Annual report

Why is it that plants you eat, like tomatoes and basil and squash, tend to be annuals, and plants that you can’t (or at least don’t) eat, like rhododendrons and azaleas and holly, tend to be perennials? Why can’t it be the other way around? Why are there no evergreen shrubs that fry up nicely, and complement either pork or chicken?

If there were, we wouldn’t have to bother with all this hoophouse nonsense. We’d just trek out in the middle of winter, shake the snow off the arborvitae, and clip some off for dinner.

But there aren’t, and so we bother with this hoophouse nonsense. And I have to say, seeing the catalogna, radish sprouts, and parsley, still alive while the temperatures drop into the teens and snow covers the hoophouse, is a little jarring. It violates the natural order of things, which is that you plant plants in your garden in the spring, watch them die in the fall, eat turnips and frozen peas all winter, and then plant plants again in the spring.

The hoophouse has given me a new appreciation for those plants. It’s not like one layer of plastic makes it hold at a steady 70; it’s not much warmer in there overnight than it is outside. But, despite sub-freezing temperatures, the catalogna survives. It droops a bit, but it survives. The plastic cover gives it just enough protection from the elements to give it a new – but probably short – lease on life.

Don’t get me wrong. Nothing in there is thriving. Nothing’s growing, nothing’s blooming, nothing’s spreading. But nothing is dying (except the pepper plant, and we expected that).

Plants, it seems, have a kind of antifreeze in the form of various proteins and sugars that lower their freezing point. Not only that, they also have the ability to move water out of their cells and into the spaces in between so that, when the water finally does turn to ice, it doesn’t rupture the cell walls. If water outside the cells freezes, the plants droop and then recover. If water inside the cells freezes, it’s inevitably fatal.

I don’t expect the catalogna, parsley, and radish sprouts to survive the winter (there’s also a very small rosemary and a moth-eaten sage, both still holding on). I assume that it will get cold enough to overwhelm the plants’ defense mechanisms and, some time in January, they will droop for the last time.

Then again, back in November, I thought they’d all be gone by now. Every day I walk into the hoophouse and find something still holding on, it’s a little green miracle.

11 people are having a conversation about “Annual report

    • Composting manure was used to heat “cold frames” in Victorian times.
      But so was hot water heated by huge boilers. I guess it depends on your budget, and preference for out-of-latitude fruits.

  1. I kinda expect my rosemary to survive under your window well cover mini-greenhouse idea. It looks absolutely fine at the moment. I don’t know your zone, but since you’re on the cape, I would expect you’re not much different from where we are, even though you’re farther north. Let’s compare notes on the rosemary in a few months’ time.

  2. I’m posting a comment that Richard Mellott sent me via e-mail, since his server denied him access to Starving, under the flimsy pretext that it’s a gambling site. (OK, who’s betting against me?)

    Many years back, I used an article about “French Intensive Biodynamic
    Gardening” that I got from a purloined copy of Organic Gardening
    magazine, to set up a winter starter box in my back yard in a little
    Wyoming town. Following directions, I built a raised bed with
    Railroad Ties (1 length per side), dug down 36,” spread a 6″ layer of
    green manure, then back-filled with my already excellent soil. I then
    planted some cabbages and Roma Tomatoes, then covered it with a
    plastic frame. The decomposing manure heated this structure, which
    was good, because I started it during a short February thaw, when the
    average temperature was probably about 10 degrees Fahrenheit. I had
    to use a pick to dig through the frozen soil at times.
    The upshot was about three cabbages in the 30# range (which my wife
    promptly ruined, when she misread salt ingredient amounts in our
    Saurkraut recipe), and four Roma plants that produced around 50# of
    great big juicy tomatoes, all done by the month of July.
    You might check it out, it really worked for me.
    Thanks for your article.
    Regards, Richard

  3. Do you think adding a 2nd layer of plastic with an air gap (say 5cm) would make a double glazing difference to the internal temperature?

    I guess it needs to be at least a bit sunny too.

  4. There would be at least three ways to make it warmer in the hoophouse. A heat source, another layer of plastic, and fewer trees.

    We’ve considered all these options. We’ve seriously thought about a wood stove, but since I sometimes forget about the one that’s actually inside my house, I figure the odds I’d forget about one that’s in another building are crushingly high. Out of sight, out of mind.

    The second layer of plastic is a possibility. We’re thinking about a layer of bubble wrap, and then another of greenhouse plastic. Maybe next falll …

    And then there are the trees. Thing is, if we were going to take them down, we should have done it *before* we put the hoophouse up. Now, if we were to try it, we’d probably destroy the thing. Which is not to say it’s out of the question.

    We’ll see how this season goes. Keep your fingers crossed for the rosemary.

  5. I never thought about it before but you’re right – why are there no hardy, winterproof shrubs that require no nurturing and that you could face eating most days through winter.

    There are a lot of time tested methods for extending your growing season, and they work more or less. All of them are either expensive in fuel (eg heated greenhouses, double skinned walled gardens with flues) or management. Or more likely both. It depends how self-sufficient you wish to be. While your tending a small frame with a few cabbages, you’re not getting other winter jobs done.

    And it’s not an easy balancing act to achieve. You have to keep the soil warm, and the air temperature above freezing. You also have to compensate for limited light, in the right range for plant growth. Heating sources like stoves can change the CO2 / oxygen ratio. Heat sources can dry out the air, or if the air temp is too low, create a damp atmosphere and allow P&D problems like botrytis to get a hold. If you use your g/h or tunnel in summer, you may infect your main crop this way.

    It is complicated, is all I’m saying. So take heart when winter growing experiments don’t look like the same plants in summer. I look to my small glass house just to warm the soil so I can plant earlier, and maybe keep it warm so I can harvest as small catch crop of salad greens into October, following on from my tomatoes.

    I think that’s why there are so many ways found to preserve the harvest at its peak. So you can enjoy the tomatoes you grew, but just out of a bottle or your freezer. Pickling and preserving is so much easier than fighting nature.

    Saying that, if you can keep a frost off them with fleece or a small tunnel, you can overwinter cabbages, leeks, brussel sprouts, and kale in your garden. It makes a change from turnips!

  6. Good for you having green stuff in your Hoop de do House! When I got back from Phoenix, even my artichoke had croaked. I currently have nothing in the Hoop de don’t house, except possibly, chickweed seedlings.

    You could try kale. I know I keep harping on kale, but it is a great vegetable from which you can harvest all winter, and frost just makes it taste better, so it should do fine in your greenhouse.

  7. Fun fact #1 for the holiday table; Plants “have the ability to move water out of their cells and into the spaces in between so that, when the water finally does turn to ice, it doesn’t rupture the cell walls. If water outside the cells freezes, the plants droop and then recover. If water inside the cells freezes, it’s inevitably fatal.” Love it!

    We put our compost and our chickens in the green house with a lightbulb. We learned that it’s a good idea to separate the chickens from the compost AND the growing veggies. Enough iteration and we’ll get it right one of these days!

    Further to Paula’s comment, Kale is amazing at existing in the winter (even under snow!) Plus, it gets sweeter after its frozen… maybe it has something to do with that antifreeze effect? Hmmmm.

    Love your blog!

Converstion is closed.