After a long couple years of planning and building, magic happened at the end of October 2014. The first seeds were planted in the raised beds of my experimental all-season urban greenhouse. It’s a bit of an understatement to say I was excited. It was like Christmas morning as a kid amplified about ten times.
For those new to the blog, here’s a bit of history on what I am working to accomplish:
In a nutshell, all-season food production in a northern urban yard, and sharing that information to inspire and encourage great folks like yourself to grow food in this harsh climate.
How I am going about this is by converting my urban yard into a mix of relaxing/entertaining space, some grass, a large number of raised beds, a micro-orchard and an experimental all-season greenhouse that will hopefully work in both winter and summer to keep a continuous supply of fresh greens and produce available. And I hope to accomplish this with a minimal amount of resources (ie, minimal heat and no supplemental lighting, as well as rain barrels through summer and year-round composting).
What I am not trying to accomplish is commercial food production. 1-2 households would be a great outcome in my mind, and if there are extras to share, BONUS!
So how have my first three months gone? I’d say fairly well, with a lot of learning! Plants and nature are excellent teachers. I’ve had a wonderful mix of wins and lessons (I will not call them failures, because they teach me the most!) and I’m excited to share them with you.
Thinking back, before building even began I was researching and creating plans in my head. During that I recognized I would have a number of hurdles to overcome. The largest included:
- Low light in the Persephone Period of the year
- Maintaining the greenhouse temperature without high cost
- Moving the greenhouse through the seasons without overheating or over-cooling (especially the highly variable spring and fall)
- Limited space
The Persephone Period:
As excited as I was to be planting in the last few days of October, and at the start of November, I also realized that this meant I was starting the seeds at the exact same time that growth is slowing and going into stasis; The Persephone Period
The length of the Persephone period is different across the globe. The term, first used by Eliot Coleman, refers to the period of the year with fewer than 10 hours of daylight. During this period, little to no plant growth occurs since there is just not enough light for them to generate the needed energy. In the middle is always Solstice, the shortest period of daylight in the year.
Here in Thunder Bay, Solstice was on December 21, 2014, with only 8 hours and 19 minutes of daylight. Of that, only a fraction reaches inside the greenhouse when the sun is highest in the sky, while most is lost along the horizon for the remaining time. In relation to this, the first day of the Persephone Period was Nov 1, 2014, and the last day will be Feb 11, 2015 which is almost a full third of the year. (dates taken from http://www.timebie.com/sun/thunderbayon.php). EXACTLY when I was finally able to plant. I know for a fact I will definitely be starting the first few plants before this date next fall, giving them time to gain some size before they slow to a crawl 🙂
That said, I’m not at all unhappy with the performance of the plants. It was a good lesson learned on when I should plant, and gave me a very clear picture of which of my crops would perform the best with the least light. I’m not sure I would have had this if I had been able to plant sooner. Hurdle of low light overcome? I’d say I have a good start, and some great ideas moving forward.
In the next season I fully intend to stagger my planting, and grow some of the greens in succession to ensure a constant supply through winter (including starting the plants sooner in the season). However since this was the first year, I was more interested to directly compare the plants’ growth to each other, see what grew well, what took longer, what the lights was like in the different spaces, and what I might not plant again. And so I seeded all the varieties within about 3 days of each other starting Oct 30. Most were directly into the raised beds, cabbages and kale were started on my indoor grow table under some grow lights then transplanted.
All together, I planted about 30 types of greens. These included Mei Qing Choi, Joi Choi, White and Red Hakuri Turnips, 5-6 types of lettuce, Red Kitten Spinach, Tokyo Bekana, Bunching onions, Chinese cabbage, Red Russian Kale, Broccoli raab (rapini), Broccoli, Early Jersey and Red Cabbage, White Icicle and Easter Egg radishes, Arugula and Dragon Tongue Arugula (a wild variety), Claytonia, Vit Mache, Bright Lights Swiss chard, and 4 types of micro greens.
Along with these, I also overwintered strawberry plants hoping for an earlier harvest in summer, sweet peppers that were not quite ripened in summer, a herb collection, and a group of decorative flowers and grasses from the summer landscape.
Overall, I have found that crops typically intended as “cold crops” like spinach and kale do live and grow…..but in the lowest points of daylights they are stagnant. So I think these ones will be planted early, but I won’t expect to eat them until later winter once the daylight increases and they “wake back up”.
