Category Archives: greenhouses

On gardening adjustments

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Chive blossoms

On Saturday I pulled  a monster (4.5″ diameter) leek out of the greenhouse for dinner, and a friend says, my gosh, what did you do to that thing?  Nothing much, just the coddled life in the greenhouse.  So, she said, they’re like the Kobe beef of the vegetable world.  Oh yeah, I say:  I massage my leeks with sake daily.

She was on to something, though.  In point of fact, those greenhouses of ours are taking some getting used to, like all good tools.  My garden and food-preservation life has also needed to adjust.  With effort (mostly in the form of forethought), I will need to do a LOT less canning and freezing this year.  This, incidentally, is not the best news if I consider how much time was spent and how much food was preserved last year.  Well, it’s still good news; it’s just quite a bit of an adjustment.

So, I have had these greenhouses (hoophouses, polytunnels) for a year and a half now.  This is therefore my second spring with them and I now have my first full year of harvesting under my belt.  Like any beginning gardener, I am completely learning, completely figuring out how to manage (in reality, I’m flying by the seat of my pants).  But here it is, early May, and we definitely have had a salad for nearly every dinner for the last year.  We cleaned out the rest of last autumn’s veggies from the greenhouses within the last month.  And recently, we’ve been able to pull new (planted since Feb.) vegetables out of the greenhouses and gardens:  Asian veggies and brassicas mostly, like pak choy and broccoli and napa cabbage, as well as asparagus from outdoors.

This is great!  Preferring fresh produce whenever possible, I can really plan on doing a lot less canning and freezing over the summer.  Yes indeed I will still be chained to the stove for fruit and tomato season, and I’ll still freeze some green beans; for the most part, though, the garden and greenhouse contents need to adjust.  Less cabbage in the root cellar, less sauerkraut, time the fall and winter plantings to add more root crops, stage the production of staples like parsley, carrots, onions, and celery.

It also means I don’t need 70 tomato plants  again.  But the leeks?  Oh yeah:  about 100!

On pest prevention

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Office supplies in the garden:  sowbug-proofing the tomatillo seedlings

So many of the tricks employed to outwit garden-munching critters have seemed somewhat familiar to me, in different contexts.  I was thinking about it last night when I was rigging up these little collars.  “Ah,” I thought.  “This is a barrier method,” as in…contraception!  Yes, it’s true:  one can indeed draw parallels between pest prevention and, uh, well.  You know.  And yes:  the ultimate prevention of all would be not to garden:  abstinence works, right?

In all seriousness (not that birth control isn’t a serious issue), the sowbugs were having a field day with some of my greenhouse seedlings, and I needed to pay attention.  Sure, I do plant more than I need as both insurance and because I like to share my plants, so I can spare a few to the sowbugs (roly-polies, pillbugs); they tend to favor the weaker plants so are actually doing me a favor.  But it is a bummer to come into the greenhouse and see leaves sitting on the ground, stems munched straight through.  The plants are only vulnerable for a short time:  the greenhouse gets too hot and dry for the bugs’ preference, and the plants also toughen up and become unpalatable.  But in the short interim, these index cards work just fine.

The greenhouses in early spring

Early spring outdoors means late spring in the greenhouses!

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“Old” greenhouse:  You’re seeing 7 of 9 beds, most are 3’x6′

The old (Oct ’07) greenhouse has been acting as our seedling house:  it’s kind of boot camp before life outdoors.  In here, I transfer all seeds I start indoors.  Some of these seedlings have already done their turn in here and have been booted outside already (broccoli, cabbage, Asian brassicas like mustards and mibuna).  It’s also done duty for the last of the winter salads (planted December through February; that’s most of the color you see) that furnished the majority of our salads from February through April.  Soon, the seedling onions and leeks will go outside too.  That’s garlic in the back left; I am hoping for a late May-through mid-June harvest from here.

img_1107“New” greenhouse, now you’re seeing 10 of 12 beds, all 3’x6′

The new (Oct ’08) greenhouse is slowly being cleared of its fall and winter contents.  I still have lots of onions and leeks in here.  There are herbs, too, in here that are more or less permanent residents (parsley, celery, chives, chervil, thyme).  We are also presently enjoying lots of flowers from brassicas like purple sprouting broccoli and lancinato and red kales.  Speaking of flowers, and unlike the other greenhouse, this one has stuff that I am allowing to go to seed:  beets, carrots, lettuces.  Most of these plants that’ll produce seed have been self-selected by yours truly because they showed amazing perserverence over the slug and cold onslaught that left many of their siblings mushily dead mid-winter.  I appreciate hardiness!  I appreciate non-death!  Therefore, I will grant them the time and–more pressingly–space to go through their flowering and seeding.

Soon enough, both greenhouses will be too consistently hot for salad things so it will be time for the heat-loving summer crops.  As it is now, it does get mighty hot in there:  above 90 with the vents open, and as cold as 45 at night.  This is great for tomato seedlings but it’s a bummer for those pretty lettuces.

On a better way of seed-starting

img_0989The seedling transfer bed, bottom to top:  Amish Deer Tongue lettuce (two leaves seen), arugula, spinach, unemergent seeds of spinach, Red Sails lettuce, orach, broccoli, minutina, mizuna, more spinach, more Red Sails and Grand Rapids lettuce.  Those are two beds of garlic you see beyond, as well as the overwintered fig trees.

