The Day of the Triffids at Sunflower Farm

The growing season is winding down here at Sunflower Farm but I thought I would share an experience from this summer, albeit a little late.

Since I’m pretty sure I’ve used the song title “Whoops I Did Again” in a previous blog, I won’t use it here, but suffice to say that every year that I grow food I get better at it, but I continually make the same mistakes. I’m even aware that I’m doing it wrong but like some terrible substance abuse issue, I do it anyway, even though I know the outcome will be bad. It’s like when I buy a box of sugared cereal and feel like a dirt bag after eating the stuff, but a few months later I buy it again because as I tell Michelle, “It’s sooo cheap it’s like they’re giving it away!” Which clearly, they are not.

Each year we expand our greenhouse square footage, and each year, or rather each fall, I vow, I will NOT plant tomatoes and peppers and eggplants SO CLOSE TOGETHER. And guess what happens each spring? I have a large patch of virgin greenhouse soil and those ‘oh-so-small’ transplants look so tiny compared to the vast expanse of space where I am planting them. And yes, I make the same mistake again and I plant a whole bunch of tomato and pepper and eggplant plants way too close together!

Someday I will have an aircraft sized greenhouse covering my entire garden and I will finally give each plant a logical amount of space when I plant them. (Michelle’s Note: No he won’t.) In the meantime, each August my greenhouses will be chaos and I will beat myself up over my inability to look 2 months down the road at the likely outcome from such a short sighted, poorly thought through strategy.

This year I had the added bonus of putting a greenhouse in the wrong location and really blowing it. I had set up an area in the paddock for the acquisition of a large greenhouse. Unfortunately circumstances prevented me from acquiring said large greenhouse. But I was able to improvise a quick and dirty workaround with the frame of an old portable garage from a neighbor who had been caught in one of those heavy wet snow/rain/freeze conditions, which had collapsed it. I bent the steel back in place, got my other neighbor to weld up some of the worst breaks and with a sheet of salvaged plastic from the local grocery store I was in business.

I had rototilled the area repeatedly after providing a generous amount of horse and chicken manure in straw last winter, so it seemed like it should be good location. The soil wasn’t great, but none of the soil is on my sandy property where glaciers deposited ground up rocks as they retreated 12,000 years ago.

As I wrote in my gardening book you have to be careful with heat loving plants like tomatoes that do well in greenhouses, that you don’t give them too much nitrogen, otherwise you get lots of green growth and not enough fruit. And, well, guess what happens if you put a new greenhouse on a spot that you have aggressively fertilized thinking it may be deficient in some ways? That’s right, the plants take over.

overrun greenhouse

Once again I had to volunteer to do all of the greenhouse harvesting in order to avoid having to hear Michelle go on and on about my inadequacies when it comes to proper plant spacing. It’s just the lesser of two evils. It also supplements my morning stretching (which I don’t call yoga) by forcing me to contort into all sorts of unnatural and otherwise unhealthy positions to harvest fruit from the most inopportune locations. This I accept.

But the paddock greenhouse was just on a whole other level. In fact, it was difficult to get through the door let alone harvest stuff. It truly looked like that horrifying 1962 movie “The Day of the Triffids” about plants that take over the planet which was truly terrifying to me as 9 year old when I saw it on TV but which seems so laughably humorous with today’s level of movie horror.

And not only did the plants grow with hopeless abandon, so did the weeds since it was grass last year and was laden with seeds just waiting for the optimal conditions of heat and moisture to take over, which a greenhouse provides.

Okay, so I screwed up, but I admit it. I have never been a fan of authors who claim infallibility. In something like growing food if you aren’t learning new stuff and making mistakes, then you aren’t moving forward.

triffids in the greenhouse

In that department I point out something I wrote in “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook” about how you need a reasonable number of corn plants, preferably planted in at least four rows. When you look at the corn silk on an ear of corn, each thread of silk is attached to one corn kernel on the cob. The tassel at the top of a corn stalk is made up of many small male flowers which shed pollen in the wind, and you need each thread of silk to be fertilized, otherwise you get one of those crazy corn cobs with hit and miss kernels or crazy patterns and variations on the standard theme of symmetrical rows of uniform kernels. When I tell people about this they get all freaked out like they should have known this from birth. Like when I tell them the name “Liam” is actually the last half of the name “William. Wil-liam” (as opposed to Will-I-am). I didn’t learn this until my grandson arrived on planet earth.

It turned out somehow that I ended up with two corn stalks in this new greenhouse. So this year I could test this thesis, and voila, corn growing in a greenhouse produces a corncob but because there is not enough pollen for fertilization, you don’t get any kernels. How cool is that!!

unfertilized corn cob


So apparently life at Sunflower Farm is one great science experiment after all! I think Einstein said ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results’. That does not bode well for my over zealousness in greenhouse plant spacing. Luckily I don’t think I covered this much in my gardening book, so all (most of) the information in the rest of the book is sound. Yes it changes yearly with climate change but this is just something people who grow food are going to have to live with.

Meanwhile, if you place two corn plants in a greenhouse, prepare to be disappointed! Stay tuned for more exciting science-y stuff to expand your brain!

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9 Responses to “The Day of the Triffids at Sunflower Farm”

  • I also have a tendency to crowd plants. Especially tomatoes but I am getting better. I found if I plant the tomatoes at the correct spacing or even further apart and then plant a fast growing vegi like lettuce or radish or ? I am not tempted to crowd them and then I can mulch for weeds as I harvest.

  • Davidovich:

    Has been a long time since I had a garden, but looking at your photos of the riotous greenhouse, I can SMELL those tomato vines. Mmmmm. I’m going to try tomatoes again next year. Or maybe next month. Why not, this is the Philippines.

  • Kevin:

    Why not start the tomatoes, peppers and egg plants in 1 gallon pots. They can grow to a good size in that size pot.

    You can control the soil in the pot.

    Once they are to a reasonable size transplant them in to the soil in the greenhouse. It will be a good reminder that you need to give them some space because they will be bigger plants then when started in trays.

    Then along with the stretching you don’t call yoga you can get some exercise you don’t call weight lifting by moving the 1 gallon pots. Win, win.

  • Jim:

    What your tomatoes needed Cam was a good prune. In my hothouse I grow 9 plants per 6 metre rows (I have two rows in a 6 X 2 metre hothouse) and keep them pruned to 2 leaders. Even that can be congested when the plants grow to the top of their strings against the “roof” (2 metres high) and then grow back towards the ground so I have up to 4 metres of growing stem in a full 6-8 month season.

  • Donna Peterson:

    Goofy and Hilarious…loved reading about it!

  • Do it again next year!
    (just kidding) 🙂
    Very enjoyable post, thank you!

  • Wendy:

    We must have taken the same English class at M.M! No one else gets it when I talk about plants that look like Triffids!

  • Madeline and Ken:

    Loved your note about your corn plants!! Madeline

  • Linda Arsenault:

    I totally get it Cam, you don’t want to waste any space and you want to maximize the plant growth. My nephew’s name is just Liam, not William… and I commented to Michelle how calling him Liam is perfect! He’s also a William but has his own identity!

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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