Category Archives: greenhouses

Another greenhouse rave

Okay. Again, I kind of try to avoid the “hey, look what I can grow!” bragging, but…you know my secret desire for all of you to become greenhouse/hoophouse/high tunnel/polytunnel owners. And as another form of encouragement, I give you 2.75 lb. Big Buddha.

This is a Brandywine tomato. I put all the big tomatoes in the greenhouse this year, and all the paste tomatoes outside in the gardens. My rationale is this: even though they grow well for me outside, I figured the big tomatoes would love life indoors even more. Outdoors, see, I practice Tough Love. I never water outdoor tomatoes (we usually have rain anyway) and my only maintenance of the outdoor ones is to hack them down and tie them up, and mulch, and maybe pick off a tomato hornworm or two; except for harvesting, I completely ignore them. This lack of water means I have nice nonjuicy tomatoes, which is what I want for paste anyway. In the greenhouse? Water every 3-4 days, some tying up, no mulch. More fawning attention, more love. I even have been known to talk to these plants!

Big Buddha isn’t really that big. This is a typical 4x/week harvest from the greenhouse.

And I have been rewarded. Everything is growing so well in there: peppers especially. The big tomatoes in the greenhouse are huge this year. And, unlike previous outdoor years of catfaced, only-a-mother-can-love-them big tomatoes, the greenhouse ones have been uniformly perfect. Scarily uniformly State Fair blue ribbon-winner perfect. Not that I am bragging.

Again, I tell you this to goad you: it’s not look what I can do, it’s look what YOU can do…

On canned beauty

Whenever I do something in the kitchen that’s a bit out of the ordinary, the little nag on my shoulder asks, “What Would Martha Do?”

The Martha is of course Martha Stewart. I think every woman above a certain age in this country has a love/hate relationship with this woman. With me, it’s mostly admiration, but when following one of her recipes or directives I eschew about 90% of what she claims is necessary because I am not in her shoes. (Her shoes, incidentally: 1. Staff. 2. Deep pockets. 3. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.) I admire her mainly because she has both allowed and expected of her readers a very high level of craft and of beauty. There is no way I cannot not get behind that.

So, I am about to can tomatoes yesterday. There is nothing new in that process, as it’s a task I attempt four nights a week at this time of year. These tomatoes, though, were gorgeous. They were of the beefsteak variety: Brandywines, Hillbilly Potato Leaf/Flames, and Goldies. (Before you start saying “how is it yours are ready already, El,” I whisper the magic word to you: greenhouse.) Red, red/yellow/orange/green, and orange tomatoes, respectively, each above a pound and a half. Normal processing of these fleshy things means they’re destined for juice or a really runny sauce: yummy, but, when mixed together, their distinctive visual beauty is lost. So I sliced them up, stuck some red and yellow onions in with them, and processed them in the pressure canner*.

I think even Martha would approve. They’re mighty pretty.

*must be done in pressure canner, sorry. Nearly whole tomatoes and nearly whole onions, even if both are acidic heirlooms, could mean more microbial mischief if not processed at such a high temperature.

The greenhouse in high summer

Mamma mia! Look at them tall ‘maters! Also, onions drying on a screen lower left

Mid July: It’s time for another greenhouse post, I think. Daily temperatures get to about 110*, lows 75*.

Well. I harvested the last of the garlic about a week after I posted about the other garlic, and I said there was no rush. Well, I was mistaken. These heads were huge: each one between the size of a peach and a large apple. Wow. Everything grows better in the greenhouse is my lesson. I planted these around January 1st.

The June picture of the last greenhouse update shows the little tomato plants. I always have luck with big fruited tomatoes, not that I am really trying. Did you know that monsters like the one I grew last year that was over 3 pounds is actually the product of the merging of two or three blossoms? That’s what those freaks I mean determined growers are going for: size, to them, does matter. Anyway, look at the height of the Brandywine tomatoes (back right in the picture above). That’s pushing eight feet, with no sign of stopping. They’ll top out and burn once they hit the plastic, though. They’re fruiting well in there too. I expect to start harvesting the indeterminate tomatoes around the first of August.

My prolific early tomatoes are Bellstar Paste. I think the last time I grew determinate tomatoes (they grow to a certain point, fruit, then die) I was a Chicagoan with a back deck. In other words, it was a long time ago. I am growing them again! Little staking, then lots of crazy fruit. Good. They’ll get pulled much more quickly than the indeterminate ones to make room for lots of fall plantings.

Looking back from the big tomatoes to the door: first two beds are peppers, then eggplant and herbs, then the determinate tomatoes at the front

The peppers and eggplants likewise are doing well. I needed to stake some of the peppers: they are so laden they want to fall over. I am growing lots of paprika peppers (Hungarian peppers) this year, as I cleaned out my paprika stash this spring. (You grow them, you seed and dry them, you grind them up in a mortar. Easy peasy.) We’re not big hot pepper eaters here, but we do grow a lot of bells and Italian sweet peppers. The eggplants are slow, but they are always slow to get going. I plan to pull the Hungarian peppers first.

Yep, that’s kind of the shuffle you get into if you get a greenhouse. Grow, then get out. It’s a completely different way of considering dirt, I will tell you. That soil in that greenhouse is precious stuff! What I will do before sowing the new crops is add some compost and dried grass, stir things up a bit, then plant seeds or transplant seedlings. That’s also a lot different than the way I treat my clay garden soil. I am into layering out there, and respect the soil critters as much as I can. In the greenhouse, well, it’s not that they don’t have my respect (they do), it’s just that I have a different agenda.

The greenhouse in early summer

6/14/08: It’s an issue of timing: the big things going to seed need time to do so (leeks, left; beets, right; parsley, rear right) and the little things need time to get big.

I spend a little more than a usual amount of my worry-energy worrying about the soil in the greenhouse.

