Posts from the ‘Gardening’ category

Baby Blue Popcorn

Baby blue popcorn (Zea mays) is a miniature heirloom variety of corn. It’s quite hard to find any information about it online, so I’m sharing the little I know here to help you get orientated around this little gem.

Like all corn, it’s a heavy feeder, so likes lots of compost and water. And even though it’s a dwarf variety, it’s quite prolific with between 4 – 5 cobs per plant. If you’re able to, you can plant it out with the three sisters guild to get more yield from the space you’re growing in.

This corn isn’t for eating fresh, rather for drying and popping later – so after you’ve harvested, you need to let it dry. I do this by pealing back its “coat” and ideally hanging it up, as it makes for good decorations. But usually I just peal the coat off and pop it in an airy cardboard box under the kitchen bench.  Because, alas, I’m not that type of person who makes spare moments for decorating (often).

As it dries the colour can darken to a dusky, midnight blue. So pretty that I arrange it in lines and then in a mandala shape – cause it made me happy.

Now, the important bit – the popping…

To pop the corn, heat a pot on the stove with 1-2cm of oil on the bottom (we use olive oil). To make sure the oils hot enough, put one bit of corn in – it should pop quickly. If it doesn’t, wait for the oil to heat more. Once it’s all in, shake the pot every now and then to make sure all the corn gets popped. And after a few minutes or so it’ll all be done.

You’ll notice, the corn turns white once popped – slightly disappointing, but still darn tasty.

Where can you buy seed in Tasmania?

  • I got given seed by someone many years ago and haven’t been able to source it commercially. BUT I just noticed that Southern Harvest in Tasmania are saving some seed to sell. It’s not yet on their website (at the time of writing this), but get in touch with them to let them know you’re keen.
  • Seed Freaks (also have other types of heirloom corn which you can find here.
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How To Grow Beans For Drying (& Eating Later)

This past season we grew enough purple bush beans to eat fresh and save a bunch for drying and eating in winter. As we’ve got limited space, it’s not enough to supply all our needs, but we like trying new things each year and thought we’d experiment with how much we could do.

We grew purple bush beans, we’re fond of the bush variety as they require no staking – a major bonus in the time saving department. We planted two long rows with beans 15cm apart and transplanted them out to 30cm – 40cm once they had germinated. That’s not necessary – but I wasn’t sure on the viability of the seed as they were a bit old. Turned out their was nothing wrong with the seed, so we got lots!

We ate plenty of young, fresh beans in their early stages and then let the rest dry out on the bush until they were 90-100% mature. You can see the leaves below left starting to yellow and brown off. Ideally you want to leave the beans on the bush until you can shake the pods and here the beans rattling inside.

We left them in the ground as long as possible, but had to pull them to get the winter garlic crop planted, so some of the beans were more purple than I was planning. But not to worry – I simply left them in an airy brown box for a few weeks inside to dry out thoroughly before shelling them.

Halfway through the harvest

For a small batch like this you could simply pop them into a pillow case and bash it around to shell the majority of them quickly. Or, like me you can do them one by one each night as a form of mediation to slow my busy brain down over a few evenings.

The next thing to do is a grading process to make sure there are no rotten or mouldy culprits slipping through. We ended up having a pile for the chooks and a small bowl for eating right now – these ones were cracked or slightly damaged, but will still taste delicious.

And then into a glass jar they go for winter soups and stews.

Wondering whether it’s not worth your time to grow and dry your beans? Well considering how cheap organic beans are to buy from the local shop, it doesn’t really make sense. However it *is* worth your time if you’re interested in learning new skills and having beans that don’t take as long to cook and knowing where your food comes from. All the good things. Would we do it again? Absolutely – next season we’re thinking of growing the borlotti bean for drying as it’s larger size appeals to us.

Here’s to many wintery bowls of bean soup and stew!

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Do Cold Frames Actually Work?

The short answer is yes – but let me elaborate….

We built a cold frame in late 2018 to create a warmer micro-climate to grow early season tomatoes and eggplants with ease. You can see below how we built it here.

Some of you have asked how it’s gone in its first season. Very good thanks – it went (and is still going) very, very good. Below is some evidence of this.

