Winter gardening

Winter is approaching and we’re getting the first frosts of the fall. Usually this means putting the garden to bed for the winter, and waiting till spring to grow anything else. But this year, we’re trying some fall gardening techniques so that we can have fresh produce at least somewhat into winter, and hopefully all winter long!

There are a few ways to try to get fresh produce throughout the winter, depending on your local climate. The goal for each method is to protect the plants from wind and provide warmer temperatures than they would experience unprotected. The method most people think of first is using a greenhouse. Greenhouses typically use glass or plastic for the walls and ceiling. These materials let short wave infrared sunlight pass through, and then they get turned into long wave infrared light, which can no longer be reflected back out of the greenhouse. As more energy gets trapped inside the greenhouse, the greenhouse heats up. Depending on how cold the outdoor temperature is, supplemental heat may also be used in the greenhouse to keep the plants healthy and happy.

Our rental house has a small greenhouse which we would love to use, but unfortunately it’s in the shade of several tall trees, so that option is out for us.

Another option is to build a cold frame. This is a much cheaper option than a greenhouse, and if you have some scrap materials laying around, you can likely build one almost for free!

Cold frames are bottomless boxes with a lid on top made of glass or plastic. They work using the same principles as a greenhouse, but on a smaller scale. On cold nights, simply close the lid, and if daytime temperatures will be too toasty, open the lid a little bit.

Cold frame by Ofer El-Hashahar, Flickr

Cold frame
by Ofer El-Hashahar, Flickr

The option we’re using this winter is hoop houses/polytunnels. To do this on the cheap, you can take PVC pipes and bend them into an arc shape above your plants at regular intervals. Then when it’s cold out, just cover the whole thing in a big plastic drop cloth. We spent about $12 for two small raised beds.

You’ll still want to stick with cold-tolerant crops, but there are a bunch of those to pick from. We’re growing snow peas, turnips, carrots, beets, swiss chard, collards, kale, lettuce and spinach. Out of the bunch, the kale and collards are especially cold-tolerant. We’ve had both of them survive in pots all winter, completely unprotected. Still, our goal is to have them not just survive, but thrive so that we can harvest fresh greens throughout the winter. With a little bit of protection, they should do much better.

What if none of these options work for you? Maybe you live in an apartment and building a hoop house or cold frame is unrealistic right now. Well, the other thing we’re going to try this winter is growing greens indoors. Personally, I hate buying whole heads of lettuce, or bags of loose lettuce, because by the time I finish it all up, it often will no longer has the crispness that it did that first day.  I much prefer to just take individual leaves as I need them, at the peak of freshness.

With growing plants indoors, you do have to consider the cost of the electricity for the lighting, but that is weighed against the value of always having such fresh greens available for you. A shop light with standard T12 fluorescent lamps will work just fine, as long as your plants are kept close (within a couple inches) to the light.

If you go to buy the fluorescent lights, you’ll have multiple options, including “cool white” light and “warm” light. The “cool white” light puts out more light in the blue spectrum, which is good for making short, stocky plants. If you start seedlings under lights in the spring, this is exactly what you want so that you have strong plants to put outside. The “warm” lights put out more light in the red spectrum, which is good for encouraging more growth. However, if there’s too much red light, you can get “leggy” plants – plants that are weak, tall, and spindly. The bottom light is, when choosing light for your greens that will stay indoors, either go with all “cool white” lights, or do one “cool white” and one “warm” in the ballast so that it will get a fuller spectrum.

This method will be more expensive than the hoop house method, especially since you have to pay for electricity. But it’s not that much, so for me and my husband it is a matter of weighing the cost of the electricity versus the nutritional value and the enjoyment we get from having such fresh lettuce.

So here’s the cost breakdown for this kind of indoor setup:

4′ shop light for T12 lights = $12

Set of 2 bulbs =$8

Timer = $6

Electricity so that the timer can keep the lights on for 16 hours per day =

Happy winter gardening!

