.

Day 9: I planted potatoes in a deep inside pot placed in a very sunny southern window. Although we grew amazing potato plants, this yielded no potatoes. I did have to use potatoes purchased at the grocery store—not authentic seed potatoes—so the ingredients for the experiment may have been faulty.

Day 16: We tried to regrow celery from a cut-off celery base and green onions from trimmed off onion bottoms. This was a fun activity which yielded so-so results. It’s probably best suited for indoor winter fun for kids, not for growing food.

Day 27: Our homemade seed tapes yielded mixed results. I used many of them very early in the season (most in our tipi greenhouse—more on that later), so growing conditions were not ideal. Later plantings with the tapes were somewhat successful, but by then (July), the refrigerated tapes were almost 6 months old. I think I will try this again in spring with carrot seeds, which are so hard to space properly, but we’ll make the tapes right before we plant.

 

 

Monday, December 9, 2013. Mostly sunny, but really chilly and snowy. High temp: 24 degrees F; low temp: 9 degrees F.

This is what happens if you let the frost get to the tomatillos: The outer papery skin turns into a delicate web of fiber, and the fruit inside becomes a small brown nut.

This is what happens if you let frost get to the tomatillos: The outer papery skin turns into a delicate web of lacy fiber.

Back in October, I filled two Mason jars with raw apple cider that was going bad and commenced to making my own apple cider. The instructions I had said to put the jars in a warm, dark place and forget about them. Well, I did exactly that. While setting out Christmas decorations tonight, I remembered.

So how do you know if your vinegar is done? According to various sources, it might be cloudy or clear. It might be light or dark. There may be a grayish-white, pancake of live organism in it called “the mother.”

OK, consider me a little concerned about actually ingesting this vinegar. It does smell like apple cider vinegar—actually, it smells pretty good—so I think I will simply decant it and use it for cleaning purposes. I’m considering this experiment a success, especially since we turned what would have been garbage into something of value.

Friday, December 6, 2013. Dreaming about warmer places and days…. High temp: 23 degrees F; low temp: 12 degrees F.

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A labyrinth that is all bulbs in spring and all perennials in summer and fall could be very cool—but expensive! (From Cornell University website.)

One of the perks or detriments of our property—depending on the day and one’s energy level—is that it is hilly. For the past five years, we have been using one of our few flat areas as a large veggie garden. Alas, it is at the bottom of the hill behind our house which does not foster good stewardship. We’re seriously considering abandoning it, but the soil there has been so much improved that idea sort of pains me.

We could just put in a flower garden, but we’d still have to fence it to keep out the critters, and I suspect it would also suffer from inattention. Putting in more grass just doesn’t excite me one bit.

That’s when the thought of a labyrinth popped into my pea brain. Viewed from the top of the hill or from our house, such a design would look very cool. We could “build” it from plants or stones or even just grass, and it actually has use for mediation and reflection. Something to stare out the kitchen window and think about while the snow flies this weekend…

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I love the simplicity and symmetry of this design, but the rocks would cost a fortune, and this wouldn’t work with grass. (From The Song Garden website.)

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I can’t see what these plants are exactly, but I’m betting coleus. (Photo by Felder Rushing, from The Commercial Appeal website.)

 

 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013. Cloudy, misty, and mild. High temp: 55 degrees F; low temp: 24 degrees F.

We wound up another community garden season and about a mile of hose today.

We wound up another community garden season and about a mile of hose today.

Every year, I have very good intentions regarding when the community garden should be officially closed. And then there’s reality, in which Denny and I are out freezing our respective tokuses off, usually in a strong wind and intermittent drizzle, trying to wind recalcitrant hose, zip-tie about 40 tomato cages together, and sort through hundreds of rotten wooden stakes. Yep, that pretty much describes today, but we are officially done for the year and that feels great.