We ended up harvesting/eating tomatoes 6 weeks earlier which is the best treat ever and eggplants?  In the past growing eggplants usually involves a bit of pampering to make sure they have enough warmth – but this season I’ve only paid them attention when harvesting bowls of them. That’s a nice turn around.

The only minor downside is that this cold frame ended up being a bit short for the eggplants (the tomato plants were a bush (short) variety so didn’t have this issue). But as this only became an issue later in the season (when it’s warmer) we have simply left the lid notched up as you can see above.

Prolific fairy tale eggplants

Likewise with basil – we have much pesto in our fridge and freezer and fresh basil on everything. Abundance!

The cold frame is now slowly coming to a natural end. Over winter we’ll grow a mixed green manure crop to rest and feed the soil so it can get ready to do it all again next year.

In addition to the cold frame, we planted 12 tomato plants (in normal outside beds) which are still pumping away. There’s been so much pumping we’ve almost filled our pantry shelves. And that’s what we call winning!

Usually we’d buy some tomatoes to preserve in our fowler vacola jars – but not this year. This year it’s 100% toms from our garden (plus other fruits and veggies). A maturing garden and gardener (with more skills) is the most beautiful thing.

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Grafting Tomato Plants & Native Kangaroo Apple Shrubs!

The world of grafting plants is wonderful and wacky. You can start with just one pear tree and graft a range of other fruits onto it that are also in the pome family – so you could end up with a pear, apple, medlar, quince *and* nashi tree (plus more). Wow. So even if you only have room for one tree in your garden you can still have a range of fruits.

Sometimes the plants you can graft together are less obvious. This season we grafted some common tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) onto the native Kangaroo Apple shrub (Solanum laciniatum) which are both in the Solanaceae family (aka the nightshade family).

Kangaroo Apples are a hardy, quick growing, evergreen shrub that grow to 2.5m. They have blue/purple flowers followed by poisonous green fruits but that turn edible when ripe. Importantly they’re incredibly tough and will happily grow in average soils with no, or little moisture – whereas tomatoes need lots of compost and water to thrive. This means you can grow delicious tomatoes in areas where you have less fertile soils. It’s a bit magic.

Kangaroo Apple shrub thriving in the foreground and Frida and goats thriving the background. 

Here’s how we did it…

There are many types of grafting techniques, we did what’s called a bark graft. For more detailed instructions on bark grafting, see our previous blog on bark grafting our wild plum here. You basically chop the tree or shrub down to a stump (or just chop a branch off) and seen below.

You then gently peel back the bark and green cambium layer and place a number of tomato branches inside it.

The tomato branch is cut at an angle that means it can slide into the large branch of the Kangaroo Apple. 

You always add more than one branch of the desired plant species you’re fostering – this is so there’s more chance of getting a yield as it’s common that not all grafts will “take” and be successful. Below is one of the finished products (we did two branches) with graft tape holding everything in place and some Tree Stac which protects wounds from unhealthy bacteria or disease moving in.

A few months later and the graft is looking completely different. Two out of three of the tomato “branches” were successful and we’ve been eating tomatoes off them for weeks.

That black surface is the aged Treesac goop and the graft is growing over it. 

The particular variety of tomato is a local one simply called “George”, named after a Greek market gardener who’s since passed away. He grew and sold this amazing tomato which is large in size, but is more of a  shrub – so requires no staking (awesome). Hence, it sits at the bottom of the Kangaroo Apple shrub as seen below. We had some seed gifted to us from Fat Carrot Farm and it’s now our favourite tomato to grow as each plant has huge yields and requires less inputs (mainly staking).

In closing, I’d just like to say that plants are awesome, nature is the best and I love gardening!

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Our Pet Rabbits

After many months of asking and negotiating, Frida Maria convinced us to welcome two female rabbits into our home. The things us parents do.

Rabbits have reeked havoc on the Australian landscape. I remember visiting relative’s farms in western Queensland as a young kid devastated by rabbits, so there’s something in me that doesn’t want anything to do with fostering them. And if I’m honest, I haven’t fully resolved that. But I have resolved that a small person taking responsibility for animal love and care is a very good thing. Also, Grace and Sophie (the rabbits) are mostly located under the giant trampoline we’re looking after for a friend (for multiple years it seems), so they’re doing a fab job of managing the grass that we couldn’t access there. They’re working for us, while going about their own business.

