The Survival Greenhouse

Now that the greenhouse is up, has doors and looks wonderful, I want to fill it with plants! I’m not a very patient person and I’m ready to get started. The problem? This afternoon when it was 89* outside it was only 117* in the greenhouse. It would make an excellent dehydrator at this point, and would cook any plant I put in there. The solution? Plant seeds anyway, but leave them on the porch in the same place we have been growing seedlings for the past few years.

Speaking of growing seedlings in the past, the other day when we cut the hole in the wall of the house for the door, I did some reminiscing. The window we removed was the first place I learned to grow seedlings. It wasn’t ideal and they were usually a little leggy, but it was all we had at the time and we learned a lot.

This is also the time we discovered using newspapers and a Pot Maker to make our own seedling pots that would quickly break down the in soil and recycle newspaper at the same time. We have been very successful transplanting the seedlings we grew this way. 

So as that window was removed and the door installed, I remembered our learning process of the past and looked forward to this new learning process in our future. We have never had a greenhouse, so there is a whole new learning opportunity in front of us. My problem is I just can’t wait to get started. 

This afternoon after finishing up a batch of mozzarella from our fresh goat milk, I got out the seeds and sorted out the ones I want to try growing in the greenhouse. Some of them will probably make you shake your head and wonder, but we want to try all kinds of plants and see how it goes. Our greenhouse will be unheated except for the sun and the thermal mass of the concrete slab and ten 55 gallon water barrels. Our theory is that with the sunshine during the day, the concrete and water will absorb heat. The question will be how slowly that heat will dissipate through the night and what effect it will have on the air temperature surrounding the plants. This will be fascinating to observe, a great learning adventure. We also have some frost cloth to use if the temperatures are going to be very cold. I have only tried them in the garden up to this point, so that will be another experiment. We can only wait and see how our theories pan out.


For most things, I used some of the dishpans and bus tubs we have used previously. They get pretty brittle in the sunshine, but we will keep using them until they break down and are unusable. I still have a few on the shelf that will have to go. Eventually, when time allows, we will build some planting flats from wood that will last for years. For now, these will work fine.


I keep soil in a 30 gallon trashcan. After some seedlings have grown large enough to plant in the garden and are removed from the tubs, the remaining soil is put back in the trash can for use again the next time. Each tub has a layer of gravel across the bottom to help with drainage.

What did I plant today? Five kinds of lettuce: Romaine, Buttercrunch, Tango, Corn Salad & Endive.


Two kinds of spinach: Mustard Spinach and Bloomsdale Long Standing.

 I planted two kinds of peppers, yes peppers even though it is fall. We are going to try to grow a few ‘hot weather’ plants and see how they do. Banana peppers and Marconi Rosso Sweet Peppers.

Yellow Crookneck Squash

Banana Muskmelon

Danvers Half Long Carrots

Golden Ball Turnips

I ran out of space on the table and daylight before I got to the beets, kale, collard greens, kohlrabi, cabbage, chives and onions. I’ll also be planting more carrots at intervals along the way.

I thought this might be a good place to put these tubs, but then I remembered the cats always think these tubs are litter boxes. I hope they don’t get into them up on the table this time.

I didn’t plant tomato seeds today, instead, I went out in the garden and cut some starts off of a few of our tomato vines. I’ll root them in water then plant them in this pot.

My theory is to put the ‘hot weather’ plants against the wall of the house or in the middle of the greenhouse away from the outside walls. I’m hoping the heat from the house, concrete and water barrels will provide enough heat for these plants to grow.

And I cheated a little. We were at the lumber yard last week and they had some bedding plants. This is the first time I have seen fall seedlings and I picked up a few.


