Gone with the Wind: Groping Towards a Greenhouse

Yesterday, and all night, the winds were howling around the house and whipping the trees into a frenzy. We lost power for a couple hours. This morning revealed that it was just too much for the duct-tape greenhouse.

Mr Wood Rat retrieved the superstructure from behind the white fence where it had blown, metal post and all.

It was an omen for sure. Only the other day we had been having this conversation:

"Oh Ratty dear, could you please build me another lovely duct tape greenhouse? Against the pool fence there, where it's nice and sunny?"
"I really need more light now it's winter, as well as protection from rain, wind, and critters, to get these seeds going. Plus I could move the seed flats out of your office, and also off of the coffee table in the living room."
"Yeah well I just don't know if I want to do another cobbled-together solution."
"Maybe it's time to look at building you a real greenhouse."
"Yeah, I think it might be a fun project to build, and it looks like your interest in growing stuff isn't going to go away."
(Mouse grins!)
"In fact, how about we drive over to the UCSC farm and look at their setup."

So we did. I love wandering around the arboretum and farm areas at UC Santa Cruz. There were lots of greenhouses at the arboretum, but only of the geodesic dome, or hoop and plastic sheeting variety, and I'm sure they do the job fine but they're not what we are looking for. But at the farm, we saw some brand-spanking new greenhouses.

I love the amazing work they do there, not only for university students and researchers, but for young children too. Here's a view of the new greenhouses from a teaching area.

And here we are sneaking a peek inside.

Ratty was immediately enthralled. "I know how to do construction like this - this isn't much different from a pole barn."

Town Mouse had sensibly suggested that we use recycled materials such as windows from demolished homes to make a greenhouse. But Mr Wood Rat comes from a construction background and just isn't interested in the funky earth-friendly approach. As he is my building resource, we got on the net instead.

Rat started researching the company that built those greenhouses, Conley's and wandered out from there. He quickly decided that we should just get a kit and be done with it. Kits take between 2 hours and 2 days to assemble, depending on the kit and the assembler.

But Conley's "hobby" greenhouse kits are expensive - $3,500 plus. And that seems to be about the going rate for greenhouses of this type.

Of course, I did some basic research, too: First, is it worth having a greenhouse? Heck with worth: I WANT ONE.

I put that angel on one shoulder, and on the other I put the frugal angel who considers other options such as using the horse barn and just adding heat and light lamps. Disadvantages: 1. the horse barn is in the coldest most shady part of the property. 2. It's no fun. I WANT ONE.

OK, given that this is not totally a rational decision, what more do I need to know about greenhouses before we go ahead with the project? I found a good article from the University of Virginia ag extension from which I learned the following about greenhouses, and more:
  • Sun: Put the greenhouse where it gets maximum sun. Morning sun is better than afternoon sun if you have to choose. So, facing south or south east is best, in full sun. no shady trees etc. This is for winter use, not so much in summertime.
  • Size: The larger the greenhouse, the easier it is to maintain the temperature, and the less expensive per square foot. But I don't aspire to even the bottom end of their minimum efficient size - this is an agricultural site. More importantly - don't get one that's too small for your needs. You'll regret it. I figure 8X12 gives the most bench room, without getting really enormous. Maybe 9X12 feet, but no more.
  • Structure: Well there are a lot of options. The hoop (quonset) style is very efficient and simple. But I like the more traditional look, with a pitched roof, and this will be in our garden, so I have some aesthetic preference here.
  • Structural materials: Wood, steel, aluminum, plastic/PVC piping. The article has various plus and minus points on each option. We read about one poor person whose greenhouse melted in the Texas heat, so we eliminated plastic. Wood is nice but is more expensive. Plus, fire risk. Steel and aluminum both seem like good options. Aluminum is cheaper. Many grades available, but we figure as long as the structure is securely anchored it should withstand wind.
  • Coverings: Glass, double-pane polycarbonate, plastic film. (And another one I read about, like dual-wall polycarbonate, but translucent and more flexible, called Solexx). Glass is very nice, but too expensive, and you can't do-it-yourself so easily. Also I worry about it breaking. The polycarbonate seemed like the best option, other than the fact that it's not easy to recycle, so that's not so good. It ranges from 4 ml to 10 ml. We are not sure what is best, given we don't have extreme weather here. Most of the better quality greenhouses we looked at were 6ml at least, and thicker was more expensive. I'm not sure what you get for the money and thickness - better insulation or more strength.
  • Flooring: Seems best to not have a floor but to dig-out the foundation area and add a few inches of gravel for drainage. Wood floors won't do.
  • Ventilation: You need one roof vent at least, and a door. For a smaller greenhouse that seems to be sufficient.
  • Heating and so on: It gets complicated. I don't really think my natives need a lot of heat, and for the ones that do I could use fluorescent bulbs or heated mats. Also Christmas lights apparently work fine to just keep things a bit warmer to prevent freezing. We don't get a lot of freezing here.
  • Watering: Well you can spend a lot of money or you can hand water. I hand water right now, so I think I would continue like that, but I'd look at misting systems down the road.
So then we got on the net. Even when playing Scrabble with my dad, while not taking our turn, we were on the net. My dad won the game.

