Category Archives: greenhouses

On home vacations

One of the vacation projects was putting cement board siding on the outside of  Loven.  Ick; that cement board is nasty, but the cladding needs to be fireproof.  Now to paint it all and put the galvanized roof on…maybe I need another vacation?

Ah!  A week off from work.  The place looks really spiffed up (projects begun, projects completed, chaos swept away).  And:  I have bruises in strange places.

About a third of my work as an architect is designing second homes for Chicagoans keen to have a spot on this, the better, side of the lake.  You’ve heard about second homes, right?  They are acquired because the first home is wanting.  But me, I find it hard to ever leave my first home!  And why should I?  I would rather be home than anywhere else.

And it is just as well. There’s plenty to do.

Greenhouse #3 is even big enough to have a place to sit.

The new greenhouse layout is perfect for growing long rows of indeterminate tomatoes.  It is no secret that I abhor staking tomatoes; I have devoted many posts to this dislike, yet I still grow and stake them.  So I tried a new method on Thursday morning, as it was the best time to do it:  cloudy, breezy, and the Supreme Court was due to make its final rulings.  Instead of sitting by the radio being pissed off, I took to the greenhouse to change what I can.

This is 17 gauge fence wiring.  There are many uses for a roll of this stuff; in point of fact, I have never set a current to this wire…and I have gone through an eighth of a mile of it since I bought it.  I stretched the wire between the bows, using self-tapping screws held off from the bow just enough to allow a wrap of the wire.  Then, I stake the tomatoes by tying sisal twine to the base of the plant, stretching the twine up and knotting it over the fence wire, then draping it back down (for when the plant gets taller/more unwieldy).  Pretty simple all around.  I have plenty of screws, plenty of wire…but I ran out of sisal.

I trim to one main stalk, and am maniacal about trimming all future suckers until the plant gets about five feet tall.  Wrapping with the sisal is fairly easy.  Up twisty up, avoiding the fruit branches, loose enough to allow it to grow.  At its biggest point a plant might require up to four strings to hold it aloft but sisal is cheap.  The wire shouldn’t bend much under the weight; between the 4′ span of the bows there are only two, maybe three plants.  And they will all grow to hit the roof sooner than later.

And by the time I finished with this task (yes, doing 76 plants takes a bit of time) I turned on the radio and surprisingly wasn’t angry by the rulings!  Ah, a morning well spent.

On closing the harvest gap

Spanking new potatoes with herbs for tonight’s roast chicken

Well, that’s good:  it was for only six short weeks that potatoes were off the menu here.  These Yukon Golds made a fine accompaniment to the roast chicken we had to celebrate Father’s Day.  Potatoes this early in the season can only mean two things:  one, they had to have been volunteers (indeed), and two, the freak-warm winter had a lot to do with their early maturity.  So into a parchment paper envelope they went with butter and salt and…a stapled edge.

In order for me to repeat this gap between one potato harvest and the next, I just need wacky hot weather and to miss harvesting all of last year’s potatoes.  Uh, no thanks.  Keep the weather; Ill work on my harvest skillz.

But everything’s a mite early.  Cherries, first blueberries:  normally strawberries alone command our fruity attention at this time of year.  Roses come and gone.  First garlic pulled.  Peas done (thankfully:  we harvested 3 gallons (!) of them this weekend).

All this earliness doesn’t mean I am any happier that the new greenhouse remains a month behind my schedule.  But it’s now planted at least.  I suppose I ought to be glad the scalding temperatures of February killed my first tomato, eggplant and pepper seedlings off because it’s the second round of the same that are planted here at what fortuitously was the perfect size for transplanting.  Small mercies.

Finally!

And yes, it’s only I who could think that 76 tomato, 15 eggplant, and 6 pepper plants (and 6 artichokes, 4 sweet potatoes and dozens of chard and basil plants) mean the new greenhouse is underplanted.  It’s the layout that’s throwing me off.  The other greenhouses are oriented N-S and this new one is E-W but the beds are continuous (and all point E-W in all cases).  These beds are all 4′-0″ wide, running the greenhouse’s 32′ length.  The beds in the other greenhouses are wee 3’x6′ things for the most part with lots of paths between.  I still think the E-W orientation of any bed is best at this latitude; had the other greenhouses been planted like this one there’d be too much shadowing of the crops in the center beds.

Greenhouse building aside, mid-June is actually a not-too-busy time in the gardens (pea picking excepted).  I’m just watering and weeding now; first crops are coming out and new ones follow in the empty spots.  It’s a nice pace, frankly, just standing with the hose in one’s hand, watching things grow.

On timing (not) being everything

Sabine is doing well:  the splint (not shown; she wears it at night) has helped straighten her right front leg…this pic was taken last Tuesday.  She and her mom are integrated with the herd now during the day.

I often have believed the world would run more smoothly if it ran on MY schedule.  And on MY schedule, things need to be done sooner than later.

