Early Spring, Later Autumn with Containers  
in My Black Hills Greenhouse

Brad Morgan

The eye-catching décor of upscale restaurants continues to stimulate restaurant goers in every city.  Everywhere the eye rests is a visual cornucopia of unexpected, amusing, and nostaligic images.  Banish humdrum routine; welcome sensory overload.  Photo shows Brad's built-one-summer glass-and-lumber greenhouse. 

Homeward bound, we dash into the local grocery store, and wander wistfully down canyons of stacked-up cans and packaging, desperately hoping to snag our attention, until we arrive at our consumer’s grail: the fertile Eden of the produce section.  Again, we embrace the explosion of color, the fecund fragrances and life-enhancing promise of vegetables, flowers, and fruit from far-flung farmlands and exotic orchards.  Today the home greenhouse  allows us to gorge full-time on this vision. 

Some all-season greenhouse folks in the Black Hills grow their own coffee beans, others citrus fruit, pomegranates, avacadoes, and lush tropical orchids.  But just as our ancestors first considered the New World tomato as poisonous, partly because of its relationship to the nightshade family, so too many gardeners with greenhouses cast a wary eye on produce from unknown realms.   “Let my family and I eat only organic and home-grown vegetables” becomes the rallying cry of those worried about spinach laced with one of hundreds of strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli and numerous other unspeakable chemical additives.  They fret too about rumors that the vitamin value of produce has declined over recent decades and that choices of grocery fruits and vegetables are increasingly narrow.

But most gardeners simply see greenhouses as just another tool  for growing plants during the off season, when outside temperatures are either too cold or too hot.  Using the free energy of the sun, the simple unheated greenhouse is a season extender.  Seeds are incubated in spring, even while Jack Frost stalks the plein air.  In fall, containers of favorite  vegetables and flowers find safe shelter.  Many of our everyday vegetables--such as lettuce, spinach, carrots, peas, herbs, and potatoes—can prosper in temperatures which dip to the 30s and 40s. 

Greenhouses are truly egalitarian, fitting every budget.  Just as our medieval relatives looked to the Far East for must-have consumer goods, so too we go to Harborfreight and put the word greenhouse into the search box.  My earlier 8’ x 6’ greenhouse listed for $299, though I got it on sale at the Harborfreight store in Fort Collins for about $230, doing my own shipping atop the car.  It had an aluminum frame, stiff two-ply honeycombed polycarb panels, a full sized door, and an adjustable roof vent.  To make it more wind-worthy, I siliconed down the panels and use 4’-8’ sheets of plywood on the 4’-8’ roof slopes just in case heavy snowfall is forecast.  

Gardeners whose dreams have been whetted on nostalgic images of Victorian conservatories might want to pony up the big bucks ($599 plus shipping) to get HarborFreight.com ’s 10’ x 12’ model, complete with 4 rooftop vents.  Of course, for those with even greater budgets, there is no limit for drop-dead greenhouse beauty and computerized monitoring and control systems.  Once I win the lottery, my first request will be to replicate Reptile Gardens or some other botanical garden in my backyard, right next to my academic-scale astronomy observatory.

Keep in mind, however, that boxed-up greenhouses from China might first wilt the enthusiasm of even those husbands with experience well-steeped in building model airplanes and assembling erector sets, though fun and self-gratifying once underway. 

As with buying your first computer, some prefer the local set-up and on-demand support of the local vendor.  Rapid City once had one, Grapevine Hobby Greenhouses, and gardening veterans Paula Christensen and husband Bill Bom specialized in the all-season greenhouse, starting at about $1500.  They had already sold over 200 greenhouses in the Black Hills, offering an ongoing newsletter to support their user base.

With the ranks of do-it-yourselfers rising, even among the ranks of the well-heeled, low-budget alternatives continue to be popular.  Old storm windows, especially those with multiple panes, provide an unexpected elegance once set into a suitable frame.  And what about sliding glass doors, most of which are double or triple paned?  Let a rock from a mower break the outside layer; you still have a sizable greenhouse construction panel.  The glass is even tempered for safe removal.  Have an old shed or outbuilding you don’t use much?  Remove everything but the frame; then cover with a thick mil plastic sheeting, or double.  Then, too, because they tend to be wind- and watertight, greenhouses can always serve extra duty as a backyard shed or locus for hot tubs.

Costs ramp up for powered year-round greenhouses because, just as with homes, they’ll need to be cooled in the summer and heated in the winter, as well as lighted, humidified, and possibly misted, carbon-dioxized, and regulated to avoid too much personal monitoring of the system.

The floor need not be concrete.  Gravel and mulch are low-cost alternatives that promote moisture and allow planting right into the ground.

Every school should have a greenhouse, at every level, from elementary through college.  Even preschoolers can learn art and creativity by making garden signs and similar accessories.   Is there any soul, at any age, who doesn’t delight in stepping into the moist, green, fragrant and exotically compelling world of a greenhouse?  Young people seem to be attracted to commercial décor that emphasizes endless and unexpected visual delight. Been in a Planet Hollywood or similar yuppified pub lately? A greenhouse can offer the same sensory stimulation, allowing the eye to be dazzled wherever it chooses to rest. 

