Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A few tips for winter gardening

It's been a long time since we've had a winter like this one. The snow blanket is generally a good insulator to help protect vegetation from cold and wind.

But there is a danger if the snow is too deep. The excessive weight of snow and ice on delicate shrubs and trees can damage them. I've witnessed quite a bit of this sort of damage, but there's not much that can be done, other than trying to shake off what snow you can.

Snow cover can lead to other problems, such as snow mold on lawns and burrowing rodents that look for the young bark of fruit and ornamental trees to gnaw upon, but in general its benefits far outweigh any minor drawbacks.

By month's end the average temperature will have risen nearly eight to 10 degrees, and though we can still expect several more rounds of wintry weather over the next six weeks or so, the backside of winter is here and visions of spring are becoming brighter.

Meantime, indoors we'll need to get seriously busy this month sowing seeds and raising plants that will eventually see the light of day in the open garden.

Long-season leeks

Leeks are known as the "gourmet's onion" because of their subtle and milder flavor when compared to onions. Leeks are also easier to digest and enhance and bind flavors together as few other ingredients do.

Leeks can be outrageously expensive in stores and are often impossible to thoroughly clean. Homegrown leeks, despite their long occupancy in the garden, have superior flavor and are so trouble-free that no garden should be without them.

My fascination with growing leeks began more than 20 years ago when I watched Jim Crockett, from the popular television show "Crockett's Victory Garden," harvest leeks that were as big as baseball bats in length and girth. I couldn't believe how he had to dig down almost two feet into the ground to unearth the silky white stalks that make up the most edible part of the leek.

Normally, I plant leeks by the third week of February. However, the last few years I haven't been really happy with the size of the transplants that go into the ground in early April. Even with the head start, the leek seedlings were barely the size of a strand of spaghetti. The small seedlings often had trouble surviving torrential spring downpours and their small size made them especially vulnerable to hungry crows that easily plucked them from the soil.

I've changed my leek indoor planting schedule to the first weekend in February, give them more room to grow in larger pots, and continue a regular liquid feeding regimen every two weeks while indoors.

Leeks develop especially long roots, so I use deep 8-inch pots filled with a soil-less planting medium instead of using flats. The deep pots will encourage plenty of long root growth.

I've grown the variety known as Giant Musselburgh every year, for more than 20 years, and I'm convinced they're the best type to grow. A packet of the shiny black seed is sown rather thickly, as leeks are notoriously poor germinators. A quarter inch of soil will cover the seed and a generous drink of water will get them off to an extra early start. I won't need to transplant them into a different container, because they'll go directly into the ground from here.

Coldframe device works

One of the problems with coldframes is that even on a cold winter day they can build up a lethal amount of heat inside when the sun is out. If you're home all the time I suppose it's easy enough to walk outside and lift up the lid of the coldframe when it gets too hot, but often that is neither practical nor possible.

A device which first came on the market years ago was an automatic hinge that worked on a gas pressure system that actually lifted a heavy coldframe lid up in the air and held it open until the coldframe came back down to the proper inside temperature. The problem was that the devices never gauged the right temperature when to lift or close the lid, nor could they really open heavy coldframe lids.

Well, lo and behold, after 15 years out on the market I think they've finally got it right. Lee Valley Tools (800-871-8158, www.leevalley.com) sells a heat-activated window opener that really works. It incorporates a gas-charged cylinder of adjustable volume. As the temperature rises, the gas expands; it will open a 15-pound window, more than adequate in coldframes and greenhouses. A simple adjustment lets you control the operating range. As temperatures fluctuate, the 12 1/2-inch-long unit will open and close a window as necessary to prevent disasters.

For $39, you can own this slick, nonrusting, anodized aluminum window-opening device that works, and works well.

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