It's not spring. But I can tell it will be one day, soon enough

In Maine, spring is generally a long time coming. At least for this guy raised in Georgia. When we were renovating the house, we found several places where newspaper had been used as insulation between the walls or under floors. This 70 year old newspaper printed in May of 1956 warns against planting yet... "This is much too early for warm season plants..." 

But we've had an odd winter this year - after last year's feet and feet of snow, we've had a spotty snowfall. And while I expect that we've not seen the last of winter yet, we've had a small stretch of warmth. Warm enough to tease me about what is to come in a couple of months. And while I am still only optimistically eyeing the seed catalogs, and dreaming of the vegetables I might plant, it is warm enough for me to get out and clean out the greenhouse. 

The greenhouse is one of my favorite parts of the property. It allows me to extend the growing season a few weeks in either direction. Today hit almost 50 degrees outside - but it was just over 70F in the greenhouse. 

I raked and trimmed and cut back the grapevine that grows up the brick wall (it provides some coolness during the heat of the summer, preventing the brick wall from radiating back too much heat and scalding the other plants). 

The soil may rest for a little while longer, but it's time I start circling things in the seed catalog, and thinking about the fresh tomatoes, arugula, peas, and green things to come. 

Springtime. One way or another.

Never mind the fact that it's actually snowing outside as I sit and write this. (It's the end of March, people. WHAT THE HELL). I'm thinking about fresh greens. Because it's the end of March, people, and that's what you do. 

One of the most compelling parts of the property that made us lose our minds is the greenhouse. A full on, proper-panes-of-glass, walk in greenhouse. The north wall is made of double-thickness brick, to absorb the sun's heat during the day and cast it back into the space. I was still harvesting greens and other vegetables out of the greenhouse after Thanksgiving last year. 

All I could think when I saw it was: Let's see the goddamned deer get to my tomatoes NOW. 

Honestly, I've barely even thought about a garden in our new space. The snow is still more than a foot thick on the ground outside, and everything is pretty dormant. Plus, my brain-space has been more than occupied between the new gig and trying to keep up with the renovation of the actual house. That and trying not to slip and bust my ass on the way out to the car every morning. (It's not easy looking graceful on black ice when you're wearing ostrich skin cowboy boots). 

But the other day I saw a new seed display at the hardware store, and it reminded me that in other parts of the country, people are not just thinking about growing things, they can actually see the dirt where they intend to put it. 

The inside of the greenhouse was a mess. The brick wall is actually covered by a grape vine - lovely white grapes that the previous owner plucked and handed to the kids to eat as we toured the property last summer. That's because the inside of the greenhouse actually gets too warm without something to diffuse the radiant heat from the brick, and the greenery of the leaves acts as a perfect balance. 

There were leftover tomato plants poking up through the center table, and straggly bits of wilted cabbage on the ground to be raked and cleaned up. But even with all the snow and ice we accumulated this winter, the greenhouse was lovely and intact. Even scraping off a little bit of snow from the sloping roof allowed enough sunlight through into the interior to warm it up above freezing, and let the remainder just melt right off. 

Yesterday, with a clear blue sky, the temperature outside was around 30 degrees when I stepped into the greenhouse. Inside, it was over 70. 

I started raking and sorting, and quickly shed both my outer coat, and then my sweater. I was down to a t-shirt in no time, and reveling in the warmth. It's no wonder the snow didn't stay long on the greenhouse roof - it is incredibly efficient. I could have probably gotten out and planted in the greenhouse a couple of weeks ago, even with thicker snow still on the ground. 

The greenhouse cleaned up pretty quickly - I pulled out all the detritus of last summer and swept the paths. The two long edges have felt paper down to keep the weeds out, and the center patch of soil - about 40" wide - is surmounted by the chickenwire frame above. It's perfect when the tomatoes come up, offering a great support trellis. 

I hadn't planned extensively on what to plant this year. Given that we only moved in last October, I don't know the property well enough to have developed an overall garden plan. There are plenty of grapevines, raspberry canes and blackberry vines to keep me busy. Plus 30 or so blueberry bushes and a smattering of fruit trees. So I figured I'd limit my annual vegetable planting to keep things manageable while I get my head around what might go where. The previous owner had a potato patch, as well as several squash varieties going behind the barn, and I'll probably do that as well. Maybe I'll go crazy and add beans or peas to the mix. But all other vegetables this year will come from the greenhouse. 

