One of the main trends I've been seeing in the prepping community over the last few years is a shift towards homesteading. While newbie preppers are still concerned about building a good food stockpile and learning basic survival skills; those who have been preppers for a while are looking towards long-term sustainability. Homesteading fits in perfectly with this, as it allows you to become more self-sufficient, especially in the area of producing your own food.
Before I scare you off, I want you to realize that you don't need to sell your home and move out into the country to be able to homestead. We've all seen stories about people who grow all their own food on a 1/5 acre lot in the city. If they can do that, you can too.
Granted, you've got to have at least some land to be able to homestead. But the key here isn't so much how much land you have, as how well you use the land you have. When I lived in Colorado, one of my neighbors had turned his entire backyard into a vegetable garden. He grew enough in that garden to provide a large part of what his family ate; and he did it in a very small yard. Overall, his yard wasn't much bigger than the footprint of his house, and the house wasn't all that big either.
No, I'm not saying that you can grow all your food in a four foot square, vertical garden. I see people write about that and I cringe. Yes, vertical gardening allows you to use space very efficiently; but even so, a four foot by four foot garden isn't enough.
If you have limited space, by all means, use vertical gardening. You'll probably have to, in order to get enough out of your garden. But don't count on that alone, combine vertical gardening with other gardening methods, to get the most out of your garden. In other words, to get the largest possible yield out of your garden.
One of the things that gets in the way of getting the most out any garden is the weather; most specifically, winter weather. While drought and too much sun can levy a serious toll on your garden's production, they usually don't stop it from producing. But when winter weather hits and that first freeze comes along, you can pretty much forget about anything growing in your garden. It will die.
But what if you could keep those plants from freezing? Maybe you can't move them indoors and keep them toasty warm in your house; but if you could keep them from freezing, then your tomato plants could keep producing tomatoes and your cucumbers could grow to maturity.
That's where the greenhouse comes in. The greenhouse was invented by the ancient Romans, in response to a need by the Emperor Tiberius for cucumbers. His physicians had prescribed the daily ingestion of a cucumber for his ailments. So in 30 AD, the first greenhouse was built. In it, the Emperor's gardeners were able to grow fresh cucumbers year round.
While greenhouses have changed considerably since then, the basic concept is the same. That is to create an indoor environment for plants to grow in, where they are protected from the elements.
Even though Emperor Tiberius's gardeners lit fires outside the walls of the greenhouse to keep the air inside warm enough for the growing of his cucumbers, it also incorporated one of the most important elements of any greenhouse, a glass roof. This allowed the sun in to make photosynthesis possible, while also helping to warm the inside of the greenhouse via passive solar heating.
Those ancient gardeners didn't really know what they had invented, but they built the first passive solar home in history. Each and every greenhouse built since then has depended on those same principles, even though early gardeners didn't really understand the principles behind it.
Yet the passive solar aspect of a greenhouse is one of its most important characteristics. It is the heat created by sunlight entering through the glass and striking the surfaces within that keeps the temperature inside of the typical greenhouse above freezing. In this, the greenhouse provides the ability to increase a garden's yield, without having to expend money for fuel or use the limited electrical power you might have available in an emergency.
Properly built, a greenhouse can actually be quite warm. Of course, there are a lot of factors that will affect exactly how warm, not all of which are in the greenhouse itself. You need good steady sunlight for the passive solar capability of the greenhouse to function. Ambient air temperature makes a difference as well, as the greenhouse itself doesn't provide much in the way of insulation. But whatever your conditions, the temperature inside the greenhouse will be warmer than outside, and there are a few tricks you can employ to make that even better.
What this does for you is to increase your growing season. Even if you can't grow cucumbers year round, like Tiberius's gardeners did, just being able to add one more month to your growing season will make a huge difference. Being able to plant earlier in the year and harvest later will definitely increase the yield of your garden.
Basic Greenhouse Construction
I'm going to make an assumption here; that is, you're not wealthy. So I'm not even going to think about suggesting that you install a commercially built greenhouse or have a custom greenhouse built out of glass and aluminum. But lacking mountains of extra money sitting around is no reason to think that you can't have a greenhouse. All you need to do is build it yourself.
Now, before you balk at that idea, building a greenhouse is a very simple project, even if you aren't the world's greatest handyman. This is a great weekend project for anyone with a few basic tools and enough knowledge to know how to use such complicated tools as a hammer and saw.
Any greenhouse consists of two basic parts; the glazing (glass or plastic) and a structure. The whole purpose of the structure is to keep the glazing in place. So, if you don't have very heavy glazing, you don't need a very stout structure.
Enough glass or Plexiglas to build a greenhouse would cost a small fortune. So instead, I recommend using viscueen. In case you're not familiar with this term, it's what building contractors call the rolls of plastic sheeting that they use to seal off an area, as drop cloths and to protect their work from the rain. It works great for a homemade greenhouse too, as long as you buy clear visqueen. Better yet, buy heavy-gauge clear visqueen. The heavier gauge plastic will last longer, so you won't have to replace it as soon.
