February 13, 2018 at 11:24 AM
Back in our old stomping grounds on the West Coast, they are apparently having an early spring. Facebook friends in Oregon and California keep posting photos of crocus, forsythia, plum blossoms, and other tantalizing harbingers of spring that make me feel wistful and perhaps a bit envious. They talk of weather in the 70s, something we won’t likely see for a while.
This is only our second winter here in the Shenandoah Valley, so we are still not quite sure what to expect. This winter has so far been considerably colder than anything we saw last year, which was apparently (and mercifully for us) a particularly mild one. Now, in mid February, all we’re really seeing compared to a month ago are more significant temperature swings. December and January’s bitter cold weather seems to have given way to a more unsettled pattern of warm southerly rainstorms alternating with cold arctic blasts.
The buds on our quince are just beginning to swell and show color, however, and the cardinals and other birds are much more active than they have been. Yesterday, I noticed a pot of chives beginning to sprout up through last year’s dead leaves. I thought they surely had died in a recent spell of sub-freezing weather. I don’t know if our potted rosemary or its trailing cousins will make it - they sure don’t look good right now, but I would be happy to be wrong about that. I am very hopeful the young fig tree will recover, as well.
Last year’s mild winter was apparently responsible for the terrible infestation we had of Japanese beetles, which decimated our rose bushes and black-eyed Susans, and nearly defoliated a young oak tree. So perhaps this cold weather will be helpful in keeping their population down, as they overwinter in lawns and emerge in spring in greatly reduced numbers after a cold winter. One can hope. We are prepared for them in any case, with "Bag-A-Bug" beetle traps on order (we discovered these on a trip to nearby Polyface Farms), and row covers if needed for the raised beds.
Thousands of Japanese beetles, attracted by pheremones, now caught in a trap at Polyface Farms.
Easy DIY Row Cover Supports
When we build those beds starting in early April, we’re going to install 1¼” PVC pipe sleeves attached to the insides of almost all our raised bed frames. These sleeves, evenly spaced along the length of the 4’ x 10’ frames, will allow us to insert 10’ lengths of ¾” PVC tubing, bending them to create arched frames to which we can attach various materials. These will include row cover fabric in the spring to keep out the beetles as well as cabbage moths on our brassicas, shade cloth in the summer to protect tender greens, basil, and peppers from intense heat, and even plastic in the winter to form simple unheated greenhouses for any beds with over-wintering vegetables and herbs.
PVC sleeves attached to Verdura frames during construction.
To install your own row cover supports, for each 4’ x 10’ x 12” raised bed frame you will need:
- One 10’ length 1¼” Schedule 40 PVC pipe (for the sleeves)
- Five 10’ lengths ¾” Schedule 40 PVC pipe (for the arched frames)
- 20 #10 stainless steel 1¼” pan-head sheet metal screws
- A power drill with 3/16” size drill bit for screw holes and a ⅜” size drill bit for the clearance holes
- A screwdriver with a #2 Phillips tip
Once the raised bed frames are built in place, but before you have added soil, cut the 1¼” PVC pipe into ten 11” lengths. Drill two screw clearance holes all the way through both walls of each pipe, 2” from each end. Then, switching to a 3/8” drill bit, carefully enlarge the holes on one side only. This will create access holes that allow you to install the screws through the smaller holes into the sides of the frames.
Measure the inside length of your raised bed and make marks to place five sleeves on each long side, evenly spaced as shown in the photo above, and using a level to make sure your sleeves are installed vertically. Then attach each sleeve to the frame in place, inserting the screw and screwdriver bit through the larger (⅜”) clearance hole and driving the screw through the smaller (3/16”) screw hole into the frame.
When all the sleeves are attached, insert one end of a 10’ long ¾” PVC pipe into a sleeve and gently bend it to insert the other end across the frame. If you build sleeves into more than one raised bed, the 10’ pipes can be switched from one bed to another as needed. Of course, you can use this method for raised beds of different sizes by simply varying the number of sleeves installed.
Late Winter Cleanup
Tomorrow a landscaper we hired is coming to remove a number of unwanted shrubs and grind their stumps. Some of these are unhealthy plants or invasive species, others are in the areas where we plan to install our raised bed garden and fruit orchard, and several are in the way of a large deck we plan to build this summer or fall.
When our landscaper arrived last week to walk the property and identify what stays and what goes, we talked about the not-so-beautiful lawn that covers most of our ⅓ acre property. He told us it is mostly Bermuda grass, a tough, heat-tolerant, and invasive grass that spreads via underground rhizomes. This is not great news, as apparently the stuff is extremely difficult to remove. He seemed somewhat doubtful that our carefully sheet-mulched 30’ x 50’ raised bed garden area will be successfully rid of the grass. I don’t doubt his expertise, but the optimist in me is still hopeful that the lack of sunlight, thick layers of cardboard, leaf mulch, and compost, and months of cold weather will help us prevail.
Verdura's future garden site, shown in fall and winter. The lawn is covered by two layers of cardboard topped with a thick layer of leaf mulch and 11 yards of compost.
If we encounter living grass when we start digging through the sheet mulch layers to install raised beds on our sloping site in April, we plan to spray it with a strong horticultural vinegar (we never, ever use RoundUp or other herbicides). Should the grass persist and come up through the landscape fabric and pathway materials, or up into the raised beds, we will do our best to pull it out and/or re-spray it to try to keep it under control.
The Bermuda grass and the Japanese beetles are no doubt just the first of many surprises we West Coast gardeners will face here. But people have been growing food here since Thomas Jefferson first planted his beautiful Monticello vegetable gardens - and long before that - so I’m sure we will eventually work through these challenges. And when I’m feeling particularly envious that my Oregon friends are already enjoying their daffodils, I just have to remember that in July, we will start harvesting giant Mortgage Lifter tomatoes, something we could only dream of growing until now.