A greenhouse is a lovely place to grow


August 24, 2023

Olivia Rose / Petersburg Pilot

The impressive gardens growing all around Mary Ellen Anderson and Jimmy Swainson's property began with this first bed built onto a south-facing wall enclosing the home's carport.

Inside Mary Ellen Anderson's greenhouse, a sea of green leaves ripples in the breeze of a fan. Pigeons coo nearby, and the radio, almost always on, plays quietly on a shelf. The air is made fragrant by tomato vines laden with fruit, cucumber blossoms, greens and flowers, and even peppers.

"Every night," Mary Ellen says, "we have a good salad."

The greenhouse is situated on a hill overlooking the Wrangell Narrows. Its walls are windows that showcase the handsome timber of the post and beam construction. The translucent corrugated PVS roof collects rain with gutters filling a wooden barrel for watering the plants.

Lush begonia baskets hang at the greenhouse entrance, and a sizeable covered deck extends off the rear. Dahlias, snapdragons, and green beans thrive on the deck. There's room enough for several people to enjoy a coffee and watch the boats and wildlife cruise by. A weathered windchime hangs from the rafters across from an antique wood and cast-iron pulley that once hung at her parents' Washington home.

This year is Mary Ellen's third summer growing in the greenhouse. July 2020 is written in the house's concrete slab floor, signed by the initials of those who helped build it: neighbors Jim and Tina Green, son in law Bryan Perry, Mary Ellen's own initials, and those of her husband Jimmy Swainson.

Jimmy and Mary Ellen married five years ago, and their garden began growing right away. The first summer she lived at Jimmy's, he was building a wall to enclose the carport and the couple realized the opportunity. "We looked at it and said hey, it's facing south! That'd be a great place for a garden."

Tucked along the border of Jimmy's neatly maintained backyard, "this was the first bed we built," says Mary Ellen. The garage roof collects the rainwater in a barrel; the awning extends out enough for the garden bed to be enclosed by large, clever, wood-framed screens that slide open and closed on a track. The deer can only look longingly through the screen at the peas, onions, greens, and carrots, growing happily in the south-facing wall.

The next year came potatoes, planted in a patch of muskeg beyond the yard. Some of the potatoes are growing in repurposed blue plastic water barrels, drilled and elevated to allow good drainage. The barrels were among those given away by Farragut Farm a few years ago.

More potatoes grow inside columns of wire mesh. The potatoes are nourished and hilled a few times during the growing season by pop weed collected from beaches. For the health of the crops, Mary Ellen strives to annually rotate her backyard potatoes, garlic, onions, and celery.

The celery grows impressively well. "Last year I grew so much, it was a joke," she says. "It was like 'Anybody want celery?'"

Mary Ellen keeps her plants nourished with an ongoing homemade compost - which is also an ongoing learning process. "I use compost starter, I cheat," she says with a laugh. "Compost starter and a [long metal] thermometer ... and shredded paper and shredded leaves for brown." Because if the ratio of kitchen scraps is too high "it gets mucky and doesn't decompose well ... It's supposed to heat up to 130. You want it to be hot to kill all the bad things like spider mites ... I can never get it that hot ... I have yet to perfect it."

She adds minerals to the soil with seashells "brought in from a secret beach," and shreds the plant material like rhubarb and garlic leaves by hand with garden shears.

"You don't need to go to the gym if you're a gardener," she says.

When it is time to fertilize, she goes to the bin with last year's compost and filters it through a screen that she brought up from Washington - one her father used in his own gardens. The filtering helps keep the new soil free of undecomposed materials and some volunteer seedlings. "This year it was tomatoes and tomatillos." After a salsa recipe gone wrong, a whole bunch of tomatillo seeds made it into the compost. And now that compost has seeded tomatillos into numerous flowerpots around the garden. The gardener's learning opportunities are infinite.

The greenhouse itself has been a remarkable, ongoing research project. Jimmy built Mary Ellen the greenhouse, based on a photo she showed him, and the thoughtful features throughout the structure reflect all the planning they put into it.

Temperature control and ventilation are crucial to the greenhouse environment. The greenhouse has built-in, automatic roof vents with "a sensor in them that once it hits about 70 degrees, they begin to open." A passive screen and a powered vent are "hooked up to a thermometer that automatically kicks it on once it hits 80 degrees." The room was intentionally constructed to not be airtight to avoid greenhouse moisture issues like gray mold, funguses, etc.

