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Passions

The Joys of Backyard Gardening

By Adam Wightman

It’s the middle of the winter, the outside thermometer registering minus two, and Stan Dunn is going over multiple strains of his own home-grown lettuce, still thriving in soil. Tonight he will cut off some for a dinner salad.

It’s one of the perks of his backyard greenhouse vegetable garden hobby.

“I thought having a greenhouse would be a nice way to be able to extend the spring and fall growing seasons beyond what you can achieve outside,” said the Western University biochemistry professor, as he brushes his hand across his crops in his six-by-four foot greenhouse, outside his northwest London home.

Having been a life-long gardener, ever since he tended his family vegetable garden as a boy in his native Omaha, Nebraska, Dunn decided in the summer of 2008 that he would buy a greenhouse.

Stan Dunn
Photo by Adam Wightman
Stan Dunn grows veggies year-round thanks to his backyard greenhouse.

So he put the $250 that Western gave him for his 25-year teaching gift towards a $650 greenhouse for sale at Costco, and set it in the corner of his backyard.

In the four years he’s had his greenhouse, Dunn says this is the first time he will be able to eat the vegetables grown in it the entire winter, the result of the London region’s unseasonably mild weather.

While the cost of growing lettuce, spinach and claytonia (a salad green) in his greenhouse is minimal, that is not alone justification for the endeavour. Vegetables in the grocery store can be relatively cheap. The reason for his greenhouse gardening is more fundamental than just being hobby, as well. It is about having control over the way some of the vegetables he eats are grown.

“What you’re doing is you’re getting the quality you want, the varieties that you could never get in the store. You know there are no pesticides on it, and they are absolutely fresh.”

There are 15 types of lettuce growing in his greenhouse, with multiple kinds of spinach and claytonia, some strains of which he says he has never be able to get in even the largest supermarket.

“I buy seeds from five or six different places online, mostly Canadian places, a couple in Ontario and a couple in BC. They are kinds that you can’t buy around here.”

To ensure the varieties last the winter, his greenhouse is rigged with an automatic heating system. Not fancy, but a simple contraption that combines a small electric-heater, a fan—both the kind available for around $30 in box-stores— with an automatic temperature sensor, which signals the fan and heater to turn on when the temperature inside the greenhouse gets too cold, and kick off when it gets too warm.

Backyard Greenhouse
Photo by Adam Wightman
Stan Dunn’s backyard greenhouse seen in the early morning.

He is a busy professor, and the system allows him to maintain constant heat in the greenhouse without having to always monitor the temperature or worry about his crops freezing.

But while the heat allows his crops to survive the winter, the greenhouse doesn’t have a floor, so the soil inside is only slightly warmer than the earth outside. That means he’s selective when choosing what will be grown over the winter.

“I grow mostly plants that like to grow in cold weather. Some varieties of lettuce are amazingly hardy,” he said.

Dunn also grows vegetables in his outside garden from May until the fall, and in September, he plants these virulent strains of lettuce, claytonia and spinach in the greenhouse, all of which he can harvest by late November.

By December, the reduced sunlight slows the veggies’ growth to a halt but doesn’t kill them. The crops that have grown in the fall remain alive inside the greenhouse for the winter months, providing a fresh but dwindling supply of leaf vegetables until the early spring.

Now near mid-February, there are fewer than ten bushels of lettuce for them to eat until March, when the second crop of seedlings he planted two weeks ago—when there was again enough sunlight for the seeds to sprout—will be mature enough to harvest.

“There is more sunlight with days getting longer now, so they are starting to grow again,” he said.

The efforts that Dunn goes through to make sure that there are a wide variety of fresh, healthy, organic produce on his kitchen table have not gone without notice.

His friends call him the King of Kale.

He earned the title after their amazement at the numerous types of the plant that he grows in his outdoor garden during the summer months.

“I don’t know who gave me that name,” he says while laughing with his wife, Linda. “It might have been (a friend). It might have been something I called myself.”

It isn’t altogether unlikely that his students have some of their own nicknames for him. In his fall biochemistry class at Western, he hosts a unique guessing game every Friday— called Name the Vegetable.

He brings in a unique vegetable—typically unheard of for even most frequent produce-eaters—from his garden and the first of his pupils to name it gets to take it home with them. He provides hints to guide them along, so he doesn’t have to go home with it.

“It is kind of hokey, but they like it,” he says with his face lit up, almost giddy. “I will take in some kind of oddball vegetable, either kale, a giant black radish, arugula, that kind of stuff.”

Besides being a quirky, fun game to send students off to their weekend, it provides them with a message of healthy eating, he said, something for which he goes through all of the chores required to maintain his greenhouse crops. It is important lesson for them, he said.

“Many students come here and they don’t seem to know how to take care of themselves in terms of things like cooking, or eating properly.”

The King of Kale’s love of vegetables is very much a way of life, from which lies the foundation of his winter gardening.

Linda says that it is something that he has passed on to his daughter, Evelyn, who grows vegetables from the balcony of her Vancouver apartment.

“She hasn’t been very successful. But the interest is there at least,” she said.
And that is something that Stan seems to be proud of.

“It is something that parents don’t teach their children like they should. You’re always going to eat healthier if you prepare good food yourself than if you eat pre-prepared, processed food,” he said.

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About Western Journalism

We're members of the University of Western Ontario's master of arts in journalism program. Our blog represents a common theme in stories through our third term.

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