Yes, our civilization’s Colonial Period brought the entire world to our mental doorstep, giving rise to zoological and botanical gardens, even department stores, so is our “global village” orientation today any different?  No.  We still delight in being able to grow international plants in the carefully controlled environment which greenhouses make possible.  Unlike an outside garden that must conform to local climate conditions, a greenhouse can simulate any environment.  Learning to control the variables (XXXX) provides a compelling hands-on learning environment. 

If gardens prefer attention in late spring and summer, those times when most students are away from school, the dramatic impact of greenhouses is most obvious in the winter. 

An all-season greenhouse is a school’s biological laboratory, a daily “field-trip” into important scientific lessons about seed collection, botany, measuring light, monitoring carbon dioxide, composting, water regulation, humidity, air and soil temperatures, weather, as well as heating, cooling, and ventilation.  Students study theory first in the classroom, then conduct data-collecting experiments in the greenhouse, finally writing up and thinking about results.  Actually, it’s a good blend of science, engineering, and pure fun. 

Some greenhouses have no floors so that plants go right into the earth, but sheltered from extremes of wind and cold.  Anchoring become important for floorless greenhouses, so  bury something to wire-down-to if you’ve noticed strong winds.  However, most of these plant incubators have concrete, bricks, pavers, or gravel for a floor.  Even so, with more and more gardeners in riper years, greenhouses continue our cultural trend toward shelving, raised beds and container gardening. 

So why not just conveniently buy vegetables from local groceries?  Isn’t this time-saving when both parents work?   Yes, but some studies suggest that the nutritional value of grocery-store vegetables has fallen during the past few decades--that is, there are fewer vitamins in your carrots and celery than you thought—and that choices are limited to a very few varieties able to withstand long boxcar shelf-time and transport demands.  Besides, all organic gardeners shouldn’t be dismissed as kooks.  Some rightly warn that the practices of  big corporations (such as Monsanto) actually undermine your biological well-being, existentially speaking.   Family greenhouses attempt to reinsert the element of local or personal control so lacking in our media-influenced world.  Isn’t your informed judgment worth something, or do you instinctively surrender to the local news diva? 

Winter is the time for reading and planning

I have several greenhouse gardening books in my home library, but the easiest to cozy up to, and the most comprehensive, is Shane Smith’s Greenhouse Gardener’s Companion:  Growing Food & Flowers in Your Greenhouse or Sunspace.  He is the director of Cheyenne Botanic Gardens.  Only 219 miles from Rapid City, so be sure to stop next time on your way to Denver.  The greenhouse and grounds are free to visit and open throughout the winter:  “Our unique solar conservatory is 100% solar heated and 50% of our electricity is also powered by the sun.  We are the Intermountain West's oldest and one of the largest public demonstration sites for sustainable renewable energy.  Free energy enables a small town to have a botanic garden.”  Smith is also author of The Bountiful Solar Greenhouse: A Guide to Year-Round Food Production.

The other classic sun greenhouse book is Bill Yanda and Rick Fisher’s The Food and Heat Producing Solar Greenhouse: Design, Construction, & Preparation.  Of course, by this and other books used.  Newcomers who need a quick, well-illustrated guide to greenhouse varieties and things-to-consider will like Fiona Gilsenan’s Greenhouses from Sunset.  The books are all available (used is the best value) from Amazon.com.  Conservatives and liberals alike will find common ground in the element of local control which greenhouses seem to assert. 

Greenhouse gardening books always include ample attention to the art and science of plant propagation.  This is especially the concern of us budget-minded folks, but even for millionaires looking for a bargain.  Seeds are literally and abundantly everywhere, in the billions, and free for the taking.

The many illustrations in Carol Turner’s Seed Sowing and Saving makes the process seem both easy and fun.  The USDA's Plants Database will often give you a close-up photo of a plant’s seed (try black-eyed susan, for example).

Interior of greenhouse.  Louver in back could be replaced by fan if electricity is added.  Painting is underway, blue to mimic the sky.

Current "solar" greenhouse barrels for water + potting soil 

building plans (Jerry Treinen)

Enough said of season extenders.  You can also heat your greenhouse during the winter, and not just with solar.  Some of you who winter in Arizona can actually have the best of both worlds by bringing the deserts to the Black Hills.   

or even a simpler version


6 Delicious Edibles You Can Grow Indoors All Winter


Most homes are heated to a comfortably warm temperature range of 65 to 75F during winter. This is ideal for growing many vegetables, so the winter cold is not as much of an issue here as low-light conditions. Your choice would be limited unless you provide sufficient grow lights to imitate the sunny outdoors.

    As a general rule, leafy vegetables can manage with much less light than root vegetables. Fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes and eggplants need more light to ensure a good yield.


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