Gardening oasis exists amidst winter tundra
Tuesday, February 12, 2013 2:56 AM
Among the leafless trees, snow-covered hills and barren fields of Fillmore County, there is an oasis of greenery that is being carefully maintained throughout the winter months.
Liz Belina shows off some of the variety of greens she cares for during the winter months.
As a gardener, Liz Belina is used to experiencing the yearly planting in the spring, the harvesting in the summer and fall, and the eventual death of her plants by winter. However, four years ago, Belina was inspired to continue gardening in the winter months and knew that she could only accomplish this with a greenhouse.
"It was on my bucket list to have a greenhouse," shared Belina, who started building her greenhouse according to "The Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual," a do-it-yourself instruction book by Carol Ford and Chuck Waibel from Milan, Minn. She has been producing greens and vegetables in the winter ever since.
Belina grew up on a farm near West Concord, Minn., a town in Dodge County. Her parents had nine other children beside herself, which, according to Belina, necessitated a garden. Because her mother gardened, Belina has likewise followed in her mother's footsteps with her own gardens.
"There's a lot of things I do that my mother did," she shared. "I didn't question what my mother did." Belina also explained that being provided with healthy and fresh meals from her mother's garden influenced her developing a green thumb.
After high school in West Concord, Belina went off to Mankato and received a degree in art, which she later used in a teaching position in Sioux Falls, S.D. After two years there, she moved to Owatonna, Minn., where she worked with her husband, Mike, in a family business selling nuts and bolts. She still works for her husband today, but has gradually reduced the amount of time she puts into it.
Belina now lives and gardens in the place where she and Mike made their vacation spot in the countryside of Fillmore County, between Peterson and Highland, while living in Owatonna.
Throughout her life, Belina has always kept some kind of garden, whether it was just a few plants in her apartment in Sioux Falls or the multiple garden beds she now maintains.
She and Mike have two daughters and Belina says the way she raised her girls with knowledge of gardens was the way her mother did it for her. Belina's daughters still garden themselves.
"They are both envious of the greenhouse," Belina shared, smiling. The greenhouse, although it is relatively new, has become a natural extension of Belina's love for gardening and has given her more freedom to experiment.
The whole concept of having a greenhouse developed quickly for Belina. In addition to reading the book by Ford and Waibel, both Belina and her sister visited the couple's greenhouse that is being used for Community Supported Agriculture. This is when local community members essentially buy stock in their local farmers in return for a designated amount of fresh produce.
Gaining firsthand insight into how to build a successful greenhouse, Belina began putting it all together for herself in the summer of 2008. There were already plans for a machine shop, so adding on another 15 feet by 16 feet piece of foundation for the greenhouse was easy. To enter the greenhouse one must go through the shed.
Like all greenhouses, Belina's has several walls and the ceiling made from a special polycarbonate glaze that reduces the heat lost, which is very important in the winter. The main part of the garage and a portion of the greenhouse are heated by a geothermal system, which Belina said helps keep temperatures up in the greenhouse when it is cold outside.
Most of Belina's plants are able to withstand temperatures in the mid-40s. However, she still uses germinating mats for seedlings she has just started, which contributes additional heat. The main source of heat is through a system of corrugated drain tile underneath the soil. Using an in-line fan, Belina draws hot air close to the ceiling down a PVC pipe that goes into the ground and breaks off into a corrugated drain tile system underneath the soil. As the warm air escapes from the drain tile it heats up a layer of river wash rocks. The rocks lie beneath two feet of soil, which is separated by a layer of fabric that prevents the soil from mixing with the rocks.
The greenhouse is very effective at retaining heat, Belina pointed out, noting that she has seen the temperature reading top out at 140 degrees during the summer. In dealing with a constant "juggling act" of maintaining ideal temperatures, Belina has fresh air brought in from the outside through a wall vent she can open and close. On the wall opposite the vent, she also installed a fan that can be turned on and off to blow hot air out of the greenhouse. "Heat can actually kill important soil microbes," Belina explained, proving that there is a science to growing plants in a greenhouse.
The greenhouse faces the south to maximize the amount of sunlight it receives throughout the day. The ceiling is angled based on the latitude the greenhouse is at on the planet; Belina's greenhouse ceiling has a 60 degree angle. The closer a greenhouse is to the equator the closer to zero degrees the ceiling will be. There are other factors with the sunlight that influence the shape and style of the greenhouse. Getting sunlight isn't an issue during the day even if it is cloudy.
