Organic Gardening with Sue Robishaw
Attached Semi-pit Greenhouse
Growing Greens through the Winter and
Four decades of Growing
in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Our attached greenhouse has been an integral part of our house from the beginning; a very important part it is, too. It's wonderful for starting plants in the spring and for growing green things when the garden is frozen and under snow. It's a joy in the winter, standing in the shop looking into this room full of green growing plants while outside cold winter is in full swing. It brightens our days beyond the harvest of salad and cooking greens, though we certainly enjoy and appreciate those, too!
Our underground solar house was finished in 1985, including the first version of the greenhouse. In 1999 we did a major rebuild which made a much warmer, tighter, and nicer space. There are a few photos of the rebuild HERE. Information on the house building can be found on the HOUSE page.
I do love my greenhouse! It's active and full from fall through spring, then it sits quietly through the summer as my attention turns outside. Following are some posts that highlight activity through the season. I hope you enjoy the mini-tour.
November 15, 2021 -- Happy Spinach
It is a beautiful tree-filled white outside this morning with a gentle start to snow season. This makes the green filled greenhouse especially pleasing. The usual array of growing lettuce takes up the space on the bench near the windows, enjoying easy access to the short but sweet sun. The bed along the house is also getting good sun -- it's just a little later to hit all of it. But the spinach growing there is doing better than ever. And with the colder nights now and then I will soon be moving my harvesting from the garden to the greenhouse, abandoning the lettuce and spinach still growing in cold frames.
I did something different this year for the spinach. In the past I've transplanted seedlings started in the garden into flats which are then moved into the greenhouse sometime in October. The lettuce is happy with this but the spinach hasn't been. So this year I got the greenhouse going early in September, watering the bed, opening all the windows (it's still very warm in the usually empty greenhouse at that time), and planted spinach seed directly in the bed. I also put in some carrots and cabbage just to see how they do (and a couple nasturtiums, and a volunteer alyssum, plus the usual daffodils) (it's hard for a gardener not to plant when confronted with bare ground, even in an inside bed). While there was plenty of warmth, the sun was still fairly high with no direct sunlight hitting the bed yet. The plants did OK with the LED light-bar on and the ambient light. But I could see that they were happier as the sun dropped lower in the sky and started touching the plants directly.
The spinach has grown very well, better than I expected, and looks like it will give us a lot more fresh greens than we usually have. I also didn't dig up and transplant plants directly from the garden as I have in the past (except for one healthy small marigold, and the Stevia who are in pots and will be going dormant soon for the winter). I'm hoping this will help in pest control, particularly aphids and cutworms. Some years there are plenty of ladybugs and I move some into the greenhouse in the fall, but this year they were scarce.
September 10, 2021 -- Empty of Growing Plants but Still Involved
While we're eating previous years bean this year's is still in the pods, a good harvest it was, too, since beans thrive on heat which we had in abundance this summer. A bit extra drying time in the greenhouse then into the house to wait for a less hectic time to be threshed, cleaned and stored. This is always a fun project, especially when I've grown a new variety which I did this year, a pretty one called Tiger's Eye. Always something new to discover, even when it's old.
The summer empty greenhouse comes in handy for drying seeds and pods, dry corn, and occasional laundry. It's a handy space, soon to be filled again with green growing things.
May 10, 2021 -- Appreciating Windbreaks
We've had a stretch of pretty strong north winds but if one finds a place out of the wind it can be almost warm. A few of the plants from the greenhouse have ventured outside to start getting used to the outdoor environment, while their less hardy friends stay inside because they don't think upper 40's is that warm. But those days are coming and soon they'll all be out basking in the fresh air. Meantime the brave early ones find it quite cozy on the south side of the wood shed where they can ignore that north wind.
April 16, 2021 -- Greenhouse Beginnings
This past week has seen quite a bit of rain and cold and wind, with a few weather breaks to get us outside now and then. But mostly it's been a good week of working on indoor projects. Steve has made good progress on his redesigned rudder system on his boat and I've enjoyed finishing a number of small projects. And new life in the spring greenhouse has begun which is always fun. Most of the winter's plants have been eaten or removed except for one vigorous alyssum that seems determined to fill the space left by her departed neighbors. Or maybe she's just trying to get across the isle to greet the new plantlets on the bench by the window. Quite an amazing creature.
March 1, 2021
-- Ready for a New Month
October 14, 2020 -- Moving Day
Though the weather thus far this month has been rather mild (not counting the ongoing high winds!) they are forecasting a couple of low 20's nights this week so I decided it was time for the big move into the greenhouse. It was already cleaned and ready, the deep bed along the house watered and compost added (it gets very dry during the uninhabited summer months), and the spiders lectured on better moderation in their enthusiastic web building. We've had several days of on and off rain which was good weather for moving plants into their winter quarters. It's not a large crowd, mostly young lettuce and spinach seedlings and two full grown parsley. There is still lettuce and spinach in cold frames in the garden, too, and parsley, which I'll harvest from until it gets seriously cold or snowy. By then the young greenhouse plants will have had a chance to grow, though it is slow growing this time of year.
