Hotbeds for young veggies
When most of the snow cleared out of the garden, I started walking around with a stick every day, pushing it down as far into the ground as I could.
Two inches ice free. Then 5, then 8.
“We’re putting in our peas,” I told my husband, who is from Florida and therefore skeptical of spring. In his mind, winter has been so long, so lingering, so bitter that growing season might never come.
Sure enough, two days later the temps plunged from the 60s to the 20s, and the gardens were covered in snow again.
It doesn’t matter. The soil’s not frozen anymore and a spring snow can’t last. The peas are going in.
Good Friday is officially the day to plant peas, at least according to an old pal of ours, Dudley. And he usually seemed right, no matter how early or late Easter was. Five years ago, when Easter showed up in late April, we also had a long cold winter. Is it scientific? Maybe not, but I’ll go with it.
I’ll transplant some of the broccoli and lettuce seedlings into the ground too, but leave more growing indoors. Hopefully by next week, we’ll have our hot frames going and can move more plants outside. It’s getting awfully crowded indoors.
We have an abundance of manure, thanks to one old ox and two baby oxen-to-be. That means we have ready fuel for hotbeds.
A hot frame or hotbed is a mini-greenhouse, set in the garden and generally heated with manure. We’ve made them as ditches and as piles, and they work both ways.
The ditch system is basically a 2-foot-deep hole filled with a one-foot layer of manure, which is covered with 4 to 6 inches of soil. Plants are set in their pots on top of the soil — still below ground level — and the hole is covered with an old window. Voila! A ground-level greenhouse, with its own heating system.
The beauty of the system is you can make it any size you like, and use any old windows you can find. The manure keeps the heat inside constant, and if it’s going to get too cold at night, throw a tarp over the whole thing.
There are variations. You can build a wood frame around your hole to raise the window higher above the ground. (Or prop boards together, or use bottom-less wooden boxes or old beehives.) Put a higher board on the north side to slant the window toward the south, maximizing light and heat.
If you don’t have an ox or a neighbor who keeps horses or some other source of abundant manure, you can heat a hot frame with an electric cable or a light bulb. Personally, I don’t think I’d bother with a hotbed if it weren’t for that steaming manure pile. Why let all that heat go to waste when my little seedlings need it?
We’ve built hotbeds above ground too, building a pile of manure about 3 feet high and 20 feet long into the center of the garden. (Yeah, I said we had a lot of it.) Then we layered soil on top, set the plants on top of that and topped the whole thing with metal hoops and plastic covering to make a small hoop house.
The plants stayed warm until Memorial Day, when they could go into the ground. Then we took the hoops off and planted melons and eggplants — which need the most heat — right on the pile. At the end of the season, the manure was broken down enough to be spread and turned into the garden for the next year.
When it gets a little closer to planting season, you can make a cold frame — also a kind of temporary mini-greenhouse for starting plants, but without a heat source.
A cold frame is basically a wooden frame, slanted toward the south with a window on top. The heat comes just from the sun, and generally the temperature inside will stay about 10 degrees warmer than air temperatures. It needs to be covered at night, and vented during hot days, which can be done by propping one end of the window up with a stick.
Cold frames are perfect for those few weeks before the last frost, and to harden off plants — get them used to cool nights — as they make the transition from indoor windows to the real world.
In our world, far from Florida, that transition won’t come until the very end of May. But as long green things are growing — in windows or under windows — I think even the Floridian will make it to garden season.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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