Protecting her beloved plants from pests requires nonstop attention. Mary Ellen loves tomatoes and aims to, one day, grow enough to freeze and store away tomatoes for the whole winter. They are not quite there yet. A few years ago, she was growing beans in the greenhouse and the temperatures got too warm and spider mites invaded and destroyed her entire greenhouse crop. After that, she has become far more proactive about nipping pest problems in the bud. "Every single day I come out and I watch like a hawk. And I can tell when a leaf has started to be infected ... once they start I just cut them off and toss them." Also, after noticing how spider mites would flock to Marigolds, she planted Marigolds next to the tomatoes as a decoy. "It's much better this year because I'm right on top of it and I know what I'm looking for."

Mercifully the greenhouse has no problem with slugs, but moths have an easier time getting in and bumping around, laying eggs. She spends a lot of time looking at the undersides of leaves, inspecting them for moth eggs which hatch and grow into cabbage worms. She even found a cocoon on the back of one of her plants. Those moths really try to make themselves at home in the greenhouse. "Usually you find their poop first. Little brown nodules on the plants," she explains. Reemay fabric is a must to protect beds with young plants, especially those plants most attractive to these moths, the brassicas: kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, etc.

Pruning is another continual task. She learned the hard way this year by leaving town for around ten days, "so my cucumbers exploded, and I didn't prune them properly ... so [the leaves and shoots] are a lot bigger than they normally should be ... now they're putting so much energy into these side growths," and the energy of the plant is not being concentrated on the actual fruits. "I've been told if you prune down the side suckers, then you'll get more cucumbers."

"And the other thing about cucumber," she says, "you kind of have to hand pollinate. So I go around with a little paintbrush and just tickle them."

At the height of summer, the opportunities to stay busy in the garden are unlimited. "Between here, and everywhere in the yard, [I spend] pretty much all day, every day," she says. "I love it though. You know, it's what I do. I should cut back and in the future I will, but right now I'm having the time of my life."

Summer is for pruning, pollinating, and managing for pests, and for salads with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, but, before that comes spring and seedlings.

"I start everything from seed," says Mary Ellen. She buys tomato seeds from Denali Seed Company, and buys a lot from Territorial Seed, both of which are "geared toward northern climates." She has also used Peaceful Valley Farms for garlic and seed potatoes.

"I start in about March with seedlings. I set up racks and racks in here, a table in the middle for me to work at." She starts her process with heat pads on the racks to get soil temperatures at the right level. "Some of them like it warmer, some cooler..."

"You have to research each plant individually ... every plant is different," she says. Her racks and lights are adjustable. "And I put bright lights right near them. However, some seeds need darkness to grow." She says she covers those plants.

"Then I put the lights real close, and, as they grow, I move the lights up. Oh, and a fan! You have to have fans running on them to strengthen the stems ... that one I learned," she says, "If you have leggy plants under bright lights, it's because they're not getting strong enough or the lights are too far away."

"Too much heat, too little light or too distant of light, and not a fan ... those are the things you have to control. And that's constant monitoring and watering because they're tiny little plants..." and they can dry out fast if a gardener is not careful.

Jimmy even built heating cables into one of the beds in the greenhouse for seedlings that need more warmth earlier. "I'll start greens in March and just plug in the seedlings and put a cover over it and some bright lights," she says. "And we'll have greens by the end of March."

As a career librarian, Mary Ellen has always been an enthusiastic researcher. She recommends the Alaska Cooperative Extension Service - a free-of-charge education resource provided by the University of Alaska and the Department of Agriculture - as the primary resource for her gardening research.

Really though, her green thumb has been growing since she was young.

"My grandmother and grandfather [on her father's side in Seattle] had ... fruit trees and a big lawn and a huge garden and they had homesteaded this land," she said. "They knew the Latin names of all the plants they had and they had the plants [at] all stage[s], you know, every flowering. I wish I could go back there now, knowing what I know and talk to them about it because I was a kid. And I had no idea. [But] I remember it vividly," she recalled.

Mary Ellen's mother and father had grown a beautiful garden as well, she says.

Olivia Rose / Petersburg Pilot

Anderson shows the wire cages situated to grow potatoes in the muskeg patch behind her home.

Not long ago, Mary Ellen was caring for her mother in Washington near the end of her life. The garden had "fallen into overgrowth and weeds" because her father "had been the main caretaker in the garden, and he had died 10 years before," so Mary Ellen made it her mission to "reclaim the garden."

She spends a lot of time listening to books on tape while gardening. One of her favorites is "Braiding Sweetgrass" by Robin Wall Kimmerer. "When I listened to that book that summer refurbishing my dad's garden, it was so powerful. It's just brought me so close to him," she says as the windchimes on the greenhouse deck ring quietly in the breeze. "I was having conversations with him, you know, there in that garden ... remembering things he told me ... and I can just picture him right next to me."


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