The $30 Greenhouse

Reader Contribution by Kyle Chandler-Isacksen
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One of the stops on the tours I give at our Be the Change Homestead in Reno is our greenhouse.  I built most of it over a long weekend when my family was away visiting relatives.  When Katy and the boys are gone, I like to say that I have “infinite time.”  It truly feels that way as I put in peanut-butter and kale fueled 14-hour days unbothered by lost shoes, sit-down meals, bathing… For those childless people out there, you can’t know how precious your time is until you have kids.  Especially if you unschool and homestead as we do.  Infinite time! 

The greenhouse is not fancy or big but it is pretty amazing (to me, at least) all the same because I built it completely from salvaged lumber, glass, plastic, bricks, nails, etc.  The only things I bought new were screws and some caulking taking up most of the $30.  We live, intentionally, on very little money so when I started visioning the greenhouse I put the word out to friends and neighbors and started gathering materials.  I also frequent our local Habitat for Humanity store which is a boon for nails, hinges, random bolts, and the odd hand tool.  After some choice library books for design inspiration, oodles of doodles, and feedback from Katy (she’s the gardener), we were ready to go. 

All the windows and sliders came from our friend and neighbor Gene, a handyman with a penchant for giving and for colorful clothes.  We got some groovy space-age plastic window stuff from Dean, a plumber friend, who got butt-end rolls from his friend who makes windows with it and can’t use the last 30 feet or so of material on each roll.  Wood was gotten from various friends and sources including a dumpster.  The roofing vinyl is from an old billboard sign we got from Clearchannel (the ad company) for $25 for a 48’ x 14’ sign.  That’s a lot of material!  Yes, it’s vinyl and vinyl is nasty, but it is also waste put to new (and better) use.  They sell the old signs and the money goes towards their holiday party.  The last time I picked up two signs I got them with my bike and trailer.  Somehow word got around to the employees in the building about this and four guys came outside to see how some nut on a bike planned to get these giant tarps hauled off.  They were great sports.  

Some other features of the greenhouse include:

  • A “Really raised bed” which makes for easy gardening
  • Three old 55 gallon drums filled with water under that raised bed are painted black and absorb heat from the direct winter/fall sun (aka: thermal mass and the pavers on the ground do the same)
  • Removable plastic windows on the sides
  • Openable windows on the low front side
  • Venting via a hinged opening at the top which we prop open with a stick
  • Heat through a window for the “Bed Shed”  – it’s attached to an outbuilding (the “Bed Shed”) in which friends stay
  • Work table, shelves, some pretty chicken wings for decoration 

Back to the tour and how the greenhouse relates to our broader vision. People, all of us, live inside frameworks of understanding that are narrow because there is so much out there to know and learn. These frameworks, while useful in that they help us define our worlds and ourselves, also limit our ability to see outside them; to see new ways of doing things, to be creative. Most folks that come by our place and take our tour are ready to expand their frameworks; they’re ready for some of what we’re offering. And when I show them the greenhouse full of plants in the dead of winter (or whenever, really) and describe the cost, the friends and community who contributed to it, and how it works, the universal response is, “Wow!” followed by a broad smile. Now it’s not that “Wow!” really but to folks with a Home Depot, new material, isolated, outsourcing of expertise mentality, it is impressive. And I see minds open and tick-tock in new ways. Little breakthroughs happen and it’s just because there’s an example to see and someone to share it.