I took this picture on our coldest morning so far with over night lows in the upper teens. Yet according to my tell tale thermometer the temperature in my small green house has never dipped below 32 degrees F – although I’m sure it soon will.
I spotted this thriving fall garden in a vacant lot as I was driving through the edge of town. It looked so good to me that I stopped to talk to the gardener – Jack, a retired mason – who was out enjoying the brisk sunny weather and picking himself a “mess” of greens. Everyone in the south says that – a mess of greens.
Anyway I asked him if he had any secrets to his beautiful fall garden. “No, just plant in September, and water it good.” I was a little bit surprised, because this past September was hot as blazes here in middle TN, and all of his crops – turnips, collards, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower – are certainly cool season crops.
I don’t know if Jack is actually going to get much cabbage, broccoli, or cauliflower before it gets too cold because those were just beginning to form heads – I think I’ll check back later and see. However it all looks great despite the fact that our temps have already dipped into the teens, and he’s already getting loads of fresh greens from the other crops. I’m certainly going to plant some of this stuff next year.
The lettuce, spinach, and radishes growing in my cold frame are coming along nicely, although I wish that I had planted some a few weeks earlier as well. Even though the over night lows in the cold frame are right at the freezing point, the daytime temps are in the seventies and I can still see steady growth at this point. Until the nights got cold I had a plague of volunteer tomato plants coming up in here!
I’m hedging my bets for winter salads by starting some lettuce under lights. Once they get big enough I’ll move some into a window box (with supplementary artificial light) and some into the greenhouse or cold frame. As you can see these were started on Nov 16 and came up 3 days later – about a week ago.
If you want to grow under lights you can use plain old 4 foot shop lights with 40 watt soft white bulbs – you should be able to get two double bulb fixtures and a timer for well under 30 dollars – maybe even under 20 dollars of you look around. Don’t even worry about special “grow” light bulbs or fixtures unless you are planning to grow to maturity warm season crops like tomatoes or marijuana – in which case you need more advice, like from an attorney 😉
You must use a timer to have any success. Plants “know” what time of year it is by the day length, and if you don’t use a timer the irregular hours of light and dark will freak them out, and might make some plants try to bolt – go to seed – almost immediately.
If you can, put your plants and lights in a window to take advantage of whatever light is available naturally. Set your timer for about 10 hours of light which coincide with actual day light hours. Since fluorescent light is a pale comparison to sunlight you should set your lights as close to the top of your plants as you can – even closer than in this picture.
Fluorescent light bulbs don’t get hot (although the ballast might) so it won’t hurt your plants even if the leaves touch the bulb, but old style incandescent light bulbs do get hot enough to burn the plants if they get too close.
We don’t have enough room or enough sunlight in our house for all of the tender potted plants that we have – so a couple of years ago we built a plant room to overwinter them in. Our plant room is just a small well insulated room with 4 recycled windows built onto the side of our garage. The natural light is supplemented with some fluorescent shop lights. On a sunny winter day the temperature can increase by over 20 degrees just from the sun, and the 5 barrels of water that you can see sticking out in the lower right store the heat and release it at night thus keeping the temperature moderate in all but the coldest weather. When it gets really cold a small electric “freeze guard” heater keeps the temp above 50 F. We can over winter just about anything in here, and it’s also a great place to start seeds to move into the garden later. A few minutes in here can really lift the spirits on a cold winter day. I do need to sweep that floor though.
It’s almost winter, but you can still enjoy growing something if you set your mind to it.