Budding out

Central peninsula greenhouses give gardeners a bloomin' head start

Posted: Sunday, March 12, 2000

Deep snow blankets the hills, but green shoots are sprouting and flower buds are opening -- indoors.

In greenhouses around the Kenai Peninsula, springtime is arriving, and winter-weary gardeners are planning summer's bounty of flowers and vegetables.

Greenhousing here involves far more than dirt and seed. A sampling of a few of the peninsula's many greenhouse operations reveals a growing business sector fueled by enthusiasm, innovation, hard work and high demand.

"There is a growing interest -- literally," said Tom Jahns, the University of Alaska agricultural and horticultural extension agent on the central peninsula.

Jahns teaches Master Gardener classes and advises the public on gardening, among his other duties. He sees more people gardening all over the peninsula as they discover the advantages of fresh produce and beautiful flowers.

"I think it is a quality issue," he said. "If you haven't gardened yourself, you don't know what you are missing."

A small but growing percentage of people get hooked on gardening and find themselves developing professional greenhouses, he said.

"For the serious gardener, even a beginning gardener, a greenhouse opens up a whole new world," Jahns said. "It is somewhat addicting. It offers the opportunity to grow warm climate plants where you can't otherwise.

"It is just the next step. When you compare the two, it is probably easier than an outdoor garden."

 

No caption was contained in the photo file

Under cover

Alaska winters give most imported plants the terminal shivers.

But kept warm enough and given the right light and humidity, even tropical plants thrive. Most green things love the long days of the northern summer and reward careful nurturing with abundant growth.

The greenhouses of the peninsula shelter plants from frigid winter temperatures and stretch the summer season far beyond the boundaries spring and autumn frosts set outdoors. The structures must let the sunlight in while keeping warm air from escaping.

How growers accomplish that aim varies tremendously.

A greenhouse can be anything from a patched together lean-to made of recycled building supplies on the side of a garage to a state-of-the-art climate-controlled building designed for horticultural production.

"They don't have to be expensive," said Jahns, adding his office provides basic schematics to anyone interested.

The Kenaitze Indian Tribe, which runs a large indoor-outdoor commercial gardening project off Beaver Loop Road in Kenai, has found one such bargain in what Agriculture Director Leah Spaulding calls "hoop houses."

PVC pipe forms an arching framework set over steel stakes. Add wood to the ends and foundation, put heavy-duty greenhouse plastic over the top, and -- voila -- it becomes an inexpensive, no-frills greenhouse. The tribe has a dozen of them, 10-feet wide by 30- to 50-feet long.

"They ended up being about $66 apiece," Spaulding said.

On the other end of the scale, the big commercial greenhouses along Kalifornsky Beach Road are expensive, modern facilities.

The Sexton family, which runs Trinity Greenhouse, worked in general contracting and as dealers for Sunglo Solar Greenhouses before building their own complex and opening shop.

Don and Elisabeth Lashley own Kenai River Nursery, which they say is the peninsula's largest.

The Lashleys have nearly two acres under plastic, all built over a scaffolding of welded rebar. The outer walls are double-layered, with fans blowing between to create an insulating air pillow.

Peninsula greenhouse gardeners are ingenious.

Semi-retired contractor Clayton Hillhouse set up heat and humidity controls, a water heater, ventilation fans and a hydroponic watering system in the his-and-hers greenhouses where he and his wife, Juanita, grow herbs, vegetables, flowers and fruit near Mackey Lakes.

Juanita said Clayton had a background in electrical instrumentation and got started in greenhousing by working with the agricultural experimental project years ago at Wildwood.

"He serviced it. Then he came home and made his own," she said.

"He loves to fool around with that stuff."

Abby Ala, who runs Ridgeway Farm, has integrated her greenhouse into home and barn. A lifelong Alaska farmer, she is interested in developing integrated, clean agriculture suitable for the peninsula climate.

The entire south side of her three-story greenhouse is translucent, shedding light into a vast space with plants hanging at all levels. Along the north side, she has germination rooms with artificial lights over movable trays she designed herself.

Ala lives in an apartment on the top floor, and a downstairs back room will house chickens, come summer.

The most distinctive aspect of her greenhouse is an experimental "biofilter."

Air from the chicken coop is pumped under a bed of gravel and wood chips. The carbon dioxide, ammonia, heat and humidity the birds generate percolates up through the mulch. The ammonia binds with the wood to form fertilizing nitrates, and the whole pile serves as a heat sink to keep the greenhouse warm in cool weather.

