The last few days brought lots of memories, all because of a garbage bag of plastic milk jugs.

In the years BK (before Kutztown), we started our family in Coplay, a little borough with abandoned cement kilns, a Saengerbund (German beer garden and polka palace), and a public library. Our front porch faced St. Peter’s Rectory, which was next to St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, nestled next to Christ the King School (k-8), and finally, a convent-turned Christ the King Preschool.

1. Melt holes.

Melt holes.

We watched many a weddings from that porch! But in October, in preparation for the community’s Halloween Parade, the brick porch danced with skeletons—milk jug skeletons.

We went through a lot of milk in those days, so a craft piece in Family Fun magazine caught my eye. One milk jug turned upside down, with holes cut in appropriate places, became the head. Another, right side up, was sliced to resemble a ribcage, then, there was the pelvis jug.  Dangling from each of those were pieces of milk jugs that became arm bones, leg bones, elbow bones and knee bones, finger bones and toe bones. Ah, the hot glue gun era!

The bag of milk jug skeletons made the trip to the farm. Our first fall on Hottenstein Road we had a tractor-pulled hay wagon ride for the kids’ soccer teammates and partied in the upper loft of the barn with authentic cobwebs, hay bales for seats, and our precious milk jug skeletons strung from the timbers.

Skip through the years. I remember the kids and their dad making a hoop house with a few wooden planks, a dozen rebar anchors, and ribs of flexible PVC pipe. Over top, my tall and lanky kids helped stretch a roll of clear plastic, creating a warm winter sunroom for the hens, and later, a greenhouse for mom.

2. Cut around jug.

Cut around jug.

In March, that hoop house was a favorite refuge.  When the sun peaked from behind late winter clouds, the hoop house was a good 20 degrees warmer than outside and gave shelter from the brutal March winds. Flats of tiny seedlings, protected by blankets of Remay fabric at night, were popping up their heads, anticipating spring. The smell of warm, moist potting soil and young green sprouts is ambrosia to a gardener’s nose.

Skip through many more years and too many miles, and I guess you’d say I’ve downsized—but I’m still cutting up milk jugs.

I spent the afternoon making miniature greenhouses out of plastic milk (and cider) jugs. This is a low-cost, low-maintenance, and highly effective way to sow seeds in winter without cluttering up the house with row upon row of seedling trays on windowsills or under lights (or in addition to all of that!). With the seeds snuggled in the milk jug greenhouses outside, they go through several freeze-thaw cycles, allowing the seed coats to soften or break into germination. The protected enclosure allows seeds to germinate as soon as conditions allow, usually several weeks ahead of sowing directly in the ground.  Growing in an unheated environment, the young plants are toughened up and don’t have to be hardened off like seedlings pampered indoors.

3. Add soil and seeds

Add soil and seeds.

What a great project to rid yourself of the mid-winter doldrums while jump-starting your spring garden.

  1. Collect semi-transparent milk or cider jugs. Remove caps. (With the cap off, the open spout acts as a vent for rain and snow to enter and solar heat to escape.)
  2. Light a candle and heat the tip of a skewer or screwdriver so you can punch four holes in the bottom of each jug for drainage.
  3. Starting just below the handle, use sharp scissors to cut the milk jug horizontally almost entirely around the circumference, stopping short about an inch or so from the handle to create a hinge.
  4. Label each jug with a permanent marker and cover your writing with packing tape.
  5. Fill the bottom section with slightly damp seed-starting mix (such as Pro-Mix). You want a sterile, soilless mix with perlite, vermiculite, peat moss, etc.
  6. Sow seeds according to packet directions for planting depth and light requirements.
  7. Seal the cut seam around the milk jug with packing tape. This is probably the hardest step—it is awkward—but we’re not striving for Martha Stewart; just do the best you can.
  8. Place milk jugs in full sun in a protected site where they won’t be knocked or blown over.
  9. When daytime temperatures go above 40 degrees, check regularly to make sure soil is kept moist.
  10. Once seedlings emerge, make sure soil doesn’t dry out. When daytime temperatures reach 50 to 60 degrees, especially on sunny days, it is time to unseal the jugs and flip back the tops so you don’t “cook” your seedlings.
  11. Flip tops back on each night; you don’t need to reseal with tape.
  12. When seedlings have at least two true leaves, it is time to transplant. Gently lift them out of the soil with a Popsicle stick and pot them up to allow them to grow strong roots before planting in the ground.

    Place in full sun

    Place in full sun.

In the mid-Atlantic you can start planting cold-season vegetables such as kale, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, and herbs such as parsley, thyme and oregano in mid-February or March. In April, I’m going to experiment with eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. Laurie Lynch

Good Keepers: I have two nominations for Best Winter Keepers in the vegetable world, Picasso shallots and Amish (or Mennonite) neck pumpkins. You know I’m a garlic fan, but last season’s cloves are sprouting and just passable for culinary purposes. However, our Picasso shallots, which have been hanging in an unheated garage all winter, are just as juicy and delicious as when they were harvested. The pile of monster neck pumpkins in that same garage has dwindled to one, and we’ve been enjoying a winter of creamy pumpkin soup and roasted vegetables. Plant both this spring and they’ll bring you joy into 2014.

Good Gifters: “Anything you learn to do for yourself or for other people, without paying for it; any utilization of recycled or discarded materials; anything you make instead of buy, give instead of sell; any new skill or new song or new art you teach yourself or another will reduce the dominion of money and grow a gift economy to sustain us through the coming transition.” – Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics


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