Garden and Greenhouse on Orcas Island
By the summer of 2000 the world had survived Y2K, I had retired, and we were spending much of our time at our house in Deer Harbor on Orcas Island. Yvonne was ready for a vegetable garden. She couldn’t have one in Wonderland Hill in Boulder – a small yard and no sun where a garden might be – and then we’d moved to a condo in Boulder – its deck not a promising location for a garden.
But our lot in Deer Harbor had possibilities. The 1.25 acre lot ran up the side of a hill and a building pad had been carved out to accommodate the house, garage, and parking. A bit lower, another flat area had been created but was heavily shaded and appropriate for grass, not beans, so that wouldn’t work. Down near the road the hillside flattened out into a grassy area with no trees to block the sun. That’s where, next to the driveway, Yvonne staked out a 20’ by 30’ area for her garden.
The space was close to the southwest corner of our lot, where our electric meter (with outlet) was located, so we’d have power nearby if we needed it.
Right next to the garden-to-be, a 4’ welded wire fence ran east along the lot line, with a frost free hydrant against the fence about 40’ east. We needed a source of water for the garden because summer rain is scarce on Orcas.
Right across the street carpenters were working on what would become The Inn on Orcas Island, a B&B owned and managed by Jeremy and John. They quickly became part of the community but in 2019 Jeremy died and John sold the Inn to a family that has chosen to use it privately.
Our neighbor Mike’s property was on the other side of the fence, to the south. He and his wife would bring a small camping trailer from Port Townsand to Orcas summers and live there when not sailing out of Cayou Quay Marina nearby into Canada.
Interestingly, our septic drain field was on Mike’s property. After we bought our house I happened to talk to Bill, the original owner/builder, and he told me he got the easement and built the drain field knowing that it would prevent anyone from putting a house on the lot where it would block his view. That sounded clever to me (but maybe not). Even though Mike bought his lot knowing about the easement, he was never happy about it, and his unhappiness colored our relationship, as you’ll see.
To finish the space for planting we needed to create and fill planting beds, cover the area outside the beds with weed barrier topped with gravel to discourage weeds, and put a deer proof fence and gate around the garden.
The soil here was deep and black and the grass well established. Our son Eric was visiting and helping out with projects. We rented a rototiller and Eric put it to work. Then we raked out the grass roots.
We picked up some fence posts and sacks of Sakrete at Island Hardware & Supply in our F-150 pickup, my first truck and a necessity on the island. We had three wheelbarrows, a variety of shovels, a post hole digger, saws, whatever you can imagine, some brought from Boulder, others acquired at yard sales, an important supply source on Orcas. Because our boathouse/shop was so large we didn’t hesitate in acquiring not just what we needed but we imagined we might sometime need. That was excessive.
We got some of the posts planted before Eric had to leave. Then Justin showed up with his truck and tools. Justin, our daughter-in-law Natasha’s youngest brother, was eager to build a concrete and excavating business. He had ripped out our cracked driveway in Boulder, carried it away, breaking the axel in his truck in the process, and laid a new driveway. It was beautiful. The help we needed for the garden was only slightly relevant for Justin but he was eager to have some work.
Justin framed the beds with Trex, a composite decking material we were certain would last longer than untreated wood. (We couldn’t use treated lumber because its preservatives might leak into the soil and then be taken up by the growing plants we’d then eat.) He picked up some top soil at Sea Island Sand & Gravel to fill the beds and then 1/4” crushed rock to cover the weed barrier we laid between the beds. Justin left for his next project but we were almost in business.
Deer on Orcas and all over the San Juan Islands are pests. Unimpeded they can destroy a lettuce crop in short order and they’ll chomp what they don’t eat just to give it a try. We got a roll of 8’ plastic fencing to string between fence posts and stapled it to the posts around the garden area. We built a makeshift, temporary gate we could close and now had a complete garden except for anything growing in it. Then we went back to Boulder.
Yvonne made use of the garden area in 2001 and more in 2002 but we were still spending most of our time off-island, in Boulder, Concord (MA), and traveling and when on Orcas boating, volunteering, socializing, and doing major building, remodeling, and landscaping projects. And most exciting, we had a new grandson, Morgan, our first, and today a college freshman.
But the garden grew.
In 2003 we moved to Orcas full time and Yvonne began a major landscaping project. Until then we had only to protect the garden from deer. Now we needed to protect the entire property. We needed a fence around the entire perimeter and that would make the garden fence redundant.