Without the cleansing benefit of fresh rain and direct sunlight, the soil in the beds will eventually need to be replaced. Hopefully, I will not have to do this for another couple of years, but yes indeed I do still worry about it. I water from the hose and I can definitely tell that the top layer of soil is getting mineral stains: either the water itself, which is pretty “heavy” with iron and calcium, is leaving this stain or the soil itself is leaching it out. Either way, it will eventually affect the soil fertility, and it is something I need to keep an eye on.

A partial answer to this would be to gather rainwater to water the beds. I do this, on a hackneyed basis; in winter and early spring, melted snow or fresh rainwater are the only way the garden gets watered. The heat of summer means I need a lot more water. Until we get a load of rainbarrels lined up and connected, the hose is the way to go.

Another partial answer would be to mulch as intensively as I do outside in the main gardens to conserve that water. Let’s just say I am afraid to do that. We have slugs and sowbugs aplenty in the greenhouse: they do lots of damage to new growing things, so I really do not want to encourage them further by making their lives any more cushy than they already are.

Big tomatoes (rear), slug-eaten Cranberry bean seedlings, and a handful of clover seed

So here’s my partial answer today to the fertility/soil quality question. I underplant the tomatoes with beans, and then underplant the beans with a sowing of white clover. The clover and the beans are both nitrogen-fixing legumes: nodules on their roots make nitrogen, a plentiful airborne element, readily available to the soil, especially after the plant dies. (Green manures generally are in the bean family for this reason: the other things I use (oats, rye) are used for their sheer mass of greenery that the heavy clay soil needs.) It becomes a matter of timing, then, for what I do in the greenhouse in spring/summer: tomato plants first (planted into their permanent places at the beginning of May), beans planted in early June, and now once the beans are tall, the clover. The beans will get harvested and the tomatoes will get harvested and pulled out and then I will till under the clover and bean plants, add more compost and grass clippings, and then plant out everything for the fall/winter.

Right now the peppers and eggplants are not tall enough to be undersown with clover. Bean plants are too tall to underplant with these two.

Oh, and reason #859 why I love this greenhouse? It’s shaving a month off of the first tomato harvest! The early and determinate plants of Bellstar Paste are just loaded with fruit right now. Great for instant gratification gardening, I will admit.

Yet another greenhouse rave

Okay, really now. I try to keep away from the recipe-and-food-picture circuit because I kind of find food blogs (with a couple of exceptions) braggard-y and full of puff. It’s one of the reasons I shied away from One Local Summer this year, too; I just was not comfortable with the format, for this blog, anyway; as a tipping point toward local eating, it’s really a great way to go.

But (but!) I must tell you about this harvest last night. Without the greenhouse*, all you would see would be the onions and the asparagus and some leaf lettuce. The head lettuce I seeded outside last August, and extended the season of that bed by simply laying a piece of leftover greenhouse plastic on top of the plants, held down by rocks. (Yep: call it the poor girl’s greenhouse, but obviously it worked, and it worked through a winter when none of my normal outdoor plants (kales, leeks) survived.) The broccoli I blathered about in the previous post.

And the garlic?

It’s from some very unpromising sprouty cloves I stuck into the greenhouse toward the end of January.

This is Michigan, people. Mih-chih-gaaan, where it’s cold and snowy half the year. Hopefully, this will be a bit more of a tipping point for some of you out there to get yourselves a greenhouse/hoophouse/polytunnel this season. It’s not too late!  I’m not showing you what I can grow.  I am showing you what you can, even with surprisingly unpromising garlic.

*Greenhouse-y, if I include the lazy season extension of the plastic on top of the lettuce bed.

Another “I love my greenhouse” post

Reason #845 (if I were counting that is): it’s the first week of June and we had a monster harvest of broccoli for dinner last night.

Granted, I feel like I only recently made an ode to the last of the greenhouse broccoli…I figured it would be a while before we supped again on its crunchy green spears. Nope! I planted these babies under the lights in the basement on Feb. 23rd, then out into the greenhouse in March, then into the garden at the end of April. And this, when all that’s ready out there are onions, salads, asparagus and flowers on my peas: great, but nothing that sticks to the ribs, you know?

Perhaps broccoli is a symbol of my vegetarian past. It’s entirely possible it holds my esteem so readily because I have eaten so much of it over the years. But I do swear that transferring things from a little pot to real dirt in the greenhouse, and not some half-step single pot still under the basement lights, makes all the difference. You know how plants love rainwater much more than water from your hose? I swear the microbes in the soil and the light of the sun in the greenhouse are manna from heaven to them.

(And it’s made a difference to my tomatoes, too. Dang, I only yesterday got around to putting many of them into the new greenhouse beds: the puppies were pushing 30″ tall and were full of blooms! Oops. Bad gardener.)

But back to the broccoli. I will continue to harvest these guys until mid-July. I will then direct sow new seeds in the beds for a fall harvest. I will then sow more seeds in mid-August, transferring these babies into the greenhouse in October for winter eating. I do agree one must eat seasonally…but I swear broccoli (and raab, and Chinese broccoli, and flowering turnips…) are just as big a staple around here as potatoes! Yum.

On geometrical tyranny

This is not where the bodies are buried…yet

Sunday was the Big Dig day around here: the day I set up the twelve new garden beds for the new greenhouse. They had to be level, they had to be equidistant from their relations, they had to be…well, they had to maximize the 16’w x 28’l square footage of the new structure.

Of course I say “had to,” when it’s only me who’s wielding the shovel and the level line.

As I grumbled, I thought about what it is I was doing. As an architect, I kind of have to have a huge respect for geometry, even if the architectural fashion of my schooling was antigeometric. And today I get paid to hew the straight line, to worship the 90* angle. So why, I thought, shoveling through the clay, does my work life have to creep into my after-work life? Why does my garden need to pay homage to the vector?

