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Spring gardening in the greenhouse.

Sometime in March in the Northwoods there is suddenly a different feeling in the woods. The nights are cold but not frigid, and the daytime temperature heads up above freezing for days at a time. The birds' songs have a different sound, and the squirrels search out wet spots on the maple trees where there was a slash or broken branch. The sap is running. The world around us perks up and so does the greenhouse.

Our outside chores don't change much (unless we're tapping trees) as the snow is still deep and chuques and parkas still regular wear, but inside the drowsy winter greenhouse is no longer sleepy. There will be more activity the next two months than the whole rest of the year.


It may not be instant food, but it is very much appreciated as the pickings outside are pretty slim this time of year. We are usually still deep in snow at the time of the Spring Equinox, though it is usually gone by May. Having something to harvest out of the greenhouse in the spring takes planning but not very much work. Lettuce that was seeded outside in September then transplanted into flats in the greenhouse in October is pretty much done now. The last leaves go into salads and the plants are pulled to make room for newer entries. These plants have fed us well if sporadically during the low light of mid winter. We now start munching on leaves of lettuce started in October, which are growing more enthusiastically with the longer days and warming temperatures, and our salads slowly become more leaf than grain. The December planting is looking good, too. It's nice to see active growth. This later crop will bridge that spring time while we wait for the early garden lettuce to get large enough to harvest. Green takes on new meaning after, or during, a long white winter. The greenhouse lettuce isn't as thick and sturdy as their outdoor-grown summer cousins, but it isn't any less appreciated.

The lettuce I grow in the greenhouse is chosen specifically for what produces best in the particular ecosystem there. I've tried dozens of varieties over the years and have come up with those I like best. But each greenhouse, as with each outside garden, is different and your favorites will most likely be different than mine. We are fortunate that there are a number of varieties that have been bred and selected to grow well in the low light of the winter greenhouse. I have found these varieties usually do better than the outdoor garden types.


My favorites are Pirat (which isn't sold as a winter lettuce but is my favorite) and Brown Winter, with Diamante not far behind. You'll probably have to look to the smaller independent seed houses to find these varieties. These are also good choices for the fall garden lettuce plot, protected by cold frames as the days shorten and cool. But even the less enthusiastic winter growers still produce leaves for eating, which makes experimenting easy. Try whatever you have; there certainly are a lot of choices out there! Each year is different and different varieties will shine so it's good to grow more than just one or two kinds.

In March the large planting bed along the house wall is still full of plants that were transplanted full size from the garden last fall, but they understandably are looking a little less robust having been harvested on and off all winter. The Swiss chard has continued to slowly grow new leaves even though it has a harder time than the others with the coldest weather as the temperatures in the greenhouse drop. But still it survives and now shows great enthusiasm for growing. Unfortunately, it wants to grow a seed stalk while I still want leaves. So for awhile yet I harvest leaves when there are enough and cut out the seed stalk as it regrows, knowing there won't be too many more meals from this hard working root. The leaves get smaller and smaller and finally we both give up and the large chunky beet roots leave for the compost bin. Parma Giant is the variety I plant in the garden so it is the variety I transplant into the greenhouse. It feeds us well, if slowly, all winter.


Parsley also indicates it is time to start the seed-making part of its life as it has hardily been providing fresh leaves for us since last fall, having also been brought into the greenhouse as full grown plants and this is its second season. The cold winter hasn't bothered it at all and when other leaves were few and far between during the slow-growth short days, there was always a bit of parsley to cut up into salad or soup. I keep cutting, and it keeps growing but it really wants to send out seed stalks now. Delikat is my parsley, which has both curled and flat leafed plants so I get variety within one variety, which I like. When it comes time to grow seed, I make sure to have plants of both kinds so I can maintain that gene pool of both types. Even in our old greenhouse, which was more than a little cold as it was not as well built, got draftier as it got older, and was part of our lives when the winter temperatures outside regularly got down to -20 and -30[degrees]F for weeks at a time, the one plant that always made it through was the parsley.

