How to Build a Greenhouse

December 19, 2011 at 7:09 am (DIY, Gardening, permaculture) (, )

A unique thing about our property is that the original owner, Frank–the man who first moved into this house in the late 1940’s–resided here up until just three years ago.  He spent over sixty years in this house, living and working and cultivating this garden that I love but is no more mine than a mountain.  It’s obvious he put a lot of love and effort into making this his home–unique little details and customizations that are hard to find in Vancouver’s newly renovated rental properties, which is to say, practically all of them.

The old greenhouse that Frank built. Check out the custom gutter!

One of the things Frank customized was a small greenhouse in the garden in the back.  It obviously wasn’t a professional job, but it seems Frank had a good head for fixing and putting things together.  He fashioned the greenhouse out of 2’x4’s and irregular sizes of glass, some of it framed out like windows, some of it loose.  The footprint of the whole structure measured 5.5′ x6.5′ and we built the new greenhouse the same, but we’re told by a neighbor who knew Frank that he originally built it at least twice that long so that it extended the length of the adjoining neighbor’s garage.

By the time of our inheriting this structure, it was most decidedly decrepit.  The sheets of glass making up the roof were hanging dangerously off the edge and I actually didn’t feel safe entering the greenhouse as it stood then.  I desperately wanted to have the greenhouse, but it seemed beyond rescue; rebuilding it was really the only option.  So, for five weekends last May, I totally played the pregnancy card and got my video-gaming hubbie outside and wielding a hammer.  I must say, building a greenhouse was a truly daunting task at first, but I couldn’t believe how easily it proceeded once we got started.  Here’s how.

Once we tore out the old structure, we realized there was a lot of rot at the base of the back wall, which is just the south-facing exterior wall of the neighbor’s garage.  Soil and debris from the greenhouse was actually mud-sliding into the garage.  Our quick fix: a retaining wall, so to speak, of 1960’s orange shag carpet (pulled out of the house basement during the home improvement blitz of the previous months).  Really, we nailed a length of carpet to the garage wall and dug the soil out several feet and replaced it on top the carpet layer.  Will it hold forever?  No, but seeing as this property is due to be redeveloped in the near future, this is impermanent permaculture.

For those who have no building experience whatsoever you cannot simply build a cube of 2’x4’s; it will not stand straight.  Any structure will be more sturdy with some cross bracing (like when you put those two metal rods on the back of an IKEA shelf).  Sounds obvious, but we were surprised by how strong our structure felt after adding a few angled pieces of wood here and there.  Also, using screws would probably be the strongest, but we went for the ease of hammer and nails.  The glass pieces were framed in with narrow pieces of wood on the outside and finishing nails inside.  The door was made from a frame found under the back porch stairs (stashed there years ago by Frank, I presume) and an old plastic shower curtain.  The cherry on top: on the final day of building, while I took a break with Eleanor at the park, Stephen laid a beautiful stone path, put in the retaining boards and back-filled with soil so that it was all done when I returned!

Besides a lot of hard work, this greenhouse cost us next to nothing.  Mostly we were able to just use materials we found on site: glass, wood, door frame, shower curtain, stone pavers, blue paint, and corrugated plastic (for a ceiling vent that can be raised and lowered).  The only items we purchased were three  12 ft. long 2″x4″s, a bag of nails, and hinges for the door.  After the $30 Rona gift card from my mom and step-dad, we spent a grand total of $3.37 on this greenhouse!

The greenhouse after rebuilding.

In its first year, our greenhouse housed a load of basil, four eggplants, four pepper plants, and two incredibly prolific heritage tomatoes.  We tried growing Maw-Maw’s okra, but after seeming to transplant okay, all the plants just failed to thrive.  They hung on and on and slowly lost leaves despite regular waterings.  I think we got a single 2″ okra pod!  Oh well!  Building the greenhouse was well worth it just for the experience of figuring it out as we went along.

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