This winter has been a rough one by the standards of the Missouri Ozarks. We have endured temperatures the likes of which I have not previously seen in the five years I have been here: negatives in the teens and wind chills pushing 30 below. As a Florida transplant, the seasons have been one of the joys I have discovered since being repatriated to the temperate zone, but man am I ready to see this season end!
But like all changes of season, the coming of spring brings with it a long chore list. Right now, despite the snow on the ground and the persistent sub-zero temperatures, I am thinking of our garden high tunnel and an early spring planting. This year, probably for the better considering the severity of the winter, we did not do our standard winter crop of greens in the tunnel, and as a result I have a lot to do to get things ready.
Step one for me will be to reinstall end walls. The tunnel is a fairly simple structure, and this process involves a roll of 6 mil plastic and some roofing nails. It also involves a 12-foot ladder which I have already borrowed from my sometime employer/church elder/friend Mike. I hate ladders, but with a 15-feet nominal peak which is quite a bit higher over the low spots, the ladder is an inescapable reality.
Once the ends are on, the rest of the plastic skin will be examined in minute detail for small holes, rips and tears. Back up the ladder with a roll of heavy duty greenhouse repair tape. Each imperfection must be taped up if heat is to be maintained inside the tunnel through the final stages of winter and into the spring. Greenhouse repair tape is phenomenal stuff, and I have even used it to create a replacement window pane in the chicken coop.
Once the structure is secured against heat loss, we will begin preparing for planting. This involves knocking down leftover straw bales and rows from last year’s crops. Everything needs to be flattened out and turned in, which involves a lot of back muscle, since our Ozark rock crop is very hard on roto tillers.
I am amazed at how often I write the word “mulch” when the topic is homesteading. Here it comes again! As soon as the mulch piles have thawed enough to shovel, we will start hauling in loads of the stuff. We will also be hauling in large quantities of horse manure that we get from a local stable (free for the hauling!). Mulch and manure will be mixed and formed into raised rows. We try to get the most aged manure available at the stables, since the fresh stuff can be a bit hot for many crops. Aged and composted manure is great soil for most crop plants. The mulch gives it some body and has water holding properties which can drastically reduce irrigation requirements.
At the same time, we will be bringing in straw bales to rim the base of the tunnel walls. These bales provide insulation and fill gaps that the uneven ground has left at the base of the walls. These straw bales are another good deal we have stumbled upon through much trial and error. We get them from a local supermarket that has a large Halloween festival in their parking lot each year; they go from being a hay maze to being insulation and growing media and we pick them up for pennies on the dollar.
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Now is also the time to start the plants that will go in as soon as the interior temperatures are warm enough to maintain them. We will be concentrating our efforts on heirloom tomatoes and a selection of peppers this year. Yesterday my wife broke out the seed tote and the peat pellets and started a couple hundred plants. They are now adorning temporary shelves in every sunny window. In the meantime, once the soil is prepped and the beds established, we will be planting a late winter crop of Pok Choy, Spinach, and other leafy greens to carry us into the spring. These crops do not need to be pre-sprouted, the seeds being sewn directly into their rows. Fresh salads are right around the corner!
While all this is going on, I will also be gathering the parts for the drip irrigation system that have been stored since the fall. This will involve inventory and inspection. Even simple systems wear out eventually, and inventory and inspect always leads to a shopping list! We will also have to plan out this year’s system, establish our zones, and make sure that the supply side of the irrigation system is working right. This will no doubt lead to another shopping list, and more chores!
Growing in a high tunnel can be a lot of work at certain times of the year. Most of the time, however, in a well-managed system it is a real labor saver. Laying the right ground work at the right times makes for an incredibly rewarding experience. The benefits of the extended season are self-evident, providing more productive time for some crops and opportunities for otherwise impossible crops. What is less obvious is that if you prepare your soil right, incorporating a heavy dose of mulch, you can reduce not only watering but weeding as well. Adding a drip irrigation system and plastic row covers can dramatically increase these benefits.
As with all forms of gardening, timing is everything. Now is the time to start the ball rolling for your spring high tunnel or greenhouse gardening endeavors. When spring actually gets here, it will be too late. A lot of your extra growing time will have been lost, and that defeats the primary purpose.