kohlrabi2018

WHAT GROWS HERE & WHAT DOES NOT

This will now be my 3rd year gardening at 9,000 feet. After some trial and error, I’ve chosen only to grow the things that will grow well in the outdoor garden, and use my limited greenhouse space in the summer for a few favorites while saving some room for early fall planting there. Some of the vegetables that grow very well have not been my favorites (kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, rutabagas) but since they do grow well here and are good for us I’m learning to like them more and cook them in new ways.

Our last frost date in spring to the first frost date in the fall is about 92 days. I carefully select only the varieties that boast the shortest maturity period. Nothing grows as fast as promised. If the seed packet indicates 60 days, in most cases it will be 80-100. For example, I planted Masai Hericots Verts bush beans with a maturity range of 58 days. I harvested them about 88 days after planting. Often, seed varieties boast that they are well-suited for northern climates. I’d thought that those would also work well in high altitudes, but no. We do not get as many sunshine hours in the day as do northern areas in the summer. I believe that this, in addition to our cool nights, slows down the growth of many plants. Here is a list of what grows well and what does not.

 

WHAT GROWS WELL OUTDOORS

  • broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, kale, bok choy & all brassicas
  • lettuce, spinach, chard and a variety of other greens to be eaten fresh or sauteed
  • root vegetables such as beets, rutabagas, turnips, radishes and carrots
  • potatoes
  • garlic
  • peas
  • herbs such as parsley, cilantro, thyme, sage, oregano, dill

WHAT GROWS SO-SO

(I do still grow these outdoors, but they’re not the best)

  • onions (they don’t get big and the season is too short & cool for them to bulb well, but after a successful experiment last year I’m giving them another try)
  • summer squash (they need covering early on when it’s cold, and help with pollination)
  • winter squash (So far I’ve had only one variety that actually produced squash, Gold Nugget, and it did not taste good. I’m determined to get some winter squash to grow based on the success of some other local gardeners, so I am trying two new varieties this year.)
  • bush beans (a smaller yield than in warmer climates, but they are suitable)
  • celery (got some thin celery last year, am trying one more time)

WHAT I PROBABLY WON’T ATTEMPT OUTDOORS AGAIN

  • tomatoes or peppers (they just began to ripen when the fall frosts began, even though they were faithfully covered each night)
  • corn (tried an Alaskan variety bred for short, cool seasons, but it did not produce)
  • dry beans (it froze before I had a chance to harvest these)
  • cauliflower (grew very spindly, did not make a good head)

WHAT I GROW IN THE SUMMER GREENHOUSE

  • tomatoes
  • peppers
  • cucumbers
  • basil
  • winter squash – still on trial one more time outdoors

 

 

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GREENHOUSE

GREENHOUSE

The greenhouse at Golden Gaits Ranch is complete and plants are growing beautifully. The solar collector, used to heat the greenhouse and our household hot water, is fully operational. It is now the end of February 2018, and we have enjoyed greens such as lettuce, spinach, kale, chard, and bok choy. We’re continually eating fresh tomatoes and zucchini. I’ve harvested (and eaten) turnips, beets, daikon radish, kohlrabi, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower and one nice head of cabbage, which was made into sauerkraut. Herbs growing are thyme, rosemary, tarragon and basil. Still growing are some leeks and garlic in the beds, with ginger and turmeric in pots.

POND-Holds 200 gals water

HEATING

For the month of January 2018, the greenhouse temperatures averaged 74°F during the day, and 56°F overnight. (The outdoor temps ranged from -9 to +62, averaging 11 at night and 48 during the day that month.) We have been installing insulation over the glazing each night to retain the heat that has been collected during the day. The floor and soil in the beds are heated from the sun during the day, and the soil stays at about 70°F.