There are a lot of aluminum frame dual-wall polycarbonate greenhouses out there to choose from, and most seem to be in the $3,500 price range and above. They are not quite my picture of a greenhouse, which looks more like this:

(From www.whitecottage.co.uk) But then, we're not in England any more, Toto.
I also love Montana Wildlife Gardener's greenhouse, which you can read about here.

One small company whose product I like is Santa Barbara Greenhouse, located in California. They have a model called Montecito that would do me fine, if I had over $3,500.

Neat, simple, seems to be good quality. The Danish company Juliana seems to be well regarded in this price range - And there are many more.

Then there is the low-price leader, EasyGrow, whose 8X12 foot model is on sale right now for $1299 - $1500 depending where you look. It's made in China. Its walls are only 4 ml polycarbonate. But - maybe it's plenty good enough.

(image from www.greenhousemegastore.com shows 8X8 model)

So what's a poor besotted mouse to do? It would be great if there were some real reviews out there, but we can't find any. It would be great if we could drive someplace and actually see these greenhouses, but it doesn't look like we can. Even the cheapo model is a lot of money and we don't have a lot of money.

So we agreed to put our search on hold and cool down and think about this. Mr Wood Rat went out for a run, and I've been blogging.

Oh, and here he is back, with this thought:

"I was thinking about this greenhouse thing while I was runing and here's what I think: I think I should just build it myself. We've got plenty wood lying around, and on the shady side we don't need so much light, right? So I could reuse those six little windows I took out of the cupola on that side. Two of them open and close. So anyway, I'm going to put these groceries away but that's what I think."

Gotta love that rat.

If any readers have any thoughts to add, we would certainly appreciate hearing from all sides of the question. And I hope our researches into what is possible in the home greenhouse are helpful to others with similar desires, rational or otherwise.


Katie said…
Dang! Peaceful valley was having a hell of a deal on their greenhouses through Halloween...timing! Good luck with whatever you choose. I would love to have a greenhouse someday.
Christine said…
I love how angels were accompanying you on both shoulders! Can't wait to see what your dear Wood Rat comes up with.
Randy Emmitt said…
Mr Rat might want to look into pvc piping to build a hoop house, these are fairly simple I'm told. You build the hoops with pvc pipe and 2 x 4 frame in the ends and add make shift doors.
Town Mouse said…
Well, on the off chance that Mr. W. Rat would be interested on some previously used glass, here's the URL for Whole House Remodeling.