The concept grew out of Caring for the Kenai projects her children worked on and was developed with the help of a grant from the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation.

"I started out with a group of ideas. We are refining and trying to improve," she said.

"We are trying to put a little science behind what we do."

Beyond dirt

Plants like dirt, according to conventional wisdom.

However, greenhouse operators put their seeds and roots in a lot of things, and what they prefer to call "soil" is only part of the menu they feed their hungry plants.

"Dirt is what we sweep off the floor," said Don Lashley.

The gardeners make their own mixes, developing favorite recipes over decades of tweaking.

Some, like Ala at Ridgeway Farm, strive to use Alaska ingredients as much as possible. Others, such as Sextons at Trinity Greenhouse, import all the ingredients.

Peat, shipped in bales or dug up from Kenai Peninsula deposits, is a major ingredient.

Another is perlite, also used in industrial products such as insulation and concrete. Looking like tiny pale pebbles, it is sterile, wicks water and aerates roots. Suppliers make it by cooking volcanic rock.

"It pops like popcorn," said Clayton Hillhouse.

"Rot is the biggest thing you have to worry about in dirt. You get away from that with perlite," he said.

Trinity Greenhouse uses perlite and other ingredients to develop a unique and popular product, the potting soil marketed under the name Master's Mix.

Dan Sexton, who owns the greenhouse in partnership with his wife, brother and sister-in-law, said the mix is more expensive than many other soils sold in the area, but it gives gardeners results that keep them coming back for more.

"We sell about 80 tons a season of it bagged up," he said.

The Hillhouses almost have dispensed with soil altogether, relying instead on hydroponics -- feeding plants with nutrient solutions.

Walking into Juanita's attached greenhouse, one smells the fragrant foliage of rose geraniums and basil, but the earthy scent of moist soil, so vivid in most greenhouses, is missing. Young plants sit in Styrofoam cups set into round holes in a large pipe, through which a continuous stream of water circulates. Below each container, roots or wicks dangle.

"You see," she said, "the roots are right in the water."

The system includes a submersible pump, an aquarium heater and a water level sensor. Periodically, she tests the water chemistry for pH and conductivity.

"It tells you when you need fertilizer," Juanita said.

The Hillhouses mix buckets of powdered chemical plant food, measuring dosages carefully into the system.

"There's only a few of these on the peninsula," she said.

Greenhouses

and greenbacks

Committed gardeners can make money with a good greenhouse, but it takes work and a knack for timing.

"As a woman farming, I have to be financially successful," Ala said.

Like most greenhouse producers, she sells a cross-section of products including flowers, vegetables, hanging baskets and starts.

"We start planting at Thanksgiving and we really don't stop planting until June," she said.

Gardeners have to plan so each variety will reach its prime at the proper time. Most greenhouses are coming out of their winter dormancy this month.

Spaulding, from the Kenaitze tribe, said many people plant outside too early and lose their starts to late frost.

"We started things a little bit later this year," she said. "It is a real trick, timing it just right."

Don Lashley said the annual work cycle at the Kenai River Nursery peaks around April, when they have 25 to 30 employees. The long hours in season are the biggest challenge.

"It is intensive farming," he said.

The greenhouse operators said utilities usually are the top expense.

For example, the Kenai River Nursery spends about $50,000 to $55,000 a year for heating fuel, Lashley said.

Labor costs can be high for operations big enough for hired help. Despite time-saving devices that mix soil, water automatically and evenly space tiny seeds in germination trays, the work remains physical with endless tasks like transplanting.

The time and space the plants fill are usually more expensive than the plants themselves, Lashley said, with most varieties fairly easy to propagate from seeds, bulbs or cuttings.

But not all varieties are grown in-house.

Trinity Greenhouse imports patented varieties from far-off lands such as Australia and the Canary Islands.

"We could not do what we do without the world market," Dan Sexton said.

Demand for greenhouse products remains strong. All the greenhouse operators contacted for this story said they are expanding or upgrading their facilities.

Jahns said the most successful commercial greenhouses have two common traits. They cultivate niche markets with limited competition, and they diversify their products to protect themselves from the vagaries of business and farming.

The Hillhouses grow herbs, which they package and sell in restaurants and the fresh produce section at supermarkets.

Ridgeway Farm sells directly to select customers and through subscriptions to supply cartons of eggs and produce in season.

Trinity Greenhouse promotes a "reserve-a-basket program," in which customers can select flowers from a catalog and design the combinations they want in advance. It also markets a unique tomato variety, the Klondike, the Sextons developed.

