Building the NewenHouse Kit Home: Windowsills for Seedlings

Reader Contribution by Sonya Newenhouse
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Sonya Newenhouse, Ph.D. is an eco-entrepreneur who enjoys providing practical and creative solutions to help people and organizations live lighter on the earth. She is the Founder of Madison Environmental Group, a firm providing LEED green building and sustainability consulting services and Founder and President of Community Car, a car sharing organization in Madison Wisconsin. Currently she is developing NewenHouse, a business that will provide super-insulated sustainable kit homes. 

Spring is here and we’ve started seedlings for our garden, placing them on our south-facing bedroom windowsills. The indoor air temperature of our home is now between 69 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit (20.5 and 24.4 Celsius), even when the temperature drops to 26 degrees F (-3.33 C)  at night. Since March 11 we have left a few windows open a crack, and during the day, when it gets warmer, we open some of them further. Our electric billfor February was a whopping $11—$8 of which were service fees! The bill was much lower than we expected, especially for February in Wisconsin, in our furnace-free home. Our home is all electric, so that bill includes the energy consumed for heating our water, turning on lights, cooking, watching Netlfix, listening to the radio and working from home. Our 2,250-watt PV (photovoltaic solar) system is a relatively small system that offsets our electrical usage. The solar hot water system is also working better than anticipated. Today for example I did a load of laundry using hot water, just because I could. Before moving into this home I mostly washed my clothes in cold water to conserve energy.

Salad mix seedlings thriving on our 17-inch-deep windowill. Photo By Sonya Newenhouse. 

Back to planting. It’s so much fun to design the landscape plan, especially having a blank canvas and knowing we’re going to live here for a while. Our goal is to create an edible, artful landscape with an emphasis on regional plants. My sister, Astrid Newenhouse, helped me pick the varieties and narrow down my choices to meet my goals. She’s a horticulturist with the University of Wisconsin, on the board of Madison’s Healthy Lawn Team and has been digging in dirt her whole life. She has written extension publications for small market growers just as my grandfather wrote extension books for orchard growers in Holland. Our parents grew and canned most of our food when we were little, and at the time I reluctantly helped them weed and water. Now I long to garden. How does that happen? Maybe it’s in my genes or maybe they lead by example. My husband Cecil grew up on a farm in northeast Ohio and was more enthusiastic in helping his parents with chores. He’s looking forward to producing food and cooking with fresh ingredients.  

We planted our organic seeds—sourced from Seed Savers Exchange and High Mowing Organic Seeds—in organic potting soil. Photo By Sonya Newenhouse. 

The windowsills in NewenHouse are perfect to start seeds. They are 17 inches deep and fit the planting trays just right. We turn the trays and water them once a day with an aluminum can that our housemate Bjorn punctured holes in using a leather needle. To water the seedlings, we fill a canning jar with water, then pour that water holding the can in our other hand and quickly moving the can over the trays. This way the seeds are sprinkled. (Of course, you can buy a little spray bottle or a watering can that sprinkles rather than pours.) We’re hoping the eaves of our house don’t block the sun too much in the middle of the day.

Thus far almost all of the seedlings have germinated. Bjorn started the seedling project as part of his New Year’s resolution, and I quickly was motivated to join him and start seedlings, too. I planted purple basil, red cabbage, hot peppers, cucumbers, tomatos, dill and parsley. The seeds are organic and from two sources: Seed Savers Exhange in Iowa and High Mowing Organic Seeds. To protect our upstairs wood windowsills, we placed the trays on plastic garbage bags over towels. Last fall we prepped the future planting beds and garden with dried horse and alpaca manure and then planted winter rye as a cover crop. 

Visitors from the Americorp tour group from the Winneshiek Energy District in Deocrah, Iowa. Photo By Sonya Newenhouse. 

This past week we hosted 15 visitors from the Energy District of Decorah Iowa. We needed to turn on the HRV to full capacity (level 3) and open some windows as the temperature rose in the home. Thanks to Eric Sievers for organizing the tour.

A few our visitors had read about the house and decided to visit us. They felt right at home on our swing. Visit them at The Wine Guyz in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which they own with friends.

Visitors from La Crosse, Wisconsin, enjoying our swing. Photo By Sonya Newenhouse.

We hope you’ll consider joining us for an Earth Day NewenHouse OpenHouse onSunday, April 22 from noon to 4 p.m. We’ll serve chocolate cake from the Viroqua Food Coop (where Bjorn works),  Kickapoo Coffee and have the benefit of listening to our neighbor Caroline Carlson, a high school senior, play cello between tours of the home. Our May NewenHouse Tea and Tours will be Saturday May 26 from 3 p.m to 5 p.m. Call me at (608) 220-8029 or email if you’d like to visit another time.