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Alternatives for greenhouses: you can start small and grow into the greenhouse of your dreams.

Wherever the temperature dips below freezing, there are gardeners dreaming of owning a greenhouse. Among homesteaders, who also dream of growing as much of their food as possible, a greenhouse might even seem like more of a necessity than a luxury. Even if it only extends the growing season of a few plants for a short period, the homestead family is going to eat better.

Yet, greenhouses are relatively rare. One of the main reasons is their cost... or perceived cost. But if your aim is to grow a few week's worth of salads before or after the regular garden is producing, a sheltered growing area need be neither elaborate or expensive. You can at least grow a few salads and gain experience in this type of culture--without spending a fortune. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Since the problem is low temperatures in the garden, we can start right there, and in two ways. First, we can extend the gardening season on both ends by planting vegetables that can withstand cool temperatures, or even frost. Second, we can protect some plants right where they're growing, in the garden.

Crops that laugh at the cold

Cole crops are well-known for laughing at the cold: red and green cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts can be planted before the last frost for early harvests, and later plantings will still be producing after the tomatoes and beans have turned black after freezing.

The best head lettuce we've ever grown was covered with snow-twice!

Carrots and turnips are sweeter if left in the garden until after the first frost, and parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes can be left in the ground all winter even in the north. Horseradish doesn't get its characteristic tang until after the leaves have been frozen... and even the leaves can withstand below-freezing temperatures. The roots can be left in the ground all winter.

Warm weather crops such as tomatoes, peppers, beans and cucumbers are much more sensitive to cold. All of these can benefit from some form of protection.

There is often a spell of nice weather before the last frost of spring. Many an overeager gardener has set out plants on a warm sunny day, only to have them zapped by frost days or weeks later. Similarly, there are usually many warm days of Indian summer after the first frost in fall. Make use of these quirks of nature by protecting some plants that will provide at least a few meals or portions of meals.

The simplest solution is to cover the chosen plants with anything that will ward off the chill--old blankets, plastic, cardboard boxes, bushel baskets, or anything you have on hand. You can also buy material such as Remay, which is very lightweight and made for the task, although its insulating value is limited.

A cold frame is a small step up in labor and materials, but a large step in protection and later convenience. If you don't have any old windows stored in the shed or garage, you can almost certainly find some, and probably at no cost. Place bales of hay or straw around selected plants with the proper spacing to support the windows, and you have an "instant greenhouse."

Rolls of clear plastic can be used the same way, or they can be used to cover entire rows in the garden. In an emergency (such as an unexpected freeze, like the June 21 one many of us experienced in 1992), the plastic can just be laid over the plants. If you're going to be using it for awhile though, it's better to support the material. One easy way to do this is to drive stakes into the ground around the plants. Place plastic bottles or anything similar on the sticks to avoid puncturing the plastic. Then spread the sheeting over the plants and stakes, weighting down the edges if necessary.

Another version of this, and one that's more attractive, is to make hoops of heavy gauge wire long enough to arch over the plants. Stick the ends into the ground on either side of the row. Cover the hoops with the plastic, and secure the edges with soil. This "grow-tunnel" can be very effective for starting cold-hardy plants in the garden in early spring.

Individual plants, usually tomatoes and peppers, can be protected from unexpected cold and also get a better start in cool weather with Walls-o-Water. These are plastic tubes vertically arranged in a circle. Filled with water, they stand by themselves, and the water serves as a heat regulator, collecting solar energy during the day and releasing it at night.

The next step up

These are small measures that can provide a little extra food--food that would otherwise be wasted when it's destroyed by the weather. But you can do a lot more without spending a lot more. All it takes is a little work and planning.

Many of us start seeds in the house in late winter or early spring. A sunny room is ideal, but a sunny window-sill will do for small amounts of plants. Lacking either of these, plants can be started even in the basement with electric lights.

But the same methods can also provide extra food in the fall and into winter.

Before the first frost, transplant peppers, tomatoes, and herbs from the garden into pots. Or start new plants specifically for indoor growing. (A cutting from a tomato plant, placed in water, will develop roots. A small "new" plant such as this will do better indoors.)

