Sunday, February 20, 2011

"F minus 60" Eight Weeks to Last Frost

Today marks "F minus 60" or sixty days until the last expected frost here in Zone 6. I used information from the weather service to decide on the most likely frost free date for my garden, April 20. Because altitude, exposure and the direction of prevailing winds can all influence the microclimate of your property, determining the frost date is never an exact science. I looked at data from the three nearest weather stations, and made my best guess. You can find raw frost probability data for all National Weather Service reporting stations at the National Climate Data Center. You'll bring up a PDF of probability tables that can be a bit confusing. If you want help with the interpretation, try using the tool for finding frost free dates by zip code at Dave's Garden.

Today we transplanted lettuces and broccoli. The broccoli plants, 'De Cicco' cultivar, were started under lights on January 3. According to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, this broccoli was introduced around 1890 and is known for producing abundant side shoots after the main head is harvested. The 15 best plants went into a raised bed outfitted with supports for floating row cover. The row cover will provide a little frost protection, but is mainly there to prevent access to the plants by cabbage butterflies, which will be on the prowl before the broccoli heads up. If the weather threatens to get really cold, we can always apply plastic film on top of the row cover. The local forecast calls for relatively mild weather for the next week, which should give the plants a chance to establish themselves before the next chill. We expect to harvest a crop around April 10.
The row cover support is made of 3/4 inch EMT conduit. It is easy to work with, costs little and lasts for many seasons with proper care.
We are also using row cover to protect our early lettuce transplants. Seeds were started January 9, and include 'Buttercrunch,' 'Lollo Rossa,' and 'Rougette de Montpelier.' Experience has taught that all of these have good cold tolerance. We bent some plastic-coated metal plant stakes to make supports holding the row cover fabric just above the lettuce leaves.

You can see one of the supports in the middle of the image. Lollo Rossa is on the left and Buttercrunch on the right. These lettuces should be ready to harvest in about two weeks. We have new seedlings coming along to replace them. By mid-March, the bed will no longer need a row cover.

This week in the kitchen I am experimenting with making kimchi. Creating this fermented Asian condiment offers a great way to preserve winter greens. The recipe I am using calls for napa cabbage, which is typically found in commercial kimchi products. I always think it is a good idea to start with a more or less standard method when learning a new kitchen craft. Research reveals that many recipes for kimchi exist, exploiting various green crops and utilizing an assortment of flavorings and techniques.  I was unable to find some of the ingredients called for in the recipe, which appears in the February/March 2011 issue of Fine Cooking. Therefore, I made substitutions. I also reduced the quantity by three-fourths. No sense making a huge amount until you know you like the result. I will post my recipe after we've sampled the product. Kimchi, like its relative sauerkraut, has many uses in the kitchen. Having a supply on hand makes a quick Asian meal easy to whip up on a weeknight. With refrigeration, it keeps a month or more.

The Vernal Equinox is March 20...only 28 days to go. Happy growing!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Starving Moon

The Cherokee who lived here 600 years ago called February "The Starving Moon." By now, stocks of stored foods ran low. The harsh weather kept new growth dormant. Game scurried wary and thin.

Small surprise that fresh local food is scarce in the market. Fresh basil, dill and mint, sprouts of various kinds and storage foods like sweet potatoes and winter squash were all I found this week. The freezer case contained frozen beef from two local producers, Mitchell Farm in Blaine, and Three Forks Cattle Company in Pall Mall, TN. The market also now stocks fresh milk from Cruze Dairy, located in Knoxville. The dairy raises grass-fed Jersey cows and produces milk that reminds me of my childhood on the farm. Local cheeses from Sweetwater Valley and Locust Grove round out the offerings.

With a bit of technology, the menu could be much more varied, however. Our simple cold frame protects chervil, lettuce, spinach and tatsoi. With a larger protected growing space and better planning, we could have a much bigger harvest. I am surprised that local farmers have not followed in the footsteps of Elliot Coleman, farmer, inventor and author. Coleman profitably produces vegetables for sale year round on the coast of Maine (Zone 5). Surely, we can do the same in our milder climate.

Another way, of course, to have local food during the depths of winter is to preserve as much of the seasonal harvest as possible. Over the years we have learned that the best approach involves two critical planning steps:

1) Choose preservation methods suited to the food you plan to grow.

2) Decide how much of each food product you can use during the cold months.