What surprised me is how well the Tokyo Bekana and other asian greens did with the lack of light. The bekana happily continued to grow and increase in size, ignoring the lack of light, as did both varieties of choi for the most part. So I will expect that these will be my first winter greens each year, and that I’ll be adding in a second or third planting of them through the season.
The other strongest winner was the standard Arugula. It took off in leaps and bounds, and did not care in the least about the cooler temperatures and low light. This was also the very first green I harvested this winter (it made a great addition to Christmas dinner!), and it has continued to grow more and more from the same original plants. Oddly, the wild-type dragon tongue arugula was an incredibly poor performer, and I do not expect I’ll grow it again next season.
Two plants that I expected great returns from were the Claytonia and Vit Mache. Neither of which produced. However, these are very cold-loving plants, so I am considering moving them to alternate spaces next year to see if I just had them in the wrong spot.
Radishes, turnips, rapini, lettuce and the majority of the other greens have been enjoyable snacking as I thin them, and by the end of the Persephone period are starting to be ready for meals. I will definitely plant fewer of these initially, and stagger in a second to third crop. Except perhaps radishes, which I may increase in number. I was incredibly happy with the white icicle radishes. Sweet and mild, and unlike in summer when they have all bolted in the gardens, the roots developed perfectly. The easter egg radishes were equally enjoyable for snacking, juicy and fresh. WIN for the cool greenhouse soil!!
The microgreens I had a hard lesson on. It was suggested I germinate these on a heatmat before moving them to develop.
I did not listen.
I did not get microgreens in any of the flats.
Even those that started to germinate faded away quickly. So these I’ll have to try over again. Add the heat, and get taught what else they may need. Oops – live and learn, right?
The first 3 months have also had their share of surprises, both wonderful and not-so-great. A butterfly in the first days of November was such a great sight to enjoy, an overwintering Jalapeno decided to try growing new fruit, and one of the strawberries blossomed a few days after Solstice. I’m still shaking my head on that one. And last but not least, even with -40C windchill, the greenhouse was still able to reach a peak around 25C inside on a clear sunny day – all from passive solar.
Not so great included:
– Heat Sink Issues
Although partially functioning, the heat-sink is going to need a simple adjustment in spring. If you recall in the post where I discuss the building of the heat sink, I placed some fabric over the heat pipes within the rocks. I’ve since observed that there is just not enough flow of the heated daily air. This cloth is giving too much back-pressure, and only a trickle of the air can flow in, taking too long to store as much heat as it is capable of. So it is providing some evening heat, and some airflow during the day, but can definitely do better. So awesome, I know the issue and can fix it – not so great, I need to dismantle the beds temporarily in spring and dig down before rebuilding.
Although I was expecting there to be some humidity concerns, I did not expect them to start immediately. Even with very sparse watering, the cooler temperature built up humidity instantly. This was compounded with the heat sink not giving as much airflow as it’s capable of. I did counter this by adding a circulation fan, but I’ll need to consider how to deal with this better the next season.
I knew that aphids could be a concern, but after not seeing any for the first long while I assumed I had dodged the bullet this year. Nope. They showed up around the same time as Solstice. At first I kept them under control with a simple 50-50 water-rubbing alcohol mix that I added detergent into. But I finally decided that was not as effective as I wanted, and called in the troops. I’m currently in the middle of a biological treatment using two insects predatory to aphids, Lacewing larvae and parasitoid wasps. I’ll be sure to write up an article on the battle and how it turns out!
In summary I’d have to say these first three months have been FANTASTIC! So great in fact I’m wondering when the next shoe will drop…
I’m learning a ton, and the plants are being excellent teachers. Showing me what they like, what is not great, when I should plant them and so much more.
As I thought, the biggest issue for the northern winter greenhouse is NOT temperature. It’s the lack of daylight. Before this I knew we had less daylight than other zones, but I did not really understand that we spend almost 1/3 of the year with fewer than 10 hours of daylight, or the implications. But I’ve STILL had fresh, flavor-bursting greens (although not the ones I had originally thought would grow the best) and I’m pumped for the rest of this trial year.
Looking forward to the next few months, as the great north moves into Equinox ! This is gonna be fun… 🙂
Do you have any questions? Please ask in comments, I’m sure I’ve missed some juicy details that I’ll be more than happy to share!