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The Science Behind Blue Eggs

Although most breeds of chickens lay white or brown eggs, there are a few breeds that lay blue ones. In the U.S., you may come across Araucana, Americauna, and Easter Egger chickens. Araucana chickens are descended from chickens in Chile called Mapuche fowl. They have tufts of feathers around their ears, and they are rumpless – they have no tail or oil gland (1).

Araucana hen with ear tufts by Anne Cushing

Araucana hen with ear tufts
by Anne Cushing

Ameraucana chickens were bred from Araucanas. These have muffs (extra feathering on the sides of the face) and beards (extra feathering under the chin), a pea comb, a full tail, and dark legs (2).

Blue Ameraucana Cock By Royale Photography

Blue Ameraucana Cock
By Royale Photography

Easter Eggers are any chicken with the blue egg gene, and typically look a bit like the Ameraucanas with the tail, beard, and muffs, but not always. Here is my Easter Egger girl, Sue.

Sue (Easter Egger) on driveway

Sue (Easter Egger) on driveway

Sue (Easter Egger) in the grass

Sue (Easter Egger) in the grass

Notice her pea comb, extra feathering around the face, her tail, and dark legs. She looks similar to Ameraucanas, which is pretty typical for an Easter Egger, but it’s not always the case. Unlike the Ameraucana, this is not a true breed, so if two Easter Eggers mate, the offspring won’t necessarily look like the parents.

Aside from the Araucanas, Ameraucanas, and Easter Eggers, the blue egg gene is also found in some Asian chicken breeds, such as the Dongxiang.

Scientists have known that the blue pigment in these eggshells is a bile pigment called biliverdin, which gets absorbed into the eggshell in the shell gland of the hen (4). But until recently, they didn’t know what gene caused that to happen. This year, scientists published about the genetic cause of blue eggs.

Normally in biology, the DNA is what encodes the blueprint for the organism. When a protein needs to be made, messengers called RNA are produced by transcribing from the DNA blueprint, and then the RNA is directly used for instructing the cells to make proteins. So the paradigm is DNA->RNA->protein.

The scientists discovered that blue chicken eggs are caused by an endogenous retrovirus. This means that instead of a virus using the normal paradigm of DNA->RNA->protein, there was an RNA virus that “reverse transcribed” itself into DNA. This DNA then inserted itself into the chicken genome. In two separate cases (the Mapuche fowl of Chile, and the Dongxiang of Asia), this insertion happened near a gene encoding a carrier protein for biliverdin. Because the insertion happened so close to the carrier protein gene, a lot more carrier protein gets produced in the shell gland of the chicken, causing biliverdin to be incorporated into the shells (3).

All this talk of viruses might sound scary, but don’t worry – your Easter Egger chickens aren’t sick! Retroviruses in the genomes of organisms are very, very common. For example, endogenous retroviral elements make up 8% of the human genome (5). But almost all of them have mutations making them inactive, so they can’t spread to new areas of the genome and cause problems. The blue egg retrovirus is one of those that have been inactivated by mutations (3).

Prior to this finding, retroviruses were always believed to insert randomly into genomes, but this shows an example of a retrovirus inserting twice into almost exactly the same place. Blue eggs are not uncommon among bird species.  Robins, house finches, bluebirds, and starlings are a few examples. It will be interesting to see if these species have similar retroviruses causing their blue eggs. And if they do, why are retroviral insertions into this one spot so common? I can see this having big implications for basic biology down the line!

American Robin Eggs in Nest by Laslovarga

American Robin Eggs in Nest
by Laslovarga




3. Wragg D, Mwarcharo J, Alcalde J, Wang C, Han J-L, Gongora J, Gourichon D, Tixier-Boichard M, Hanotte O (2013) Endogenous retrovirus EAV-HP linked to blue egg phenotype in Mapuche fowl. PLOS One 8:e71393.

