The Greenhouse Dream Fulfilled

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather

As soon as I discovered the old barn foundation on our property 14 years ago, I fantasized about turning it into a garden. At the time the foundation was in the middle of a forest. And it had a small forest growing inside of it.

Over the years I took down the large trees around it and used them for firewood. Then I had to tackle the inside. The door openings were too narrow to allow any power equipment in, so I just hacked everything out with shovels and axes. It was a jungle of sumac and other small trees, vines and every other kind of stubborn, deep-rooted native plant. Even though it had a concrete floor, the plants had found many places to get their roots through that concrete, and they weren’t going to go quietly into the night. It’s the kind of activity that has allowed me to eat excessive amounts of Black Forest cake, guilt-free.

As I cleaned it up I scraped up the soil and made several small raised beds. Our heat loving plants do really well planted in the barn foundation since the thermal mass of the concrete absorbs the heat of the sun during the day and then radiates heat at night, especially early in the season when we still have cold nights.

But ultimately I wanted to use part of the barn foundation for a greenhouse. The logical spot was against the north wall, which gets the most sun. The problem was that this wall has 3 window openings where the heat would have escaped. Also, the wall was cracked and listing. Many years ago when the barn was built the concrete walls were just placed in the sandy soil and over the decades they have shifted. For years I contemplated how to block those windows off. Eventually I bought a bag of mortar and learned how to cement rocks into a window. On top of one of the windows there was a large piece of concrete that had broken free and was hanging precariously, held up by the wooden frame. Eventually I borrowed Ken’s tractor and used it to move the slab into a reasonable position and mortared in more rocks.

So after 14 years of dreaming and scrounging any old storm window or patio door that I could beg, borrow or steal from the dump, this was the year. My friend Hans provided me with some glass that he had removed from a house. When he delivered the glass and I shared my greenhouse plans with him, he said “Cam, do me one favor, take some time and draw this out.” Hans doesn’t know how I work. Hans is a talented architect with a fancy drafting table. I use the “hack things together” strategy to plan my projects. My neighbor Ken also frowns on this method of project planning. Alas, I am 52 and not easily taught new tricks.

My greenhouse project is coming together quite well. I have been salvaging glass for years. It’s amazing how much of it people throw away. The roof of the greenhouse is made of aluminum storm windows. The front is made up of patio doors. So far, my only costs have been the square cedar beams that I had Gary Clarke make for me for $40 with cedar from his property. And $10 in screws.

It’s not a true greenhouse in the sense that I won’t be able to use it for 12 months of the year. I guess you could almost call it a big cold frame. But I’m still over the moon about this greenhouse. Unlike a plastic greenhouse this has this big mass of concrete behind it to retain heat. I’ll be able to put my peppers and eggplants into the soil a few weeks early inside the greenhouse. One of the challenges here in our growing zone is that we often get a late frost. One year we had a frost in early June. There’s nothing worse than planting your peppers and eggplant and tomatoes late in May and then having them nipped by frost. And at the end of the growing season, we will often have a frosty night or two and then another 4 weeks of reasonable weather without frost. So I’m pretty pumped about this greenhouse allowing me to keep supplying members of our CSA with stuff later than I’ve been able to in the past.

It’s not a huge greenhouse. I’ll only be able to fit about two rows of plants in it. And it’s not really airtight. There are some gaps where the doors and windows meet. I’ll try and fill them a bit but I’m not going to obsess about it. As long as it protects my plants from frost and cool nights I’ll be happy. The windows actually leak, which isn’t too bad because when it rains it’s a bit like a drip irrigation system in a few places.

I have this bad habit when I work on projects like this to spend way too much time looking at them. Admiring them. And why not? Come on, it’s a greenhouse… for $50! And with the stone filled windows and cedar beams, it looks like it should be in one of those fancy century farmhouse magazines. And I could get a really trendy haircut and stand beside it in my khaki’s and leather jacket.

Actually I don’t own either of those things. But now I have a greenhouse that I’m thrilled about. Not only because it will help me to provide CSA members with better produce, but because I built it, and I built it almost for free. And I used what materials I had on the property like rock and soil and a barn foundation. And I used windows and patio doors that were destined for the landfill. There’s just something so cool about taking a product that one person sees as garbage and coming up with a functional way to get more life out of it.

I’ll admit it; I have been spending just a bit too much time sitting in my greenhouse. It’s a pretty special place. Hans and Ken will point out that things don’t line up. I’m good with that. My excuse will be that the concrete wall behind it is split in two and going in two different directions. Oh, and because I didn’t sketch it out properly before I started. I measure once and cut twice. Actually sometimes I cut three and four times, sort of using successive approximations until I get it the way I want it. I used a tape measure and a level, but ultimately, I just kind of hacked it together. And I felt like I was taking crack cocaine the whole time! I was finally building my greenhouse!

Not to brag too much, it’s the finest, most awesome greenhouse on the planet! Probably the world! I built that!

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If you are planning on doing some gardening this year, Cam’s book “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook” would be a great resource! Order it from Mother Earth News or on our website

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