I also found and moved a young Calendula which is sure to provide a bright spot of color this winter. Calendula doesn't seem to mind the cold or lack of sun; it grows and flowers anytime of year. And an Alyssum side shoot which I hope will perk up to add a sweet flower aroma. The back of the bed looks a little sparse but there are four hibernating Stevia plants dug in to be replanted back out in the garden in the spring. I tried this with one plant the last two years and they did well. Though Stevia is a perennial it isn't hardy and will winterkill if left in the garden. Mostly I grow it as an annual, newly seeded each spring, but digging and replanting the mature plant is easier and grew larger.
The last, but not least, transplant into the greenhouse are the daffodil bulbs. I dig up a clump (we have a lot of them growing out and around) and wriggle out some of the healthy rooted bulbs to plant throughout the bed. Many of them will produce flowers mid winter to cheer up the cold white world outside. They are an amazing and tenacious flower! And then there is the very special guest this year. When I was lifting one of the Stevia clumps into its new home in the bed some of the dirt fell off and out fell a small toad! He had likely dug himself down into the dirt for the winter and I'm sure this was quite an unwelcome rude awakening. He is about 1 1/2 inches and a pretty black-white-gray coloring. I quickly moved him under a recently transplanted parsley with the hopes he will dig down and re-establish his winter quarters and get back to sleep. It won't be as cold as out in the garden, but hopefully to his liking.
Addendum: It's 8:00 pm and I just went out in the greenhouse with a flashlight to close the insulated front curtain. Might as well keep some of that daytime heat in. As I walked out I quickly shined the light at the parsley at this end and there perched on a leaf was the little toad, quite wide awake! I quickly turned the flashlight away, out of his eyes. I'm sure I moved in plenty of earthworms and likely other garden insects with the plants but whether there is enough to feed a small toad I don't know. I'll have to do some research. I may have to move him back out to the cold, but natural habitat, garden. Though I certainly wouldn't mind having a companion toad out there, if he might enjoy it.
October 15, 2020 -- "Toad" update
Off and on during the night I thought about the toad - would he get in the mousetrap (livetrap), would he jump off the bed (falling on the very hard stone floor), was there enough for him to eat, should I have put out a dish of water, should I put him back outside ... A litany that did no one any good! In the morning I went right into the shop and shined a light through the window into the greenhouse and there he was, sitting on the wood sill near the parsley, looking east out the window, waiting for the sun to come up? I went out to talk to him about moving back to the garden. When I stepped into the greenhouse he hopped up on the side of the nearby small plastic watering can, having no trouble hanging on. Oh... Steve came out just then with the comment that toads don't do that. Yeah, I know. My only excuse is that I expected a toad and never looked any closer (though you'd think the coloring would have given me a clue!). I've seen a lot of toads in the garden but never a tree frog. It didn't occur to me that one might decide to hibernate there, though it certainly is easy digging. But Tree Frog he certainly is, and a handsome cute one at that. Obviously quite awake I quickly scooped him up as he hopped to the top of the watering can and I worried he might hop into the water. We headed out to the garden and I set him down in the newly planted garlic patch with lots of mulch, freshly dug soft dirt, and no one digging in there until next fall. He calmly hopped off my hand, in no big hurry, and surveyed his newest surroundings. Thankfully there is plenty of time for him to re-hibernate before the really cold weather sets in. I think we'll both sleep better tonight.
October 17, 2019 -- Time to Move Inside
With temps forecast for the low 20's it is time to move some plants into the greenhouse for the winter. It's been empty all summer but I've filled up the garbage can with potting soil, cleaned out most of the spider webs and accumulated dirt (where does it all come from?), organized the under-bench, just general spruced things up for the active season. It's a happy annual clean-up chore.
Sometimes I simply dig some plants out of the garden right into their indoor bed. This year I managed to plan ahead and potted up plants when they were smaller, in addition to transplanting small lettuce and spinach seedlings into flats to go on the front bench. These had all been waiting in a cold frame and cart for the moving day. They're settling in well. Every year it seems I try something a little different for the deep bed along the house side. This year I've planted more small spinach and lettuce seedlings. Right now they're getting good light from the sun but later, during the short and usually cloudy days of winter, the light bar overhead should keep them happy. Growth is not very vigorous during winter so I wanted more plants than those in the flats. I hope these grow well in the bed having more depth for their roots. No matter that the little ones seems a bit lost in the space allotted for them; I think that in a month or so they will fill out and be holding hands with their neighbors. The spinach and lettuce in the flats on the bench do fine, too. They get more sun being right by the windows.
