Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Dream of the Winter Greenhouse

The somewhat worn greenhouse
I went into the greenhouse yesterday morning to see what state it was in. I had been avoiding it, really, as my expectations of any life inside had plummeted and there is no disappointment if you don't enter. But I had had a fan running for several hours a day on a timer to circulate air and reduce condensation, and I wondered whether it was time to pull the plug. Somewhat surprisingly there are several small lettuce plants coming along, a few very small spinach starts, two seedlings that self-identify as parsley, and the cilantro plant is holding its own. The chickweed, I think it is, is thriving. The fan was running, but the condensation was still high enough that there were water droplets along the pvc piping on the back wall. I put on a second small fan. For a likely harvest value of under ten dollars, one might really wonder why.  Of course, if you saw that this little greenhouse was also tucked into a teeny clearing in the woods, you might also well question the sanity of that. But there is something so appealing about having life in the middle of winter, a brightly lit environment heated by the sun (in my case, shining through the tree branches).

The greenhouse is about ten or twelve years old now. I was inspired to buy it when I was mostly a flower gardener, not really concerned at all about what I ate or where it came from. Indeed, the simpler the better, and if you could buy supper frozen in a single bag, perfect. But I did have large flower gardens and wanted to get my seedlings earlier, wanted some flower life during the bleak winter months, and had vague interest in growing some veggies in the snow. That was really more about self-sufficiency than the veggies, admittedly. The greenhouse promised a place to sit in bright light and 70 degrees, while the air outside was well below freezing. This was Before Kids and early enough in our careers that we were able to pay friends in pizza to put in two full grueling days of labor to assemble the greenhouse. This one is from Gardener's Supply and came in these large double-pained pieces that were to fit together like a 3D jigsaw puzzle. Everything had to be plum and level or it simply wouldn't work. That's where the grueling part came in. Eventually after several goes of re-assembly to get the last little itsy triangular piece to fit correctly, we used a hacksaw to modify the design. Hey, it worked.

The greenhouse worked beautifully in those early years. There are sun-triggered vents that open one of three large panels depending on the heat in the room, and I had electric and water sent to the greenhouse. I built a large raised bed and filled the rest of the area with shelves. You could go out on a cold bright Winter day, sit inside and be toasty. I grew seedlings for the flower garden the first year. I didn't have a heater, so it was a cold house and that limited what I could do. Temperatures could and did fall into the mid-to-low twenties on February nights. The next year, I bought a greenhouse heater and fan, and I ran a cool house, which keeps the minimum temperature at about 40 degrees F. My seedlings thrived but none of my food grew. I really had no idea, of course, what I was doing. I consulted books, but it was pretty much a flop. Still, every year I would try something else.

When we returned from Europe, the greenhouse was completely overrun with weeds and numerous mice had made their homes inside. The tenants had accidentally poked a few more holes into the side and hadn't made the repairs. I patched those up, as the greenhouse's ability to maintain temperature and reduce condensation depends heavily on those two layers holding a pillow of air between them. In 2008, I decided to give it a go again with a few veggies in the Winter. My flower gardens had been all but destroyed during our three years of absence, but surely something could grow from seed. I ran a cool house, and really can't complain. I had a parsley and a dill plant that both grew to be giants before the end of Spring, and lettuce that wasn't great, but it did grow. Mice chewed through the electrical cord of the heater and the fan the following Spring and Fall. Lovely.  I had been getting a little out of my greenhouse, but considering the work going into it, not much. I wasn't giving up.

Fargo smells the chicks!

In 2009, disaster struck. Our friend Maureen asked us to take care of these baby chicks while they went on vacation for a week. It didn't seem an unreasonable request at the time, though, boy, are chicks high maintenance! Independent of that, however, our dog decided that he was going to eat the chicks. No matter what. We had them outside on the porch at first, but he dug huge pieces out of the inside window sills, knocked over and broke things, and tore up some other goods trying to get at these yummy little dessert morsels. He barked constantly and the stress level was incredibly high. After a few days, we moved them out to the greenhouse and things calmed down. Fargo didn't know where his targets had gone. Until one afternoon we were outside working in the yard. While I pulled weeds, he discovered the chicks. Running wildly around the greenhouse, barking, he eventually started jumping up trying to enter. I took a photo before I realized what was really going on, and before I was able to react,  Fargo had clawed quite a few large holes in the sides. He took the notion of eating locally to heart.

Still, I have this dream of getting food out of the winter greenhouse. And doing so without too much energy usage. I made repairs to the greenhouse walls, though I don't actually think they are really repaired and I bought new vents that seemed broken by the enormous snow last year. I was inspired by Elliott Coleman's The Winter Harvest, with his pictures of wonderful produce growing in a cold house in Maine. It's almost a folly now, though. I know that I simply don't get enough light until all the leaves fall, which is too late. In mid-Winter, there is plenty of light, and then as the leaves return, the light goes. And the vents and air sealing don't really seem fixed because the don't open enough and condensation is a much more serious problem than we ever had before. At one point last Spring, when I wasn't growing anything, the inside turned completely green with algae. Now the fan helps to circulate air so that it doesn't completely get drenched. I could add a heater back into the mix to help a bit, but when you are talking about low production, a heater seems seriously silly. Instead I had taken to avoiding the greenhouse, avoiding the disappointment of finding no life inside, just the fan blowing.

A little lettuce and a lot of weed is still alive
I have thoughts now and again, wondering whether I can convince friends After Kids to move the greenhouse lock-stock-and-barrel to the front of the property where it would get more light for more months. Wonder whether that is even possible. It seems hard. But it's the dream of the winter greenhouse.

1 comment:

  1. Your blog is fascinating! I hope you keep struggling with your greenhouse, mostly because I wish I had one!