To summer visitors, the Adirondack Mountains of northeast New York offer warm, pleasant scenes at every turn. Rustic lakeside camps, where log cabins nestle amid colorful flower beds and boast overflowing window boxes, suggest living (and gardening) here would be so easy. But year-round residents like Pamela Dore, a landscape designer in the small town of Au Sable Forks (near Lake Placid), know this setting’s challenges. This coastal California transplant to USDA Zone 3 has had to learn the tricks of making plants grow in a climate that sees its last frost the first week of June and its first frost at the beginning of October.
"It’s definitely a challenge," Pamela says, "especially coming from California, where they grow everything." She and her partner, Ron, garden on three and a half open, sunny acres surrounded by the foothills of the Jay Mountain range, where winter temperatures plunge low (-45°F is the coldest she’s seen since she moved to the region in 1987). With just over 100 frost-free days in the growing season, Pamela has learned to cope by growing varieties of vegetables that mature quickly, planting the hardiest perennials she can find, and giving her seedlings and container plantings a jump start in a warm place: the greenhouse she and Ron built from recycled windows.
Extending The Season
For almost 20 years Pamela dreamed of building some kind of creative greenhouse out of recycled materials. She collected pictures and ideas over the years until, finally, she says, she "had land, motivation, and someone to help me."
She and Ron spent almost 10 years collecting old windows, mostly from neighbors who were installing more efficient windows in their homes. They would leave the old ones out by the side of the road as trash. The couple eventually collected 76 windows and began the painstaking process of stripping, sanding, and reglazing them, as well as replacing any panes that broke in the process.
"The real puzzle," Pamela recalls, "was figuring out how to piece together such diverse units to create a wall, and not have it look too much like an old hippie house and gross out the neighbors."
The greenhouse took nearly a year to build, starting with the foundation, poured five feet thick to prevent frost heaves, and ending with the clear corrugated UV-treated acrylic roof. The timbers are of local white cedar. Ron, a builder and carpenter, custom-built windows for difficult triangular spaces in the structure and made reproduction doors from red cedar. Eight of the windows open for ventilation, and Pamela uses two fans to keep the air circulating.
Although the greenhouse has a gas heater and a woodstove (which she picked up for five dollars at a yard sale), she says it’s not nearly insulated enough to keep temperatures at a reasonable level for plants to grow through the winter. She uses the space most heavily in the early spring, when she sets up a tent of clear plastic with 3 heat lamps and 30 grow-lamps to start seeds. She also uses the greenhouse benches to plant up the 250 window boxes she designs for clients. She plants them nearly a month before they’ll go outside, so that by the time the clients see them, they’re full and lush.
By the end of June, the 20-by-25-foot greenhouse is empty, except for the raised beds at the center of the house, where Pamela plants indeterminate tomatoes and trains them up a string, pinching off the axillary buds as the plants climb. The extra heat from the greenhouse environment ensures that, no matter what the weather’s like outside, she will have tomatoes at the end of the season. She has tried growing melons in the greenhouse during the summer, which worked maybe too well-"they completely take over," she says.
Pamela and Ron also have a large vegetable garden (27 feet by 60 feet). She leaves the beds and pathways in the same places every year, to avoid compacting the planting areas. She doesn’t rototill, preferring to turn the soil by hand, and she gardens organically, adding only compost and a few natural amendments. She does most of the gardening herself, but Ron does help out.
"He loves to eat, so at the beginning the rule was, ‘If you want to eat, you have to weed.’ Mostly he’s the harvester, though," Pamela says. "He loves to come home and pick vegetables for dinner. I like to grow it and cook it, so it’s a good arrangement."
The couple puts up preserves to make the harvest last through winter. "I can tomato sauce for winter-full of fresh herbs, onions, and garlic from the garden," she says. "Ron makes pickles and pickles, since he eats them every day for lunch. We make sauerkraut and we can green beans. Potatoes, onions, squash, and garlic come to the cellar. Beets, cabbage, and potatoes become borscht."
Like many vegetable gardeners in cold climates, Pamela leaves her carrots in the ground over the winter and harvests them through that season. She covers the carrot bed with a layer of straw, then a layer of woven row cover. She marks the bed with tall stakes, so that she and Ron can find it in the many feet of snow that will come. They shovel the snow bit by bit, working their way through the bed as the winter progresses. The carrots often last until spring.
Pamela has adapted to her home’s short season by planting varieties that mature quickly, as well as a lot of cool-season crops in early spring. Because the summers can be variable, she hedges her bets by planting both cool-season and warm-season crops. And, of course, her recycled greenhouse, which she waited so long to be able to build, makes the transitions between seasons more bearable.
"It goes to show," she says, "that when you make yourself ready and are willing to wait, your dream will happen when the time is right."