The growing season of 2013 was a bust here in Atlanta’s zone 7b. Spring rains pounded our garden until puddles formed and vegetables rotted. Summer sun, was non existent. Heat loving tomatoes and okra refused to bloom. I’ve been depressed my friends, but like most stubborn farmers, I won’t give up. My pepper plants are just-now producing and I must extend their growing season. Extend your growing season with a hoop house

Now that we’re entering the fall growing season I’ve decided to build a cold frame, which most folk call a “hoop house” I’ve decided to locate the house on top of my deck planter. From start to finish it was an hour investment and should allow me to extend the growing season until the green peppers develop.

Come spring, I will remove the pvc piping and store for later use.


Supplies:Supplies Needed

(4) pvc pipes ½ inch in diameter. Note: number of pipes depend on growing area

(8) ¾ inch metal straps

(8) wood screws  Note: the bag of straps I bought did not include screws

Plastic sheeting

Hot glue

Christmas tree lights (serve as makeshift lighting)



Depending on the size you wish to cover, space the pipes far enough to support the lightweight plastic (mine are 34 inches apart).

Secure firmly to wood

Measure both sides of the frame then secure metal straps into the wood. Metal straps should be snug. Insert onepipe and bend to secure in place on the other side. Press pipe firmly in dirt. 

Repeat until the bones of the frame are in place. Side view of hoops

Sew vegetable seeds, or plant fall vegetables. Now here’s a trick. Outdoor Christmas tree lights provide both light and a nominal amount of warmth. Even though winter brings less sunlight, inside the plants will be warm and toasty in the light. Water soil then drape plastic sheeting over pipe. Drape plastic over hoops

You’ll notice there is no door on the frame. I secured the plastic on one side with dots of hot glue. Leaving the other side loose, I tuck the plastic into the frame.

secure protective covering to pvc


As lettuce and peppers are ready peel the plastic back and harvest. For those who do not have an existing deck planter. First measure your garden area, then build a small frame using 2 by 4 or 2 by 8 lumber. Regardless of the size, I encourage you to grow your own winter vegetables. 


Renea Winchester is an award-winning author. Her latest release,Mountain Memories is available exclusively to Kindle Customers. In 2014, Mercer University will release, Farming, Friends & Fried Bologna Sandwiches. Learn more about her at www.reneawinchester.com



A photo of Renea WinchesterThe weatherman reports that Atlanta could see another dusting of snow. Which caused my spirit to sink. The kids are excited at the possibility of playing in the white stuff, but I am ill-equipped to handle dreary weather when it dips “down south.”

When the weather turns icy I can think of nothing better than to curl up on the couch and read the latest release. I’m not talking about what the New York Times list tells us we should read. I’m referring to the stack of seed catalogues that receive top priority during the month of January.

With pen in hand and sticky notes ready, I thumb through each magazine. This is the year, I convince myself, that my garden will surpass those I see on the cover of a magazine. I’ll begin by planting a salad bed (which, by the way, should be planted fairly soon here in the south). It will produce a rainbow of leafy goodness. Not the boring “lettuce” and “mustard” like my parents grow. We’ll have none of that in my garden. Oh no, my salad “bed” will be exotic.

Lettuce bed 

I’ll have a garden filled with lettuce no one can pronounce: Purple Mizuna and Rouge d’Hiver, and a touch of Skyphos (to add some pink to the mix). This year, I’ll sprout my own wheat grass (have you checked out the prices of wheat grass lately?), I’ll give Dill one more try and plant Chamomile, primarily because I noticed a charming Chamomile Rake that seems to be the smartest invention since the sticky notes that now color the pages of the catalog.

I’ll draw out my design and plant the seeds with care. I’ll call my dad and brag because my planting season in Georgia begins a few weeks before his in North Carolina. He’ll laugh, because he knows that regardless of what I plant or when, his little Bowen tractor has worked the ground into a powdery consistency that grows anything he darn well pleases.

Dad on his Bowen tractor 

As an aside, last week he worked two truckloads of nearly-rotten sawdust into his garden.

That’s his secret.

Find sawdust in Atlanta.  Go ahead, I dare you.

