Thursday, February 28, 2008

Spring is coming: DIY Countertop Greenhouse

March is right around the corner and the days are getting warmer and warmer. And while even as I speak snow is falling outside my home office window, I know that soon all of this dreary white weather is going the way of falling leaves and foliage. People who are serious about gardening in my neighborhood typically gear up this time of year, starting their seedlings in front of sunny windowsills and cleaning out the potting sheds.

I've had some conversations with my neighbors. We're all more or less in the same boat of being financially strapped. I've heard time and time again that they're planning on really getting serious with a garden this year to reduce their bills.

A lot of frugal folk like to promote the idea that growing a lot of your own food can help reduce your over all grocery bill at the end of the month. I don't exactly subscribe to this ideal quite yet, but I think it's an interesting premise. The main problem I see with it is I believe a lot of people see the costs of seeds, the cost of produce at the mega-mart and draw the obvious cost connections in their heads. A single seed packet may cost $1.00 and contain enough for 50 tomato plants!

But I think far too many people neglect to take into consideration the other costs of growing your own produce. A short list includes:

  • Tools (spades, hoes, rakes, watering cans, et cetera)
  • Water (especially if you live in a drought prone region)
  • Soil and nutrients (especially if you live in less than ideal growing conditions such as the middle of Arizona or northern New England)
  • Pestic
  • Potting accessories (Pots, seedling pots, trellises, et cetera)
  • Time (time is money, after all)
  • Seeds / Seedlings
At this moment in time I think that growing your own produce costs pound for pound the equivalent of buying it at your local produce stand or mega-mart. Which is not to say that I'm against home gardening to shore up one's food budget. I'm just saying that one has to enter the situation realistically without expectations of a greatly reduced grocery bill.

If you're planning on gardening this coming spring, I don't think frugality should be at the front of your mind. I think the gardener should be more concerned with the experience and the ability to control the quality of the food than anything. Not to mention that you're decreasing your carbon footprint a considerable amount if you're not buying as many food stuffs that come in via gas guzzling tractor trailers.

Plus, if you're one of those organic nuts you can assure yourself that your tomato, even if it might not look terribly pretty, was grown with as little impact on your garden space as possible.

The growing season is tricky, however. Especially in the northern United States, the time when you should have seedlings ready to go into the ground, there's still a couple of inches of snow covering the ground. So what I've found it that a lot of people set their future meals in front of drafty window sills and hope for the best. Which gives them a head start on the season, sure. But not nearly as much as they should be given.

Which is why I began to research small, compact greenhouses. I'm not talking about the variety that I'll construct in the backyard with lumber and sheets of very expensive glass, but small, self contained units that would only hold one or two plants. Something that I can easily carry out onto my deck on sunny, warmer days and take in at night. Or put in front of a sunny windowsill on especially cold days. And since a greenhouse is by definition an enclosed space, I won't have to worry about my cats getting a little hungry.

My logic is it'll be far more economical to construct several of these versus one large unit. And since it won't be exposed to the elements, I won't have to worry about weather proofing it. Which would add a hefty price tag to just about anything. Sealant is expensive. Once the fear of frost has completely left the picture, a small unit can be easily stored for next year and the plants transplanted to a proper garden.

In my travels I found this lovely little creation. Made out of a small amount of lumber, some Plexiglas and a couple of screws it hardly disrupts a tight budget at all, costing less than $20 to construct from start to finish. And if you're the type of household who typically has stuff from excessive years laying around, you might not need anything at all. Off the top of my head I can confirm that the only thing I likely need to construct one of these beauties this instant is a couple of sheets of Plexiglas and maybe a couple of hours to myself to get started.

Maybe some heavy duty band aids for when I invariably injure myself. And apology flowers to the neighbors, for the loud swearing that would likely ensue immediately afterward. Which can be grown in the thing that caused the swearing in the first place. See? It's a lovely cycle.

So will I be growing things this year? Yes. Our garden already has a large number of bulbs, chives, strawberries and flat leaf parsley ready to resprout. And I will be growing some one shot stuff like tomatoes and peppers. But I'm not expecting miracle yields to put me on the fast track to easy street. I'd be happy if I break even. I think that's good enough.


Anonymous said...

Nice piece Ed - Your 100% right on not expecting significant reduction in "food costs." If one keeps up with gardening - eventually you will have your tool collection and will be able to slow down some of the annual expenses. Water though... yikes - that can get spendy when there hasn't been rain for days & days! Gardening is quite addictive and can help control quality of the produce - ain't nothing like a plump juicy tomato picked with your own hands from your own soil! I loved this article - terrific morning read!

Ed said...


Hopefully my experiences this year will help my grocery bill, but I'm trying to remain as realistic as possible.

Free From Broke said...

Wish we could grow produce in our garden. We live in a co-op where we can plant anything but fruits and veggies, or herbs. Good luck!


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