Sunken Greenhouse: The First Reason We Put A Basement In Our Greenhouse Shed

I’ve always loved greenhouses, but the concept really doesn’t make sense the way it is usually practiced. If you have to heat the greenhouse all winter, and the greenhouse won’t hold heat because plastic and glass is a poor insulator then winter use is very impractical. If a greenhouse gets too hot to grow anything in the summer and you actually have to empty it out completely because it will actually cook the plants, then summer time becomes a headache also. As much as I like greenhouses for their architectural beauty, I had given up on building one myself.

Then I began reading about “Earth Ships” which is an interesting concept of digging a home right into the South-facing side of a hill and encasing the exposed side with a greenhouse. The Earth Ship requires an extreme life-style change however. This type of building requires living-breathing people inside nearly every day to keep the delicate ecology balanced. Although fascinating, there was no way I was going to convince my beloved city boy to live in a narrow green house basement. Looking through all the photos reminded me of the very attractive sunken greenhouses I had enjoyed while living in England. Almost every castle or historic manor estate you tour in England features a few garden innovations to fascinate and educate. My very favorite was a sunken very modern glass greenhouse just a few steps from a matching the newly built café on the grounds. I haven’t found my photos yet of that large glass structure with black metal framings, but the photo below will give you a good idea of the concept behind it.

The brick walled garden is as about as common in England as the basketball hoop is in America. The British have long known how the dark red bricks could capture what little sun they enjoy there and store the heat for later in the day, therefore creating little micro-climates in their backyards. The idea of building lean-to greenhouses against these walls instead of stand-alone greenhouses was the natural next step. Just one further innovation of digging down 2 or 3 or even 4 feet improved heat retention greatly with no real loss in available sunlight. Turns out this isn’t a British invention though.

In 1978 the first reported Chinese-style sunken greenhouse was built. The design uses three solid earthen walls and one south-facing glass wall. It’s use really took off in the 1980’s when plastic film became widely available and could affordably replace the heavy glass. The Chinese government created an initiative to encourage more development of the concept and have been using sunken greenhouses to feed their growing population. China’s goal was to have nearly 3.7 million acres of passive solar greenhouses by 2020. A simple hole is sufficient for some greenhouse experimenters, but better results can come from constructing the walls with rammed earth and brick that does a better job of storing heat for slow release later. I remember reading as a kid this classic book about building a very cheap underground house that was in the pile of Mother Earth News Magazines. A $50 house is a pretty exciting idea when you are 13 years old! Looking up that 1980’s book led me to discover this greenhouse version of the concept published in 2007. I was totally hooked, and became obsessed with the idea.

Another term for this project is the “Walipini” which has it’s roots in Pineapple growing techniques and a greenhouse building project in Bolivia. The Walipini is touted in articles such as “build this greenhouse for $300”. As appealing as that looks at first blush, I’ve already spent the better part of an Easter weekend bailing water out of the basement of my house flip. The open stairwell leading down into a pit with no central drain raised a lot of questions for me. In addition, most traditional greenhouses suffer from curious mice and other varmints looking for a warm winter home and a spot of food. Earthen walls and a roof of plastic film are no match for a 24/7 attack of little creatures. Instead the greenhouse is trimmed in metal and clear corrugated panels like these are used.

It was decided that instead of adding a little Walipini on the outside of the shed, that the shed would be expanded to have its own “built on” greenhouse. To prevent mice from building through the wall, the basement was extended as an addition. As in; instead of making the basement larger, we constructed a poured concrete wall between the shed construction and the greenhouse addition and only put a 36″ door way between the two. Each section has it’s own drain, but the likelihood of flooding is very low with a poured wall and solid concrete floor. The ideal depth for a Walipini is between 3 and 5 feet, but a standard basement depth is 8′ and trying to construct one part of the basement at a different depth would increase the complexity/cost of the build. Because the winter sun hangs so low at my latitude, any plantings will have to be raised at least 3 feet and would best be served at 5 feet during the late winter/early spring.

On 90 degree days in the summer the second floor of the greenhouse reaches 120 degrees! In the basement area of the greenhouse the temperature is usually 80-90 degrees, and the shed section of the basement ranges from 70-80 degrees. The summer, spring and fall work excellently in this greenhouse because the basement section does moderate extreme heat well, and lettuce continued to grow in 2020 well into fall and early winter. However, this design seems destined to fail as a winter green house. This very cold 2020-2021 winter found that inside temperatures were only about 5-10 degrees higher on cloudy days (and most winter days are cloudy here). Sunny days might see a bump of 15 degrees, but that heat quickly dissipates after the sun goes down. One reason the greenhouse isn’t holding heat is because of the walk-out basement door on the North side of the shed. This wall should have a large mass of backfill insulating it from the cold winds blowing off the bare corn-field, but instead much of the desired geo-thermal heat isn’t available because we weren’t able to completely finish the backfill project before the fill-dirt froze solid. Even with a perfect wall of backfill against that North wall, we would still constantly lose heat through the door though.

