Using the Hotbed Planting-Season Extender in Your Garden

Nothing gives you a head start on spring — not to mention close long-season veggie varieties — like the tried-and-true hotbed. Now MOTHER tells you how to get the most out of this classic planting-season extender.

| February/March 2000

This age-old planting-season extender deserves a place in your garden. (See the garden hotbed photos in the image gallery.)

If you've ever planted seeds in your spring garden before the soil warms up, then you probably know the outcome: rotten seeds and no plants. Hands down the best way to get your garden to mature earlier and more abundantly is by using a hotbed. With a hotbed planting-season extender, you can nurse seeds and grow young plants months before the chill leaves your garden soil.

A hotbed is a miniature greenhouse that is heated by the fermentation of manure. Seeds (tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.) can be planted directly in good soil layered atop the manure. Or else do as I do and start seeds in trays or boxes in the hotbed. This way you can shift your seedlings around to take better advantage of the sunlight. Either way, growing seedlings in the hotbed can be a real money saver, allowing you to skip the expense of "starter" plants from a nursery. It also gives you flexibility; you can wait until the conditions are just right in your garden before transplanting. And once the hotbed is emptied of the seedling plants, you can use the vacated space for growing lettuce or other vegetables.

You'll want to start preparing your hotbed in early March. First, clean out the bottom of the structure, removing enough soil to accommodate the approximately eight inches of fresh manure you will be adding later. (You can transfer whatever soil is removed to the garden.)

I've found that horse manure is the ideal foundation and the key to success in your miniature greenhouse. Unlike cow, pig, goat and sheep manure, horse manure heats up when wetted down (due in large part to its high straw content), nicely warming the hotbed.

But before you shovel the manure into the hotbed, it needs some preparation. Heap a mound of it in a convenient corner of the yard. Once a week move the pile of manure with a fork from the outside to the center; then sprinkle with water. Once you see steam spiraling up from the mound, you know that it is heating properly and is ready to be transported to the hotbed.

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