When most area gardeners are readying their vegetable beds for a long winter’s nap, long-time master gardener Art Stahlhut was out in his garden pointing out his newly sprouting lettuce.
If things go according to plan, say Stahlhut and his gardening partner, Karen Fecher, both of Fort Wayne, the garden will have the same outcome as last year.
I had the most beautiful fresh lettuce mix for my Thanksgiving table, Fecher says.
Stahlhut believes in extending the season for vegetable growing – which usually means he harvests something in virtually every month of the year except January.
This year he’ll have tomatoes on the vine well into October and lettuce, spinach, onions and carrots well into November. Last year, with the mild temperatures, he pulled plump red radishes and harvested romaine lettuce the first week in December.
Stahlhut says he doesn’t fight Mother Nature – he just plays to her gentler side so plants get what they need, whatever the calendar says.
His secret, he says, is growing veggies in eight raised beds, which he designed and built himself, and covering them when appropriate with hoop frames to create mini-greenhouses.
He’s refined his techniques over the years, with his most recent beds consisting of a frame made with sturdy two-by-fours to stand about 20 inches tall. There’s no real reason for the exact height, he says, except I have bad knees. Twenty inches gives enough room for root development while alleviating the need to have to kneel to cultivate, weed or harvest, he says.
The bottom of each bed is lined with wire mesh with landscape fabric on top of it, to keep critters out, Stahlhut says. The sides are filled in with 16-inch-square patio tiles two inches thick.
The sides are then lined with thin foam insulation sheets and then even thinner sheets of metal flashing to keep in warmth. The metal also makes tilling with a small roto-tiller possible without tearing up the insulation, he says.
Beginning in early fall, he adds to some of the beds what gardeners call hoops – curved arches made of metal wire or conduit pipe that are covered with translucent agricultural cloth.
Stahlhut, who helped create raised beds for vegetables at the demonstration garden outside the office of the Purdue Extension Service at IPFW, says the raised beds allow him to control the soil composition and temperature.
He uses layers of grass clippings and shredded paper and horse manure for the bottom half, and swears by a mixture of one-third peat, one-third compost and one-third sphagnum for the top. He calls it the lasagna method because of the layers.
Art makes the most wonderful soil mix, Fecher says. It’s fluffy and light, and you don’t have to deal with the (northeast Indiana) clay.
He makes his own compost in one of the raised beds. We don’t use synthetic fertilizer, he says, adding that he doesn’t pull out tomato plants at the end of the season, only cuts them down to encourage worm action in the soil.
Another of Stahlhut’s secrets is intensive planting. To get more out of his small spaces, he has made seed templates from, believe it or not, old truck tire flaps into which he’s drilled two sizes of holes for even seed placement. He also occasionally intercrops.
The rule of thumb is you can feed a family of four from a garden the size of a two-car garage. Well, we only use half that size, but we use every square inch of it, he says.
As for tools, Stahlhut says a thermometer that reads both high and low temperatures is essential, especially at each end of the growing season.
So is keeping a close eye on the coverings, because the soil can quickly get too warm even in cool weather and fry the plants, he says. They’re held to the hoops with giant clothespins, so they’re easily removable.
Fecher says covering crops keep them warmer in the spring and fall and shades them in the summer. She says they saved a lot of lettuce from bolting when the weather turned quickly hot this year. Last week, after temperatures dipped to freezing, the cover raised the ambient temperature to 65 degrees with a couple of hours of sunlight.
Stahlhut doesn’t use plastic to cover his plants but does use a conventional cold frame with plastic sides and top.
The pair has been selling lettuce and other veggies at the Historic Main Street and South Side Farmers Market.
We want to get more into production. Right now we can’t grow it fast enough. We’d sell out every time, Fecher says.
Stahlhut says he travels to regional gardening meetings and festivals, reads a lot and watches gardening videos to get ideas and learn new approaches. Two favorites videos are Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan by Homeplace Earth and Growing Greens for Love and Money by Susan Moser.
But mostly he likes to experiment – whether it’s growing different varieties of garlic or planting peanuts in a bed under the lamp post in his front yard.
It’s always a work in progress, he says.