I've put up bamboo (sent to me some years back from my nephew in Texas) stakes for the nasturtiums to climb this year and hopefully keep them from over running the others. They do like to travel but they are a cheery bunch.
We're still eating lettuce and spinach from the garden, safe in cold frames that can be closed up on those cold, windy days and colder nights. But it won't be long when those give in to the frost and freezes and I move my harvests to the plants inside. They keep us in salads all winter. And the flowers - calendula, nasturtium, marigolds, daffodils - lift our spirits during the long winter. It's an annual happening on the homestead, one that marks the passage from beautiful fall to that "late fall early winter" time that says it's definitely time to get those pre-winter chores done. It may be mild well into December, or winter could descend upon us tomorrow. One of those things that makes living up here so interesting.
April 20, 2018 - Happy Nasturtiums
The greenhouse nasturtiums don't care what is happening outside - they are celebrating spring and going all out now to make their, and our, indoor world even more bright and colorful. What great companions they are in the greenhouse (and the outdoor garden, too!
Above Freezing! - April 11, 2018
It was a beautiful sunny day today and we finally made it into the upper 30's! I'm sure it was low 40's in the sun (and out of the wind). It had that smell of spring coming. Even though there are predictions for more snow this week it will land on the ever expanding, warming, bare ground so won't likely last long. All of us were in and out often just to savor the day. Lilli in particular has been thoroughly checking out every new patch of snow-free habitat, and enjoying it just as thoroughly.
In the greenhouse the nasturtiums helped the celebration by opening more bright cheery blooms. This was a little remnant I'd transplanted from the garden last fall. It held on through the short, cloudy days to go all out this spring. I also stuck some seed in the bed and those have been growing enthusiastically, too. So much so I had to put some bamboo poles in to keep them from pulling down and covering up everything else! They appear to love the indoor climate.
Greenhouse Comes Alive! - October 23, 2017
With gale force winds, rain, then frosts and freezes in the 20's, it was time to move plants into the greenhouse. I don't think they minded, and we love to have the greenhouse come alive with an instant garden right outside the shop window. Some full size plants are dug from the garden (kale and parsley) to add to our meals through the winter. I also brought in most of the sweet pepper (Red Belgium) plants since there are still many ripening fruit. Frosts came early and ripening was later this year. They seem to be settling in nicely. Many flats were planted with lettuce and spinach a month or two earlier and have been growing well, waiting in the garden for the move west into a warmer climate for the winter. I'll still be harvesting lettuce and spinach from the garden (protected in cold frames now) until things get covered in snow. But later these flat plants will provide salad greens all winter. A few flowers (marigold, calendula, nasturtium) brighten up the mix, and I'll soon plant a handful of daffodil bulbs for late winter cheer. So we're happily all nestled into our cozy valley and enjoying the change from yellow-gold-red leaves in the trees to a carpet of the same on the ground. We'd still like a few more days of "good" weather for last minute out door chores (always!) but the wood shed is full and the garden almost ready for winter so we can enjoy the weather whatever it does.
GREENHOUSE - Greens & Lights Update - March 13, 2017
So how did the LED lights work out in the greenhouse, and the "regular" LED light for the herb/flower seedlings in the house (see February 5 post)? We didn't know if there would be enough light to be worthwhile to help the plants grow more and greener since these weren't "grow lights", just regular white lights. In the greenhouse they are supplements to the sunlight--turned on for a few hours morning and evenings, and during the day on cloudy days. The seedling light (just one of the regular shop lights) inside was on the plants all day, except on sunny days when the greenhouse was warm (above 50) when I'd put the little seedlings out there for some real sunshine (well, through the window sunshine).
Now, a month later--they all did great. The lettuce and greens in the GH grew faster and were the healthiest and stockiest I've ever had this time of year. We've been enjoying salads every day. And the herb and flower seedlings also did well. I just potted most of them up into their own 3" pots. I normally wouldn't try to start seeds so early because of the lack of light and the cold GH. But these got their own light and in the comfort of the warm house. Next year the GH bed will get a light bar as well and I'll be able to grow more early greens there, probably spinach which will appreciate the deeper soil. All in all, we're all happy with the project!
GREENHOUSE - Lights! - 2-5-2017
The plants in the greenhouse love sunny days. And they are content to rest when it’s dark or cloudy. That works out fine for us if they are mature and don’t need to grow; we just harvest leaves as we want them. But by mid-winter the old plants are all harvested and the young plants are waiting for longer, brighter days to grow. This has been our in-between time of year when often the only green in our salads is chopped parsley. We’ve often talked of adding grow-lights but they have traditionally been power-hogs that wouldn’t fit into our conservative-use winter alternative energy system. Short and cloudy days mean less power for us as well as the plants. Until now...
