Scrambling Time

Today it was time to scramble. I’m not talking about eggs either – although I did scramble up some eggs and fried some turkey bacon for breakfast this morning. The scrambling I’m referring to is the dashing-frantically-around-to-get-something-done sort of scrambling.

It rarely gets cold-cold here in Tennessee before December. If we get snow at all it’s in February. On the rare occasion we’ll get a snowfall around Christmas, but that’s very rare. On that basis I was not in a big hurry to get my garden boxes covered in plastic for protection from winter weather, since winter weather was months away yet. Except it’s not.

The weather guessers have been saying that we can expect overnight low temperatures around 29 degrees over the next couple of days. That’s cold enough to do some serious damage to my squash. Rain is expected as well – although it’s not clear if the rain will be first then cold or the other way around. They’re not talking about snow, so I suspect it will be cold overnight and rain during the day after it warms. If that’s the case, my lettuce and Brussels sprouts should be OK, they just need protection from the cold winds.

A couple of weeks ago I bought my annual roll of 6 mil semi-transparent plastic which I use to cover the boxes.  It’s been sitting here, ready to go to work ever since. That 29-degree forecast is for tonight/tomorrow morning, so today is the last day I have to get this done.

My garden is done all in raised beds, because we live on the side of a mountain and this is the only way I can garden that doesn’t just wash away every time it rains. I have fence boxes made from PVC pipe and poultry mesh to keep the rabbits out of my crops. In the winter I can add the plastic sheeting to provide better protection from the elements. How much protection is needed depends on what is inside.

For things like lettuce, spinach, turnips, beets, and onions – which are fairly cold tolerant, I put plastic just around the sides for a windbreak. Windchill factors do not affect plants, but cold temps and blustery winds do seem to make them more easily damaged in winter. If nothing else, they just grow more slowly therefore don’t recover and put out new leaves as quickly. Leaving the top open means I don’t have to pull the cover to water and they get a tad more sunshine. It also means I avoid a problem I’ll talk about in a moment.

Enclosing the box completely protects the plants better from cold. Despite their name, winter squash (I grow Acorn and Butternut) is not frost tolerant and must be protected, especially early-on while the plant is young. I have not installed heaters or anything, but these prove sufficient for a short cold snap. Prolonged frost or a hard freeze is another matter entirely.

The problem with the flat-topped design is that the tops collect rain water, sag, and can get heavy enough to pull the duct tape loose or deform the frame. I can poke holes in the cover to help with that. But a more troublesome problem is the condensation inside the top can freeze and the, sometimes considerable, sheet of ice will break loose, fall and crush the plants inside.

The house shaped frames eliminate this altogether and allow more room for things that will get taller, but they become quite ungainly at this size and require a lot more plastic to cover them. My first year out as a winter gardener I made miniature hoop houses from PVC pipe. These had a frame around the bottom and bows to form the hoops. This too was better at resisting the falling-ice-that-crushes-your veggies syndrome.  But the amount of tension in that system required that I fasten the connectors together with glue or at least screws: making redesign difficult. My bigger objection is that applying the poultry mesh to these Quonset hut shaped structures for summer use was very difficult and time consuming.

I need to find a way to add support to the flat top boxes to encourage rain and condensation run-off without adding so much complication that it outweighs the advantages. Thinking on that. Possibly the answer will be a stick, shoved in the ground at the center of each covered box that will act like a tent pole and push the cover up just enough. But the end of the stick will need to be rounded or padded so it doesn’t tear the plastic when winds start whipping it around.

I also drove two roofing nails into opposite sides of each box and ran a piece of heavy string from one, over the top to the other to prevent the whole shebang from turning into a big kite and ending up impaled by the tree line downwind. A loop tied in one end of the string allows easy removal when need be.

I finished up the day by harvesting all the remaining peppers from my summer pepper plants. A frost will likely ruin the fruits if not the plants themselves. I’m sure it will do-in the last of my cherry tomato plants, which is OK, they’ve stopped fruiting now anyway. The sweet potatoes should be OK, if the frost kills off the vines I’ll start the countdown to harvest. I covered the sugar peas and hope they’ll survive; I just got my first handful of pods off them today. I really expected to have another month before it got cold enough to affect the peas. They like cool weather, but not-so-much in regards to frost.

I’ve allowed the asparagus to put up ferns to build up energy in their roots. This frost may yellow them too. If so I’ll cut them back, compost the ferns and cover the plants over with a thick layer of straw for the winter. But that’s for after this frost.

It’s been a busy day as I carried box after box up to my workshop where I can work away from the increasing wind, then struggling to get the box back down to the garden without going airborne as well as the usual day-to-day chores that come with being a dog-owning mountain man. But it’s done now and we shall see what comes of it all. 

What precautions do you need to do each year to get your garden ready for winter?

Published on Oct 23, 2013

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