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Thinking outside the (greenhouse) box. October 30, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood love the greenhouse our genius woodworking friend, Ken Burton, custom-designed and built for us when we bought our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. It’s big and bright, with a long in-ground raised bed on the low side and a long greenhouse bench on the high wall.

Ken’s goal was to make the greenhouse as solar-friendly as possible in our cold-winter climate. Glass covers the south-facing sloping wall, along with a glass window and glass door on the east and west sides. The north wall is white-painted wood to reflect the light pouring in from the south and to highlight the plants.

Under the bench, black-painted barrels hold water and act as solar collectors. And behind the north wall, a hayloft adds extra insulation in the form of straw bales for our chickenyard, while we stack wood for our woodstove beneath the loft, which also serves as added insulation..

But we think Ken’s most brilliant innovation was to use the sliding glass doors normally used for deck or patio doors as the long windows on the south-facing, sloping side. They’re double-paned for insulation and let in a ton of light. Over and below them, Ken added rows of screened pull-down windows so we could open them for fresh air and circulation (we also open the screened end-wall window and glass door).

The other day, as Silence and I were furiously hauling our bazillion plants back from the deck to the greenhouse for the winter (it’s already been in the 20s here at night, a real aberration, as we can usually leave the plants out well into November), our friend Ben was struck by an idea. Not a MacArthur “genius award”-worthy idea, no doubt, but still.

Our sliding glass doors that lead to our deck are designed so that one slides over the other, and if you wish, you can pull a full-length screen over the open door to let in fresh air. So why couldn’t you design a greenhouse wall of sliding glass doors that do that, too? One door would be fixed in place, and the other would move over it, and you could pull the screens to let in tons of fresh air to circulate, make sure the greenhouse didn’t overheat in summer, and combat fungal diseases and the like, without letting in bugs.

Three sets of doors would be plenty for most home gardeners, and what a gain in greenhouse circulation! Our greenhouse is still going strong, but if we ever need an update, we’ll see what Ken thinks about this idea. Meanwhile, what do you think about it?

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The frost is on the pumpkin… October 19, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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And our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are on our usual “OMG, we have to get all the plants into the greenhouse and plant the bulbs and harvest the potatoes and hot peppers and” marathon, somewhat hampered by the fact that Silence returned from our West Virginia idyll as a snivelling wretch, having picked up a cold of truly epic proportions somewhere in the course of our travels. Nonetheless, despite keeping our friend Ben awake night after night with long stretches of lung-wrenching coughing, sneezing, and snivelling, Silence has bravely soldiered on in our desperate attempts to get everything battened down before the growing season crashes to its end. (And yes, she has tried to keep away from other people, even passing up a long-looked-for treat, this weekend’s Berks County Quilt Show.)

To think, non-gardeners consider the prospect of frost on the pumpkins as a peaceful time. Light a fire, heat some fresh-pressed apple cider and spike it with dark rum (Gosling is our hands-down favorite), and kick back with a good book, your knitting, or a favorite (or new) movie. For our friend Ben and Silence, the first heavy frost warning is more like the siren has gone off signalling a national disaster.

We knew the jig was up when our good friend Delilah sent a warning e-mail that hard frost was expected here this weekend. We checked weather.com and verified that temps in the 20s were predicted, beginning tonight and continuing through the week. No more procrastination: Silence popped a couple of decongestant pills, we metaphorically girded our loins, and leapt into the lengthy ordeal of battening our hatches.

Heading first for our CSA, we smiled politely as our friend Heidi enthusiastically described how she had carefully sprayed all her plants with insecticidal soap and water the week before, so she could bring them inside without any greeblies coming along for the ride. This is in fact exactly what you’re supposed to do. Maybe some year we’ll even do it. Typically, however, we have the mad last-minute scramble to load up all the plants that have spent a peaceful summer (assuming our wicked little kitten, Marley, hasn’t decided to nest in them) on our deck or front stoop, haul them to the greenhouse, and get them safely stashed inside before subfreezing temps turn them to instant compost.

