By Naomi Klouda
Inside Eve Matkin’s high tunnel greenhouse, the ground has thawed and warm moisture from the ceiling drips on fresh soil soon to be put to rototiller.
It’s 33 degrees Thursday morning, rising to 50 by afternoon. Inside the 30-by-72-foot structure, it’s a good 70 degrees and rising. Time to get the first plants in the ground, though it is only mid-April.
“Having this high tunnel extended my growing season by two weeks on each end. If it weren’t for this, we wouldn’t be planting until two weeks from now,” Matkin explained.
She operates a Community-Supported Agriculture service, providing weekly boxes of fresh produce to families, under the name of Steller Gardens.
Kyra Wagner, coordinator of Sustainable Homer, is helping Matkin and more than 150 other high tunnel owners network to achieve new levels of agricultural success. Some families bought into the high tunnels to provide their own food stores. Most of all the Homer Farmer’s Market producers also have them now, Wagner said.
The goal is local food independence. In Matkin’s case, that goes hand in hand with economic independence.
“I love what Eve is doing and would love to see more young folks her age getting into that kind of economic work instead of trying to find a career with a fancy firm,” Wagner said. “It builds community, they get to know farmers and it builds a grass-roots economy. Customers also get to know where their food comes from. They can live on the local community rather than live on what the stock market is doing. In the worst case, she can eat what she doesn’t sell.”
A town isn’t as vulnerable to outside ups and downs of a state or national economy if it can supply its own food demands and job needs, she said.
The tunnels are obtained through the U.S. Department of Agriculture High Tunnel Grant Program. Right now, Homer has worked its way through available grants, but interested people can still be placed on a wait list.
How it works
Just a few weeks ago, Matkin and Eivin Kilcher’s high tunnel covered frozen turf.
Unlike a traditional greenhouse, it doesn’t hold shelves for stacked growing trays. Instead, it resembles a plowed field, protected from nature’s forces and enclosed. Chickens left to free range over the winter kept warm and fertilized the soil. That cut down on the couple’s work. Still, Matkin said she intends to have the soil tested just to be sure it’s got all the nutrients it needs to produce at its best.
“That’s something everyone should do,” she said. “The Homer Soil and Water Conservation Service will test the soil (you send them a sample), and tell you if you need more lime or more fertilizer. It will let you know the health of your soil.”
Once soil is good to go, gardeners can cross that off the to-do list. Starts begun in warm windows or side-house nurseries are ready to go into the high tunnel’s ground as soon as the daylight grows longer in April. Gone are the days when the rule-of-thumb was to wait until trees closest to the garden spot sprouted tiny leaves.
A big window nursery in the house facing south shows a whole range of planter
boxes from recycled salad containers to commercial trays with soil blocks growing hundreds of plantings. Matkin’s nursery shows creative flare with recycled clear plastic salad containers whose tight- fitting lids make for warm enclosures.
“Some seeds love all this moisture, and get cozy in there and really grow. You have to know which plants like those warm, moist environments, and which ones want something else,” she said.
Trial and error are good teachers, but there are some basic fundamentals to Homer gardening that will be different from, say, gardening in the Matanuska-Susitna valleys, or even in Kenai. One difference is the types of vegetables that do best.
“I have planted herbs, tomatoes, fennel, onions, leeks and members of the Brassicaceae family: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and kohlrabi,” Matkin explains. “The kohlrabi has leaves that look like broccoli, but built close to the ground. People like to harvest the bulb and use it for salad.”
Marigolds and nasturtiums are good for supplying a natural insecticide — Matkin has several trays of those growing. Another small nursery greenhouse attached to the side of the house facing south holds more of these varieties.
In the high tunnel, she’ll directly plant greens: Swiss chard, spinach, varieties of lettuce. Then come the seeds for root vegetables, again planted directly in the warm soil: carrots, beets and potatoes. Squash plants, varieties of zucchini, acorn and spaghetti squash also do well.
For tomatoes, Matkin goes in for the Red Robyn variety, Sungolds (small yellow tomatoes) and is trying her hand at heirlooms.
“They (the heirlooms) don’t produce much, they’ll be green zebra-striped. But personally, I like to experiment and on down the way, might be able to offer those,” she said.
For her produce “subscribers,” the first weekly boxes will contain greens, then gradually as plants mature, the drop-offs become abundant with more variety, until fall when root vegetables become available and boxes will overflow.
The high tunnels allow gardeners to work well into October, harvesting potatoes, beets and hardy greens like kale.
“I want everyone, ideally, to be able to afford healthy food. My dream someday is to give any member a box of food that provides them with everything they need,” she said.
Given that chickens are good for a greenhouse, and the greenhouse is good for chickens, Matkin is able to sell cartons of eggs, though not in a great volume. She has 60 chicks coming that will bolster this side of her enterprise. Also she’s looking at offering gallons of milk from Otto Kilcher’s farm. She also rotates among two or three garden plots outside in the summer, in addition to the high tunnel plots. This rotation strengthens the soil’s nutrients, bolstered by compost during fallow periods.
Matkin has a degree in psychology from the University of Oregon at Eugene, and works for HoWL as well as in programs for children. But the CSA project, which occupies her for about eight months of the year, brings her beliefs on lifestyle in line with ecological ideas.
“My CSA and farm project has been my passion ever since taking a permaculture class in Hawaii. Permaculture really promotes the idea that one should attempt to produce more than one consumes. A difficult task but one that I am always working towards,” Matkin said.