Greens in the depths of winter

Today’s super-cold temperatures made me think about winter gardening, so I asked Gordon Clark, Montgomery County MG and Project Director of Montgomery Victory Gardens, how his low tunnels were faring. He reported that in anticipation of the cold he harvested most of his winter greens, but in a day or two when temperatures rise he’ll check on some lettuce that’s still under the plastic, and let us know whether it’s edible.

In the meanwhile, here’s what Gordon had to say recently about the success of his tunnels in Silver Spring.


I am very excited to hear about the growing interest in – and success with – winter food gardening and low tunnels… we’ve definitely needed ’em this year!  (Last winter I didn’t close the low tunnel until January 21, this year I was using it in November…)
Below are a few pictures of my own tunnel, before and after the December snowfall, and one of it after the most recent storm.  I put down some shredded leaves for extra mulch, but other than that have just been depending on the tunnel and have been harvesting lettuce, arugula, turnips, mustard greens, broccoli (second shoots!), kale and chard right up to the present moment [January 5].
As for holding it down, anything heavy works but I use bricks – they are regular in shape and size, easy to move, and there is always something I can use them for in the garden in summer as well.  (About one brick per 2 feet of tunnel seems to work fine.)  You can also use the chenille method of securing the tunnel with clothesline (as described by Eliot Coleman in Four-Season Harvest), but if you have enough bricks it’s not really necessary.  (Although it does look sharp.)
I do hope more people get into winter gardening, and that we can give more classes on the subject.  It really is a big step toward more sustainable self-sufficiency in food, it’s fun, it’s easy, and nothing puts a smile on my friends’ faces like a garden fresh organic local salad in the middle of winter!

So stay tuned for a report on Gordon’s lettuces, and also whether the greens under plastic in the Derwood demo garden (and MG Robin Ritterhoff’s back yard) survived temperatures in the low single digits. My guess is they’re frozen beyond recovery, but you never know.

On January 21, Gordon will be giving a talk at Brookside Gardens on Food Gardening and Climate Change (sign up here) and keep an eye out at the MVG link above and the Montgomery County GIEI page for low tunnel classes coming in the summer.

5 Comments on “Greens in the depths of winter

  1. Hey Mager – unless you want to get fancy, the design is a basic hoop, with the structure somewhere between 10 and 20 feet long. (Less than 10 doesn't seem worth it, although of course you can do any size, and it can get difficult to manipulate the cover yourself if it's longer than 18 or 20 – although of course you can do that as well.

    Re materials, there is a variety of stuff you can use for the ribs or hoops, including split bamboo and curved metal wire or tubing (some which you can buy commercially); for cost and durability I have been using 1/2 inch PVC pipe, but I'm thinking of moving to the metal for enviro reasons. If it's piping of any kind, you secure it to the ground by putting it over 2' sections of rebar driven halfway into the ground. For the covering you can purchase various thicknesses of frost protection row cover fabric commercially (try Johnny's Seeds), although I prefer sheets of 6 mil clear plastic: it's (relatively) inexpensive, durable, and being non-permable it gives good temperature protection (meaning it holds in heat well). All materials listed are available in most hardware stores.

    You should come to one of the low tunnel construction classes this coming summer!


  2. I think concrete reinforcing wire is hard to beat! I found it stood up to the recent snow accumulation without any loss of the hoop shape. I just brushed off the snow and let the sun shine in on my beautiful lettuce………J in Harwood


  3. Gordon: I picked up a bending kit from Johnny's. works pretty well with 1/2 inch galvanized pipe ($2 for a ten ft length at Home Depot). Have about 20 more pipes to bend, after which I would gladly loan it to you for demo purposes…


  4. Thanks, I have plenty of PVC from my “squirrel proof” barrier a I put up around my tomatoes based on a cloche design I found online. I piked up some 6 mil plastic sheeting to use from homedepot. Your ideas will help in the spring when I start small. I start the Baltimore city master gardener program next week and will be sure to sign up for a class.


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