4. Gorchein A, Lim CK, Cassey P (2009) Extraction and analysis of colourful
eggshell pigments using HPLC and HPLC/electrospray ionization tandem mass
spectrometry. Biomed Chromatogr 23: 602–606. doi:10.1002/bmc.1158.

5. Belshaw R, Pereira V, Katzourakis A, Talbot G, Paces J, Burt A, Tristem M (2004). “Long-term reinfection of the human genome by endogenous retroviruses”. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 101 (14): 4894–99.

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Genetic diversity

The crops that we know and enjoy come in amazing diversity that most of us have never observed. Sure, we might see ten different kinds of apples when we go to the grocery store. When we buy tomatoes, we might have three or four choices – at a typical grocery store, we can choose whether we want small cherry tomatoes or a big beefsteak variety. If we go to Whole Foods, we get a few more choices. But still, it’s only the tiniest fraction of what is out there.

Maybe this picture gives a better sense of what we tend to miss out on. There are all different colors, sizes, shapes, textures, and flavors out there that most of us never experience.

Tomato diversity
Image by Karsten Seiferlin, Flickr

For another example, let’s think about carrots. The only carrot most people know of is orange, with one particular size and one particular shape. But did you know that the original carrot was not orange? Modern carrots are descended from wild carrots, which are white.

Wild carrot root
Image from World Carrot Museum

Through selective breeding, various colors, sizes and shapes of carrots developed. Today carrots come in the familiar orange, but also red, yellow, purple, and white.


Carrot Diversity
Image from Agricultural Research Services, United States Department of Agriculture

All of this genetic diversity is very important, because different varieties of the same species have different ability to resist pests and diseases, live in different day lengths or light intensity, deal with drought or soil salinity, or grow in less fertile soils. Tragedies have happened when countries have focused exclusively on one crop or crop variety.

The most dramatic example is the Irish potato famine. In the 1840s, the fungus-like organism that causes late blight was introduced to Ireland. In wet weather, this fungus-like organism will cause dark spots on the leaves and stems, and in the case of stem lesions, the whole plant may quickly collapse and die. Meanwhile, the potatoes themselves also become infected and soon rot away. Even when potatoes initially look healthy after harvest, they may develop the infection and rot while in storage.

Potato with Late Blight
Image from Agriculture Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture

In 1845, late blight destroyed one third to one half of Ireland’s potato crop. 1846 was even worse, and three-quarters of the crop was lost. In 1848, one third of the crop was again lost. In this period of history, the Irish were dependent on potato as their main source of calories, and one potato variety called the Irish Lumper in particular. Growing a single crop species with limited genetic diversity made it easy for one pathogen to cause such destruction. There was widespread famine in Ireland at this time, killing about 1 million people and forcing another million to emigrate from Ireland (1).

A more recent example is with Southern Corn Leaf Blight. In the 1960s, corn seed companies began primarily using corn with a trait that would allow for easier corn breeding. By 1970, over 80% of the corn that was grown had the trait. By 1968, a new race of the Southern Corn Leaf Blight pathogen came along that was able to cause disease on all the corn with this trait. Because that was the primary corn variety grown, in 1970 the disease was able to destroy about 15% of the corn belt’s crop for the year (2).

Southern Corn Leaf Blight Image from David B. Langston, University of Georgia,

Southern Corn Leaf Blight
Image from David B. Langston, University of Georgia,

The problem that we are facing today is that locally adapted crop varieties are rapidly being lost, in favor of a few elite cultivars. For example, in the early 1900s there were over 8000 apple varieties in the United States. Today, more than 95% of those varieties have been lost.

The problem goes beyond loss of genetic diversity within species. The variety of species that we eat has also been dramatically reduced. Throughout human history, over 7000 plant species have been used for food. Today, only 150 plant species are under extensive cultivation, and most people get 90% of their energy needs from only 15 plant species (1).