We really look forward to the possibility of eating fresh food during the winter. This greenhouse has long been on the drawing board with supplies bought and stored years ago. There are many different ways to accomplish a goal, sometimes sooner, sometimes later. Frank has had a saying for longer than he has had me. Postpone gratification for long-term gains. We have long lived by that motto. We buy most things on sale, and if we can’t pay for an item, we don’t buy it. It’s that simple. This greenhouse is a very good example of living by this creed. We have dreamed of having a greenhouse for many, many years. The time has now arrived and we are very thankful. It is unfortunate that the excitement of a new learning opportunity has an underlying sense of necessity. The coming storm will tax us all in our endeavors to survive. This greenhouse is one more means of producing food. Food that we will need for survival. A survival greenhouse.

Until next time – Fern

24 thoughts on “The Survival Greenhouse

  1. Hi Guys, I forgot to mention in the post above that the screens that I use are a dark gray or brown color, so they filter the sun a little better than the \”almost clear ones\”. But they do work.

  2. It sounds like you have a great greenhouse, Everett. Thank you for sharing your construction techniques. You never know who may benefit from your experience.It's funny you mentioned the ginger root, I bought a large piece last week and another one today. I will keep a small piece of it to cook with, and plant the rest. We have grown ginger once before, and have a piece of turmeric growing in a large pot out on the front porch that will move to the greenhouse.The other thing I will try out in the green house are the two black pepper vines, Piper Nigrum, we have grown all summer on the west porch. I don't know if they will ever produce, but I do like black pepper. I know I can use other peppers instead, but thought I would try growing these vines.Interesting to know that putting up window screen helps with the sun in the summer. Thank you very much for that tip.Fern

  3. You know, Leigh, it sounds funny to be talking about 'our' greenhouse. We have dreamed of this for over 30 years and it still doesn't seem quite possible that we have one. We are very excited about the possibility of lots of food coming through that door and into the house, but at this stage it all still seems like a dream.Contentedness is an illusory attainment for so many people, and sometimes for us as well. But I have to say, we have been mightily blessed in our lives and for that we are truly grateful. There isn't anywhere else we would rather be, or any other life style we would rather live. Thank you very much for your observations.Fern

  4. I agree, Vickie, the information in the comments is great. We learn a great deal from everyone 'out there'.We have found that even with four vents open full time and the addition of the storm door with the screen open at the top, our greenhouse still gets over 100* quickly when the sun is out. Te's comment above explains how they use a fan, so we installed one yesterday. It definitely makes a difference. And I think Everett could teach us all a lot since they have been using their greenhouse for 30 years. I can only hope ours will produce as well.You'll really like Eliot Coleman's book. Two great companion books to his are Caleb Warnock's Backyard Winter Gardening and Mark Freeman's Gardening in Your Greenhouse. Thank you for sharing.Fern

  5. Hi, Te and hello Alaska. It's always great to hear from someone way up north.If you read the next article, you will see the fan Frank installed yesterday after reading about your experience. Thank you for explaining how you did yours and that you used the same materials we did. Very interesting and informative. We will check into the thermostat timer and see what we can come up with.I looked up the earth boxes. In some ways our tubs are similar, with gravel in the bottom for drainage. It will be interesting to learn which plants may need a different set up. I still need to get more large, deep pots for some plants that need more root space than the tubs allow.We understand about the sun leaving, we lived in Barrow for a year and it left November 17th and didn't come back until January 23rd. Even then we didn't see it because of a white-out blizzard. It was a very interesting life and we learned a tremendous amount. Thank you for sharing.Fern

  6. Well done on the greenhouse. I so agree with your philosophy of acquiring things and the place of patience in that. Being content is a learned skill! Can't wait till the day when we get to put up our greenhouse too.

  7. Dear Frank and Fern,This is yet another wonderful post! I can't wait to build my new home because we also plan to install a greenhouse on the south side of our house. I love reading the comments because I learn so much from so many other people! Isn't our blogging community wonderful? I did know about the vents. The ones I have seen actually open and close using paraffin wax as the catalyst. When the wax melts, the vents open! So clever! Mr. Littlefield's comment includes such a great idea! Solar heated hot water to warm the concrete sink – genius! Also, my next step after logging off your blog will be to order Eliot Coleman's book. Thanks again!

