We recently prepped and planted the beds for our winter garden. This will be the third winter we've had a garden in our rolling greenhouse. Two years ago we experimented with half a dozen different cold-hardy vegetables, mostly greens and carrots, the ones that are recommended by Eliot Coleman in The Winter Harvest Handbook. We had the best results by far with spinach, so much so that that was all we planted last year. However, we experimented further by starting half of our spinach seedlings in July and half in August, trying to figure out the best planting date. We got a good crop from the July starts, but the plants bolted before cool weather started. The August starts worked out quite well. We got a nice cutting in the fall, and the plants were well established before winter, and we had a several more cuttings through the winter and early spring, even though the greenhouse was only half-planted (not enough time left to replace the bolted plants). "Winter-kissed" spinach is absolutely amazing. It's like a completely different crop than regular spinach, because freezing temperatures cause it to metabolize much more sugar in its leaves. It is so sweet and the flavor is so mild, that everybody loves it, even people who don't normally like spinach. Spinach is also amazingly resilient in extremely cold temperatures. We've seen it rebound from temperatures well below zero in the greenhouse, as soon as the sun comes out and the greenhouse warms up. So there was no question what we were going to do for this year's winter garden.
After we cleaned out the previous crop and weeded the beds, I decided that it was time to rebuild the beds. After five years, a lot of the beds had settled into the aisles, due to heavy rains, energetic hoeing, and just plain old gravity. So I started digging out the soil on top of the aisles and putting it on the beds, for subsequent raking. After about half the beds, I was joined by Laurel and Dani to finish up. After almost half a year of working side by side with Laurel, I have zero doubts about her competence, energy level, and work ethic. Dani has been a very pleasant surprise, based on my experience with interns. She has worked hard, learns quickly with little instruction, and has been a great, even though short-lived, addition to our workforce.
Even though our raised beds are less space-efficient than flat beds, we are glad we have them. They are less space efficient, because planting space is lost due to the canted sides. But the reason we like them is that they drain so well. We have a pretty solid hardpan under the topsoil here, and water doesn't drain through readily. Laurel is in touch with a lot of the local farmers, and she said we were able to plant earlier in the spring than most, because our beds are so well-drained. They also work well when we get deluged with summer rain. Even when the aisles are canals for a short time, the beds are well-drained.
After we raked out the beds, we applied COF (complete organic fertilizer), raked it in, and then dumped and raked compost on the beds. We then spread about a 2" thick layer of compost. We use the compost primarily as a mulch, not fertilizer. It is a great weed barrier and moisture trap for the soil. It also ultimately increases the tilth of the soil by adding humus. We figure any nutrient addition is simply a bonus.
Last year we started using a heavy layer of compost as a weed barrier, after reading about the success of it by Singing Frogs Farm in California. After a couple years of doing it, we are completely sold on it. However, we did shoot ourselves in the foot this year on a few of our beds. Long story short: after Ron died two years ago, we didn't turn some of our compost last year, it grew weeds, they went to seed, and we used some of that compost this year. So instead of the compost being a weed barrier, it turned out to be a weed incubator. Oh well, live and learn.
After the bed rebuilding, adding COF and compost, we transplanted the spinach seedlings. Then we spread straw in the aisles. The straw helps keep weeds down, but we put it down in the aisles in the winter garden because otherwise we would be working in mud much of the winter. Inside the unheated greenhouse, there is enough heat from the sun, that the ground never freezes hard. On really cold, cloudy days, maybe a skim of frost, but not really frozen hard. But when the sun comes out, the moisture in the soil is right there. So the straw really makes it nicer to work on--- both for harvesting the spinach, and on those stormy days when we're out there knocking snow off the roof with brooms, from the inside out.
All that's left now is to roll the greenhouse into place, (and cover the beds with hoops and row cover fabric). That evolution takes a day or two to accomplish, with all the unbolting of wind braces, removing the doors and lower part of the end walls, towing the greenhouse into its new position, and reversing the process, including digging up and moving the end sills. That all won't be accomplished for close to another month. This October is forecast to be warmer than normal, and it is certainly starting out that way. So we'll get as much as we can out of the summer crops (peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, etc.) before the move. Also, we don't want to move it over the spinach while it's still hot out.
The winter raised beds are renewed; the winter spinach is in the ground and doing well; one more block checked on the "race to winter". ---Steve