I was looking for an out, I suppose. The devil on my other shoulder whispered things like “Plants have no respect for geometry, you know. You put them in straight lines for your weeding convenience only. Left to their own devices they’d be a chaotic mess.” It was sunny out; I am a huge sun wimp. I was tired. I knew, though, that having (12) 6’x3′ beds in the new greenhouse would be the best use of the space, considering that clay, considering my experience with the first one.

But, in all honesty? Having this rigid geometry of these raised beds in the vegetable gardens is immensely pleasing to me. I suppose I don’t really care what the plants think.

I guess I can’t help myself

R.I.P., six broccoli plants

So little but so tasty

Green Gluttony season is winding down, at least where the greenhouse is concerned. I have been cleaning out the greenhouse beds fairly slowly. The tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, though, are beginning to get large, so it is time to completely clean out the beds to make room for them. Because the greenhouse gets so hot, only heat-loving things like the toms and peppers get to live in there in the summer.

Am I alone here in saying that hauling out still-growing greenery is hard for me? Even nixing stuff that is really winding down, like this broccoli, makes me a little misty. I can be such a sap sometimes. I would like to do a bit of a eulogy for the broccoli, however. There were six plants total; three Calabrese green sprouting, and three Piracicaba. I planted rows of seed in late July, and transfered the little seedlings into the greenhouse beds in early October. I spent October through December tending them, squishing those nasty cabbage worms as I went (until the frost did them in for good) and just patiently watching them sprout. Then, toward the end of January, I got my first real harvest. I was elated. And they’ve put out little sprouts ever since. They still would be, but…their time has come.

I must also mention two proven winners from the greenhouse. One is a cold-friendly lettuce. I admit I shaded this thing mercilessly by planting it next to some beets, but…it has been our stalwart beauty! I planted this batch last September. If you know anything about lettuce, it’s a short-season crop. Well, look at it. September to May is not what I’d call a short season, and it shows no signs of bolting. This is called Winter Marvel. I agree. Marvelous.

The last winner is an Italian dandelion. This chickory has grown fairly slowly, but its beautiful red-ribbed leaves have added a welcome bite to the salads since October. It is at the point that I need to chop a whole row down and fry it up with some green garlic.

(I really love this greenhouse.) Thanks, everybody! (Sniff!)

Another benefit of the greenhouse

Celery in front, tomatoes in the temporary bed

The greenhouse is a wonderful place, mainly because it so easily does its job. I’ve certainly gone over a few of its unintended benefits (reduce S.A.D. mid-winter, help take the pressure off the gardener to hurry up and dig, etc.), but here is another one.

It’s a great nursery.

Last night it got pretty chilly (28*F) and I wasn’t worried, even though my tomatoes, eggplants and peppers were outside. They were in the greenhouse! In the ground, too, as it happens: I have been moving the lettuce and winter stuff out at a fast rate, and replacing them, as the beds clear, with these tender baby plants. I *hate* transplanting seedings, so the greenhouse beds are a great halfway house for them.

I’m also seed-starting things like mad directly in the ground in the greenhouse. Seeds are going into the ground in the gardens, too (peas, favas, carrots, beets, etc.) but I reserve the greenhouse beds for items that, if chilled outside in the ground, will simply go to seed and not do their thing by producing goodies for me. The smaller brassicas are in this category: rapini, pac choi, tatsoi, mizuna. They’ll get to be about an inch tall and I will move them outside. Likewise, anything I want to hurry-up-and-sprout are seeded directly into the chill-proof greenhouse beds. Flowers (marigolds, calendula, cleome, cosmos) fit that category, as does another seeding of yellow storage onions. But in a month the only things that will be in the greenhouse will be the summer crops of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and a few garlic plants.

I know I sound like such a liar, but it really is a lot less work!

And of course it’s a place of beauty: frilled lettuce with chard and broccoli beyond

On sweating

Somebody had to do it: view from the greenhouse door

Busy weekend. Aren’t they all at this time of year? Sunday, I was feeling a bit poorly due to my own overindulgence of wine at a party the night before. It was a chilly day (40s) and all my light tasks had been accomplished, so I decided to sweat a bit and dug 80′ of trench.

I spoke to an old friend later that day and told her what I had done. “Have you become a masochist now that you’re a farmer?” she asked. Nah, I said: I figured, if I felt horrible already, I may as well feel horrible and feel like I accomplished something.

So, this was Step One in getting the new greenhouse going. That perforated drain pipe is now buried in the trench to avoid winter thaw/heavy rain water issues. Now I *just* need to till the clover in, build the beds, fill the beds with grass clippings, compost and more soil, refence the area from the chickens, plant the beds and then build the greenhouse itself. A lot of work ahead, but in 3 hours on Sunday, I got the worst part finished!

And oh, I felt a lot better afterward.

Time to clean out the greenhouse

Wow! Lots of spring weather means lots of growth in the greenhouse. Too much growth in the greenhouse, actually. I am handing off gallon bags of salad fixings to anyone I meet.

I did need to recalibrate my idea of seeding. Out in the garden, I am pretty generous while seeding a row: twice what’s recommended feels about right. My clay soil can be tough stuff, see, so I try to hedge my bets. Well, the greenhouse beds are likewise clay, with lots of organic matter. I guess the lack of outdoor variables means I should plant as directed (suggested?) per seed packet when planting out in the greenhouse proper. Every single seed tends to sprout. SO: not only do I have a lot of lettuce, I have a lot of a lot of lettuce. And other things too.

So now the true harvest has begun. Out to the garden go smaller lettuces, all brassicas, all herbs. I will wait a bit to harvest the rest of the alliums (scallions, garlic, leeks), and I am letting some biennials go to seed (beets, chard) because…I need the seed. There are a couple of kohlrabi that are threatening to fatten and not bolt, but this is, like, one in 10 plants so I am not overly hopeful. The broccoli is still putting out its little bitty heads. Greenhouse broccoli is just the best: so tender, so not bitter! Otherwise, I am just eating my way through the mustards, tatsoi, spinach, lettuce, minutina, Italian dandelion and Catalonian chickory.

