Growing Undercover


Fall can be a fabulous time to start new garden

October 13, 2007|By ROB KASPER

Like a lot of people with dirt under my fingernails, I have a hard time saying goodbye to my vegetable garden.

This year, Mother Nature has added an interesting twist to the separation ritual. Namely, she has refused to change seasons. Plants should have been battling autumnal chills weeks ago. Instead, they have had to cope with summer-like 90-degree heat and almost no rain. This fall, if you watered it, it thrived. If you didn't, it fried.

Still, I figure that at some point, the weather will turn cold. As the recent drop in temperatures remind us, frost will eventually sweep in, basil plants will drop to the ground like linemen cut down on an end sweep, and most folks will yank up their vegetables, put away the tools, and read seed catalogs for the next few months.

There is a case to be made for doing nothing. There are times when the ground needs a break. That is what Tony Scroggins, who for 22 years has been growing vegetables in a community garden in Leakin Park, told me. This fall, Scroggins said he will be covering the ground with layers of grass clippings, garden waste and leaf mulch. This mix will sit on the garden until the spring, when it will be tilled into the soil, he said. "Every so often, you have to let the garden rest," he added.

Good advice, perhaps. But this year I am trying to join the ranks of those who keep gardening in cold weather, who try to eke a second season out of the vegetable garden.

Why? Well, it is challenge, and pulling it off does appeal to my pride. In the folderol of family gatherings, serving homegrown lettuce at holiday dinners earns bragging points. Moreover, I am reluctant to let go. Come fall, some of us gardeners can be as clingy to our crops as parents sending their first born off to college.

Leading me in my quest for homegrown greens on Christmas Day was Coleen McCarty. She is coordinator of City Farms, a program that rents 650 garden plots to folks in seven Baltimore locations. She also cares for a plot a few feet away from mine in the Druid Hill Park community garden. I don't think you are supposed to covet your neighbor's garden, but I did. Last winter, when my garden was deader than the Pittsburgh Steelers' playoff hopes, hers was still producing greens. I was jealous.

This fall, I got her to show me some of her secrets. Basically, she constructed a tent around a plot of hearty cool-weather vegetables. The tent was composed of a white material, called N-Sulate, that let in sunlight and moisture. It also trapped heat, keeping the greens from freezing, at least until the dead of winter. Last year, in the winter of my discontent, McCarthy harvested lettuce, mustard greens and spinach. She gathered her last crop the first week of January.

On a recent morning, I watched as McCarthy went through the process of preparing her plot for cold-weather gardening. She had already prepared the soil, folding in compost from rotted leaves. For good measure, she sprinkled in a handful of 10-10-10 fertilizer.

Next, she planted spinach seedlings and lettuce seeds. They would be covered with the tent.

But there are also a handful of crops - kale, broccoli, collard greens, turnips and parsley - that do well in cool weather without such protection, she said. These plants will produce until the ground freezes, usually about early January, she said. She used a wire tri-fold tomato cage, the collapsible kind sold in garden-supply shops, to make a frame for the tenting material. She opened the cage up, set it on its side, and then secured its edges to ground with sticks and rocks. Next came the cloaking. She unrolled N-Sulate, the billowing white material that looked both like a bed sheet and the gauzy row covers placed on springtime crops to ward off bugs. This 1.5-ounce cold weather material was, however, about three times thicker than the spring row covers.

McCarty draped the material over the wire frame and made tight "hospital corners" at the ends. She weighed down the tent with stones to prevent winter winds from taking it airborne.

Harvesting a tented crop is tricky, she said. The growth rate of the plants is much slower than during warm weather. Last winter, she picked greens about every 10 to 15 days, lifting up one corner of the tent, then reaching inside to snap off the greens.

She made it a point to harvest on sunny days. The heat inside the tent rushes out when you lift up a corner, she said. By harvesting on a sunny day, she said, you give the heat inside the tent a chance to rebuild when the flaps are closed.

She stopped picking in January and let the vegetation stay covered until mid-March.

At the unveiling, she found resilient spinach plants, which rallied to produce a mid-April crop. She also found a thriving crop of weeds.

Imitating McCarty, I have put spinach and lettuce plants in the ground and placed a tomato cage over them. Late this week, I draped the insulating material on the cage. I already have the weeds.

Getting started


A trowel for planting, bag of fertilizer, seeds, tomato cage, insulated row cover, scissors


Less than $25 if you have a cage. A 12-foot-by-10-foot sheet of 1.5 ounce N-Sulate row cover costs $11.69 at Meyer Seed on South Caroline Street.


About an hour

Dos and don'ts

Do cover the ends of the wire cage to prevent them from tearing the row cover.

Do support the wire frame with sticks, to prevent snow from collapsing the structure.

Don't check your crop daily; heat escapes when you unbundle the row cover.

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