Posted April 20, 2004: It was a pilgrimage of sorts,
a quest for truth and knowledge—what the dictionary calls “facts
or ideas acquired by study, investigation, observation, or experience”—rather
than a scholarly recitation of mere book learning.
Some 35 eager students, each paying up to $175, traveled in March
to rural Pennsylvania—from as far away as California, Colorado
and Quebec—to learn the finer points of passive solar greenhouse
design, construction and operation from Steve Moore. They affectionately
refer to the 53-year-old Moore as the “Gandhi of Greenhouses”
because he has successfully demystified the often bewildering high-tech
world of greenhouses, reducing growing under cover to its biological
basics while completely eliminating both chemical inputs and fossil
Moore’s two-day workshop did not disappoint them.
Question: “Can I make a
living at this? How much money can I make?”
Answer: “It is more than
possible to earn a livelihood,” says Moore, who has been
farming on his own for 30 years, the last 15 with unheated, passive
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish. It is a good
income,” says Moore, citing the $50,000 a year being grossed
by Pete Johnson, a young farmer in northern Vermont. (That was
a few years ago. Johnson continues to do better each year. After
farming part of his parents’ place, he is now buying a farm
of his own and putting several acres under cover. Look for details
on Johnson’s farm on NewFarm.org later this year.) ”But
if you’re interested in making a lot of money—quick,”
Moore cautions, “go into insurance or something.”
Question: “How many customers
does it take to be economically viable?”
Answer: “Start with five,
10 or 15 customers,” Moore advises those interested in selling
shares of their harvest through a Community Supported Agriculture
program. “Go slow.”
First, he advises, collect all of the tools you will need, perfect
your growing systems and structures, build your soil, and hone
your marketing skills.
“Plan ahead. Set goals. Try to be practical and realistic.
Grow what you grow best for your markets. Marketing is everything.
When you hit 50 customers, quit your job. And set 100 customers
as your goal for next year. One greenhouse, well managed, can
feed 100 shares from early March through Christmas.”
Question: “Why do you only
grow head lettuce and not salad mix?
Answer: “Because it’s
good money with less labor,” Moore replies.
“They’re begging for organic lettuces locally.”
And so it goes, hour after hour--including during breaks and over
lunch—for two full days as Moore tries to quench his students’
thirst for knowledge.
Moore’s next greenhouse workshop is scheduled for September
24-25 and it’s almost full. Early registration is $175 per
person, single, or $160 per person for two or more people from the
same family or farm. Free on-site dormitory space is limited. Another
round of workshops will be held next winter. Moore is also working
on a website and a manual on how to design, build and operate a
passive-solar greenhouse year-round. (Keep checking NewFarm.org
so it goes, hour after hour--including during breaks and over
lunch—for two full days as Moore tries to quench his students’
thirst for knowledge.
Question: “What crops don’t
pay in a greenhouse?”
Answer: “Cabbage, broccoli,
Brussels sprouts and potatoes.”
Question: “What about movable
Answer: “Mobile greenhouses
never really worked for us.”
What has worked better than anything for Moore is a serious commitment
to soil improvement. He tells the story of how the contractor who
built the 30- by 96-foot gothic arch greenhouse for Moore at Wilson
College a few years ago thought he was doing the farmer a big favor.
After perfectly leveling the greenhouse site, the contractor brought
in a rolling vibrator, a mechanical compactor, and tamped the disturbed
“It was a road, as flat and almost as hard as asphalt,”
Moore recalls. “But it was perfect, as far as the contractor
figured. He didn’t know I was planning to grow in the ground
and not on benches.”
The soil was so hard it took Moore three whacks with a pick just
to break loose a clod of clay. Starting that November, Moore added
compost, tilled the clods and kept adding more compost. He laid
out permanent beds and pathways and began planting. By March, he
was harvesting his first vegetables. After four years, organic matter
in his soil measured 14.69 percent.
At his new location near York, PA, Moore used a tractor-drawn chisel
plow to eliminate compaction from construction. He double digs greenhouse
beds, using a 30-inch wide U-bar or “broadfork” with
nine 20-inch tines, until reaching optimal soil structure to a depth
of two feet. “The U-bar cuts the time in half,” Moore
says. “It takes me 30 minutes to do a 5- by 20-foot bed.”
To keep from compacting the beds with his feet he stands on a 2-
by 5-foot digging board. His soil is now so friable that Moore works
it up before each planting with only a scuffle hoe, a thatch rake…or
his bare hands. (He never uses a tiller inside his greenhouses.)
“There is no substitute for your own compost,” Moore
says. “If you can’t make your own, mushroom compost
is a pretty good way to jump start your farm.” Contrary to
popular opinion, Moore believes you can have too much compost. That’s
especially true if it contains animal manure, which can cause salt
buildup in the soil. Moore has eliminated animal manure from compost
used in the greenhouses (though he still uses some manure in the
fields. He checks his soil regularly with an EC (electrical conductivity)
meter to guard against salt buildup.
Question: “How do you cover
a greenhouse with plastic?”
