This page was last updated on Thursday, 13 March, 2014.
Tale of the
By Susan Moore
13 March, 2014
13 March, 2014
This isn’t an expert’s article to give you tips or gardening advice. It’s just the tale of my experience about building my first greenhouse for sustainable reasons and a suggestion for you to keep in mind as you attempt to set up your own homestead greenhouse. The best advice I can muster is that greenhouses are a little like what Goldilocks learned; some are too big, others too small, but there’s one that could be “just right” for you. Just make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into because I bit off more than I could chew right out of the gate. Sometimes my vision is clouded by what I think things ought to be, instead of what they really are.
Not enough is written for new gardeners about how to select and site a greenhouse. Nor is there enough information helping you focus your vision for why you want it in the first place. Plenty is said about the glamor and virtues of owning and employing one, but there really is not enough practical advice for American homesteaders and new gardeners particularly for North America. Most of our greenhouse lore here seems to come from Europe and assume you have an unlimited supply of cash. You either have to have advanced gardening skills, whether by instruction or osmosis, in order to begin to think about planning one confidently, or just plain beginner’s moxy and books. The latter can be an expensive teacher.
My little saga begins when we were able to move to our 5-acre, “strategically-located” hobby farm permanently on a wing and a prayer early last summer. I think my thoughts about gardening ran rampant and I got a little carried away about then because I had a much bigger sandbox to play in. I had small gardens most of my adult life, but never thought about sustainable gardening until recently and naturally determined, as most in this situation do, that a greenhouse is a must.
Of course, wanting to be a good gardener I dutifully saved all my seeds from the few veggies I was able to grow during the transition, vowed to only go organic and dreamt of canning and dehydrating the bountiful surplus of next year’s crop. Before the hobby farm I was a reasonably level-headed gardener, producing the usual tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. So naturally I did my due diligence with Internet research and bought as many books I could afford on the subject that looked the most useful. We had a decent sized place, so I saw no reason not to try and pursue my dream big.
I wanted my greenhouse to be an oasis of tropical warmth during the winter where I could grow year-round tomatoes and tropical citrus trees. I envisioned spending hours gingerly pampering my seed-started plants and coaxing exotic veggies with perspiration beading on my forehead in the dead of winter. I wanted a table and chairs inside to leisurely peruse seed catalogs and reference my new library of greenhouse and organic gardening manuals. I wanted also the option of having the luxury of eating healthy home-raised fish using aquaponics inside that greenhouse. What I wanted looked something like this (thanks to Holly Deyo’s neighbor pic she posted on her and Stan’s website at standeyo.com about a year ago) and I’m guessing it was at least a huge 12’ x 40’:
I had fancy ideas about a huge four-season greenhouse where I would have permanent garden beds like in the picture, a table and chairs or at least a bench as shown for relaxing and entertaining other admiring wannabe greenhouse gardeners and neighbors, and I wanted to have a constant supply of vegetables and possibly even start aquaponic gardening. It was reasonable I told myself because it’s generally in the 30’s to 40’s Fahrenheit here in the winter. So I set off searching (scavenging is more like it) for any greenhouse I could afford with space large enough to encompass my dream. I felt a sense of security knowing that my area received some of the best rainfall in the country and was therefore temperately mild and ideal for gardening, which is true.
The idea was that I needed a tall enough greenhouse to support the citrus trees I wanted to shelter in the colder months too. I really wanted a hot house style greenhouse. So the search was narrow and finicky. It was also fruitless and almost hopeless when I realized how much those galvanized ribs actually cost new and used. I really did not have 5 grand for the minimum cost of new ribs. Even though I live in the heart of greenhouse central in the state of Tennessee – finding derelict ribs were next to impossible because all the nursery people were looking for the same thing and kept them!
Until one day in the late summer we passed by a “going out of business” sale at a nearby nursery just off our highway exit. This nursery had wide commercial frontage on a busy road in town and had several galvanized greenhouse skeletons erected that would certainly fill the bill. Galvanized greenhouse frames are so nice and sturdy in the wind and can take a load of snow. We stopped by to chat with the clerk inside the office, and gave her our phone number to give to the owner offering to buy one. We heard nothing for a week, although we also decided to keep calling since everything appeared the same there. After three weeks passed and it was almost out of our minds, the owner unexpectedly called us to come over and talk about purchasing.
