NUTS & BOLTS & DREAMS: A beginner's guide to farming
Greenhouse 101, Summer

No "forcing" summer lettuce this year
Circumstances beyond our control have forced us to go a little easier on ourselves, for a change. Thank heavens.

By Don DeVault

Editor's NOTE:

Drooling for more information on greenhouses of various sorts? Check out last year's articles from the DeVaults on building, maintaining and growing with greenhouses:

Hoophouse dreams -- building a beginning, Part 1

Hoophouse dreams -- building a beginning, Part 2

A to Z Greenhouse Growing Guide, Part 1

A to Z Greenhouse Growing Guide, Part 2

Greenhouse 101: Winter Survival Guide

Or, view a complete listing of all articles in the NUTS, BOLTS & DREAMS series.


August 17, 2004: Spring this year rolled easily, almost unnoticeably into summer on Pheasant Hill Farm. Nature had presented us with what must be understood as something completely unprecedented: Perfection. I say unprecedented because we are, after all, farmers. This is our business. And it is a tough one. We are “both slaves and tyrants to the land.” So there’s always something for us to complain about. And nothing is ever good enough. Except this Spring. Like I said: Perfection. When rain was needed, some hand magically turned the water on. For just long enough. And in between, the heat seemed to wait patiently, fill the earth to the brim at midday, and then fall quietly away.

Perfection. Absolutely devastating perfection. I had moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., had gone back to school. Again. So I was part-time help on my parents’ farm 100 miles to the west. And there were a million things requiring the full attention of my folks going on off the farm this spring. After months of Township Planning Commission Meetings, where lawyers and engineers butted heads with the bureaucrats, my folks (George and Melanie) had succeeded in saving our farm from ruin at the hands of developers next door. (But that’s another story, for another
time.) Needless to say we’d scaled back operations, so, in our approach to the growing season already upon us, we did something I don’t know if we’ve ever done before, and decided just to go with it.

It was two weeks before our first market on June 13. We were all already a little tired. Trying to control circumstances seemingly beyond your control will do that to you. In the middle of untangling a 30- by 100-foot piece of shade cloth to cover one of the greenhouses, I asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” And by way of an answer, I didn’t. All of a sudden this year, it didn’t make much sense to me to try to grow salad mix in a shaded greenhouse over the summer. I’m familiar with the particulars and complications of such an endeavor (believe me, we’ve tried it all ... see The A to Z Greenhouse Growing Guide, Part I and Part II), and they are too numerous to mention. Which is not to say, as has one of our neighbors, that “You can’t grow lettuce in Pennsylvania in the summer.” You can. In the summer, it’s simply more reasonable to grow what naturally grows well in the humid heat of the summer season. Especially in the greenhouse.

BASIL. Basil loves the heat and doesn’t need much water. Inside the hoophouse, we don’t have to fool around with Reemay, under which basil outdoors finds protection from the bugs, but also often bolts, burns, and develops downy rot. We transplanted, rather than direct seeded it, in mid-May. Starting with the proper spacing (which is on about 8-inch
centers) a weekly harvest of the terminal buds has both kept the plants from bolting and forced them into hearty bushes that will produce all the way through the season. We clip our basil in the cool of morning the day of market and bag it for sale. We do not refrigerate it. It’s always been a struggle to get basil to market in good condition, and believe me, we’ve tried everything. This summer, the simple approach has given us the best results we’ve ever had.

N o bugs, no bolt, no burns: Basil does much better in the greenhouse than under Remay out in the open.

CUCUMBERS. The first planting of our favorite variety, Suyo Long, has been yielding about four bushels each week for the past month-and-a-half from roughly 100 square feet of greenhouse space. By either transplanting or direct seeding about six plants around the base of our 5-foot welded wire “tomato cages,” through which we lay two lines of drip tape (cukes need the water), we save space and receive a greater quantity and superior quality yield. It is somewhat difficult picking through the jungle of vegetation clinging to the cages, but growing up off the ground as they are, we’ve seen less insect damage and zero rot in our first planting. The second planting is just coming on, and should take us through August and September.

Suyo Long is a 61-day traditional, long-fruited variety from China, according to the Johnny’s catalog ( “Best cucumber in the world!” my Dad always tells customers at market. “That’s why, most year’s it’s the only cucumber we grow. It’s burpless, almost seedless. No matter how big it gets, what shape or color, it is never bitter. Always juicy, sweet and tasty. We always leave the skin on.”

Dad’s not kidding. We’ve actually had customers walk around the market eating chilled Suyo Longs like popsicles on a hot summer day, and come back for more before they leave.

EGGPLANT. I have, in years past, had great success with growing eggplant in the greenhouse. Another lover of the heat, it produces exceptionally well indoors. However, the plants are somewhat unruly. There’s no easy way to check and contain their growth, so I prefer to leave them outside in black plastic under Reemay. (Just check them periodically after planting, and remove the Reemay when you see blossoms.)

Late blight came early in PA, but these tomatoes survived--they were inside.

TOMATOES. In the last week we’ve had about 14 inches of rain. (So much for Perfection.) I was talking to another farmer at market a few days ago, and he said nearly all his tomatoes had fallen to some sort of blight after the first 10 inches of that rain came in two days. “How are yours doing?” he asked. I felt somewhat guilty when I said, “They’re fine. They’re all inside.” I had, in fact, just cropped-off a row of Early Cascade plants at a healthy height of nearly nine feet. You have to put a bit of time into pruning and training the vines up strings tied to the peak of the greenhouse frame (a technique I picked up from a hydroponic tomato grower in Maine that has translated quite well to my high-tunnels), but if putting in that time saves you from blight, blossom-end rot, and even splitting (which it does), it’s certainly worth it. The pruning also forces larger fruit, making for positively monstrous heirlooms, of which Brandywine is my favorite variety inside.)

CHERRY TOMATOES. Cherries make a god-awful mess, and the pruning and training which works so well for larger tomatoes is generally counter-productive for the these little guys. I did, however, plant, and would highly recommend Juliet for indoor growing. A red, oblong cherry-type, Juliet has a firm texture, good flavor, and keeps well. It appears to resist splitting to the bitter end, and doesn’t drop fruit like many cherries do. With a modified “basket-weave” trellis that incorporates tomato cages and stakes, I’ve been able to keep the plants fairly well contained.

PEPPERS. Blossom-end rot has always been our biggest problem with peppers. I’m told it’s the dramatic inconsistencies in soil moisture, among other things. But inside we have no such problem. The plants have shot up and set a beautiful array of spotless peppers so heavy the plants have to be staked. The plants of a variety we grew from saved seed are labeled simply “Big, Red” now stand about 4.5 feet tall with peppers the size of softballs coloring-up.

Spotless: Consistent soil moisture in the greenhouse prevents blossom end rot on the peppers.

And that’s it. If you can just let it be. It’s that simple, really. Working with, rather than against, the onset of another summer on the farm, we’ve made our lives a little more enjoyable, if not easier. The lettuce, what there is of it, is outside this summer, in a few well-drained beds that lie in shade for a good part of the day. Of course, in another month we’ll have to begin making the transition in the greenhouses from summer into fall and, ultimately, winter.

Meantime, we’ll enjoy the lazy days of summer while we can.