Let the gardening begin

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Today is the last day of February, and we planted our first seeds of the season.

Our cold frame -- that's our composter in the background

Our cold frame -- that's our composter in the background

It’s just an experiment. We don’t know if it will work. We planted two kinds of romaine lettuce in our cold frame. One was a standard-issue Burpee, and the other was a fancy-pants organic Thompson and Morgan.

Last year, we used the cold frame for seed-starting, and we failed miserably, The cucumbers suffered a 100% mortality rate, parsley was almost as bad, and the few sunflowers that survived were destroyed by pests almost the instant we transplanted them. If that weren’t enough, we didn’t realize that you have to start root vegetables in situ, so the carrots and beets were naturally a wash-out.

It’s not that we’re giving up on seed-starting (although I can hear you saying that might not be a bad idea). We’re going to try and build a hoop-house for that, so the cold frame is freed up for our lettuce experiment.

We were concerned about viability because the cold frame, a rectangle of treated lumber with a glass door for a roof, was filled with some really crappy compost we got last year from a local supplier who shall remain nameless. (It wasn’t the dump compost, which we’ve been very happy with.) But last weekend we stumbled on an excellent estate-sale find that solved all our problems. It was one of those composting barrels that you spin on a frame.

At retail, one of those barrels could run as much as $200., but we got ours for a song – a mere $25. And, get this – it came with compost inside!

I have no idea whose estate the composter came from but, whoever he was, he really liked peaches. And hazelnuts. Regardless, we figured a stranger’s household compost would be a better bet than the stuff we had, and we wanted to use it, so in it went.

We put a thermometer inside the frame to see how warm it got, and the results were encouraging. Although the nights have been slightly below freezing, the temperature in the frame in the morning was almost 40. During the day, when the sun is out, it gets up to 70 or 80. Even on a sunless day, it’s in the 50s.

Kevin doing the first watering

Kevin doing the first watering

The seeds went in today. We planted five rows, about a foot apart. We thought we had one of those watering cans with a showering spout, but we couldn’t find it, so Kevin improvised by pouring the water through one of those little plastic planters with a few holes in the bottom. We made sure the soil was wet enough, closed the cold frame, and crossed our fingers.

At night, we’ll cover the lid with one of those reflective screens you put inside your car windshield to keep your car cool. It’s not quite big enough, but we’re hoping not quite big enough is sufficient.

Our seeds are supposed to sprout in 7-10 days. We’ll see if they do. We’re by no means certain, but we’re cautiously optimistic. Experienced gardeners will no doubt have a good sense of whether this whole lettuce-in-the-cold-frame experiment is a good idea or a bad idea. If you think it’s a bad idea, you’ll do me a big favor by not telling me just yet. God knows, I’ll figure it out soon enough but, in the meantime, I’ll have at least a week of hope.

I know, I know – hope springs eternal. If only lettuce did.

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Comments

  1. I can’t see any reason it wouldn’t work. Your biggest risk is probably frying seedlings on a sunny day if you forget to crack the lid. Massachusetts certainly has 10 hours of daylight by now, and I’m pretty sure most lettuces will germinate in the 50 F range. I got arugula to germinate in my one coldframe earlier this month. True, it’s a bit hardier than lettuce, but not by miles. I’d say you have good reason to hope.

  2. If it gives you any comfort, lettuce seeds will not germinate if the temp is too high! I have every faith in your well-though out cold frame experiment. And I like Kevin’s make do attitude with the plastic pot sprinkler.

  3. Kate — Thanks for the reminder on cracking the lid. I’ve been so focused on keeping things warm that I could very well miss the transition to thinking about keeping things cool. Arugula probably would have been a better choice, though. And I even like it better!

    Jen — I liked the plastic pot sprinkler, too. We improvise a lot around here. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

  4. I’ve read that lettuce will sprout in temperatures as cold as freezing, so I don’t think sprouting will be your problem.

  5. Nice! I’ve always wanted a cold frame. Do you have any extra plastic jugs? If you paint them black and fill them with water they will absorb heat during the day and then keep the cold frame warm at night.