Outdoors in the greenhouse is where I *love* starting our seeds.  It’s here, too, that some indoor seedlings find temporary shelter, growing out as best they can before they go outside to their permanent spots.  I have 6 of 9 beds in the old greenhouse that are filled like this one.  Now can you see why I hate starting seeds indoors?  Inside, I only have so much dirt and so much light:  here, well, here I can go crazy.

Perhaps a little too crazy!  Now that I have the excuse of “well, I am growing for the school garden too” I am, uh, taking it to heart.

On garden emotions

img_0903Wouldn’t you cry too?

On Wednesday, after work, I went into the old greenhouse with my small stash of shallots and I started crying.  Sobbing, nearly.

YES:  me, hard-headed, tough-as-nails, rationalist, non-sentimental ME, brought to tears by the emergence of the first fava beans, by the gorgeousness of the lettuces, by the thin little green waving sprouts of leek and onion.

img_0891Freckles romaine

I cannot tell you if it was merely something hormonal, but I can tell you this:  these greenhouses  have changed my life, have changed our lives, and not just our food lives.  If ever I can convince you to get a greenhouse of your own, please remember this post:  remember me sniffling as I tried to harvest our dinner salad!  Blinded with tears!  Oh, the joy.

img_0906Red Sails embracing Green Grand Rapids lettuce

The greenhouses in late winter/early spring

Ah!  The March equinox!  Equal day and night happening for us on March 20th, as well as spring’s putative arrival:  after such a winter, I am so happy this day is here.  The White House breaks ground on their own kitchen garden today.  And our humble greenhouses are both winding down and ramping up on this day.  In the old greenhouse, I have been busily sowing lots of seed and transplanting indoor baby seedlings of onion, leek, broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce.  Everything is sprouting, everything looks great.

The new greenhouse is a bit of a puzzle to me.  Somehow, it is not as warm as the old one, and while this is not a problem (per se) it has me scratching my head.  Either way, and just like the leeks, it’s time for many of the existing plants to get eaten.  This also marks the end of my general parsimony:  eating up a harvest is necessary (as my stinginess won’t let anything go to waste) and it’s also just plain delicious fun.  SO I thought I would share with you on what’s moving out of the salad bowl and getting main-course status on our plates.

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Escarole: This lettuce-like plant is actually a chickory, so it shares its family’s tang and bite.  I do use it in salads (and will continue to do so) but it hates the heat so it will soon mostly end up being quickly sauteed with garlic or–my favorite–served slightly warm with hot bacon drippings on top of it.  Add some huge croutons and a poached egg and that is dinner.

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Sugarloaf chickory: This plant has many uses, and often I use it the way you’d use cabbage.  It continued to grow through the coldest days so it is a definite keeper in my eyes.  I used it in lieu of cabbage leaves for cabbage rolls: they’re more stringy but I like their bite.  This is also great sauteed, with a splash of vinegar at the end.

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Chard: Unlike the enormous fans of the summer garden, winter greenhouse chard is small and tends to hug the earth, reserving its energy.  Because this is a biennial, I need to hurry up and eat it before it goes to seed.  One of my favorite recipes is a chickpea/chard stew with lots of cumin and cilantro and garlic.  Chard is also great braised and wrapped up in a turnover with some stinky cheese, or braised and used as a filling for crepes.

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Carrots: I will never rely on storage carrots again, I think:  having them grow in the greenhouse was both so much easier for nightly harvests and so much more fresh with nearly no nutrients lost.  This is one crop I will be sad to see go.

img_0834Kale: The red-leaved Russian kale seems to have been a much happier denizen of the greenhouse this winter; its lacinato (dinosaur, or Tuscan) cousins surely didn’t do so well.  It is such a mild plant too thanks to the cold.  Like all that I have listed here, it too is a biennial and the oldest, largest plant is just about to flower.  Think “broccoli” and you’ll see my plans for these blossoms…

img_0840do you see the little spider in her web?

and finally, Sorrel: I have been a happy wanderer with all my plants but when I discovered sorrel at Lucia’s in Minneapolis about 15 years ago I knew I had found a vegetable to call home.  They served it as a lemon-y sauce with some baby potatoes…yum.  Unlike all the above plants listed, this is a perennial.  I moved it down from my Minneapolis garden and have both outdoor and greenhouse plants growing:  it’s a favorite of the chickens, too, so usually the indoor one is the only one I get to use.  It melts to nothing in the pan and the plant melts to nothing in the heat of summer, reappearing in the cool of autumn.

Well, how hot is it?

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We’ve had a string of nice spring days.  Though this is a balm for the winter-weary soul, the greenhouse gardener in me is in a bit of a panic.  You see, there is such a thing as “too hot for comfort” with the little greenhouse babies.

img_0810Happy spinach babies

The upside:  things grow fast!  The downside:  things grow fast!

I do wish this enterprise were as simple as “the greenhouse will simply speed up the growing calendar by two months.”  This is a nearly true statement:  I am able to seed stuff indoors in February that I would be hesitant to seed outdoors in April, but it would be a very odd April indeed if the daytime high was 105*.  If I could somehow bring that high temperature down…life under that plastic would be perfect.  So, up go the roll-up sides, and I throw open the doors:  within an hour the temperatures in both have dropped to a very acceptable 90*F.