Meanwhile, the nightshade family waits, getting bigger daily.

Greenhouse: roll-up side

This weekend we installed the roll-up side to one side of the greenhouse.

It’s a pretty low-tech device. It’s a 20′ long galvanized tube that has a crank handle at one end. The tension of the plastic is how the thing rolls up. When winter returns, we will anchor the tube to the baseboard at the ground. The ropes are simply to keep the tube from flapping around: if it’s windy outside, this thing can sail pretty high.

Had I been less of a tightwad, I would have purchased another, for the other side of the greenhouse. Because the greenhouse is near the garage/chicken coop (about 6′ away), I thought, mistakenly, that there wouldn’t be much of an opportunity for cross-ventilation. (Sometimes, my penny-pinching trumps commonsense. I’d say it’s a fault but the cure is swift: just buy something.)

I put deer netting behind the opening to keep out most creatures (butterflies; birds, including chickens; it lets bees through). I will take the door off in high season, or at least take the plastic off of the door and put netting in its place. With the roll-up side in the “up” position, the door and the vent above the door both open, it can still get really flipping hot (about 90*) so maybe I will be limited to cactus in there. I know peppers, tomatoes and eggplants love it hot…but how hot? We shall see.

We intend to get roll-up sides for both sides of the new greenhouse. Having that cross-ventilation could help cool things off considerably. Shade cloth is also an option: this is a woven poly mesh that is set atop the tunnel outside the plastic. It covers about 2/3rds of the arc of the tunnel. Considering I won’t be erecting the new greenhouse frame until autumn, this won’t be an issue this spring/summer for the new greenhouse. BUT…I need to make the new greenhouse beds!

I passed a rusted-out van on the freeway yesterday (in my rusted-out 15-year-old VW). It had a bumper sticker that read “I Hate Narrow-Minded People.” Hmm. Maybe I am being narrow-minded in terms of what a really HOT greenhouse can grow. I started thinking about all those plants that hate our cool summers (we don’t even need air conditioning). So: who likes it hot, besides the nightshades? Peanuts. Sweet potatoes. Okra. Squash (and it would help avoid squash bugs and vine borers). Cucumbers, but I’d need the self-fertile types. In other words, a lot! Don’t be narrow-minded! I sure wasn’t when I planted the winter crops

On mistakes that at least taste pretty good

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Transpiration on bolting purple kohlrabi

Last October I had my list and my packets of seeds and went out and planted the nascent greenhouse garden beds. I planted kohlrabi seed and something clicked in my head: I don’t think this is on the approved list. Sure enough, kohlrabi wasn’t on the cold-loving greenhouse list at all. What’s the worst thing that can happen, I thought. I suppose they could bolt if they don’t outright die.

They didn’t die. But now they’re bolting (i.e., going to seed: the plant will spend all its energy now making seed and not those lovely bulbs of yum). However, these plants were great sources of leaves for the winter salads. They were very mild, a little tougher than lettuce, a little less tough than cabbage. They were great, in other words. And now, well, now I harvest the whole plants, chop them up and cook them like greens. Quite delicious! Really. Sometimes, one can rectify one’s mistakes, especially in the garden.

(FWIW: a lot more nutrition can be found in a broccoli plant’s leaves than in its flowers. One can also eat newly-bolted kale, brussels sprout, collard and cabbage plants. They’re all in the cabbage family, after all, and we cultivated those particular plants for their leaves. Bon appetit.)

On gratitude

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Rosemary in the greenhouse
I worked in the greenhouse quite a bit this weekend. Sometimes, the child helped. Sometimes, the husband helped. I looked up at one point and thought: this stupid tunnel of plastic and metal, wood and dirt, makes me so happy.

That’s a swing!

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This is the daily fluctuation of the greenhouse’s temperatures now, at least when the days are sunny. (As a point of reference, the high temperature outside the greenhouse was 46*F.) So I am struck by 3.5 thoughts:

1. Wow, at this rate, those salad fixings won’t hold out for long.

2. It’s time to install the vents!

3. The tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are going to love spending their summer in here. Oh, and the hardy citrus tree, too, destined for the back wall: I think it’ll be quite happy in here.

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Black-seeded Simpson lettuce seedlings, which will probably have to be transplanted outside in April

On greenhouse pests

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A little picture of a little death

The only pest I had in the greenhouse, until this week, was my four-year-old. She loves to come in and sample the broccoli and bibb lettuces. I raised the latch and stopped her from her raids.

I noticed that a whole row of Italian dandelion was mowed to the ground, and a little nest made, in one bed on Wednesday. Aack! A vole! I had done my level best to prevent their entry, these fat, short-tailed mouse relatives. So, out came the traps, baited with exotic things like strawberry jam, bread, and chunks of peach.

I lost another 5 rows of seedlings (sniff!) but today I also lost one vole.

Greenhouse leaves

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Open the door and look right (and yes, that’s snow outside the plastic)

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Now look left. You can’t see the front two beds, though. And sorry the angles make you seasick.

Welcome to my bonsai greenhouse garden. Nothing is allowed to get big, what with my compulsive outer-leaf harvesting. In the main, though I am growing vegetables in the greenhouse this winter, I am growing them for their leaves. Kohlrabi, shallots, beets: they may not be getting enough energy to make their bulbs, such is my fondness for their above-ground outputs.

Before breaking ground on the greenhouse, I seriously looked over the winter-approved list of hardy lettuces and salad findings, and, yes, I even planted these. But as I readily admit, I am not one to follow directions to the letter. My family, for example, really adores Amish Deer Tongue lettuce: it is a kind of cross between upright romaine and head-forming bibb lettuce, neither of which is especially cold-hardy. Nor is lime green leafy Grand Rapids, but I grew a lot of that too: we LIKE it is my stubborn answer. And you know what? They’ve both been okay in there, even if the mercury dips below 20* nightly.

