Ask the Hippie, Vol. 1, Issue 4

Blog reader Larry asks: You mention growing salad all year around with bricks and plastic. I am curious about this as I would like to do the same if possible. I live on Vancouver Island where winter temperatures rarely go below 20 F. Are your conditions similar?

Answer: Larry, the best gardening advice in the whole world comes from your neck of the woods. The city of Vancouver, B.C., has an incredible urban agriculture program which, among other things, supports a wonderful Web site called City Farmer. City Farmer taught me everything I know about vermicomposting. I signed up for City Farmer’s Podcasts and learned to make a handy dog waste composter that is still going strong and still hasn’t filled up after more than six months of constant use. My interest in cold frames and other season extenders came out of some old Mother Earth News magazine articles from the ’70s and something I read on City Farmer about six years ago.

The folks at City Farmer could give you spot-on advice about any aspect of gardening you can think of, but in the meantime, here’s how I built my brick-and-plastic cold frame, which grew several nice crops of spinach for us when we lived in southern Illinois (just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis), where nighttime temperatures dip down into the teens and low 20s quite often in the winter, and where single-digit evenings are not unheard of.

Our house in Illinois came with a cute but poorly designed brick patio that trapped water and funneled it right into the basement. We got tired of having a wet basement, so we dug up all the bricks and took them to the garden, where I used them to define the beds and keep the mulch where it belonged. (We use a modified version of the Square Foot Gardening concept, which involves laying out the garden in 4×4 squares instead of rows.)

When winter rolled around, I had some plants I wasn’t quite ready to part with, so I stacked another layer of bricks onto one of the beds, stretched some Frost King plastic over the top, and used a few more bricks to weigh down the plastic and keep it from blowing away.

That’s all there was to it — just a four-foot-by-four-foot square of the garden, surrounded by a double layer of bricks, with clear plastic over the top to protect the plants from frost damage.

The plants just kept going all winter, so I just kept harvesting spinach and lettuce and reseeding as necessary. We had some nice salads using the spinach and lettuce and a grow-your-own-mushrooms kit that Ron bought me for Christmas. (I’ll include the salad recipe at the bottom of this post.)

I think the brick beds worked better than a regular cold frame because the bricks were dense and fairly dark, so they absorbed heat all day. Then they radiated the heat out at night, and the plastic trapped some of it in there with the plants, keeping them warm enough that they could continue to grow throughout the winter.

The nice part was that it was made out of leftovers from other projects and really didn’t cost us anything except a little elbow grease.

This is our winter salad recipe:

Spinach, lettuce, or both (whatever you have in your garden)
Fresh sliced mushrooms
Can of black olives, drained
Package of crumbled bleu cheese
Olive or walnut oil
Balsamic vinegar
Coarse sea salt if you have some

Toss the first three ingredients, top with bleu cheese, drizzle with oil and vinegar, and sprinkle with salt to taste. I always make this in the winter, when produce is scarce and good produce is even more scarce.

If you’ve never had freshly harvested mushrooms, you really ought to do yourself a favor and buy a mushroom kit from Mushroom Adventures. They’re a little pricey, but they’re so much fun, and you can’t believe how wonderful really fresh mushrooms taste. They’re nothing like the ones you get in the supermarket.