Posts Tagged ‘sprouts’

Winter Greens, Part II: The Cold Frame

March 22, 2009

This entry is a follow-up to my article on sprouts several weeks ago.

I planned on being able to post digital pictures before I wrote this, but that’s not happening.  In addition to sprouting various seeds, some home-grown and others from the store, I add fresh local vegetables to my winter diet through the use of a cold-frame.  I have had less than spectacular results, and a few meteorological mishaps, but the idea is worth sharing.

In my last entry, I gave a plan for an insulated straw-bale cold frame.  This year, I didn’t get enough bales before winter, so I used an alternate design–a variation on a hoop house.  I picked up about 75 ‘ of concrete reinforcing mesh–sort of an industrial-strength chicken wire with 6″ holes–to make tomato cages and a compost bin.  With the 15 or so feet I had left over, I made two sections that arced into a half-circle shape, about as wide as one of the beds in my garden.  Each section was cut to leave 6″ lengths of wire sticking out on the ends, which I stuck into the ground to secure the frame.  This left me with a wire tunnel, about 5 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 3 feet tall.  I was able to get some greenhouse-grade plastic (leftovers from a local greenhouse) to cover my frame, and weighed down the edges with some fist-sized rocks.  This left me with a miniature version of the full-sized greenhouses you’d see at a commercial-scale nursery.

The cold frame collects and retains solar energy, resulting in, well, a “greenhouse effect” that keeps the plants within at a much warmer temperature than the outside air.  Though this would only add a week or two to the life of warm weather plants, like peppers or tomatoes, it can keep cool-weather plants alive through all but the coldest Michigan winters.

Fall and Spring Planting in a Cold Frame

I stuck with cool-season greens in the fall, such as leaf lettuce, bok choy, and spinach, planted in the early fall or transplanted a little later.  These go more or less dormant when the weather gets cold, but the cold frame keeps them in a harvestable state through most of winter.  There isn’t a lot of growth, so your stock dwindles as spring approaches, but it’s a great way to keep some fresh and local food on the table all winter.  With no disrespect to the other two winter-long green vegetables, it’s way more interesting than kale, and far more versatile than brussel sprouts.

In spring, the cold frame is more of a head-start than a long-term plan.  Around the time I’m planting pea seeds, I pull out the rest of the winter greens from the cold frame (there’s usually not much left, and what’s left is starting to toughen up and flower), and plant a new crop.  This year, it was spinach, bok choy, leaf lettuce, and very early carrots.  The additional heat and humidity from the enclosed cold frame will give them several weeks of extra growing time before the open-air garden is ready to be planted.  I’ve sited the cold frame in the place I’m putting this year’s peppers, which won’t be planted until early summer, so most of these plants will have a chance to mature before the peppers go in.  I’ve considered putting the peppers in a few weeks before the last frost, hoping that the cold frame would give them the shelter and warmth they would need, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk.  I’m not sure how cold it can get in a cold frame, particularly at night.

Cold Frame Problems

Weather rarely cooperates with cold frame construction.  I’ve had my plastic sheeting blown off completely, despite weighing down the edges and clipping the plastic to the frame.  I’ve also had the entire thing collapse under the weight of snow and ice, crushing the leafy plants underneath.  Also, since the plastic sheeting is impermeable to rain, it can get desert-dry inside of a cold frame when all the ground moisture is frozen.

Access to vegetables is another problem.  With rocks weighing down the edges, water sometimes pools and freezes, making it hard to lift the plastic sheeting and reach in to harvest.  The 6″ access holes are also an obstacle.  I’ve adopted a “mass harvest” mentality, getting a week’s worth of greens in one go, just to simplify things.

Once spring starts to warm up, it can get very hot inside a greenhouse.  Think of a car parked in the sun with the windows up–opening up the cold frame on those warm, sunny days is a necessary inconvenience.