Now daffodils and other flowering bulbs aren't exactly salad fare, but they are food for the eyes, and if I remembered to plant a few bulbs here and there in the fall we have cheery flowers to gaze upon now. Calendula is another hardy companion and there will sometimes be a smallish plant found in the garden in the fall that can be dug up and transplanted into the bed to provide happy orange rays throughout the winter. It is growing a bit weary by spring but still producing buds and flowers.

I've tried and abandoned many different kinds of plants for winter and spring eating but for our unheated attached greenhouse these are the ones that continue to be the winners. They're easy, hardy, and not fussy, which suits my style of gardening, indoors or out. Plus they give a reasonable amount of harvest for the space they occupy. It may not be a great volume of food, but it makes up for it in cheer and satisfaction. A lettuce from the grocery store just doesn't do the same.


March is still chilly in the greenhouse, but when the sap starts running I start planting, and boy does that feel good! Just a few things this early but on a sunny day I sort out my seeds and pick out the peppers I want to grow this year and onion seed, also any perennial herbs that need to be replaced such as sage or wormwood. I look back through my greenhouse notebook to see if I've made any notes that I might want to do something different this year, but generally not. These early starters are pretty regular. The garbage can in the corner is filled with potting soil that I made and stored last fall so is ready to go.

For peppers I pick out a clay pot or two, or tin cans, put a flat stone or pot chard over the holes in the bottom, then an inch or so of gravel or small stones, filling the rest with potting soil, packing it down gently but firmly, leaving enough space to cover the seeds and for watering. If growing more than one variety I label the pots, then count out 25 seeds each, spacing them more or less evenly across the surface. They are covered with more potting soil and watered with warm (not hot) water because the potting soil is cold and I figure it might feel good to the seeds to get a warm start. I count the seeds when I plant so I can make note of the germination rate (the number of healthy seedlings times four gives the percent germination; any number will do, 25 just makes it easy). So next year I'll know--was the germination high or low, do I need to grow or buy new seed, do I need to plant more or less. When I remember to make these notes it makes next year's planting easier. In any case, I give myself plenty of leeway and always plant more than I need. The extras can be weeded out or grown out to be given away. I've tried starting my pepper seeds in flats to save a transplanting but they don't seem to thrive as well as when given a more cozy start in a pot.

The pots are covered with newspaper or cardboard or such and brought inside near the woodstove where it's warm (but not too close--you don't want to cook them). When they're up and growing they'll go back out to the greenhouse which should be warming up by then. If the weather is cold and cloudy they may hang out on the south window sill inside for a bit longer. Even the hardier peppers are reluctant to grow in the cold and I want them to be happy. My favorite short season sweet pepper is Red Belgium, a smallish plant that is a generous producer of yellow-turning red, non-bell peppers.

Most perennial herbs get similar treatment as they tend to be reluctant starters, too.

Onion seed is planted now but in flats as they'll stay there transplanting until time to go out in the garden, and I want a lot of plants. I prepare two or three flats, dumping potting soil in, spread out and tamp, more soil and tamping until the flat is full. I've simply broadcasted the seed across the flat which is easy to do but makes it harder when it comes time to transplant, so now I plant five long rows, keeping the different years' seed separate. Onion seed is the only seed I've found to lose vigor after a few years (in spite of the published charts to the contrary, I've found most garden seed, if given reasonable care--cool, dark dry storage--germinates well, or well enough, for many, many years). But onion seed I only keep for three years as the germination goes way down after that. But just in case, I usually plant thicker than needed, and they usually grow just fine in spite of my lack of confidence, which means I always have to thin my onion plantings a lot, or I should. There, penciled in my notebook in bold, is the admonition to "Plant Thinner--Thin More!" I think I make that note every year. Maybe this year I'll do that. Onions, whether in flat or garden, don't like to be crowded.