Fortunately, we’ve never had a problem bringing pests and diseases in from outside, quite the reverse: Whiteflies, aphids, and scale (the Big Three of greenhouse gardening) tend to take up residence on our greenhouse tomatoes, sweet peppers, basil, water plants, and/or orchids during the summer, and must be evicted (along, sadly, with said tomato, pepper, and basil plants, orchid spikes, and affected leaves) several weeks before welcoming the outdoor plants to their winter home. Thanks to Silence’s foresight, the in-ground greenhouse bed was cleared (except for our huge lemon grass plant, our ‘Violetta’ artichokes, and our Aloe vera/barbadensis colony, which are permanent residents) and ready for its seasonal guests.

So here was yesterday: Silence makes her famous Ginger Snap Soup for lunch in the hope that its warming spices will clear her air passages enough to promote life for another day. (And yes, it is yummy; search our site for it in the search box at upper right and give it a try when it gets good and cold where you live.) Then she insists that we head out to James Weaver’s Meadow View Farm, “where they have the best pumpkins in the whole area,” according to Silence, so we can complete our Harvest Home display. You all may recall Jim Weaver from my earlier posts about the Bowers Chile Pepper Festival and about going out to Meadow View to get heirloom tomato and hot pepper transplants this past spring. He’s the regional expert on all things heirloom and, especially, hot pepper, and is responsible for introducing the legendary ‘Bhut Jalokia’ hot pepper (the world’s hottest) to the area. Needless to say, Mr. Weaver is one of our heat-loving friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders’s heroes.

Mind you, we harvested quite a collection of hot peppers from our CSA’s U-Pick garden the day before, since (forewarned by Delilah) we figured the plants weren’t long for this world. And we were, after all, heading out to Meadow View to pick pumpkins, not peppers. So imagine my surprise when Silence first grabbed boxes of red and green jalapenos (“Richard and Bridget are coming for supper, so we need to make jalapeno poppers!”), then a bouquet of stems festooned with beautiful orange chile peppers (“Think how gorgeous they’ll look when they dry”), and finally jars of Alma Weaver’s incredible blackberry/’Black Czech’ and apricot/’Lemon Drop’ jams (“We’ve run out, and you know nothing’s better for brunch”), as well as a jar of pickled hot yellow wax beans and, since she was obviously on a roll, another of pickled green beans (“They are so good!”).

I couldn’t exactly complain, though, since Silence’s strategy of stretching out our harvest decorating this year to prolong the pleasure had an unexpected benefit: All of Meadow View’s pumpkins, gourds, and winter squash were on sale for half price. We reluctantly passed up the most incredible green/black pumpkin we’ve ever seen (too big for our space), but managed to acquire a bright red, a classic orange, and a glowing creamy yellow pumpkin, a gorgeous ribbed white ‘Acorn’-like winter squash and similarly sized round orange-and-green squash, two flattened orange mini-pumpkins to replace the ivies in our shepherd’s crooks at the front door (the ivies go to the greenhouse), and two simply amazing mitre-like gourds with varying patterns of orange, dark green, yellow, and white.

On the way back, Silence insisted that we stop at Weaver’s Hardware (Weaver is a common Amish and Mennonite name locally), where she wanted to buy a wrought-iron hook to replace the one that disappeared during the vandals’ assault on our bird feeder (see the post “Newsflash: Vandals strike, off hook for now” for a humorous take on that incident) and some suet blocks to set in our suet cage feeder now that it’s finally cold. Inspired by Frances of Faire Garden (http://fairegarden.wordpress.com/), who had some very useful suggestions after reading our post “Be prepared, part two,” Silence also bought a washboard, wooden clothespins, and a clothespin bag.

Then, of course, she just had to look at the bags of fall bulbs. “You know, Ben, I’d love to have some more crocuses,” she said, ominously eyeing a bag of 50 mixed corms. “They’re so cheerful. You know how much we love the ones we already have, and we’re going to have to plant the tulip and daffodil bulbs, anyway.” (This was undeniable.) “Might as well put in more crocuses while we’re at it, don’t you think?” Uh, right. What’s 50 more bulbs between friends?! Our friend Ben has learned when a battle’s not worth fighting, however, through long and painful experience. At least she passed up the bags of daffodils (“Look! Isn’t that gorgeous! Oh—‘Mount Hood’!”).

