Mother Earth News Blogs > Organic Gardening

Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.


7 Questions to Answer Before You Build a Greenhouse

Homegrown Tomatoes And Lettuce

Who doesn’t want a plateful of nutritious, fresh food each day?  Many consumers realize that growing their own food and owning a greenhouse may offer year-round vegetables and fruits by extending the growing season in even the coldest of climates. Build.Sow.Grow recommends you consider these seven points to lead you to a successful greenhouse construction.

What is Your Solar Exposure?

The very first thing to consider is the sun’s annual path on your property to determine if you have adequate daily exposure to the sun and southern sky.  A passive solar greenhouse needs good southern exposure without extensive shading from trees or nearby buildings.  The primary resource for heat and light in any greenhouse is the SUN. Without proper sunlight, you will be spending way too much money and resources on auxiliary heating and lighting.

Passive Solar Greenhouse INterior

What are Your Property Restrictions?

When building within a neighborhood, you may need to consider HOA design guidelines and covenants or city and county property setback regulations. Some of their parameters may include matching your home’s exterior finishes, size limits, property setbacks, and number of structures allowed on your lot. On a recent greenhouse build, Build.Sow.Grow had to present before a design review board which required matching the siding, exterior colors, roofing materials and finishes of the existing home to receive approval. The results gave a very unified look to the property.

Will You Need a Building Permit to Build Your Greenhouse?

Another important step is to determine if you need a building permit, which are typically mandatory when a structure reaches a specific square footage size.  For example, in Gunnison County, Colorado structures under 120 square foot do not require a permit.

If your greenhouse requires a building permit, a licensed structural engineer will most likely need to engineer and stamp your plans. It also means you will need to hire licensed trades people for systems such as electrical and plumbing as their work would need to be inspected by the proper building authorities.

What Size Greenhouse Would You Like to Have?

After checking for possible size restrictions, take into account:

a. the number of people for which you’ll be growing food,

b. the variety of foods desired,

c. the types of plants to be incorporated (fruiting shrubs or trees will require more space), and

d. the desire for a dual-purpose space.

What is the Purpose of Your Greenhouse?

Determining the intention of your greenhouse is essential to the design process. It can be a season extender or a year-round growing site. Botanical options can include seed starting, food provision, and flower growing. Beyond the obvious cultivation of plants, aquaponics, vermiculture and composting operations may also be incorporated. If attached to a building, excess heat can be vented inside to provide extra heat and humidity in cold, dry months. Build.Sow.Grow’s latest greenhouse is being used as a home office and reading retreat. Ideas for other dual-purpose functions include a spa space, yoga platform, sleeping loft and meditation room.

What is Your Time Commitment?

Maintaining any garden inside or out, requires a certain amount of maintenance. Involving family, friends or neighbors in the greenhouse garden is a fantastic way to distribute tasks, bring people together and “share the wealth” of your homegrown food.

Many of the daily greenhouse tasks such as watering, venting, lighting, and fan control may be automated to give owners more independence and ease.

Two Children Working Community Garden 

What is Your Budget?

Of course, everybody would love to have an unlimited budget to build the grooviest greenhouse around, but rarely is this the case. A $5,000 budget or less will allow for a more basic structure like a hoop house or small prefab polycarbonate unit. These are typically used as season extenders, unless you live in a milder climate.

If you live in a harsher climate, such as the mountains or the northern part of the country where access to fresh organic fruits and vegetables is bleak, especially in winter, a more substantial investment will be needed to grow year-round. A good starting price for a highly energy efficient four-season greenhouse is $20,000. If your budget is more, you have the options of investing in a larger greenhouse or automating the systems within the greenhouse.

Build.Sow.Grow is keeping tabs on the new microloans that the USDA is dedicating to beginning urban farmers which can help finance new greenhouse projects. This article will provide you with information on the Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) microloan program. Contact your local USDA office to find out more information.

Feel free to contact Build.Sow.Grow at BuildSowGrow.com if you would like some guidance with any of the above points. We are happy to assist with everything from designing your next greenhouse, to guiding you through your HOA, city and/or county regulations, to building a superior greenhouse with your specifications.

All photos and drawings by Dustin Kujawski - Build.Sow.Grow.

Kara Holzmiller is the founder of Build.Sow.Grow., a company built on her desire to design and build the most healthy, low impact, efficient living spaces and the production of nutritious food grown locally through all seasons. For the last two years, she has also been a builder, project manager, designer and office manager of SmithWorks Natural Homes, a green building company in Crested Butte, CO. Find Kara on Facebook and her website.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.