Answer: “Work quickly. And
use your friends, at least a couple of them. Six people are even
better,” Moore advises. You want one person on each corner,
while two others unroll the plastic along the top, center ridge
of the greenhouse frame.
Before getting out the plastic, he advises, make sure all of your
fasteners are in place so that the plastic can be secured as it
is spread. A variety of fasteners—everything from used drip
tape and staples to fancy, interlocking metal extrusions—can
be used. Moore favors “wiggle wire” (brand names Wire-Lock
and ZigZag wire). It is soft, pre-bent spring wire that locks up
to three layers of plastic into aluminum channels bolted to wooden
framing or metal greenhouse bows. (Moore buys his wiggle wire and
many other items from Nolt’s Produce Supplies, 152 N. Hershey
Ave., Leola, PA 17540; 717-656-9764.)
Peak height of a 30- by 96-foot gothic-arch greenhouse is about
12 feet, so you’ll need at least one stepladder that tall,
Moore says, offering that two ladders is preferable, since a 50-
by 100-foot roll of 6-mil greenhouse plastic weighs about 150 pounds.
(Using a pair of ladders, two people can easily carry the roll to
the peak.) For easier handling, Moore suggests inserting a pipe
through the middle of the heavy cardboard tube holding the plastic.
Next, Moore says, place the middle of the roll on the ridge pole,
the purlin or brace that runs down the peak. Be sure, he adds, to
leave a 2-foot overhang on the outside edge; that will give your
plastic-handlers something easy to hang onto and plenty of plastic
for battening down the edges.
When Moore’s son, Ben, is helping him, they simply walk down
the lower purlins, unrolling and unfolding the plastic as they go.
The plastic is specially folded or “gusseted” in a C-fold
to cascade down each side from the middle. Father and son work two
to three bows ahead of the plastic-handlers on the ground, who stretch
and smooth the plastic as it unfurls.
“If your roll is dead center, no adjustment is needed,”
Moore says. Once the sheet of plastic is unrolled and spread, it
is “tacked” at the corners and in the middle with short
sections of wiggle wire.
popular than ever. I raise it year round, and a lot
of it. It provides three to four cuttings.”
Pak choi— “It’s
the hero of our winter greenhouse.”
Eggplant—Neon, Black bell, Imperial,
is the only one to grow. It’s in a class by itself.”
Perpetual spinach—From Fedco,
a chard that’s a sleeper.
Cherry tomato—Sun Gold. Two
rows per bed on north side, caged and covered on cool
nights. Sun Gold doesn’t crack as much in greenhouse.
Plants March-April, harvests through Thanksgiving.
Heirloom tomato—Arkansas traveler
Gourmet (orange) Labrador (yellow). “The earliest
we ever lost our peppers was Thanksgiving. The latest
was the first full week of January.”
Celery—Venture. Premium price
“If you’re putting on a double layer, you do it the
same way, only it gives you more of a thrill, because you have a
layer of plastic under your feet as you walk down the purlins,”
says Moore. “In two or three hours, you’re through and
your friends can go home. How long it takes depends on who I have
That technique definitely is not for the faint of heart or anyone
with a fear of heights. So, if walking 96 feet—about nine
feet above the ground—on a thin, plastic-covered pipe is not
your idea of a good time, relax. There is another way, one that
is definitely safer and, some might say, a little saner.
Count Moore’s wife, Carol, among those who refuses to venture
onto the tall monkey bars of the greenhouse frame. When Carol helps
her husband cover a frame, they do it by tying a long rope to each
end of the pipe through the roll of plastic. Then, from the safety
of the ground, they pull the roll the length of the frame, unrolling
the plastic as they go.
“It’s best to install plastic in summer,” adds
Moore. “First, warm your plastic in the sun. After the frame
is covered and the plastic begins to cool, it contracts and gets
Moore irrigates everything in his greenhouses with drip tape, using
four or five tapes per bed. “That means a lot of fittings,
but it delivers a lot of water. Adding a cheap ($10) mechanical
timer makes it reasonably automated, which leaves time for a full-time
job,” he adds for a laugh.
“There is no substitute for looking at the ground,”
Moore says. But he doesn’t just look at the soil surface.
A couple of times each week, Moore uses a metal soil probe to pull
soil cores from as deep as 24 inches below the surface. “It
looks wet on the surface, but when I probe down below it is sometimes
dry as can be.”
It’s all part of Moore’s commitment to producing food
for maximum flavor, freshness and nutrition. He farms a total of
30 acres owned by Sonnewald Natural Foods, which is something of
an intentional community dedicated to personal and planetary health.
Sonnewald, which has been organic since 1946, bills itself as perhaps
the oldest existing organic farm and natural food store in Pennsylvania.
Its motto is: “Good health comes from the farm ... not the
pharmacy.” Moore’s greenhouses are only about 100 yards
from the store, a far cry from the 1,500 miles that most Americans’
food travels from farm to table.
“We, as farmers, are the primary health care practitioners
to the nation,” Moore opines. “The store is a Mecca
for health information. It lets us reach more people quicker than
we could do on our own farm.”