Kenai River Nursery stays open year-round and sells volumes of trees and shrubs.

The Kenaitze Indian Tribe greenhouse and garden grew from a subsistence cooperative to a business venture providing vegetables and berries to an assortment of public service and commercial clients. It supplies, among others, tribal elders, the Kenai Head Start preschool, social service programs, youth camps, senior centers and the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, Spaulding said.

In 1999, it generated 11,000 pounds of produce, she said.

"You can't grow enough tomatoes and cucumbers here to satisfy people," she said. "You can't grow enough strawberries, either."

The tribe also now sponsors the summer farmers' market in Soldotna, a favorite outlet for the greenhouse growers.

Jahns said the expanding greenhouses still have not saturated the area market. Buyers such as supermarkets are picky, but they are eager to buy from growers who can satisfy their demands for quality and reliability.

Blooming and booming

Inside the greenhouses, winter seems far away. The air is sweet with nectar, loam and growing things. The vitality of healthy plants can be awesome.

Many plants begin as dust-speck seeds in 288-cell trays, germinating in pockets the size of thimbles. As they grow, they are transplanted to larger packs, then flats and finally pots. A single table of trays can fill an entire greenhouse, Sexton said.

Don Lashley said some plants, including clematis and cucumbers, will grow as much as six inches in a day once established.

Spaulding reaped an unexpected bonanza last summer.

"We harvested 4,000 pounds of squash. We had squash coming out our ears," she said. "They went crazy."

The greenhouses are pleasant places to be, and the gardeners all speak fondly of their calling.

Ala sees designing floral arrangements as an art form.

"For me, it is like an art project," she said. "It is living art."

Don Lashley said, "I suppose I was born with the desire to garden."

He pointed with pride to his grafted citrus trees, pineapple plants and trailing vines.

"The grapes are growing like crazy. We already took the machete to them," he said.

Juanita Hillhouse said she loves her greenhouse's sound of running water, watching the plants grow, meeting people at the farmers' market and eating the fruits of her labor.

"I don't cook with salt," she said, "just herbs."

The Sextons, in the brochure about their greenhouse business, seem to sum up the way most gardeners feel about their work.

"We believe that plants are a vital part of our lives and are indeed food for the soul."

Deep snow blankets the hills, but green shoots are sprouting and flower buds are opening -- indoors.

In greenhouses around the Kenai Peninsula, springtime is arriving, and winter-weary gardeners are planning summer's bounty of flowers and vegetables.

Greenhousing here involves far more than dirt and seed. A sampling of a few of the peninsula's many greenhouse operations reveals a growing business sector fueled by enthusiasm, innovation, hard work and high demand.

"There is a growing interest -- literally," said Tom Jahns, the University of Alaska agricultural and horticultural extension agent on the central peninsula.

Jahns teaches Master Gardener classes and advises the public on gardening, among his other duties. He sees more people gardening all over the peninsula as they discover the advantages of fresh produce and beautiful flowers.

"I think it is a quality issue," he said. "If you haven't gardened yourself, you don't know what you are missing."

A small but growing percentage of people get hooked on gardening and find themselves developing professional greenhouses, he said.

"For the serious gardener, even a beginning gardener, a greenhouse opens up a whole new world," Jahns said. "It is somewhat addicting. It offers the opportunity to grow warm climate plants where you can't otherwise.

"It is just the next step. When you compare the two, it is probably easier than an outdoor garden."

Under cover

Alaska winters give most imported plants the terminal shivers.

But kept warm enough and given the right light and humidity, even tropical plants thrive. Most green things love the long days of the northern summer and reward careful nurturing with abundant growth.

The greenhouses of the peninsula shelter plants from frigid winter temperatures and stretch the summer season far beyond the boundaries spring and autumn frosts set outdoors. The structures must let the sunlight in while keeping warm air from escaping.

How growers accomplish that aim varies tremendously.

A greenhouse can be anything from a patched together lean-to made of recycled building supplies on the side of a garage to a state-of-the-art climate-controlled building designed for horticultural production.

"They don't have to be expensive," said Jahns, adding his office provides basic schematics to anyone interested.

The Kenaitze Indian Tribe, which runs a large indoor-outdoor commercial gardening project off Beaver Loop Road in Kenai, has found one such bargain in what Agriculture Director Leah Spaulding calls "hoop houses."