So with my purchased soil that has been fortified with fireplace ashes and a bit of goat manure, I once again begin the quest to grow something ... anything better than those who’ve much greater experience than I.

Let's be honest. There is a 99.9% chance my garden will look like this, instead of my Dad's.

The reality of my garden graces this Shoebox Card. 

I’ll begin the growing season filled with hope and ignore the card which sits at the corner of the desk. This year my dream garden will become a reality.

Enjoy those seed catalogs and remember, keep those hands dirty!


A photo of Renea WinchesterHere in the south, fall is the perfect time to plant what we call a “salad garden.”  Turnip, collard, and mustard greens all thrive in addition to lettuce, radishes and onions. Billy and I especially needed something green in his garden, because during the past year, in addition to helping my seventy-eight-year old farmer friend, I’ve also been writing a book about him.

On October 23, 2010, Little Creek Books released, In the Garden with Billy: Lessons About Life, Love & Tomatoes.

In the Garden with Billy cover 

When searching for the ideal venue to launch the book, I looked no further than the “Little Strip of Land” where our remarkable friendship began.

I can’t give away the plot, but I can say that In the Garden with Billy is not a “How-To” gardening book. Yes, there are a few tips, like how to make homemade wine; however, the most beneficial “How-To” is “How To See People.” I had traveled past Billy’s home for almost ten years and never “saw” him. Simply put, I was too busy.  However, a tiny sign with the words “Baby Goats 4 Sale” was a beacon for my daughter. Her insistence that I allow her to see the baby goats provided the catalyst for our meeting. Billy’s outstretched hand coupled with a bountiful crop of “tow-maders” lead to us returning to his garden as volunteers.

At this point I should mention that the backdrop for In the Garden with Billy is Atlanta Georgia. Billy Albertson operates the last remaining working farm in what used to be farm country. Today, it’s prime real estate. But ya’ll can find that out when you read the book.

As the book launch approached, the local newspaper paid a visit. The field was full of crinkly corn which, I thought, would make a great photo-op. Billy, however, decided the garden needed “cleaning up” and cut down every stalk of corn moments before the photographer arrived. The newspaper managed to capture a couple shots of Billy on the tractor so that tragedy was avoided.

It seemed like every time I visited Billy was “cleaning” the farm. I finally explained that readers were going to think I was a terrible writer if he didn’t stop! I encouraged him to focus his energy on the “salad garden” that was beginning to take shape.

October 23rd arrived, and we were blessed with glorious weather. I had painted the dilapidated garage door that hides his Cub Tractor. My plan was to encourage visitors to sign their name and jot down personal messages.

Garage door painting 

That way, he would be able to see how much he’s loved every morning on his way to feed the “critters.”

With the books displayed, we set up a jelly booth and popped some popcorn. We even had sweet potatoes and gourds for sale and refreshments for visitors. The only thing we needed were readers. We hung the “Special Events” sign (on his truck of course) and waited for friends to arrive.

Special Event sign on the farm truck 

What happened next still has Billy and I shaking our heads.

Soon Billy’s “little strip of land,” was transformed into something resembling a family reunion, fall festival, with a little splash of the Holy Spirit sprinkled in for good measure. Family he hadn’t seen in years arrived. Strangers who-like me-had passed his home for years finally paid him a visit. In a word, the day was magical.

Magical book launch day 

Children, who had never seen a chicken or a goat, had the opportunity to experience both up close and personal. There were hayrides (on the lawnmower no less), and old-timers swapped stories.

Old-timers swapping stories 

Smiles were everywhere, and on more than one occassion, Billy and I cried tears of pure joy. Is there truly anything more fun that a fall day on the farm? The book launch celebrated a life dedicated to farming, and a friendship made when two strangers reached out and found each other.

Billy signs and smiles 

I invite you to read this story of hope, especially now when many of us are so stressed.

I challenge you today, stop at the road-side stand. Reach out to a stranger in the grocery store. Give someone a little bit of your time, because when you do I know ... I know, something magical will happen.

