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Grumpy's Little Greenhouse Update 7-19-21

Circa 2014 I ordered a little plastic/aluminum greenhouse from a big-box store with dreams of starting seeds early and keeping subtropical plants over the winter. The product I eventually bought came packaged in two cardboard boxes, each no more than 4' long. After many weekends of protracted assembly, fumbling, frustration & fits of PG-13 language, I finally had a flimsy, plastic "greenhouse" that measured 6' wide and 12' long. Substantial modifications were necessary to hold it together, keep it standing, and anchor it to the ground in windy weather. The billions of bolted connections had a tendency to act more like hinges than rigid columns or beams and the total weight of the assembly was so light that it blew over no less than 3 times before it's final flight and ultimate demise.

I actually spent a respectable sum purchasing that first greenhouse and there was virtually nothing to show for it. The aluminum channels that were meant to form the structure were connected with cheap plastic components. The clear, plastic panels were no thicker than card stock. It was obvious that the primary accomplishment of the design team was marketing a greenhouse product that fit inside a 4' box; as opposed to engineering a sturdy greenhouse that would actually provide gardeners with years of solid performance. Jaded, and wishing I had that $1,600 back, I decided to build my own.

I salvaged some of the UV stabilized plastic panels from the first kit and used them for the roof of the new structure that when complete measured 10' wide x 20' long. Going from 72 square feet to 200 square feet seemed like a huge upgrade. Progress! (or so I thought.)

I had big dreams for this new house. It was going to be robust, and it was going to accommodate real plant production. I wanted to use pallets as my work benches and have them run the length of the house on both sides with room down the middle for walking and work.

The project wasn't quite finished when Spring came around, so I had to scramble to make the most use of it. I put some pallets on the ground and planted a million seeds with my oldest son in order to get something growing. I was elated when the first sprouts came up and day-dreaming of all the plants I would be potting up the first week in May. Unfortunately, it didn't really work out that way.

When May arrived I found myself tied up with other obligations. I tried to keep the seedlings watered, but with Summer only two weeks away, the ambient temperatures were already well above 90 degrees. This meant the afternoon temperature INSIDE the greenhouse was likely peaking near 110 or higher. All of my seedings failed during the first weeks of June while I was off working my day job. All of them died of heat stroke in spite of my best intentions.

For the next 3-4 years I concluded that a greenhouse is just not a good idea in the hot and humid East Texas neighborhood unless: 1) you can vent/cool it in the summer and 2) heat them in the winter. These were major logistical problems for me because I didn't have any power available to condition the space. Eventually, the second greenhouse structure was re-purposed to serve as a chicken coop (which it does VERY well) and I focused on other strategies for propagation.

In 2018 I built three sand beds. These are raised garden beds 4' wide and 16' long that are each filled with 8" of builder's course sand. The beds are my adaptation of Mike McGroarty's Backyard Growers method. []

I have successfully used these beds to propagate cuttings and overwinter plants that are not fully hardy in zone 8a. By constructing wooden frames over them and draping them with shade cloth or greenhouse plastic depending on the need I was able to control the environment just enough to trick plants into staying alive. Eventually, I ran irrigation lines, installed timers and valves, and even ran a new electrical circuit in order to heat them when the temperature fell below freezing. These three covered beds are functional, but they still lack reasonable working space and are not automated enough to keep plants alive in my absence. Why is this so difficult?

So, in the Fall of 2020 I started planning a new greenhouse project, I drew up plans and laid out the way it would function. This Spring I purchased the majority of the treated lumber just before the lumber market went crazy. The Spring season diced up my schedule and ate up my free time and even now in mid-July the greenhouse is only 50% complete. But, it is already far better than anything I have ever done prior. It is 10' wide, 48' long, and 8' tall with a single slope facing the South.

It has a solar-powered exhaust fan with a built-in thermostat, meant for cooling down hot attics. My father-in-law gave me an 18 year old swamp cooler that he didn't need anymore and after 12 years of storage I discovered it still works. I covered the north wall with insulation and the rest of the house with 10 mil, reinforced, plastic skrim that feels tough as steel. The structure is all treated lumber and has tensile wire as cross bracing to support the skrim and resist wind loads. I'm building for the kind of "Snowpockylypse" we got the Winter of 2021 when Texas and Montana decided to trade weather patterns. (Did you know that 12" of wet snow weighs 20 pounds/square foot?)

The point of telling this long and boring story is to remind us all that whatever we choose to do there will be hurdles and setbacks, frustrations, and failures. Anything worthwhile is going to cost you more than planned, and hurt more than it should. This greenhouse has a single purpose - it will exist to help me cultivate more than I could without it. That produce may have a high cost in money and sweat but I expect it will all be worth the trouble in the end. If I can generate more plants in my own greenhouse, and not have to supplement my inventory with stock from wholesale nurseries - then I will be able to offer more variety at even lower cost - and that gets me closer to my own version of "net zero".

Anyway, I thought some of you might enjoy hearing the backstory and seeing the updated photo of the new greenhouse progress to date. I am looking forward to the future - because it is already awesome. Sow Hope, reap Joy!

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