Andrew at work —
The fields and shop are always abuzz with activity, but for six months of the year (January to June), our greenhouses can be included in that mix. On Friday, I got the official tour of the greenhouse from Andrew (Brait) to share with you all this week.
Andrew, Chica, and Ana head up our greenhouse team. This team, along with other helpers, is responsible for seeding, watering, and tending to tens of thousands of plant starts each year to be transplanted into the fields when they’re big enough. This time of year, our greenhouses are full of flowers, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and early melons and basil. Our greenhouses allow us to get a head start on the season; we can start a tomato or pepper plant in the warm, protected confines of the greenhouse long before we could set it outside. And when our transplants do make it out to the field, they have a head start on the weeds too! We direct seed (meaning putting seeds straight in the ground) the vast majority of our crops, and we don’t grow all of our own transplants (more on that later) but these greenhouses are key to some of our important crops.
Recently germinated brassicas
Greenhouses are complex and simple at the same time. The goal is simple – to transform seeds to transplants that can go in the field in as expedient a manner as possible. The general process isn’t too complex, in theory. Seeds are put in trays of potting mix (ours is a soil-less mix of peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, and some fertilizers), kept at the right temperature, watered regularly, monitored, and occasionally given supplemental nutrients. We have three greenhouse areas, each equipped with different combinations of methods of temperature control: heated tables, fans, heating elements, vents, and plastic sheeting. But in reality, growing plants in a greenhouse isn’t quite so simple. Too much or too little water, light, and heat are not good and pests and plant diseases that are introduced to a greenhouse setting can be catastrophic. We have to open and close vents on the greenhouses throughout the day, water at least once, if not multiple times, each day to make sure they don’t bake. While a greenhouse allows us more control over the growing environment than out in the field, we still are subject to the weather outside and need to pay attention to the same factors.
It takes a lot of work and space to grow and transplant plants. We lean on external help for growing out our flower and vegetable transplants, as do almost all of our peers growing organic mixed vegetables. We grow a lot of our own transplants for spring and summer crops, but we send our seeds away to Headstart, one company in the robust California nursery industry, for our fall and winter crops and some of our warm weather crops too. We don’t have the capacity (space, climate, or time) to do all of our own, and they are really good at it. To grow our own fall crops, we would have to tend to the greenhouses and closely monitor them during peak summer when we’re at our busiest and the temperature is in the mid-100s every day. All it takes is being an hour or two late to water, and you can kill off an entire planting. So we wrap up our greenhouse work by early June and hand the reins over to Headstart Nursery until January when things have slowed down and cooled down. We tell them varieties, quantities, and delivery dates for the plants we’ll need, and almost like magic, they show up.
As you have gathered, greenhouses and growing transplants are a lot of work, and can be a huge source of stress and heartbreak. The fate of thousands of plants all in one building. But they’re also rewarding, educational, and magical places. I’ve always loved seeing how different plants look when they first germinate and seeing how much they can grow in just a few days. You can zero in on individual plants in a way that isn’t possible in the field. You can focus on the individual, not just the population. In a six-square foot area, you have 4,000 plants that will later be spread over half an acre (about 22,200 square feet) and you can see them all at once. You can observe plant behavior and differences in plants, and maybe even figure out why and address the problem. They provide a great classroom and lab for the new and experienced farmer alike and make all of us excited about the future harvests ahead.
Greenhouses are also for trees: These cuttings are from the experimental orchards at Wolfskill where tree fruit varieties from all over the country are bred and grown.