By Bobbie Whitehead
Six-foot tomato plants line up a 36-foot long raised bed inside an extension greenhouse on Deerehaven Farm LLC where Lafayette “Chip” Powell grows several varieties of tomatoes he sells to a local sandwich shop.
The Philadelphia native came to Surry County three years ago, and through the help of a friend and fellow vegetable grower, Savannah Williams, Powell constructed two greenhouses and created raised beds inside where he grows his tomato plants – some with bright red tomatoes and some with tasty orange tomatoes.
“The only heat to the greenhouse comes from the sun, and the sides to my extension greenhouse are rolled up to regulate the amount of heat needed,” Powell said.
Customers at the Edward’s Ham Shop in downtown Surry have enjoyed Powell’s tomatoes – both the taste and color – that they’ve asked him to teach them how to grow tomatoes in containers and raised beds.
Powell, a retired law enforcement officer, has gardened for 15 years, using mostly raised beds and explains that containers as well as raised beds enable growers to avoid the back-breaking work of pulling up and hoeing weeds since the two alternatives to a traditional garden tend to eliminate most of the weeds, though not all.
A friend, Patricia Anderson of Waverly helps Powell with his tomato production. Anderson handles all aspects of potting, planting, and watering, he said.
With two greenhouses, Powell had tomatoes ready for harvest at the first of May, and with his greenhouses, he was able to plant his tomatoes in February when most growers couldn’t because of the cold temperatures, he said.
“With a greenhouse, you can grow a month and a half before and after the growing season,” Powell said. “You can regulate the temperature by rolling up the sides of a canvas on the greenhouse.”
The positives of using containers and raised beds in the greenhouses, he said, are the plants are above ground in a building with higher temperatures, which can be regulated, and the water, too, can be more easily monitored. Since tomatoes like warm, hot temperatures, Powell said the container setting is perfect for them since the soil is warmer.
“There’s more air getting to the roots, and I don’t have to use as much water,” he said.
The greenhouses allow Powell to continue growing tomatoes into the fall.
Over the years, Powell has experimented with different pot sizes, having started with seven gallon sizes. Nowadays, he uses 10-gallon pots, which allow for more water, he said. With both raised beds and containers, Powell said the soil can easily be adjusted.
“The beauty of a container garden is you don’t have to have much of a backyard,” he said. “Plus keeping the weeds out isn’t that difficult in a container garden.”
“There are a lot of little tricks in using containers that can ease your work,” he said.
Heirloom tomatoes varieties have worked well in Powell’s greenhouses. One heirloom variety Powell grows is Brandywine; he also grows Betty Bush, Celebrity and Sweet Baby Girl, a cherry tomato variety, and most of his tomatoes grow in the 3-foot-by-36-foot raised beds.
Glenn Slade, Surry County agricultural extension agent, has conducted container gardening workshops for groups and said there’s been a growing interest in container gardening.
“Some people choose to grow in containers for the ease,” Slade said. “For example, someone confined to a wheel chair can have a container garden.”
Tomatoes and peppers are popular crops to grow in containers, Slade said.
“The five gallon drums are used by some people for string beans,” Slade said. “Cucumbers and squash can grow well in containers, but you’ll need a trellis for the plants to run up on.”
For growers wanting to extend their growing season, Slade said greenhouses are a good choice.
“That’s really the main purpose of a greenhouse,” Slade said.