Since your glazing is going to be light, you can go with a lightweight structure as well. A lot of people use PVC pipe for this. PVC pipe is lightweight, easy to work with and rather inexpensive. Of course, the bigger the greenhouse you build, the larger the diameter of pipe you'll need to use. but even then it won't be all that bad. I've got a 15' x 30' greenhouse in my backyard, which I built out of 1"diameter PVC pipe.
There are many different types of PVC pipe connectors on the market, allowing you to connect the pipe together in many more ways than just those used by plumbers. You might have to look a bit more for cross connectors or four-way connectors used in corners, but they are available. For most greenhouse designs made of PVC pipe, at least some connectors of these types will be required.
As for design of a PVC greenhouse, you can find a wide assortment online, by just doing a simple search for images of greenhouses. But in reality, they all boil down to two basic designs, defined by their cross-section.
Of these two, the hoophouse is actually more popular; mostly because it is easier to build and can be built out of smaller diameter PVC pipe. These smaller diameters of PVC pipe are actually quite flexible, allowing them to bend into the hoop shape quite easily. Once bent, the stress the pipe is put under gives it rigidity, adding to the greenhouse's strength.
The one thing I would like to warn you about building a greenhouse out of PVC pipe is that sunlight will eventually break the PVC down, weakening it. So, you're only going to get about five years of service out of it, before you have to replace the whole thing.
The other material you might want to consider building your greenhouse's structure out of is wood. Wood is heavier than PVC, costs more and takes more time to build with. But it has one huge advantage over PVC. That is, it will last longer, especially if you use pressure treated wood.
I'd recommend using pressure treated 1"x 4" construction lumber for making the greenhouse structure. That's strong enough that you shouldn't have any problem with the greenhouse, while being lightweight enough that it will be easy to work with. Using 2"x 4" studs would actually be a bit much and make the job a lot harder, even if they do end up being cheaper.
You can't make a hoophouse style greenhouse out of lumber, at least not very easily. So, you'll either need to use the barn roof style or a simple gable style roof, with two sloping surfaces. You absolutely don't want a flat roof on your greenhouse, as that will collect leaves and other debris, blocking the light and eventually breaking the viscueen.
A simple construction, like shown in the diagram above, will render a very strong, long-lasting wood greenhouse, if built properly. A few notes about this design:
- As designed, it is made entirely out of 1"x 4" pressure treated wood.
- The blue areas show where adjacent pieces of wood in the bows overlap. These should be attached together with 1-1/2" screws, such as coated drywall screws. Three or four per connection should be adequate.
- The red rectangles are the ends of other pieces of 1"x 4" boards, which run longitudinally, providing both bracing and someplace to attach the viscueen.
- As you can see, the boards used for the bows are notched out to allow attachment of the longitudinal pieces. This allows the outer surface to be level, making attachment of the viscueen easier.
- Being made of wood, the viscueen covering can be attached with staples.
As I mentioned, my current greenhouse is made of PVC. However, I expect to have to replace it in another two years. When I do, I will be making the replacement out of wood, so that I will not need to keep replacing it.
Design Considerations for Your Greenhouse
Clearly, everyone's greenhouse is going to be different, as each will design theirs to meet their own needs and the space they have available. That's going to create a host of different variations on the same theme. Nevertheless, there are a few things that you need to consider, before making a trip to your local home improvement center in search of materials.
The first is size. There are two different schools of thought on this. The first is the more traditional greenhouse design, which is large enough to walk into. This allows you to work your garden, without destroying the environment that they are in. But of course, the larger the greenhouse, the more expensive it s. some people get around this by joining the second school of thought, which is to make individual greenhouses that are the size of your garden beds. Rather than entering into the greenhouse to work on the garden, the side of the greenhouse is lifted, giving access to the plants.
Of the two, the larger greenhouse is clearly superior. However, the higher cost and space required for the greenhouse may preclude some people being able to make this sort. In that case, the smaller greenhouses can still provide many of the same benefits.
Size also affects how your greenhouse interacts with the rest of your yard. When I built mine, which is rather large for a home greenhouse, I found that I had to cut branches off of three trees, as they interfered with the vertical space that I needed for my greenhouse. Those branches weren't an issue when I built the garden, but when I decided to cover it with the greenhouse, I found that I hadn't planned ahead thoroughly.
Speaking of planning ahead, you want to think of future expansion and make plans for it. If the purpose of your gardening is to be able to feed your family in a time of crisis, you'll need much more of a garden than a couple of small beds. Remember the people who turned their entire backyard into gardens, so they could feed their families? That's the way you need to think.
So, even though you may not turn your whole yard into a garden now, that's not to say that you won't need to in the future. Therefore, you need a plan and the materials to do so.
Remember to think in terms of the sizes of your plants, as well as providing enough vertical space that you fit inside, without having to be bent over all the time. This can be a problem with a hoophouse design, especially towards the edges. But by building your beds against the walls and putting shorter plants to the outside, you can eliminate that problem.
Using Raised Beds
Most greenhouses either use raised beds or pots for planting. There are many advantages to using raised beds; but in a greenhouse, they are all but indispensable. More than anything, raised beds allow you to maximize the usage of the limited space you have in your greenhouse. This comes about more from the difference in how people plant in raised beds, than anything else.