We were beside ourselves with excitement but also leery about how much she would want for the smallest one because we knew what new galvanized greenhouses cost! It turned out the owner was in a jam money-wise so any cash offer looked pretty good. The small and tall one fit my ideal dream and the dimensions were 20’ x 35’. We offered $500 and to also take it down ourselves and haul it away. She accepted the offer in cash and we felt we had just struck the jackpot! (Please note this is not an everyday find and you should expect to pay several thousand for galvanized ribs even if used) Here was our beauty at the nursery before deconstruction.
My sweetheart enthusiastically dissembled the ribbed beauty himself within a day and a half, with me assisting as needed. So down the ribs came and we rented a truck to get all of it home. Construction took about two weeks, including new end frames, and a storm door (probably about another $500 in those materials). We were unable to use the old wood frame and PVC pipe used as overhead sprinkler that were also part of the package, all saw better days, but I thought I could use the shade cloth later with appreciation. Fortunately, my grown son and daughter, and son-in-law, made a special visit to see us and the new farm and helped us erect the ribs. By this time the panic to grab the thing and get it home waned, and the sheer awe of set up began to sink in, so we welcomed the extra help. Adrenalin only goes so far. We leveled the area with rented equipment and not being experts ourselves, as I indicated before, we put it up as square as we could.
Our plan was to get it under cover for this fall and winter and then add a garage type roll-up door and another storm door in the back when it warms back up. We would also work on vents and details in the spring. Fortunately, there are no restrictions on building greenhouses in our area. All during the process we continually polled different nursery owners about what was best, so I ordered a strong light diffusing white plastic (I think it was 4 mil nursery grade) from a discount nursery supply catalog to be delivered before the fall rush and we waited for that to come in. White plastic is the way to go now apparently, as it doesn’t create hot spots like the clear plastics do. The plastic cost about $175 and the delivery charge was reasonable. A local landscaping company brought us a load of crush and run gravel for footing.
In the meantime we watched videos on the Internet about how to finish the greenhouse. The plastic arrived as promised and we enlisted my sweetheart’s handy brother the following weekend (who also built the end frames and installed the door on the same trip) to help us get the thing under cover. In retrospect, if you go plastic I recommend covering your ribs on a completely calm day with zero wind – even the slightest wind and it wants to sweep you up like a kite or parachute and catch itself on any exposed screws, etc. I think we were lucky to get it covered without much ado and we should have had more than three people to help, because you really need more people to efficiently pull it over the top in one motion and keep the peace. The men stapled everything down like pros and we waited for the next opportunity (read: weekend) to start the final phase.
We planned for making the plastic film sides roll up for added ventilation in the spring, but for right now we stapled it down and also screwed on clear corrugated plastic on the ends. There are special foam strips that are wavy on one side that you can use to help insulate when installing the corrugated plastic, but we opted to just screw them on as is and use exterior caulk or foam spray to help seal any drafts because we’re not gymnasts and felt unstable enough balancing on ladders, etc. without having to make I more complicated than necessary. In the center we literally put the ladder in the truck bed to get up high enough to work.
Exhaustion set in but we were pleased with the progress and felt it was perfectly fine to go through the cold months as is, especially since it was now late October. So I started excitedly moving my outdoor plants in. We also purchased used galvanized shelves and a long fence topped table from the same woman who sold us our ribs so I had a great plan going for using the inside space. I was in heaven dancing around my greenhouse! Even the steady thought that it frankly looked like a big white plastic covered loaf of bread, didn’t daunt me. Basic supplies for a greenhouse can be obtained cheaply if you think creatively. My sweetheart hung poles from the rib frames so I could store the hanging basket flowers for winter, and he installed a shop light over the long potting table. I bought inexpensive imported plastic hygrometers from Ebay (about $5. Ea.) and put one on the potting table and one in the little plastic greenhouse I planned to use to germinate seeds. We scooped up free plastic pots and trays people dutifully returned to be recycled from my local bulk hardware nursery section, used our own jumbled collection of small fans previously employed in the old garage of our suburban home, and purchased potting mix, manure, sand and bagged peat moss from the same bulk hardware store.