2019 UPDATE: The concrete floor, the soil and the pond (which holds about 200 gallons of water) all provide thermal mass storage. When the greenhouse was planned and built, we installed radiant in-floor heating, to be heated with water from our solar collector. Over time, we determined that this was not necessary. We also no longer put up the insulation over the glazing each night. The concrete floor and the soil beds stay plenty warm without the in-floor heat, but what needs more warmth overnight and on the coldest days is the air. This past year, Tim purchased and installed a used wall heater which uses the hot water from our solar collector as its heat source. This has worked quite well to keep the greenhouse warm overnight most nights, and we have an electric space heater set on a thermostat to add more warmth on the coldest of nights. (It rarely comes on.) As an additional source of heating, we have a unique situation. The greenhouse is built on the side of our home, and includes a door to our crawlspace. The crawlspace temperature remains quite even–not too hot, not to cool. Tim has added a vent with a fan to blow the hot air from the greenhouse  into the crawlspace during the day to warm it up. At night, the door to this crawlspace is left open, so the warm air stored in it can circulate back into the greenhouse for added warmth. In the summer, the coolness from the crawlspace can help keep the greenhouse cooler. Just an added benefit of attaching the greenhouse to the house!

 

WHAT GROWS IN THE GREENHOUSE

As fall has turned to winter, I’ve learned a few things about how things grow and when and where I should plant things in the future. I’d had high expectations that things would grow like they do outside, since the optimum warmth would be kept high. However, without the addition of an artificial light source, the plants receive fewer hours of light per day and are growing much more slowly than in summer. Now that the days are gradually getting longer, the plants are growing faster. Some things are doing better than others: the cold-season crops such as kale, chard, spinach and lettuces have done well. The tomatoes are producing, but the tomatoes are smaller and ripen much more slowly than they would have outside. The sweet peppers did not do well but the hotter peppers did better. A couple of the hot peppers (“Biggie Chile”, an Anaheim type pepper) are so tall they are shading the plants behind them, which I didn’t expect. One tomato plant, “Principe Borghese”, got so huge, with so few buds, I ripped it out. (Sometimes the Principe Borghese tomato is listed as “determinate” and other times “semi-determinate”. This particular strain seemed to be the semi-determinate, quite tall and bushy.)

When planting the beds by the windows, I put some of the larger things, such as kale and swiss chard, at the back of the beds, thinking that the shorter plants in front should be more accessible, but I wasn’t thinking about the larger plants by the windows shading the plants closer to the inside edge. Although the shorter plants may be harder to get at, they should have been planted closer to the windows behind the taller plants from the perspective of where I stand to work. In addition, the larger plants near the windows make it more difficult to put up the insulation each night.

Vertical Zucchini

I’d read that growing zucchini vertically is a space saver, and a good way to grow it in a greenhouse. I tried that, and I’m glad I did. Rather than having the plant sprawl across the bed, it is growing nicely upward, saving space around it for other things. The zucchinis are easy to see and easy to pick. Unfortunately, a couple of turnips that were growing behind it didn’t get much light and grew very slowly. (I had thought that they would grow more speedily and be harvested before the zucchini got too big, but that didn’t happen.)

I thought it would be nice to grow an indeterminate tomato up the center post, then train it along the bottom edge of the roof support. I’m not yet sure whether I will do that again. It is creating more shade than I thought it would, keeping the plants behind it in the dark. I’ll have a better idea as time goes on—when the lower leaves begin to die off, it may not be as much of a problem.

Many of the plants that were started in the fall have been harvested, and now I am beginning new plantings of lettuces, spinach, kale, beets, and a couple of tomatoes. I’m planning to start some onions in the greenhouse which will be transplanted outside in the spring. Although I am itching to replant some of the areas where plants have been harvested, I’ll just have to hold off for a bit. I need to leave space for the things I want to put in later. In the spring the greenhouse will be used for growing transplants which will later go outside, and closer to summer it will need to be used for tomatoes and peppers, which will stay in the greenhouse all summer.