Or maybe there's a greenhouse for sale on Craigslist somewhere? Good luck!
Nell Jean said…
You do know that I have a 10x12 Harbor Freight Green house? Cheap, well under $1000. A real terror to put together, but we did it. The foundation,plumbing and electrical we added doubled the cost. It works for me.
Country Mouse said…
Thanks for these thoughts and ideas. Nell Jean - that greenhouse is huge. I looked at your greenhouse posts from clicking your name (how'dyou do that?) and found another - http://seedscatterer.blogspot.com/2009/07/thoughts-of-winter-greenhouse.html - It looks lovely in there - I love the idea of a "playhouse" too, a place to be in winter. I found the greenhouse on Harbor Freight Tools, and will send the link across to Wood Rat who is now busy designing a greenhouse... Along with the link to the salvage operation, Tmouse - thanks for that. I saw hoop houses at the arboretum and took pictures for reference - I think they look useful indeed, maybe also for covering an outdoor bed. But like I say I like the basic traditional shape so far...
Country Mouse said…
I've been reading around about the 10X12 Harbour Freight greenhouse which is so cheap and so attractive. It seems people have to put in quite a bit of extra effort to get it to work, but are mostly then very enthusiastic. Some people report shortcomings such as: Need to add weather stripping; Need to replace bolts etc that come with it with better quality ones; panels yellow after only a couple years (I forget the timeframe, short anyway - it seems they are not UV coated); panels blow off in big storms; sliding doors needed replacing with stronger ones where it freezes. So - I think it's an option for people who want to put in some extra effort and don't mind replacing panels if and as they fail. This set of blog posts is referred to frequently as being INVALUABLE to those who take the plunge: http://hfgh10x12.blogspot.com/2007/08/this-is-greenhouse-we-bought-link-it.html. We are still on the fence squeaking to each other and wiggling our whiskers - building one from scratch is still under consideration!
Rebecca sweet said…
What a great post - so detailed and full of information. I'll definitely save this one to forward to any of my clients interested in greenhouses! And here's a big 'thumbs up' to Mr. Rat for wanting to build one himself! My own 'Mr.Rat' has had so much fun building things for our garden (my detached garden shed/office, my aviary, a mini-storage barn, and currently an outdoor cushion storage box) - all from recycled materials. And we've found that they're usually much better than if we'd just plunked down cash. Full of charm, meaning, and love (okay, and a few stressful moments) but overall, they're just wonderful!
Rosey Pollen said…
Farmtek has some nice ones but they are not very attractive. That is what my hubby plans on building for me in a few years.
I think you can get buy with hoop houses, till you make the BIG decision.
Anonymous said…
Love the homemade idea. That is what Dave at The Home Garden is doing and he has posted a series of stories on how it is coming along. The climate is much different in TN from yours, but salvaged windows, etc will work anywhere. We have ordered cheapo cold frames with that flimsy poly material, not good. Gravel floor is perfect. Good luck!

Susan Tomlinson said…
Ooh! Ooh! lucky you! I'v always wanted a greenhouse, just because.

Maybe you could get the low-end deal and slap some wood siding on the bottom third of it to make it look more "Englishy"?
Gail said…
I love the notion of using recycled materials like windows and doors~~They can be beautifully redone.
What ever you all decide...I can't wait to see it coming together~~gail
Nell Jean said…
If you go to Garden Web and look for Greenhouse Forum, there are numerous posts there about the HF GH, both pro and con, and some great pictures.

I'll try to address some of your concerns as to what we did:
Need to add weather stripping
We didn't do that. We did add aluminum tape to the ends of the polycarb panels.
Need to replace bolts etc that come with it with better quality ones
We didn't find anything wrong with the bolts, but added more bolts to hold things like shelves and things.
Stout shelves bolted to the frame will help stiffen it.
panels yellow after only a couple years (I forget the timeframe, short anyway - it seems they are not UV coated)
My panels have held up right well in strong south GA sun. I believe they are UV coated.
panels blow off in big storms;
You'll need to buy some extra clips from a greenhouse supply company. Ours has stood some near-hurricane strength winds, closed up snug.
sliding doors needed replacing with stronger ones where it freezes
It doesn't snow here, so that isn't an issue for us. Below-freezing weather here lasts a very short time, hours at a time even.

If the weather outside is freezing, unless you have some auxiliary heat, it will be freezing inside very soon after the sun goes down.
I use a little electric heater when it's freezing; I've used a heat lamp.
The heat sink helps. We have a kerosene heater, in case of power failure, that is probably going to cook my plants.

I'm going into the third winter of enjoying the little greenhouse. It isn't as fancy as some, but it serves my purposes very well. If you sign up for Harbor Freight emails online, eventually they will send you a coupon for 20% off any one item, which may make the GH more attractive. Recently they were on sale as well. Sales cycle around frequently, unless you need it right now.

Oh, yes, how I made clicking my name bring up the page: Choose your identity as Name/URL and put the URL you want in the URL box. I usually put my blog URL so you don't get that silly blogger profile page.
Town Mouse said…
I thought about this a little more, and wonder whether ventilation and cooling might not become an issue. If you start things from cuttings in September or October, you have the potential for some pretty hot days. I managed to almost fry some seedlings in the spring.

This is such a fun project!
Country Mouse said…
Wow this is a lively topic. Thanks so much for commenting, all. And thanks for getting back to me Nell Jean, with your experiences on all these points. When we were shopping for a fridge, forum posts about the most highly recommended Consumer Reports fridge had complaints, leaving us a bit baffled in our choice! It's the same with anything I guess. People's experience differs and complainers squeak louder than happy folk.