Sitting in the greenhouse this winter trying to figure out how to improve the winter usability factor highlighted how the ventilation is barely enough to keep pace during the summer, but is far too much in the winter. Sitting in the greenhouse on a particularly sunny and windy day, I could feel a draft. The first inch of snow on the ground reflected sunlight up under the floor joists and it was clear that the gap I was trying to cover to prevent mice from entering was also a factor in heat loss. I researched the dynamics of passive solar buildings and learned that the sun was heating up the air on the second floor, causing it to rise out the ridge vents at the roof top. This escape of heated air created a vacuum which drew in air from the very lowest levels. When a thick blanket of snow clogged all the air gaps around the foundation there was a noticeable change in the greenhouse climate. The greenhouse heated up and created the largest gap between interior and exterior temperatures it had seen all winter…almost 20 degrees. Covering the two floor drains also helped maintain that heat much longer after sundown than we had seen before. Ground pipes are often used in root cellars or greenhouse structures to pull in geo-thermally cooled or heated air…but in this case the short pipe is only pulling in air 18-inches under the surface of the ground and only 20 feet from the greenhouse. In winter it is really cold, in summer it is just a little cooler than the surrounding air. Covering both of these drains in the winter along with sealing the gaps around the foundation should create a better ‘air seal’ that so that heat rising to the roof ridge is held inside and can accumulate in the building by a vacuum. In other words, it will be less able to flow out the top while pulling cold air in through drains and gaps around the basement.

The summer plan is to install two vents in the upper-most peak of the greenhouse and perhaps also install a opening and screened window on the second floor. In the basement, both drains will be uncovered and the transom window over the basement walk-out will be unsealed, removing several layers of weatherization until only aluminum insect screening is left. This should purposely increase the amount of draft the green house can generate to pull heat out in the summer…but with designated windows and vents that can actually be controlled with insulated ‘shutters’ from the inside. This should make it much more pleasant inside the greenhouse for summer use.

Brass Egg™ participates in affiliate marketing programs, and may receive compensation when you click and purchase from links to retailers. Brass Egg™ of Russell Holdings Group, LLC 2021. All content ©2021 Russell Illinois Holdings, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Best Garden Shoes Ever: Sloggers

I just love these new garden clogs I got! They are made in America, waterproof, deeply treaded and have a removable insert that helps them dry out faster.

My pair of Sloggers is the ‘shoe’ version. Sloggers version of a ‘clog’ is a mule with a back-less design that wouldn’t work for the muddy conditions I am usually in. This regular shoe version keeps the entire foot out of seeping water, yet doesn’t create the sweaty conditions of a rubber boot. This shoe version offers a ‘heel bumper’ that makes it easy to pry off a muddy pair hands-free. Sloggers also sell rain boots…and based on how much I enjoy their shoes I should probably buy a pair.

The removable insert is a great innovation on several fronts. First of all, being able to remove the insert at all means the shoe will dry out much faster between uses and can even get the germ-killing benefits of sunlight. In addition, Slogger offers a ‘half size’ insert that allows you to adjust your shoe size down a half-step. They also offer two different kinds of inserts for men and women to better fit the type of Slogger you’ve purchased, plus being able to purchase replacements is a huge benefit!

The deep treading got a road test after a heavy snow here in the subdivision. Despite a thick layer of ice under the snow, and the snow being deep enough to almost drop into the shoe, there was no slipping on the way to collect eggs. The clay and mud at my greenhouse is very difficult to navigate, and I can’t help wondering if I would have avoided slipping in clay (and breaking my leg) if I had been wearing these instead of an old pair of tennis shoes with worn-slick soles.

Not only are they water-proof rubber shoes, they are also translucent! In the full sun it seems my shoes sparkle like jewels. It adds a little bit of sparkle and delight to my time at the greenhouse. The pattern is under a thick overlay of clear rubber which protects the design and augments the jewel-like effect. So far the junction where this overlay merges with the thick protective sole shows no sign of separation or wear.

Lastly, these are made in the good ‘ole USA! How often do you hear that? In fact, the company began in California in 1948 with the ‘Drizzle Boot’. Remember those? Women wore these little plastic boots over their high heels on rainy days. Women sure looked posh in those days, but I much prefer the comfort of these Sloggers to the decades I spent in heels trying to side-step puddles and still get to work on time. Anyway, the company introduced Sloggers in 1997 and can make up to 4,000 pairs a day in their California plant. It’s fun to own something made here in the states.

Brass Egg™ participates in affiliate marketing programs, and may receive compensation when you click and purchase from links to retailers. Brass Egg™ of Russell Holdings Group, LLC 2021. All content ©2021 Russell Illinois Holdings, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Escaping To The Country When Your Family Doesn’t Want To Go

I grew up in the Ozarks backwoods of Missouri where my idea of a great afternoon was walking in the woods for hours. My husband is an Iowa boy, but not a hayseed…he lived in a subdivision outside of Des Moines and spent his summers at the pool or throwing around a ball on nicely mowed lawns. During one of our lively ‘discussions’ my husband said:

“I KNOW YOU WANT THE KIDS OUT THERE SQUEEZING MILK, PICKING EGGS AND HOEING HAY, BUT….” 

