For Minnesota homeowners Eugene and Jeanne Rondeau, who live four miles from Lake Superior, greenhouses have become an integral part of everyday life. “In the cold weather–and we have our share of that–it’s really wonderful to have a working greenhouse,” Jeanne says. “We built our first one in 1960, and we’ve had one off and on ever since as we’ve moved around the country. Our children loved working in our greenhouses, too.” From their very first greenhouse endeavor, the Rondeaus have concentrated on growing both vegetables and flowers in an effort to extend the growing season and bring to maturity the plants that might not otherwise thrive during the short season in their part of the country.
But gardeners don’t have to live in cold climates to reap the benefits a greenhouse provides. “No matter where a homeowner lives in the United States,” observes Lee Duvall, a salesperson with the Texas Greenhouse Co., in Fort Worth, “he or she will value a greenhouse for starting plants or for growing rare ones in a controlled environment.
HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU EXPECT TO PAY?
You may be surprised to learn that the total price for erecting a working greenhouse outfitted with benches, heater, fans, tools, and, in many cases, a watering system may be considerably less than that of a decent used car. For example, an eight- by eight-foot stand-alone, tempered-glass greenhouse from Elite Greenhouses, an English manufacturing company whose products are imported and sold in the United States by Harris Seeds, in Rochester, N.Y., costs just under $1,500, not including shipping. Throw in the cost of a professionally installed concrete footing or full concrete foundation with plumbing and electrical connections, and the price almost doubles. Outfitting the interior with plant benches, tools, heating, ventilation, shading, and humidification could fall somewhere between $500 and $1,000 or higher, depending on geographic location and installation specifications. The whole package, completely installed, totals about $5,000.
People like Bill Smiles, a retired retailing executive in Chappaqua, N.Y., who has a passion for raising and showing rare orchids, might choose a model at the higher end of the scale. Smiles says he usually spends at least four hours a day working in his greenhouse, which began in 1975 as a simple 10- by 10-foot structure. Over the years, his greenhouse has expanded (to a 16- by 32-foot model with two rooms) along with his orchid collection (he has one of the finest collections in the country of the rare South American orchid group known as Draculas in one room, and in the other he houses a collection of species orchids). To equip the interior of the current structure (each room is individually climate- controlled), Smiles spent close to $8,000 at the Under Glass Mfg. Corp., in nearby Lake Katrine, N.Y. If he were to install the exact same greenhouse today, Smiles estimates that the price would run some $16,500, and installation might run as high as $6,200.
It’s not clear how many homeowners assemble their greenhouses themselves and thereby save on labor costs. Keri Schwab, of GardenStyles, in Bloomington, Minn., insists that more than 90 percent of her buyers put up the greenhouses on their own. She admits that many buyers do probably subcontract the foundation, plumbing, and electrical work. Yet Linda Turner, a salesperson at Salem Country Gardens, in Salem, Conn., declares that very few of her customers opt for the do-it-yourself models, even though the eight- by eight-foot stand-alone, redwood greenhouse her company currently markets at $2,499 is precut and quite easy (for a carpenter, she adds) to put together.
While the stand-alone greenhouse has been the most popular style throughout most of the 20th century, the lean-to greenhouse, snuggled against one wall of the house, is currently gaining greater popularity. Compared to stand-alone greenhouses of equal square footage, lean-to greenhouses provide less usable space (since the fourth wall is nor glass). Nevertheless, they are attractive to people for several reasons: The cost is at least several hundred dollars less than a stand-alone version; plumbing and electrical connections are less complicated; owners don’t have to slosh through ice and snow in winter since most are entered from inside the house; overseeing plant growth is simpler; fresh produce can still be grown all year long; homeowners can readily show off their latest blooms to guests; and those who connect the greenhouse to the main house with glass doors can enjoy the beauty of new blossoms from other rooms.
The logistics can be a little tricky, however. The proper solar siting of a lean-to greenhouse is the most important consideration. Most horticulturists suggest situating the glass facing south. Because of property lines or an existing garage, a south-facing lean-to may, in some cases, be impossible. A greenhouse that faces southeast or southwest is still on target. Due-east and due-west sitings are not as satisfactory yet are considered workable. But a greenhouse that faces north may not produce the plants you desire without the use of artificial light. “That’s not a big problem,” Lee Duvall advises. “The owner simply hangs grow lamps six inches over the plants and raises the lamps as the plants get bigger.”
ADDING VALUE TO YOUR HOME
Erecting a freestanding or a lean-to greenhouse may or may not raise the value of your property when you put it up for sale. “Not everyone is attracted to year-round gardening,” says Walter Molony, of the National Assn. of Realtors, in Washington, D.C. “But in today’s hot market, I think it would be a plus. After all, there are still a lot of gardeners out there. Alan Hummel, an appraiser from Des Moines, Iowa, is more doubtful. “Greenhouses are not something the market is really seeking,” he says. “However, if you’re talking about a solarium-a sunroom with potted plants–then I can see the house’s value increasing. According to Sam Grasso, of Janco Greenhouses, in Laurel, Md., homeowners tend to make three mistakes when buying greenhouses: “First, folks don’t opt for a greenhouse large enough. They realize too late that their desire for plants is shortstopped by size. Second, they don’t buy sufficient equipment to keep the greenhouse verdant. Remember,” Grasso continues, “the basic requirements are heating, ventilation, shading, cooling, and humidification. Third, they don’t orient an attached greenhouse properly. The best exposure, in my opinion, is southeast.
The annual cost of running a greenhouse will depend for the most part on its size and geographic location. Heating and cooling bills rise with size, and folks farther North or South will have to pay more owing to shortened or lengthened growing seasons–the longer a greenhouse’s interior has to be heated or cooled, the greater the annual operating expense.
Bill Orange, president of the Under Glass Mfg. Corp., estimates that in upstate New York, a 90-square-foot hobby greenhouse might run $500 a year for heat, $240 a year for electricity (fans and lights), and $150 a year for water (if the operator doesn’t have a well). These costs, averaged over the course of a year, would run about $75 per month. Of course, plants, seeds, planters, and baskets cost extra.
And for all greenhouse gardeners, there are considerations that are not necessarily financial. For instance, gardeners need help when they go on vacation–a trustworthy individual has to be found to tend the plants and make sure they don’t wither.
Yet for the majority of greenhouse gardeners, the joys of nurturing plants and enjoying their beauty year-round make maintaining a greenhouse well worth the effort and the expense.
Numerous options for germinating seeds safely in early spring and fostering blooms up until the first snowfall are significantly less expensive than year-round greenhouses. These products include aluminum and polycarbonate cold frames, polyethylene tents, glass cases the height of mature cornstalks, and walk-in shelters covered with clear, ultraviolet-resistant polyethylene sheets stretched taut over aluminum, tubular steel, or vinyl framing.
Manufacturers claim that season extenders are easy to assemble in the spring and quick to take apart in the fall, allowing them to be stored until the next growing season. While these structures do not require foundations, several makers claim their products have withstood hurricanes. If heat is required during a particularly frigid spring, a small propane heater can be used in conjunction with these products.
The prices for cold frames hover around $100; for glass cases and “tents,” between $200 and $450; and for walk-in shelters, $250 to $800. (These suggested prices do not include shipping.)