ON GOOD LAND: Under Plastic

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When the old idea of extending your growing season becomes new.

Early last month, bare days after blizzard winds tore across the East End, one of the North Fork’s most popular farm shops reopened, bursting with a dozen of the local treasures of June. There were bok choys, spinach, pea shoots, baby kale and arugula in baskets— sweet, tender and organic. What few shoppers realized was that this local bounty had been growing in 19,000 square feet of unheated greenhouses just south of the highway in Peconic. Actually, many North Forkers who shop at the IGAs on Shelter Island, in Southold and at Braun Seafood had nibbled Sang Lee Farm’s mesclun grown in the same chilly greenhouses all winter.

In a lucky winter—that’s a moderate one—East End farmers can harvest some cold-weather crops from the fields until December. A year ago, I was one of the winter share members of Quail Hill’s CSA who cut huge collard greens, made unbelievably sweet and tender by frost, in January and February. But never underestimate wind, the wild card. With only hours warning, it can howl off the Long Island Sound like a demented ghost train. Which usually spells doom for late-harvest gleaning from Orient to Sagaponack. “If the temperature drops down to 15 degrees and there’s a wind blowing,” says Fred Lee of Sang Lee Farms, “whatever I had growing out in the field looks like toast.”

This winter, while frozen kale and Brussels sprouts shriveled and browned in Quail Hill’s Amagansett fields, produce protected in greenhouses survived. Even unheated, the polyurethane-covered hoop houses (or high-tunnels or over-wintering houses as they are interchangeably called), keep the ground a few degrees above the outside ground temperature. “There’s only a differential of about 5 degrees between inside the greenhouse and outside,” says Lee. Each degree is critical. As long as roots don’t freeze, these fragilelooking plants can revive, sometimes within hours.

“The greens are back!” Scott Chaskey, the white-bearded, head farmer at Quail Hill, shouts down from his office one morning recently, after a harsh stretch of 6 to 8 degree Fahrenheit nights. Inside the farm’s two 14-foot-wide hoop houses, 50- and 60 foot-long beds of greens were exploding in shiny, brilliant green tangles of mache, mizuna, chervil and several score of other sweet and bitter salad fixings.In Harborside, Maine, the country’s guru of year-round gardening, Eliot Coleman, grows 30 different crops through the winter including leeks and turnips and watercress, the majority without added heat in 12,000 square feet of greenhouses. His signature idea: moveable greenhouses that he shifts from one crop to another throughout the year where crops need protection most. Most of these use double-layers of plastic with 4-inches of dead air between the two layers serving as insulation. (In Winter Harvest Handbook Coleman writes that the idea of using double plastic in a hoop house was pioneered in the 1950s by E. M. Emmert, a professor of horticulture at the University of Kentucky: “For some reason no one picked up on Emmert’s innovation at the time: possibly because plastic green-houses were so new; possibly because the concept seemed too good to be true.”)

This achievement in agriculturally challenging Zone 5, where temperatures can fall to 20 degrees below zero. Imagine the potential for unheated greenhouses in warmer areas, like the East End, two zones south. “I grossed $120,000 a year for the last two years, farming only 11?2 acres of land,” Coleman says by phone. “You have the perfect climate in Long Island” for winter harvest from unheated greenhouses, he says. The East End of Long Island exists in a microclimate, hardiness Zone 7, where temperatures rarely fall below zero, comparable to southern Virginia. “That maritime climate! God, it’s ideal for the type of stuff we’re doing up here,” Coleman adds. “I’m jealous.”

Coleman’s books on extending the growing season have already reached a quarter-million readers. This month, Chelsea Green is publishing Coleman’s newest volume, The Winter Harvest Handbook, a detailed 224-page step-by-step greenhouse guide for small farmers. Lushly illustrated with photos by Barbara Damrosh, gardening writer and Coleman’s wife, the latest guide can inspire anyone who has ever held a trowel to consider buying some polyurethane this fall.

Diners eating trendy greens at top Manhattan restaurants may not realize it, but the beginnings of a Long Island greenhouse revival are sprouting here along with the exceptionally flavorful greens on their plates. Until the early 20th century, greenhouses thrived as a source of local food on the East Coast, particularly in Boston. Before that, for several centuries from the mid-1600s onward, protected winter gardens in Paris and London supplied those cities with winter vegetables. Man has tried to extend the growing season by protecting plants with translucent coverings since the days of Pompeii, Coleman notes.