So what does all this have to do with backyard food production? I believe this is one area where those of us with a garden can make a real impact. If we have a small amount of garden space, we can grow one or a few rare plant varieties in our gardens, perhaps saving seed from year to year so that the variety becomes adapted to our local growing conditions. If we have a little bit more garden space, we can even do some crosses and create a new plant variety.


(1) Monoculture and the Irish Potato Famine: cases of missing genetic variation.

(2) Bruce Pollock. The Victory Seed Company.

(3) Paul Gepts. Plant Genetic Resources Conservation and Utilization: The Accomplishments and Future of a Societal Insurance Policy. 2006. Crop Science 46: 2278-2292.

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Science-Based Companion Planting

If you read much about organic gardening, you’re likely to hear all kinds of recommendations for companion planting, or which plants should be grown next to other plants. There are many reasons that organic gardeners promote companion planting. For example, vining crops may be promoted as ground cover to suppress weeds around taller crops. Companion planting may also be used as a way to deal with insect pests and diseases. For example, aromatic plants may confuse insects, who are then unable to find their preferred host. Some plants may attract beneficial, predatory insects who feed on pest insects. Companion planting may be used so that pathogens must travel further to find a suitable host, which could slow down the spread of disease.

intercropping carrots and onions

intercropping carrots and onions
Image from:

As I have read several recommendations for companion plants, I have often wondered how much scientific evidence there is for particular plant combinations. The theory behind companion planting seems sound to me, but until particular combinations are tested with proper scientific controls, we don’t really know if those combinations provide a real benefit. Lately, I have been reading the literature to find what evidence I can for (or against) particular companion plant choices.

I’m just going to address a few studies with tomato combinations today. One popular recommendation is that tomatoes do well when intercropped with basil, but are antagonized by being planted with brussels sprouts. But one study (1) compared these combinations with each other, and found that basil as the intercrop was no better than brussels sprouts as the intercrop. When they compared these mixtures to monocultures, they found that the mixture used land more efficiently in a drier, hotter year, but that the monocultures used land more efficiently in the more favorable year. But they do hypothesize that the plants could have been spaced more densely in the mixture, which might have resulted in more efficient land use than the monoculture.

One study (2) compared land use efficiency for tomatoes intercropped with onion, kale, or corn. They found that going by land use efficiency, tomatoes + onions was best, followed by tomatoes + kale, followed by tomatoes + corn. The least efficient land use was the tomato monoculture. The same study was also looking at how these different combinations affect a tomato insect pest called thrips.

Western flower thrips Frank Peairs, Colorado State University,

Western flower thrips
Frank Peairs, Colorado State University,

They showed that the tomato + corn mixture had the least number of thrips, perhaps because the tall corn impeded the thrips from landing on the tomato plants. There were smaller tomatoes though, because the tomatoes were being shaded out by the corn.

There was another study (3) showing that tomato yield is greater if intercropped with rue, followed by peppermint, followed by basil. However, tomato yield was less if intercropped with fennel than if the tomatoes were monocropped. Perhaps the saying should be, “Tomatoes love rue but hate fennel” instead of “Tomatoes love basil but hate brussels sprouts.”

I also searched a little for the effects of intercropping with cucumber as the primary crop. Intercropping with onions or garlic both resulted in a greater cucumber yield than in cucumber monoculture.

What I gather from these studies is that there are real benefits to using intercropping versus monoculture. But the popularly recommended combinations may not have the evidence to support them and they may not be the best combinations to use. Hopefully more research will be done in these areas. Maybe when I have more garden space to work with, I’ll do some experiments of my own!

1. M.K. Bomford. 2009. Do tomatoes love basil but hate brussels sprouts? Competition and land-use efficiency of popularly recommended and discouraged mixtures in biointensive agriculture systems. Journal of Sustainable Agriculture 33:396-417.

