… or A Greenhouse Experiment
Greenhouses are a unique and clever growing environment. In some places and depending on the plants you select, they can extend the growing season to last all year. This, of course, has very interesting ramifications on the foods you can bring to your table throughout the year or the produce you can offer your community if you operate a farm stand. Thus, by extending the growing season, the greenhouse can reduce expenses and increase income all year. That is an attractive proposal, is it not?
The greenhouse is quite versatile also. Some start seedlings within this enclosure, others yet turn to this structure when lack of space or lack of access to yard space does not permit them to otherwise grow their own produce, or perhaps to overcome the elements in colder climates and provide a suitable place for nature to take root. The greenhouse can even bring gardening right into the home. Indeed a small portable seed-house, properly located where it can receive sufficient daylight, will provide the right environment to grow quite an array of produce. With the proper conditions, very little equipment is required, not even grow lights, making the greenhouse a very attractive choice for the beginner gardener or the person who embraces a sustainable lifestyle.
Once it is in place, all that is required is to understand and apply basic watering and ventilation principles, which vary depending on the location and the complexity of your enclosed environment. Ensuring proper air flow and temperature are of the essence, of course. People who have not yet had the pleasure to experience gardening with a greenhouse, seed-house, cold frames or any variation thereof, often wonder why they see greenhouses or cold frames with open covers on neighbors’ properties. Shouldn’t these be kept closed, they reason, so it is like a tropical climate in there? This is perhaps the greatest misconception about greenhouses.
These days, children probably grasp the concept of greenhouse gardening sometime in grade school. More and more schools include some form of gardening as an activity that complements the day-to-day curriculum. In fact, today’s children learn things that even their parents know nothing about. It is as though the child should be the one helping the parent with homework and not the other way around. Our children are very knowledgeable and have much insight into the world than you and I who happen to be above forty years of age today. Thankfully, we can have a sense of humor about this.
While a greenhouse may be an oasis for the eyes and senses, by no means is it meant to be an oasis literally. Treating it as such will soon turn dreams of a lush harvest into nothing more than a mirage, and a quickly fading one at that. We learn through trial and error and while today’s greenhouse arrives at our door ready-to-use with easy-to-understand instructions, someone, somewhere, had to learn what works and what does not; and sometimes such lessons take form in shocking ways. Let me illustrate with a rather impromptu experiment.
Picture this: Mid 1970′s. A suburban town. Two best friends, about 1o-year olds. They love frogs, so they capture two of the beautiful and mysterious amphibians to observe them for a day or so. The two girls painstakingly design a micro-environment for their hopping friends in a small terrarium, complete with real plants and a little pond in the middle. Even a frog should appreciate the attention to detail. The terrarium is in the shape of a globe, with a small, round opening at the top, large enough to easily maneuver the landscaping pieces, but not large enough for the frogs to leap out. So far, so good.
Day two (or three). Radiant sunshine. Concerned with the well-being of their guests, the girls place the terrarium in the shade on the back porch and go on to play for several hours. Late afternoon. They retire to their respective homes. One of them (yours truly) peeks out her bedroom window toward her friend’s back porch and notices that while the terrarium remains in a shaded spot, it is completely fogged up. She calls her friend to ask her to check on the frogs. The friend in question promptly emerges from her home, takes a look inside the “frog oasis,” and immediately calls back. “Get here now!” are the only words out of her mouth.
The frogs looked as though they had come to a stop after moving in slow motion, forearms extended, perhaps reaching for the sky, but unable to fly… or breath. The plants had completely wilted. The air inside the small globe was quite noticeably hotter than the ambient air. We laughed; the nervous laugh of shock and dismay and guilt and sadness.
Lesson number one, on a greater scale: A greenhouse is not a fully self-sustainable environment. It requires care and attention. Of course, this is another one of its many charms. Nothing compares to an afternoon in the greenhouse, or sitting by the seed-house, pruning, examining the plants and noticing how well they are doing or doctoring them if necessary. We are there at the right time, to open the vent or the door as we would open a window to allow fresh air in the room of a sleeping child. Later, the produce on our table is evidence of all the kindness, the time and the silent care we have practiced.
A greenhouse is a controlled environment and this is amongst its greatest charms as well. Whatever shape it takes, it protects seeds and crops from extreme weather and many undesirable, free-loading, 6-legged, crawling, digging, flying and furry visitors. Who can blame them? But, clearly, using a structure to protect the harvest is an attractive and kind solution. In short, a greenhouse protects from wind, storms, heavy rain, cold snaps and ensures an optimal growing environment.
Take tomatoes, for example. They do not like cold. They are also rather attractive to many other creatures large and small besides humans. A greenhouses is an environment that preserves the radiant heat tomatoes need to thrive. It is that simple. Thus, like Emperor Tiberius in 30 AD with his mica-covered cucumber crops, thanks to the greenhouse it is not merely a succulent feast that we harvest, but also the very conditions that create it.