Yep, it's worth it...

A winter storm blew in this week. 

Our cozy homestead is sitting quietly under 10 inches of Colorado snow.  The fire is blazing as I sit here typing by the fire.  And my heart is full to bursting.

wood fired stove, alternative energy source

I have ample reason to be joyful.  A quiet house full of the ones I love ...  everyone asleep but me.  I just put my plant babies to bed for the night too.  I sat and stared a bit, looking admiringly at the first real sets of leaves that distinguish the Tuscan Kale from the Savoy Cabbage. Broccoli, Cauliflower and Collards.  

These cold weather crops are the first seeds that I plant each year, and they carry with them the hope that my garden will not always be asleep under a blanket of snow.  These tiny winter promises of future food abundance keep me sane as the last few months of cold weather drag on.  Our storage vegetables were sparse due to the early deep freeze last fall,  so starting fresh for next year's crop is exciting.

seed starts in the basement under grow lights, starting seeds

This Spring... I have more than just my seedlings in the basement to celebrate and keep me sane.  This is the first year I have a crop of winter greens that actually survived the winter.  It's been a few years in the making.

So this is why my heart is so full tonight.  It's hard to describe the thrill I felt  as the snow was falling this afternoon, I crunched out into the frozen side yard, crawled inside our simple hoop house and harvested this gorgeous basket of color:  

winter greens under our high tunnel, winter gardening, cold hardy greens

 Perhaps it's the drab landscape that my eyes are used to this time of year that makes this about the MOST BEAUTIFUL THING I'VE EVER SEEN.  

Or perhaps it's the fact that I thought all of my efforts of planting the seeds this fall was wasted when the deep freeze hit and everything seemed lost.  Shortly after the heartbreak I could be heard saying things like "I've decided I don't want a winter garden! I need a rest!  Who needs to be worried about plants under cover all winter.  It's just too much and I'm not sure it's worth it!"

It's true. I was SO hopeful to have a bounty of winter greens - so amazed at the beauty of the tiny seedlings when they first got their start in the fall... and planning on having a small crop to sell or trade with neighbors.  OUCH - it hurt to think they were all gone. 

 Winter greens in October - off to a good start (before the deep freeze in November)

Winter greens in October - off to a good start (before the deep freeze in November)

Though my multi-colored carpet of greens isn't as lush and full as I had hoped (we did lose about 2/3 of the total we planted) - what DID survive thrills me.  1/3 of that beautiful driveway garden is STILL a lot of greens!!!  I've planted new seedlings in the bare spots - and being inside that little dome covered in snow (when everything else outside is quiet and dormant) feels magical.

These long winter days when my little house full of girls is messy, chaotic and loud - I can escape to my hoop full of greens and pick... eat... and think.   It won't be long now until we are all outside, working, sweating and playing... but for now - this is good.  

kale, beets and spinach, cold hardy greens in hoop house

I can't help myself as I'm harvesting for a salad or omelette... for every four or five leaves picked - two get shoved into my mouth.  The spicy bite of Arugula and Tatsoi mustard, my beloved Italian Kale, a few leaves of smooth spinach, and the wonderful texture of Asian Mizuna.  YUM.

The closeness to the soil, these leaves spending only a split second in my hand and then being eaten so fresh - seem to carry with them superpowers that I can almost feel as I eat them. 

In our climate - the first home grown and harvested salad would not normally arrive on our table until late April or early May.  To be picking a beautiful salad in February on a day with a high of 22 degrees ... still kinda blows my mind.  

A few years ago, I'd read about growing cold hardy crops under cover.   We'd experimented with cold frames, tried keeping things alive in our greenhouse but had never succeeded at keeping things alive through the winter.  I got more determined last year (after reading Eliot Coleman's book 'The Winter Harvest Handbook') and purchased Remay (cloth frost blanket) and used it inside of a hoop house to cover things, but lost most of it by January.  

We finally got the help we needed after meeting some local friends who were operating a small CSA in a nearby town.  I reached out to her via Facebook - asking for a tour of her farm.  Hannah and Simon have become dear friends.  Besides nominating us for Mother Earth News' Homesteader of the Year  - (that was all Hannah's doing...) they have generously shared with us their knowledge, experience and friendship.

