Ghetto Fabulous Cold Frame: a Photo Essay

The owner of the farm I rent my land at is a Master Scrounger.  Scrap steel, fiberglass molds, barely working engines, and barrels and tubs of all sizes lay around in somewhat organized disarray.  Last year I helped him restack a few dozen 3’x6.5′ panels of tempered glass from a retail store front and have been waiting for this day ever since.  My vision?  A Ghetto Fabulous, monster sized, uber cheap cold frame.  Step one started, as do many of my harebrained ideas, on Craigslist.  I found a guy 5 miles from here with 100 bales of oat straw for $2.50 a bale so yesterday I motored over with my TDI Golf, trailer in tow, to load up.  17 bales fit oh so nicely, and with the ground frozen solid I was able to drive right up to the mini Hoop House.

This is why I don't drive a Prius... 42mpg pulling 800#'s of straw!

Once the straw was on site and chucked over the fence it was time to start breaking ground.  With the recent rains we lost over half the snow, but the resulting ice proved to an issue.  The top 2″ of soil were not fun to break through, but below that was frost free.  The plan was to scrape free the snow below the bales so that they rested on bare soil as much as possible.

I opted to use my wicked tough 4" Rogue Chopping Hoe rather than a pick axe. The first few swings needed a lot of wind up, but then progress was steady.

I intended to lay out the bed on an East – West Axis, again to minimize shadowing, with the beds about 5.5′ wide and at least 15′ long.  The width of the beds was determined by the length of the glass, the length of the beds is to avoid the shadow from the tree wind break located 30′ to the west, and I want to avoid the footprint of the planned 26×72 Hoop Structure to the East.  Here is a shot about 25% through the job (30 minutes) with the layout taking shape:

The soil dug from the foundation is piled into the bed.

You can see that there is alot of soil being moved.  This is entirely on purpose for several reasons.  A bale of straw is well over 12″ tall and casts a heck of a shadow in the low light angles of mid winter.  So I sunk the south run of straw about 4″ into the soil.  This, combined with the natural south slope of the plot makes for about a 5″ drop over the course of the cold frame.  That is good, but I want better.  For every 5 degrees of slope you gain about 125 miles of latitude to the south.  So the soil from the excavation is piled into the beds, and once melted, will be “leveled” to give additional slope to the interior of the frames to maximize solar heat gain.  Finally, the black soil will reduce the Albedo Effect of the white snow reflecting the heat to further increase internal temps and hasten the melting of the snow and frost in the frame.

The cold frame is really taking shape. 6' of glass bows a bit without support so I reused the bamboo stakes from '09's tomatoes for bracing.

Some of the glass no longer had their frames and were bowing more than I thought prudent.   Luckily I had kept the 6′ bamboo poles I used for tomato stakes last year and they worked fantastic.  Time on farm at this point was about an hour and change – much of that spent lumping glass which was stored about 100 yards away.  I’ve had more fun than walking that far carrying 60# plates of glass over icy ground  in winter winds…  But it was worth it:

Viola! about 70 sq ft of cold frame in under 2 hours.

The straw cost $40, but will get used at least 4-5 more times (mulch for potatoes, then squash, then shredded for compost, then fed to worms, and their poop put into 2011’s cold frames 🙂 ).  I realize that few people will have 6-7 panels of tempered glass just laying around, but salvage windows, storm doors, etc are remarkably common if you keep your eyes open all year.  Will it work?  Well with one panel still to go on, no loose straw chinked into all the gaps, and the thermometer literally resting on frozen soil, the interior was registering 46 degrees as I laid the last panel on.  Outside air temp was 21 with a steady 12 mph wind – easily enough to kill spinach and kale, let alone the lettuce I have in mind for this cold frame.  Wind is the biggest issue in winter.  If you can keep temps over 20 (25 better still) you can grow a remarkable amount of food if you shelter the plants.