We also raked off much of what is left of the cardboard and newspaper we use between rows to keep the weeds down. In truth, most of the paper products would almost completely disintegrate by spring. But we have learned the hard way that letting that happen uses up plenty of soil nitrogen. We did leave straw down in a few areas, just to retard weeds, but we’ll remove much of that prior to tilling in the spring.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013. Foggy and damp—the kind of day you’d like to just stay in your jammies. High temp: 51 degrees F; low temp: 47 degrees F.

A pretty sunset from earlier this week. It was nothing but gloom and fog today.

A pretty sunset from earlier this week. It was nothing but gloom and fog today.

Today was supposed to be vermiposting day. Vermiposting is just composting grass, cardboard, wastepaper, veggie and fruit scraps, and leaves by way of the digestive system of lots of worms. We compost as much as we can, and in the winter, it is a real bummer to be walking out to the compost heap, especially at night or in crummy weather. My little invertebrate friends can do the work for me instead, munching and pooping away in a bin in the basement. (Here are my simple instructions.)

I got the bin all prepped for a new family of 50 or so red worms from the local bait shop, but alas, the fridge there was empty. So I trooped over to Walmart, where I’d spotted a bait cooler. There, I found about 50 containers of dead or dying worms, laying in moldy, dry soil. The sales guy just shrugged, but I was actually sort of horrified. OK, they are just worms, usually destined to be fish food, but they are also living creatures. What a cruel waste!

“Worms” was duly added to tomorrow’s to-do list.

Monday, December 2, 2013. Occasional sprinkles and cold. High temp: 47 degrees F; low temp: 41 degrees F.

Look who we found hiding in the outdoor kitchen.

Look who we found hiding in the outdoor kitchen.

We concluded the Thanksgiving weekend by putting away the outdoor kitchen, which was certainly a sad chore. I consider the outdoor kitchen one of our big victories this year: It was inexpensive, did not take a ton of skill to build, was made from 80 percent recycled materials, and we used the heck out of it to prepare meals, can food, and entertain. It is a pure pleasure to be able to cook and prep food out there this summer and fall.

This open cabinet, which in its first life held for-sale garden hoses, was our cabinet for the outdoor kitchen this year. Now it will be pressed into service to hold indoor pots up to that lovely southern sun.

This open cabinet, which in its first life held for-sale garden hoses, was our cabinet for the outdoor kitchen this year. Now it will be pressed into service to hold indoor pots up to that lovely southern sun.

Today, I brought in the antique yellow cabinet from the outdoor kitchen and will repurpose it in a south-facing window as a place to grow greens. It’s on wheels, so it’s pretty easy to move when needed.

I’m also watching soil temperatures in the cold frame, which also faces south. Unfortunately, the frame does not hold heat, so the soil will not stay warm enough for germination. I’m very seriously considering setting up my extremely white trash cold frame (clear plastic sheeting stretched over a plexiglass-topped patio table) which maintained a very warm air temp last winter, even on very cold days.

Friday, November 29, 2013. Sunny and quite nice. High temp: 36 degrees F; low temp: 28 degrees F.

We finally got the last of potager garden cleared today.

We finally got the last of potager garden cleared today.

It’s hard to believe, but the (first?) year of gardening dangerously is a month shy of being done. The whole point of this blog was to get outside every day and be engaged in some way in the production of fresh food. To be perfectly honest, that challenge has gotten progressively more difficult in November. We’ve had many days and nights of below-freezing temps, and mice have been rampant: Both situations have made growth in the cold frame almost impossible. The goal was to get some baby greens in December. Now, with hours of sunlight going down every day, we’ll be lucky to get sprouts. All of the boxes are replanted, though, so they are ready for sprouting in February, if not sooner.

We cleaned out the last of the cages and dead plants in all of the gardens today. Most of the plant material will be used in the vermiposting bin, which I hope to set up later this week. I also used steel wool to plug holes where mice can get in to the cold frame. Steel wool is an easy fix for such areas, as it is cheap, can be stuffed into any shape hole or space, and mice don’t like it one little bit.