Some of the things we were doing wrong in our previous attempts at winter gardening were:  

  • trying to keep mature crops alive too long vs. planting new ones (at the end of the season, some were weak with aphids and were just done)
  • not planting the winter seedlings early enough in the fall to develop a good enough root system to withstand the cold temps
  • not using the correct greenhouse plastic on the outside of the hoop
  • not planting on the southern exposure side of the house with optimal winter sun
  • not building the hoops out of metal - we tried pvc which collapsed under the weight of heavy snow

Even this year with a partial successful harvest - we have learned more about how we can improve.  There will be changes for next year - a tighter setup and tweaks here and there.  I'm filled to the brim right now with optimism and excitement.  The success and failure of this past year (like every year prior) has given me more resolve, more inspiration, and more conviNcing that yep,  it's all worth it.  

harvesting greens in the snow, growing food in winter, colorado



The Birth of the Sailer Urban Homestead - Part Two

Planting a dormant seed... and watching and waiting for it to burst out of the soil is a powerful experience.  My seedlings down in the basement quickly became 'our babies' and our attention to them was rewarded by little peeks of green pushing up and out of the seed start pots.  We had a blast noticing the plants from the same families as they grew: the cucumbers & squash looked the same, the cabbage, kale & broccoli looked the same - the onions looked different than the rest.  Regardless, whenever something new popped up - we did an excited dance. The first year - (like I'd mentioned in Part One) - I was over eager and planted my summer vegetables WAY too early... including things like pole beans - (which you really shouldn't start inside at all)!  I was just so excited and wanted to get a head start on everything. Since we only had a couple of grow lights, I soon ran out of space for my starts, so I moved them to other places around the house.  I also planted in anything I could find!  Pots and containers of all shapes and sizes...  There was SO much experimenting!  I am grateful for the risks I took and that I tried whatever I could.  In hindsight I've learned so much by that trial and error.

As I look at the above picture - I recall several things.

1. It is very silly to try and start pole beans indoors.  Those beans on the end of the bench grew and grabbed onto eachother so much - that when May came around, they were too tangled to separate!  The seeds I planted straight into the ground quickly passed them up.  Better to plant out beans directly into the ground, like the seed packet says!

2.  Though I love the look of terra cotta pots... I now only really use them for a potted herb that I plan to keep in that pot.  When the time comes to transplant a plant into the ground, they are very hard to get out.  The pots are porous, and the roots kind of attach to the inside, making it hard and stressful on the plant as you try and remove it.  Better to save old plastic pots (I ask friends for them - and save any that I have from buying potted flowers, etc.)   They are the best to slide transplants out of.

3.  I thought it was so fun to plant in that old metal stock pot....but  what a mistake to plant so many starts inside of one container!  The roots entagle and become impossible to separate without hurting the individual plants. Better to plant one or two individual plants per pot.  I have always been generous with my seed sowing.  I would rather have too many plants, than not enough - and sometimes you'll get a few seeds that don't germinate.  It's fun for me to share potted veggies with friends when I have too many.

4.  I started SO many squash plants that when it was time to set them out in the garden, I couldn't fit them all according to the proper spacing.  I'm kind of a 'more is always better' type of person - so I just planted them all - I put about 40 squash plants into one row!  I was thrilled that they all took off - but when mid-summer came - my squash forest was so dense that it was nearly impossible to find the zucchini that was hidden.  Also, by the end of summer - they got hit hard with powdery mildew from the lack of air circulation.  Better to space your squash out a bit (though I still always plant a bit closer than recommended - (can't help it... I want to grow a lot of food in a small space!).  In Colorado, powdery mildew is almost a guarantee by late summer - but I might experiment with using baking soda early on my soil to try and prevent it.

The above picture is an example of plants getting 'leggy'.  These poor babies obviously were started too soon (a couple of bean plants and nasturtiums) - are reaching for the light of the window (not enough) and are probably totally root-bound in such small pots.  It was a struggle to de-pot these babies ... they probably did poorly when transplanted....

