Grow Benzie Spreading the Good Greenhouse Word

Our little greenhouse, made with recycled materials, glowing under a bright sun last January.


Last Saturday—a sunny and spectacular last day of winter, when ideas of spring’s awakening were on every Northerner’s mind—I headed to a workshop sponsored by Grow Benzie that offered up tips for doing your own greenhouse. I attended for a couple of reasons.

One was simply personal. Last year I worked with my daughter to build a greenhouse out of recycled materials for her senior year high school project. This is our first spring with it and I was looking for whatever advice I might get. But also I knew that some of our heroes of the local foods movement would be speaking and I wanted a chance to hear their thoughts, say hello.

For me, the most amazing take-away is what you can achieve in a greenhouse without using supplemental fuel sources to heat it. One of the speakers, Craig Schaaf, said his tomato plants are already knee high and about a foot and a half around at the top (reminder: March 20). He started them from seed this winter and they’ve been growing by the week throughout February and March. He captures warmth using such low-tech methods as 1-gallon pickle jars of water set amid the plants. Then he keeps the heat in at night by covering the plants with plastic. He’ll be harvesting sweet and awesome tomatoes about May 1. To reiterate: no heat source other than the sun.

Schaaf is all about scrounging used materials to keep the cost low. This philosophy fit with the approach my daughter and I used, since we had lots of ancient lumber lying around our place from a collapsed outbuilding we dismantled when we first bought our house. We scavenged old greenhouse plastic from our friends Rico and Traci Cruz, who have commercial scale greenhouses and had just replaced their hoophouse skins.

Schaaf suggested combing and for things like used windows and lumber. He suggested contacting commercial greenhouse operators to see if they have old plastic you could take off their hands. “It’s a disposal problem for them, so they’ll be happy to get rid of it,” he said.

The crowd that day numbered I’m guessing about 85, mostly gardeners rather than commercial growers. But the attendance showed a rapidly expanding interest in growing food, Schaaf observed. “After the food scares in recent years, people are concerned about their food security,” he said. Probably true for some, but for me, well, I just wanted to know how to use this crazy little greenhouse we built to grow a good tomato by May.

Grow Benzie is doing a dynamite job of pushing out high quality farming advice to the public. Keep an eye out for their programs. Cheap, by the way. $7 for the day included lunch. —Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine

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