Weeds that are growing in the space where you’ve set up your cold frame are also able to take advantage of the microclimate, so they often spread throughout the winter.  Finally, keeping a bed in production all year takes a lot out of the soil, so your cold-frame bed should be refreshed with compost or fertilizer more often than others.

Possible Improvements

I’ve considered a number of options that I haven’t followed through on yet.  The first–instead of using weights to hold down the plastic, I’ve seen cold frames with trenches dug along their edges, with the edge of the plastic sheet buried under a few inches of soil.  This would hold it down a lot better, but would make it much harder to get into the cold frame.

Another modification would be to put it in so that it straddled two beds, with a path down the center.  I’d have to crawl in from the end (the taller a cold frame is, the less efficient it is, as heat rises away from the plants), but I wouldn’t have to reach, and I’d be able to bury the edges as mentioned above.

I’ve saved up a bunch of dark-colored laundry soap jugs, which I intend to fill with water and use as heat collectors.  The dark colors will absorb solar heat through the day, then release it at night.  Each jug takes up valuable square footage in the cold frame, though.

I may use a few stakes next year to reinforce the wire framework–I’ve never had a collapse before, but this year’s heavy snowfall brought the whole cold frame down.  It’s an easy enough fix, and I could have saved a few plants.

So far, using a cold frame has been more art than science, but it has kept in in the garden throughout the winter, and kept me out of the produce section of the grocery store for several weeks beyond the end of my garden’s regular season.  I’ll be building another straw-bale frame next year, provided I can round up enough free straw bales, but I’ll build another wire-frame hoop house as well, just to see if I can do any better.

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Winter Greens I: Sprouting

January 13, 2009

Although I’ve got some parsnips in the ground, some squash in the attic, and a few things in the freezer, I’m still looking for some fresh, local produce.  The best I’ve come up with so far is cold framing and sprouts.  I’ll cover cold framing as soon as I figure out how to get pictures off of my camera phone, so today it’s sprouts.

Finding Sprouts
Although I purchase alfalfa and mung bean seeds from the local health food store, I also sprout seeds that I’ve grown myself.  Most of the cabbage family, including broccoli, works well when sprouted.  I imagine lambs quarters seeds would be good sprouted, but I haven’t collected the seeds yet.  I’m also going to try purslane seeds.  I know that tomato and pepper seeds don’t yield edible sprouts, so it might be a general rule that fruiting vegetables don’t make good sprouts.  I’ve also just started sprouting sunflower seeds, which are sprouted in soil rather than in water.  I grow sunflowers in the summer, but I’ll sprout the sunflower seeds sold for birdfeeders when I run out.  The seeds sold for human consumption won’t work, as they are roasted and salted and won’t sprout.

It’s important to avoid using seeds purchased for planting, as they are treated with fungicides and other sorts of things that are best not ingested.  An additional precaution:  sunflowers are often used to clean up industrial waste sites, as the plants absorb a lot of heavy metals.  Use caution when finding “wild” sunflowers.

Harvesting Sprouts

Harvesting seeds varies depending on the plant.  It’s important that they are properly dried if you’re going to be storing them; to test them, I put seeds in a sealed jar overnight to see if any moisture forms inside the jar.  When they have air-dried, they can be stored.  For sunflower seeds, I keep whole, dried flower heads in the attic and rub off enough seeds to make a planting.

Preparing Sprouts

To sprout most seeds, I take a regular jar, put seeds in it to cover the bottom, and cover them with water to soak.  When they’ve soaked for a few hours, drain the water off.  After they’ve been soaked, rinse and drain them twice a day—I fill the jar with water once in the morning, then pour it off, then do the same before bed.  After two weeks or so, they will begin to sprout and will be ready to eat.  At this point, they can be put in the refrigerator for later use.

