Operation Christmas Tomato, Phase One

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It’s late October. Halloween is nigh. And the Bill J. Dunn Memorial Garden & Emporium at Fickbonne Farms is STILL GOING STRONG.

Well, the tomatoes and peppers are at least. For those of you who dwell in colder climes this must sound like madness, but here in the balmy High Plains (read: metro Denver) it’s entirely normal for us to have summer weather up through the beginning of November. Our wedding on November 2nd was a gorgeous 70 degrees and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. Ben got a sunburn during the ceremony! So banish any thoughts you have of a frigid, snowy wasteland when you picture Denver.

But it won’t be this sunny and beautiful for much longer. And in fact, the other, more delicate plants in the garden have already bought the farm, metaphorically speaking. But my tomato plants are beasts, and the peppers share a bed with them so they’re hanging on in solidarity. They’ll keep on keeping on until the first frost hits. Which was… last night.

So yesterday I took evasive maneuvers. My goal: eat fresh, home-grown garden tomatoes at Christmas. Can it be done? That remains to be seen. But I shall try!

Colorado State University is an EXCELLENT resource for High Plains horticulture, and I turned to their handy guide for frost protection and extending the growing season. Armed with this information, I was able to build a temporary greenhouse for one of my garden beds made entirely out of materials I found in my garage. Granted, our garage is a bit like Santa’s bag of toys: whatever random tool or material you’re looking for seems to randomly appear just when you need it. Thanks, guy who previously owned our house and didn’t clean out the garage!

Enough preamble. Here’s how I did it.

Hatch-style Temporary Greenhouse

You will need:

-Plastic sheeting (yes, rolls of this stuff were actually in my garage… because apparently the previous owner was Dexter)

-Nails

-Hammer

-Scissors

-3-5 large binder clips

-PVC piping and brackets for same (if you didn’t already have them installed for sun shades)

-Some weights (I used split logs cuz I’m classy like that)

I wanted to protect only one of my three garden beds, the one with the tomatoes and peppers. So the goal was to create a hatch-like covering of plastic sheeting that could be completely sealed during the cold nights and opened for watering and fresh air on warm days. Because the plastic sheeting is transparent, it will allow sunlight to reach the plants. This means it could get pretty toasty in there, so ventilation is crucial.

First I watered the hell out of the plants. I don’t want to have the hose hooked up after it freezes, so keeping watering to a minimum is clutch. Fortunately, tomatoes don’t need a ton of water, and what water I do give them will condense on the inside of the plastic sheeting, creating a nice, humid atmosphere.

Then I did some trimming. I know… THE HORROR. But I’ve learned the art of trimming tomatoes, so it wasn’t too painful. Anything that touches the plastic will get frostbite, so I tried to contain it all within the PVC hoops Ben built to support the sun shade.

Next, I measured out a length of the plastic sheeting that was a good deal longer than the garden bed on either end, and wide enough to cover half the length of the hoops. Like so:

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The extra length on the short sides is key, as this will get moved around a lot when you open and close the “hatch.” Next, I found myself some nails in the Bottomless Bucket of Metal Stuff (pictured below) that magically just exists in the garage. I used nails with nice big, round heads on them so the plastic couldn’t slip off of them in a stiff wind. I hammered these nails into the plastic straight into the boards of the garden bed along the LONG side (not the short side with the extra plastic hanging off). Not pretty, but it doesn’t have to be, does it?

The Bottomless Bucket of Metal Stuff

The Bottomless Bucket of Metal Stuff

Next, I did the same thing with the other side: measuring out the length of plastic sheeting and nailing it to the garden bed’s long side. This time though, I made sure to cut a piece that would overlap the piece of plastic on the other side as it was draped over the hoops. Once the two sheets were nailed in place and overlapping nicely, I used the binder clips to latch them onto the PVC hoops. Then, I folded the loose ends up on the short sides of the garden bed and weighed them down with some split logs from our wood pile.

Let’s review: nailed down on the long sides, weighed down by logs on the short sides, held with binder clips at the top of the hoops. The whole thing looked like this:

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And then, if I want to open it, I simply remove the binder clips and slide the two sheets of plastic down the hoops. The logs keep it firmly in place at the ends, though there is a little shifting of the plastic. When opened it looks like this:

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Voila! My hatch-style temporary greenhouse, built to keep me in tomatoes through Christmas. Thanks to the CSU agriculture researchers for the idea and to my furry supervisor for safety and risk management:

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