The Farmer Diaries

Texas farmer finds creative ways to keep harvest rolling through fall

Texas farmer finds creative ways to keep harvest rolling through fall

carrots freshly harvested
Carrots harvested from a Texas garden in late August. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
swiss chard in a container
Swiss chard grows well in containers for fresh greens throughout fall and winter. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
lettuce growing in containers
Lettuce is a crop that's easy to grow indoors and is ready to pick in a few weeks. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
seeds being planted
In his greenhouse, Marshall Hinsley sows Swiss chard seeds in small containers with the supervision of a friend. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
carrots freshly harvested
swiss chard in a container
lettuce growing in containers
seeds being planted

Days become noticeably shorter by late August. Once the sun sets, the glow of sunlight on the horizon disappears more quickly. Somber hints of fall's imminent arrival goad me on to plant fall crops and prepare for winter's melancholy stint.

The biggest challenge in winter growing is the dwindling variety of viable crops. Already, my harvest of foods rich in protein is insufficient. My weekly grocery visit will include purchases of organic nuts, beans, bread, flour and cornmeal. Mastering the production of these staples is a task I've yet to undertake.

On the other hand, meeting my need for a steady supply of fresh vegetables, even in the dead of winter, has been a successful endeavor for me for the past several years. It's what motivated me to return to gardening after having set my priorities on other pursuits for most of my adulthood.

 Spring is easy. But fall and winter gardening requires a little more attention. 

I placed gardening back on my agenda when in the winter of 2006, I noticed a bruise on my leg. A little later, one appeared on my arm. I couldn't recall what I bumped into, which for me was odd. To bruise, I really have to be bludgeoned, and one tends to remember when such an incident occurs. But for some reason, I was bruising easily.

A deficiency in fresh, green vegetables was the most reasonable diagnosis for my condition. I was becoming a junk-food vegan, living off of prepared frozen meals and fast-food quality dinners with only a rare showing of broccoli.

The remedy was more produce: organic kale, Swiss chard and collard greens. But the addition to my food bill was substantial: up to $30 a week. I knew how easy it was to turn a $2.79 seed packet into a half-year's worth of carrots. That's when I began gardening in earnest, in an effort to have my own fresh produce year-round.

The backup plan
Spring is easy. But fall and winter gardening requires a little more attention. It begins in late August, when I plant a last round of carrots and squash. Those will mature in the remaining 100 days or more of frost-free weather, ready for harvest in late October.

In addition, I plant all the greens that can withstand a freeze: kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and turnip greens. These vitamin-rich crops thrive in Texas winters and even improve in flavor as the temperatures dive downward.

Covered with a frost blanket made of spun polyester, they can endure temperatures into the teens. These crops, from which I may harvest greens as needed from October to next summer, save me about $50 to $100 per month.

But one winter a while ago, it stayed cloudy for a week, and temperatures never rose above the 20s. My cold-weather crops took a hit and needed a couple of weeks to rebound. So now I have a backup plan: a greenhouse.

My greenhouse is a 144-square-foot structure, about the size of a one-car garage, that sits 20 feet from my back door. My father and I built it when I was 14. It has a 12-by-12-foot footprint and 8-foot-tall walls, made of two-by-fours and corrugated polycarbonate roof panels.

 Inside the greenhouse, I'll grow lettuce, maybe tomatoes and herbs such as cilantro and basil. In fact, many lettuce mixes sold at the grocery store are grown in greenhouses. 

Inside, a row of shelves runs along the walls, about 4 feet up from the ground. It accommodates hundreds of seedlings planted in small, 4-inch pots; several dozen larger potted plants can get adequate sunlight when placed under the shelves on the ground.

It has two small electric heaters that use about as much energy as a hair dryer. On their own, they keep the temperature about 10 degrees warmer than outdoors. They only run when the temperature inside the greenhouse falls below the 60s (if I'm trying to germinate seeds) or below the 40s (if the plants are more mature).

For nights with a hard freeze predicted, a back-up kerosene heater kicks in. But when the sun shines, the greenhouse easily reaches the 90s with no heater running, even if it's near freezing outside. I must watch for too severe of a temperature shift between the highs and lows; otherwise, the plants will become stunted or die from the desert-like temperature extremes.

Solar plan
This year, I hope to take it to another level by building a solar water heater. My goal is to eliminate the energy consumption of the heater and raise the temperature in the greenhouse even higher at night than the electric heaters are capable of doing.

I'll be using a sliding glass patio door that was once the back door to my house; we hung onto it after replacing it a few years ago. I'll also use a couple of barrels that were once commercial food containers — reclaimed, cleaned and resold to my father by a man who was in the recycling business for a while. Those will store the hot water.

How it will work: The glass door will serve as the top of a thin, insulated box. The box will contain a set of pipes that pump water. Heated by the sun, the water will flow to and from the storage barrels inside the greenhouse through heat-proof hoses connected to a water pump.

Ideally, the sun will heat the water to temperatures well over 100 degrees by the end of the day. At night, that heat emanating from the heated water in the storage barrels should warm the air in the greenhouse.

Inside the greenhouse, I'll grow lettuce, maybe tomatoes and herbs such as cilantro and basil. In fact, many lettuce mixes sold at the grocery store are grown in greenhouses.

The actual maintenance of a winter garden is surprisingly easy, requiring a few minutes each day. Watering is rarely necessary. Pests are scarce.

The main challenge is providing protection when a hard freeze occurs. I watch weather reports and cover outdoor crops with a frost blanket whenever temps fall below the 40s, just to be safe. In the greenhouse, the crops require about as much care as house plants do.

The cool season garden and greenhouse crops give me a great sense of satisfaction in reducing my dependence on industrialized agriculture. As a lover of summer and long hot days, they also give me a restorative way to endure the dreariness of winter and its long suffocating nights.