An aroma of sweet flowers and ripe tomatoes greets a visitor to Nan Fischer’s garden in El Prado. After a spring and summer of planting, Fischer’s greenhouse and outdoor gardens are blooming and offering a bounty of vegetables to be used in simple, delicious recipes for fall.
Fischer closely observes the cycle of the seasons in order to help her garden grow as long as possible. She is beginning to watch nighttime temperatures to be prepared for the freeze that often comes in September. “As soon as you start gardening, you are living with the planet,” she said.
The Taos News visited Fischer’s garden this past spring to see her new greenhouse under construction. The hoop house structure was finished the same week we visited. In early September, we returned to investigate how the hoop house withstood the stresses of spring and summer and to see how the tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and basil were doing. They were doing very well, indeed.
A hoop house
Fischer is the founder of the Taos Seed Exchange and a widely recognized expert on growing in Taos. She has lived in her current home for 20 years and her garden is full of flowers and vegetables that have been added over time. Fischer sells plant starts to local gardeners and farm-to-table restaurants.
In the past, she has relied on germinating seeds in an indoor greenhouse and then moving them out to a cold frame structure made from straw bales and used windows all covered with plastic. The process of covering the plants every night was taxing and Fischer decided she wanted a simpler, easier place to cultivate her plants.
The hoop house structure measures 10 feet by 12 feet and is built from galvanized metal poles and lumber. She used a kit from Growers Solution that had most of the material needed for the structure, except for the lumber, which was bought locally, and the doors, which came from the Habitat ReStore.
In early September, tall green stalks growing in big pots were heavy with ripening tomatoes. Some had grown so tall that they had to be attached by string to the sides of the greenhouse. Fischer offered me, as well as photographer Katharine Egli, samples of the red cherry tomatoes that were sweet and juicy.
Some of the cherry tomatoes are good for drying. Fischer recommends cutting them in half and roasting them at 200 degrees for four hours in the oven. The roasted tomatoes can be put in jars covered in olive oil or in freezer bags for use during the cold winter months.
The yellow cherry tomatoes didn’t do as well and the first fruit was small and bitter, but the more recent tomatoes are bigger and more flavorful. Most impressive among the tomatoes were the large oblong red Roma tomatoes. These were huge and mouthwatering – hanging from plants that are 10 feet tall. The eggplants were growing large and purple and Fischer had already harvested four of them.
Fischer quietly confesses that she is not a big chile fan, but she grew Chimayó chiles for cooking and for seeds. She is also enjoying the shishito chiles requested for starter plants by friends. She roasts the little chiles until they pop and serves them as appetizers with dipping sauces, like chipotle mayonnaise.
Even though the garden is bursting with healthy-looking vegetables, Fischer said the beginning of the season required some trial and error. “I put a few experimental starts in the greenhouse and covered them with row cover [a spun polyester material that protects the plants, but allows air and light in] and frost cloth. I added concrete bricks around the floor for thermal mass and covered all of it. I would shut the whole thing up while it was still sunny out to trap as much heat as possible. I kept a thermometer that shows highs and lows and the plants survived down to 20 degrees.”
Like all Taos gardeners, Fischer deals with her share of weather and pest challenges. “I struggled with the hot, dry June and notice that the produce is ripening later in August than in previous years,” she said. “Last September’s early frost came as a total surprise.”
The Farmer’s Almanac is predicting the date of first frost as Oct. 1, based on 20 years of past temperatures. Temperatures can vary greatly based on terrain in the Taos Valley. Information from the National Weather Service shows Sept. 28 as the average first freeze date for Taos. The agency lists average first freeze dates for towns and cities around New Mexico at weather.gov/abq/clifeaturefallfreeze.
In her extensive outdoor garden, there are carrots, squash, beefsteak tomatoes, dill and beans mixed in among a colorful array of pink cosmos and yellow sunflowers. Dark purple and red sweet peas bloom near cucumber plants. Red cabbage – planted for the first time – flourished this summer, as did the kale. Some of the other plants were not so lucky, including the broccoli, which was attacked by aphids.
Fischer said one of her biggest challenges was a gopher with a taste for beans, all kinds of beans. The gopher ate some cranberry beans that came from Maine, destroying half of the plants. “Gophers are expensive to trap, so I just put up with it,” said Fischer. Some “gold of Bacau” flat beans survived, which Fischer likes to eat steamed with salt and butter.
Butterflies and bees are everywhere in the garden, darting in and out of hollyhocks, dahlias, zinnias and fragrant purple alyssum. The light lavender-colored borage and orange nasturtium are edible and also attract pollinators. While we inspect the garden, Fischer notices seeds appearing in the flowers of the delicate pink four o’clocks – much to her delight. She collects the seeds and others, saving them from year to year and allowing some of them to fall to the ground to reseed.
“People stop me in the streets and give me seeds,” she said. In addition to these gifts and the seeds she saves from her garden, she buys seeds locally and from Renee’s Garden Seeds. “I had held on to seeds from Renee’s for 13 years for a night-blooming white-scented flower. It grew and flourished in the greenhouse for many years. I was impressed by these incredible seeds,” she said of her first purchase from Renee’s.
Coming of fall
Although the forecast for the next few days shows warm days and nighttime temperatures in the mid-40s to high 30s, there are microclimates in Taos and one area may freeze well before another. Fischer recommends putting a thermometer in the greenhouse.
For the outside garden, she said, “Pay attention to the weather so that you’re not surprised by the first frost. Watch weather channels and websites and give them a margin of error of at least 3 degrees. Be prepared with row cover, frost cloth or even old sheets and blankets. You will want to cover things at night and uncover them during the day. It always warms up again after the first frost, so it pays to protect your plants, so they keep producing until the absolute end of the season.”
As always, Fischer plans to keep on trying new things. “I just see what happens. Experiment with plants, keep changing and shoring up the approach,” she said. She hopes to keep tomatoes and other plants producing into October and is already thinking about ways to add more thermal mass, including adding rain barrels or gravel to the floor of the greenhouse. She may even try covering the whole structure with insulated blankets used for curing concrete.
Fischer doesn’t heat her greenhouse, so when the hard freeze finally comes, she will let the plants die. She usually cuts them up for compost and leaves the pots ready for next year. “By the time the season is done, I’m ready to stop and read and stay inside. I’ll enjoy some downtime before I start planning for next year,” said Fischer.
To find out more, visit Fischer’s website (sweetlyseeds.com), call her at (575) 770-3055 or visit the Taos Farm and Garden page on Facebook. The Taos Seed Exchange can be found at the Habitat ReStore.