One of the principles of Permaculture is “Stacking Functions” or making every structure/addition to your plan serve at least two, if not more, functions in the landscape. So, a chicken tractor not only contains and protects my chickens but also adds to the tilth and fertility of my soil and provides an interesting visual component to the yard. When we added solar panels to the homestead, we wanted to honor this principle — and constructing a small greenhouse allowed us to install the panels, as the light was not great on the roof of the house. The number of functions we have stacked on this small structure became very clear to me as I prepared for an upcoming solar homes tour.
Function One: Solar Collector
There are eight panels on the roof, 13 feet in the air, with airflow underneath (which will help keep them cool in the heat of summer, and, thus, more efficient). These panels should produce all of the energy we use over the course of the year. We will adjust consumption so that this happens. The panels, even though they are on the roof, do not shade the interior. Because we are so far north, the winter light is very slanted and reaches to the back of the space nicely. The panels shade the wall of the garage next door instead, even in high summer.
The greenhouse itself is also a solar collector. On sunny days, it is much warmer inside, which is why I am straining honey there rather than in the kitchen. My plant starts are warm and growing and some of our more delicate perennials made it through the winter inside. Mark has moved an old school desk and chair inside so that he can sit there on winter afternoons and look out at the world while reading. The recycled brick floor and large black pots along the back wall also hold the heat. The cats love it.
Function Two: Growing Plants
There are two garden beds in the greenhouse where plants can grow directly in the ground. This spring, I’ve planted them with greens like lettuce, radishes, and arugula and they will hold our late fall crops as well. There are also five large pots along the back wall for more plants, like an early Siletz and a late Longkeeper tomato and the eggplants.
Finally, we just built a shelf to hold starts at window height, well above the garden beds. These are brackets with planks laid across. The planks can come down when no longer needed and wateredstarts drain directly on the garden beds below. They also hold the occasional cat nap…Because of the construction design, we can open windows all around the building, high and low, to control the temperatures and air flow.
Function Three: Bathing and Greywater
I have always dreamed about a shower and tub in a greenhouse, so, when we designed this structure, we had to leave room for a tub. A friend had several old clawfoot tubs in his backyard and we quickly nabbed one and measured it. Painted deep blue outside, it now sits at the far end of the greenhouse, right by what will be the Three Sisters bed outside the windows. A hose runs from the basement utility sink, through the no longer used dryer vent, and around the back of the house. It attaches either to the shower pipe or the hose running into the tub, depending on what you want.
We turn on the water in the basement and scoot outside, drop the curtains, and shower all summer long. The water runs from another hose into the yard and we move it around to water the flower beds surrounding the greenhouse, the kiwi vines, or the new grass. We will also use the shower water to water the plants inside by bailing and pouring. All of the hoses are downgraded from garden use.
Function Four: Connections to the Land
Finally, the greenhouse provides some excellent benefits to the yard as a whole. It shapes and protects the dining area near the house by creating a semi-transparent bulge into the yard. It holds the clotheslines that allow us to not own a clothes dryer. It stores potting soil and related materials. It will house our young chicks when they have grown too big for the box in the house, but not big enough to be mixed in with the full grown ladies in the back yard.
We may put the beehive inside for the winter, or tuck it behind the back wall for protection from storms. There is an electric outlet inside, so we can use it for power tools and extra backyard lighting as well.
What started as a way to mount some solar panels has become an important component of our backyard and garden system. It’s only been in place for six months—I look forward to finding more functions for the structure in the coming years.
Charlyn Ellis has been growing vegetables since she was five years old, when her mother bought her her first rake and pitchfork. She and her family are urban homesteaders and have a large organic vegetable garden, fruit trees, a beehive, four chickens, one rabbit, and two cats on a small urban lot in the center of town, surrounded by college students. Charlyn considers permaculture principles when she makes changes in her designs, especially the idea that the problem is the solution. Find her online at 21st Street Urban Homestead, and read all of Charlyn’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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