Now is a good time to research methods and make plans for preserving an abundant harvest during the coming season.

Do not rely on only one method of preservation for a given crop, where that is possible. Tomatoes, for example, can be frozen or canned. You get different results that are suited to different applications in the kitchen. Frozen tomatoes are easy to prepare, convenient when used and excellent in cooked dishes or sauce. Canned tomatoes retain some of their texture and can be drained and used like fresh tomatoes in salsa or on a salad. They can also be used, of course, in cooking.

For preserved foods that are seasoned and cooked, make more than one recipe. Cucumber pickles can be dilled, sweet, bread-and-butter, etc. Having this kind of variety available in the winter pantry helps you create more interesting menus to stave off the winter blues.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Starting Seeds Indoors Under Lights

 Garden center prices for vegetable starts are expected to be at an all time high this year, due to increased demand from gardeners and higher fuel costs for growers. That is why it makes sense to start your own at home. You can buy seed starting supplies anywhere seeds are sold, or use almost any type of container to hold them until they are ready for the garden. For most people, however, the biggest obstacle to starting seeds early is the availability of a sufficiently well-lighted growing space. Fluorescent lighting provides the best option for indoor growing for home gardeners.

We already have flats of seeds growing under lights in the garage. A second round of lettuce will be ready to move into the cold frame in a week or so. Broccoli, leeks and even some experimental tomato plants are thriving. The garage has two south-facing windows, each about 36 inches wide. In front of each of these we have set up a baker's rack measuring approximately four feet wide by 18 inches deep. Four foot fluorescent shop lights, each holding two 40-watt fluorescent lamps, hang from the shelves on chains. We have found that three shop lights (a total of six lamps) per shelf provides sufficient light for all types of vegetables. If one were only going to grow greens, you could probably get by with only two units (four lamps) per shelf.

I bought "cool white" lamps, because they are the least expensive, a little less than a dollar apiece when purchased in a case of ten. At 3100K they are not exactly the ideal color temperature for plant production. Daylight lamps, at about 5000-6000K would provide more energy in the areas of the color spectrum that plants absorb. However, we have achieved satisfactory results with the cool whites, and the daylight lamps are considerably more costly.

Standard seed flats are 10 inches wide by 20 inches long. Four will fit across each shelf, for a total of 16 flats per rack. If we use 36-cell trays for starting seeds, which we do for lettuce, we can accommodate a total of 576 plants per rack or 1152 plants between both racks.

The shop lights are relative cheap, about $10 each. We have 12 per rack, so the total cost is about $240 for the light fixtures. The racks themselves we have had a long time. You can purchase similar ones for about $50 each.  Add another $25 for timers and extension cords, and the total cost of the set-up is about $375. Allowing $1.00 each for lamps, we have $48 invested in that component. The lamps will last two seasons before they dim enough to need replacement, but the other components will last through many growing seasons. Given that a small greenhouse costs close to $1000, our garage system seems like a bargain-priced way to start a modest number of vegetable plants. If it lasts us for only 5 years, the equipment amortized cost is $6.55 per month, plus another $2.40 per month for lamps. The amortized cost for a $1000 greenhouse is twice that.

How much is it costing us to operate our indoor garden? Our garage is well-insulated, and we heat it to about 60 degrees with an oil-filled radiator heater. Since we use it for many types of projects, we don't count the cost of heating in our calculations for plant production. The cost of lighting is easy to calculate. We have 48 lamps at 40 watts each. That is 1920 watts. If we operate them for 12 hours per day, we use just a shade over 23 kilowatt-hours of electricity. At our present rate, a kilowatt-hour costs nine cents, so the light system is consuming $2.07 per day, or $62.10 per month, in electricity. At most, we will use it for three months, for a total of $186.30 in operating expenses. This is far less than the value of the vegetables we will produce from the plants we are growing now. A small greenhouse, by contrast, would cost more just to heat, depending upon the heat source, and might actually need supplemental lighting during the shortest winter days.

Any way you look at it, the indoor garden seems like a more affordable option than a small greenhouse.

Obviously, not everyone will need to start more than 1000 vegetable plants, and not everyone will want to invest this much in equipment. Nevertheless, it is easy to see that you can devise an indoor light garden with simple, out-of-the-box equipment. If all you want is two or three tomato plants and some lettuce, you can start enough plants underneath a single shoplight, and the cost will be less than $25 for the whole season.