Doesn’t the jumping up and down on the trampoline scare them?

Yes and no. They appear to be incredibly ok with it. We’re also going to build a rabbit tractor (similar to our old chook tractor below) to move them around the grass as our lawn mowers.

We have Dutch rabbits which will grow to up to around 2kgs. When I asked Frida what might happen if one day she doesn’t want rabbits anymore, she said “we’ll eat them”…  Hmmmm, well see.

Anyway, part of the arrangement is that Frida has to help with all the jobs. We drew/wrote up an agreement below which she signed her name against each job, promising to do each one daily. The “F” and love heart is her signature on the right.

It turns out Anton and I are quite fond of little rabbits, here’s a few of the dozen photos I took with Sophie and us this morning…..

  

While Sophie’s up for cuddles, Grace is a speedy, independent, not interested in cuddles type of rabbit. I admire her for that.

Frida’s face says it all really. The love is real. Time will tell if she was telling the truth when she promised to do all the jobs she signed her name against on the “bunny agreement”. Regardless of that, we’re up for the challenge and willing to welcome these little fluff balls into our property where they’ll help mow the grass, teach our kid responsibility and care and provide cuddles to those that can catch them.

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The Self-Cleaning Chook House

If you’re about to build yourself a chook house, we highly recommend a self-cleaning version where there’s no build up of poo at all inside the house. As well as saving yourself time, this creates a healthy environment for your chooks.

We built our chook house from salvaged pallets over 4 years ago and it’s still perfect. Since then we bought the neighbouring patch of land and have shifted the chooks and their house to flat ground and given them more space. It works *so* well.

The key features to this design is that;

  • It’s raised off the ground and its leg’s length can be adjusted,
  • It has an external egg hatch meaning you can harvest eggs without having to go into the run, and
  • The floor is made from strong wire mesh, allowing all poo to fall straight through to the ground beneath.

Sketch showing a profile of the chook house. This particular drawing is for a client’s garden, not ours.

Peak hour in the nesting box!

The inside of the chook has includes a number of branches (roosts) that the chooks sleep on and drop enormous amounts of poo from. 

Under the chook house we’ve placed a “poo catcher” (we use an old bread crate found on the side of the road). This catches some of the poo and makes it nice and easy for you to simply drag it out with one quick motion.

But of course, the chooks poo everywhere and we still end up scraping out a decent amount into a wheelbarrow, as well as what falls into the bread crate. So technically, you *do* still need to participate in the cleaning process – but you don’t have to get into small spaces and scrape poo off timber. It’s approximately one million times better this way.

As there’s a nice mix of dry straw and chook poo (mostly dry and old), I then put it straight onto one of our many fruit and nut trees. Today the mulberry and hazelnut trees got it.

A happy mulberry tree (and Frida in the background).

I then put the bread crate back under the house with a sheet of cardboard in it (to cover all holes) and wait for more poo.

But surely that pile of poo smells under the house?

No. There’s a significant amount of straw in there which prevents any smell from happening. It’s a nice blend of carbon (straw) and nitrogen (poo). Perfect. I only harvest poo from here every few months or so.

Don’t the chooks get cold with that mesh floor?

Chickens are hardy birds and we’ve found no negative impact on their health or egg laying, so I say no.

Do they fall through the mesh?

Chickens are originally jungle birds. This means they’ve evolved to sleep in trees on branches or within shrubs. Their feet are designed to curl around and hold onto different “roosts”, so this mesh floor is 100% fine for them to walk on. Saying that, this is on the larger side – usually we’d find mesh with smaller holes when building them for other people. But overall this is completely fine.

There you have it, go forth and create self-cleaning chook houses in peace and relief of never having to scrape poo off awkward spaces again. You’re welcome :-).

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Home Compost Booklet

We are pleased to finally be able to share this little bit of news with you. This year we were lucky to work with the City of Hobart and local illustrator Rachel Tribout to create this free booklet all about Home Composting!

