Zion Nat'l Park, Columbine

My GreenHouse: growing organic food in the cold of winter, in the Midwest…

Green House 11 Jan 2015-1-2As I endeavor to share my experiences of (attempting to) grow my own food–in the midst of the cold Midwest winter–I marvel at the journey that has brought me to this unexpected life opportunity.

We moved from Northern California to Evansville, Indiana a little over a year ago for a job offer that we couldn’t resist. (you can read about that here, if you’d like). We had never even heard of Evansville, Indiana prior to the job offer and when we came to visit that first time in June of 2013, we had no idea what to expect.

Yep, I’d read online about the Midwest growing a mega-ton of corn and soy, I’d read about the humidity and rain, and I also read about a couple of small-farm farmers who had embraced “near-organic” growing standards in the area, and who offered a coveted CSA (Community Supported Agriculture, read more here). I was happy to read that EVV had a natural food Co-op food market, River City Food Co-op as well as another natural food market, Elbert’s. I reached out to one of the farmers (Yay Gwen, from Off the Fence Farms!) and was somewhat soothed to know that there was some cleanly-grown food available in the EVV area–not at all like what I had become accustomed to in NorCal–but perhaps it’d be enough to sustain us…


On that first weekend’s visit, we went to the SouthWest Indian Master Garden Association, primarily because John had read about the lovely flower garden that attracted a plethora of colorful birds. Much to my surprise also growing there was a huge vegetable garden. I was touched by the signage stating that the garden had grown several tons of produce in the previous summer that had been donated to the Food Bank, and that this garden was managed by volunteer Master Gardeners. To my delight, a mature couple complete with their MG vests and name tags were working in the garden that morning.

As John photographed the birds and flowers, I engaged them in conversation. Tactfully, I steered the dialogue towards the organic gardening techniques with which I was familiar from my growing experiences in NorCal, and they told me that this MG garden project did not use chemicals on the plants. My heart soared! I was jubilant! They went on to tell me about how I could become a Master Gardener, which was required for me to do prior to being able to volunteer to work in the garden. Wow! I had found a beautifully productive garden, for which I could eventually volunteer to grow, weed, cultivate and share the bounty with the community.


When we made the decision that Yes! we’d move to the Midwest, the thought of becoming a Master Gardener was enticing. I signed up for the semester-long, once-a-year class online, after an email exchange with the instructor acknowledging that I would still be in California when class commenced, and that I’d miss the first three classes which meant that I’d use up all of the allowed absences before even sitting in the classroom! The instructor tried to persuade me to wait but I couldn’t imagine waiting until 2014 to take the class–I wanted to become a MG and volunteer in that lovely and productive garden! To be honest, I barely skimmed the requisite materials in those first three weeks, being busy closing our medical practice and packing up the house, but I showed up enthusiastically on time for the fourth lecture, on October 2, 2013.


Immediately, I experienced a gut-wrenching insight: that sweet, mature couple who implied that the MG produce garden did not use chemicals were not correct. And it’s entirely possible that I misheard or misinterpreted what they said. Nonetheless, that very first day in the MG program, I learned that MG’s embrace chemicals. They strive for perfection and ease within their produce and flower gardens and will happily spray chemicals to achieve that perfection. To say I was disheartened would be too gentle, I was all that, but I was also flabbergasted and a wee bit outraged. I won’t say more about the MG approach to growing food and flowers, but suffice it to say that I have had many animated conversations with the instructor over the course of the semester and that several of my fellow students approached me during class breaks to articulate their shared concerns and voice their affinity for cleanly-grown food.