In fact, everything is doing well. (I should clarify that my standards might be low: by “doing well” I mean “not dead yet.”) Nothing is robustly growing: there’s not been enough sun to make that happen. With the lack of sun there’s been a lack of heat, too. I have followed others’ questioning of heat-retaining methods like black plastic water-filled barrels, freshly manured hot beds, etc., to add to the greenhouse and I kind of scratch my head. Any plant will grow when its needs are met, and the top of any plant’s needs is sunlight, not warmth. I happen to live in a rather cloudy corner of the globe. Those clouds dump lots of snow on us, it is true, but those clouds also blanket us to keep us relatively warm. Global warming fears aside, this is a typical winter for us. Yes, it’s been chilly and dark in that greenhouse this last month or so, but the greenery is hanging on. I would say the secret to my success here is raised beds, deep/well composted soil, and a 24/7 covering of the agricultural cloth (Reemay), and not something high-tech.

The one botanical rock star of the greenhouse, though? Arugula. I transplanted a couple of my wildlings (they of the slim leaves and the yellow flowers) and planted a row of fleshy Italian salad arugula, too. I love arugula, but I stand alone in my admiration. So I have been making fairly decent warm-served pesto with it (warming it slightly in a pan before serving takes a bit of its bite out that my family finds offensive); thank you dear Cookiecrumb for the suggestion.

Other eager plants include mizuna, chard, radicchio, tatsoi, broccoli, and parsley. Perennial scallions have kept us in onion-y greens; they DO look sad, but just wait until the weather warms up. Cold-loving herbs, too, are having a field day in there. I have a huge, ever-expanding patch of chervil just crying out to be cut up and tossed with scrambled eggs. Even the thyme, rosemary, sage and marjoram in there have never really gone to sleep: they’re at the back of the greenhouse, uncovered, in the old herb garden that I didn’t have time to relocate.

So experiment, is my advice. Go with what you like, avoid what you don’t. Your greenhouse needn’t just be cold-approved mache, spinach and kale, but if you love them, it should!

Another greenhouse post

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If I were running for president, the top of my list of priorities to tackle would include global warming, the stupid wars, health care, education, the deficit…and our effed-up food system. Had I that bully pulpit, I would preach the wonders of Dirt and Worms and Compost; Home-Grown Vegetables and Sun-Warmed Fruit. I would love to see a garden on every property, a greenhouse in every back yard. But my pulpit is small. So instead I’m making greenhouse postings for the benefit of some of you to bookmark for later use. There are plenty of you out there, I know, who have a greenhouse, cold frame, polytunnel, etc., on your wish list. So here is another little post about mine.

It’s the beginning of February and I am itchy to dig. I do have some thawed ground in the greenhouse I could push around. The eighth and final bed has not been made (the wood framing that is: the dirt is there). Maybe that’s where I should begin, and even plant some seeds in it too.

As it is now, I have been using it for a dumping ground. Sheet composting, I suppose this could be called, but in reality, I was just lazy (and thus call it Sh*t composting). When I trim the leeks or remove spent leaves off of the other plants, the junk goes atop this eighth pile. (The compost is some 20 steps outside the door to prove how lazy I have been.) My point in mentioning all this is, well, look at this pile. Unlike in your regular gardens, the cool damp air in the greenhouse keeps this stuff from rotting! It’s kind of distressing, actually.

This is what I mean by distressing. Like all seeds, weeds also pop up in the greenhouse beds, and I will pull them out and dump them on the path as is my outside habit. Come back a week or two later and those little grass blobs or weedlings are still on the path! And occasionally they’ll have rooted themselves. Hmm.

All I am saying is greenhouse gardening is really different, in some rather unexpected ways.

On cold

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Wow, did we miss these

Well! I can honestly report that one cannot pluck one’s greenhouse veggies all year long (as I had hoped). Sometimes a deep freeze messes with your plans.

It’s been cold here; it’s been cold most places in the northern/eastern portions of this country. It got down to -3* one night last week; really flipping cold, in other words. Good news in the greenhouse: the lowest air temperature in there was 18*. Which means the lowest it was in the beds themselves was probably 25*…cold enough to freeze the water within your cell walls if you were a resident plant. And so, I didn’t do any plucking or picking for a week (with the exception of the parsley; can’t cook without it); I let things hibernate.

Instead, I had a very Scarlett O’Hara moment on Tuesday when I brought my sharpest produce knife into the outside gardens and sawed the frozen heads off of two collards. I was ACHING for greens, deep-freeze or no. They weren’t bad, very mild, and it fixed my need for leaves. But it underscored for me that the new greenhouse must be fully planted with the kale and collard crops that we need to accompany our bean-y winter fare.

Of course, our cold and snow never hang around long here. Today’s highs will be around 45*, low 35*, so it will be sloppy soon with all that melting snow. Yesterday, though, was nice and sunny so we finally got a great, big, welcome salad out of the greenhouse. Sigh!

On greenhouse maintenance in winter

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On Wednesday morning, I stuck my head in the greenhouse to see what was happening. It was mighty cold out; the night before had been nearly the coldest yet. I have to keep reminding myself that January is indeed our coldest month: even though the sun is tipping back toward the sun, earthly forces’ll keep things cool for a while yet, even if it was 80* when I seeded the beds last weekend!

I found it was indeed cold in there. The trusty thermometer was frost-covered, and registered a chilly 18* as the low the night before. And as you can see, the condensation on the inside of the plastic freezes readily when it gets really cold out and in. It was a veritable ice palace, at least until the sun warms things up.