As part of their Zero Waste Strategy, we’ve been collaborating with the City of Hobart to run free compost workshops for hundreds of Hobart folk this year – 420 folks to be exact over six workshops. Half way though these, we decided to turn my student notes into a proper awesome book to make them more accessible and beautiful. This is the result which you can now download for free from the Council website.  

And here’s a little peak inside some of the pages…

It’s our hope that this free resource helps people get started, or keep going in composting some (or all) of their food scraps at home. Because turning kitchens scraps into garden gold (i.e. nutrient-dense compost) at home is easy and darn effective in building soil health, preventing methane gases harming our atmosphere and helps store carbon in the ground. Plus it’ll give you enormous satisfaction in participating in the wonderful world of food and nutrient cycling – it’s a good feeling, trust me.

 

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Our Compost Station

The stuff of dreams this is. We’ve been talking about it for quite some time and we finally finished it. Introducing our dream Compost Station.

FYI – that rogue chook shouldn’t be there

We’ve got humanure bays, a compost bin, worm farm, chickens and goat systems all clustered into one compact, pretty spot and it’s awesome. Why is it so awesome?

It’s wonderfully efficient having all these systems in one place. We can just go to one place to drop off food scraps, humanure and animal manures into various compost options. When I harvest chook or goat poo from the neighbouring yard, it’s dead easy as it’s all on the same contour and I only have to move it a leisurely 1m – 10m. So good.

The worm farm also functions as a seat so we can hang out and watch the goats in comfort (we like to do that a lot). Plus it’s rodent proof, being built from a enamel bath and hardwood frame. You can see a photo journey of it’s construction below.

Anton showing off the false floor needed for drainage, made from reo and shadecloth. 

Worm bedding is then placed directly on top. We’re using half composted straw, nice and moist for the worms.

You can then add chopped up food scraps straight top (and the compost worms)

A layer of damp cardboard (or a hessian sack or woollen blanket) keeps the flies away and moderates temperate and moisture. 

You can read more about building your own worm farm seat (or potting bench) here and what compost worms are here.

The humanure (from the compost toilets) system is ergonomic, tidy and safe with no lifting or handling of raw poo/wee. We’ve got a number of wheelie bins retrofitted to be the chamber for an inside compost toilet. There’s a tap on the bottom of each bin which directs all urine to underground infiltration system – very similar to what’s being done here. Once a bin’s full, it’s swapped for an empty one and the full bin sits in on of the bays until it’s composted for approximately 6 months (that’s what those two green bins are doing). Once ready, it’s then transferred into this new bay where it finishes the composting process with compost worms. At this point there’s no unpleasant smell at all, it’ll stay here for another 6 months or so at which point it’ll return to our orchards. Wheelie bin toilets are awesome – check out Natural Event and The Humanure Handbook for more inspiration.

Edit: You also need to know that we have a flush toilet and that this compost toilet is optional, not for public use and all inputs highly monitored :-). 

There’s not much in it at the moment, but it’ll build up over time. The front timber panels can be removed one by one for ergonomic access. 

Tree prunings we harvest for our goats can be stored easily while they wait to be chipped and put back onto the garden or into the goat/chook run. We harvest weedy Cotoneaster daily for them from our local forest and cycle the carbon back into our landscape once the goat’s have stripped all leaves off the branches. Until now, I’ve been make awkward piles of sticks and branches which get in the way of everyone and thing, not any more. That one cross piece you can see across the front is to help contain them.

The compost bin is rodent proof with a layer of vermin mesh added to its bottom to stop rodents creeping in. You can read and see how we did this here. 

The black bin to the right of the worm farm below is full of dry, brown carbon materials to add to the compost bin and occasionally into the worm farm if needed. Having a stash of ready-to-go carbon on hand helps your compost experience be a successful one as if you only put food scraps into a compost bin you’ll create an anaerobic disaster.

It’s beautiful. Built from salvaged corrugated iron from the local Tip Shop and hardwood timber from a local person’s bush block, it’s completely gorgeous. Why hide your compost bin/system behind the back shed where it’s cold and dark (and you never want to go) when you could integrate it into the hub of your garden?