PVC pipe forms an arching framework set over steel stakes. Add wood to the ends and foundation, put heavy-duty greenhouse plastic over the top, and -- voila -- it becomes an inexpensive, no-frills greenhouse. The tribe has a dozen of them, 10-feet wide by 30- to 50-feet long.

"They ended up being about $66 apiece," Spaulding said.

On the other end of the scale, the big commercial greenhouses along Kalifornsky Beach Road are expensive, modern facilities.

The Sexton family, which runs Trinity Greenhouse, worked in general contracting and as dealers for Sunglo Solar Greenhouses before building their own complex and opening shop.

Don and Elisabeth Lashley own Kenai River Nursery, which they say is the peninsula's largest.

The Lashleys have nearly two acres under plastic, all built over a scaffolding of welded rebar. The outer walls are double-layered, with fans blowing between to create an insulating air pillow.

Peninsula greenhouse gardeners are ingenious.

Semi-retired contractor Clayton Hillhouse set up heat and humidity controls, a water heater, ventilation fans and a hydroponic watering system in the his-and-hers greenhouses where he and his wife, Juanita, grow herbs, vegetables, flowers and fruit near Mackey Lakes.

Juanita said Clayton had a background in electrical instrumentation and got started in greenhousing by working with the agricultural experimental project years ago at Wildwood.

"He serviced it. Then he came home and made his own," she said.

"He loves to fool around with that stuff."

Abby Ala, who runs Ridgeway Farm, has integrated her greenhouse into home and barn. A lifelong Alaska farmer, she is interested in developing integrated, clean agriculture suitable for the peninsula climate.

The entire south side of her three-story greenhouse is translucent, shedding light into a vast space with plants hanging at all levels. Along the north side, she has germination rooms with artificial lights over movable trays she designed herself.

Ala lives in an apartment on the top floor, and a downstairs back room will house chickens, come summer.

The most distinctive aspect of her greenhouse is an experimental "biofilter."

Air from the chicken coop is pumped under a bed of gravel and wood chips. The carbon dioxide, ammonia, heat and humidity the birds generate percolates up through the mulch. The ammonia binds with the wood to form fertilizing nitrates, and the whole pile serves as a heat sink to keep the greenhouse warm in cool weather.

The concept grew out of Caring for the Kenai projects her children worked on and was developed with the help of a grant from the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation.

"I started out with a group of ideas. We are refining and trying to improve," she said.

"We are trying to put a little science behind what we do."

Beyond dirt

Plants like dirt, according to conventional wisdom.

However, greenhouse operators put their seeds and roots in a lot of things, and what they prefer to call "soil" is only part of the menu they feed their hungry plants.

"Dirt is what we sweep off the floor," said Don Lashley.

The gardeners make their own mixes, developing favorite recipes over decades of tweaking.

Some, like Ala at Ridgeway Farm, strive to use Alaska ingredients as much as possible. Others, such as Sextons at Trinity Greenhouse, import all the ingredients.

Peat, shipped in bales or dug up from Kenai Peninsula deposits, is a major ingredient.

Another is perlite, also used in industrial products such as insulation and concrete. Looking like tiny pale pebbles, it is sterile, wicks water and aerates roots. Suppliers make it by cooking volcanic rock.

"It pops like popcorn," said Clayton Hillhouse.

"Rot is the biggest thing you have to worry about in dirt. You get away from that with perlite," he said.

Trinity Greenhouse uses perlite and other ingredients to develop a unique and popular product, the potting soil marketed under the name Master's Mix.

Dan Sexton, who owns the greenhouse in partnership with his wife, brother and sister-in-law, said the mix is more expensive than many other soils sold in the area, but it gives gardeners results that keep them coming back for more.

"We sell about 80 tons a season of it bagged up," he said.

The Hillhouses almost have dispensed with soil altogether, relying instead on hydroponics -- feeding plants with nutrient solutions.

Walking into Juanita's attached greenhouse, one smells the fragrant foliage of rose geraniums and basil, but the earthy scent of moist soil, so vivid in most greenhouses, is missing. Young plants sit in Styrofoam cups set into round holes in a large pipe, through which a continuous stream of water circulates. Below each container, roots or wicks dangle.

"You see," she said, "the roots are right in the water."

The system includes a submersible pump, an aquarium heater and a water level sensor. Periodically, she tests the water chemistry for pH and conductivity.

"It tells you when you need fertilizer," Juanita said.

The Hillhouses mix buckets of powdered chemical plant food, measuring dosages carefully into the system.