I had picked up a couple of packs of spinach and arugula, and thought I'd try my hand at starting tomatoes from seed, since I was beginning the season a bit early. Some of the seed I put into the egg carton cups with a bit of fresh soil. Others I planted underneath the framework, along with all the greens. 

After my previous pleasure at what a simple cold frame in the garden could do to extend the season a few weeks, my pleasure at getting into the greenhouse and having all that delicious room to grow things literally a month or more before I'd otherwise be able to get my hands dirty is positively visceral. 

From my initial simple list, I've added peppers to the ambition for this year, and probably one or two other staples that would be out of reach due to such a short season after The Winter That Will Not End.  But right now, I'm just daydreaming about what those first tomatoes are going to taste like, and discovering that I'm suddenly a bit more patient with the melting snow than I was before. 

Cold frame gardening

Here in my little town, we don't get our garbage picked up. 

Instead, you get to pay $25 for a sticker, and you can take anything you want to the transfer station and drop it off yourself. As long as you've separated out your recyclables. Don't mix aluminum and steel. Your plastic goes over here. And if you put a colored glass bottle into the clear glass container, you most certainly will get the evil eye and a "Elizabeth Warren Disapproves" bumper sticker slapped on your car while you're not looking by one of the Boy Scout/High School Volleyball Team/Middle School Band/League of Conservationists who are staked out near the gently-used motor oil drop off selling Oranges/Wrapping Paper/Cookies/Just Put Your Money In This Bucket Mister.  

Despite the gauntlet of disapproval-potential that I run every time, I enjoy my trips up to the transfer station. I throw the week's garbage, cans and bottles into the back of my old truck, and I head up. It's a bit of a social scene, and you never know who you're going to run into. Forget the garbage. It's all about the Swap Shed. 

Despite having dropped off some pretty good, perfectly usable stuff that I really needed to get out of my basement (including a small-ish table saw, a full component stereo system and speakers, lots of clean kids toys, and multiple sets of breakfast room chairs) I don't have great Swap Shed luck.  Friends of ours will find antique glass brewing carboys, new skis, and other treasures. Mostly, I find old push mowers, a warped particle board bathroom vanity, and maybe a wobbly office chair with a suspicious stain. 

Earlier this spring, though, I spotted a few old 8-light wooden framed windows. I snatched them up before others saw them, and tucked them away in my barn over the summer. They were the perfect ingredient to build a cold frame for my garden. 

 

Transient

I picked up a couple of pair of long, dual pane windows to make the sides later in the summer from an architectural salvage place, and with summer winding down, I cleaned up one side of the sunniest of my raised beds, and started putting together my cold frame.  

A cold frame is just a mini-green house. I wanted to hinge the windows both for access and to be able to adjust how much air & heat the plants got. The windows were framed to tilt up on either end, and spaced so that the whole frame covered about a third of my 8' x 16' garden, and let me extend the growing season into the cooler months approaching, plus start some of my plants a bit earlier in the spring time.

Transient

The windows tilt up from the outside, and let the air circulate. I took a break and my Bride wandered out to check up on me.  

"That looks great, sweetheart. But why did you do it wrong?"

"Than- Wait. What?" 

"I mean. Shouldn't it be tilted to let the snow and rain slide off better?" 

"Well. Yeah. You could  do it that way."

"And wouldn't it be easier to access things on the inside if the hinges were in the middle, so you weren't reaching across the whole thing?" 

"..." 

"But it looks good. For being wrong." 

I'd write the rest of that conversation, but it mostly consisted of some single-digit hand gestures and muttered swearing. 

 

Transient

OK. This was better, I admit. 

The angle isn't too huge, but it's easy enough now to walk around and reach in. And the windows capture and retain the heat enough to keep it a nice balmy temp on the inside and keep the frost out, even as we experience the first frosty days of autumn. (I left a couple of pepper plants limping along inside, just to judge how it held up. 

I gave the whole thing a coat of white exterior paint to protect it a bit, and filled in the gaps with a thick 0.7 mil plastic. The pairs of windows aren't really all the same size, so there's a little bit of tilt and step-angling in I had to do to make the whole thing square, but it rests on some 1" x 6" pressure treated lumber, and is remarkably rigid, considering. 

 

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The whole thing is mobile - in the spring, I'll start plants in here, and then move it aside or up to the loft in the barn as the weather warms. But this will let me get a last crop of salad greens in through November or even the first part of December, depending on how the weather holds.  

I have started some late arugula and spinach inside, and things are looking good for a fall bounty of greens

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So bring it on, winter. We're ready for you.  

Best swap shed find yet, I'm telling you.