Build an Ecosystem: The Earth-Sheltered Solar Greenhouse

This article describes the construction and uses of a complete ecosystem an underground hydroponic greenhouse and aquaculture tank powered by the wind, heated by the sun and fed on compost.


| July/August 1974



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The completed greenhouse makes an attractive addition to the farm buildings on the Jim DeKorne mini-spread in New Mexico.

PHOTO: JAMES DEKORNE

This is the first article in a series describing the construction and use of a complete "ecosystem" — an underground hydroponic greenhouse and aquaculture tank — powered by the wind, heated by the sun and fed on compost. Sound farfetched? Maybe so, but read on ... you might change your mind!

The unit, built on my small homestead in northern New Mexico (altitude 7,000 feet), is still in the experimental stages, but preliminary results have far surpassed our expectations. As you can see from the pictures in the Image Gallery, the greenhouse — four feet below ground level and banked with earth on the north side — utilizes a 1,400-gallon solar-heated catfish tank as a heat source for winter vegetable growing. A 12-volt, 200-watt Wincharger supplies the power to circulate the water through filters and a small flat-plate solar heat collector. The liquid in the fish tank acts as a "heat battery", collecting solar energy during the daytime and radiating it back into the greenhouse at night.

The vegetables are grown hydroponically in 55-gallon drums cut in half lengthwise and filled with gravel. Under the eight hydroponic tanks are two additional drums cut in half horizontally to make four compost bins in which earthworms are raised. The worms are used to feed the catfish, and the worm castings are leached to make the organic hydroponic solution which feeds the plants.

Our ecosystem was designed to be almost completely self-sustaining. The wind generates the electricity which runs the water-circulating pump, the sun heats the water and the heated (and filtered) liquid keeps the fish happy and warms the greenhouse at night. The worms and their by-products provide food for fish and plants. The only substance that comes in from "outside" is the organic matter which feeds the worms, and that from no farther away than our animal pens and compost heap.

The idea for this project has evolved slowly over the past few years. I guess it began when I saw a copy of the Lama Foundation's Growhole poster (pg. 59 in The Last Whole Earth Catalog ). The original growhole, now fallen into disuse and ruin, was built a few years ago — at an altitude of 8,000 feet — by the Lama Commune on their land near Taos, New Mexico. It consisted of an excavation dug into a south-facing slope, shored up and framed with timber, then covered with two layers of 16-mil plastic sheeting. Apparently heavy snows in the winter of 1972 crushed the structure and it was never rebuilt.

The basic principles of the growhole, as stated on the poster, are: [1] The sun is a source of free energy and [2] The earth stores heat. All greenhouses make use of the first fact ... it's the utilization of the second that makes the growhole unique. If the warmth of the sunlight failing on such a structure during the day could be retained overnight then, ideally, no auxiliary source of heat would be necessary. The Lama prototype was an attempt to create this condition by using the moist earth inside as a heat-collecting "storage battery."

lee poulson
12/29/2011 7:47:08 AM

This article mentions the pictures telling the story but there is only one picture. I clicked on the image gallery but it’s the same picture there. Mother earth news just isn’t what it used to be!


duane roberts
7/20/2008 11:05:39 PM

FIRST OF ALL, I WOULD LIKE TO SAY THAT I HAVE BEEN A BIG FAN OF MOTHER EARTH NEWS SINCE ITS EARLY YEARS. HOWEVER, I'M NOT SURE I LIKE THIS NEW FORMAT OF FINDING ARTICLES. I WOULD MUCH RATHER HAVE THE OLD ARCHIVES BACK. I WAS ABLE TO FIND THE ARTICLES I REMEMBER MUCH EASIER THAT WAY. NOW WHENEVER AN ARTICLE REFERS TO A COMPANION ARTICLE, THERE'S NO LINK OR ANYWAY I CAN SEE TO EASILY FIND THE ARTICLE MENTIONED. I HAVE TRIED TO TYPE IN SEVERAL SUBJECTS THAT I REMEMBERED BEING IN OLDER ISSUES BUT THE SEARCH CAN'T EVER SEEM TO FIND WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR. UNLESS I'M MISSING THEM SOMEWHERE, PLEASE BRING BACK THE ARCHIVES EVEN IF THEY ARE IN ADDITION TO THIS NEW FORMAT. THANK YOU. DUANE ROBERTS






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