Beloved greenhouse is the glass heart of our farm

By Jasper Forrester

For The Beachcomber

I was starting to give up on that old greenhouse; a 25-by-50 foot patchwork of old windows and scrap wood built by the former owners of the farm.

I knew the day would come when I’d have to replace her. I just didn’t think it would end under a couple tons of snow.

December 2008 and I was on my own. My husband Will was spending the holiday with his family back East. I wasn’t worried; we had plenty of feed for the animals and plenty of wood for the wood stove. In spite of the bumps and bruises from falling on the ice, I was doing okay.

After a night of especially heavy snowfall, I went out to survey the damage. The chicken coop was partially collapsed and the hay storage canopy was a complete loss. No problem — I propped up the coop and dragged the dry bales over to the barn. Then I walked into the greenhouse and my heart sank. The ridge beam had cracked and the roof was sagging inward. I was stuck right in the middle of a dangerous conundrum: Do I try to save the greenhouse (which might collapse at any time), or do I let her go and head back inside to Google “greenhouse kits”?

No, the choice was clear. I had to save this old glass greenhouse. She’s the heart of this farm.

Back in the ’90s, I was living on the west side of the Island, searching for a small farm to buy. One Saturday, I stopped by a yard sale at an old farm on Dilworth Road.

Over the years, they had amassed so much stuff that when the owner finally decided to sell, she just put up a “Yard Sale” sign and let folks pick through her life’s accumulated history.

The place was a wreck: The fields were overgrown with blackberries, and every building was in need of some long-deferred maintenance. I was just about to pay for my egg beater and leave when I stepped out the back door and saw the greenhouse. Right then, I knew that the weeds and the repairs were only minor annoyances. I had found the farm at last.

Within a few months, the buildings were cleaned out; I had a couple of goats working on the blackberries, and the greenhouse benches were full of tiny plants.

I had named the farm after an ancient Celtic symbol of regeneration, and the sign I painted out front read “GreenMan Farm.”

In the 13 years since, I have started many thousands of veggies in that greenhouse. It is my favorite farm task: In the midst of winter, life begins anew. It is an undertaking so full of hope and the promise of joys to come.

Our customers at the Farmers Market welcome each new crop that comes in like an old friend. Visitors to the Island are often amazed at the beauty and flavor of our produce, and we are very proud of every mouthful.

That greenhouse is more than just the incubator for life; she also collects lifegiving water for our crops. We’ve fitted her big polycarbonate roof with rain gutters, and we collect the runoff in three 1,100-gallon water tanks. With an average annual rainfall of about 36 inches, we can collect nearly 24,000 gallons of water for our crops each year.

Over the years, the greenhouse has hosted many cider pressings and impromptu potlucks. She’s been filled with the laughter of kids from summer camp who want to learn about microfarming. She’s been a warm oasis for visitors from other climes who can’t take another day of dreary drizzle.

And she is truly more than a greenhouse. She is a GREENhouse: constructed of recycled windows and wood, saving hundreds of gallons of precious rainwater with each passing squall.

In moving here, I choose to simplify my life and practice the art of “making do.” No shiny new plastic greenhouse kit could ever epitomize that choice the way that this one does.

That snowy morning, I went into action: I frantically dug through the woodpile until I found a couple of 4-by-4s tall enough to support the ridge beam. Then I spent the entire day up on an orchard ladder scraping snow off the roof with a rake. With the weight removed, her ridge beam nearly sprang back into shape.

It was well past dark before I collapsed on the sofa, sore but sure that the greenhouse would survive. That was Christmas Day.

So there she stands, a glass and scrap wood edifice to perseverance and hope. Every bench is loaded with beautiful, robust seedlings just waiting to be transplanted out into the growing beds. The radio plays Mozart as I softly brush my hands over the tiny forests of broccoli, arugula and tomatoes.

Everything is going to be okay — I am at peace here in the glass heart of my farm.

— Jasper Forrester is a farmer and Island musician.

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