Off Grid and Free: Our First Salad of the Year

Reader Contribution by Ron Melchiore
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Although temperatures have been unfavorable for the outdoor garden, we have the makings for our first salads well underway. Being north of 56 degrees latitude and with the potential for frost any month of the year, we’ve had to adapt and take extra measures if we are to provide for our vegetable needs.

An example of this is how we are able to pick our first greens before the snow is off the ground. Preparations actually begin in late fall when cold frames are placed in the greenhouse after the last of summer’s plants are removed, creating sort of a greenhouse within a greenhouse.

Our cold frames are simple 4 sided plywood boxes with hinged windows on top which can be opened and closed as needed. The following is a short book excerpt from Off Grid and Free:My Path to the Wilderness.

We have a south-facing greenhouse that becomes home to melons, tomatoes, and peppers in late spring. But before they are planted, with snow still on the ground, we sow the seeds of salad fixings to satisfy our hankering for fresh greens after a long winter’s dearth of lettuce and radishes.

Cold frames, which we set in the greenhouse, act as a sort of greenhouse within a greenhouse. A cold frame is a box with clear lid (glass or plastic), a setup that gives protection to early plantings of lettuce, kale, onions, and radishes, even when temperatures are still going down to 0°F at night.

The sun has considerable heat by this time of the year due to its higher angle in the sky so, even on cold days, the greenhouse warms up substantially. It may even need to be vented on a sunny afternoon to prevent it from getting too hot. To protect the young seedlings from the cold night, we place recycled gallon milk jugs filled with hot water in the cold frames. We ensure that the cold frame lid is closed, and then lay a heavy blanket over the box. This procedure keeps things in the box from freezing. Because of these efforts, we will enjoy our first salads while snow is still on the ground.

Attached Greenhouse

Our greenhouse is a simple three sided affair with the south wall of the house acting as the fourth side. The west end is insulated and has two vents which can be opened when air circulation and temperature control are needed. The east end is covered with plastic and has an entrance door. The south side has a short knee wall to which the bottom end of the rafters are anchored. The top of the rafters attach to the outside wall of the house.

The greenhouse is double glazed. A UV stabilized greenhouse plastic is stapled to the rafters on the the interior and a tough woven poly greenhouse material covers the outside. As it turns out, the outside woven poly material has been a great choice for our location. Not only has it endured several bear attacks (the claw marks are still clearly visible), but it has also survived flying embers from a couple of forest fires. Although a marauding bear did penetrate one section of the cover, we were able to patch the breach and the material is still doing its job after 16 years.

Another advantage to having our greenhouse attached directly to the south side of the house is the fact that the structure overlaps two of our downstairs windows. So on sunny days, even when it is chilly outside, we can open those two windows and have the warmth from the greenhouse flowing into the downstairs as solar heating. This produces enough warmth so that we don’t have to get our wood stove going that day.

It takes a bit of doing to keep the little plants alive when nighttime temperatures plummet to -20F like they did a few weeks ago. All credit goes to Johanna who faithfully tends to our cold frame box. She uncovers the box during the day to let in the warming rays of the sun and late in the afternoon, fills the milk jugs with hot water and makes sure the plants are covered and protected for the night. It’s amazing what jugs of hot water and a blanket can do to get our gardening season off to an early start.

The first reward for all this effort is a picking of lettuce. To supplement the lettuce, while waiting for the radishes and onions to mature, we add fresh sprouts we’ve germinated. Shredded red cabbage from last summer’s garden we’ve overwintered in the root cellar adds some color and flavor to the mix.

We certainly take a great deal of satisfaction when the first bowls of salad are served after the long winter.

Thanks for reading and I’ll be back again next week.

Ron Melchiore and his, wife Johanna, currently live alone 100 miles in the wilderness of Northern Saskatchewan. Ron is the author of: Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness by Ron Melchiore published by Moon Willow Press and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Ron can be contacted at and on Facebook and Pinterest. Read all of Ron’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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