I am not quite sure what happened (motherhood?  the onset of middle age?  moving to the country?) but my usual foot-stomping impatience has waned!  What is it, have my expectations diminished?  Have I just run headlong into that closed door called reality?  Whatever the cause, I have accepted a lot more leeway in my schedule.  “Take a deep breath and get over it” seems to be the new m.0.

The apiary.  First hive has been split; we added two more this spring; and the first hive yielded just shy of 27 pounds of honey from the first harvest

Most of the pressure that I have put on myself revolves around getting food for my CSA people.  It’s been almost two years now since I have transitioned from bartering my extras to running a year-long, once-a-week box scheme for my friends (6 full shares, one partial share).  There have been weeks where I panicked that there wouldn’t be “enough” but I have set up the shares in such a way that flexibility is a key to it all.  Yes, bread-salad-greens-milk product-eggs is standard per week, but weeks like this one (honey, chive-blossom vinegar, fresh sauerkraut, and no eggs) work for both me and for them.

I spent my Mother’s Day morning assembling the greenhouse frame.  Ah, the life of the weekend warrior-farmer.

And that’s a good thing.  I do have a life, after all, and can’t spend all my days puttering around the garden or whipping up bread and cheese in the kitchen….much as I would like to.  Sometimes, work interferes with my farm life (actually, that happens quite often); sometimes, a child must be chauffered to and fro; sometimes, I just want to get away or just sit with my book.  Having some flexibility built into the schedule is key to it all.

And with that flexibility?  I don’t do nearly as much foot-stomping.  I leave that to my crabby goats.

Willow and Sabine.  Willow is a fairly patient mother, all things considered.

On year-round harvests

salsa fixings, Aug 2011

We ate our last potato last night.

It was a huge Red Norland, a “spooky” potato (according to the eight-year-old) with finger-length sprouts emerging from it; it was added to a soup of leeks, celery, parsley root and cream, blended smooth and served hot with fresh bread and herbed butter.

That last potato got me thinking about staples and seasonality.

After one hangs one’s garden hat on providing a year’s worth of (name your vegetable), there are logical next steps that a gardener usually takes.  What else is out there, what else can I put away?  Are the items destined to be eaten in the same form as they’re harvested, like the potatoes or apples and winter squash, or do they have to be canned or frozen, dehydrated or picked?

And what about the year-round availability that the grocery store provides?  Can I compete with that, ever?

Can I produce FRESH food year-round?  And if so, is it stuff we’ll actually eat?

Those last two items have been THIS gardener’s holy grail.  As time and our tastes have allowed, I have shifted away from preserving my harvests and have instead moved to Fresh Is Best.  The greenhouses have been key to this, of course, but there are other methods out there, like low tunnels or even  basement/cold-storage of items like celery, chard, and chickories.  These items are dug up, roots and all, and potted and placed in one’s dark and cool storage area.  The leaves and stalks, though blanched from lack of light, are eminently edible.

But I am a slacker at heart, so I leave things in the ground year-round and rely on my greenhouses to provide the bounty.  Still, many things, like that potato, have an off-season, that period of time between the last wrinkled sprouty stored spud and the digging of the first thin-skinned earth-warmed baby spud.  The wait makes you want them more…but the more you work at it, the better you are at shortening that off-season.  I expect my first potato harvest in mid-June, in the greenhouses.

Here’s a list of my year-round, same-form items:

  • Leeks, onions, scallions, shallots; kale, mustards, collards, chard, chickories, lettuce, celery, beets, carrots; button mushrooms; parsley, thyme, rosemary, sage, bay, garlic; eggs, chicken, milk and milk products.

Here is a list of almost-year-round goodies:

  • Cabbage, broccoli, parsnips, potatoes, fennel, kohlrabi, celeriac, turnips, rutabaga, daikon radishes, skirret, scorzonera, and

And here’s a partial list of the things that get harvested once, no matter how hard I try:

  • Asparagus, artichoke, cardoon, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, peppers, okra, peas, beans, corn, cantaloupe/melons, cucumbers, tomatillos, brussels sprouts and cauliflower; honey, maple syrup; apples, blueberries and strawberries.

So when people ask me why I wish for another greenhouse, I think of my lists, especially this middle one.  Year-round fennel and kohlrabi would seem to be laudable goals, but year-round potatoes?  Score!  Gotta just dig more dirt to figure out how I can do it.

It keeps me busy.  And the grocery store doesn’t get our money!

On spring progress

Old” greenhouse (built 2007)

I have to laugh though because I felt so proud after a morning’s work in the old greenhouse above.  We cleaned out 2 of 9 beds!  12 bags of salad from 2 beds!  But certainly you can’t tell–at all–in this picture.

I always wonder what I am thinking when I take on a new task.  Is all my sparse free time going to simply reappear when I do something eventually worthwhile like build a third greenhouse on the property?  Is that laundry ever going to get done?