We were clued in by our new gardening acquaintances to buy our potting mix in bulk from a local landscape company, and not to install permanent beds in the ground in our greenhouse because of the difficulty in regulating the moisture and mold. Really? That can’t be right. I see so many pictures on the Internet of people who put permanent beds in their greenhouses. That was the first pin prick in my dream bubble. I had a hard time accepting that I should garden solely in pots and flats. You must understand the thinking that you water your plants much less in a greenhouse environment and the air stays moist inside. It’s a closed environment. There will even be water droplets that fall from the ceiling of your greenhouse onto your head! The hygrometer helps with this – helps me to know when my moisture level in the greenhouse is low and takes some of the guesswork out of when to water.
Over the summer I had greedily acquired about a half dozen large citrus trees on the deck. Now citrus really can’t take cold weather below the 40s Fahrenheit and we’re in gardening zone 7, but they do great outside on the deck in the warm months. The idea was to store them safely in the greenhouse over the winter. We were so looking forward to harvesting everything like tomatoes, and other vegetables in the winter. Maybe some can in arid parts of the country, and even have in ground beds, but not here I sadly found out. Not one to rush in without due research, I did plant only a small sampling of only some of the organic seeds I stashed away as an experiment in the fall. Since we occasionally still had a 70 degree day at this point, my seeds burst into life. I was about to have another pin prick in said bubble.
Well as you can guess the cool weather turned to cold quickly. And with the cold weather came the winds. And what a wind! Apparently my backyard is practically a wind tunnel! Those cooling summer breezes developed into something more sinister swooping down over the hills to our valley in Tennessee. So the new bread-loaf looking plastic greenhouse flapped mercilessly in the howling winter wind. We eyeballed it nervously every time the weather kicked up. Surely this must be unusual.
Now we need to talk about heat. No not about selecting what type of heat for your greenhouse (plenty of articles and sections in the reference books on that) but I’m talking about this last winter and the dreaded Polar Vortex. Ha ha. What pin prick are we on? Three? That’s right. Now we thought it out before we started and decided that kerosene heat was the way to go. It lends some needed C02 to the greenhouse as well. That’s another issue with greenhouses and some people locate small livestock inside their greenhouses to help as well. GREEN plants need C02 and give back oxygen in return, right? Well I digress, as I’m not writing this to teach you greenhouse 101. I am sure you already know these things if you are interested in my little story. But that was part of the reason we chose that method – that, and we already had a large kerosene rocket heater inherited from my father’s garage and those items are not cheap. Kerosene prices were reasonable and fairly easy to get in our rural area, as lots of people still use them. Before the Vortex arrived on our doorstep, we got along just fine in my huge (and appeared to be expanding) 20 x 35 foot baby. Did I mention the high arched ceiling was about 15’ and great for those growing citrus trees I reasoned. But as you know heat rises. Heat rises and escapes through drafty economically built greenhouses. So the best we could manage was about 10 to 20 degrees warmer than the air outside at BEST. Continuing to try and tape and plug holes, we were managing, and my seedlings were getting bigger. Heck, my sweet-peas got about 5 feet tall and positively loved spreading roots in my special potting mix, but again I digress. You can probably tell it’s at this point in my story where I start to feel agitated.
I realized then that temperatures were generally hovering in the 20’s in early December and even with it being 10-20 degrees warmer in the greenhouse, I had to huddle my plants around the heater (not too close!) in order for them to keep warm enough. One or two nights I was overly anxious and kept getting up to check the temperature out there. I highly suggest a temperature alarm for your greenhouse, one that goes off in the house where you can hear it. Wish I had one and he was going to see that I did. Yet again, with the Polar Vortex forecast, I knew I could not leave my citrus in my precious greenhouse and chance disaster. We lugged inside all of the citrus and set them up in a sunny window in the dining room figuring the rest of the plants would be okay if we could maintain a temperature in the greenhouse of just above freezing.
By the way, boot trays are awesome under large indoor plants. Mine are about 14”x24” and cost less than $5. ea. on a popular Internet auction site with free shipping. I found them much better than to risk damage to my hardwood floor using only garbage bags for protection. In retrospect I probably could have gotten large saucers from my local nursery too, but the trays were cheaper and worked well for me, never spilled a drop of water and I could also add smaller plants in the unused space in the tray too. Okay, so there’s at least one tip here.
