Building a greenhouse

Hill leading down to a farm field with a new greenhouse

We really are starting from scratch on our land, which was formerly home to a berry farm and other agricultural endeavours. Our 28 acres are the result of a series of severances, the last of which separated the house associated with the land when it was a berry farm. When we bought the land, the only ‘building’ on it was our little berry shack (a shed really), and apart from some of the usual farm detritus and rubbish that one finds on agricultural land, it was pretty empty. Patterns from former tilling are still apparent, but the land had gone back to being wild when we came here.

There never were any barns or traditional farm buildings that we know of; it seems that when the previous owner operated the berry farm they housed their tractor in the house garage. When it came time to start growing food the first year after we moved into our newly built home on the ridge looking down onto most of our land, we had to pull off sod and work with what we found. Last year was year one, really, and we did what growing we managed on clay with a little organic material introduced at the start of the season. We were actually surprisingly pleased with our results (perhaps we just have low expectations!). Those beds were mostly around the house, land that hadn’t been tilled or farmed before. We knew when the time came to get serious about our growing efforts, we would start out in the main field that used to house vegetable beds.

In addition to wanting to reintroduce vegetable beds, we also knew we wanted to work to extend our growing season as much as possible, and became followers of Eliot Coleman’s methods. An unheated greenhouse became a must, and we’re excited to be putting one in place this year. Longer term, as resources allow, we want to build a permanent earth-sheltered greenhouse, but right now, while resources are more scarce, we’re going to do what we can with a metal-framed greenhouse with a plastic cover.

The model we chose is 20 by 12 feet and comes flat packed in a box ready for assembly. ‘Assembly’ includes figuring out our own base or ‘foundation’ for the greenhouse, as this isn’t part of the kit. We get some very high winds where we are situated, so anchoring the base took up a lot of thinking time before we ever started to level our chosen patch of ground for installation.

Levelling involved the kinds of things you might expect – slicing away ground, filling with gravel, tamping down the ten and twelve-foot lengths of eight-by-twos once we had two layers of those bolted together, and so on. The kit came with ground anchors that attach at six points on the base – two at either end, two in the middle – but we knew we couldn’t count on these to keep the structure in place in high winds. We don’t want to find the whole thing smushed up into the nearby treeline some winter morning, and so we also took further measures once we had the frame erected (more on this below).

Here we are at the half-way mark in assembling the frame:

Half constructed frame of a metal greenhouse

And nearing the end of the frame’s construction:

Greenhouse frame partially constructed

The frame once all of the pieces were in place:

Completed frame of metal greenhouse without cover

Before attempting to put the cover on, we also needed to dig the ground, of course. Here I am swinging our new favourite manual tool, the Magna Hoe. This deserves a post in its own right:

Swinging a Magna Hoe to break ground

We removed the sod and broke up the ground to perhaps eight inches by hand, and then it was time to bring in the gas-powered tiller to really aerate the soil. Our eight-year old thought this was the perfect time to commandeer the power drill and to bore holes in a four-by-four length of wood:

Tilling ground inside a new greenhouse frame

Most of the work on the foundations and erecting the frame took place a bit over a week ago; finetuning the greenhouse stability, securing the base and tilling all took place over the Easter weekend. It was too windy throughout the weekend to be able to consider putting the cover on (and still is as of today, which is a bit frustrating), but we did manage to put up an old tent next to the greenhouse to serve as shade and a place to stash smaller tools when we’re down at the greenhouse (it’s also a good hideout for our youngest when he’d rather play than help). We also finished off securing the greenhouse base by installing two additional ring-topped ground anchors at the mid-point along each side of the structure and securing ropes at the corner, and by driving two-foot lengths of rebar into the base at several points on each side. We’re pretty sure it’s going to stay put now.

Reinforced base for a metal frame greenhouse

It was very satisfying work, and we even managed to measure, dig and till an additional bed outside of the greenhouse (we plan to do several more that run parallel to the structure, each 30 inches wide and 20 feet long).

Stopping to eat a very simple but rather wonderful pasta dish that I took a few minutes to throw together using some of our left-over Easter ham was a great reward. Oldest son, pictured here, actually spent his time splitting and hauling wood on the far side of the same field after putting up the green tent.

Teenage boy enjoying pasta while working outside

Next up: construction of raised beds for inside the greenhouse and irrigation. My husband actually just showed me the progress that he and our older son made on irrigation this evening, but that’s another post.

12 thoughts on “Building a greenhouse

    1. Good luck with your own garden – starting small, back when we lived in a city, is exactly what we did, and it’s a great way to get going. We’ve been ramping up what we do each year and it feels manageable. There is nothing like including food that you’ve grown in the recipes you cook, and you make such delightful meals!

    1. Oooh, thanks for the compliment! I bought it when I was 19 and ready to travel the world; I think I’ve finally grown into it…

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