In the Garden with Billy: Lessons About Life, Love & Tomatoes is available through my website, and in bookstores everywhere. They can order the book with the ISBN number (ISBN 978-0-9843192-5-1). As always, I love to hear from you, please visit my website at www.reneawinchester.com and drop me an email.

Happy Gardening, and remember, get those hands dirty!

Renea Winchester is a two-time winner of the Appalachan Writer’s Award for Essay. Her work  has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Georgia Backroads, Smoky Mountain Living and Long Leaf Style as well as Georgia Public Radio 90.1 FM. She is a frequent contributor to http://Southernauthors.blogspot.com. Her memoir, In the Garden with Billy: Lessons about Life, Love and Tomatoes, was released by Little Creek Books in October 2010. 


A photo of Renea WinchesterWith summer showers missing my garden more often than not, I’m watching helplessly as the sun beats down on my vegetables with a vengeance. I have shredded newspapers and added them as a weed barrier, and applied mulch around acid-loving tomatoes to retain moisture. Despite everything I’ve done to keep plants happy and healthy, nothing can thrive consecutive days of above 90 degrees without rain.

And no matter how much technology advances, we still can’t manufacture rain.

When weather conditions turn dusty, farmers and gardeners look for creative ways to conserve and recycle water. Billy has perfected the art of capturing water by using every “vessel” in his possession. Oil drums and empty trashcans sit beneath every downspout, mouth-open eagerly waiting to collect each drop that falls. A peek inside his kitchen will reveal a large bowl on each side. One for washing, the other rinsing; water collected from each are dumped into the garden daily.

Copying Billy’s methodology, I located a company who sold plastic barrels then converted the containers into fifty-five gallon mosquito-free holding tanks. I snaked a gravity hose into the lower garden and waited for the rain. Unfortunately, no rain came. I now had two choices, accept the death of my garden or do what I could to save my investment.

Water barrel 

A quick survey of my home found many places where I could save water. I live in an older home, which means we do not have low-flow toilets. Since I can’t afford to replace the toilets, I placed a quart jar in the back of all my toilets. This added volume to the tank and resulted in each flush using less water. A brick also works.

Kitchens practically hemorrhage water. We’re rinsing, washing, drinking, cooking, and constantly using water with little regard of how much flows down the drain. One particularly parched day I placed a large bowl in the sink and caught what would normally slide down the drain. I washed my hands over the bowl then poured what I caught into a bucket that I had placed beside the sink. I continued this process while preparing dinner and during cleaning up. I basically tried to collect everything that would go into the septic tank. At the end of the day, I was shocked to discover that I had collected over ten gallons of water that I lugged to the garden.

This water is accurately called “gray water.”

My tomatoes were thrilled. To a thirsty plant, it doesn’t matter if the water is pea green, purple or gray. As long as I don’t water the foliage, they don’t care. During periods of dry weather water should not come in contact with leaves. Water will reflect the sun’s-rays, which in turn burns delicate leaves and underdeveloped fruit.

I returned to the bathroom for what may seem like an extreme attempt to save water. I’m not talking about turning off the water while you brush your teeth. I’m speaking about how much water we use keeping ourselves clean. I am blessed with a teenage daughter who loves baths. She sings while she lathers, and spends an enormous amount of time in the tub. I convinced her to leave the water after she was finished then we carried–yes manually carried–twelve to fifteen gallons of water every day to appreciative vegetables.

Water which drains from the heat-pump can also be used in the garden. I have attached a garden hose to the drain pipe and snaked it to the garden. It isn't the prettiest way to water, but the beans that were once wilting are now blooming.

I realize my water-conserving methods are a bit unusual. Adding rain barrels was a start. When that happened I focused on what I could do to conserve and reuse. Today, the rains are still sporadic, but gray water keeps my garden happy and green. While I’m no master recycler like Billy, I have made efforts to change the way I see and use our most precious resource.

As always, happy gardening and remember to keep those hands dirty.


Aah, the rewards of summer. Peach juice trickling down my chin, blackberries staining my fingers and time spent with friends. I’ve coaxed tiny seeds into tomato plants that are seven feet tall. I’ve carried water, scratched in fertilizer, and to be completely honest, I’ve spoken love-words to my tomatoes hoping to entice them into a love-love relationship with me. 