Tim has created a detailed document describing all the “nuts and bolts” of how the greenhouse was made and why we did what we did. It can be viewed HERE. He asked me one day whether there was anything I’d do differently. Not much, but I’d like it to be taller. If it were taller I could hang more plants! I’d also kind of like it to be larger in area, but keeping it to this size is good for me so I won’t overplant and have too much. This is a good size for just the two of us and will do just fine. I don’t really *need* more space.

We are glad to have this project complete and definitely enjoy the veggies we’ve been able to eat. What’s for dinner tonight? Quiche, made with spinach from the greenhouse and eggs from the ducks.

seedlings1024

STARTING SEEDLINGS INDOORS

INDOOR SEED STARTING WITH SOIL BLOCKS

Starting seedlings indoors is my go-to process for almost everything that I grow in the garden and greenhouse. For the short season here in our high altitude location, this is especially important. It allows a head start on plants that need time to grow, and starting seeds in the warm, protected conditions indoors makes for healthier plants. There are many ways to do this, using greenhouses, grow lights, grow mats, seedling trays, plugs, peat pots, etc. Everyone has their favorite method, as do I.

SOIL BLOCKS

I use “SOIL BLOCKS” to start all my seedlings indoors under grow lights. The only seeds I will direct-seed outdoors are peas & carrots. Although it is usually recommended to start beans, beets & corn outside (it is said that they don’t transplant well), I’ve had great success by starting all of these indoors. Although the greenhouse is quite conducive to starting things directly in the beds, I normally begin my greenhouse vegetables in the soil blocks also, which allows me to get new plants started while other plants are still filling the beds. After plants are harvested, I’m ready to re-plant the spot with something that’s already gotten a good start.

The soil blocks are made with block makers made by Ladbrooke Soil Blockers. They can be found at several garden supply websites such as GrowOrganic.com or JohnnySeeds.com, along with information about using them. It’s a bit of an investment, but these blockers make great plant starts with a high success rate and the block makers last a long time. I’ve been using mine now for 9 years. If you don’t want to spend the money, there are instructions for making your own DIY block makers found on several sites on the internet. Making the blocks takes a little practice and some trial and error, but after a little practice, it’s “as easy as pie” — mud pie, that is.  The blocks are easy to transplant—no trying to remove them from small pots or carefully separate them out of seeding trays. My experience with peat pots or newspaper pots are that they work ok, but it still takes time for them to break down for roots to get through. The soil blocks make transplanting easy both for you and for the plants.

It’s helpful to read the booklet, “Transplants in Soil Blocks” by David Tresemer.  He did a lot of research using this method, and explains which seeds can be started in soil blocks, as well as how many seeds can be planted in each block (for multiplanting), etc. To make the blocks, I use a recipe which uses peat or coco, perlite, compost, and some various minerals and nutrients. The soil block mix recipes I use can be found here.

“Micro” Blocks – 3/4″

MICRO BLOCKS

Update: I used to start many seedlings in the “micro” blocks shown here, but over time I’ve abandoned this method mostly because I am growing fewer things at a time and find it just as easy to start directly in the “mini” blocks. I’m leaving my thoughts about the micro blocks here fyi.

Germination can start for many of the smaller size seeds (flowers, herbs, etc.) in the 3/4″ MICRO blocks shown here. This gives them a chance to start in a cozy, warm, small space, with very little soil.  The Ladbrooke blocker to make these makes 20 small blocks at a time.  I put them in these inexpensive cake pans, or other plastic containers saved from frozen meals. The seeds start more quickly in these small blocks and nutrient-rich soil than they would outside. One benefit of starting seeds this way is that when seeds don’t sprout, you haven’t wasted much space or material. It’s important to keep these small seeds & seedlings moist, but not too wet while in these blocks.  I usually keep a sprayer handy and spray them a couple of times a day, with some extra water in the tray for bottom watering. Until the seedlings emerge, I keep a lid on loosely, and keep the trays on TOP of my grow lights, to allow for bottom warmth.  Once they emerge, they go under the lights, which are kept about 2” above the seedlings. If they do get too dry, not to worry, they’ll usually perk up just fine after some water is applied.