Greenhouse #3–or its beginnings, anyway–is located outside the garden proper.   Sod’s a-busted, base frame set (and dug, which is not terribly obvious by the photo) but not assembled; this one will be 16’x32′.  Those are 2x8x16′ untreated #1 pine boards.  My poor brother gets to pick rocks.  The chickens are pleased with the earth-turning, and I have no idea what Penny is doing:  supervising?  And Ruby the hen turkey is sitting on 14 eggs within the doghouse under the chicken tractor at right.

Actually, I truly enjoy these bouts of frenetic activity.  The winter was mild enough to keep me in fine digging form so I do feel like the other two greenhouses and all the outdoor beds are on schedule, maintenance- and plant-wise.  (The freak-warm weather enabled me to do infrastructure repairs and a bit of ground work much earlier than normal thus I avoided the usual early-spring work overload.)  So technically I can build a new greenhouse and not worry about the rest, right?

Part of this new greenhouse is located atop an old roadway, so my brother’s picking its old stones, lucky guy.  Tom’s on the year’s first Grand Mow beyond, and the chickens help dig.

But then I realize we’re where we should’ve been last week.  Eeps!

On greenhouse #3

These are the steps taken thusfar to have a third greenhouse (hoop house, polytunnel, etc.) on this property:

  • Stake site for the final location and size with husband; argue a lot but eventually get your way confirm that a 16’x32′ model is the best size for the space
  • Order greenhouse
  • Order wood and buy hardware for the base frame, end walls, door, and raised beds from the local lumber yard
  • Mow
  • Till
  • Erect base frame.

A rainy weekend got in the way of accomplishing the last three steps (clay soil should not be tilled wet or you will forever have concrete-hard earth clods).  So we went foraging instead.  (If you want to understand the process of erecting a greenhouse, I did a play-by-play of putting up my mom’s small one here.)

About two miles directly north of us, our friends purchased 10 acres of duneland.  For whatever reason, the trees were never cleared on this or any adjacent property…there are some lovely old-growth monsters (poplar, cherry, white pine, oak) and quite a range of microenvironments (bog, creek, pine warren, dune) so it is a great place to see what one can see.

Small people love small frogs

Fiddleheads

But our search for the elusive morel was futile.  These came from a friend’s search.

On plenitude’s upsides

Little leeklets

Whenever I make a post, I tend to walk a line between showing what I am doing and showing you what you might want to do.  It’s only fair, right?  I hope I can, you know, teach something…if by bad example at the very least.

An oddity of this way of life is that I never (and I do mean never) have produce in the refrigerator.  It’s all fresh-picked and home-grown with the exception of lemons, my one nonlocal shame.  The only things that do go into storage now are garlic, onions, shallots and potatoes….and apples.  Everything else is readily gotten out of the greenhouses or garden year-round:  it’s a great way to be, just grabbing a bowl and walking outside for dinner’s celery and carrots, parsley and green onions.  Greens like cabbage, collards, kale, mustards and turnips are available for most of the year.  And salad, all other root veg and all manner of herbs are here year-round.

It’s late winter now, burgeoning spring…thanks to the mild winter, spring is appearing terribly early this year, and who cares what the groundhog and the Farmers’ Almanac have to say.

Migratory birds are my first clue that the season has changed.  I should say “the migratory birds’ effect on my yard birds,” because the turkey vultures, redwing black birds and even the dang Canada geese are freaking out the chickens who understandably think every bird shadow is a hawk on the wing.  The vultures, who fly in family units, haven’t established themselves yet; it takes a bit of time for them to hone in on their territory, though I know they’re around.  The redwings though are very keen to plant their flags on some waterway or another, and the melodious male is back in the yard again…even though our frog pond is embarrassingly tiny.  The frogs (also out and croaking) don’t agree that it’s tiny, though.

I also know it’s late winter because it’s mid-spring in the greenhouses and we’re in a panic to eat everything.  I got a sunburn Saturday (and even took my shirt off, because, really, who can see?) while I was doing work in there.  What’s fine for the plants is actually a bit too hot for its human caretaker.  It did feel nice, being sweaty…considering the maple sap is still dripping and all.

But it is true:  I am in a bit of a panic.  The potatoes will soon sprout, the onions already have, and even the softneck garlic is looking a little green.  Ir is time to transition.  The arugula, mache, mizuna and claytonia (winter’s favorite salad greens) are all madly going to seed and tasting nasty as they do.  My seeds are sprouting well in the greenhouse beds, but so are the weeds.

Of course I wish that every last one of you had chicken coops and greenhouses in your yards.  But I warn you.  Remember that crazy period in summer when you just can’t possibly eat another zucchini, and what are you going to do with all those cucumbers and tomatoes?  Get a greenhouse and this will happen to you four times a year…maybe five.

But if you do you’ll never have produce in your fridge and you can suntan in your underwear in March!