The Crestone Eagle • May, 2021

Garden Guru: Starting Plants Early, a low cost solution

by Matie Belle Lakish

As I sit by my fire, with a light snow falling outside on this mid-April day, I am contemplating the ups and downs of mountain weather. Our mostly-reliable 90-day frost-free growing season means that we can expect salad greens, kale, chard, carrots, beets, potatoes, and a few other early cold-hardy garden crops to be consistent bearers if planted from seed directly in the garden. But most of us like more variety, and some of us, myself included, are attached to exotic plants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. For these, we need to start plants early. Even the more long-season brassicas like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower need a head start.

Kizzen Laki and Janet Woodman have been working with gardens in Crestone longer than most of us, and have developed some successful, low-cost ways to get ahead of the weather. As a result, gardeners can usually find Janet downtown in the late spring with a pickup load of beautiful plants ready to put in the ground. How do they do it?

It starts in mid-February when Kizzen plants the first round of seeds, which sprout in the warmth of their house. From there they’re moved into a modest home-made greenhouse which Kizzen’s son, Talmath, built for his mom about 20 years ago. He had been doing some home building with straw bales, and decided to use the principles on a basic greenhouse. 

The walls are half straw bale, half wooden pallets, stuccoed on the exterior and insulated and plastered on the interior. Janet says: “I wouldn’t recommend straw bales  for a greenhouse because of the humidity generated, but this funky old greenhouse has stood by us, season after season, for years.”

For a roof, the north half of the structure has metal, with insulation on the inside. It slopes to the north to shed snow. The front half of the roof slopes toward the south. Below it are large windows made of old sliding glass doors that also slope to the south. The sloping southern roof, although framed with wood to provide structure, is also made of old sliding glass patio doors. This sloped window and roof design allows sunlight to access all parts of the front half of the structure, while still shedding snow and rain. All non-glass areas are stuffed with insulation to hold as much heat in as possible.

This creates a structure that allows maximum sunshine and stays above freezing for about nine months out of the year. Since Kizzen and Janet rely on solar, up until last year, they applied no interior heat. Last year Kizzen bought a small propane heater which she uses in emergencies.

Inside, the space is divided into three work areas. Shelves for storage fill the northwest corner, and a workspace and storage also line the north wall. Inside the door on the northeast corner is a freeze-resistant water hydrant. This allows easy access when working with plants. A center counter runs east to west, supported by two 55-gallon barrels filled with water to hold heat during the night. A third work counter is under the front windows, and runs the entire width of the building. Under this is storage for a vast array of empty pots and adapted recyclables. Yogurt containers, drilled through the bottoms, are a favorite. A large tub of sifted garden soil and compost mix is handy for potting plants. Numerous gallon jugs full of black-tinted water sit in the south window, absorbing warmth during the day and releasing it at night.

During the early spring, as now, Janet, Kizzen, and other gardeners who share the garden space and work, will be using the greenhouse to transplant hundreds of young seedlings. For the next couple of months, all these inside surfaces will be filled with small plants, growing happily, and waiting their turn to be transplanted.

During the summer, the tomatoes have full reign, along with a few other heat-loving plants. By growing these plants in pots in the greenhouse, they can have tomatoes, basil and peppers through November, and by saving some green ones, into December. 

The space has a dirt floor, covered with gravel. The gravel helps hold heat and drain water, and is less intimidating to keep clean than a concrete or wood floor would be. If you spill water or dirt, it just adds to the atmosphere. All plants are raised in pots, making large beds of dirt unnecessary. During the winter, they open the doors to allow cold air to kill insects like whiteflies and aphids, which often like to overwinter in greenhouses. 

Kizzen says that the material cost to build this greenhouse was about $500. Even at today’s prices, if you used recycled materials and windows, the cost would probably be less than $1000. 

On the south side of the greenhouse, on the outside, Janet has constructed a cold frame inspired by former Crrestone resident Kelly Hart. It runs almost the entire width of the greenhouse, is about three feet deep and three feet tall against the greenhouse wall. A cover that slopes back-to-front has hinges against the greenhouse wall, and can be lifted on warm days. It is framed primarily with 1x2s and covered with polycarbonate, which is stiffer, more weather-resistant and more insulating than plastic. The stucco outside wall of the greenhouse holds heat, and there are very few significant cracks in the cold frame, making it a good place to protect plants that need extra warmth. It can be used for hardening off plants before moving them outdoors, and for permanent plantings of such things as peppers, eggplants, and basil that like extra heat even in summer.

Last year, Kizzen created a small hoop house using an arched fence panel to support plastic sheeting. Its purpose is to provide extra cover and frost protection for young plants as they transition to other gardens. As a first-year project, it has some bugs to be worked out. More to come on this one.