  6. your experiment has given me the inspiration to try it myself. I have a non-raised bed and some lettuce and arugula seeds from last year..I’ll try sowing them & covering with a couple of old storm windows and see what happens!

  7. Paula — Thanks! I trust your judgment.

    Catalina — That’s a great tip! I’ll go rummaging through the garage to see what we have.

    Kirsten — That’s the spirit! Please keep me posted on how you do.

  8. It’s way to early for me to be thinking of a cold frame, but I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been enjoying too much of your blog this morning. Sorry to hear about your chicken. I’m just starting with chickens this year and I’m afraid that I may end up being too “wussy” for chickens. I haven’t truly had my wussiness tested yet, but I hope to pass the test when it comes.

  9. Evelyn — And here I was under the impression that there was no such thing as “too much” of my blog! Ah, well. As for wussiness, if you’re determined to pass the test, then you will. The key to getting over wussiness (I’m an expert!) is to really want to get over it.

  10. We have the same compost dealie!! 🙂 Ours is frozen for 2/3 of the year, so it’s more like a composticle. That doesn’t sound so good… You really impress me, dear. I love how resourceful you two are. Excited to see what you will grow this summer. xo

  11. My father built a cold frame when I was a kid, though we started our seeds indoors and used it to harden them off in the spring. In the fall he would bury some compost that was still “steaming” a couple of feet down and it would keep it warm and growing lettuce, broccoli and carrots past Thanksgiving. I am sure you two will have success with yours.

  12. Hello Tamar,

    I haven’t done the cold frame thing yet, but we are starting our seeds indoors. Last year we had great success. We bought two very inexpensive (about $10.00) florescent light fixtures, dropped in regular run-of-the-mill bulbs, and then planted in the little starting trays. We kept 10 hours of light on them through the spring and kept the light 2-4 inches from the top of the tallest leaves. Worked great. I started again last week. We’re planning to use a cold frame in the fall for new crops that we want to extend into December or even January.

  13. HI Tamar, I think it’s a bit too early for planting even in a cold frame…although I recently was told that if I could work the soil in the cold frame, I could start spinach. So I plan to do that if we get a day with some sun!!!

    I do plan to start seeds indoors at the end of March. Cape Cod springs are cold and windy. I wouldn’t put seedlings out until May 15. Perhaps I’m too cautious, but I do have a homebuilt greenhouse that gets good sun when the sun shines. Hopefully it will enhance growth and take away my fears!!!

  14. Jen — A composticle! That’s life in Colorado, I guess. The upside is the skiing, though.

    Rick — That’s a good plan — to put compost that’s still composting in the cold frame. Anything for warmth!

    Aaron — We considered the indoor alternative, but we don’t have a good place to put it. Our house is so small that there’s no good place to rig even a small table and lights. That’s part of what drove us to go to plan B, the cold frame. Let me know how you do with your seedlings.

    Jane — Well, there’s one experienced voice against. If our lettuce works, then I think you should try your spinach. Meantime, let’s just hope for some sun.

  15. TAMAR, YOU SHOULD DO WELL. WINTER MARVEL LETTUCE, KALE, COLLARDS, BOK CHOY, ARUGULA, MACHE, CHARD, SPINACH, ETC…DO EXCELLENT IN COLD WEATHER UNDER GLASS OR 6 ML PLASTIC. HEED THE PREVIOUS WARNING ABOUT IT GETTING TOO HOT ON WARM DAYS, YOU WILL NEED TO OPEN IT UP TO VENT. ELIOTT COLEMAN’S FOUR SEASON HARVEST IS AN EXCEPTIONAL RESOURCE FOR ALL SEASON HARVESTING AND HE DOES SO IN MAINE. I AM DOING THE EXACT SAME THING THIS YEAR WITH ALL OF THE ABOVE AND I LIVE IN THE FINGER LAKES REGION OF NY. WISHING YOU AND ME LUCK BOTH.

  16. Chris — Thanks for a very handy list of cold-hardy crops! I’d love some arugula and bok choy, and we’re planning another makeshift cold-frame to increase our square footage. I’ve started reading Eliott Coleman and, like every other gardener who’s getting on the bandwagon, we’re planning a little hoop-house as well.

    Good luck with your spring planting up there in the Finger Lakes.