Lee and Kathy Newman, of rural Mabel, are shown inside their large greenhouse where they raise vegetable and flower plants from seeds.
CHARLIE WARNER/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP Lee and Kathy Newman, of rural Mabel, are shown inside their large greenhouse where they raise vegetable and flower plants from seeds.
 Imagine carefully placing tiny seeds in half dollar-size containers filled with bedding compost. One cannot plant the seed too deep or too shallow, otherwise the seed won’t germinate and there won’t be a plant. Sounds kind of labor intensive?

Now multiply this operation by tens of thousands of times. That’s what Lee and Kathy Newman of rural Mabel do each year when mid-winter arrives and their greenhouse swings into activity.

“I basically live out here for four or five months each year,” Kathy recently said. “We start planting onions and petunias from seed in January. They take a long time to germinate. In February we start most of the rest of our flowers and also all of our brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, rutabaga and turnips). The tomatoes come next. Everything we raise comes from seeds. And it is very labor intensive.”

There are 200 starter containers in each starter flat and the Newmans handle nearly 600 starter and finishing flats each growing season.

“I really couldn’t tell you how many potted plants and flowers we raise each year. But it is a lot,” Kathy said with a smile.

The Newmans have a large greenhouse, 20 feet wide by 40 feet long, which is filling up rapidly with various types of vegetable and flowering plants. The greenhouse was built in 2011, utilizing repurposed lumber and siding. A carpenter for much of his life, Lee enjoys using materials that others have discarded. The large greenhouse and many out buildings on their farm are testaments of this.

“The only part of this greenhouse that wasn’t built with used materials is the ceiling. We used new Lexan panels for the ceiling. We wanted a material that would let in the most light and yet be durable,” Lee explained. “These panels are very strong. They have weathered a number of hail storms and we haven’t experienced any damage.”

The greenhouse is heated throughout the cold months with a large heat exchanger that is hooked up to a massive outside wood furnace that provides hot water heat to the greenhouse and their large home. The north, west and east sides of the greenhouse are super insulated, as is the knee wall on the south side. The Lexan panels cover the ceiling and the upper portion of the south wall, allowing for the optimum amount of sunlight even during the winter months.

“I can come out here in the middle of the winter and with the sun coming in from the ceiling panels, it’s just like spring,” Kathy said. “That is one of the things I like most about our greenhouse.”

Kathy has been gardening for most of her life. She grew up on family farms near Stewartville and later near Plainview. The eldest of a large family, Kathy was expected to spend copious amounts of time pulling weeds and nurturing vegetable plants in the family gardens. 

“With a large family, we had a large garden, about a half acre on the Stewartville farm and a 40 by 60 foot garden at the Plainview farm,” she recalled. “My two grandmothers and my mother all spent a lot of time out in those gardens. They taught me much of what I know about gardening.”

While Kathy and Lee always had vegetable gardens as they raised their family on their farm north of Mabel, it wasn’t until Kathy said she wanted to raise a certain variety of tomatoes that they looked into greenhouses. Kathy wanted to raise heirloom tomatoes, but found utilizing a greenhouse was the route to take. So Lee fashioned a small greenhouse out of a packing crate. Soon the packing crate greenhouse just wasn’t large enough. So Lee built a larger one. This all led to the current greenhouse they have been enjoying for the past six years.

The rearing process from seeds to the starter containers and then to the finishing containers isn’t all to this story. Once the plants get so mature, Lee and Kathy move them out of the warm confines of the greenhouse into finishing huts. These are structures that are open ended so the plants are subjected to some wind and partial sun.

“If you would just take your plants out of the greenhouse and stick them in the ground, they would die,” Kathy said. “The Lexan panels filter out the ultra violet rays of the sun. So you have to gradually let the plants get used to the direct sun. Again, this is quite labor intensive, moving all of these flats in and out of the greenhouse and into the finishing huts.”

The majority of the plants the Newmans raise each spring are sold at the Simple Living Farmers Market in Mabel. They also raise some plants for their daughter’s greenhouse near Decorah.

To transport the hundreds of plants to Mabel every Saturday, Lee constructed a greenhouse on wheels. He took a four-wheel wagon and put a movable canopy (made of corrugated metal with sides) on it. When motoring the eight miles down Highway 43 between their farm and Mabel, the canopy is lowered with a pulley system and the young plants are snug as a bug. When they arrive at the farmer’s market, the canopy is raised and the Newmans are ready to start selling.  

“The Mabel Farmer’s Market usually opens the last Saturday in April or the first Saturday in May, depending on the weather,” Kathy said. “We usually sell our vegetable and flower plants through mid-June. We used to also have a large vegetable garden and sold produce throughout the summer. But we’re getting too old for that. We decided this past winter that we were done with the large produce garden. This is certainly enough for us,” she concluded, as she looked around the large greenhouse filled with young plants.