  8. Hi, Frank and Fern,I've commented before from the Mat-Su Valley in Alaska. Even here, if we have a 50 degree day in the spring or summer, it gets 80-110 degrees in our greenhouse. We have the same clear Lexan panels you used, and my husband simply climbed up high (we have peaked roof greenhouse attached to our second story) and cut a hole in one panel and used 2×4's to make a frame in which to mount a regular box fan. On the outside, he placed a gable type roof vent. It worked great during our VERY HOT summer this year! He installed a timer/thermostat that turned on when the greenhouse temp got to 78 degrees. We have learned from experience that plants that get too hot and dry soon attract aphids and other undesirable bugs. We tried another experiment this summer -Earth Boxes. We saw videos on these boxes, but we did not want to pay the price, especially for shipping, so we made our own (You tube videos). These work great in greenhouses, because your watering is less hit and miss and more controlled and consistent. We had tomatoes as we have never had them before -and with no blossom end rot! The only thing we will do differently next year is plant squash/zucchini in regular big planters or in outside beds. The earth boxes did not work for them, because the zucchini and squash plants require more surface watering as their roots are so close to the ground surface.Check out the Earth Boxes – I think it's a company in Canada – but \”knowing\” you all, you will probably opt to make your own as we did. The ordinary box fan will help tremendously in reducing the inside temperature to control aphids and to maintain optimal plant moisture.Wish we could continue growing; we had a great season and a great harvest, But our sun has started to go, and so we only have sun on our greenhouse from about 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. (but that diminishes every day now by about 6 minutes at present as we move toward winter solstice). Not enough sunlight to keep photosynthesis going. Good luck on your greenhouse and good harvest!te

  9. Hi Frank And Fern, My wife and I bought and built a Garden Way greenhouse in 1985. I dug a hole in the ground the full length of the house, 26' and out from the house16'. There are six full sized window panels, bout 4×8. Then I filled the hole up to ground level with rocks\”salvaged\” from the thousands of miles of stone walls out here. I call it my \”redistribution of wealth\”. Then I started dumping in truckloads of sand and washing it all down between the rocks until I had one solid mass in the floor of about twenty tons +or- a pound or two. Before we put in the cement floor, we ran a continuous two inch plastic pipe in a zig-zag fashion the whole length and width of the floor on top of the sand. Both ends terminated in the same corner to be hooked up to a solar water heater on the roof. Then came the 4\” of concrete and the big 18\” pieces of Mexican floor tile. Brown so the dirt wouldn't show up too much. Also bought and installed roll up and down insulated window blankets for each window. We grow pretty much anything we would like to.Go to the store and buy a big piece of ginger root. Take it home and break it into three or four pieces and bury it in a two by three foot tub and in a few weeks, even during the winter you will have three or four ginger plants poking up through the dirt! That stuff smells so good when you rub the leaves. When you need some for cooking, just go break off a piece and recover the rest. Comes spring we harvest a bunch of it and dry it and cover it in sugar, raw that is!TIFNGood luck with your new toy and hope you will enjoy it as much as we have for the last 30 years. OBTW, we also have sliding glass door screens that fit perfectly over the outside of the windows. I usually put them up in April and take them down in October! Works great to cut down on the sun somewhat!

  10. I find it fascinating that your inside temperatures can get too hot at 0-10* with sunshine. I will tuck that away in my mind so we can learn the temperature ranges and conditions of our greenhouse. It is not unusual to have a few 70* days here in December. January and February tend to be the coldest months, and even then it rarely stays below freezing for more than a day or two at our coldest times.Charley's Greenhouse website is very interesting. I'll have to read a lot more and see if there is anything there we can use. Thank you for sharing this resource.I have some strawberries out in the garden. I'll have to transplant a few into a big tub and see how they do. Thank you very much for the idea!Fern

  11. I want to plant so many things, Sandy, I'm sure they won't all fit. I can envision the greenhouse full to bursting with plants. We'll see if that vision becomes a reality or not. Thank you for your kind words.Fern