"There's only a few of these on the peninsula," she said.

Greenhouses

and greenbacks

Committed gardeners can make money with a good greenhouse, but it takes work and a knack for timing.

"As a woman farming, I have to be financially successful," Ala said.

Like most greenhouse producers, she sells a cross-section of products including flowers, vegetables, hanging baskets and starts.

"We start planting at Thanksgiving and we really don't stop planting until June," she said.

Gardeners have to plan so each variety will reach its prime at the proper time. Most greenhouses are coming out of their winter dormancy this month.

Spaulding, from the Kenaitze tribe, said many people plant outside too early and lose their starts to late frost.

"We started things a little bit later this year," she said. "It is a real trick, timing it just right."

Don Lashley said the annual work cycle at the Kenai River Nursery peaks around April, when they have 25 to 30 employees. The long hours in season are the biggest challenge.

"It is intensive farming," he said.

The greenhouse operators said utilities usually are the top expense.

For example, the Kenai River Nursery spends about $50,000 to $55,000 a year for heating fuel, Lashley said.

Labor costs can be high for operations big enough for hired help. Despite time-saving devices that mix soil, water automatically and evenly space tiny seeds in germination trays, the work remains physical with endless tasks like transplanting.

The time and space the plants fill are usually more expensive than the plants themselves, Lashley said, with most varieties fairly easy to propagate from seeds, bulbs or cuttings.

But not all varieties are grown in-house.

Trinity Greenhouse imports patented varieties from far-off lands such as Australia and the Canary Islands.

"We could not do what we do without the world market," Dan Sexton said.

Demand for greenhouse products remains strong. All the greenhouse operators contacted for this story said they are expanding or upgrading their facilities.

Jahns said the most successful commercial greenhouses have two common traits. They cultivate niche markets with limited competition, and they diversify their products to protect themselves from the vagaries of business and farming.

The Hillhouses grow herbs, which they package and sell in restaurants and the fresh produce section at supermarkets.

Ridgeway Farm sells directly to select customers and through subscriptions to supply cartons of eggs and produce in season.

Trinity Greenhouse promotes a "reserve-a-basket program," in which customers can select flowers from a catalog and design the combinations they want in advance. It also markets a unique tomato variety, the Klondike, the Sextons developed.

Kenai River Nursery stays open year-round and sells volumes of trees and shrubs.

The Kenaitze Indian Tribe greenhouse and garden grew from a subsistence cooperative to a business venture providing vegetables and berries to an assortment of public service and commercial clients. It supplies, among others, tribal elders, the Kenai Head Start preschool, social service programs, youth camps, senior centers and the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, Spaulding said.

In 1999, it generated 11,000 pounds of produce, she said.

"You can't grow enough tomatoes and cucumbers here to satisfy people," she said. "You can't grow enough strawberries, either."

The tribe also now sponsors the summer farmers' market in Soldotna, a favorite outlet for the greenhouse growers.

Jahns said the expanding greenhouses still have not saturated the area market. Buyers such as supermarkets are picky, but they are eager to buy from growers who can satisfy their demands for quality and reliability.

Blooming and booming

Inside the greenhouses, winter seems far away. The air is sweet with nectar, loam and growing things. The vitality of healthy plants can be awesome.

Many plants begin as dust-speck seeds in 288-cell trays, germinating in pockets the size of thimbles. As they grow, they are transplanted to larger packs, then flats and finally pots. A single table of trays can fill an entire greenhouse, Sexton said.

Don Lashley said some plants, including clematis and cucumbers, will grow as much as six inches in a day once established.

Spaulding reaped an unexpected bonanza last summer.

"We harvested 4,000 pounds of squash. We had squash coming out our ears," she said. "They went crazy."

The greenhouses are pleasant places to be, and the gardeners all speak fondly of their calling.

Ala sees designing floral arrangements as an art form.

"For me, it is like an art project," she said. "It is living art."

Don Lashley said, "I suppose I was born with the desire to garden."

He pointed with pride to his grafted citrus trees, pineapple plants and trailing vines.

"The grapes are growing like crazy. We already took the machete to them," he said.

Juanita Hillhouse said she loves her greenhouse's sound of running water, watching the plants grow, meeting people at the farmers' market and eating the fruits of her labor.

"I don't cook with salt," she said, "just herbs."

The Sextons, in the brochure about their greenhouse business, seem to sum up the way most gardeners feel about their work.

"We believe that plants are a vital part of our lives and are indeed food for the soul."



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