“How about some extra water today,” I say as I pour water around the base of my plant, never on the foliage because that might burn delicate, undeveloped fruit. 

The plants responded. Clothed in yellow blooms, they grew tall, dark and deliciously attractive. As the plants matured, my anticipation increased with each passing day. 

I had waited, patiently watching the largest tomato change from lime-green to pale pink. With heat scratching my neck, I grabbed my bucket; my mouth-watering…today would be sandwich day. 

Foliage the hornworm stripped.Imagine my surprise when my precious Park’s Whopper met me with stripped-bear stalks. The tomato I’d admired for weeks hung half-eaten with a large green worm munching happily. 

I was excited the first time I encountered a Tomato Horn Worm. A gardening newbie, I naively thought the pudgy caterpillar hanging on the stalk before me would morph into a Luna Moth. I photographed the creature and emailed all my friends that soon I would “be the proud parent of a Luna moth.” 

“Kill it!” was the reply from seasoned gardeners. “Take a rock and smash it dead!” 

After arguing that I would never, ever kill something so beautiful, I received an email with a photograph confirming their accusations. The caterpillar might be beautiful now, but as soon as it had consumed every tomato (and vine) in my garden it would become a Sphinx (not a Luna) Moth. 

I became a disciple in Horn Worm behavior. Since spraying pesticide is out of the question, handpicking the creatures was my only pest control option. Worm excrement (for lack of a more technical term) was the best clue in determining the location of my prey. They are masters at hiding behind immature fruit away from view. However, droppings are impossible to hide. If you notice droppings like what is pictured in the photograph box, begin searching for worms.

Droppings from hornworm.Removing the worms is a bit like a treasure hunt. Begin searching at the top of the plant near the new growth. Look on the stalk, beneath the limbs, and behind green fruit. When you locate one, remove it with one sudden movement, (think ripping off a Band-Aid, only more violent). The worms do not bite.

They do, however, release a lime-green “juice” when disturbed. Place the worm in a cup and-assuming you have chickens-feed the worms to them. In the absence of chickens, you might opt to drown, or smash them. 

Be diligent. Once these death-worms discover your tomatoes you are thrust into a battle; either they must go, or all hope of tomato sandwiches will vanish. Now is not the time to be humane. Every worm must die. Check plants for several days to ensure you’ve won the battle. The tiny worms you ignore today will grow to massive three-inch-long-worms overnight ! A dusting of Sevin-10 will drive the worms away, as will a mixture of hot pepper and water, sprayed on a still summer day also works. However, the best defense is to check the plants. I prefer the hunt and pluck method. So do my chickens. 

Hornworm posing for a picture.Happy gardening and remember, keep those hands dirty.















ReneaFor those who were lucky enough to get their tomatoes planted early, vine ripened tomatoes are here (or almost here). However, in a blink those tomatoes will stop producing, which is why I encourage ya’ll to root sucker branches to ensure a harvest right up until frost.

As luck would have it, I broke the top off of my tallest – over fertilized – tomato while trying to stake it. Never fear, I placed the broken plant into a jar of water. Less than a week has passed, take a look at the roots that have emerged!

This photo was taken two days after I placed the plant in the water. As you can see, tiny roots are emerging.

tomato roots

The second photo was taken after the plant had been in the water five days. Check out those massive roots.

tomato roots 2

I didn’t add root stimulator. I didn’t use purified water. One plant, tap water and wait.

Don’t you love it? A free tomato plant in less than seven days!

My next step is to dig a very deep hole for this plant. Since the weather is much hotter now and rain is less frequent than in the spring, I must plant deep in order for the tomato to survive. I will remove the stalk that has blooms on it, and bury the plant four inches deep. Then I’ll add shredded newspaper into the hole, water the newspaper, add a layer of dirt, and another layer of newspaper ... water again then add pine mulch and water again. I know this is a lot of water, but remember, the plant has been living in a jar of water for almost a week.

If Mother Nature cooperates, I should have tomatoes from this plant in September.

So my gardening friends, the proof is in the jar. You can do this! Happy gardening, and remember, keep those hands dirty.

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