I like tools that make my job easier. My job these days, is growing a good portion of the food my family consumes. All my tools are actually my favorites, but our greenhouse is right up there towards the top. Why? I have asked myself this over and over the last week trying to pin down a single answer. I wasn’t able to narrow it down to a simple explanation of why I think our greenhouses mean so much to us. This post is about using an unheated greenhouse in a cool climate to grow, and harvest food through most months of the year.
To better explain myself, I should start at the beginning. Probably any gardener wants a greenhouse, and I’m no exception. We started making plans to build a greenhouse for mesclun sales the year our daughter was born. We wanted to add an additional income stream on our farm, that would not take up pasture or require cutting down any trees. Building a 30′ x 72′ commercial style greenhouse in our “compound” area seemed like a perfect fit.
We purchased our “kit” in the fall, during a sale. We didn’t start construction until the next spring though. Buying before we actually needed it, saved us a considerable sum. My hubby can build anything, which is good, the instructions were written by someone who couldn’t write very well, and probably couldn’t build anything either. So began, one of our first unschooling projects. Instead of being at a baby-sitter’s, or at preschool, our daughter had a hand in building our greenhouse.
We spent a fair amount of time every day in the greenhouse, growing mesclun, which meant while we were working, our daughter had a vast “forest” and natural landscape to play in with her toy horses. She never was interested in dolls. Here she is showing a neighbor her horse. This particular horse “Gray,” is a Percheron, so he had to work too, hauling logsweeds. Having a greenhouse gave us a much larger garden window. At this point, we were still bent on growing items for sale. We have morphed though, now to using a greenhouse as a homestead, self-sufficiency tool. I say tool, because it allows us to do a better job at raising what we consume, and as a hardcore vegetable gardener, it takes some of the unpredictability out of gardening.
Having a greenhouse for us means that every year, I can grow solanums, without the risk of losing the crop, should we have cool and rainy fall. This increases the variety of foods we eat. We try to garden like we can’t go the store. Previously, we spent the same amount of time tending tomatoes and peppers in the garden, only to get a ripe crop, once out of every 5 years or so. So this represents a huge mental plus for me. Speaking of the mental aspect, I live in the cool and rainy Pacific Northwest, to be able to garden a little in February or March, is a huge factor for me.
One of our goals when researching another income stream, was to have a crop that really didn’t take any extra resources, other than maybe the initial capital investment of the start-up. Growing salad mix fit the bill for us. At the time it retailed for $8.00 to $10.00 a pound and it did not require a heated greenhouse. Heating a greenhouse was against our principles and our pocketbook. It still is. Of course, as soon as large companies made this product available at much lower prices, our price had to drop too. We decided at that time to stop marketing salad greens, and switched to raising pastured poultry. The greenhouse made ideal winter housing for laying hens. It provided a dry and comfortable place for the hens, and gave us another option to use a structure already in place.
The whole poultry saga of the farm needs a post in itself, so I will shorten this long story and say that we built two more greenhouses to enable us to rotate our livestock, and food crops for our own use. By now, I can hear the groaning about the expense, but really, each greenhouse didn’t cost us anymore than what some families spend on vacations and restaurants each year. We don’t like to travel, so there are our vacations, except instead of a box of pictures, or now a memory card, we have a sunny, warm place where we can go, and get away from whatever it is we want to get away from, any day of the year. Maybe instead of numbering them, I should have dubbed them Disneyworld, Spain and Maui! But, that would imply we’re missing out, and we’re not.
Tomato starts ready for planting. Recently we have been using a heat mat for starting our early crops, and it works well. We have also used hot manure beds, and they work just as well. I have to say right here, though that if you don’t have some kind of livestock to supply you with manure, the heat mat may be a more economical way to go.
We’re aren’t trying to get the crops to grow out of season, so by starting these in March, they are ready to plant in May, which in our area is early for tomatoes and peppers. With just a little extra cost we can push the season a little. Our neighbors grow tomatoes hydroponically, and are at the markets with fresh tomatoes, early, but their expenses are staggering, not to mention, if they have any kind of power failure, they are in deep doo doo. We prefer the less worry, homesteading method ourselves. We would rather grow our food, than grow food, sell it, pay taxes, and buy food someone else has grown. Just think of it as cutting out the middle man. This way, we are home where we want to be, and doing something we want to be doing.
All that being said, greenhouse space is not something to be wasted. So we inter-plant when we can. The tomatoes are planted on 4′ centers to allow their roots to really reach full potential. But until the space is used up we can stick a fast maturing crop of salad greens in, that will be done before the tomatoes ever begin to crowd out the salad plants.