I keep a bristle-brushed push broom in there. It’s what I use to pull the snow off the top of the house (by either poking it gently from within or pulling it down outside). I’m not worried about the snow hurting the plastic; I am just trying to let as much sun in there as possible. It IS fun poking the snow from the inside: that condensation I mentioned is usually plain old rain, and I end up getting a bit of a soak when I hit the plastic.

At this time of day on this cold day, the condensation under the Reemay has frozen, too. One should never, ever pull the Reemay off in its frozen state: you’ll end up pulling a plant leaf or two with it. It’s tough, though, not being able to take a peek! I just have to wait until late afternoon. The frost will be long gone; the salad and veggies will be quite perky and delicious by then. It’s really an interesting transformation, that change of temperature, that swing of the sun on its track of the day. Like the gardens in the summer, I just wish I could spend a whole day just sitting in there, watching things happen. It’s a pity I have other things to do.

Fixing my dirt jones

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Out with the old (spinach), in with the new (l: Grand Rapids lettuce, r: purple kohlrabi)

I seeded some bare spots in the greenhouse this weekend. It’s funny: I am so much more of a fussbudget as a winter gardener. I am not sure if it’s a matter of scale or of time, or both, but I certainly spend more time fiddling over the greenhouse beds. In July, you won’t find me pulling off the dead lower leaves of my plants, but January? Well. Fuss fuss, primp primp.

I had the forethought (rare) to scoop up a couple of 5-gallon buckets’ worth of snow about three weeks ago. Bring them in the greenhouse and they melt down to maybe a gallon and a half of water each. This is pretty convenient if I need to water some newly-planted seeds, or wash off some root veggies. Look how pretty these cleaned-up parsnips are! (Well, okay; maybe “pretty” isn’t exactly right, but they’re pretty to ME.) In general, though, because the greenhouse is a closed loop, the beds never dry out. So the buckets of water are a convenience, not a necessity.

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So I pulled some things out that were either used up (spinach) or were taking up too much real estate (parsnips), and I planted out more salad stuff. And I fixed my jones, at least for this week.  And it was fun.

On making no little plans, or, why winter is so great

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Do parents wishing for a second child have this dilemma?

I finished last year’s gardening season thinking that, for once, I might not need to make new garden beds.

Instead, 2008 would mean I would really concentrate on improving that which I have: in particular, in making the newest beds that ring the outside garden (the ones I had made in the fall of ’06) really, truly, happily productive beds. These beds were productive, but they were also the beds in which the most stuff died during August’s rains. Great, I thought: I just need to add a ton of compost, mulch, and more dirt to these beds. Spring is going to be REALLY easy on me.

Then, I got the dumb idea brainstorm to build a second greenhouse in ’08. A second greenhouse will keep me gardening year-round: very important for both our diets and also my general happiness. I know that A LOT of work will need to go into my chosen plot of land before this greenhouse can come to be. Remember my trenching/pipe laying venture last fall? That was only 120 linear feet of trench, through hardpan clay. Before I start up this new greenhouse, I will need to trench up and lay another 250′ of drainpipe! Eeeps!

Then there’re the new beds that will need to be built and filled. I think (but haven’t decided yet) that the new greenhouse will be 16′ wide x 32′ long. BIG, in other words. So a 16×32 greenhouse would have ten beds in it that are 6×3, and four beds that are 6×4…7 beds on either side of a 30″ center path. (The current 16×20 greenhouse has (8) 6×3 beds and one 2×16 herb garden.) Again, BIG.

Then I have to assemble and erect the greenhouse.

And of course, with the exception of putting up the greenhouse, you KNOW who gets to do all this work, right? ME!

Notice I haven’t mentioned planting these beds, nor planting and caring for the existing garden. I also haven’t mentioned that new orchard which needs to be laid out and planted. Nor the meat chickens that need to have mobile coops made for them. Nor the kitchen renovation, nor the other dozen or so house-related projects that I think need to be done this year, like the outdoor bread oven. That’s, like, a high priority.

So, well, I think a second greenhouse will temper my manifest-destiny garden holdings, at least for a little while. But to find the time to do it, I might need to quit my job first.

Sometimes I am not too bright

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Holy cats!

I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, but…the stuff in the greenhouse is growing.

This is a really dumb revelation, of course. Duh: things in the greenhouse are supposed to grow, El. You see, though, I approached the greenhouse contents as things in a gigantic refrigerator. Mentally, of course, we all approach our refrigerators as a place of biological limbo, a place of suspended animation. I had gotten so used to seeing everything in there as these wee little precious plants which must be left alone, barely harvested.

I know what is to blame for the suspension of my normal gardening common sense. From all the winter gardening books I had read, I simply had been led to believe that I should NOT expect anything during winter. It’s too cold, and there’s just not enough light to stimulate growth. Just get the seedlings up and growing to a modest height by the end of October, and then sit and wait until February when they’ll start growing again, and you can harvest them in earnest. I didn’t expect a flush of growth in January! (Joy!) What this means, of course, is I can up my harvests from one large salad a week to two, or maybe three. One fresh veggie for dinner to two.

Nirvana for me is a couple of our eggs, poached, atop a bed of our salad greens. Add an apple from our trees and some local wine, and, well. Yum.

Gadgets

I am so not a tech-weenie. (That title falls to my husband.) I am actually something of a technophobe, but perhaps “phobia” is too strong a word for it, though. Most forms of technology simply tax my ever-in-short-supply patience. So if I actually happily receive something more technology-dependent than a book or dutch oven, well, it’s news. At least in this house.

Behold: The new thermometer in my greenhouse.

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Before you start thinking “boy, this woman has a very low threshold for what ‘technology’ is if she considers this high-tech” I must let you know that this little thermometer registers high and low temperatures. And I can reset it. You see the three extra hands? The blue one records the low, the green the high, and the little silver one (down at -50*) is the resetting one attached to the silver knob in the center. I dial the silver one around to gang the blue and green hands next to the red one. Magic!