2. R.C. Ramkat et al. 2008. Cropping system influences Tomato spotted wilt virus disease development, thrips population and yield of tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum). Annals of Applied Biology 153:373-380.

3. L.M. Carvalho et al. 2009. Yield of tomato in monocrop and intercropping with aromatics plants. Horticultura Brasileira 27: 458-464.

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Foraging for honey mushrooms

Okay, time for a break from all the chicken talk. This post is going to be about our experience this fall foraging for mushrooms.

First, I just want to say that eating wild mushrooms when you’re not 100% sure of their identity is dangerous, and can even be deadly. So if you forage for mushrooms, be sure to consult at least two references to make sure you have your identification correct, and make sure every part of the description in the books completely matches your mushroom – “almost” is not good enough. Also, the first time you try a new species, it’s a good idea to have your identification confirmed by an expert. In my case, I am the teaching assistant for a mycology class this semester, and I have training in identifying wild mushrooms. My identification was confirmed by two other mycologists.

If you’re interested in learning to forage for wild mushrooms, I recommend starting out with very unique, difficult-to-confuse mushrooms such as morels or chanterelles. Save the regular, gilled mushrooms for later on. Also, get a good mushroom ID book. My favorite is called Mushrooms Demystified, by David Arora.

Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora, on Amazon

Okay, so in the past couple weeks, we have found a ton of these in our yard:



This species is called Armillaria tabescens, also known as the ringless honey mushroom. They are dull brown mushrooms growing in large clusters that can be either parasites or decomposers of hardwood tree roots. When I pulled up some of the clusters, a few were growing from old tree stumps cut close to the ground, and most of them were growing from tree roots that were close to the ground surface.

To identify these, you want to look for several features. First, turn the mushroom upside down and look at how the gills attach to the stalk. Different kinds of mushrooms have different gill attachments. Some types of mushrooms have gills that do not attach to the stalk at all – the gills end right before they reach the stalk. On others, the gills can be attached. For these honey mushrooms, the gills should be running slightly down the stalk.


Next, you want to make what’s called a spore print. Cut the cap off from the stalk, and set it, gills down, on a sheet of paper (or in our case, a shoe box that we were about to throw out). Cover with an overturned bowl so that the mushroom doesn’t dry out too fast. Over the course of a few hours, the mushroom will release its spores en masse onto the paper. At that point, you can see what color the spores are. Armillaria species will give a white spore print.

spore print honey mushroom

Some mushrooms such as the other Armillaria species have a ring around the stalk, but Armillaria tabescens does not. The other species are also great edibles, but be sure to do a spore print – there are poisonous, even deadly species that look similar and have a ring, but have brown spores instead of white.

Armillaria mellea has a ring around the stalk, called an annulus

Armillaria mellea has a ring around the stalk, called an annulus
Image from Wikipedia

The cap should be 1-6 cm across, and the stalk should be 5-20 cm tall and 0.5 to 1.5 cm thick. The stalk should be pale toward the top, and get a little darker toward the bottom.

Once you’re sure you have Armillaria tabescens, you want to just use the caps to cook with, since the stems are tough and fibrous. Also be sure to cook it very well, because if undercooked, this species has been known to cause upset stomachs in some people.

In our case, we parboiled some of them and then mixed them in with scrambled eggs and salsa. Mmmmm… delicious! I’ve heard they are good in anything that shiitake mushrooms would be good. We’ve dried the rest of the mushrooms in our food dehydrator, and I’m planning to make some udon with honey mushrooms and kale in miso broth. It’s an amazing recipe, so if you want to try it (you can use shiitake mushrooms like the original calls for), go here:

Udon with shiitake mushrooms and kale in miso broth

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Bringing our new hens home

On the day that we finished the coop, we drove to South Carolina to visit our friend Liz and get the chickens. She had a bunch of hens that she was looking to re-home, but I especially wanted her two Buff Orpingtons, since they were supposed to be especially friendly, and still decent egg layers. I also go one Easter Egger (these lay pale blue or green eggs), and one Barred Rock. The Barred Rock had somehow escaped from Liz’s run that day, and was running around her back yard. David’s first chicken experience was helping Liz’s son catch the Barred Rock.