This is the same tomatoes on the left, two months later in July. The lettuce is gone, and the tomatoes are needing trellising every week.
We save seed also, so this makes an ideal area for seed grow out for some crops. This year I’m saving chard seed, if I had planted it outside, it would have been ruined during our rainy summer. Just one more use for a self-sufficient homesteader. Saving our own seed, makes the difference, our micro-climate does not match the USDA zone map; having acclimated seeds ensures a better food supply for us. It seems like certain crops always bolt too soon, unless you’re trying to save seed, in that case it takes forever.
Planted in mid July, here are our winter cole crops, some will mature and be harvested through fall, and others we will harvest from all winter and into late spring. These crops will easily grow outside, but our deer pressure has been increasing in the last several years. We have this space, so we are using it. We priced deer fencing last week, and the wire is $950.00 for 330′. The posts are $10.00 each. We would need at least two rolls, and a post every 10′ – you do the math. It works out about the same as building a greenhouse of this size. We aren’t really sure what we are going to do about the fence. Last year (2007) we planted coles outside and inside, the deer gradually nibbled away all the cabbage tops exposing them to the rain, wasting them really, and once the plants started to deteriorate, they weren’t interested in them either. So it was a waste of seed, time and money to plant outside.
These are kale flower buds, sometimes called napini, rapini, or “spring broccoli.” As you can see from the date stamp on the photo, this was last May, from plants we planted the previous July. We don’t plant spring broccoli anymore. The kale plants are about 5′ tall by spring, and resistant to any bugs that come their way. We do plant broccoli outside for late summer harvesting, and by then, we don’t have too many pest problems.
We’re not doing anything new growing this way. Just adapting to less energy use and wanting a fresher more varied diet. While the Pacific Northwest has a reputation for being mild, it also has a reputation for being cloudy. Colder areas actually have more sunny days, than we do. If you haven’t read Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman, you should. He gardens in Maine, where it is actually much, much colder than here. So no matter where you are, a hoop-house would be advantageous if you are at all concerned with your food supply.
Here is a brief list of tips if your considering a greenhouse:
♥ Think outside the box about changing your eating habits. I’m talking an unheated greenhouse. Eat more cold hardy greens, and do less canning and freezing. It will be healthier and you will save money too.
♥ Think harvest during the winter – not grow. Plants I plan on harvesting from this winter, have to be planted in July and August before the days get too short. Some plants will die down in the coldest part of winter, and then spring back to life in the SPRING… .
♥ See what style of greenhouse commercial growers are using in your area. Quiz them about snow loads, etc.
♥ Find out when kits go on sale. Here we have a huge nursery industry and the sales are at the end of summer and early fall. If you wait until spring when everybody wants them, the price is usually higher.
♥ Plan on a larger greenhouse than you think you will need. You can always grow into it. Ours in the photos are 30′ x 72′, we use 8′ x 30′ for growing starts and storing supplies etc.
♥ Depending on your zoning, a greenhouse may not need a permit, since it is classed as an temporary, agricultural structure.
♥ While classed as temporary, we have been getting more than 7 years out of our plastic covering. It darkens and emits less light, so when you replace it you have an instant solarization chunk of plastic for your garden, compost pile cover, etc.
♥ To make the most of your usable square footage, resist the urge to some build some type of permanent raised beds in your floor space. Raised beds do warm up faster, but then they also require more water.
♥ Consider dividing the greenhouse into 4 quadrants (on paper), and raising a batch of meat chickens in one quadrant per year, rotating crops and birds. We have done this numerous times using Cornish X, here they shine, they don’t scratch as much as non hybrids, so you will not have any problems with fecal dust getting on your crops. By bedding these birds daily, you could gain enough manure for composting to grow one years worth of crops. You will also be filling your freezer, and keep your chickies safe from predators too.
♥ Peruse catalogs like Fedco, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds. They specialize in cool weather crops, look for the Ice-bred line, or in Johnny’s look for the snowflake or the greenhouse symbol. This goes for all you Southerners too, you could really grow a lot in an unheated greenhouse during your off-season.
I’m sure there are many more considerations, but some of these might get you thinking maybe… a greenhouse of some sort might be in your future.
Matron of Husbandry farms, gardens, and practices what she preaches at her family’s original, 1881 homestead in the Pacific Northwest. You can keep abreast of what’s happening at the farm on the blog, Throwback at Trapper Creek.