The hot days, however, caused my stalwart arugula to bolt into seed.  I pulled the whole row up and made a spicy arugula pesto for St. Patrick’s day, with lots of green onions and garlic and some of last fall’s wild walnutsGreen food rules, man.

On seed-starting

img_0743Red and yellow onions growing in a recycled aluminum pie plate and plastic cover.  Notice the crowding:  I intend to transfer these (and most of my seedlings) at least twice:  once to the grow bed in the greenhouse and finally to their spots in the garden.  Growing things in crowded conditions frankly enables me to maximize that lightspace, but yes, transferring twice is a big downside.

Baby steps:  seed starting!

Remember that I have openly admitted that I, gardenlover, hate starting seeds indoors.  But like many of these necessary things that are…tiresome, if I bite off only a tiny bit at a time then I feel the task is manageable.  I could NEVER set aside a whole (or even half) day to start seeds because I would certainly go crazy.

So I cheat:  I dump my dirt, compost, worm castings and peat into a large plastic tub and I fill the seed pots when I have the time AND the desire.  My gardening calendar has enough flexibility built into it that a few days either way isn’t going to hurt things.  I probably won’t wait too many days, though…the calendar won’t accommodate a true slacker.  For instance, after two weeks, the leeks I sowed are near no-shows.  Leeks are important so I planted a new flat.  (In my own time, of course…the next day.)

A big trick up my sleeve is those greenhouses.  Granted not all of you have them, but they enable me to use the lights for the first few weeks only and not the six or 12 that some seeds require.  I first grow the cold-hardy seeds (alliums, lettuces, brassicas) in small cast-off bits of recycling (Chinese take-out containers, cottage cheese tubs, etc.) and then, once their true leaves come in, out to the greenhouse they go.  Yep, it’s still cold outside but 40* nighttime lows shouldn’t hurt them in there.  I transfer the seedlings into the dirt and “double greenhouse” them by placing a piece of clear plastic directly atop their bed.  And then under the lights go the seeds of warmth-loving plants, and I repeat the process, because by the time they’re ready those greenhouses are hot enough for their needs.

Perhaps this last trick of greenhouse growing is out of reach for you this year.  What I’ve done in the past is to grow my bigger seedlings in my sunny front porch.  Because I potted things up in individual cups, stacking them on the windowsills worked fairly well.  On the one or two severely cold nights that spring, I put a space heater on out there.  You can also try making a coldframe outdoors, out of a window and some straw bales, or even of a clear plastic sweater box.  You can move the sweater box indoors if you fear a cold snap.

So even without the greenhouse the seed-starting thing can be tackled in a small batches, as you can tolerate it…

On salad

img_0557Fresh from the greenhouses, in a Michigan February

As a city-living vegetarian, I really considered salads to be somewhat overrated.  Maybe I took all those “how can you subsist on rabbit food” comments to heart, but I mostly found salads disappointing after all the preparation that went into making them.  I ate them, sure; still, my heart was not in it.

Nowadays, though?  Now I love the stuff.  I love picking it, I love washing it, I love preparing it…I love my Sunday-afternoon salad-dressing sessions.  Maybe it’s a zen thing, this time that it takes to pick/wash/dry, with some chopping thrown in.

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Green onions, Par-Cel cuttting celery, Flakee carrots, purple-top turnip, and purple kohlrabi

I really love the noise of the knife hitting the cutting board:  thock thock thock.

Maybe I’ve just got a mild case of Stockholm syndrome:  loving one’s oppressors.  Wait:  who’s holding whom hostage:   do I own my greenhouses or do they own me?

On summer greenhouse crops

img_0579This small bag should be enough to grow lots of out-of-hand snacking this autumn

I got a little bit of legume love in the mail this week:  Peanuts!

The envelope was sorely needed, too:  dirty, green thoughts on a cold and snowy day.  Winter still holds us in her sharp teeth, though daily, that sun gets stronger.  Birdsong is more varied, and loud.  And I heard and saw my first migrating cranes yesterday.

These greenhouses really do bump your zone numbers up by 1-1/2 or 2, depending on the season.  (Seriously:  go check out that link to find out what you are.  I\’m 6b here.)  So last spring I realized I needed a radical rethink on the types of crops grown in the HOThouses they become during the summer.  I thought:  well, heck.  My model is a bit further south than a Michigan summer.

Yes, I am thinking Georgia/South Carolina/Tennessee/Alabama/Louisiana: an 8a/8b.  Someplace hot and steamy!  SO this summer season\’s crops include peanuts, sweet potatoes, okra and tomatillos…all joining the tomatoes, eggplant and peppers that grew so spectacularly well under that greenhouse plastic last year.  So here’s part of my order of Tennessee Valencia peanuts from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.  I can’t wait.

On pacing oneself

img_0481Brune d’hiver lettuce, back from near-death

What a difference a week makes!    The warmup has definitely kicked things up a notch or two in the greenhouses.  All my November and December seeds have sprung, I now see all the garlics, the chives are emerging, and all the freezer-burnt lettuces have put out shiny new growth.

img_0491November-sown Winter Marvel spinach

This should not surprise me, of course, but it does.  Being a gardener, one learns (not quickly) that TIME is one’s friend, even if it is not the friend of some garden plants.  Time has the ability to heal all your stupidly overreaching expectations.  Sure,  there are many patches in our digging lives where life is terribly short and the growing season even shorter, but becoming an earnest vegetable gardener is about understanding time, about thinking longer term.  The ease of simply buying one’s onions seems like cheating after a while.

