From the Garden: Frost cracks and hot beds

stirring the dung

Despite all of our attentions, the Bay tree has suffered a fatal frost crack on its upper trunk.  The trunk was wrapped as a precaution against just this injury earlier in the year but it has proven insufficient.

What is most puzzling is that the crack appears on the north side of the trunk.  In the past the split has always occurred on the southern side as a frost crack is the result of the trunk warming up over the course of a sunny day and then the outer wood suddenly cooling at a faster rate than the inner wood in the evening (or such is the wisdom of our natural philosophers) causing the crack to suddenly (and often explosively) form.  One would imagine that the north side of the trunk, out of view of the sun and wrapped with canvas, would have the least amount of temperature differential between the outer and inner wood but such is the mystery of the natural world.
The dung reached 125 degrees on the surface of the hotbed on Sunday so it was given a last stirring and tamping and the soil laid on.  This hotbed is intended for the warm season crops of pepper, tomato, melon and cucumber and to ease their transplantation they are started in containers.

The cucumber and melon seed are sown into loosely woven baskets so that the plant may be moved with the minimum disturbance to its roots.  It is peculiar to almost all vining plants that they resent transplantation so the utmost care must be taken.  The tomato and pepper seeds are sown in earthen pots as is common amongst the nurserymen.

Plunging pots and baskets

Plunging pots and baskets

The soil, which is the fully composted dung from last years hotbed, will be allowed to warm for several days before the seeds are planted.   In addition to those plants intended for transplanting, we will sow two varieties of cantaloupe at the ends of the bed which are meant to stay.

These will be the first to fruit, followed by the melons transplanted to the garden from the frame which will fruit before the melons sown directly in the open ground.  With a little diligence and a gentle season we should have melons throughout the summer months.


  1. Daw n Weaver says

    Dearest Friend,

    I have most enjoyed reading your recent writings of your gardens. I especially enjoyed the drawings of the eighth of January. Your artwork makes me long to travel again from the Carolina colony to stroll the town and study your gardens. Southern Carolina gardens have been dealt serious blows by the very intense weather we have had after the beginning of the year. We still are undoing the damage, even as we begin our spring kitchen gardens.

    I would ask advice for a new garden venture. I have been gifted seed of salsify and look forward to trying this plant in my garden. I would most appreciate any ideas you have that would help me with the salsify cultivation.

    Most sincerely,
    Dawn Weaver

    • says

      My Dear Dawn

      I have heard from other travelers that the severe weather, which has so inflicted the gardens on Williamsburg, has been experienced by gardeners throughout the thirteen colonies (soon to be sovereign states, God willing). But it is lovely and warm in Williamsburg today and the bitter winds of winter are soon forgotten once milder spring arrives. I plan on planting the salsify before the week is out if the ground remains dry enough to work. Salsify requires of deep, light soil to form the choicest roots so trenching the area you plan to plant in would not be amiss.

      In anticipation of a milder spring I remain,
      Wesley Greene

  2. Christine Hansley says

    Dear Wesley,
    So sorry to hear about the Bay tree. The Foodways and Tavern folks will probably be happy to get the leaves for all of their cooking. Will you replace the tree with another Bay or with something else? It is very strange that it cracked on the North side.

    I notice in the photo above that you bury your clay pots. Is this a way of keeping the pot warm and helping the plant grow? Also, what shape were the 18th and early 19th century clay pots if they had any? I also see some kind of a white frame over some of the seeds/plants. What plant is this for and what is the little frame made of? What plants are you covering with the clay pots?

    I’m hoping this weekend I can start some veggie container prep. Maybe even plant some peas or beans. I think it is still too early for lettuce.

    Sometime this Spring we will be losing our Ash tree that is in the parkway. Our village declared it too far gone from the Emerald Ash Borer late last Summer. It was about 4 years old when we bought the house 26 years ago. Most of our sub-division was planted with Ash trees. About 95 homes out of 125 in the sub-division. So it will be bare for some years. We haven’t been told what kind of trees the village will plant. I do hope they plant a more diverse selection to lessen the chances of a major kill. Older sub-divisions are getting their second tree in 40 to 50 years. Elm trees died years ago and were replaced with Ash trees.

    Take care my Mentor,

    • says

      Dearest Christine,

      Do not fret over much about the Bay tree as it will spring back up from the roots and I expect will produce a slender tree of six feet tall by the end of the summer. We bury the clay pots in the soil for warmth which is received from the two feet of composting manure underneath them. The upside down pots and baskets you see in the illustration have not been plunged in the soil yet but all have now been buried. The earthen pots are very similar to the ones you would find at market on the frontier of Illinois and the baskets that appear white in the illustration are made from white oak splits which are used by the basket makers to make all of the baskets used about town. They supply me with the oak splits and I reward them with melons in their season. Thus is the wheel of commerce greased.

      Yr. obd’t servant,
      Wesley Greene

  3. says

    My dear Mr. Greene:

    I am so sorry to hear about the crack in your bay tree trunk! Will you try to bind it tight so see if the tree might survive? or will you start a new tree. They take a long time to grow! Mine is in a pot that I bring in every winter – having lost a mature one to cold several years ago.

    I did not realize that you started your melon & cucumber seeds so early. Such are the benefits of a well managed cold frame. My tomatoes seedlings are 4 to 6″ tall in the green house and the peppers are 3 sets of true leaves. But I am far from even thinking about melons and cucumbers, here at the headwaters of the Rappahannock river!

    • says

      Dearest Sylvie,

      It is, indeed, a disappointment to lose the Bay but it will spring back from the roots with a multitude of stems. This the second time in fifteen years that we have lost the Bay to frost cracks. Forest trees often survive these insults but the Bay never will as the crack penetrates to the core of the stem which serves to dry the entire plant. Once the new stems arise from the roots, we will choose the strongest, most likely candidate and remove all others to form another tree on a single trunk.

      Please stop in the garden the next time you have business in Williamsburg.
      Your humble servant,
      Wesley Greene

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