Our house lighting is entirely LED (except for one lone compact fluorescent
holdout). Steve has been building and adding LED lights to the house since
the early days of LED lighting, when making your own lights was about the
only way to have them, and the choices were few and expensive. Forward a few
years and LED lighting is now not only readily available but popular and
inexpensive! Technology moves fast. Could we now consider adding lights to
the greenhouse? Our PV system is larger, and we truly want fresh, and
abundant, greens in our salads. So before Steve was quite done with the
Array-Cam project, he was checking out, ordering, designing, building lights
for the greenhouse.
GREENHOUSE - Calendula - 1-15-2017
Sub zero temps outside but cheery inside! When it's this cold it also (usually) means clear sunny days and beautiful brisk starry nights. The solar heating panels and south facing windows pour in the heat (in a winter moderate way) so we bank the woodstove and don't have to get it going again until the sun goes down. And the PV system is at its highest with clear sun and reflective snow. The batteries are full and we turn on small heaters to make use of the extra power. And that calendula in the greenhouse breaks out the blooms to celebrate.
Actually, the calendula has been happily blooming in the greenhouse since soon after I transplanted it from the garden in October, a rooted side shoot of a summer growing plant. It's wonderfully tolerant and is content to blossom whether it's winter or summer, inside or out, as long as its basic needs are met--sunshine, moderate moisture, no deep freezes. It thankfully does not have high demands. That's why it's one of my favorite flowers. A hardy annual it can handle some frost; is easy to grow; self sows readily; is a sturdy plant that gets along well with others. And it blooms and blooms and blooms as long as you keep the spent blossoms picked off. Though towards the end of summer you have to leave some to mature seeds so it can provide plants next year.
Mine is a common variety - Pacific Beauty Mix - nice gold/yellow blossoms. I like it. It's been self sowing in my garden for so long I've forgotten when I first planted the seed. But I noticed this year that I didn't have many plants coming up, the downside of having a very good mulch that sometimes mulches out seeds I want to grow. And I found I had neglected to harvest any seed, I was so used to it sowing itself. Now, I expect they'll be some calendula popping up somewhere next year, they don't give up that easily, but just to be sure I bought new seed. I think I'll plant a few inside right now so maybe I'll have some extra early fresh blooms in the spring. The plants I dig up from the garden do sometimes get a bit tired by late winter.
It's a little cold in the greenhouse right now, it was down to 32 degrees this morning after a ten below night, but it gets up in the low 50's during a sunny day. Everything growing out there is hardy so I don't worry about the low temps but I'll start the seed inside the house to give it a warm start. We all enjoy that sunshine when it happens but it's those cloudy days outside that the fresh green plants and bright calendula flowers growing in the greenhouse really brighten our winter days.
GREENHOUSE - Activity - 1-9-2017
Well, maybe not a lot of activity but it warmed up outside today to 20 deg. and we're supposed to have a few days of these warm temperatures (and finally some real snow showers, too!) (we only have about 8-10" right now) so I figured this was my chance to transplant the waiting lettuce seedlings into the recently cleared (by eating) flats. Not much growth is happening yet but I'd like these to be ready when the days get longer and things pick up. And it was a pleasant (relatively speaking) 47 degrees inside. So we now have 8 flats of greenhouse lettuce -- Brown Winter, Salina, Red Tinged, Diamante -- ready to grow when the conditions are right. And since we're getting down to real slim pickings with what is left of the older crop we'll be quite ready, too. It was fun to dig in the dirt again, even if in a small way.
GREENHOUSE - Greens - 12-30-2016
In the winter we move to eating out of the greenhouse instead of the garden. Not only is it great to see growing green things when it is white and freezing outside, it's great to have fresh greens to eat! In the summer the greenhouse is empty of plants and is our heat loving Sasha cat's domain. But come October it comes to life once again. This is how it looked Oct. 20 when first moved in from the garden where they had been growing.
In the short days of fall and early winter there is not much growth so I start lettuce and spinach in the garden, then move the full grown plants inside when the real freezes start outside. Full grown plants of kale and parsley and others are dug and transplanted into the waist high bed along the house side of the greenhouse. This works great. I can harvest from them all winter. There most often is little growth until January when the days start getting significantly longer and there is (usually) more sun. But this year it was oddly warm and sunny in Nov. & Dec. So the lettuce in particular just kept growing. It got to be quite a jungle and there was plenty for luncheon salads. But 70 days later you can see it is getting a bit sparse. So I'm looking forward to the coming flush of January growth. In the far end are two flats of small lettuce seedlings waiting to be transplanted to the larger flats as the older plants are removed. They will be our salads later in the winter.
Copyright © Susan Robishaw
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Have you read "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener" ? A fun short read.
or "Homesteading Adventures" Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.
and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun" A journey you can use in your own garden.