That said, I do tend to get into a panic if I see the END of a harvest happening (let’s say the near-dead greenhouse lettuces planted last October) and the jump of time needed to span until the next harvest.  Those Nov/Dec seedlings aren’t going to be ready in time to have a continuous supply of salad stuff.   So I am quite glad the dead lettuces have had their Lazarus moment.  It will bridge that gap.

Spring, you see, is still a long way off from where I stand.

Greenhouse update

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Yes, that’s snow on the outside!

It’s been a (select an adjective) winter this year, which is news to nobody, but its severity has particular relevance for the greenhouse-wannabe gardener.  To you I say:  There is hope, but not much hope was to be found in the past two months.

img_0335This sad-looking celery is still actually holding on; I figured it would up and die, so it was a bit of a successful experiment.  I do pick around this plant often; it’s actually quite huge…and I will also let it go to seed this spring.

I have done a fair bit of cleanup and cleaning out of the new (Nov. 2008 ) greenhouse since my last update of it.  Many of the greens have been consumed by the turkeys, geese and us, but more than is usual (that is, maybe 10-15%) became worthless packets of green cellulosic mush.  Seriously gross slimy stuff!  I blame the wet weather we had in the fall…I don’t think the greenhouse ever got a chance to dry up before we put the plastic on.  (Normally, this is a fine thing:  one needn’t water in the winter, you see, if the beds are damp when the hot weather stops.  The greenhouse doesn’t let any of that moisture escape…and there’s my problem in the new greenhouse this winter: the beds were sopping.)  I also believe that larger plants (most of the lettuces were fairly large when the frosts came and stayed) do less well than smaller plants.  It’s too bad I can never tell when the cold is going to come and stay or I would plant small plants accordingly.

The old (Oct. 2007 ) greenhouse was underplanted this winter and many of its beds were allowed a season’s rest.  But the cold has affected this stalwart (high and dry) greenhouse as well, as the seeds I had planted in November and December are as yet no-shows!  Likewise the garlic hasn’t made much of an appearance.  It really must be cold in there, and, checking my records, it is:  it’s not that it’s necessarily colder (both winters experienced 18*F lows) but it hasn’t gotten as hot…the hottest day in there being only 80*F, averaging 50* during the day.  Last winter it was regularly in the 70-90* highs, with a 60* day average range…so this winter, on top of being cold and snowy has been dark and cloudy, too.

Okay, mostly bad news, right?  Well, there are some highlights.  And mostly these highlights are calendar-based:  the earth is tilting, and with that change comes more sun, and with more sun comes warmer greenhouses.  In the interim, we’re all still eating plenty of…salad!img_0348-1

On January salads

img_9442This is the side of the new greenhouse.  Every day I knock at least this much snow off the thing.  Why?  It gets dark in there otherwise!

We had a bit of a break in the constant snow around here, so much so that I’m getting a little used to a daily salad.  (No snow = more light = happy plants.)

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Note the muted light in the greenhouse, yet stuff keeps growing.

I also got a new salad spinner.  My last one had had one too many encounters with the hard floor.  This new one is bigger so I have to stop myself from filling it full:  that’d be too much for the three of us.

But you know what?  To my snow-blind eyes, these salad ingredients, even dirt-covered, are SEXY.  Do you not agree?

img_9457 Brune d’Hiver, oakleaf, Freckles romaine, Amish deer tongue, black-seeded Simpson lettuces with red onion, radicchio, red onion and carrot, with some par-cel cutting celery.

On holiday garden traditions

img_9327Inchelium red (below) and German hardy garlic

I suppose it cannot be called a tradition if it’s only the second time I am doing it, but on New Year’s day I planted some more garlic in the greenhouse.  Last year I found some nearly-sprouty cloves and said “the hell with it” and threw them in an unused greenhouse bed without really thinking much about the consequences.  They ended up being gigantic.  Seriously huge, apple-sized bulbs.  All garlic is now getting the greenhouse treatment.

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My one honest garden tradition that I have is that I like working in the greenhouses (or garden, weather permitting) on each and every holiday.  Solstice came cold and blowy and I turned the compost piles.  Christmas, though frozen, was a greenhouse weeding day!  Thanksgiving was a seed-planting day.  And New Year’s found me with a trowel in my hand.  Considering how much these gardens do for us, this tiny bit of cultivating is my way of saying thanks, of reconnecting a tiny bit with this good earth.

Then I grab what I can for a feast!!

On seeing the sun

Christmas brought some sun for us, which, quite frankly, was all I really wanted.  (N.b.:  anyone who says she doesn’t want anything for the holidays will not be satisfied with nothing.)  Sun here of course means salad.

img_9206Young arugula.  The wider-leaved varieties are the ones that do well in the greenhouse.  Avoid the yellow-flowered, skinny-leaved sylvetta forms, which don’t do as well (and also self-seed like mad).

