The Winter Garden

To commemorate the longest nights of the year, I’m writing about one woman’s winter gardening success. It’s so impressive that I have included information here that will help you get this going at your own place.
Clair Gardner’s experiments and successes are tucked away against some cliffs in Lamy, NM. Her home is off the grid and full of cobbled-together nooks and crannies filled with delightfully wild productivity.
Clair’s garden beds were not obvious at first. I had walked by several in my search to find Clair in her goat pen. With full pails of fresh milk in her hands, she showed me how her chickens get a good amount of the protein they need from the bugs in the goat manure. This adventurous and intelligent woman has a whole lot to share.

When the beds were uncovered, I received a fresh whiff of green moist air. The plants inside were vibrant and large. There were seedlings happily covering an area of the bed. This is late December, not really a time when most people plant outside. But these beds have an interesting indoor quality to them. The bed is sunken into the ground, straw bales are stacked as walls and greenhouse double walled plastic sheets are used to cover the bed flat on top. These beds she uses mostly for greens- for her own family and her chickens. She mixes together seeds that include boc choy, spinach, collards, broccoli and mustard and sprinkles them in the area that she harvests from. Thick seeding and heavy thinning is an essential part of Clair’s system with these beds. She keeps the chard separate as it can take over. Arugula has been banished from the beds for this reason.
These straw bale greenhouse beds have two layers of double walled greenhouse plastic purchased at Plastic Supply Inc. in Albuquerque for $130 per 12 x 6 foot sheet. Clair had the company cut them there. One of these sheets supplies both layers for the bed. They are cut to fit into a wooden frame on top of the straw bales The frame allows space between the ultraviolet resistant plastic sheets. In the winter Clair has seen a thermometer report temperatures down to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. But she has never seen the plants themselves frozen. In the summer she just props open the greenhouse lids, and the greens are very happy. Somehow this design that Clair has developed creates a growing environment that doesn’t change all that much throughout the seasons of the year. She thinks it is because of the lack of evaporation and keeping the plant roots cool.
Usually I have an aversion to covering my gardens so they are not visible as I walk by. A friend told me once that I was too plant-empathic. Nevertheless, I think I’ll make a garden bed according to Clair’s designs. I’m sold because of how little she has to water. In the summer she only waters once a week. In the winter, it’s once every three weeks. And it seems she has seeds germinating and good growth all year round. Like I do in my greenhouse, she will let some plants go to seed, and keep harvesting years later. Another thing that I find amazing is that Clair only adds compost to the top few inches of soil. Without deep soil improvement, the plants do well. She rarely has insect infestations.
My own greenhouse is now thriving. There are giant tomatoes filling out a plant that volunteered a year ago. The leeks are monstrous and ready to harvest. The kale trees are still trying to grow out of the greenhouse. It’s best for me to keep a good supply of older plants in the grey water bed. I know their roots have found the subsurface irrigation. I’ll build one of Clair’s designs specifically for year round tender greens. It’s perfect.
Now a few photos of Ampersand’s greenhouse during Winter Solstice.
Written by Amanda Bramble

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