Herbs such as parsley do very well indoors. Tomatoes will be smaller and fewer than from garden-grown plants (and small varieties seem to do better) but when the snow is blowing outside any tomato is better than none!

If you're trying to cut down on electricity, consider the hotbed. This is just a cold frame with heat. Traditionally, the heat was provided by composting horse manure. There's no reason a homesteader can't use this old method today.

Most homestead gardeners have seen compost steaming on chilly mornings, and if it's really working, you can feel the heat when you turn it even in mild weather. A hotbed simply makes this naturally generated (and free) heat work for you.

The main task here is to plan your composting in advance so it will be producing heat when your plants need it. This might require some experience, because compost heating depends on what's in the mix, ambient temperatures, and moisture. To continue providing heat, the compost has to be several feet deep, and it will have to be turned periodically.

The traditional hotbed was a large wooden container holding the compost Plants in flats or pots were on shelves or a platform above the heating material. Cover this with glass or plastic.

"Real" greenhouses

The next step would be to the "real" greenhouse, but here again, "real" is a relative term. Even a sizable growing space, protected from the elements, can be fairly simple and inexpensive.

Consider a lean-to attached to the south side of an existing structure. One wall is already built, reducing your construction time and materials. Here again, use what you have. If that includes some 2 x 4s and used windows, and you have some carpentry skills, you might come up with a very attractive and serviceable greenhouse. If you have to use poles from the woodlot and plastic, it might not look as good or last as long, but the salads will taste just as good.

Here are some other possibilities.

Some people like the idea of a grow-pit, a growing space dug into the ground or the side of a hill. This makes use of heat stored below the surface.

Any kind of building can be turned into a greenhouse of sorts. It might be as simple as installing some of those used windows in the south side of a shed, or even just removing the sheathing and tacking plastic to the exposed studs. But if you don't have a usable structure already, you can build one.

The ambitious, creative, and skilled homesteader doesn't need much help here. There are no rules for dimensions or other construction details, and even if there were, the real homesteader would look to' see what's on the treasure pile (a.k.a. the junk pile) and design according to what's there, not according to a bill of materials and blueprints in a magazine. However, here are a few more ideas to stimulate your creativity.

A very simple and inexpensive greenhouse can be built in the shape of a pyramid. Start with four good boards... 2 x 10s (or 12s or 16s, whatever you have or want to buy). A few 2 x 4s or 6s will suffice to brace the structure. Cover it with plastic.

The one pictured here uses 4-inch timbers 16 feet long for the main frame, resulting in a structure that's 21 feet square. This is built on a base of cement blocks. The blocks are bermed for added insulation.

If you prefer a dome, take a look at the Star-plate type of structure. These are very quickly and easily erected, even by those without much carpentry experience. The connectors can be purchased (see Stromberg's ad on p. 12) or you can make your own. These require 20 2 x 4s of equal length, which can range from 6-12 feet.

A quonset-hut type of structure can be made with rebar, the rods used to reinforce concrete, or PVC or other types of pipe. Rebar comes in 20-foot lengths, but can be cut to any size you want. And of course, just keep adding sections to make the greenhouse as long as you want or need.

Material that's 20 feet long, bent so that the ends reach the ground 12 feet apart, will make a structure more than 6 feet high.

The rods can be imbedded in concrete in the ground, and must be laterally reinforced. Special brackets for this are available. If you use pipe you can just drill holes and bolt the reinforcing struts to the hoops. Covering the hoops with plastic is a minor operation, and of course, putting doors into the ends is easier than with a pyramid or dome.

Or how about a tipi? Or a pole building?

If you have a few thousand dollars to spend on a greenhouse it can be a good investment, not only for food production but for the pleasure and satisfaction of gardening year 'round.

But don't let a shortage of cash keep you from enjoying the same benefits. As with most of homesteading, all it takes is a little planning, a little creativity, and a little work, and you can make dreams come true.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Countryside Publications Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Previous Article:Homesteading in HEL.
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