Walking into this Des Montes greenhouse is like stepping through a secret magical door into another reality where it is hot and wet and green, more jungle than desert.
The greenhouse of Peggy Hamill and Ted Keller is on the top of the ridge at the end of a steep, narrow road. The greenhouse entry is marked with a colorful ceramic rooster and stained glass panel above the door. The many angles of its gable-shaped roof let in the sun, and the interior brick walkways and walls store warmth.
Although it is a cold and windy March day outside, the inside of the greenhouse feels humid and warm and holds an astonishing number of vibrant green plants. It is time to complete the harvest of the fall and winter crops and make room for the spring planting, but spinach, kale, lettuce, broccoli, mustard greens and carrots are still in abundance. What began as an experiment almost five years ago is now a flourishing and productive year-round garden.
Hamill and Keller moved here nine years ago from Maine. Although Maine has a short growing season like Taos, the nights are warmer.
Hamill had grown a successful outdoor garden there for more than 30 years. Her first attempts at outside gardening at their new home in Des Montes were a complete disaster, she said.
Husband Ted Keller offered to design and build a greenhouse. It was completed and ready for planting in the fall five years ago. "The greenhouse solved all the gardening problems of New Mexico, including the wind, the cold nights, the dryness and the gophers," said Hamill.
Since that first fall crop, the greenhouse has been in constant production.
In the coming weeks, Hamill will plant potatoes, beans, a fresh crop of lettuce and Asian greens, such as pak choi. Most important, she will be making room for tomato, pepper and cucumber seedlings.
The tomatoes are among her most successful crops, with the plants growing so tall that they have to be suspended by ropes from the ceiling. "It is a jungle of tomatoes in the greenhouse," said Hamill.
She is in the process of setting up the bench she uses to plant the seedlings. "My bench has a heating mat on it, which is on a thermostat that comes on at night to keep the seedlings warm. If you have a way to keep them warm at night, it is a good time to start seedlings for planting out in the greenhouse in April and May," Hamill said. She emphasizes that it is important to get tomato seeds that are disease resistant because greenhouse plants are more vulnerable to disease.
An important consideration for cucumbers is to select a self-pollinating variety, known as parthenocarpic. "There are fewer pollinators in a greenhouse than outside and the cucumber flowers are tiny, so it is a lot of work to hand pollinate," she observes. She likes the Socrates, Telegraph Improved and H-19 Little Leaf varieties. She uses local manure for compost, and everything she grows is organic.
How the greenhouse was built
When Hamill and Keller decided to build their greenhouse, they researched online and looked at a number of options, including kits. Although there were many possibilities, the best ones were quite expensive even before adding the cost of the foundation, electricity and construction.
Keller, who is an artist and was an art professor, took on the challenge of designing and building the greenhouse himself. He had already designed and constructed their Des Montes home as well as a previous house, a lake cottage, a studio and two sheds.
The first step of the construction was to dig down 16 inches and remove the existing soil. They installed a wire mesh that has been successful in keeping the gophers out. The foundation was built and the planting beds were constructed using 16-inch cement blocks. Brick walkways were added between the beds, along with an 8-inch-thick cement block wall on the north edge of the structure. When the soil was replaced, it was mixed with a dump truck load full of compost in a 50-50 mix.
Heart redwood lumber was chosen for the frame, as it was the most rot-resistant and affordable wood available. All of the redwood was sustainably harvested.
For the roof, sheets of polycarbonate plastic were used. Keller chose this approach rather than glass because it has greater insulating value and is easier to cut and install. It is also much stronger than glass and resists hail and other forces. The polycarbonate is coated with UV protection to increase its longevity and also protect people working in the greenhouse from the sun. The slightly cloudy material provides a scattered and diffuse light that can help protect the plants from the sun's intensity.
A heating and cooling system that runs on a thermostat helps control the temperatures in the greenhouse, which range between below freezing up to 85 degrees in the winter and up to 90 degrees in the summer. In the hotter months, they often open the windows and door to help moderate the temperature. Fans and vents insure that the air keeps moving, which is very important to the health of greenhouse plants.
The plants are watered by hand with a hose using the water collected from rain on the roof and from the acequia. It is stored in a system of buried cisterns with a total capacity of 6,000 gallons.
The couple was so astounded by what they learned in the process of building the greenhouse and the crops that it produced that they wrote a book called "Ted's Greenhouse." Hamill said with a smile, "The book was the most stressful part of the experience. With the greenhouse, he built it and I planted it. For the book, we had to cooperate."
Even though it was a task to write, the book is a clear step-by-step approach to designing and building a greenhouse structure. It is full of beautiful pictures of the bounty of the garden in every season. It also contains a detailed budget and recommended books and additional resources.
"Ted's Greenhouse" won the National Indie Excellence Book Award. It is available at local bookstores and from Amazon. All profits are donated to Taos food pantries.
And the mountain said….
The couple's daughter and grandchildren live in Taos, but that it not the only reason they came here. Hamill said that on one visit, she was hiking with her daughter. "The mountain said, 'You should come,' and I've always wanted to live in the Rocky Mountains." It took about ten years to make it happen while Keller finished his work as an art professor at the University of Maine - Augusta. Hamill is a nurse, and she continued to work for a while after coming to Taos, but they were both retired by the time they built the greenhouse.
Challenges and successes
When asked about the challenges and successes of the greenhouse, Hamill said "I try to grow peppers every year, but with limited success, and the gophers ate everything until we figured out how to keep them out of the greenhouse with the mesh."
She has had good luck with beans and potatoes and likes the pak choi as it grows quickly. Zucchini has done well in the greenhouse; one huge zucchini plant grew to seven feet across. Hamill has grown peas, but she said they take a lot of work and space and don't produce that many peas.
"We eat a lot of salads and vegetables," said the couple. They have also been able to grow enough produce to supply her daughter's family with greens and donate to local food programs. "We are thrilled to be able to harvest our own produce 12 months of the year and are gratified that the greenhouse makes that possible. The growing conditions in New Mexico can be challenging. The greenhouse solves a lot of the problems. If you can afford a greenhouse, build the best one that you can afford. It will pay you back."