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Set up now for winter

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Friday, Sept. 21, 2012, 8:54 p.m.

There is nothing better than bragging to gardening friends about how you picked your own homegrown lettuce in the middle of January. Though it doesn't seem possible, it's easier than you might think, even here in Western Pennsylvania.

You'll need a few things, though, to keep your salad bowl full through the winter and now is the time to get yourself set up for it. Start by selecting a site for your winter garden — one that is unimpeded by tree roots and in full sun. Each fall, I convert one of my existing vegetable garden beds into my winter-greens garden. I suggest a 4-by-6-foot or 6-by-6-foot area.

Then, build a cold frame by following these simple steps. In it, you can plant lettuce, tat soi, radish, kale and other greens through the rest of this fall and into the early winter.

1. Dig a 12-inch-deep hole that covers the entire area. Put the soil that comes out of the hole onto a tarp or into a wheelbarrow until you are ready to use it.

2. Line the inside of the hole with a row of cement blocks and then stack another row on top, essentially building the exterior “walls” of your mini-greenhouse. If you don't have cement blocks, you can use bales of straw for the walls, too.

3. Using wood or PVC piping, construct a central roof-line support across the middle of the frame so that the peak sits just above the top cement block. An even-smarter idea is to angle the bed 30 degrees from back to front and be sure the slant is south-facing to maximize sun exposure during the winter.

4. Shovel 6 to 8 inches of horse, poultry or cow manure into the hole and then cover it with the soil on the tarp so that it's level with the outside soil surface (the layer of decomposing manure serves to help heat the cold frame through the winter).

5. Use old storm windows or double-paned acrylic sheeting to build your “roof” by propping it between the roof support and the cement blocks. It should slant down to the edge from the center support. Remember to remove or vent the “roof” on very warm days and replace the manure each fall before planting your crops. Cold frames also are a terrific way to get a jump start on spring growing.

If you aren't interested in building your own cold frame, you can purchase kits through several different gardening websites. Many of them easily construct with just a few common tools and will last for many years.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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