I was able to have a harvest of lettuces!  Lettuces and a few other things, like onion greens, sorrel, radicchio and carrots.  The one rockstar in the greenhouses is arugula.  It will always grow, and still be edible.  The pimpled, bubbly surface of the tops of the arugula and (below) lettuce leaves is their defense to the cold.  This has something to do with extending surface area and spreading out the cell walls, but in plain English to me it means “you can eat your lettuces in the winter.”

img_9207Baby Grand Rapids and Red Sails lettuces, ready for a bit of a trim

The greenhouses in winter’s cold grip

img_2614Greenhouse shallots, chilly but fine.

I am so glad this is not my first year with a greenhouse.  This fall/winter season has been uniformly horrible as far as the greenhouses are concerned:  cold, sunless, and did I mention cold and sunless?  And the lack of sun? And the cold?

Had this been the first year, I would be terribly disappointed.  The root crops are fine, and the hardier chickories and escaroles and kales are all limping along, but those poor fleshy lettuces could use some loving sunshine.  The sun will eventually come out again, however, and our own household discussions about what constitutes a blizzard will cease.  I looked at my gardening calendar and realized that December ’07 was sunnily out of the norm, whereas January was spot-on as far as expected temperature and solar radiation (which is of course a fancy way of saying how much sun had shone).  The greenhouses’ very long January last year has merely moved up a month this year.  February was stellar, and March even more brilliant.

Here’s hoping we see the sun again.  I for one am glad we’ve made it through the darkest hours of the year.

Peace and warmth to all of you.

On what’s for dinner

Somebody mostly wise once said there are two kinds of people in the world:  people who wake up wondering what’s for dinner, and people who do not.

I certainly wake up wondering.  Tuesday I worried we wouldn’t be able to have our usual salads:  this cold weather, these cloudy days, conspire to keep our green leafies too chilled to eat.  (This is one of the sad truths of greenhouse gardening in someplace chilly like Michigan.  Give us a sunny day, even if it’s really cold outside, and the leaves will be fine.)  Sure enough, it was really cold and snowy.  Ugh:  what to do about dinner’s raw food component (i.e., salad)?

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Carrots.  We are quite rich in carrots, both in the garden under straw and dirt, and in the greenhouse itself.  It’s so dark by the time I harvest that the flash went off on my camera.  The leaves, like I thought, were cold, too cold to harvest, but the ground is not (and probably won’t get) frozen.   Pulling these big babies then was quite easy.

So this year I have leaned a bit away from the root cellar and toward the idea of using the greenhouse and burying certain root crops under dirt and straw in the garden itself.   So far, this method of storage has worked fairly well, and our early snowcover has certainly helped.   I still have lots of cabbage in the root cellar and, on cloudy days like today, a nice slaw made with apples and walnuts and some of our apple cider vinegar is a quite-fine substitution for our greenhouse’s lettuces.  But a girl needs to mix it up every once in a while:  I wake up thinking about dinner, after all.

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On December seeds

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I started some seeds yesterday.  It felt pretty good, considering how big and burdensome my digging jones gets when the snow comes and stays.

img_8307Best table found ever in a gardening book (in my opinion):  p. 33 of Nancy Bubel’s The New Seed-Starters Handbook (Emmaus, PA:  Rodale Press, 1988). I hope you can read it but it clearly shows that a wide temperature range is acceptable to most seeds.

The greenhouse is a funny place.  The double coverage on most of the beds means that, technically, seeds can start to germinate.  (The big secret of seeds is that they don’t need 68* soil to get started.  They’ll start if it’s colder than that, but they will do it ever so much more sloooowly.)  Of course, I am in a bit of a hurry (as ever) so I am starting a few lettuces indoors now too to be transplanted around the first of the year.  They’ll live on the front porch (heated during the day, unheated at night).  Because of the porch’s wild shift in temperatures, the seedlings will get well acclimated to the cold of the greenhouse.

img_8289Remember these babies? Look how big they’ve gotten in less than 2 months!

I have very small seedlings going in the old greenhouse now, destined to be eaten in January.  I also have lots of seeds I threw in the ground in mid-November.  These seeds (spinach, orach, minutina, mizuna, lettuce) will come up and start getting big in February.   The ones I will plant in January will be ready for March.  And so it goes.

My goal is that the new greenhouse’s lettuces will be eaten or spent come mid-February.

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eat me!!

Early winter in the greenhouses

img_8043The daily greenhouse temperature swing on a sunny day

I love this time of year.  We are bridging the fall/winter divide.  It’s cold out, sure; it snows, but it still melts.  The ground is not frozen despite the weekly snow dump.  It’s been cold enough that the still-unharvested garden vegetables, mainly root crops, have converted their starches to sugars.  There is nothing more sublime than a cold muddy late-November carrot, a starchy white turnip washed and sliced on a plate.

img_8048Blanching the inner leaves of escarole with a rubber band

The greenhouses are also experiencing the seasonal bridge.  The slugs, though still present, are greatly reduced in numbers.  The *$#!% cabbage worms have finally bitten it thanks to the frosty nights, yay.  All the lettuces have stopped their rapid growth and now are just limping along, the vegetables likewise are slowing down and just hanging on.  Delayed gratification for the gardener, but that’s okay!

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Little Edie’s only bad habit:  greenhouse climbing.  She spends much of her time snoozing inside the old greenhouse on the sunny path.

On winter weeds

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I suppose this doesn’t look like much, but these little green things certainly made me smile when I found them in the old greenhouse this weekend.  What are they?  They are lettuce and mache seedlings, little weedlings actually…they’ve sprung up uninvited in one of the fallow beds.  (Sometimes, if company just drops by, one needs to be a polite hostess, so these little guys will get to stay.  Until they’re big enough to eat, of course.)

