Garden Notes: End of March

Pittsburgh winters are fickle beasts. More and more often we are stuck with a warm November, recently sliding into December, that sees very little snow contributing to a White Christmas. January typically sees freezing cold, and surprise snow one day will be followed by weather just warm enough to melt the snow, turning it into a gray icy mess.

This year, we skipped a lot of the second part of winter that can wear you down, chilling you to the core with sub zero temperatures. It was cold, it was winter, but we also had a lot of days warmer than 50 degrees before we even got to March. All of this is a long winded way of getting to a hard question for someone eager to get planting in the garden: when to start seeds?

Planning out what goes where, and when.

We are officially in Zone 6 in Pittsburgh, and our last frost date is supposed to range from mid April until mid May, depending on which source you ask. Ever the optimist, or maybe just eager-ist, I go by the earliest date provided and sometimes roll back even further from that.

Past gardens have been successful, but we have a larger yard and a more permanent mindset that is fostering a desire for both more consistent production, as well as a longer season of fresh foods. Having tried some succession planting in the past, I picked up a few books to push this idea even further. I would highly recommend Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest. Full of wonderful ideas, charts and theory behind rotating crops, successive plantings, and crop variety, the goal is to push your garden to a year round bounty. Additionally, his farm is based in Maine, so it provided some practical cold world information that a majority of fair weather gardening blogs and books do not deal with.

In front of southern facing windows, on top of a radiator, we now have seedlings for a whole host of edibles, and a few flowers, some of which were started over 4 weeks ago, at the end of February. There are the regulars: tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, radishes. We are also trying a few new things this year: rhubarb, chard, broccoli and cauliflower, as well as a reach goal of growing artichokes.

As March draws to a close, we are now facing a long stretch of warm weather, with not a single low dropping below freezing. In fact, frost appears to be so remote of a threat, I took it as an opportunity to finish construction on our raised beds and begin sowing a few direct seed outdoor crops. Focusing on cold hardy plants, we now have carrots and beets in one of the root vegetable beds. These beds are the typical mix of compost/soil/peat moss, but also have a bag of sand mixed in to loosen the soil and allow for bigger produce than what our compact earth would otherwise generate.

Our five raised beds and cold house in the background.

Some peas and radishes were also planted, with room left for successive crops to follow in the coming weeks, which was also done with the carrots and beets. A few rows of greens, spinach, arugula and a few lettuces, also went into the coldhouse (more on that another time…). Most of our herbs will likely be bought as existing plants, having had much trouble cultivating from seed in the past. One of the few being tried from seed this year is Cilantro, mainly for allowing better staggering of plantings, so we can have fresh all spring/summer/fall.

Over the next few weeks, as we inch closer to certain frost free territory, more seeds will go into the ground, and the seedlings will work their way outside to harden and eventually transplant. The previous flower beds were lined with plastic, which is now in bad shape, and need to be totally reworked before planting there. Fortunately a lot of flower seedlings want much warmer soils, so we still have weeks to work with there.

Floors

Other than foundations, one other components of buildings is incredibly close to the earth, the floor. So close, that for a long time they were one and the same. Clearing of simple brush and grasses gave a rudimentary refinement to the first floors in buildings. It’s little wonder we still push G for ground in our fancy multi floor sky scraper elevators of today.

Ever since this first clearing of earth for a floor, there have been two evolving paths; flooring as a structure and flooring as a decorative aspect. The latter will be covered at a future date, with pauses to further explain some of the materials and principles going into each.

From a building perspective, walking on exposed earth carries a few pros and a lot of cons. It’s cheap. It’s available in most locations. And if you plan right, it requires little labor. This is where the cons start. Go outside and pick a spot the same size as any room in your house on the ground. Likely you will have found a decently flat spot of grass in a lawn. Remember these are very recent inventions, and a more accurate facsimile to dirt floors would require you to go for a hike and find some relatively flat and clear land in undisturbed nature. Quickly this becomes much more difficult.

An earthen floor in a log cabin

It didn’t take long to realize that taking the same materials that made up your walls and placing them on the ground was faster and easier than removing boulders, tree roots, etc. Once you applied the notion of a foundation allowing you to build in more varied locals, a floor that isn’t dependent on the earth you are standing on allows for infinitely more flexibility. Beams and joists were born, taking wall framing techniques and allowing them to span gaps instead. Second floors and above were now possible, and a whole world of wood framing to support them. More on that later.

The other prevalent material we have seen in foundations also made an appearance here; stone. It’s durability made it a natural fit for solid earth flooring, with the benefit of also not becoming mud when wet. Unfortunately, great effort was needed to create suitably flat stones for walking, or the utmost patience in hoping to find one that nature had already worked in an appropriate fashion. The weight that came with such sturdiness also made creating second floors and above quite the challenge. Hence the supremely thick walls of stone buildings.

Stone floor in the Hagia Sophia

In both cases, being the first to ever conceive of and build such floors gave you the premier pick of natural resources. Buildings from the 16th and 17th centuries often employ amazing floor boards two feet wide, having so many trees of such a width available. Additionally, with so little extravagant housing stock, great stones, either in scale or rareness of material, or quite often both, would grace magnificent masonry based buildings. As we mastered building floors, their prevalence increased. With this increased demand, new methods and unique stylings were needed for both supply and preferential reasons.

Floor coverings were born, and along with them, the concept of a subfloor. The incredulity you would face if you were to travel back hundreds of years and tell builders to build a second floor directly on top of the structural creation they just made is hard to imagine. But that is exactly what we evolved to do, and in ways to conquer all sorts of problems.