Mini Greenhouse

White polystyrene box with chili plant and a few weeds, by brick wall
A mostly-empty planter, and all that wall above it unused

My back garden had a small, under-used, south-facing, space beside the kitchen door. This looked like a good candidate for a tiny greenhouse, to let me raise seedlings more easily than crowding them onto our windowsill (which I had already observed was awkward and got in the way), and potentially to raise more of them. (Earth Care, People Care, Use small and slow solutions, Catch and store energy)

Design brief: Design, build, and site a mini greenhouse for growing seedlings for the garden.

I used an abbreviated SADIM process:

Survey

What I wanted from this (the client interview):

  • Space to grow seedlings.
  • Space for an existing chilli pepper plant, currently in a pot but in need of more space.
  • To make good use of the available space.

Resources:

  • Lots of discarded plastic and bubble wrap.
  • Scrap wood, 2×4, etc.
  • Two old clear fridge drawers.
  • Some big polystyrene containers.
  • (Turned up while I was thinking about designing from scratch) An unwanted mini-greenhouse frame, with no cover.
  • Time: very limited; and I wanted to get the greenhouse up before autumn really set in, to protect my chilli pepper.
  • Money: limited. Would much rather use existing resources than buy anything new.

Analysis

Given the size of the back garden, and the amount of it that was already occupied by other things, the allocation of space was easily determined by an exclusion method. Since I had been working in this garden for 18 months at the start of this design, I had already observed a lot about the site. There were a few possible un- or under-used areas, but they were mostly unsuitable:

  • Anywhere along the bottom fence — too shady (never gets the sun), too far from the house (zone 1).
  • East fence, near the compost heap and blackcurrant — in use for tomatoes in the summer, too shady in the winter, and too far from the house.
  • East fence, near house — intending to grow a grape vine over here, and would be difficult to get much in there around the herb pots anyway.
  • West fence on patio — way too shady (not only never gets direct sun, but is in deep shade).
  • House wall, between kitchen door and water butt. Sunny, close to the house, nothing else there. I had also observed that we didn’t use this area for anything else.
Sketch from my notebook when I planned to build something from scratch
Sketch from my notebook when I planned to build something from scratch

I’d originally sketched a few ways of using scrap wood and the fridge drawers to construct something suitable.

After this, my parents offered the use of their unwanted mini greenhouse frame (with no cover). It seemed wasteful, then, to put all the energy into building something from scratch. (Produce no waste, Use and value resources, Creatively use and respond to change) However, there was one problem, which was that the frame was a little bigger than was ideal for the space. My original vision had a really tiny greenhouse, running along the house wall underneath the windowsill. The new version would have to be put perpendicular to the wall.

The original plan had a much smaller footprint.
The original plan had a much smaller footprint, as per these sketches.

The new design had two main benefits:

  1. Use existing frame; minimal time and effort in construction. (Time and effort being in short supply right now, especially given my wish to get going before autumn.)
  2. More space than my planned micro-greenhouse.

And two main disadvantages:

  1. More visually obtrusive from the house.
  2. Would make it impossible to get a watering can under the water butt outlet.

Disadvantage 1, when I experimented (Observe and interact), turned out to be not as big of a deal as I had feared; all it really did was to hide the water butt from sight from the back door, and it didn’t get in the way of leaving/entering the house. Disadvantage 2 would have been a deal breaker, except that I was able to fit a couple of feet of hose to the water butt tap, and reach it easily to turn the tap on. This had the unexpected advantage that it would make it harder for the toddler to fiddle with the tap. (Integrate rather than segregate)

Design/Implementation

I used the mini greenhouse frame, pushed up as tightly to the wall as possible and as close to the kitchen door as possible.

Twisting Vines: Bubblewrap Mini Greenhouse
Growing through the second shelf.

I also had to consider the inside arrangement. The frame came with shelves, but my chilli pepper was too tall for them. The solution was to install a polystyrene container on the bottom shelf, plant the chilli pepper in that, and leave out the next shelf up. I then used one of the clear fridge drawers on the next level up, to make more use of that space.

Twisting Vines: Bubblewrap Mini Greenhouse
All the other shelves.

The other two shelves went in as normal.

Bubblewrap Mini Greenhouse
As you can see here, there’s no proper door closure

To construct a cover, I took a big pile of bubblewrap and some packing tape (Produce no waste, Use and value resources). I constructed this as I went, rather than planning much in advance. The ‘front door’ is attached at the top and weighted down at the bottom to hold it. This doesn’t exclude drafts; an improvement would be to find another solution that closed more tightly.

Evaluation/Tweaking/Maintenance

A couple of weeks in, it blew over in strong winds. That was easily fixed by tying it to the nearby fence (which already had hooks in to secure the water butt). (Observe and interact; Use small and slow solutions)

I tried taping some string on to keep the door shut, which didn’t hold against the weather for more than a few days. I have now made holes in the bubblewrap and tied string through them, with other bits of string tied to the frame, and this seems to be working better. However, it doesn’t exclude all draughts, so it won’t be as warm as if it had a better-fitting door. I will keep an eye out for better options.

Having this larger greenhouse in this position makes it difficult to access the water butt pipe/diverter. This doesn’t need frequent access, but I will have to have a look at it at some point over the winter as it seems to be gunging up with algae. I will find out then how much of a nuisance the greenhouse is!

It may well require ongoing maintenance; I’m not sure how the bubblewrap etc will survive the winter, and will have to come back and assess it after six months and then again after a year. However, it had the major advantage of being an immediate, simple, small solution, and of using up existing ‘waste’ resources, which a more complicated but more resilient system might not have done.

Further tweaking in early spring: I moved it further back against the fence in order to move some of the herb pots closer to the back door. (Apply self regulation and accept feedback) I also had to swap the bubblewrap for more securely attached large see-through plastic bags, reused from various parcels and packages I was sent. (Produce no waste)

Patio corner, with house wall to left and tall fence at back of photo. Against the fence is a water butt, a mini greenhouse, and some herb pots. In front of the water butt is a folded rotary airer and some more herb pots stacked on paving slabs.

Further tweaking, in early 2015: the DIY cover just wasn’t doing a good job, so I bought a replacement cover with a proper zip. This works very well indeed! So much so that on very warm days I need to open the zips. After our new patio was fitted, I also moved things around again, putting the mini greenhouse as far south as I could and putting herb pots between it and the water butt/back door.

With new cover. Chilli plant at bottom, seedlings in middle.
With new cover. Chilli plant at bottom, seedlings in middle.

Reflection

I had to change my plans midstream when I was offered the greenhouse frame! This isn’t quite perfect for the space, in that if I was starting from scratch I wouldn’t build something that size; but in terms of starting with a small simple solution, it is ideal from a permaculture perspective, as well as taking something out of the waste stream. It also gave me experience in creatively responding to change, and reassessing my ideas as different options arise.

Design process reflections:

  • Positive: Experience of creatively using and responding to change.
  • Negative: I jumped too quickly to a particular location (but was later able to relocate). Had I thought more holistically I might have considered moving the herbs around at the start rather than later on.
  • Interesting: It’s not working as well as I hoped, perhaps because it simply isn’t warm enough with the home-made cover? I’m not sure I thought it all through well enough.

Permaculture ethics reflections:

  • Earth care: Removing something from the waste stream.
  • People care: Valuing the generous offer from my parents. On the other hand, I have put a lot of effort into creating a new cover for the frame (more than once) and it is still not working very well. (Update, 2015: a ‘proper’ new cover was in the end easy and quite cheap to acquire, and works well.)
  • Fair shares: Reusing surplus material helps reduce my footprint on the planet.

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