Hobby Greenhouses

A beginner's guide

One of life's greatest pleasures is working in a sunny greenhouse full of fragrance and color when it's snowy and cold outside. A greenhouse can be as simple as some plastic sheeting stretched across a wooden frame, but if you want to use your greenhouse year round you'll want something more elaborate. Greenhouse kits can be purchased, but it's usually best to leave installation to an expert.

Getting Started

Before deciding on a model or location, decide what you'll be growing. Those who want to grow vegetables, start seedlings for the garden or grow sun-loving tropicals like hibiscus will want a south-facing greenhouse if possible. For growing many orchids and medium-light plants, the cool sun of an eastern exposure is ideal. For foliage and low-light plants, north-facing will do. Avoid western exposures when possible, since overheating may be a problem.

Once orientation is decided, you'll need to decide on freestanding or attached style greenhouses. In northern climates, having the north side of the greenhouse attached to the house can result in substantial savings. In that case, you may choose tile flooring and more attractive framing to complement the house.

You may be tempted to purchase a very small unit to save money, but this is usually a mistake. Small houses heat up and cool down very quickly, making temperature control much more difficult. Moreover, you'll be surprised how much space you need when you get caught up in your hobby. It's best to purchase the biggest unit you can afford.

The Necessities

Once size, location and style are determined, be sure to allow for plumbing and electricity. These amenities are well worth the extra expense, since you'll want to avoid hauling buckets of water and be able to work in your greenhouse at night. If you live in the North, you may wish to provide supplemental lighting to your plants, so be sure to allow outlets with appropriate capacity.

Heating should be installed by a licensed contractor, who will ensure the heater is properly sized for maximum efficiency. You may purchase upgraded glass or install bubble insulation to save on heat. In southern areas, an evaporative cooling system may be required for year-round use.

Ventilation is crucial to a successful greenhouse. Passive systems provide vents to exhaust air out the top, and others to draw cool air in from the bottom. Better systems aid this process with fans. Vents should open automatically. Include a circulation fan as well, to move air when the vents are closed.

Shading is also essential, since intense light causes heat buildup. Shade paint is the cheapest solution, but is messy to apply. Shade cloth is better, but still requires effort to install. The best solution is heavy aluminum or wooden blinds that can be rolled up and down on the outside to keep heat out.

Although a greenhouse costs money to install and maintain, there are few things that return as much enjoyment for the investment. Once you begin spending happy hours in yours, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it.

By Emily Wickersham