“Mini” Blocks – 2″

 

MINI BLOCKS

Update: These 2″ blocks, the “mini” blocks, are now what I use exclusively rather than starting with the micro blocks. I simply start the seeds directly in these to transplant later either directly to the garden or to the “maxi” blocks shown below.  To start directly in the mini blocks, there are interchangeable plugs for these block makers to make different size indentations to place the seeds. I use a smaller one than the cube-size shown here to start seeds directly in the mini blocks. The micro-to-mini block instructions are here fyi.

After the seeds sprout in the micro blocks and appear to be established, they can easily be transferred to blocks slightly larger, where the roots will have more room to grow. This shows the micro blocks placed into the mini blocks. After seeds have begun to grow, they are transplanted into 2″ MINI blocks, The 2″ mini blocks can be made with a cube-shaped hole in the middle just the right size to fit the ¾” micros. The photo here shows how nicely they fit.  This gives the seedlings a chance to grow more before being transplanted either outdoors or into MAXI blocks for further growth indoors. 

Larger seeds, or seeds that grow very quickly, such as tomatoes, peppers, beets, squash, and even corn & beans can be started directly in the 2″ mini block, which can be made with a ½” or 1″ dimple in which to place the seeds.  With this method I even start my corn and beans in blocks, although most garden resources indicate they should not be started indoors and that they don’t transplant well.  In our short growing season it gives them a nice head start, and when transplanted outside I have nice, even rows of things that have all germinated–no empty spaces from sprouting failures.  I also use aluminum cake pans for these, with 20 blocks per tray, loosely covered with the plastic lids that come with the trays, until seedlings are too large for the lid. Many seedlings can stay in this size block until being planted in the garden, others may need to be transplanted again, into larger blocks.

“Maxi” Blocks – 4″

MAXI BLOCKS

After plants begin to outgrow the 2” mini blocks but need to remain indoors for more growth, they can be transplanted into the 4″ maxi block until they are ready to be transplanted outside.  These blocks are made with a 2″ cube indentation, just about the right size to fit the 2″ blocks. 

I feel that the cube indentation is a bit short for many of the seedlings, such as tomatoes, which can be buried more deeply up the stem. To make more space I will dig about 1/4-1/2″ of the soil out with a kitchen fork from the bottom of each block’s indentation.  After putting the smaller block into the larger, I add some soil at the top and bury the stem just a little more.

 

2011 tomatoes transplanted into maxi blocks

Same tomatoes, about two weeks later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The seedlings grow fast under lights. See how healthy they are after being started and transplanted to the maxi blocks under lights! These tomatoes (2013) were started at 8 weeks before the last frost, and were ready to go outside, but the outside wasn’t quite ready for them. They got a bit taller than I’d like prior to planting out. They don’t really gain much by being started too soon before going outside. I believe 6-7 weeks is plenty of time for tomatoes to get a good start, and if the weather should be too nasty for them to be planted out, another week inside won’t cause any harm. See how nice and leafy these plants are?

2009: Tall, “leggy” tomatoes before I knew not to start them too early.

Many plants started indoors or in greenhouses in small pots get too tall and leggy. At the right is a photo of my first year’s tomato plants, before I began to use the soil blocks. A good way to keep them from getting too tall indoors is to keep the lights just a couple of inches above the top of the plants. It’s also helpful to put a fan on them a portion of each day, or to wiggle them with your hands a bit, to strengthen the stems. This is particularly helpful if your location is windy—they need to get ready to withstand that wind outside!

Below is a photo of one of my tomatoes in 2017, just prior to planting. It is not too tall, dark green, and it should grow well after being planted outside. 

Nice, short, stocky tomato plant in 4″ maxi block.

After getting a good start indoors, planting out is a cinch, and there is a better chance of a good harvest in our high altitude short season.