So why then did Long Island greenhouses forsake most vegetables for flowers 50 to 75 years ago? Cheap transport was the can opener that pried open markets across the U.S. for bargain crops from California. “Why did so many potato farmers here go out of business?” asks Paulette Satur, who, with her husband, celebrated chef Eberhard Müller, runs Satur Farms in Cutchogue, “And why didn’t anyone grow any more cauliflower? That used to be a prime crop here? They stopped it because California shipped it cheaper to New York than farmers could grow it here. We’re two hours away from New York City and we couldn’t compete with products from California!”

Now the movement to eat local, a growing awareness of the miles food travels and the explosive growth of CSAs and farmers markets are shaping a new equation. “I think we’re in a really good position today where people have become aware that it’s probably more prudent for all of us to buy local products, not only because of the benefits it gives to the environment, but the benefits of quality and freshness,” says Satur, who supplies greens and vegetables to top Manhattan restaurants and to Whole Foods Market, Fresh Direct and the Food Emporium.

Greenhouses offer farmers an on-going crack at increased profits. Consider that to-die-for dead-of-winter greens, like mesclun and baby spinaches, would be damaged or would not survive outside. Heated greenhouses allow farmers to jump-start crops inside so that they can be transplanted outside and harvested four to six weeks earlier than starting the same plants from seed in the field. At Sang Lee, 19,000 square feet of heated greenhouses now shelter newly propagated herbs being rooted from cuttings; they will become the pots of rosemary and thyme and lemon verbena that you can start buying for your garden later this month. (Farmers must weigh the value of such a head start against energy prices.) Finally, in autumn, a greenhouse can extend the harvest season several months, protecting vulnerable crops from falling temperatures. “If it were not for the greenhouse and its role in our operation, I probably could not survive,” says Lee.

“Growers throughout history have always started seeds inside,” says Eve Kaplan, who runs Garden of Eve Farm in Aquebogue with her husband, Chris Walbrecht. The farm has 12,000 square feet of hoop house space. Not to mention the couple’s new sunporch, where on an icy February day tiny parsley seedlings were being warmed by a wood stove. (Outside, the 25,000 heads of garlic the farm plants in anticipation of its annual garlic festival, are in less of a rush, awaiting the warming of the earth around them.) The farm’s hoop houses are readying crops for June for the 1,000 households with shares or part shares in their 10 CSAs and farmers markets. “Every year I experiment,” says Kaplan, using combinations of heated and unheated greenhouses to bring flowers like dwarf sunflowers early to CSA shareholders. This year Kaplan will try extending golden cherry tomatoes into December.

Almost every East End farmer is pushing the envelope on greenhouses, learning by trial-anderror how to balance the costs of running a greenhouse with the benefits of having fresh produce when few local farmers have anything to sell. Last year Satur Farms experimented growing extra microgreens in 10,000 square feet of rented greenhouses in Riverhead. A year earlier, the Dutch firm Koppert B.V., an aggressive European marketer, had bought 53,000 square feet of glass greenhouses a mile down the road from Satur Farm. Says Satur Farm’s Müller, “They brought in equipment from Europe, stuff that I didn’t even know existed until I saw it in their greenhouses. I said to my wife, you know what, there is no reason to compete with them. We are actually buying their product now as we need it.“ Koppert is currently producing intensely flavored micro-vegetables delivered through distributors to top chefs from Montreal to Louisiana, and aims to become the largest grower of microgreens on the East Coast within five years, according to U.S. manager Nicholas Mazard.

Unlike many of its fellow mesclun growers, Satur Farms, which works 160 North Fork acres in the summer, is also looking toward bigger stakes. “We want to do more in retail,” says Paulette, “It’s very important that even if you only have one product, your name is still in the store. That’s why I wanted to start growing more in the greenhouse,” at 20,000 square feet just a fraction of the farm’s 160 acres. Satur shakes her head. “It just doesn’t fit into the box.” So Satur is experimenting growing bridge winter crops in Florida, trading fuel to heat a greenhouse for fuel to ship food. “We bring up a truckload of produce from Florida in 24 to 26 hours,” says Satur. The trucker waits while the Satur crew unloads, washes and packs the produce, and reloads it in the waiting truck. “We turn it around in three or four houses.” (Some neighbors angry at these 3 a.m. rumblings of semi-trailers are considering legal action against the farm.)