What Belina doesn't enjoy are the longer nights during the winter. "I could use grow lights, but those aren't as effective with the quantity of plants I have," she explained.
The soil plots are broken up into sections within the greenhouse to allow access to each one for weeding and watering. Belina also hangs rain gutters that are capped on the ends for plant beds from ceiling joists. She drills holes in them for drainage purposes. Everything in the greenhouse, besides the walls, came from a hardware store.
Even though there is a lot of planning behind the structure of the building and plant beds, Belina shared, "There isn't a lot of planning where things will actually be planted." She will separate plants based on how much water they need and also reserve space for plants she is experimenting with.
This winter, she is growing a cherry tomato plant that already has ripe tomatoes on it. The tomatoes actually let Belina know how cold it gets during the night, based on the amount of damage they have sustained.
"Cucumbers were a failure one year," she recalled while showing off the wide variety of salad greens and vegetables she grows. Currently, Belina has celery leaf, parsley, kale, beets, arugula, bok choy, char and pea leaves growing, among many other lettuces and Asian greens.
She commented, "Compared to what my mother planted, there is now a greater variety of things. I never had asparagus or kohlrabi when I grew up."
With all of Belina's work, she averages around two to three pounds of produce a week in the winter. "In a perfect world, the greenhouse has a potential of six to eight pounds per week," she shared.
During what is called the shoulder season in spring and fall, Belina increases production up to six pounds per week. Last year, Belina gave, by her estimation, around 600 pounds of fresh produce from both her outside gardens and her greenhouse to the Rushford schools and the Fillmore County Food Shelf.
Belina also sells much of her winter produce at Lanesboro Local and often finds the demand higher than she can supply. "There has been an increase in the number of local buyers," remarked Belina, but she also pointed out the number of producers hasn't been going up. "I would like to be able to work with others that are doing what I am," she stated. "Finding good, fresh food is possible in Minnesota."
Getting more people to want to produce and consume fresh food grown locally takes education. Belina recognizes that kids need to understand where their food comes from and why it is important to know what they are eating.
"Just because you can put it into your mouth does not mean it's food," Belina stated, "Just because it may have been made from food does not make it food. We need to teach kids what is and is not good food."
In order to help expose children to gardening, Belina has hosted 4-H groups at her greenhouse. Lanesboro Local has also brought tours out to Belina's place to see her greenhouse and to ask her questions.
Belina stressed the importance of education when it comes to plants and gardens. "Growing a bean in a window is inadequate if you want to show kids how plants actually grow. Having a greenhouse makes it possible for an instructor to show what happens and to talk about microbes and soil," she said. "Before I started my greenhouse, I thought soil was dirt, but now I know that good soil is actually teaming with life - tiny microorganisms that enable plants to collect nutrients and grow dirt."
Belina's life-long learning surrounding gardening is only as limited as her willingness to experiment and according to her, she thinks she should experiment more.
Belina also has benefited from the therapeutic side of gardening. Since she must spend a half-hour to an hour a day taking care of her greenhouse, she considers it her vacation spot.
"I love sitting out here in the sun with the green plants around me and a glass of wine and a good book," she shared. Because of the attention her greenhouse demands every day, whenever she needs to leave for a while, Belina will hire a "babysitter" to take care of her plants.
Her background in art, which Belina still maintains with quilting and creating her own line of patterns, has served Belina well in her gardening hobby. "A garden is a piece of art, but it becomes an art piece that you can live in," Belina explained.
She also focuses on the process of gardening instead of just on the end product. "I like seeing if I can figure out how to do it," she stated.
Many of the processes she uses in her greenhouse align with the organic and natural methods being promoted throughout mainstream culture.
"I grew up living sustainably because of my mother," she remarked. Because of this, she uses natural fertilizers and compost, organic insect sprays, and she stays away from GMO and treated seeds. Belina does not like to waste resources, which is why she tries to keep her food as natural as possible.
During the spring she goes morel mushroom hunting and during the summer, you could find her gathering black raspberries. It's all a part of the person Belina wants to be.
The greenhouse, the garden and the healthy lifestyle that comes naturally from those things keep inspiring her and, as she hopes, will inspire others to improve their lives.