If you have a regular, traditional vegetable garden, you probably plant your seeds in rows, planting more seeds than you need and later weeding out some of the plants, so that you end up with good spacing. That's actually very inefficient. The first way it's inefficient is in the space between the rows. Even though the seed packet might say that the seeds can be placed 2 inches apart, you'll probably have a foot between rows. So, you're only getting good use of your space in one direction, not both.
Since raised beds have pathways between them, there is no reason to plant in rows. So, those seeds can be planted in a space that's 2 inches by 2 inches, essentially scrunching the rows together. At the same time, each seed can be individually planted in its place, eliminating a lot of the wasted seed. Since most will germinate, space won't be wasted.
Finally, raised beds force you to add soil, which gives you the opportunity to mix or buy good potting soil for your garden. Since the soil is the single most important part of any garden, doing that helps ensure that your plants will have the nutrients they need to grow well.
If you live in an extremely cold area, you might want to consider building an underground greenhouse, rather than a standard one. Actually, the whole greenhouse isn't underground, but is rather built over a three to four foot deep rectangular hole, which is dug to be the lower part of the greenhouse.
Since earth is an excellent insulator, this means that the lower part of your greenhouse is very well insulated. The earth in those walls can't drop below 32 degrees, whereas the air above that earth can drop well below zero. So, by building the greenhouse partially underground, you create an environment that can keep your plants warmer.
The upper part of the greenhouse is still built in the same way as any other greenhouse is, other than the fact that it doesn't need to be as tall. As such, it provides the solar power needed for warming the space inside your greenhouse.
Solar, and Warming Your Greenhouse
As I mentioned earlier, a greenhouse is a passive solar structure. Therefore, it only makes sense to ensure that it is designed to maximize the warming effect of the sun. there are a number of things you can do and should do, when building your greenhouse, to ensure that the sun is able to provide your plants with the most possible heat.
To start with, avoid trees. We're not looking for shade to keep us cool, we're looking for sunlight to help our plants grow. While that doesn't mean that there can't be any trees around your greenhouse, you really want to avoid them on the south side of it. Trees to the north aren't a problem. If you can, avoid trees to the east and west as well, so that the greenhouse receives the most sun.
Here in the northern hemisphere, the sun is always to the south of us. So for planning purposes, think that the sunlight is coming in from the south. In order to maximize the amount of sun that can get into the greenhouse, situate it so that the long wall is facing east and west. While a north-south facing greenhouse will still receive a lot of sun, the east-west facing helps increase the solar heating.
Passive solar heating requires that the sunlight coming into the structure be absorbed by materials inside the structure. That is what causes the sunlight to be converted to heat. Dark materials, especially black, absorb more light, while light colors (white) reflect it. So make sure that the surfaces inside the greenhouse, such as your pathways, are dark. A dark colored mulch works ideal.
Topping your garden beds with compost in the fall helps too. Not only is compost black, giving it the ability to absorb the sunlight, but the decomposition process produces heat as well. So, even without sunlight, the compost will help keep the roots of your plants warm.
You can increase the solar heating effect of your greenhouse very easily by including some solar heaters into your greenhouse. These are nothing more than black plastic barrels, filled with water and sealed. The sunlight will be absorbed by the plastic, converting it to heat. That heat will then be stored in the water, and radiated out at night. Converting the entire northern wall of your greenhouse into this sort of heater will produce a lot of heat inside your greenhouse, even at night.
In the summertime, when you don't need your greenhouse to produce as much heat, those barrels can be covered with some sort of light colored material, such as white cloth (old bed sheets work well). That will lower their absorption of sunlight and the amount of heat they radiate into your garden.
Planting in the Greenhouse
Keep in mind that different types of plants flourish in different temperatures. If you've never seen it, take a look at the USDA growing zone map, shown below. These zones have been created to identify the best regions in which to grow certain types of produce. Normally, you match the seeds you are planting with the zone you live in, in order to get the best results.
However, the growing zone map is based on a normal growing season, planting the seeds outdoors; not on using a greenhouse. That changes things. In the wintertime, your greenhouse will provide a warmer environment than the ambient air temperature. But it won't be as warm as living farther south. So, it will be like planting in a colder zone than you are used to. How much colder will depend on how well you build your greenhouse and the weather you receive that winter. So, you'll need to do some experimentation.
The point is, you want to plant cold weather plants in your greenhouse in the wintertime, especially if you are going to try to do year-round gardening. In other words, wintertime is a good time to plant lettuce, not okra. Pick seeds that are rated for a colder (lower numbered) zone than what you would plant in the summertime.
Your garden will still need to be watered, but it will not need as much water as it would in the summertime. Lower ambient temperatures mean less evaporation, so a larger percentage of the water you give to your garden will actually be able to be used by your plants.Plants will also grow slower in cold temperatures, so don't expect to be able to harvest as quickly. You may not even notice that at first, as temperatures usually drop slowly. So the tomatoes you have growing will still ripen on the plant, just like normal. But a fall crop of produce will grow slower than a spring crop, even though they are the same sorts of plants.