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Checklist: The Urban Greenhouse

Checklist: The Urban Greenhouse

A greenhouse offers the urban gardener greater flexibility when gardening through the seasons.  Greenhouses serve as season extenders to grow frost sensitive crops longer into the fall and seed starting earlier in the spring. A temperature controlled greenhouse can even offer year-round vegetable gardening.  A greenhouse can go beyond gardener’s fantasy and become a reality, however there are several factors that go into the greenhouse set in an urban environment.

Local Code and Ordinances.  Most cities require permits to build what is deemed as an out building.  An out building is classified as a structure outside of the primary dwelling, which includes detached garages, sheds and greenhouses.  However, most ordinances do not require a permit be pulled on small buildings.  A quick call to the city’s planning department will determine whether or not a permit is required.

Homeowner’s Associations.  Many urban and suburban neighborhoods have homeowner’s associations and local covenants regulated what kinds of structures are allowed to be built on a property.  While some are strict and disallow any external structures, most a lenient enough that with signed approval of one’s immediate neighbors a greenhouse can be built.  Check with the association for the required paperwork to file, it is a small hassle in time to avoid fines and disputes.

Location.  Greenhouses need a southern exposure for maximum sunlight.  Choose a location in the yard that is not shaded by trees or other buildings.

Attached or Detached.  An attached greenhouse can be ideal in colder climates or where space is extremely limited.  It takes up less space since one does not need to walk all the way around the greenhouse.  With one wall being the exterior of the house, the greenhouse benefits from the added insulation and reduces heat loss in the winter.  Conversely, if the common wall of the house and greenhouse is brick or concrete, this can create an extremely inhospitable environment in warmer climates.  Brick and concrete act as a thermal mass that retains heat.  While ideal in cold climates, this could make the greenhouse entirely too hot in warm climates.

Kit or Construction.  Those with construction knowledge and handy know-how can purchase plans (or design their own) to build a greenhouse.  You can even used recycled and reclaimed materials to build the frame of the greenhouse.  For those less handy, there are many greenhouse kits on the market and range greatly in price.  If you area is windy, be sure to find out the wind rating on the greenhouse kit you are considering.  If the description does not give one, call the manufacturer.  If the manufacturer will not provide one, look for a different greenhouse.

The material for frame of the greenhouse is also an important decision.  Aluminum is cheap, but it bends easily.  Wood is extremely sturdy, but requires maintenance.  Resin is lightweight, sturdy and does not transfer cold into the greenhouse, but can be expensive.

Glazing Materials.  Glazing is the material used for the “windows” of the greenhouse.  The most common options are polyethylene, polycarbonate and glass.  Polyethylene is plastic sheeting and is by far the cheapest option however it rips very easily.  Polycarbonate is a plastic material that is available in single, double and triple wall.  The number of walls in the polycarbonate is number of insulating layers; higher number of walls equals more insulating properties and more cost.  Glass is expensive, fragile and less insulating than polycarbonate, however many gardeners prefer the look of it.  (A glass greenhouse can be a great use for reclaimed windows.)

Water Source.  If carrying water to the greenhouse to water plants does not appeal to you, a water source in or near the greenhouse is very important.  If a water spigot is not already available, one will need to be put in.  If this is not a job you are qualified to handle, get a few bids to have a water source plumbed in for you.

Electricity and Temperature Regulation.  How you plan to use the greenhouse dictates whether or not you will need electricity in the greenhouse.  Basic temperature regulation involves opening vents when it is hot and closing them when it is not.  Venting can be done automatically with vent openers that are triggered by temperature which works great when the temperature is cool outside.  Warmer conditions will require a ventilation fan which is where electricity comes into play.  With a bit more investment, a solar powered ventilation fan can be purchased.  In cold regions, a heater may be required.  Make sure to use a heater that is made to work in the damp environment of a greenhouse!

Lighting is important if you need to enter the greenhouse at night.  Solar powered shed lights are a fantastic alternative to wired lighting.  Keep in mind that other items you may intend to use, like grow mats, require electricity.

If you decide to use electricity in the greenhouse, have a reputable electrician wire the greenhouse.  Water and electricity do not mix, so it is best to leave the wiring to the professionals.

A greenhouse is an investment in both time and money.  Get the appropriate approval from your governing agencies (if required), plan ahead of time where to site the greenhouse and make sure the utilities you require are available at the greenhouse site.  Plan, plan, plan and then plan some more!  Once you get your greenhouse, your planning will have paid off in spades and your greenhouse can quickly become an integral part of your gardening experience.

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