I recently was given a great opportunity to sit down with avid gardener Colleen Gloss of West Chicago, IL. Sitting on a Sunday afternoon on her back deck looking out on her corner potting shed, with Colleen, and her sister Kathy, I hardly asked a question before her passion for vegetable and perennial gardening came pouring out.
She grows her abundant garden from seed when the long winter days still linger and the soil outside is chilled. Her laundry room provides the perfect location to begin her flats of culinary herbs, vegetables, and heirloom perennials.
The tale begins each fall, as she gathers seeds from perennials, and her heirloom tomatoes and uses old screens to dry them out in the potting shed. Once dried the seeds are placed in small wax envelopes, stuffed in recycled viles and saved over the winter in the cool temps of the potting shed. Her two current favorite tomato varieties are Italian Classico and Amish Paste. The remainder of seeds are purchased. Colleen recommends the Seed Saver Exchange in Decora, IA for their reasonable prices and great information. Check out seedsavers.org to find out more about them.
Once planted and thriving in the laundry room, the colder season plants like lettuce can begin the transition to the cold frames on the south side of the house. Colleen plants in succession of 7-10 day intervals, so there is enough lettuce to use throughout the season. Once it is time for other plants like petunias and leeks to make their climate change to the cold frames, the cool season plants get kick out for the potting shed. This triangle rotation gives the plants a chance to transition into the real world of the garden soil.
Check out these cold frames which are currently housing leeks and heirloom petunias. The flats sit atop a weave of heat coils attached to a chicken wire mesh to help keep the soil warm during chilly April days. The coils are set in sand so that when they heat up, the entire sand base is warmed and provides even heat to the trays of plants. The potting shed also has a similar system.
Talking to Colleen, she makes her whole system seem like a breeze. While many gardeners struggle with soil borne disease and pesky rabbits, Colleen credits her dogs for keeping the critters at bay, and her reused soil is rich with her own fresh compost and leaf mulch. To start the small transplants she used seed starter mix which she finds has too much peat. She then adds her own vermiculite to create the best soil for her new sprouts.
I admire Colleen’s approach to reuse of materials, down to the potting shed roof which takes run off water into a rain barrel and captures enough water for the vegetable garden during the summer. It takes effort and more than a little research. A few good resources like “Mother Earth News” and “The Herb Companion” are Colleen’s company for great ideas on staying true to nature. If you are planning to try your own hand at seed starting she recommends “The New Seed Starter Handbook” by Nancy Bubel. The text rich book is chock full of details on individual plants and their specific requirements. A great guide for planting times are based on the information she receives from the “Farmer’s Almanac” and bases much of her plantings on the Lunar calendar. The guide points to which days during each phase of the moon is optimal for planting.
After a long summer of tending to her vegetables and herbs, the reward is plenty. Colleen uses the herbs wrapped in cheese cloth to infuse olive oil. The oil can be frozen in individual servings to be used later. She is also a great fan of pesto, and canning pickles. Now that she has perfected her seed starting, Colleen knows how many plants of each type to grow to produce what she needs without getting carried away. Her one tip for newbies is to stick with the tried and true varieties. I whole heartedly agree with her on this one.
Above the bench in her potting shed is written this quote “Green fingers are the extension of a verdant heart” by Russell Page. I thoroughly enjoyed learning from Colleen and her confidence in green practices. It might be easier to run to the store for plugs of peppers and tomatoes, but there is much satisfaction in beginning from the beginning, and to take the organic approach. “When I don’t take an hour after work to do a little work on my garden, I feel jipped”, Colleen explains. Thank you Colleen and Kathy for teaching me something new. I hope to come back in the fall for the harvest and pass along a few recipes!