My Hubby, August 30th, 2020

Yeah, not a farm boy. So funny I had to right it down the moment he said it though.

We came into marriage with nearly exact concepts of what success as a young professional looked like. Our vision of family life while the children were toddlers was nearly identical too. We began to see a divergence of vision when the kids got into the catching frogs and bringing walking sticks home stage. By the time that stage gave way to talk of retirement it was clear we were in an all-out power struggle.

Are we the only couple like this?

Unfortunately, discovering this other side of myself took my husband by surprise and it was been a long slog to try to drag my family to the farming life. Do you want to farm or homestead and your spouse or teenagers want nothing to do with it?  Do you feel like you are losing an up-hill battle? 

In this article we will explore how to:

  • Crystalize what you really want
  • Get a handle on what the resistance is caused by
  • Put a plan of action together
  • Avoid some common pitfalls
  • Figure out your best course of action 
  • Pre-plan your course corrections
  • Free One-To-One Virtual Coaching – Available For a limited time.

Do you dream of the country life but your family wants nothing to do with it?   I can help you avoid the mistakes I have made in the last decade and hopefully save you 5-10 years of false starts.

People Change

After a childhood of dreaming about how exciting it would be to live in the busy city world I saw on television, it took only a few short years to realize that the country was were I belonged.  I decided to start a family instead of pursuing a career and for the first decade of marriage my husband (and family in tow) were transferred to 4 different states plus England.  After such an exciting adventure, I found I craved the security and privacy of country living to an irresistible degree.  This isn’t really what my husband expected based on my past…it wasn’t what he signed up for…. and it wasn’t a life he understood.  This last decade of my mistakes can be your gain.  Let me save you 5-10 years.   As much as I want this lifestyle for myself, I’m happy to help everyone else get there.  There is something special, natural and logical about it.  A million new small farms every year would change this world in a short amount of time.  Let me help you get there!  Let’s both reach our dreams.

Step #1 – Crystalize what you really want

This step is truly the most important, and we will work through how to test the ideas in your head to insure that is where you really want to be in the end. Spoiler alert: I discovered that what I really wanted wasn’t what I was arguing with my husband about. I was able to get what I really wanted cheaper and faster than if I would have gotten what I was pushing for.

One-to-One Zoom Meetings

Using Zoom, we can meet virtually and begin a coaching process. We will walk through my experience and see what you are experiencing too.  This is a case where the process is important in order to make pivoting easier when challenges come (and they always come).

Step #2 – Get a handle on What is Causing the Resistance

Knowing what is concerning your spouse is especially important.  Your kid’s concerns are also important because of your love for them, but your spouse must feel respected and honored in your decision. Letting them weigh in and be heard will make a world of difference down the road in how they ‘feel’ about the plan.

Before we make a case to our spouses, we must attempt to understand why they don’t want a small farm.  Let’s discuss how to get them to talk and how to also address the things they don’t mention that we suspect.

One hint my husband gave me after 9 years of this tug-of-war: “I am an Amorphous Solid”. Ok, I married an engineer, so I spend a lot of time looking up the things he says to me, but here is what he means. An amorphous solid is like corn starch paste which flows slowly like kid’s Elmer’s School Glue, but if you put sudden pressure on it it stiffens and resists for no apparent reason. Had I approached the plan of a small farm in a more fluid way with no sharp, sudden demand for action there wouldn’t have been a sharp, sudden resistance to change. Even when I softened and changed my approach, heels had already dug in and battle lines drawn. Are you married to an “Amorphous Solid” or maybe one or two of your children are? Gentle flow is easier on family life and emotional resilience.

Step #3 – Put a plan of action together

Time to take lots of notes!   I’ll go over what my plan of action looks like today, and even pull out some old plans.  Then we can talk about our best intentions and how to set them up timing wise and season wise to get the best possible results.  Moving forward is our objective, and the skill sets you come to your small farm with and your family situation are going to be the biggest elements of this step.

Step #4 – Avoid some common pitfalls

Let’s laugh at me!  I probably have gone about this completely backwards, and caused this nine-year delay in reaching my dream.   Let’s have a good laugh and see if you can cut your time down. 

The 80/20 rule is probably actually the 95/5 rule when it comes to avoiding terrible mistakes in how you approach achieving a small farm dream.  I’m going to be honest with you, let’s save you some time, because we aren’t getting any younger!

Step #5 – Figure out your best course of action

Let’s take all this and put it together to get you milking cows or growing corn or bringing in eggs in record time.

Come to this step with a start on your over-all plan.  We will work it out using tools that big companies and factories have perfected; not to reduce your joy in the journey, but to reduce your frustration when things don’t go according to plan.

Step #6 – Pre-plan your course corrections

Things are going to happen!  Let’s plan for it!

Sign up for free One-to-One Coaching via Zoom today! Fill out the request for Consultation Form in the left hand column of the homepage (on desktop)!

Brass Egg™ participates in affiliate marketing programs, and may receive compensation when you click and purchase from links to retailers. Brass Egg™ of Russell Holdings Group, LLC 2021. All content ©2021 Russell Illinois Holdings, LLC. All Rights Reserved.