I named the first Orpington Zahavah, which comes from the Hebrew word for gold. As you can see, David is not quite sure what to make of her yet.


Here is the second Orpington. I named her Tzipporah… I think it’s a very pretty name, but it amused me to name her that because it is so sneakily uncreative – Tzipporah is the Hebrew word for “bird.” Although she and Zahavah look very similar, Tzipporah is a little fatter, with lighter-colored feathers. She also has a little chip in her beak which we don’t know how she got.

I told David and Ann that chickens were originally bred from jungle fowl, so David wanted to name her Jane instead of Tzipporah… as in Tarzan and Jane. I told him that if we ever get a “Tarzan,” that’s when he can name one Jane.


This is the Barred Rock. David called her Sally Shakespeare, and Ann thought she should be Pepper, so mostly she gets called whatever we feel like at the moment.


And here is our Easter Egger, who David named Sous-marin, which is French for submarine. Don’t ask me why he picked that, because I have no idea! Mostly she gets called Sue.


Shakespeare and Zahavah are by far the friendliest of our girls, and Shakespeare is always the boldest. These two are usually happy to be petted as long as they are getting treats in exchange. At first, Sue was the most skittish around people, and would try to always be at least 10 feet away from me. She was a little sulky at first too, staying in the coop on her perch most of the day rather than being outside in the run with the others. But now, all of them will eat out of my hand, and everyone except Tzipporah will sit on my lap when food is involved. They all seem well-adjusted and happy.

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Building a run

So then we had what would become our coop, but we still needed a run, so that the chickens can enjoy the outdoors while being protected from predators. Most sources on backyard chicken keeping recommend 10 square feet of floor space in a run, per chicken. Using posts from Lowe’s, we began building an 8 ft by 8 ft run, which would enough space for the chickens plus a little extra.

Although some people use chicken wire when building their run, hungry predators can easily bite through the wire. Raccoons have also been known to reach a paw through the big holes in the chicken wire, grab a chicken by its head, and try to pull it out the hole… resulting in a dead, headless chicken. The better option is half inch hardware cloth, which is a heavy metal mesh. The heavier the gage, the better. It’s fairly expensive stuff, but does a much better job keeping the predators out. The best deal I could find was from Wayfair, which sells 100′ rolls of 19 gage half inch hardware cloth:

When building a run, it’s also a good idea to think about how to keep out digging predators such as foxes. There are two options for this, but both need an extra foot of hardware cloth at the bottom of the run. This extra foot can either be buried straight down into the ground (which is what we did), or it can be buried slightly into the ground and then fanned out from the coop. A little more or a little less than one foot can be used, depending on what the soil is like – loose, sandy soil will need more of a barrier. Digging the foot-deep trench all the way around the run was definitely the most time-consuming part of building our run, especially with the red clay soil we have here. If I had it to do over again, I would consider fanning out the extra foot and weighting it down all the way around with heavy cinder blocks.

We attached the hardware cloth to the wooden posts by hammering in fence staples. Standard staples from a staple gun tend to be too shallow and easy to pop out by hungry predators. Finally, we covered half of the run with corrugated metal roofing, and put hardware cloth over the other half of the run. I was thinking that the chickens might like choosing shade or sun, depending on the weather. At least with our rainy summer, this ended up being a big mistake. Wet poop is smelly, hard to clean up poop. So later, the rest of the top was also covered with corrugated metal roofing.

Here you can see how we put up the posts and attached the hardware cloth. We made a small door on the side of the coop, which will be for reaching in to collect eggs. The big side-by-side doors in the back are to get in the coop and clean it. We started painting the coop with exterior grade light blue paint, to protect it from the elements.



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