Starting a market garden is a daunting task, but having produce available all year (or really, really close) is important for our potential customers and for our bottom line. I have been using season extenders at our home garden for many years (this year we are allowing our garden to stay fallow (except for garlic) this winter (we’ve been heaping spent chicken coop bedding on the beds since fall to help revitalize the garden). However, we have never really grown vegetables in the winter so we are doing an experiment.
We assembled and modified a polytunnel style greenhouse with inground beds. The other day we stretched the covering and secured it to the wooden frame with some scrap furring strips to help the heat stay in the greenhouse over the winter; we aren’t expecting the tropics, but enough trapped heat to help grow to harvest some cold hardy crops. This will give us a head start on the market season and to provide vegetables for early CSA members.
I started the first of the winter garden seeds yesterday as well as one of our perennial crops; the early crops will be an experiment to see the tolerance of these vegetables to grow under a polytunnel. I will start seeds in January that will be market crops, but I wanted to see what the performance will be prior to marketing them.
The crops I sowed are Cipollini onions, Red Acre Cabbage, Calabrese Green Sprouting Broccoli, Cour Di Bue Green Cabbage and Bright Lights Swiss Chard. I also started an unusual Asparagus called “Precoce D’Argenteuil” which will allegedly have a pink cast to it…and is supposed to be delicious. This will add to our current asparagus crops of Mary Washington and Jersey Giant, providing a variety to our customers in the coming years.
Seed sowing is very easy if you have the right equipment. We have accumulated small nursery greenhouses as they go on clearance as well as grow lights and heat mats for seedlings. I filled four nursery trays with seed starting soil (which is low in nutrients). Some people wet the soil before filling and planting; I don’t. I think it is easier to handle and sow in a dry state. I created labels for each of the crops and started the asparagus seeds soaking (they need to soak for a few hours before sowing to jump start germination). I then sowed the seeds (most of these are tiny seeds so they don’t need to be sown deep). I then covered the cells with “chick grit” from our local Tractor Supply Store. The grit helps with seed to soil contact, eliminates pooling water on top of the seedlings, prevents soil crusting and damping off of seedlings.
I then use a misting sprayer to water the seedlings before putting them in their germination greenhouse on my sun porch; The cabbages and chard are sitting on a heat mat to maximize germination.
I will mist the seedlings daily until they are potted on to larger pots with enriched potting soil. These seedlings will stay in the propagation greenhouse for a couple of weeks when we transfer them to our commercial greenhouse at the plot to finish growing until they go in the ground in the polytunnel. I will also be sowing some direct sow seeds once I take the temperature of the soil to see if we can grow some salad lettuce, radishes and small carrots.
Here’s hoping our experiment is successful!