by Leigh Mills
Growing anything in the San Luis Valley takes effort. Our seasons are short and unpredictable. Drought, wind, and summer hail add extra challenges. One way to balance the odds is to have some sort of covered growing structure. Here at the Heyoka Homestead, we have a small attached greenhouse on the south side of our house. It is almost 7 years old, still going strong and I love it.
It’s a very simple design made with locally purchased, rough-cut wood and thin, clear, polycarbonate sheeting. The greenhouse’s north side is attached to our house and is also the storage area for the extra pots, tools, and other assorted garden extras. It’s shady in the summer and sunny in the winter and my favorite place to hang out, contemplate, and smell the dirt. A good book to read for greenhouse design and use is Shane Smith’s Greenhouse Gardeners Companion.
We have 3ft high raised growing beds that provide lots of drainage for whatever I want to plant. The sides of the beds have a wide ledge where I can sit, stand, or place trays of seed starts. Even though our greenhouse is unheated, we can grow greens all winter long using row covers and straw mulch. I’m a big fan of Elliot Coleman’s 4-Season Harvest and his newer book, Winter Harvest Handbook. Last fall, I let the greenhouse go fallow for the cold season. I prepped the beds with organic fertilizer and let them sit. I also left the door, vents and windows open to “freeze it out”, a good practice that will kill bugs in the soil. A downside to having a warm year-round growing structure is the heightened opportunity for bugs and disease to take hold. If you have a greenhouse with a fragile perennial, then you’d be less inclined to let it freeze.
This year, I started lettuce, spinach, and cilantro seeds towards the middle of January and transplanted them around February 20. We’re getting ready to eat our first salad soon! These greens will also bolt and seed out later in the season to give me lots of seeds for fall planting and use next year. The tomato seeds I home-saved and planted in early February are sprouting well and I will be transplanting into bigger pots by the middle of March. June tomatoes taste the best!
I tend to grow certain types of plants in the greenhouse and need to rotate my planting schedule so the soil stays healthy. This year, I’ll plant lettuce for leaf and seed one side and save other side for vine tomatoes. Next year, I’ll probably not plant tomatoes in the greenhouse and give the soil a rest. Ideally, you aren’t supposed to keep tomatoes in the same spot year after year because the soil could become contaminated with disease or bugs. What I’ve read recommends that you wait at least two-three years before planting tomatoes in a spot where they previously grew.
Having a greenhouse is the only way to get a good start on our season and to ensure ripe tomatoes and other long-season veggies by fall. If you don’t have one yet, now is the time to research and start building!