One of the worst mistakes I made that first year, was planting a bunch of squash plants out into the garden in early May.  We had been having warm weather - the plants were getting too big for the pots, and although our safe planting date here in Colorado is usually after Mother's Day - I went ahead and set them into their beds in the garden.  What I didn't know was... these warm-loving plants had been raised indoors - and were used to the constant temperatures of our home - (never dipping lower than 65 at night).  Late Spring in Colorado's evening lows fall much lower - and the plants did not survive.  We had a frost a day later - and I lost 80% of all of the starts I had planted.  I will admit I cried like a baby to lose all of those plants!  My girls just stared at me as I sobbed and  got out my seed packets to start over!  My neighbor (an experienced gardener) looked on from her yard as I eagerly had planted too soon... and said she knew I must have been heartbroken after that frost.   I had lost 2 months of time on those plants.  In the end, it turned out to be fine.  I still had plenty of time to get some squash going again - and my harvest was plentiful that year.

I've learned that a plant started indoors must be hardened off before moving outdoors.  This involves taking the plants outside and letting them get used to the cooler temps a little at a time, then bringing them back indoors.  I watch how they respond each day - (sometimes they wilt a bit from the shock if it's much cooler) but mine usually do fine after 3-4 days.

Despite all of these mistakes - we still had a lot of successes.  Because I started so many other plants - we still had plenty to set out, come Mother's Day.

PLANTING UNDER COVER - COLD FRAMES & GREENHOUSES

When we dug up our side yard in 2011 - we moved these smaller raised beds to the south side of our house.  I had been inspired by Eric Rochow's podcast & videos and learned how to build a cold frame using recycled windows.  This is a way to extend the growing season, since the temperature of these beds will be much warmer (being above ground, and warmed by the glass).  We've had success each year with these frames - as long as I remember to lift the glass and vent them on warm days.  The temperature can really cook if left closed in direct sun.  I've kept salad & spinach alive all winter under glass - though the plants slow way down mid-winter.  They are most useful in early spring - getting lettuces started at least a month sooner - and keeping things alive in late fall.  I would recommend trying this anywhere - to get a jump on things!

Though the picture below is a funny one of my three oldest, the row cover behind them is another experiment we tried.  It was a frame that my husband built to cover the lettuce bed and allow the seeds to start a bit sooner than usual.  A row cover like this can be placed over a bed in early spring to warm the soil and prepare it for planting.

Though this row cover worked well - it was too bulky and not a smart use of space after we were done with it.  We've now started using a simpler method of pounding a few stakes of re-bar into the soil, then attaching pvc pipe to those re-bar spikes - creating a hoop to cover with plastic.  See below:

March 2012 042.jpg

The plastic can come off when we are done with it, the pipe lifted and stored.  This year for 2013, we hope to use this method to cover all of the above beds by late fall - to extend our garden into the winter!  A simple barrier of plastic can increase the growing temperature by 20 degrees!  Eliot Coleman's Four Seasons Farm is an inspiration to me, as he grows year-round in Maine's harsh climate.  If he can keep things alive all winter for his farmer's market - surely we can too!

The most exciting addition to our yard & garden in 2011 - 2012 was our permanent greenhouse.  We were blessed to find a wonderful stash of old windows that our neighbor had been collecting.  He wasn't using them, so traded them to us for some specialty wood that Jeremiah had saved.  His generous trade helped us to dream up our greenhouse, as we built it around the windows.  We found the door, and a few extra old windows to add at our local recycled building supply store. It was a fun process to lay out the windows we had on the ground, measure, re-arrange, and figure out which ones to use on which side.  It was even MORE fun to see the walls going up!

We weren't able to complete the greenhouse the first year - but we got a good start.  We've had to learn to be patient and to be thankful for each step, however slow...

  Progress by end of 2011 - with hole in the roof from a heavy snow that sent a branch through.

Progress by end of 2011 - with hole in the roof from a heavy snow that sent a branch through.

The combination of cold frames, hoop house (row covers) and the greenhouse are a wonderfully helpful way to get an early start on planting - help to transfer indoor seed starts to the garden (thus saving money by purchasing seeds instead of plants).   It's a wonderful beginning to do whatever you can - with whatever supplies or resources you have.  Take it one step at a time!