When it came time to put in my MG volunteer hours–a prerequisite for progressing through the program–I found myself to be hesitant to participate in a garden project. I did volunteer with some teaching modules as well as some judging of 4-H gardens for the annual county fair. I considered dropping out of MG, as I saw a fairly large disparity between what I value in terms of growing techniques for food and ornamentals as compared to what is embraced by SWIMGA. Disclaimer: I am not criticizing members of SWIMGA and I am not wishing to sound righteous; I do however feel that SWIMGA members have a rich opportunity to expand their gardening techniques by embracing non-chemical methods of cultivation. My philosophy to those MG’s willing to listen is: “what right does one person have to dump toxic chemicals onto the land, into the water and air, primarily to grow unblemished produce and flowers?” It turned out that the MG instructor is also the coordinator of interns and he encouraged me to not leave the group–although he and I do not hold the same opinions about chemicals in the food chain, he saw that I am passionate about cleanly-grown food, and as a health educator, he encouraged me to find a project that would allow me to teach while promoting organic growing of food.

A Greenhouse Urban Farming experience comes to life!

And THAT is how I came to have a greenhouse…that, and the desire to feed myself and my husband some of the foods that I dearly miss from my NorCal days: artichokes, Brussel sprouts, Meyer lemons, figs, and year-round herbs to name a few, and all grown cleanly, without chemicals.  Not that I’d ever grown those plants previously, but they had always been readily available seasonally where I shopped. I’d only ever grown tomatoes, cukes, peppers, zuchs, and some herbs previously, all from starts that I’d happily purchased at the local organic nursery.  To qualify as a MG project, I have invited neighbors with children and non-neighbor friends with children to participate. I have the honor of sharing my passion for cleanly-grown food, and why it’s important in terms of personal health as well as for the health of the planet. I have zero greenhouse experience, so this is truly a learning project for all of us involved.

I bought the greenhouse online–perhaps some other time I’ll share with you the nightmarish logistics that arose from my lack of understanding of what occurs with construction–but eventually it was installed at the end of our driveway. It’s quite a lovely structure and 7 weeks into it, there are all sorts of foodstuffs growing in there. The herb beds contain parsley, tarragon, sage, oregano, scallions, rosemary, and thyme; I’ve got the Meyer lemon and fig trees in the soil; and have recently started from seed, cherry tomatoes, 2 types of okra, 2 types of beans, tomatillos, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, cucumber and sweet peppers. Seedlings 1.11.15We are off to a grand start! What we’ve/I’ve learned thus far:

  • 1. The pellets in which seeds are placed to facilitate their sprouting prior to being put into the soil require more water than you’d think! I lost most of the sprouts in the first 2 dozen pellets…

2. While the heater will keep the inside temperature at a lovely 60 degrees, the outside temperature will freeze the hose and water nozzle, rendering the watering process to become quite an act of creativity. Eventually, I figured out  to get a 3-gallon BPA-free container that will stay inside the greenhouse, to hold water for the days when the temps are below freezing. In the Midwest, there are plenty of those days.

3. Talking to plants helps them to grow strong and happily. I truly believe this.

4. The porous cement floor is absorbing some of the heat being cranked out by the heater, as observed by a friend who grew up on a farm. Per her suggestion, I am going to find some non-treated wood chips to put on the cement floor to provide a heat-retaining shield. This should diminish some of the Oy Vey! from the utility bill.

Stay tuned for progress and learning reports. Onward!



Green House 11 Jan 2015-1



Robin Mallery

Robin Mallery

Robin Mallery is passionate about food! Starting from where and how it's grown, to how far that food travels to the dinner table, to how it is prepared and savored...Robin blends shopping, cooking, and eating tips with her unique Kitchen Zen and mindful meals approach to enjoying real food.

While you are waiting for her to finish the upcoming book, "Kitchen Zen: The Journey to Nourish Body and Soul in Our Changing World", you can find Robin's sporadic blog posts here or on FaceBook.
Robin Mallery

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge

“Robin’s continual encouragement to pick a quit-smoking date inspired me to finally do it. She gave me the tools and strategies I needed to become a successful non-smoker!”
—Kathy D., client

recipe link
more...real food
Blog Categories