We called Ezra. He and his helper put up an 8’ foot fence around the property, with gates at the road and above the house, leading out onto the steep hillside. Yvonne says Erza is a hunk and Orcas women are happy to hire him so they can watch him work. And he’s also a very nice guy.
In January 2003, at night and in a fog, an Orcas family returning from Sequim, on the Olympic Peninsula, in their light plane crashed into the water north of the end of the Orcas Island Airport runway. Erza happened to be nearby with a small boat, heard the crash and calls for help, and rowed out through the darkness and fog to rescue the family. He was a hero.
Putting up the new 8’ fence meant taking down the old 4’ fence. We rolled it up and stored it in the woodshed. I didn’t think about letting Mike, our neighbor, know. The new fence followed the line of the old, was much better, and wouldn’t cost him anything. What’s not to like? When Mike returned to Orcas and saw the change he was mad, not because there was anything wrong with the new fence or that it was free but because he hadn’t been consulted. I apologized. I had been a bit high-handed.
We cut the garden fence posts down to 4’ and Yvonne went to work creating a twig fence around the garden, not to protect it from deer but to set it off from the rest of the yard. She cut branches to size and fastened them together with wire using a special tool for the purpose. She had a good time creating garden art according to her own design from found materials.
With the yard secured and landscaped, Yvonne turned her attention to extending her growing season. Orcas has a mild climate, that is the winters usually aren’t as cold as they are in Boulder but they aren’t as warm in the summer either. She wanted to get a head start in the spring and had experimented with a cold fame but it was limited and clumsy. What she really needed, she decided, was a greenhouse.
We looked at a number of greenhouse kits but they were expensive. In the fall of 2003, Costco offered an 8’ x 12’ Sunglo greenhouse kit for $2000. A great price. And that included shipping, an issue for Orcas for anything you can’t easily carry yourself. We ordered a Sunglo.
Sunglo, a Washington company, was founded by Boeing engineers in 1976. Their greenhouses use double acrylic walls with a 1/2” air space between. That provides some insulation while stiffening the roof to cope with accumulated snow, not an annual event in Deer Harbor. Because the acrylic isn’t clear it protects what’s inside from sunburn. An automatic ventilation system keeps the greenhouse from getting too hot. The frame is made of aluminum and so won’t rust. The greenhouse is still in use 15 years later, now by the second set of new owners, and it looks just as good as it did when we assembled it, a project more complicated than we expected.
In November 2003, above the garden, we dug out part of the gradually sloping hillside to create a pad for the greenhouse. I put down concrete piers, leveled the piers and set treated 4”x4” posts on them, creating a frame to set the greenhouse on. We put 1” gravel into and outside the frame to drain the greenhouse, laid a brick walk in the center, added more heavy gravel and then 1/4” gravel at the front. The greenhouse would have a good foundation but the kit hadn’t yet arrived.
In early January Orcas Freight delivered the Sunglo kit and we got busy. Though autumn can be continuously wet in the San Juans, January is often sunny, daffodils can flower, and spring seems near, though it really isn’t. Saturday, January 17th was mild, almost balmy, so we dragged the Sunglo kit from the boathouse across the driveway to our construction site, opened the box and got to work.
The kit included an extensive manual as well as a VHS tape that would put the paper instructions into context. I brought a TV and VCR down from the house and ran an extension cord from the boathouse so we could watch the video. Being able to start and stop the tape as we moved from stage to stage was enormously valuable. We used the paper manual as backup to the video.
Sunglo uses aluminum structural elements, tracks forming the base of the structure. Yvonne applied caulking compound to the bottom of the tracks and then screwed them to the treated wood foundation and we began to work on the frame.
The kit provides a set of pre-cut aluminum tracks/channels, aluminum rivets, a riveting tool, and drill bits to drill the rivet holes. Assembly is a tedious process and we made a few mistakes we had to redo but the frame came together easily. With the frame up we could slide in the side and roof panels. By Sunday the greenhouse structure, roof, and sides were complete. Over the next week we installed shelves and the ventilation system. The greenhouse looked great. We felt accomplished.
By March Yvonne was starting flowers and vegetables in the greenhouse she’d transplant to the garden. Lettuce and spinach, cooler weather plants, were flourishing in the beds outside. By July the garden was gorgeous with flowers and all kinds of vegetables. The garden, inside and out, was a great success, and complete.
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