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Community and Q&A

Was the heyday for greenhouses forty years ago?

resilientbuilding | Posted in General Questions on

Last fall I paid a visit to Yestermorrow, the design/build school in Vermont where I had recently taken classes. Just by chance, they were making space in their library and practically giving away some old books and magazines. In the pile I found “The Food and Heat Producing Solar Greenhouse” by Bill Yanda and Rick Fisher. This is exactly the topic I’m interested in! The book was published in 1976, but that’s okay by me. I assume vegetables and the solar system haven’t changed much in the last forty-two years. Although the book does make frequent reference to using vermiculite, which is funny because of course it has been banned for a very long time due to asbestos contamination. I noticed a few other references to building techniques that are antiquated as well.
Since I subscribed to, I found Martin Holladay answered another question about greenhouses and recommended two others books:

1) Building and Using Our Sun-Heated Greenhouse, by Helen and Scott Nearing
2) The Complete Greenhouse Book by Peter Cleff and Derry Watkins

I went online and quickly found used copies for a bargin. These books were published in 1977 and 1978 respectively. How odd to be thinking greenhouses are the wave of the future when the three definitive books on the subject were all written before I was born!
So my big question is, what was going on in the late 1970s that made Greenhouses so popular? Has it really been forty years since someone wrote a definitive guide to designing, building, and maintaining greenhouses? Have greenhouses fallen out of style? Why? Will growing interest in combating climate change and consuming local foods renew interest in greenhouses?
I appreciate any insights folks might have. Thanks!

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  1. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #1

    User-6983627 (would you mind sharing your real name?)

    There is still a huge interest in greenhouses, it's just shifted a bit. In the 70's and 80's it was a popular idea to attach a greenhouse to your house for the free heat. Unfortunately it was never comfortable--either too warm or too cold--there were a lot of moisture issues, and oil got cheap again so the average homeowner backed away from the idea. In general, it's still not a good idea to attach a greenhouse to your home, though it can be done.

    The current excitement--I have a lot of organic farming friends and am a serious hobby farmer myself--is in unheated greenhouses, often called high tunnels. This collection of books, by friends, neighbors and disciples of the Nearings, is probably the most influential: The couple, Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch, actually met in the Nearing's greenhouse.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    As you get older, you will realize that the experience you just had -- realizing that a great idea that strikes you as brand new was actually explored, often quite thoroughly, by your grandparents -- becomes more common. Older people had ideas, too.

    During the late 1960s, there was a worldwide burst of creativity, in music, political activism, and social arrangements. During the 1970s, there was a burst of creativity in methods of home construction. Greenhouses were part of that creativity.

    In general, those of us who focused on food production -- Helen and Scott Nearing, Eliot Coleman, me -- did a better job of refining our designs, and producing successful outcomes, than those focused on "free energy." A greenhouse isn't a particularly pleasant place for people to hang out -- it's hot when it's sunny, and cold when it's cloudy. But properly managed, it's a good place for plants.

    My first greenhouse was an addition on the first floor of my house, on the south side, created from discarded window sash I found at the dump. It worked, but it was hard to keep warm on frosty nights.

    My current greenhouse, completed in 1980, works much better, and is entirely heated by the wood stove in my living room. It's a second-story greenhouse with insulated trap doors under the growing beds, so that it can be thermally isolated in the middle of winter. It has a waterproof floor and a floor drain, and steep south-facing glazing. I start all my seedlings there, using the greenhouse from March 1st onward. By June 15, all the plants are outdoors.

    The photos below show some of my seedlings in my second-floor greenhouse.


  3. resilientbuilding | | #3

    Thanks Micheal, I will add those books to my list and hopefully get to them soon. I am not surprised to hear that attached greenhouses were problematic. It contradicts the emphasis on building today that is all about super tight and efficient buildings with easy climate control. I really like the idea of stepping out the back door and directly into a greenhouse, but not exchanging air!
    Can an unheated high tunnel greenhouse extend the growing season without any insulated walls or thermal mass? I always assumed those greenhouses had some kind of active heating system.

    Martin, I’m happy to learn from the experiences of my elders. It’s got to be easier than learning from mistakes! I love the idea of having a lush green place to escape in the winter. I’ve visited the botanical gardens in DC, Smith College, (and the courtyard at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston) and been really impressed. I realize that’s a lot more ambitious than merely growing food though.
    Your greenhouse looks very productive! Do you enter and exit through the trap doors on the floor? That sounds like a lot of schlepping to do while carrying plants.

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    We still don't know your name.

    No, I don't enter the greenhouse through a trap door. There is a regular human door with hinges and a latch. The trap doors are to allow warm air to rise from the floor below into the greenhouse.

  5. resilientbuilding | | #5

    Hi Martin, My name is Matthew. Sorry, I didn't realize the website gave me such a dull username! Okay, it makes a lot more sense to me now.

  6. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #6

    Matthew, yes, Eliot Coleman, particularly in his books Four Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook, goes in great detail into using unheated high tunnels to get vegetables year-round. There are a lot of fine points, of course; one of his approaches is to use cold frames or low tunnels with various covers inside the high tunnel. Another is to choose vegetables that do well in the cold. He and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, have an unheated high tunnel right off their kitchen door.

    I spent a lot of time at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum when I was in college 25-ish years ago so I know how lush it can feel there in the middle of a dreary Boston winter. I pull out my Eliot Coleman books this time of year to remind me that spring is on the way. (If you're into gardening, Barbara Damrosch's book "A Garden Primer" is my favorite all-around reference book.)

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