The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Why I don't want a greenhouse

Lettuce in a greenhouseI used to dream of owning a greenhouse.  In my imagination, I would be raising tropical fruits like pineapples, mangos, and avocados and eating fresh vegetables all winter.  I also remember the pure joy I got from walking into the biology greenhouse when I was in college and inhaling the warm greenness while snow coated the walk outside.  At first, I figured I'd build a greenhouse as soon as I could afford it, but now I'm not so sure, because...

  • Ladybug on a lemon leafGreenhouses breed pests.  I love our dwarf citrus, but I've noticed that once a year, the inside trees come down with whitefly infestations.  Luckily, I can just move the trees into the garden in the spring and let natural predators deal with the problem, but I've heard about hobbyists who completely gave up on their greenhouses as a result of pest infestations.  If you follow natural gardening techniques, there are tons of critters, both in the soil and in the air, working to make your garden a success, but you have to fill all of those environmental niches yourself if you cut your plants off inside a greenhouse.  In the end, you usually have to spray noxious chemicals or lose the growing space for good.
  • Potted plants are a lot of work.  While we're on the topic of "nature does it better", I should admit that I consider potted plants a pain in the butt.  You've probably noticed that I start fewer plants inside than nearly any serious gardener, and there's a reason for that --- I'd rather not mess with reinventing the wheel when I can get nature to do chores for me.  It is possible to plan greenhouses so they're open to the earth underneath, but then you  tend to get a buildup of buildup of salts and other problems in the soil.
  • Greenhouses have to be heated.  No matter how much you plan your greenhouse with passive solar techniques in mind, you're going to have to add supplemental heat in the winter if you're growing anything truly tender.  Electric heat is expensive (and getting more so), and I don't think I'm willing to commit to stoking a wood stove in a greenhouse in the middle of the night.  That means I'd be limited to growing spring and fall crops like broccoli and lettuce, which can be raised nearly as efficiently in a quick hoop.
  • Quick hoopsQuick hoops are simpler.  When I learned that I could grow tomato sets just as well in a quick hoop as under grow lights inside, I was overjoyed.  The more I use cold frames and similar methods of protecting plants outdoors to give them an early jump on the growing season, the more I think these techniques are my style.  Nature takes care of watering and I can easily move the quick hoops to new patches of ground every season, so pests and diseases don't build up in the soil.
  • I love seasons.  I dream of the summer garden all winter, but I also love spending at least a couple of months with no garden chores.  Greenhouses promise out of season bounty, but the truth is that I wouldn't want to lose the building anticipation as I wait for the first strawberry or tomato.

Read more about sunrooms in this 99 cent ebook!Which is not to say that I might not succumb to the greenhouse bug someday, but I hope I can stand firm!

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Never though about the cons of a green house just the pros, guess I have a lot more studying to do.

Once the weather has warmed up and I no longer need the plastic covered hoops I turn them into a shade/nursery area for hardening off plants. With a stretch of fabric down the middle I can protect the plants from the hottest part of the day and control how much sun they get in the morning and evening. I love my little hoop houses.

Comment by frakier Tue Jun 7 11:04:30 2011

I used to just think about the pros of greenhouses too, until I met more and more people with beautiful greenhouses who couldn't really use them anymore.

I've finally taken the fabric off our last quick hoop (which was providing extra heat for the melons.) When I did, the watermelons wilted for a day or so --- clearly, they were getting shade from the fabric and weren't used to the hot sun. If I wanted to try to keep spring crops growing through the heat, I'd probably leave quick hoops up but vent the sides, although by the time summer crops are starting to come in, I feel no need for broccoli, peas, and lettuce.

Comment by anna Tue Jun 7 15:01:37 2011

As a professional greenhouse worker, I can say that your observations are pretty much on. As far as winter heat goes, there are other options than electric heat and stoking a wood stove through the night. Oil & natural gas forced air are the most common means of heating greenhouses. If you want to limit your use of fossil fuels, then there are also pellet stoves that burn pretty continuously as long as you keep them filled with saw dust pellets. Another idea is the style of greenhouse that abuts the house and feeds off the heat of the house. I realize that this probably wouldn't work that well with your home, however.

While my current employer does quite a bit of pesticide spraying, my previous employer in NJ only ever applied herbicide under the tables, never any insecticide. Mosquitoes got to be a problem in the late spring, but otherwise there was never any serious pest infestation. In my own garden, I try to use companion planting to minimize pests.

I can see your point about containers, but professionally and personally, I've grown a lot more in containers than in the ground, and have usually had better success with them.

At the end of the day, the major difference between us is that I just can't live without fresh tomatoes. A greenhouse will be worth it for me just for that.

Comment by Edward Antrobus Tue Jun 7 21:10:19 2011
I think it's all a question of whether the juice is worth the squeeze with greenhouses and potted plants. I've discovered that eating in season is actually tastier than trying to eke out the year to get tomatoes and other warm season crops year round. I've yet to taste a winter tomato that matches the flavor of our winter kale... :-)
Comment by anna Wed Jun 8 11:24:53 2011

That's an interesting take on greenhouses.

Greenhouses are mostly unnecessary where I live (some people do use them to start plants or grow tropicals, but I don't see the need). I always just assumed that everyone in UK/US/Canada aspired to have a huge hoop house! Watching shows like River Cottage even made me want one, when I just don't need one!

There is something to be said for following the seasons, and I think the annual cycles of dominant food sources generally provide us with the different nutrient requirements we need for different seasons (e.g. citrus, carbs, fats and oils in winter, greens and fruits in summer).

Comment by Darren (Green Change) Thu Jun 30 00:50:15 2011
Interesting point about the dominant foods for each season providing the nutrients we need. I know that the first spring lettuces taste like ambrosia, but by this time of year I'm ready to move on to beans and corn. It would be a shame to miss that ambrosial lettuce by having summer crops all year!
Comment by anna Thu Jun 30 07:30:50 2011
I have always marveled about how hard it is to grow things properly indoors when God just seems to make everything grow better outside and I hardly have to do anything! I tried putting row covers to help some plants last through the winter but the wind blew them around. What do you suggest as a good method that will stay put? I would love to shade my lettuces now as the sun is getting stronger. Thanks ahead of time!
Comment by Linda Fri Jul 1 01:38:43 2011
I recommend you click on the link in the post to learn more about quick hoops. Depending on what kind of fabric you use, they can double as shade cloths, and they are relatively cheap, quick and easy to put up.
Comment by anna Fri Jul 1 09:53:31 2011

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