To grow sunflower seeds, I fill a tray of some kind (I’ve even used egg cartons) with potting soil and stick in seeds.  They can be packed in packed in pretty closely, as they won’t be growing very big.  Keep them watered and in a sunny/well lit place—windowsill, etc.—until they sprout.  When the seed coat has fallen off and both leaves are out, the sprouts are ready to be harvested.  Using scissors, just cut the sprouts off at the base and use as soon as possible.

Eating Sprouts

Any sprout serves well in the place of lettuce on a sandwich. Some have more flavor than others, but the taste is welcome in most combinations.  Sunflower sprouts are mild enough that they could serve as the base for a green salad, if you can grow enough at one time.  Sprouted mung beans are used in pad thai, and can be added to any stir fry in the last few moments of cooking.

The wide variety of seeds that can be sprouted offers something for every eater.  Sprouts are a delicious alternative to the pathetic lettuce shipped into my grocery store throughout the winter months, and are higher in nutrients if sprouted in the open, as opposed to the light-excluding traditional method.

Inventory, Part Two

January 19, 2008

My hoop greenhouse was demolished in yesterday’s wind storm, so any local foods I’m eating these days will be things I put up last summer and fall. And so, inventory continues.

Purslane Pickles

Using a recipe from Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, I made a jar of Purslane pickles last summer. Using homegrown dill, peppers, and garlic with vinegar, I was able to fill one 16-oz jar with purslane stems and homegrown green tomatoes. I wasn’t sure what to do with them, so they sat at the back of the fridge for months, but I’ve been working them into sandwiches lately. They are fantastic. Purslane pickles add a tart crunch to a sandwich without the wet slipperyness of cucumber pickle slices.

Sun-dried Tomatoes

I don’t know if this is an innovation of my own, or if I read it somewhere, but it’s a great system. After picking homegrown cherry tomatoes dead ripe, I slice them, salt them, and put them on the dashboard of my car. Summer heat will dry them to the crispy stage within a day or two, at which point they are ready to be packed into jars, which are sealed but not processed. They will keep through to the next tomato harvest, and get tossed in with any sort of noodley casserole type dish.

Sprouts

I’m not sure where exactly the line falls on “local foods”, but sprouts are questionable. I’m growing them, but I don’t know where the seeds come from. I don’t have a large enough garden to allow plants to set seed for sprouting, so I don’t have much choice. The sprouts are “home-grown”, but only by a matter of a few weeks. I’m currently sprouting alfalfa and mung beans, using the alfalfa for salads and sandwiches and the mung beans for stir-frys. I’m a novice sprouter, but my loose and simple procedure seems to work:

Cover the bottom of a small, lidded jar with one layer of seeds. Cover the seeds with water, and allow to soak for a few hours, up to overnight for alfalfa. Drain the water. Every day that follows, rinse the sprouts off after breakfast and while preparing dinner. When the sprouts reach the desired stage of maturity (taste test to find your preference), stick them in the refridgerator.

They make special sprouting jars with mesh lids, but I just use the solid jar lid to hold back the sprouts, as if I was draining pasta in a pot. When my watering can is empty, I drain my sprouts into it to re-use the little bit of water that goes into sprouting.

Chives

When the snow isn’t too deep, I can still get thyme and parsley from the garden, and I have some basil–in pesto form–in the freezer, but the only truly fresh herb I have through the winter is chives. In the fall, I pot up a clump of the bulbs and sink the pot into the ground. Around the New Year, or whenever there is a convenient thaw, I pull the pot out and bring it indoors. The chive bulbs, which have gone through their required dormant stage, react to the warmth of the house as if it were spring, and they put on new growth. I’ve read that it’s best to have two pots going, so as to alternate and keep a steady supply through winter, but my single pot hasn’t given up yet.

Aside from a chunk of local venison in the freezer (given to me by the mother of an overzealous hunter), that is where I stand in the New Year on local food. Next month begins seed-starting season, so I hope to give some information on the shower-stall greenhouse I use to prepare plants for the summer garden.