One of the permaculture principles is “produce no waste”. While a lot of the success with this principle is wrapped up in reducing consumption, it also questions what we do with the waste we produce – this Compost Station is part of our answer for our property. Every morning I drink my morning cuppa staring out the window at this gorgeous creation of efficiency and nutrient cycling heaven.

Special thanks to Anton who built it for me – the ultimate expression of love.

Wondering what we do about large hot compost piles?

  • We like to make hot compost piles in different spots around the garden to benefit different patches of soil – once it’s mature we just spread the compost in place which is easier. So they’re a moving feast that we only make in Spring and Summer when we have bulk garden waste from crops we’re pulling out.
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Tagasaste (tree lucerne): Friend or Foe?

Tagasaste or tree lucerne (Cytisus proliferus), is a small evergreen tree that grows 3-6m high (depending on soil and rain) and is a popular plant for people looking to regenerate poor soils and feed livestock.  It’s indigenous to the dry volcanic slopes of the Canary Islands and was introduced to Australia some time around 1879 when seeds where sent from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, England to the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.

Image from Pastures Australia

It has a varied reputation across Australia. While some farmers and land holders love it and swear by it for its incredible ability to grow in the shittiest of shittiest soils and provide nutritious fodder for their livestock – others dedicate their lives to removing what can become an invasive species if left unmanaged. So if you’re looking to start a lively conversation with folks who only want natives in Australia, this plant will deliver just that.

Permaculture has some baggage around spreading weeds. I’ve heard people say things like “permaculture is nothing but a strategy to spread weeds” and “permaculture gardeners are messy, they’re just propagating invasive species and they’re so lazy they let them get out of control.”

I’m sure sometimes this has been true. But I bet $5 (I’m not loaded) that when it comes to spreading invasive plants, I reckon ornamental gardeners have more to answer to than permaculture gardeners. I write this as I look out across a hillside of “native” bush which has thick understory of cotoneaster. A local who’s lived here since the 1960s told me that after the devastating 1967 fires that literally burnt most of Hobart, cotoneaster was one of the few plants that thrived in a burnt landscape, so ornamental gardeners planted it. Fast forward to now and it has firmly integrated itself into our whole peri-urban bushland – it’s become naturalised. I should know, as every day I harvest large branches of it for our goats. That and hawthorn – the other ornamental weed that’s making itself at home in local bushlands.

But this is not a blog about who’s a worse gardener or land holder. It’s a little dive into our relationship with plants and how we respond to the inevitable traveling of plants from one continent to another and the naturalisation that occurs after plants exist for decades, thriving in particular climates and soils.

I sit on the fence with this one. We live in urban Hobart where plants such as ornamental weeds including cotoneaster, willow, ivy, privet, and mirror bush (to name a few) are fostered in private gardens. As small-town-Hobart is also tightly hugged by bush, there are also a range of “environmental weeds” such as gorse, tagasaste and boneseed that *pop up everywhere*. I do believe that to remove all these weeds is impossible now. Their seeds are in the soil waiting for the right conditions to grow. Most, if not all – have naturalised, meaning they’re here to stay and now it’s up to us in how we respond to them.

Before we go any further, let me be very clear that I do not advocate actively introducing ornamental or environmental weeds into areas that don’t have them. For example properties neighbouring national parks, wild grasslands, pristine coastlines or vibrant water ways should be protected and maintained for the precious, unique ecosystems that they are. For these places, the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE)  promote planting native “tagasaste alternatives” to get a similar function, specifically Prickly box (Bursaria spinosa) and hop bush (Dodonaea viscosa) in dry areas and local Tasmanian native acacias for high rainfall areas.

But for urban and peri-urban areas where weeds are naturalised, wouldn’t it be interesting to look at how we can co-exist and evolve side and side? Again, I’m dead keen on maintaining native biodiversity *everywhere*. I’m just not keen on spending the rest of my life poisoning weedy plants in the name of native is best and everything else must die. 

So what do we do in our own garden? Tagasaste has popped up everywhere. We pulled out most the baby trees as we don’t need 1000 of them. However, we saved around 10 and interplanted them between our fruit and nut trees to act as nurse trees for the next 5-10 years or so. Nurse tree functions vary, in this case the tagasaste is fixing nitrogen into the soil (improving its health) and growing more quickly than the fruit and nut trees – therefore providing eventual wind protection (we have gnarly winds). As a major side bonus, they’re already providing fodder for our goats who love the fresh branches and leaves. You can see its nutritional benefits for livestock outlined below.