Yes, I suppose my threshold is low. But knowing how low, or high, the temperatures actually get in the greenhouse is something I…just want to know. Not that I’m going to do anything with this knowledge. I just like knowing that, when it’s 23* out and it’s sunny, it’s gonna be 65* in that greenhouse, and I might just need to go sit in there for a spell.

The other little gadget I got for Christmas is a new camera. Not that I had an old one; I have been “making do” with a ridiculously complicated contraption my photographer husband allows me to use. Having a new camera is nice. Really nice, considering the range of its features and 2×3″ view screen. Of course, technologically, it’s a bit too advanced for me, but maybe with a year or two of use I might actually take a decent picture with it without too much swearing.

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Plus, better pictures might help convey the method behind my madness. Why build a greenhouse? Food is of course why, but then there’s the priceless nature of just going in there on a cold snowy day and seeing THIS. (Catalognian chickory: it’s related to dandelions, actually.)

Greenhouse statistics


Cold day atop Mont Merde: the greenhouse is MUCH taller than it appears in this picture

Many have asked, so here it goes:

Coldframe, high tunnel, hoop house, polytunnel: we just call it The Greenhouse. Folks: It will add a zone and a half to your growing season. My 6B garden? An 8A, people…Panhandle Florida!

I got the greenhouse kit from an outfit in Tennessee called Grower’s Solution. The guy on the phone was both supremely friendly and extremely kind, answering my myriad questions as well as easily and quickly supplying a hardware shortage (one measly part!). I had hoped to use a local manufacturer for my greenhouse, but my request was a small one, and the local outfit doesn’t deal with little orders like mine. Sigh.

The goods: It’s 16′ wide, 20′ long, about 9′ high in the center, and is composed of six bows (arches) that are set in ground stakes 4′ apart. For ease of shipping, the bows are in three pieces: you screw them together to create one bow. It has one central purlin (center pole) that ties the bows together. If it were self-standing and 4′ longer, it would require more bracing; as it is, it relies on a building for its one end and it is free-standing at its door end. For ventilation, I purchased one hand-rolled side (it rolls the plastic up about 4′ off the ground on one long side) and created one large gable vent above the door.

You are supposed to supply the ground boards and the end framing for the end wall (in wood); they supply the plastic to cover the whole thing, and the channels and wiggle wire to hold the plastic to the bows.

We (i.e., nonmotivated husband and myself) hammered in the ground stakes, screwed together and erected the bows, and attached the purlin in under two hours. It was Instant Gratification, I do not lie. But then it was my work from then on: I excavated the ground on 3 sides to both bury hardware cloth and the 2×8 wood ground anchor and then erect the 2×4 notched studs for the end wall/door framing. This actually took me two whole days to do…separated by a week, of course, because, really, who has two full days to work on anything?

Putting the plastic on was another battle with the husband (that is, getting his free time). He committed finally on a day that was windy: I advise you not to put plastic on a greenhouse in the wind. Ever. But that was our fate. We anchored the plastic to the endmost bow (against the building) and then went from bow to bow until we reached the door end, kind of like pulling pantyhose over a reluctant leg. That wiggle wire is quite amazing stuff. It really is great at holding down the plastic film. The film is graded to last of 6 years without significant UV decomposition: I have heard neighbors say they’ve gotten 8 years of use, which rather helps me, as plastic is not exactly the most eco-friendly of things. We held the plastic down to the last bow with some pre-soaked 1×2 furring strips.

I say this all with a rather blase’ attitude. I here admit that I am a builder of many things: neither construction nor power tools intimidate me (hahahaHA), but, well, if you have never held a hammer nor worn a toolbelt, then putting up your own greenhouse could be a challenge. (Compared to building our coop? This was a walk in the park.) But I will say that Tom’s purchase of a hammer drill greatly eased our pain: it helped put the bows together and helped put the channel atop the bows in, like, no time at all. I had gone along just fine with my 14 amp cordless drill for two houses’ worth of renovations; Tom has helped me see the light with his 18a Drill of Pain. I admit, I was impressed. (I still like mine better.)

Am I saying you all need to go out and erect a hoop house in your backyards? Well, absolutely! (I’m getting salads and veggies out of my garden in late December, are you?) Just read this guy’s books, read his wife’s gardening columns and book, and yes, you too shall Sip The Kool-Aid.

Greenhouse in the plural

Tasty but rare

Getting the coffee going this gray, ugly morning, my husband and I were discussing full-spectrum lights. It seems one of our friends uses them to avoid S.A.D.

I told him I tend to just go into the greenhouse at midday, when I get a little tired of working. “I think it helps, just sitting in there for five minutes,” I said.

“Yeah, I went in there too recently. It smelled just wonderful.” (This from the guy who expresses zero interest in my gardening, except at suppertime.)

I told him I hated to be so stingy with all the greenhouse’s contents. The salads we have had from there are positively heavenly, so tender and deeply colored. (FWIW, it is not fully planted: construction ran too late for some seedlings, and then an escaped chicken made a mess of my mache bed. It will be full when the sun swings back into our hemisphere, say, in February.)

“Maybe we should build another one, then,” he said.

And here I was, wondering how the heck I was going tell him I think we should build a second one next year!

Girl in the plastic bubble


View from my chair: yes, it’s gray. It’s winter in Michigan after all.

Three o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday: I had finished my chores, so I went back in the house, poured myself a glass of wine, grabbed a book, and went back into the greenhouse. It is a bit early to be hitting the sauce, admittedly, but I had lots to celebrate. My greenhouse was 98% finished, 100% enclosed.


Sssh! Plants are sleeping: double-coverage this morning. Chair in middle, fig trees wrapped up, 6 of the 8 raised beds in view

I was warned that there is not much to do in a cold-frame greenhouse in the wintertime except harvest. And wait. Seems I will do a lot of waiting, watching that produce grow. (I am okay with that, really I am.)