Let us get on with the main story. It was then, as the old Rankin & Bass puppet Christmas classic stated with dramatic emphasis: “IT HIT”. Temperatures plunged to the single digits up to a week in duration and the plastic, wind whipped for so long, began to tear and then to rip. We were able to keep ahead of the tide for a day or so with frantic repair efforts using package tape until one gale force night. Large hunks of shredded plastic were flailing angrily in the voracious wind. The flapping made a terrible sound, which is why I noticed the change in the twilight and constant gray winter howl after the sun set.
Like a mother running after an escaped toddler, I desperately tried to gather up my green children and bring them indoors to safety. Jerkily trying to balance my flashlight and arm-loads of pots too, I could not manage to save them all, especially the flats, and had to sacrifice most to the harsh and unrelenting night. This was the final pin prick, yes that bubble was down for the count. Alas, my sweetheart came home a little late from work that night, and I related the horror to him but he could only shake his head in resignation.
The reality of the freaky incident hit us during the week. Also sinking in was the fact that we had been gambling on the average temperature forecast for this area remaining steady. We would go to the window and stare at the stark carcass of what had been our summer and fall focused passion. Sometimes we would mumble while looking out at the sight and shake our heads. I think I made an occasional tongue cluck and heavy sigh.
Men always try to fix things and it is a virtue in their nature. My sweet man wanted to provide for me and my dreams, fix and restore, so he made several different plans to “fix it”. Knowing the greenhouse was my dream, he was unwilling to fail on the project. He painstakingly related to me his complex plan for taping the shreds back together and a few other adjustments so it would be stronger. I could only stare at him with a clarity I know he chose not to acknowledge. “Let it go, honey” I said. “Just let it go, it’s not your fault and I don’t want to beat a dead horse trying to patch it up. So just let me think about it for a while.” But men have a hard time when they feel their women are not 100% happy. They take it so personally and the sad situation had nothing to do with him, I rather blamed myself for not having more forethought. It was my plan of what I thought the greenhouse should be that needed to be altered to fit our reality and real needs, not dreams. The wheels were spinning again.
The holidays came and went and sometime during those days I went outside and clipped off the remaining plastic for two reasons. Number one I could not stand to still hear the flapping sound in the wind mocking me and, for two I was really worried it would completely rip free and fly off and get stuck in the tall bare winter branches of the trees in the wood behind the pasture. It could have been a nightmare scenario where we would have to stare at it all summer and probably beyond because no one could reach to pull it down.
With a heavy heart my sweetheart and I decided to cut our losses and sell the big galvanized greenhouse ribs in the local classified. I am sure you realize it’s a hard thing to do. We decided to sell not because I was giving up on my dream of a greenhouse, but because I now know that my lovely new hobby farm surrounded by hills has aspects of a wind tunnel and in order to make it work the way I envisioned (like a hot house) we would need to spend another $3 – 5,000 to enclose the whole thing in corrugated plastic and seal it, and finish with vents and the other things we planned. I feared it would become a money pit with no guarantee of success. It was sucking money AND time I had not intended. We knew we could sell the ribs for more money than we paid for them.
We also have to be realistic about the cost of heating the big sucker if we have another winter like this one. I loved the original idea and I still love it. However, it turned into a bit of a monster, not a pleasure. I pride myself in being emotionally wise enough to know when I should cut my losses and guard my checkbook. So we sold it with the stipulation that the buyers take it down and cart it off. We kept the end frames and corrugated plastic to use in construction of a new home-made greenhouse. I’m thinking 10x14 is the perfect size for me and MUCH more economical to heat. This way is more economical everything really as I’ve given up the idea of having it be four season. One has to modify to fit the environment. Keeping it was going to be hard to justify if we continue to have weather changes, and I don’t want to bet on it “warming”. I will use my new plan B modified greenhouse to start seeds early and protect hardier plants through the winter as soon as I decide on a less windy location with suitable sun. I will also keep more money in my wallet when we need to heat it.
It was kind of a bittersweet feeling to watch the new owners eagerly dissemble my dream greenhouse, carefully stow the connectors, load it, and pull out of the farm gate. But I refuse to allow my dreams to die, they just change. So in the meantime I will just squirrel away all my greenhouse toys in the garage and pull in those big galvanized shelves too, which just might be perfect for aquaponics inside the garage. It is safer from our strong winter wind anyway and future unexpected airborne events, hmm.
Now I need to close and move on to plan B, because my sweetheart is bugging me for decisions on size and location. I feel there is a special blessing on gardeners who press on. Round one went to the Polar Vortexes.