April is when things really get humming in my greenhouse, and outside, too, which makes it a fun time to be out there on a warming day with the windows open. Of course many days are still cold and there is still snow around, but that promise o warmth is there. Green is beginning outside and you can feel that urge to grow. It's too early to plant outside but I make up for it inside.

Tomatoes start humbly in just few pots but it won't be long before they are the major inhabitant, making the bench crowded with their enthusiastic growing. But first the seed. Pots are lined up and filled as for the peppers. Decisions have to be made--what varieties this year? The garden plan is consulted, changed, seed packets picked out. Pots are labeled and seed carefully placed across the surface of the soil, covered, patted and watered. They also get to come in by the stove to get a warm start, lined up on old cookie sheets, covered with newspaper, checked daily for the first seedlings to pop up. It doesn't take them long--the days are longer, the weather warmer, they know it's time and they respond. When they're up and spread their first little green leaf wings they get to move out to the brighter, sunnier greenhouse. As with the peppers, I've started tomatoes in flats, but they seem to prefer starting in a smaller pot, so that is what I do. Varieties are numerous and change yearly but the one mainstay that has been in my garden most every year since I started gardening is the maincrop red hardy early tomato called Earlirouge.

Broccoli and Brussels sprouts are next, planted in pots or cans. I don't need many plants but I like a few very early broccoli and some Brussels sprouts varieties (like Roodnorf) need a longer growing season than I can get outside. Both will also be direct seeded outside in the garden, spreading the harvest season out. Aphids are particularly fond of the cole crops so I keep a close eye on the little seedlings as they grow to make sure they don't get out of hand (from my point of view). There aren't many choices for open pollinated varieties of these crops but my favorite broccoli is the relatively recent Piracicaba. And for Brussels sprouts right now, I'm going with Roodnorf and Groninger.


Lettuce has been the main crop on the bench up until now but it's thinning out as we eat the older plants. But it's still a while before we'll be harvesting out of the garden and if I want to grow seed I need to start the plants early. Since lettuce varieties will cross I only grow one kind each year for seed, so I choose which one that will be and plant a pot for both early eating and a dozen plants for seed production. Last year it was Brown Winter lettuce, which grew well and provided me with enough lettuce seed for several lifetimes!

Potatoes aren't a greenhouse crop, but this is the time I unpack my seed potatoes that have been carefully stored in the root cellar all winter and lay them out in a bright but not sunny spot in the house to sprout. Of course, you can plant potato seed if you have any. Their planting, transplanting, and care is similar to the tomato and it's a fun project, even though you can't know what you will get until you harvest. Potatoes from seed don't come true (the offspring isn't like the parent) and tubers from each plant will be different. I've done this several times with a dozen or two plants but never came up with any one that was better, or as good, as the named varieties I was growing.


The end of April and beginning of May is a time of carefully fitting in as many flats as possible onto every square inch of the front and side bench of the greenhouse. This is the Time of Transplanting. The sun is traveling higher in the sky and not hitting the back bed which is being cleared of the plants that have fed us all winter. All the activity is in front, under the windows. More days are spent with the windows open and the insulating panels are packed away. And it seems that overnight the rather sedate greenhouse is suddenly overflowing with enthusiastic green growing things.