This cold frame will hold  250-300 heads of Romaine.  Early lettuce will command $4-6/lb, which means that my straw and $2 in seed will net a profit of several hundred dollars for my labor.  More importantly my family will be in for fresh romaine in less than 3 months.  Awesome.  Next week I will build another (got 4 blisters today that need to heal), and may put a small one in the hoop house for kicks.


Winter Farming: Compost… Potting Mix… Sprouts!

Jan Wk 3 Sprouts - no heat mat!!

Things are really starting to get moving at the Market Garden.  Last week saw the first seeds sown into flats, and I am VERY pleased to report that the first Oak Leaf lettuces are sprouted!  And in only 5 days!!! These seeds were bought essentially on a whim – I had forgotten a packet at home and was at Menard’s for something else.  Seeing organic Oak Leaf seeds for $2 I figured wth?  That $2 will seed 4 flats of 200 -enough for a 3 x 60′ foot bed (spaced for small heads).  Not too shabby!    The 3 flats that have yet to sprout were planted with pelletized seed from Johnny’s – a Jericho Romaine and a  Red Butterhead.  They look to be 2 days behind the pure seed – likely due to the clay pellets needing more time to soak up water.

First lets talk about the compost heating method.  This is the same pile we started back in the first week of December to mimic Growing Power’s techniques in using Hoop Houses to allow for 4 season composting.  At home, my piles, even my monster 4 bin system, freeze solid by Christmas.  Will Allen’s Hoop Houses cut the wind and gain enough btus during the day to stay hot all winter.  Our pile is still truckin along at 120-130 degrees without turning and is going on week 7.   having that kind of heat is dang useful.   So when the time came to start my lettuce for the cold frames, rather than unroll the 12′ heat mat, I scraped the top of the beds flat and nestled in 4 flats of lettuce.

800 lettuce transplants - heated by thermophilic bacteria

The two scraps of lumber are to prop up the greenhouse plastic I keep over it at night to lock in the heat from the pile.  This will stop once the rest of the flats germinate as its wicked humid in there and mold is already creeping in.  Mold.  In January!  Here is a “proof” shot of the soil temp under the flats.  This is a 24″ compost thermometer run horizontal under the flats.

87 degrees (air temp outside 22, inside 38) - yep that should do it!!

A bit more on the compost pile.  While we haven’t fully turned it, we have primed it a bit.  Every week we add about 10 gallons of material by digging a hole in a section and pouring in two buckets of gorp from the coffee shop.  We then cover this will about 4″ of leaves.  As the pile dries out we shovel snow onto the top and this seems to be keeping it nice and evenly moist.  The worms are loving it – we are seeing our first hatchlings now which is super exciting.  The wigglers move around an amazing amount in search for the conditions they want – the right mixture of food, temperature, acidity, and moisture.  Its super fun to try to guess where they have moved to on any given day.

The compost pile has been used for the past months to melt and heat all sorts of things.  First off, we buried two 55 gallon drums in the piles while we made it.  The thought was that we might need to heat the barrels with the gasifier to keep the pile warm enough for the worms.  Yeah Right!!  The pile has since heated the water up to as high as 110 degrees, and is still at 102.  If you have read any Jean Pain, you will be thinking what we are – if you can get 55 gallons of water to 100-105 degrees, you can make methane (stay tuned on that one!!).  A few weeks ago I went and dug up 5 cu ft of soil from one of our compost planting beds.  These beds are the end product of 10 years of composting municpal leaves on the farm.  The most mature bed is about 50×50 and is pure leaf compost (decade old) for about 18-24″ deep.  It is GORGEOUS.   I took a pick axe, hacked through the 4″ of frost and excavated a wheel barrow load of this compost/soil for my seed starting mix.  That soil was really dang cold and had chunks of frost in it, so I filled up some 18 gallon tubs and tossed them on the compost pile.  3 days later they were all thawed out.  Awesome!    Today I decided to take the time to make a Big Batch of seedling mix, and managed to take some pictures.  I am not real finicky – I basically take 3 parts compost soil to 1 part peat moss and then soak it down with a thin fish emulsion mixture.  Before I add the water, I sift the mix twice (1/2″, then 1/4″) to make it very fine.  The flats I am currently growing in were unsifted – this batch is for soil blocks.  Here is my sifter which was built by the farm owner:

Slick system - the sifting boxes are stackable which makes for quick work about 1 cu ft every 5 minutes

The top tray has a 1/2″ grate on it  and is nested on top of a 1/4″ screen.  Both are simply hardware cloth screwed to the bottom of the frames.   The Sifter frame is 2×2 pine with 2×4 bracing around the top.  The plywood is 1/4″ and provides alot of stability.  The internal “chutes” allow for a reduction in the sq footage so that a rubbermaid or some other container can catch the product.  Because they are angled, you still have enough room on the top for a good push/pull stroke.  I built one of my own at home and sized it to drive my smaller wheel barrow under it and skipped the nested sifters, opting for only the 1/4″ – though if I were to do it again I would compromise for 3/8″ in the name of speed.  The results?

"Junk" compost. This is typically put back into the compost pile.

Yes, this is even better in real life. GORGEOUS!

The peat moss gives it fantastic texture and prevents the mix from drying out.  I have some conerns about the peat moss – its not exactly renewable.  At the same time, one bag gets me enough to do something like 1-2 yards of potting soil which will let me grow upwards of 2000#s of food.   Next season I will have a shredder for the Grillo and will try to grind up some leaves into ittty bitty bits (shredder comes with a 3/16″ screen)to mimic this and will do a side by side.   Leaves are more readily decomposed, so those little bits may tie up nitrogen.  Time will tell.  In 30 minutes I made about 5cu ft of potting mix.  As is usual with home made products it should prove to be superior to store bought.  Why?  The compost soil I used was never pastuerized to kill “harmful” organisms.  That means that my seedlings will be living in a rich soil food web of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and worm casings (which will hatch alone with the seeds!).  All in all it was a great few hours on the farm.

Happy January!


Mid Winter Local: Otik’s Spiced Potatoes

Otik's Spiced Potatoes!

Breakfast this morning, as it’s been several times a week since August, started by walking down the steps to our unfinished basement and grabbing 2 Red Baron onions, 3-4 Desiree potatoes (resistant to Late Blight!) and a head of garlic.  I start the skillet heating (low) and then add a triple glug of Olive oil.  While that heats I peal,crush, and mince 4-5 cloves of garlic.  This goes into the heated oil to get the flavor into the oil – the fragrance wafting up from the stove is immediate.  I turn back and dice the two medium onions and add them to the skillet along with some salt and a healthy mix of rosemary, paprika, and whatever else is laying around- I am particularly partial to Pennsey’s Fox Point seasoning.  While these flavors are mixing with the oil I cut up 4 medium potatoes into 1/2″ cubes.  As they’re heirlooms, the skin and all its nutrition stays on.  More salt and herbs and pepper go in.  If I am feeling like the kids need a bit more protein (vegetarian since birth) for the day, I will cut up a Field Roast “soy-sage” and throw it in. [Field Roast is HANDS DOWN the best “soy-sage” on the market.  I miss brats more than any meat, and their Italians are DAMN close.  Of course local eggs or meat would make it 100% local breakfast, but we’re talking veggie skillet here.]. Every 5 minutes or so I roll it around with a wooden spatula, but scorching is not so much an issue on the low heat, but reduce the heat after 20 minutes or so.   It takes about 45 minutes to make, but its worth every second –each of the simple flavors has room to expand on your palette and the breakfast is relished by everyone from my gourmand wife to my 6 yr old daughter.

Same bags I sell my spuds in - I keep them on the bottom shelf of our storage in the basment.