Now we were racing against time, for several reasons. Richard Saunders, a Penn State football fanatic, and his girlfriend, Bridget, were coming over to listen to the game and then have supper. Silence was planning to make her delicious Red, White and Gold Pasta Sauce, broccoli from the CSA, and a salad featuring the CSA’s late-season bounty in the form of arugula, mixed greens, salad turnips, and bell peppers, enlivened by green onions (scallions), fresh watercress from the farmers’ market, cilantro just-picked from the CSA, and our very own hard-boiled chicken eggs, along with some sunflower seeds, shredded Parmesan, and Silence’s signature vinaigrette. (Search “Red, White and Gold Pasta Sauce” on the site; I know Silence has posted this rich, easy recipe.)

And we still had all the plants to haul into the greenhouse, not to mention a few more winterizing details to deal with (like putting the outdoor cover on our lone air conditioner and weatherstripping one of the lower greenhouse windows, which has become a bit cranky about completely closing over the years, as well as taking the great pole and closing all the upper windows, a hazardous procedure to say the least). Amazingly, Silence took our new bounty and, using our previous weeks’ stockpile as a base, transformed the front stoop and the shepherd’s hooks that frame it into a perfect pumpkin tableau in the blink of an eye. (Now, if the cats can just refrain from bowling everything over.)

Meanwhile, I brought out our beloved and battered but unbowed Rubber Maid garden cart and began the arduous process of loading and hauling the deck plants back to the greenhouse. Once she’d finished her Harvest Home tableau, Silence headed for the greenhouse, where she quickly placed the plants on the in-ground bed, in hanging baskets, and on the raised bench between the many plants that spend the entire year indoors.

Silence is nothing if not decisive. Before I could say “Jack Frost,” she’d finished hauling in the plants and was headed back to the kitchen to make jalapeno poppers. (See her earlier post “Homemade jalapeno poppers,” and you may soon be making your own.) By the time Richard and Bridget arrived, we had a fire roaring in the firepit, the pepper lights on the deck provided a joyful sparkle, and there were platters of jalapeno poppers hot from the oven, with our choice of Manhattans, bourbon and Coke, or chilled wine to keep us cozy on the deck while we listened to the game (Penn State annihilated its old nemesis, the University of Michigan, 46-17) and Silence cranked up the music in the kitchen and made one of her legendary dinners. Needless to say, a good time was had by all.

Now, however, a new day has dawned, with the prospect of a 29-degree low tonight. It’s time to get all those bulbs (including the @#!%&$*!!! 50 new crocus bulbs) in the ground, dig up the potatoes, harvest the hot peppers from plants we’re prepared to sacrifice to our compost pile and attempt to transition the ones we’re not pepared to relinquish to pots in the greenhouse, transfer our outdoor goldfish and prized papyrus and other water plants to greenhouse accomodations, and water the bazillion plants in the greenhouse and indoors, one miserable milk jug at a time. Thank God for the faithful Rubber Maid garden cart, waiting ever so patiently to transfer the filled jugs to the greenhouse, the empty jugs back to the kitchen sink, and the refilled jugs back again.

Then there are a few other tasks awaiting us: Covering the Pullet Palace with a tarp to keep rain and snow off our chickens, since the bizarre spring hailstorm shattered the translucent plastic roof that had given them cover and light these many years. Getting more straw bales to keep the chickens warm and cozy. Hauling our lawn art, urns, gazing balls and the like under cover in the garden shed. Not to mention making sure we appreciate the glorious end-of-fall spectacles, such as the bold and beautiful bluejays, cardinals, and woodpeckers, and our redbud’s incredible clear yellow leaves blazing over our little backyard stream, Hawk Run, or our incredible ‘Aconitifolia’ Japanese maple in the front yard, with its unsurpassed display of red-orange-purple fall foliage. Thank goodness we got back from West Virginia in time to see them!