Another fun thing about greenhouses is that after a while the only weeds that grow in them are weeds of your own making.

img_7702More fun with weeds:  cole crop seedlings (kohlrabi, maybe?) in the garlic bed

On what’s in the new greenhouse

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Bed #4 of 12 in the new greenhouse:  I thought I would show it to you because it’s a typical mixed bed of veggies and salad stuff.  Cover on, cover off.  The monster plant is an Early Purple Sprouting broccoli:  supposedly, these are winter-hardy (but never have been for me) and produce small purple shoots during their second spring.  Considering the crappy seeds I got from this company, I kind of doubt I will ever see a bit of broccoli from it, so I am treating it like kale.

As you can see, this 6’x3′ bed is pretty tightly planted.  There’s no real stress inside the greenhouse, you see, so you can plant pretty thickly if your soil is decent.  There are 13 rows in this bed with the bottom three being Swiss chard and sorrel, and most of the rest are lettuces.  The lettuces are typically planted at 7-8 plants per row…my calculations then are that there are about 70-80 lettuces in here.  All the lettuces are from the transfer bed, and the transfer bed was seeded mid-August.  I transplanted the babies into this bed around the middle of September.  They’ve tripled in size since then.

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While showing you the typical size of the lettuce plants, I thought I would show you my favorite:  Amish Deer Tongue.  It’s kind of a romaine but kind of a buttercrunch too.  These are from seed I have saved.  It will get bigger but not by much.

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Left:  slug damage on Brune d’hiver  Right:  frost damage on Grand Rapids (the darker area)

And while I am at it I thought I would show you a couple of problems you can expect.  Neither one of these things is a dealbreaker, if you ask me:  the slugs die once it stays cold, and the plants do toughen up after it stays chilly.

So, before you really start scratching your heads, not EVERY bed is planted with 80 lettuces.  Only 8 out of 12!  Yep, that’s a heap of salad fixings.  I give a lot away, we certainly eat our share, and the turkeys and geese eat quite a bit themselves.  Other things growing out there:  a bed of carrots, a bed of leeks, a bed of broccoli and kale, a bed of garlic.  Various herbs like parsley and thyme and chives are scattered throughout.  The old greenhouse is mostly planted with lettuce seeds, garlic, and multiplier onions.  These lettuces above will be spent by March, and the seeds in the old greenhouse will then be ready to be eaten.

I really enjoy eating fresh stuff year-round: home-canned stuff is great, but there’s something wonderful about walking outside in January and harvesting dinner.  These greenhouses have been great investments.  A friend told me that, at $5 a bag of organic salad, these babies will pay for themselves in no time!  Considering I have only been a greenhouse farmer for a year and a month, let’s see…I would have needed to sell about 380 bags (or come up with your own calculus if you consider the peppers and tomatoes, leeks and non-salad veggies).   I know I have easily recouped my investment!

Late autumn in the greenhouses

img_7490Frozen condensation inside the new greenhouse this morning

It’s that time of year again:  killer frosts at night, cool days.  Last week was mostly in the 70s (entirely global-warming freak-out bizarre) so I do have to tell myself that this weather, actually, is NORMAL.  It is a bit of a change, though.  Morning water-changing chores for the critters are, well, less pleasant.

The greenhouses’ contents are now snuggled under their rowcovers.  I won’t take them off then until next March.  The covers are really lightweight so most plants tolerate being draped with them.  Double coverage like this is what actually makes the greenhouse successful.  It tempers the shock of the nighttime temperature drop:  if it’s, say, 20* outside the greenhouse, it will be 30* inside it and close to 40* under the covers.  The next day, if it’s sunny:  it will be 70* inside and 80* under the covers, even if it only hits the low 40s outside.  A cloudy day won’t swing so wildly and actual ambient temperatures inside the greenhouse won’t be much different from what’s going on outside.

My only duty now in the greenhouses is to harvest.  Luckily I never need to harvest a salad in the a.m.:  the plants under cover look quite droopy and cold.  By early afternoon they’ll have thawed and the water will be coursing through their cells, and by dinnertime they’ll be quite crisp and yummy.

Greenhouse #2: fait accompli

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Whew!  We got the plastic on the second greenhouse Saturday.  Finally, the weather cooperated.

Imagine putting a stocking on a 28′ long, 26′ wide leg, and that’s the challenge we faced.  For once there was only a tiny bit of wind, no rain, and decent temperatures, all on the day we planned to finish the project.

We have two roll-up sides but I won’t be installing those until next spring, so I buried the plastic on one side and held it down on the other.  I also laid woodchips on the paths of this and the old greenhouse.  The electric company came by for their quadrennial tree-butchering session this week:  this year they removed one entire tree and only hacked up 6 more in our front yard.  I persuaded them to at least give us the chipped wood and logs.  The timing was pretty good as far as the greenhouse is concerned but the house looks nowhere near as hidden as it did before from the road.  Sigh.

Anyway, I am a bit sore but really gratified.  Let it snow!  We’ll be rich in greenery.

No salad last night

Plastic-less greenhouse and…snow!