KEEPING TRACK OF SEEDLINGS

When using these micro and mini blocks it can be difficult to know which blocks are which seeds! There is no container to mark on the side, and no room for a name-stake. The aluminum cake pans I use will hold 20 mini-blocks, or 120 micro-blocks. I have made up sheets I can use to pencil in the seeds I have planted. They will look something like this. Each sheet shows 3 trays of seeds. I mark the side of each tray with the date and tray # so I know which side is up. They look something like this.

Seedlings just started correspond with the second map shown on the sheet above.

 

 

 

 

 

GREENHOUSE SEEDLINGS

Now that I have the greenhouse going year-round, I’ve found that it is quite a project to see that it is put to its full use. I want to be ready to replant each area as they become ready for new plants. I make a guess as to how long each plant will remain in place until harvested and removed, and use my grow lights to start seedlings that will be ready to put in place of those plants.

Seedlings started 12 days ago: tomatoes, peppers, lettuces–planning ahead for the greenhouse.

The greenhouse and its soil are warm enough to start seeds directly in the beds, and in some cases, after plants are harvested, I do that. But the grow lights are a handy way to keep the greenhouse full!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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We Have a Greenhouse!

In the planning stages of building our house here at 9,000 feet, we had always thought we would eventually build a greenhouse. At our former location in Wellington we had a small, non-heated greenhouse, which provided us with cold-tolerant things like spinach, kale, chard, lettuce and beet greens throughout most of the winter. It also provided a place to finish and harden the seedlings I had started under lights indoors. It was attached to the south side of our house, under our deck, so the north side of the greenhouse was protected by the house. (See photos of this one below.) It was a great addition to the garden there, so we planned to do it again.

We mulled over whether to attach it to the house or build a free-standing greenhouse. Here are some of the pros & cons:

Attached to the house:

  • Water and electricity readily available
  • North side protected by house
  • Easily accessible in winter

Free-Standing:

  • More available space for a larger greenhouse
  • More available light for the plants
  • Would be farther from the house; less accessible
  • Water and electricity would be more of a challenge
  • Would require insulation, particularly on the north wall

December 3, 2017

We chose to attach the greenhouse to the house, under our deck on the south faces. (I say “faces” because with a 14-sided house, we used two of the sections.) We also decided we would like some sort of heat source, to allow for more growing throughout the winter. While thinking through the options, Tim decided we could have radiant heat in the floor, with a solar collector to provide that heat as well as enough capacity to provide hot water for the house.

November 8, 2017

The greenhouse is now complete! It is full of beautiful, growing vegetables. Tim is now working to complete the solar collector and the system for heating. The solar collector is standing to the left of the greenhouse in the photo above. Inside the crawlspace, at the back of the greenhouse, is the mechanical room, which houses the water collection tank and controls. Tim is in the process of writing a detailed document of how the greenhouse was built, which will be included when complete.

Since the greenhouse is attached to the house, water and electricity are readily available. The glazing is 5-wall polycarbonate, about 5/8″ thick. It includes approximately 100 square feet of raised bed space 28″ deep, radiant in-floor heating, concrete floor to maintain thermal mass, a pond filled with about 200 gallons of water

Pond, filled with water for thermal storage

 (for thermal mass), a lighted grow-bench area for starting seedlings. Currently the pond (left) is topped with a shelf–eventually it will likely house water plants and fish.

Venting is provided by two large ceiling vents equipped with automatic openers, in addition to the door which may remain open as needed. In the future we may add fans and cooling, but we will wait until summer to determine how much cooling will be necessary.

Nighttime Insulation

 

Tim has devised a way to put down insulation over the glazing at night to keep the cold out and the warmth inside.

We are very happy with the result and plan to enjoy it for years to come.

 

Here are photos of our former greenhouse, which served us well, but our new greenhouse is 10x better!

Wellington, CO – 2011

Wellington, CO – 2011