It's 90 degrees outside this weekend and I find myself inside an air-conditioned store browsing the cool weather crop selection. I want to get my seeds started now while the temperatures are still warm enough to promote germination efficiently. At home, I've already pulled out my winter containers and set them up on the patio right next to my kitchen door. A few years ago, I used the raised beds on the far corner of the house, but I noticed my leafy greens were bolting before I ever got to them. I decided that a more practical solution was to put containers within easy access to the kitchen so that they wouldn't be overlooked during the hectic meal preparation. I also have a hose spigot nearby, which is a key requirement for irrigation or convenient overhead watering via the hose. After I set up my four containers/pots I fill them all with a mixture of soil and coco coir. I like to amend the soil with coco coir as it retains water, is sustainably- sourced, and is fairly inexpensive. The last preparation for the containers is to push two lengths of PVC pipe into the corners so that they bend and form an arch at each corner. PVC pipe comes in all sorts of widths but I just use the ¼” size as it is flexible and still sturdy. Then I strap these together with a straight length of PVC to support the arcs. As I mentioned, these cross pieces stabilize the PVC arches so that they don't get knocked over by wind or rain. With the beds ready for planting I go see what seeds my local nursery has in stock. I know I would have a lot more options if I bought online but I'm not looking for anything exotic this year so I find what I need and head home.
When I had a plot at the Community Garden I had success growing all kinds of winter crops. I had good luck with cauliflower, broccoli, kale, chard, celery, peas, bok choy, and lettuce. I grew Brussel sprouts one year but the second harvest was full (covered, smothered in, and buried alive) with aphids. I love artichokes and found them also easy to grow and delicious to eat if you have the space. There are three factors that determine what vegetables I grow each year. The first factor is how much room I have. The second factor is which vegetables provide the most productivity over the season, Third is about personal preference. This year, without the bed at the community garden, I am limited to four containers, so I decided to grow three varieties of spinach and two types of kale, chard, and some peas. Leafy greens are easy to grow, and since I use them in daily smoothies, I prefer to eat organic.
Once my seeds are planted I keep the soil moist, watering daily to insure they germinate. When they are seedlings I stop overhead watering and coil a small irrigation tube in each bed. I use the line with built-in emitters every 6” and set them to water 5-10 min each day until the plants are larger. Once established, I can set the timer to water every three days, and at the same time, I drape the row cover over the PVC pipe and clamp it into place. Row cover is a sheet-like fabric that lets the sun in and is permeable to water. I cover the containers with a row cover to avoid pest problems and help build up the humidity for the plants. It effectively creates a greenhouse situation, keeping the plants from freezing, deterring water loss through evaporation, and blocking out cabbage moths and other biting insects.
I wish I had a large plot of land, maybe a farm with goats and a greenhouse. Instead, I am lucky enough to have two dogs, a grumpy cat, and as many leafy greens as my family can eat all winter. As urban gardeners, we grow what we can and enjoy swapping with other neighbors for whatever they have grown. If you need to keep your garden simple and have limited space try growing leafy greens. They are easy to care for and produce a lot of food in relation to the space they require.
How to use PVC pipe to create a habitat for your vegetables. photos by Sheila Clyatt
Drop a Coco Choir block into a 5 gallon bucket of water. Once it has expanded, mix it with your container soil and fill your vegetable beds. It will increase the porous properties of the medium and hold moisture so you will not have to water as often.
Once your seeds have grown into seedlings it’s time to cover them with row cover to protect them from insects, burning/frost, and decrease evaporation.
Seeds are just making a show of it in one of my containers, in a week they will join the others under the row cover.