Yipes.  That certainly came quickly: the cold hammer that is winter.  We were very disappointed that bad weather prohibited us from putting the skin on the new greenhouse this weekend.  (Gale-force winds are not exactly ideal for plastic-hanging.)  The sleet/snow forecast wasn’t exactly welcome news for Monday, either.  This was the view today.

The wood 1×2 you see are on the ends of the greenhouse only:  you sandwich the plastic from the tops and the sides to this with another piece of 1×2.  The middle hoops have an aluminum channel into which you snap a bent wire to hold the plastic.  It’s a pretty slick system actually.  But no, I am not fretting overly about the green residents of the new greenhouse.  They’re tough!  I do have to tell myself I am not aiming for growth at this point.  I am aiming for simple greenery.  On cloudy days like this one (and presuming the plastic is on), it’s like a big fresh refrigerator of salad.

Dang, I do hope we get a chance to hang the plastic this week though.  The lettuces, broccoli, onion things and kales don’t exactly LOVE snow.

Help us!

Greenhouse update

Red sails and Grand Rapids seedlings in the garden path

It’s an odd time for the old greenhouse right now.  Although it’s dipping down nightly to near freezing outside (and thus about 45* inside) it is still awfully warm in there during the day.  The other greenhouse, the one without the plastic on it yet (grumble grumble that’s what we’re doing Saturday so help me) is filled with growing lettuces:  they like it cool.  They even like frost.  If I had transplanted them into the old greenhouse, they’d shoot into flower, it’s still so hot in there during the day.

SO it’s too warm for big seedlings.  I also think it’s too warm for seeds, though I will be making a first planting of arugula and minutina (a type of plantain) this weekend.  I will wait a couple more weeks yet until I do more seeds, mostly of lettuce and spinach.

What have I done in there then?  Well, the peppers are still happy.  The pumpkins are slowly ripening to orange.  And I have done my first plantings of the allium family.  I divided one large clump of bunching onions (scallions) to a new area.  I also sowed a bunch of little sets of the Egyptian walking onions.  I even planted some leek bulbs.  What the heck are leek bulbs?  Well, if you overwinter leeks, they’ll produce flowers for you the next year…a good thing for seed-savers like me.  If  you allow the plant to stay there after harvesting the flower, it will often do two things to hopefully extend its life:  it might produce leek pearls (little leeks growing right off the main leek) or leek bulbs.  Elephant garlic is actually a type of leek that’s prone to bulbing.  Anyway, when I harvested my seed stock leeks, I found quite a few bulbs and a few more pearls attached to the dying parent plants.  I planted the pearls and saved the bulbs until now.

But I am still casting about to find some things to plant in the garden that are not seeds.  Lazy gardening has come in handy once again!  The kid and I found some lettuce babies growing in the path next to the lettuces I had allowed to go to seed.  The babies are tiny (under 2″) but she and I slowly uprooted them Wednesday and transfered them to a waiting garden bed.

New home for the babies

The greenhouse in early fall

The one thing the greenhouse is at this time of year is hot and dry.  I take advantage of this:  drying beans in buckets, paprika peppers hanging on the back wall, and curing winter squashes to the right.  The bell pepper plants as you can see are still kinda large.

Not that I am running away, or opting out, of the problems of the world, but…the greenhouse cares not about economics, about presidential debates.  So I am quite happy to go in there and throw dirt around.

This weekend I finally (finally!) emptied the old greenhouse of its summer contents.  The one exception was the sweet peppers, as I mentioned before:  they were happy, so they got to stay.  (The monster tomatoes were happy too so obviously I play favorites.)  Other than some newly-planted alliums, the beds are empty.  I figured I needed a small period of empty beds to give the damned voles the message that there is no food here, please go away.  Whether that’ll really work or not is debatable; Little Edie is on the job though and I have about 20 mousetraps set in there just waiting for little rodent feet.

My experiment with undersowing the hot crops with green manure was a rank failure.  Yes, the beans produced and were fruitful, but the clover absolutely hated the hot greenhouse, and who can blame it.  So next summer I will need to assess my choice of green manures and go with somebody who actually appreciates the heat: hairy vetch maybe, or buckwheat.  I might even look into using my usual grass mulch, though I do worry about slugs.  In July-Sept., it might be too hot for them too.

So Sunday I pulled, yanked, cut and cleaned; I spread 1/2″ of compost over every bed, and 2″ dried grass clippings, and then I forked things in.  I watered heavily.  It now sits.

My first greenhouse is now a year old.  The first winter of the greenhouse, I used only 6 of the 9 beds currently in it.  Harvests, then, were precious, and the salad stuff before growth kicked in again in March was positively bonsai in its nipped outer leaves.  Why 6 of 9?  Well, I ran out of time (my usual story) and the 9th bed was my old herb garden, uprooted finally when I found the snakes on Mother’s Day.  By late winter, I had planted beds 7 and 8, and believe me, having even that little digging to do in January and February was so. very. gratifying.  I love this bubble of plastic, I do.

One thing that I realized on Sunday, when I was digging?  I am really looking forward to obsessing over the small scale of these nine-plus-twelve beds of dirt.  Last winter, I got to know every inch of dirt I gardened.  It was quite fun, this shifting of scales.  Most gardeners appreciate the shutoff of the tap that is winter in the northern hemisphere.  Me?  I appreciate the steady drip that is the greenhouses’ contents!