We're going to investigate the various options a bit more. Salvage companies might have suitable windows, for example - we're reconsidering glass, and need to investigate the requirements for greenhouse glass a bit more. The fact that polycarbonate is not easy to recycle is a negative. I emailed our recycle center about that but have not heard back as yet. I do like that 10X12 shape a lot having looked at your pictures, Nell Jean, that's for sure.

As far as being too hot, TMouse, that is true. I have shady areas I can use for cuttings too, and also you can get shade cloth to drape over the greenhouse to keep it from getting too hot. Enabling seed propagation in cooler weather is my primary driver at the moment. That and a nice place to sit with a cup of tea!
Great post! We've had similar discussions lately. Don't really have room for a greenhouse AND a shed though. We really need a shed, but I'd love a greenhouse. My husband, just like Mr. Rat, is convinced he should build something, perhaps along this line:


though I'm not particularly fond of the design, I do like the idea of combining both.

As for ventilation, I'm sure Mr. Rat could add a solar exhaust fan system to vent out the hot air on the warmer days. A number of online sources, including Charley's Greenhouse, sell fan kits. Let us know what Mr. Rat comes up with!
ryan said…
I had a duct tape and plastic greenhouse tepee one year. It would blow over in storms, too, and might have had more duct tape than plastic by the end of the year. It was fun, though, and the plants did alright in it.
janie said…
Country Mouse, Polycarbonate usually lasts a long time. It is very light and easy to work with. You can cut it with a pair of scissors, but it cannot be torn; a very good feature if you have windy conditions where you live.

We purchased an attic exhaust fan for $35.00 at McCoy lumber (do you have them there?), and installed it in the big greenhouse. We have mild winters, but very hot summers, and even in winter, you need hot air out of the greenhouse.

As far as the mil thickness, we use 3mil greenhouse grade plastic for our hoophouse. It is very strong, and very clear, to allow as much light as possible into the greenhouse. And we use a shade cloth in the summer, to protect my plants from our hot old sun.

I love my greenhouse, too. We have a dirt floor, but when I can, I am going to put in a decomposed granite floor. It packs very well, but drains very well, and is easy to walk on. Gravel is hard for me to walk on.
ryan said…
Me again, checking out the list again. It's good. I wish I had a greenhouse. My partner Anita had one for several years back in New Mexico. She says one thing to think about designing a greenhouse is sanitation. You have to keep greenhouses very clean, and typically need to completely clean them out once a year, so maybe account for that in the plan, the sense that you'll need to sterilize every surface at least once a year.
Nell Jean said…
In a warm climate, keeping cool is more a problem than keeping warm. I open the roof vents -- there are 4 -- when necessary. When there are going to be storms, like tonight, the vents are latched, and the door fastened with a bungee cord (high tech).

When it gets warm in spring, everything, ev-ry-thing goes outside. I take out two panels and store in the farm equipment building. When there's to be high winds, I open the doors and let the breezes blow through.

My bottom line is that I have a place to hold over plants and start seeds, a warm spot for the pets and myself to play when the weather is cold and wet, and the price was affordable.

We gave away our stash of old windows. Assembling an aluminum structure with bolts and putting in lightweight panels was still within our abilities. Timbers and beams and climbing and nailing were fast becoming more than old hands and knees can manage easily. If the Rat can handle all that, then I'd go for the home built version.
Country Mouse said…
You are all leaving such wonderful comments - I plan to revise my original post as it is an informational one and I want it to pack as much info as possible! I will incorporate many of your comments such as making it easy to clean, decomposed granite flooring idea, fan for cooling, and so on - when I have a little more time. Your participation is so great - thanks all! Tomorrow we hope to visit the salvage place TMouse told us about. Will keep you posted!
debsgarden said…
What an interesting post! I'm for Rat building it - cheaper and will definitely be more attractive.
Jess said…
This is a lively topic because the original post was so packed with info AND really fun to read. Seemed like Mr. Rat was coming around to the idea of using salvaged materials, and I loved the sound of "six little windows I took out of the cupola". Seems like you could end up with a super cool-looking one-of-a-kind. You could put custom touches in and make it a veritable art piece, and maybe do things like fit it with shade cloth that can be raised and lowered.