Like salmon returning to their natal waters, most of this Florida harvest actually begins life in Satur’s 10,000-square-foot Cutchogue greenhouses. Using European equipment which presses bagged planting soil from Northern Europe into tiny plugs, the seeds are planted, nurtured in the greenhouse then driven to Florida, where they will be transplanted, and later harvested and driven back north. Like every East End farmer, Satur starts seedlings in the greenhouses, from leeks to celery roots. Unlike most, it harvests threequarters of a million leeks, annually. It also forces root balls of frozen chives, grown and mowed down the previous season, back to life in the greenhouse for a continuous winter harvest of fresh chives. Müller lifts a wooden cover from a greenhouse tray revealing deep maroon and white crinkled leaves of an Italian raddichio-like endive, tarvido, which he says Satur introduced to the U.S. (It was served at President Barack Obama’s inaugural lunch.) The chef-farmer plans to experiment to see if it’s possible to grow the leaves, which take extra warmth and coddling, on a commercial scale.

Other growers have shown that even traditional summer crops can be coaxed to mature throughout the Long Island winter. Wickham’s Fruit Farm has raised tomatoes in its glass greenhouses for decades, while Fox Hollow Farm in Baiting Hollow consistently harvests sweet corn by the 4th of July by covering its newly seeded fields with plastic. With four acres of vintage Lord & Burnham glass greenhouses, Michael Barry of Rose Meadow in East Patchogue, who sells roses online and at the Union Square Greenmarket, is the last remnant of the greenhouse rose industry that existed on Long Island for the better part of the century.

A dozen years ago, a 48,000-square-foot North Fork greenhouse producing flowers and herbs began shifting production to tomatoes after an employee from Europe asked to try his hand at growing tomatoes. “I tasted them. Wow!” recalls Richard Girards, president of Flora Nurseries in Mattituck. Today he grows only tomatoes, a Dutch hydroponic breed, following Dutch techniques in glass greenhouses that now total 78,000 square feet. The operation harvests tomatoes every month of the year, though the quantity wanes with the length of winter days. But even a pioneer like Girards isn’t immune to the mood of experimentation. Next season he plans to test heirloom tomatoes including Green Zebras, Evergreen and Sunset Purple.

The probability of an increasing cornucopia of local greenhouse crops lies ahead as the advent of cheap plastic intersects with the growing demand for foods grown nearby. Currently, plastic is the choice for virtually all East End food growers because it is so much cheaper than glass. (Plastic-sheathed structures also avoid taxation and some zoning requirements; they are considered temporary structures.) Off-the-cuff estimates from a number of farmers and greenhouse supply companies indicate that you can erect a plasticsheathed 24-by-100-foot hoop house for 63¢ a square foot at the low end and $2.50 a square foot at the high end. Glass would run $12 to $18 a square foot. (Girards says his 78,000 square feet of glass greenhouses are insured for $850,000.)

Still, there are harbingers of nurturing hothouse crops in promising places, even new concepts of what a greenhouse can be. Satur Farm will experiment this season by covering some outdoor crops with the double protection of a floating row cover plus perforated plastic sheeting from Europe. On a sunny day the pairing, widely used in northern Europe, can raise temperature of the soil beneath it a critical 12 to 14 degrees. “That means in March you’re looking at 50 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit in your soil: temperatures that you might have in May. That makes things grow really fast.” says Satur Farm’s Müller. He says he expects to harvest protected crops seeded outside four to six weeks early. In Manhattan, where greenhouse-grown crops might come from as far afield as California, Holland and Israel, 20,000 square feet of greenhouses sit atop Eli Zabar’s 91st Street Vinegar Factory. A hydroponic greenhouse floats on a barge in Yonkers.

Coleman’s new book dangles another idea before growers—very inexpensive “quick hoops,” crop-high plastic tunnels covering a single row of plants, both to accelerate and extend harvest. With visions of January chard, of collards, of herbs in my small, raised garden boxes, I ask Coleman if quick hoops would work in my backyard. “Zone 7,” he says, “Oh, yes! Even you can grow in a greenhouse.”

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