Friday, November 28, 2008

My New Tunnel

I probably neglected to mention that when I came home from a week's vacation in August I found that something had eaten all the seedlings I had started for the fall. Romaine lettuces, cabbages, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards. Everything chewed down to the nub. I assume it was birds. I had left the seed trays out front where my wife had been watering them.

Anyway, the sudden demise of my fall seedlings put me in a funk that lasted for at least two months. I didn't do much in the garden. Didn't plant anything. Just recently I started the usual fall cleanup (late) and the new compost pile. I just assumed we wouldn't be planting anything till spring. But then I started a re-read of Eliot Coleman's Four-Season Harvest and experienced a jolt of inspiration when he described a plastic tunnel design he'd come across while traveling in France.

The genius of this French tunnel is the edges aren't buried under the soil in the usual manner, which makes getting into the tunnel very awkward if you need to plant or harvest things. Instead, the plastic is cut at the soil line and held down with a criss-crossing pattern of string over the hoops. Getting inside to plant or harvest is a breeze. You just lift up the plastic and tuck it under the string.

I had the plastic in the garage. I bought some 1/2-inch PVC tubing at the hardware store and planted the hoops. Then I drilled holes and installed these eyelets for the string. Following the illustration in Coleman's book, it still took me a while to figure out the pattern of the string. It's like lacing your shoes--a little.

Here's a detail of the string, crossing over one hoop, then attaching at the bottom of the next hoop. I'm sure I got it wrong, because my pattern ended before I got to the end of the tunnel. Maybe I didn't have enough hoops. I used cinder block to hold the ends down. I'm sure that's not right either.

In any case, according to Coleman the end of November is way too late to be planting anything. "Don't even bother," he admonishes. There's not enough sun to get the seedlings going. But I'm noticing volunteer mustard greens coming up in the other garden beds. Something down there is germinating.

So today I lifted the plastic and planted a whole array of mustards, kales, collards, spinach, arugula, lettuce, tenderleaf greens and other stuff. We'll see what happens. If they don't grow now, I'm betting we'll see them in the spring. As Coleman says, if they can grow these greens in France in winter--actually much farther north than we are--there's plenty of sunlight here for them to grow as well. It's just a matter of protecting them. Not so much from the cold as from the wind.

Minimum soil temperature for brassica germination is said to be 40 degrees, 35 for lettuce and spinach. Stay tuned....


Janet said...

I'll look forward to seeing how this works out, and maybe be year. Meanwhile, I'm betting bunnies or squirrels or slugs or rolypolies or snails got your seedlings. My 2 cents.

Ed Bruske said...

Janet, strange as it may sound, the only thing I've ever seen eating seedlings in our garden is birds. Specifically, starlings. We don't have any rabbits here. Neither squirrels nor rats have ever shown any interest in eating our greens (the squirrels love our tomatoes late in the season, rats will go after melons). And I think I would have seen trails if there had been slugs wandering around our seed trays.

For now, I'm assuming it was birds. Next time I put seedlings outside, it will be under some row cover.

Laura said...

Good for you! I'm absolutely loving our tunnels this year - mine are weighted with rocks rather than the string method. They got off to a late start so we won't have brassicas to harvest until Jan or so. But the lettuce, spinach, chard and radish are going strong now!

Can't wait to see if you get sprouts this time of year.

Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener said...

I still only have Reemay tunnels, and for now that's sufficient to protect the lettuce, mache, arugula, kale, tatsoi, pakchoi etc. Won't switch to plastic until a little later.

Good luck. This is great.


Susan Hagen said...

I'll be interested to hear how your tunnel does this winter. I constructed some much the same way two years ago to germinate flats of wildflowers. I found that the 1/2 inch pipe wasn't strong enough to stand up once snow and ice formed on top of the sheeting. If yours works I would like details of the construction.

Ed Bruske said...

Laura, I must have missed the memo about the Dark Days challenge this year. I never singed on. Can you remind me next year?

Sylvie, I have yet to work with remay in winter. Thanks for the tip.

Susan, you could be right about the plastic collapsing under a heavy snow. It's been a while since we had much snow here in the District of Columbia. But this could be the year. I'll keep you poasted.