May 27, 2020

The Mad Dash to Planting Season

Editor’s Note: Our greenhouse owner continues with the second part of his introduction to the craziness that is A Grower’s Life. Read Part 1 here.

• By Nathan Fennelly •

To pick up where we left off, you’ve realized the only way to get a greenhouse up in time for spring opening is to shovel twelve dump-truck loads of snow off the site.

Of course, this is March in Maine, and it’s still snowing, so it’s imperative this be done in a timely manner so that more snow doesn’t fall and necessitate starting over again.  With a time crunch, you rally all of your friends who can be convinced to wield a shovel for this type of project (this means you and your spouse will be shoveling alone – who did you think was going to volunteer for this type of project?)  So, two days later, the site is clear and it’s time to start putting up arches.

Luckily, this project doesn’t sound all that intimidating, so it’s possible to recruit help.  With one person at the top of a 14-foot ladder and three people on the ground, each half arch gets stood more or less upright.

Hopefully, you’ve decided to be one of the ground crew and not the poor guy on the ladder because he’s going to have his hands full for a while.  While you’re running across the greenhouse to grab the other half, he’s stuck up on the ladder holding up the one you just lifted.  Then the trick is to get the other half up without hitting him in the back of the head with the other arch, or pulling him off the ladder, so he can connect the two.

Repeat this process about 15 times.

From here, it’s relatively smooth sailing, with one or two people on each 14-foot ladder to piece together the ridgepole that holds the whole thing more or less upright.  Until this is done, the only thing holding up the arches is sheer willpower and desperation.

I do hope you didn’t try to do this on a windy day.

After this, it really does get better for a while, with broken drill bits, banged and bloody fingers, and a whole lot of guesswork going on.  Sooner or later, all the bits from the driveway are attached somewhere into something that looks vaguely greenhouse-shaped.  But, as a reminder, it is March in Maine, and there’s no covering on this steel skeleton yet, so you will have shoveled the whole site a few more times over the two or three weeks it’s taken to get to this point.

Now it’s time for the fun and interesting part.  Because this is a used greenhouse, it’s been subject to some “settling,” so the ridge vent that was supposed to fit on it doesn’t.  But there’s no way to know this until a week of banging and swearing has passed.

Of course, because the plan was to add a ridge vent, the plastic to fit on it has been purchased.  And, of course, it won’t work on a non-ridge-vented greenhouse without some modification.

Luckily, greenhouses are the mother of all invention.  With some minor changes, the greenhouse plastic goes up and it starts to look like something useful.  Now there’s a race between errant gusts of wind and your ability to put up the end walls, so that the whole greenhouse doesn’t lift and sail off.  Once one wall is up, you’ve got a three-sided bag just waiting for a stiff breeze, so work quickly!

With the greenhouse finally sealed, and the greenhouse effect starting to work in your favor, now it’s time to knock out some benches and get your plants going.

Since the greenhouse wasn’t up in the fall, the six tons of bagged potting mix has been sitting out all winter freezing solid.  There is a great deal of banging and prying involved in getting one bag to let go of another, then a solid 24 hours of waiting for it to warm to something above painfully frigid.  Then, there’s also the fact that the bags are 40 pounds each, but only when dry.  Soaked and frozen, they approach 100 pounds apiece.

If you’ve ever tried to put two grumpy toddlers in snow suits at the same time, you’ve got a rough idea how this goes.

Are you really sure that you’re that desperate to produce thousands of pansies, petunias and geraniums?  Have you talked to your local mental health professional recently?

So, you’re really committed to doing this thing, then.  Well, now it’s the busy season, so it’s time to move about six tons of dirt from your parking lot, through the ice-block of doom stage, and into a mind-boggling array of 3 packs, 4 packs, 3 ½ inch pots, 4 ½ inch pots, deep 4 ½ inch pots, 5 ½ inch pots, etc., etc., etc.  There’s no real need to go into excessive detail here, as most of you have, I’m quite sure, transplanted a seedling once or twice before.

Just go ahead and repeat that about eighteen-thousand times.  Oh, and you’ve got about a month to do it in.  I could do the math and tell you just how many plants a day that is, but it really doesn’t bear thinking about (trust me, I have done the math).

By the time the potting up is done, the greenhouse is filled to overflowing, since all of the perennials that will eventually be going outside can’t go there yet.  This means that walking the aisles and watering have to be done in six-inch paths.  Leave the path or lose track of any errant hoses and you’re crushing your plants and losing money.

Nathan Fennelly, who has an English degree from the University of Maine, owns and operates Forest’s Edge Garden LLC in Hampden with his wife, Gretchen. Gretchen has always been a plant fanatic and has a horticulture degree, also from UMaine. She has been the driving force in starting their business.