Comparison of tagasaste foliage with other common stock feeds

Chart from Permaculture Plants, Jeff Nugent & Juilia Boniface – sorry about the bad scan. 

Let it be know this is the only “environmental weed” we’ve actively fostered on our property. I’m always pulling out baby boneseed and gorse. We happen to have inherited an old windbreak made up on cotoneasta and pittosporum which we’ve chosen to keep due to those gnarly winds I mentioned above. Other than this, we plant only natives and fruit/nut trees and diverse shrubs.

So is tagasaste a friend or foe? I love and respect all plants and all unique ecosystems.  At the end of the day it comes down to your environmental and social context. In our case, tagasaste is a friend, but a bloody well managed one.

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Cold Frame Gardening

Recently, we built a much anticipated, beautiful bit of infrastructure for our garden – a cold frame.

This is a welcome addition to any cool temperate garden, where we’re all constantly working on creating warm microclimates to extend our season to get tomatoes earlier and longer, reliable eggplants and abundant basil.

Cold frames can be really compact and small, so are also a great option for people who don’t have a large enough space for a hot house or polytunnel. We still have plans for a hot house one day (specifically for oranges and bulk ginger), but in the meantime we have this 7m x 1m cold frame for annual vegetables and herbs.

What did we build it from & where did we locate it?

We built it from green (fresh) hardwood timber from a lovely bloke’s bush block in Franklin (southern Tasmania) and polycarbonate sheeting.

We located it up against a north facing rock wall (south facing for folks in the northern hemisphere) so it soaks up the hot sun and acts as thermal mass, retaining the heat for longer to benefit the crops growing  in front of it.

Things to know about building with hardwood timber for garden beds

  • Eventually it will rot – but not for around 10 years (approximately).
  • If you can access it and afford it, Cypress macrocarpa timber is the most durable timber to use in the landscape. We couldn’t afford it, so are using a mixture of Eucalyptus trees.
  • To extend the timber’s lifespan, you can line the sleepers with non-toxic plastic to prevent direct contact between the timber and soil. While not shown in these photos (sorry) this is what we’ve done.
  • We’ve built the frame so the timber sleepers can be removed and replaced as needed.
  • The actual frame has separate timber pickets on each upright to stabilise the whole frame (seen in photo above right). Eventually we’ll replace these with steel star pickets – again to extend the life of the frame.
  • You could just not use timber and use bricks/stone for the edging and steel for the frame with concrete footings – all maximum durability! We’re just using what we have available to us.

Once the whole frame is built, we aerated the soil with a broadfork – just use a standard garden fork if that’s all you have.

After this aerating process, we put down a layer of cardboard to slow weeds coming back (they *will* come) and then a good layer of top soil around 200mm deep to match the height of the sleepers and a sprinkle of compost on top.

And then we plant!

Normally people in Tasmania plant their tomatoes after “show day”, October 25th. Traditionally this is when you can safely say there’ll be no more frost – although occasionally there’ll be a “freak” frost. This year we planted a small batch of tomatoes on September 21st. One whole month early – we have big smiles on our face in anticipation of eating tomatoes sooner rather than later. We have another batch of tomatoes we’ll plant after show day in different open air garden beds.

In another few weeks, we’ll plant basil seedlings all around these tomatoes to make use of all the available space.

Importantly, the lids can open at different heights to let small or large amounts of air in. This is important as on hot, sunny days you need to ensure that air flow is maintained, otherwise there’s the risk of fostering fungal diseases.

As we get really strong winds at our house we put a lock on each lid. One year our whole broccoli crop was literally blown out of the ground – so we take our wind-proofing pretty seriously around here. You can see our lock of choice to the right.

Eating with the seasons is a wonderful way to eat. That first tomato of the season tastes really *amazing* after 6 months of no fresh tomatoes. But this little bit of infrastructure reduces that waiting time – some might call it cheating, we just call it clever :-).

Edit (March 2019) – If you would like to see how our cold frame went for its first season, read our other blog here. 

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