Cold-weather crops


My photographer husband just shakes his head when he sees my overexposed and fuzzy photos. This is a bed planted mostly in September.

Now that I have the greenhouse frame up, let’s see what’s putting down roots in the beds. The greenhouse itself is 20′ long by 16′ wide. I (will) have eight raised beds in there, all 6′ x 3′. There’s also one big back bed that’s currently part of the herb garden. I will be removing much the oregano, tarragon, lavenders and marjoram that are in the back bed now and hopefully espalier a hardy citrus tree up the back wall. My two fig trees will overwinter in there, too.

SO here is the running list of the first four beds. (Two beds need to be built yet, and the other two are currently growing late-season potatoes (Katahdins and Russets) that I will not evict until November.) You can see how I have packed things in…

Chickories in many stripes: I fell in love with these bitter things when I lived in Italy after college. As a family, they prefer the cold, so I’ve planted the following: 1. Radicchio: The bunching/heading varieties never work for me, so I have lots of the leafy Treviso type both out in the regular garden and now in the new greenhouse garden. 2. Rosso Italiano: This is a type of dandelion. Its red stems and green, bunching leaves will go well in both salads and in sautees/soups. 3. Catalonian asparagus chickory: This wild looking thing looks like a white pinecone; you eat it before the leaves get big (thus its resemblance to asparagus), cut up like celeriac. 4. I haven’t planted it yet, but frisee is always a hit in the salad bowl.

Spinach: I’m growing three types. This is something I will succession plant, too; my first batch (planted early September) is getting eaten now. The three types are 1. Space Hybrid, 2. Tyee Hybrid, and 3. Winter Giant.

Lettuces: Where would the garden be without them? Two types are up and running (1. Grand Rapids and 2. Winter Marvel Bibb). I planted two rows of mesclun Sunday.

Other greenery: This is a wide-net category! Technically, I can use the beet greens and chard as salad fillings, but there are other strange types of cold-hardy greens that have been sown in these beds: 1. Arugula (two types), 2. Erba Stella minutina (a tall skinny leaf thing similar to that dandelion I mentioned earlier) 3. Two types of mache/corn salad. This latter thing will be spread into the potato beds when I harvest them, as mache, a tiny rosette of a plant, loves the cold. 4. Likewise, claytonia loves the cold and will be planted later in the potato beds.

Root crops: These have been in the beds since last spring. It takes them a while to get going. 1. Parsnips 2. Scorzonera 3. Salsify. In September, though, I also planted 4. Lutz leaf beet for both its leaves and its root.

Brassicas: I optimistically transferred 1. four seedlings of broccoli (Piracicabia and Calabrese) to the beds in August, but these are being decimated by those nasty green caterpillar worms. I squish them daily by hand (ick), but I am losing the battle. Sunday, I planted a row of 2. Red Russian kale for salad fixings, and I also planted 3. purple kohlrabi: it will be an early spring harvest.

Onion family: There is one stand of 1. leeks that I planted last spring. I also seeded 2. a hardy bunching scallion in late July. This is a perennial plant, so I am looking forward to eating it all winter. It’s quite zesty now! The tightwad in me grabbed some mealy looking 3. shallots left over from last year’s harvest: these things were dried up and quite unpromising, but, well, a week after planting them? They’re now 2″ tall. I’m not sure how they’ll handle the cold, though. 4. Chives. These have been in the herb bed for years. I hope they like their extended season.

Herbs: I transfered into one bed some 1. chervil, 2. wild arugula, and 3. rosemary. Chervil and this kind of arugula are wild self-seeders, so I have to watch it. I forgot my other 3. rosemary plant last year, leaving it in the ground over the winter: it lived, so I figure maybe this new plant will fare better in the warm-ish greenhouse. 4. Six plants of Italian parsley was interplanted with the tomatoes last spring. Then there’re all the other herbs I mentioned that I will need to partially evict for my trees.

Other things: Ruby Red Swiss chard. This is up and running.

The other four beds might hold more of the same, and I will also add one row of carrots, though I’m doubtful they’ll like the greenhouse.

All this dreaming-turned-near-reality is due to reading Eliot Coleman’s book a few years back. He bought some of Helen and Scott Nearings’ land in Maine (they, the original back-to-the-landers) and has been experimenting ever since. Anyway, he’s convinced me to dream big. So we’ll see how it all goes; stay tuned!

The dream so far. Excuse the construction debris.

One small thing crossed off my list


View from Mont Merde

Look what we were able to do this afternoon.

Of course I had to pick a record-high day to do it: here it is, quarter to 7 in the evening and it’s 84* out.

There is a lot more to be done to the greenhouse, but putting it up was the biggest thing. I won’t put the plastic film on it until it starts getting cold (and considering the temperatures now, who knows when that will be).

But I did need to commit tomatocide. I cut down/pulled out the Brandywines, Aunt Ruby’s German Greens, Green Zebras and one Amish Paste. The dang things were 7′ high, some of them, and–well–I needed to plant the December crops (!).

An afternoon’s efforts

The six beds on the bottom are where the greenhouse will be. That mass of boxes is used to line the paths in the gardens…then, I dump wood chips on top. Today it’s just a mess. Oh, and I am atop the chicken coop.

So, this was my task yesterday. I thought about renting a ditch witch, but I knew renting/loading/unloading/using/loading/unloading/unrenting would be about as much caloric energy (and probably more time, frankly) than getting out my big daddy boss hog tiller to bust up the sod and then using my little girly wageslave lackey arms and back to dig the trench.

Frankly, this little trench was beautiful. It was a bit of a shame to have to fill it back in again.

Oh, and I ended up needing more than 100′ of pipe. And I hummed chain-gang tunes to myself whilst I worked.