As the tomatoes, peppers, cole crops and lettuce start growing their first true leaves and crowding their pots, I fill flats with potting soil, make notes of what is being planted where (I numbered each flat with a permanent marker which helps), and start transplanting. I've found it helps to tamp the soil down firmly in the flats before transplanting, and water if the potting soil is dry. Sometimes I use a dibble (a piece of dowel roughly pointed at one end) to make a hole, sometimes a fork or spoon. I carefully lift the little seedlets out of their pots with a fork tipping them gently onto a cookie sheet. Then I can gently separate them to place each one in their hole in the flat, gently firming the soil around them. When the flat is full it gets a watering of warmish water using a watering can with a perforated rose so that the rain is gentle and doesn't wash the dirt around and away from the seedlings. The hardest part is to toss the extra seedlings into the compost bucket. It's tempting to just keep transplanting until they are gone, but thankfully there just isn't enough room. I usually transplant when a few days of cloudy weather are forecasted to give the seedlings time to settle in their new home before dealing with direct sun (which they do love once they're up and growing again). If it's sunny I set the newly planted flats on the floor or on the back bed out of the direct rays for a few days. At this time the cats are barred from the greenhouse. Even if they don't decide to scratch around in a newly planted flat (all that fresh dirt, why not?) they think nothing of walking across the little plants, or stretching out on top of them. They get to enter only when I'm there to keep an eye on them. There isn't much room for cats at this point anyway, and it won't be long before the whole greenhouse will be theirs.

For the tomatoes and peppers this is their first of two transplantings, so they are planted in a 3 x 7 grid in a 11" x 16" x 4" flat. When they grow larger, usually in a couple of weeks, nine plants will be transplanted to another flat to leave 12, so each plant gets a 3" or 4" square of dirt. I've also transplanted them to 4" pots which works well, but pots aren't as easy to manage as flats.

The cole crops and lettuce (which would include cabbage if I grew cabbage) get transplanted just once to 12 plants per flat. Their next transplanting will be directly into the garden in May. They seem to have the most trouble with lack of sun and are anxious to get out into the open.

The onions are happily growing along with little fuss and no transplanting, though they do need to be thinned.


These are the last seeds to be planted in my greenhouse, usually directly into a flat, though they don't mind starting in a pot and being transplanted. It's not that they couldn't be planted earlier, but I admit that for me the flowers, though appreciated, don't get top priority so get planted when I think of it, later rather than sooner. Zinnias and marigolds handle this neglect with good nature and provide me with a beautiful patch of bright old-fashioned color later in the summer.

Though I worry, maybe overmuch, about my seedlings getting chilled, they are probably more concerned with being baked. This is a time of close attention to the weather and the greenhouse. Sunshine is welcome but the greenhouse is quick to overheat on a clear day so windows and door have to be opened, then closed before the cool of evening and often downright cold of night. If we are going to be gone till late and it is sunny, or likely to be, but expected to be cold that night, I will leave the overhead curtain down, the door to the entryway open as well as the vents into the house, and the windows closed. Better to be shaded than overheated or overchilled. I've left the greenhouse for three or four days this way and the plants handle it just fine.


I have very few problem insects m my greenhouse but since I bring in full grown plants in the fall I also bring in their companions, only a few of which make themselves unwelcome Two make themselves known right away--slugs and cutworms, which are sometimes snug in the generous shovelful of dirt around the Swiss chard plants. It's interesting that they are not much problem in the garden and their eating is hardly noticeable. I suppose the birds keep them in healthy check. But in the greenhouse it's soon obvious when I have a hitchhiker (who probably considers he has more right to that plant than I do). The leaves start disappearing at alarming rates by holes and chunks and the cats insist they are not out there nibbling leaves when I'm not looking. So I dig in the soil around the plant and sooner or later (hopefully sooner) find a fat cutworm or little slug, which quickly finds itself out in the cold. I'm fairly tolerant but I do have my limits. I've also gone out at night with a flashlight and occasionally find the culprit at dinner.


But by far the largest and sometimes most frustrating pest is the aphid. They love new seedlings and old plants equally, and are definitely in the matchmaking and family making mood in the spring. I hate to be a spoil-sport, but some years they are more prolific than necessary (in my view) so I start looking for ways to reduce their numbers. The first is to remove the older plants. The pretty but now fading calendula seems to attract aphids, so off it goes. Soon the parsley plants follow. As the spring birds are arriving outside--juncos, phoebes, the exciting first calls of the sandhill crane--the overwintered plants are making their way to the compost pile. When I look for lettuce to harvest, I simply look for those with aphids and take those leaves first. The aphids wash off easily.

