Vegetables and self-sufficiency

December 7, 2011

Plants in Birgit’s greenhouse. (Photo by Dr. Sonia Vogl)

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Each time we visit our brother and sister-in-law in northern Wisconsin, we find a topic for a column. Of course, since our visits are usually in November, we’re already thinking about energy. We’ve visited in the summer, but that was years ago.

They burn wood, use area heating, move the kitchen to the porch in summer, hang laundry and raise chickens and sheep. Their “guest property” came equipped with something we’ve wanted for a long time and have had for less than a year — a greenhouse. It’s a standard greenhouse, similar to our hoop house — a metal frame with a heavy plastic cover.

During this year’s first week of November visit, several varieties of vegetables were poking through the soil. Some were already 6 inches tall and had been covered with a blanket of light plastic for protection from nighttime freezing. They plan to harvest and eat their crops as long as they can into winter.

Last year, Birgit discovered that a swarm of grasshoppers had invaded the greenhouse, so they loaded up their chickens and let them loose until all of the pests were gone. After their feast, the chickens moved back to the coop, where their scratching did not disturb delicate garden plants.

Since we built our uninsulated hoop house in November, we did not plant anything in it last year until the end of February. Except for the corn and peas, our crop was a success. This year, we planted during the last week in September. Beets, radishes, mesclun, carrots, cabbage, kohlrabi, choi, peas, kale and spinach are thriving. We hope to harvest throughout the winter, as do our friends whose hoop house inspired us.

Variety of plants in greenhouse. (Photo by Dr. Sonia Vogl)

Last winter, our insulated solar greenhouse grew beet greens and arugula. This year, it is being subjected to extensive experimentation. Our daughter, Lin, moved delicate, hot-weather plants, including tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, inside. So far, they are growing beautifully. She also moved all of our potted herbs inside. They, too, are thriving. She seeded cucumbers, squash and sweet potatoes, all of which look healthy. We are eagerly awaiting their blooms and, we hope, fruits. The artichokes, which require 70 degrees Fahrenheit to germinate, are slow.

The energy efficiency of the greenhouse has been increased. Last year’s phase change materials, which require 70 degrees Fahrenheit to melt, were replaced by new ones, which melt and re-freeze between 45 degrees and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. We hope this change will collect more daytime heat and release it during the night to regulate temperatures.

Our friend, Vic, added red and blue LED grow lights to the white LEDs used last year. We plan to place half of our swiss chard under the grow lights and half under the white lights and record the results.

The green and hoop houses are exciting experiments in energy independence and sustainable lifestyles. We will continue to report on results so others may learn from our mistakes and successes and help themselves to become self-sufficient throughout the winter.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Dec. 7-13, 2011, issue

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