  12. A walipini is a very interesting concept. We have so much rock around here I don't think we would be able to dig one out unless we did some major excavation. Thank you for sharing the idea. We'll keep you updated.Fern

  13. The chicken wire is a good idea, Ilene. The cats haven't gotten in there yet.We have discovered that on cloudy days, the temperature in the greenhouse stays almost the same as the outside temperatures. Sunny days make it about 20* hotter in there. Thus begins the learning.I will be very interested in how your cold frame against the house works. That is another good option. I will keep an eye on your blog for updates on your progress. Thank you for sharing.Fern

  14. Thank you, Bellen, we are really looking forward to learning how to grow more food. I went by Wal-Mart today and they also have a few fall bedding plants this year so I picked up some broccoli. That will hold us over until I get more seeds planted and extend the broccoli crop. With all the things I want to plant, I wonder if it will all fit in there….. We'll see. I will definitely keep you posted. Thanks again for sharing.Fern

  15. I agree that the Elliot Coleman books are a great source of info. Here in Wyo. I really agree with him when he says that plants need at least 10 hours of daylight. During the short winter hours the aphids take more than their share. I have had a 12×18 foot twin wall stand alone greenhouse for more than 10 years. Even when the outside temperature is 0-10 degrees the temp can get too hot for the plants when the sun is out.. You may want to go to and look at their solar vent openers. I have 4 of the Univent control units on my roof and a Liberty Louver opener in the wall on my greenhouse. Life is too short to worry about the temp. of the greenhouse several times every day. I do have a few extra of the replacement cylinders just incase, but they last for quite a few years. With these type of openers there is no need to put electricity in the greenhouse for fans. Most of the summer I leave the main door to the greenhouse open for more ventilation. If bugs are a problem you may want a screen door. If you have some strawberry plants or can find someone to give you some runners pot them up and you should get some early berries next spring in your greenhouse.

  16. Fern, and Frank,Your greenhouse is really looking good. I see you've selected some nice seeds to start planting in your greenhouse. You've selected some nice seeds to start in your greenhouse. I'm looking forward to updates on information regarding your greenhouse and plantings. Hugs,Sandy

  17. I have been reading and rereading Eliot Coleman's for a couple of years now. That's where I discovered frost cloth. Before I read his book I had never heard of it before. I agree with you 100%, this is a great book! Thanks, Plant Lady.Fern

  18. Get at least two copies of Eliot Coleman's book \”The Winter Harvest Handbook\”. No need to reinvent the wheel…this book covers everything you need to know to grow in unheated, partially heated or fully heated structures over fall/winter/spring. Just amazing…this is one of those books I will copy out by hand if I wear it out and can't get another. And the info was gathered by Mr. Coleman over decades of actual experience as a market farmer. A truly invaluable resource, especially with the world looking so grim…as I like to eat fresh foods in winter, also (hehe). Not just an overview, it has charts of what to plant when, when to harvest, when to succession plant and transplant to keep whatever space you have fully productive over the seasons. I can not recommend this book highly enough.And Johnny's Selected Seeds has Planting Calculators available on their website for each season that are free to download. You put in your first or last frost date and up pops a chart of what to plant when for your specific location – just amazing and oh so useful! Between \”The Winter Harvest Handbook\” and these Calculators you will have all the info you need to be successful your first time growing in an unheated greenhouse.PlantLady

  19. If you have chicken wire, you can cut a piece to fit over your trays that the cats get into, and that will keep them out without keeping out the light. I don't have a greenhouse yet and don't know when or if I will ever have one. But I do have a raised bed against the back wall of the house I can use as a cold frame by laying old shower doors down across the top. For now, it will have to do.

  20. Fern – good luck with your greenhouse. I'm sure you will be successful. Finding out what will grow, where in the greenhouse it will grow and how it will grow is all part of the adventure. Just think of the gourmet crops you may have – microgreens, true baby carrots, personal sized heads of lettuce, those luscious first leaves of cabbage. Please do keep us informed on what does and doesn't work as we can all benefit from your experience.

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