On frost, or, a season’s rushed end

Everyone likes ladders at this house

Nothing concentrates the gardener’s energies like the first frost of fall.  Or I should say, nothing concentrates the otherwise season-denying gardener’s mind like the evidence of first frost!  Egads, it got down to 30* on Friday night.  (And yes, that’s early, by about 2 weeks, darnitall…)

So Saturday was spent running around like the proverbial headless chicken.  We erected the frame for the new greenhouse, I purchased the wood for the base and end walls, and I harvested the cabbage and the rest of the drying beans and winter squash.  I also planted garlic (inside greenhouse and not) and mulitplier onions inside the greenhouse.  And, well, I finally yanked out the very last of the big tomatoes out of the old greenhouse.  Sigh.  No more tomatoes.

The bell peppers, though, have been left in place in there.  They are huge, and reflect their tropical origins in their very size:  they have no signs of stopping growth, being now waist-high and bloom-covered.  I expect they’ll only get another month or so of temperatures to their liking before they, too, shall be composted.  Interesting thing to note, though:  they really did not like the high summer temperatures (110*) and stopped flowering.  I almost yanked them out.

Yay!  It’s up!

All denial aside, it has been a great garden year for us, despite the record rains and now early frost.  Our larder is filling, the greenhouses are filling, and we are in great shape for the cold months ahead.

Ah.  Such a rush of activity.  And I still haven’t touched the apples or the grapes…

Onward, construction

Construction has a way of making me happy.  Can’t say as I have been my usual happy self lately, but…when I observe, or participate in, something being built I am joyful.  Not to say that all construction is happy construction, but most of what I personally do is positive, and future-directed.  I don’t build jails, say, or army barracks.  Or Wal*Wart stores.

Finding a corner:  A squared plus B squared equals C squared

Busy weekend;  we began construction on the new greenhouse.  Yay.  Too bad Tom was sick or it would be up now!  Poor thing.  Pounding head while pounding stakes. 

This doesn’t look like much but…it is.  Eight stakes one side.

This part is actually the hardest part:  getting the ground stakes level and aligned.  All that rain though left our tough clay soil slightly easier to work, thankfully.  Next come the bows and purlins, then a wood base, then the end walls, and then the plastic.  Hopefully before first frost it’ll be enclosed.

On fall-planted winter gardens

Plant me!  (And ignore the weedy paths!)

You know, going on vacation kinda sucks in one and only one way:  the work that you’d otherwise be doing if you stayed  home still needs doing.  I woke up at 4 this morning in a minor panic about all that hasn’t been done.

So, on to the greenhouses.  The one concept one needs to get one’s head around about the winter garden is it’s a harvesting garden, not a growing garden.  I should underline, bold-face, italicize that:  one harvests most of the fall, winter, and early spring.  This means the plants that are in there once it starts getting cold have to be, well, not small!  Thus, my early-morning panic.

Penny, showing off some of the new greenhouse frame:  more work ahead.

You see, I am still growing some tomatoes in the new greenhouse beds, but they’ve gotta go.  These are mostly the paste tomatoes, and yes, they’re still fruiting…though admittedly the plants look mighty sad compared to the beauties growing indoors in the “old” greenhouse.  The lower leaves on these outdoor ones are brown and crumpled, and, in general, just look spent.  Indoors?  I swear they just get taller, and bushier.  Currently it’s a spider web of jury-rigged support twine hanging from the framework in there.  But those tomatoes have gotta go, too, as do the peppers and eggplants; I will give them to the end of September, then they’re compost.  It’s still mighty hot in the greenhouse (100/day, 60/night), so I am a bit scared to plant the usual winter garden suspects (lettuces, mainly, and some kales).

This whole succession-planting thing is a bit of a juggle, I admit that.  I don’t usually drop the ball because I really try to nibble off my tasks daily.  Monday, the first day of school, was such a day.  After dropping the kid off but before I start in on my job, I went to the new greenhouse beds and planted broccoli, kale, oak leaf lettuce and some escarole in one bed.  If I do one bed a day, then hey, in 8 days the remaining beds will be filled!  But, oh yeah, I have to evict another six beds of tomatoes first.  Sigh.  I need to pick up the pace.

I will be kinda glad when tomato season is over.  Tomatoes can be tyrants. And all I will *have* to do daily in a couple of months is harvest some goodies out of the greenhouse for dinner.  Sound good to you?  Me too.

On turning seasons

DeMieux endive in the seedling bed: move me soon, it says; getting big in here

No, it is not fall yet; don’t get mad at me for mentioning it.

Rather, it was really cool this morning (55*) when I went out to start working in the garden. When it’s that noticeably cool, then dang, I am hit by a feeling of panic again, that nagging suspicion that there’s something I have forgotten to do. What is it?

Perhaps I was simply undercaffeinated.

Anyway, having these greenhouses means one needs to kind of take your succession planting to a new level. I have never been a chess player, but I believe the theory of moving pieces around a board strategically has some relevance to the garden in this not-quite-end-of-season time. So I look at what’s occupying the greenhouse beds now: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants inside; tomatoes, squash, beans outside (in the future greenhouse space). It’s still really hot inside the greenhouse to transplant cool-loving things. But outside, someone’s going to have to meet the compost early if I am to expect a successful transfer of the seedlings I am growing elsewhere.

But yes, the turning season DOES mean salads are back on the menu.