SPRING 2018 (and the importance of covered space)
I know the calendar says it's spring, but right now with the snow line hovering just above the fields, it's a little hard to believe! The greenhouse is over-flowing with little plants and we're still waiting for snow to melt off all the beds so we can start planting out our first field plantings of hardy annual flowers. Fortunately we have the benefit of our covered spaces to get us through the shoulder seasons- providing us with a warm, safe place to start our plants and get a jump start on the season.
In northern climates we have such a small window to make everything happen. As we wait for spring to arrive, the laundry list of things to do just keeps growing. It can feel like you're an olympic runner poised at the starting line- ready for the pistol to fire and the race to start. For us, having protected space (i.e a greenhouse, hoop house or caterpillar tunnel) is critical to helping us get ready to hit the ground running.
We have a greenhouse that we heat with a wood stove to start all our transplants, and while it's less than ideal it does the trick and don't know what we'd do without it. Heating with wood means we're out there before bed every night to get it stoked and then up before dawn to go feed it again while the coals are still hot (ok, I said "we", but really it's all Carl here!). By this time of year the entire 24 x 40 space is full of plants in various stages of maturity waiting their turn to go outdoors. In our zone 5 climate the greenhouse is a must for getting us to market early in the season with flowers to sell. The greenhouse allows us to have healthy plants ready to go in the ground and start growing once the weather is favourable.
Right now our high tunnel is full of overwintered anemones, ranunculus and tulips (pictured at the top) along with some spring planted corms and bulbs. The high tunnel, or hoop house is a permanent structure and although ours is not heated, it still warms up nicely even on a cloudy cold day and offers us, and the plants, a bit of refuge from the uninspiring weather we're currently experiencing. It also allows us to fall plant some of the more tender spring flowering bulbs and corms that wouldn't survive a winter if we just planted them outside. According to author and market-gardener, Elliot Coleman (my hero!), the protection of just a single layer of plastic on the high tunnel can allow you to gain a full hardness zone. Then if you add another layer, such as a row cover blanket over low hoops, you can jump up another zone. So, for us this can bring us from a zone 5b to a 7b. A tunnel is also a space where you can plant hardy bulbs like to tulips to flower earlier than they would if planted outside. Try tucking some spinach in there too in October and your feasting on fresh greens in late February. Yum.
In addition to our greenhouse and unheated hoop house, we also make use of temporary "caterpillar tunnels". These structures can be easily erected in the spring to offer a little added protection to early hardy annuals like snapdragons, icelandic poppies and stocks- just to name a few. Last fall we decided to use heavy silage tarps to cover some of our beds where we would be setting up our tunnels in the spring. So, when April was approaching and we still had 6-8 inches of snow covering the ground, we knew we were going to need to give spring a little nudge. We took a chance and covered the still snowy area with another tarp and after a few sunny days and temps above zero, we were able to melt everything off and get our tunnel up (ok, to be honest, there was a little shovelling too). Because we had tarps under the snow the ground was dry and warm and we were able to plant immediately. Woo hoo! This meant we could start making room in the greenhouse and do our best to stay on track with our seeding and planting schedule.
We're so glad that we have all this protected space! It takes some serious thought, planning and investment of time and money, but in the end it's well worth it. We're still learning how to maximize the use of this space and figuring out what crops to plant to get the best yield and return. But I think that when it comes to farming you're always learning and fine-tuning. That part of what keeps things interesting around here!
Until next time,