Here is the kicker.  The garlic was picked in August, the onions in late September, and the potatoes in late November (though they were ready in August – I like to let the soil store my food).  All this food is from my own gardens… and I do NOT have a Root Cellar. The most important prep for the storage of these items was to pick them properly – letting the onions and garlic cure well in the garage and allowing the potatoes to “skin” over in the ground and not picking them in wet soil.  All of this ensures that the produce keeps as much of its water inside as possible.  Then I bag them up in the 5# bags from Fed-Co –basically thick paper bags, putting them in tripled up lunch bag would work too.  Finally I take them to the basement and put them on a low shelf near the concrete floor.  Final step?  Close the one air vent down there.  Temps are in the 50’s, and I make no a adjustments for humidity.  I should also mention that these varieties were chosen a year ago for storage when I ordered seed.  Walla Walla onions store for crap, you need a strong, pungent onion and a firm spud – Yukons, Desiree, German Butterball and a dozen others are great, fingerlings and carola not so much.

I’ve read the books on Root Cellaring, studied the respiration rates of vegetables, and taken measurements of the conditions in my basement.  All of that told me that I couldn’t store my produce, so for the past 2 years we ate or sold it all by December, forcing us to the grocery store (GASP!) for potatoes.  This year I said screw it, and put 100#;s of spuds, 20#’s of onions, and 10#;s of garlic in bags and stored them as I stated above.  My onions are firm, the potatoes wholesome, and much of the garlic is in good shape.  Am I getting waste?  Not yet in the potatoes, some of the onions are softening, and a growing (ha!) portion of the garlic is sprouting.    But its mid frickin January –I have every reason to believe that the spuds and onions will still be strong in a month, at which time I will have early greens sprouting in the Hoopty.  Rutabaga and especially sweet potatoes which prefer mid humidity and 55 degrees, will last even longer.

My house is only 5 years old, and built to new standards – no sand floor, no cold air exchange to the outside, and forced air heat sucking out all the moisture.  But I have firm spuds in the basement.  And its mid January.  We can do this people! Choose your cultivars for storage, prep them right in the field, and eat healthy, local, and better in the dead of Wisconsin’s Winter.

I’ve said it before, the war for re-localizing our food will be won in the dark cold trenches of February week 3.  But what a war to fight!  This breakfast is literally the best meal you can’t buy. No grocer (yet) sells Desiree spuds, Red Baron onions, or Music garlic.  Saving the world never tasted so good!

Be the Change!


First Seeds, First Sowings

Today marked the official start of the 2010 growing season!  This morning I pitched my expanded “grow list” to my first restaurant client and it went smashingly – agreements from this one account will double my gross revenue from 2009 —and it was the smaller of my two clients last year.  Main increases will be in duration rather than volume – I expect to be marketing produce for a full 32 weeks in 2010!  From March’s Frost Kissed Spinach to December’s storage crops of onions, potatoes, carrots, and squash this looks to be a great year.  With some luck in storage next winter, the 2011 “season” may see produce sales all 12 months of the year.  Awesomeness.

More immediately important ,this afternoon I planted the season’s first seeds (70 sq ft of Bloomsdale spinach) and placed my first order for seeds.  The Hoop House (11×25, not the proposed monster Hoopty) soil is still completely frost free, but is wicked dry. I went no till: first scraped the soil with a scuffle hoe to clear the tomato debris from October, then “lifted” the soil with my U-Bar digger, then raked if flat and hand seeded the beds.   Tomorrow I will plant another section with another variety of spinach.   My favorite part was “watering” the seeds with 10 bucket loads of snow; it will be 35+ degrees and sunny for the next three days and I will have melted by noon tomorrow in the 80 degree heat. The first seed order for the season was for some purslane (favorite of the landowner) and half my onion seeds – about 3000 starts.  Ailisa Craig, and two cippolini types: Red Marble and Gold Coin – I will begin onion starts in only a few short weeks, hopefully in soil blocks (expect a post there).

Hoop Houses make the winters very short indeed!


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