How to grow seedlings in the winter in Northern climates

I recently read a fascinating book about growing world record tomatoes. The growing results were amazing and I plan to incorporate some of Mr. Wilber's tricks in my garden....but living in zone 4 means we will never have outrageously productive and/or large plants. They only have 2-4 warm months to grow, and most of that time may include sub optimal temperatures and/or heavy rains/snow.

Even still, I have a plan to start growing my garden earlier this year and improve overall yields. I have four plans.

1. Winter Sowing: This is most likely dangerous in zone 4, but I plan on winter sowing a few Siberian heirloom tomatoes, leeks, marigolds, rhubarb, ground cherries, and possibly a few others. I am only going to use a few seeds in case it is a dismal failure.

2. Mini Greenhouses within the garden: I plan to direct sow peas, swiss chard, scarlet pole beans, radishes, beets, butternut squash, buttercup squash, and sugar loaf delicata earlier than normal. I will plant them mid/late April and cover the squash with the top half of a milk carton (cap removed for ventilation.)

I always plant peas, swiss chard, beets, and radishes around Easter, so this isn't a huge change for them. My garden is a south facing raised bed so it generally warms up and is workable well before Easter, so I *think* there might be a fighting chance that mini greenhouses can allow me to extend the squash season.

Even still, I will be planting seedlings in the greenhouse just in case.

3. Planting more perennials: This year I planted some seeds and bulbs in the ground in the fall. I planted ramps, walking egyptian onions, strawberries, and asparagus. I grow some of these already, so it shouldn't be that big of a change. The change is mostly in making a bigger chunk of my plantings recurring perennials. I will be further propagating my black cap raspberries and red raspberries (with the help of a nearby willow tree) to increase their span. I am also adding rhubarb (by seed, so wish me luck!) and possibly currants and/or saskatoon berries.

4. Using a Mini Greenhouse: Many people use greenhouses and have success growing seedlings and even whole plants. Those people don't usually live in really frigid temperatures (unless they have a gigantic, fully heated greenhouse.)

I plan to grow my seedlings outdoors in early spring (March is the target.) I plan to do this without any use of electricity. No heaters. No grow lights.

Here is the actual greenhouse I plan to use:
I bought this from someone on Craigslist for $20. It's basically a metal shelving unit covered in a thick clear plastic that zips closed. Admittedly, I am a bit scared to put this out on a snowy winter day and expect it to protect my plants.

But I do have a plan....

Right now, the greenhouse is storing my gardening supplies. My son calls it the "recycling center" because I have milk carton parts, toilet paper rolls, egg cartons and various other recycled objects littering the shelves. Each of these items is being saved for use in growing my seedlings...but it's a mess for now.

This is my "written plan:"

The main goal with the greenhouse is to provide protection from wind/snow and to trap solar energy using thermal mass. There are 4 shelves in this greenhouse. The bottom shelf will contain 4-12 gallon sized milk cartons filled almost full with water (leaving space for expansion) sitting on top of bricks.

The other 3 shelves will contain plants arranged as seen on the right side of my drawing (paper drawing above.) Each shelf holds one black plastic tray (technically a boot tray.) The shelf holds the tray, 2 bricks, and 2 gallon milk cartons almost exactly. The bricks are thermal mass (heat sinks) and the water filled milk cartons will also trap and release thermal energy.

Each black tray holds 4 milk carton bottoms (the tops were cut off to be used as mini greenhouses in the garden) and 2 black meat trays. The four milk carton bottoms hold plants and the two black meat trays hold pebbles.

There will be a lot of thermal mass in this greenhouse. The bricks, the pebbles, and the water will all hold the heat from the sun and release that heat in the evening. The black trays and containers should absorb the sun's heat during the day. They will most likely give up their heat quickly when the sun goes down for the evening.

I will have to pay attention during the day to ensure the plants don't get too hot or steamy. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't. But I'm going to give it a try.

I also had plans to compost a bunch of horse manure, incorporate more leaves and compost, and the usual crop/legume rotation. I did incorporate more leaves, then spent a long time killing slugs, then incorporated more leaves/compost. Considering my last foray into horse manure use....I changed my mind and am thinking about new ways to organically improve my garden soil.

I chopped up all the bean and squash foliage and turned it into the soil. It was completely gone in less than a month.  I double dug my beds this fall and covered them all with a leaf cover to keep the soil from drying out (I do have clay, after all.  Intense, hard and sticky clay.)

I also experimented with "in garden" composting. When one of my beds was done growing for the season, I turned it into a living compost bin. I added kitchen scraps, leaves, and dead plant parts. Then I covered it with sheets from the inside of an unwanted phone book (seriously! Why do they keep sending these? We have the internet! Plus, I call every year to get taken off "the list,") and cardboard, wetted it all down, then covered it in heavier dead plant parts and bricks.

This "compost bed" lasted about a month and a half before I took of the bricks and looked inside. The composted materials were all gone, including the phone books and cardboard. The soil inside was gorgeous and scary at the same time.

It was moist, crumbly and deep black. It was also full of LIFE. Centipedes scurried everywhere (they eat worms and slugs.) I saw green worms for the first time in my life, huge fast racing night crawlers, and of course the regular worms. And slugs and frogs. I let everyone live except for the slugs. I have no respect for them.

Actually, I feel bad about killing them so I strategically relocate them knowing with almost complete certainty that their new home (the road!) means imminent death. If only I had a duck or chicken to feed them to. They are so meaty and juicy looking; it's a shame no one is able to eat them - though the turkeys have been coming around more lately...

The ultimate goal is to have a self sustaining and productive garden with minimal external inputs. This is the goal set for 2015 - let's hope it works out!


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Thank you for your comments! I appreciate all your tips, advice, and well wishes!


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