I have also simply carefully wiped an infestation off a leaf or stem with my fingers, or knocked them off a small seedling leaf with a small paintbrush and into my hand. I have tried spraying or dipping with a Safer's Soap solution on a particularly bad year, but that seemed to do as much damage to the leaves as the aphids.

But an easier solution was at hand, though it took me some years to realize it, and as is usual it came from following the natural flow of nature of which we are a part (though we seem to keep forgetting that). Who keeps aphids at a healthy population outside (I hardly ever have an aphid "problem" in my garden) ? The ladybug, or Ladybird Beetle. At least she is one of the gang. So in the fall I bring in ladybugs when I see them in the garden. Or I simply move them from the house to greenhouse those years that we have an abundance of ladybugs, and they seek shelter inside just as we do. I may have a temporary abundance of aphids in the spring but it isn't long before the ladybugs and their offspring catch up. It's good to know what the ladybug larvae like--interesting looking little creatures they are, too--so you can keep an eye out for them. Both adults and kids are wonderful companions and their eating habits are definitely our gain. I seldom have an aphid "problem" now.

The ladybugs create one problem, however, and that comes when harvesting. Suddenly I realize I have to look carefully at each lettuce leaf before nipping it off for lunch to make sure there are no ladybug eggs attached or larvae meandering about. The adults are easier to see but more than once I've had to quickly rescue a ladybug from the water the lettuce is being washed in, vowing to be more diligent in my leaf cruising next time. It makes me slow down, which isn't all bad.

Depending on how many ladybugs have wintered in the greenhouse, there comes a time when there are obviously more bugs than food, and they are wanting out. So I reverse the migration and start moving them outside, which by now is warming and greening and I figure it's time for them to get back to their summer homes. A piece of paper works better than fingers to "pick up" the little beetles or to knock them (gently of course) into a cup for their trip. A more appreciated friend can't be found in my greenhouse.

In May my attention turns to the outside garden while the greenhouse garden grows, waiting its time to move out. The back winter bed is clear and bare, and will rest until next fall. I water and weed flats, keep an eye out for aphids and ladybugs, watch the weather closely, and marvel at the growth. As it comes near their time, I take a knife and cut between the plants in the flats making it easier on them and me to lift them out individually for transplanting. Depending on my schedule and the weather, which is variable to say the least, but usually by the end of May or first of June the greenhouse is slowly emptied, flat by flat, as the now sturdy, healthy seedlings are transplanted into their summer homes in the garden.

The hardy coles go under screen boxes to keep them out of reach of hungry insects that love their tender leaves until they are large enough to fend for themselves. The boxes also make it easy to throw a blanket over if a particularly freezing night (or nights) occurs, which happens all too frequently. The tomatoes and peppers get transplanted into cold frames to keep them safe from frosts and freezes until the weather settles and they can be "outside" full time, usually by mid June. Onions are on their own when they are transplanted out, and they look so tiny and vulnerable. But they are pretty hardy and can handle all except the deep freezes, which thankfully don't occur every year. If it happens, a deep layer of mulch helps protect them, though it's hard to get it back off without damaging the little things. Flowers are the last, waiting for warmer weather since there are seldom any cold frames left for them. But they get planted under the outside branches of an apple tree so are protected from the light frosts.

Back in the greenhouse all is bare and quiet. I brush dirt out of pots and flats, storing them and the tools away for the summer. Clean off the bench, transfer the top slats to the back bed, wipe down the sills and sweep the floor--it's a different world now. An old rug here, a folded towel inside a clean flat there, and the room is turned over to the sun loving lounging cats who know that a long wonderful summer is soon to begin.


770N Fox RD., COOKS MI 49817



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Title Annotation:Notes from the northwoods
Author:Robishaw, Sue
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Mar 1, 2010
Previous Article:Home, sweet, (inexpensive) home!
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