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Adventures in growing

A veteran gardener sets out to extend her spring seedling season by building a hoop house

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After getting some warm weather, Taos gardeners are ready to start planting. However, those who have been here for a while know that there are more freezing nighttime temperatures to come and it is best to wait a few more weeks to begin planting outside.

That rule applies to everyone except the lucky gardeners who have a way to start their plants inside their homes or greenhouses. Nan Fischer, founder of Taos Seed Exchange, has worked for many years to create a system that allows her to have new starts for flowers and vegetables already flourishing.

A hoop house seemed like the perfect answer to her need for early seed starts.

Getting seeds started

Seeds begin to germinate in a room kept at 80 degrees or warmer. Currently, a room in Fischer’s house has trays full of pepper seeds, including Chimayó peppers so hot they burn your nose when you walk by them, she said. After the plants sprout, they are moved into the current greenhouse structure attached to the house. Tomatoes and marigolds were growing here during a recent visit. In the past, Fischer moved the starts into a simple cold frame made of straw bales and covered them each night with plastic. The process of covering the plants every night is taxing and Fischer decided she wanted a simpler, easier place to cultivate her plants.

Her garden in El Prado is dotted with blooming daffodils and grape hyacinth. It even has a peach tree that has begun to flower. Then there is the hoop house under construction. Fischer says, “I’ve been searching for the right greenhouse for 20 years.”

A hoop house

The structure measures 10 feet by 12 feet and is built from metal poles and lumber. It is designed to withstand wind speeds up to 90 miles an hour, an important consideration in Taos. The kit from Growers Solution came with most of the material needed for the structure, except for the doors, which came from the Habitat ReStore, and the lumber.

With the help of a friend, Ron Monsour, who has his own greenhouse at Frost Farm in Rinconada, Fischer has been working on the structure off and on for a little while. This week, some more friends are joining her to complete the final step of putting the plastic over the top and securing it in place so that it withstands wind and weather.

In the new hoop house, she plans to grow peppers, eggplant and basil – tons of basil, she adds. Each year, she puts up the food that she grows. “Starts and putting food up are what I enjoy most,” she says. She also plans to sell more plant starts than in the past since she will have more room. In addition to providing plants to gardeners for their own plots, Fischer sells lettuce and other sprouting plants to restaurants that want to grow their own food.

Making it grow

Fischer has had her hands in the soil for a long time. She remembers that she got her first greenhouse job when she was 24 years old. A resort in New Hampshire had a greenhouse to grow all the plants used for landscaping. “I learned everything I needed to know about greenhouse growing working there for one season between April and November,” she says.

After that, she went on to get a two-year degree in the field.

Her favorite part of the curriculum was the weekly work in the greenhouse. This one had a mister and other systems to help nurture the plants. “It was a little like magic to me,” she says.

During school, she worked on a farm and her job was to cultivate and harvest 2 1/2 acres of cucumbers. “It was overwhelming, keeping up with the harvesting every day and hauling the cucumbers out in baskets,” she recalls. For her final paper in school, she wrote about the perseverance that was required to keep showing up and picking and hauling cucumbers.

After working at an orchard and other farms, Fischer switched her focus to landscaping and began learning more about native plants. When she came to Taos, she realized that everything was so different, she was almost starting over. “Coming out here, I had to unlearn everything that I knew,” she says.

She is still learning and has had her share of frustrations with the changing and unpredictable weather patterns that we have experienced and may see more of in the future.

With the climate changing, she says many people are going to “short season crops” that grow more quickly and can thrive during short periods of stable weather.

Fischer uses her extensive experience in growing flowers and vegetables as background for the articles that she writes for Nature’s Path Organic Foods, Heirloom Gardener and GRIT Magazine. She says it is easy to write about the plants she has grown herself. Among her topics have been the history of beans, maize and squash and also starting a new garden.

Withstanding harsh weather

One reason it may have taken her so long to construct her hoop house is that she was worried about how it would withstand the weather of Taos, which can be harsh. “I was terrified to put it up. I worried that the wind would carry it away or that the snow would make it crumble,” she says. After seeing that the structure is quite sturdy, she worries less about possible disasters. If the plastic covering doesn’t work out, she has some material called “solarig,” a heavy-duty woven covering, that she can try next.

The Taos News plans to return in the fall to see how the first year in the hoop house worked out.

To find out more, visit Fischer’s website, sweetlyseeds.com, or call her at (575) 770-3055. Taos Seed Exchange can be found at the Habitat ReStore, located at 16 State Road 522. For more information on the greenhouse kit, visit Growers Solution at growerssolution.com.

More information about hoop houses and high tunnels, along with a free set of building plans, are available online from the New Mexico State University Sustainable Agriculture Center in Alcalde: alcaldesc.nmsu.edu/high-tunnelshoop-houses.html.

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