Grow Dollars Under The Backyard Greenhouse


I had to have a greenhouse. I had wanted one ever since as a little fellow it smelled good and felt good just to be in a greenhouse. Ah, many were the reasons I wanted one. I wanted to propagate my own azaleas, to raise all the plants and shrubs for my garden. I wanted to grow exotic flowers and strange foliage to share my wife’s fun in making unusual flower arrangements. And, after work, I longed for a greenhouse retreat where I could relax.

But a greenhouse, I thought, was a luxury I couldn’t afford. Yes, that bugaboo “luxury” deterred me a long time. I was reluctant to assume an increase in overhead expense for a nonproductive purpose. But I wanted a greenhouse so much I just refused to give up the idea entirely. Then one day the thought occurred to me that this hobby might be made to pay for itself. Yes, I mused, I could have my greenhouse by selling surplus plants to cover expenses.

I promptly started looking around to see how best to go about getting a greenhouse. I found I could buy a prefabricated sectional unit, delivered and installed, for considerably less than a new auto. This type of unit would put me in production almost immediately. Or I could buy just the coldframe sash, which I would then have to fasten over a framework. Or I could build a full-sized greenhouse with new or used materials. I decided on the latter course. I have since decided that I had brought a new prefabricated greenhouse, I could have made up the difference in cost by starting my business venture earlier.

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I bought an abandoned greenhouse very cheaply. I tore it down, carted it home, cleaned the material, cut it to size and put it up again. I had to be carpenter, pipefitter, glazier, electrician and painter all in one, which took a lot of doing. In fact, it took all my spare “doing” for two years! But then – at last – I had my greenhouse!

But before elaborating on the sheer pleasure of a greenhouse. I’ll put business first and narrate my experiences commercial-wise. The job of making the greenhouse pay proved a tricky one at first. I could find no literature at all on the subject. There are excellent technical manuals for the large commercial grower and books on growing hothouse plants for a hobby. but nothing on how to make money with a greenhouse in spare time. So I did what other hobby greenhousemen usually do – I started selling-locally at retail. I soon found I not only had to have something of everything but had to have each item in bloom when the customer wanted it The volume of sale was not worth the effort of growing the plants.

Next, I tried raising succulents, cactus and dish-garden plants for retail florists. But because these tough little plants can stand the rigors of shipping, many southern outdoor growers ship them up here and I soon found I couldn’t compete in price with them. Nor could I compete with specialists in poinsettias, Easter lilies and such.

Finally I saw what now seems so obvious. I’d have to raise plants which commercial growers do not raise and sell them where they do not sell. Yes, that was it! I’d raise a succession- of colorful, inexpensive items to satisfy the impulse-buying of housewives and sell them to 5 & 10’s. supermarkets and roadside stands. whose plant requirements are too meager to interest commercial growers. I tried it and the idea clicked immediately. I gradually learned just what plants to raise, which season each is most in demand. when to start the plants for bloom at the desired seasons. the correct size of pots to use and the business of fair pricing. Today, my greenhouse produces a steady rotation of several showy “best-sellers,” which are netting me considerably,more than pin money. Indeed, not only has the greenhouse paid for itself in two years and covered operating expenses (which were my original objectives), but the project has proved so dependably lucrative that it now has become a regular sparetime business netting an extra family income – a business I have every intention of continuing (and probably expanding) in my retirement years.

But even more important than the money profit – gratifying as that has been – is the pleasure profit! For greenhousing for me is first and foremost PLEASURE – a rich, deep pleasure I’ve fortunately been able to turn to profit. Why, come winter, it’s better than a Caribbean cruise. On cold, snowy nights, I come home from work and step out of the winter into my own patch of the tropics, where flowering plants grow lushly in warm, moist fragrance. Let the cold winds blow! I’m on a South Sea isle. There’s nothing quite like it for a fast and complete offset to the cares of the day.

Then, too, there’s the warm-weather pleasure of leisurely work in fresh air and beaming sun, as well as the sheer fun the whole year round of just working with plants, of watching them grow, of bringing bright beauty into being.

I’ll never forget the thrill of watching our first night-blooming cereus unfold. “Mary. that bud on the night-blooming cereus is beginning to open,” I called to my wife one evening. She hurried to the greenhouse and together we watched that immense bud unfold to a beautiful creamy howl with 1.000 golden stamens – all framed by a foot-wide ring of huge red petals. It was thrillingly beautiful and we were anxious to take color pictures of it the next day. But at breakfast time, we found it collapsed – utterly finished. We learned that this plant blooms only at night and just for one night. Now when a bud opens, we phone our friends to drop in – at midnight!

The lovely blooms on our orchids and orchid cactus have given us equal pleasure. These, unlike cereus, last for weeks. All these tropical flowers, incidentally, are my wife’s department. She has a solid raised bench in which their roots can reach down deeply, untrammeled by pots. And they respond gratefully to this luxury. Our poinsettia, now a small tree, is bright with blooms until March, while our cut-leaf philodendron boasts leaves twice as large as those on pot plants.

We enjoy many of these plants not only in the greenhouse but in the house as well, thanks to my wife. She conducts a systematic rotation of potted plants in bloom. Christmas cactus, with its scarlet umbrella of drooping bloom, the pendent eardrops of fuchsia, stately yellow calla lilies, amaryllis and even succulents are regular house guests. And pot-plants are also used as aristocratic tub plants on the summer patio.

My wife works such intriguing materials as freesias, neoregelias, shell pink calla lilies and unusual leaves into delightful flower arrangements. while gardenias. camellias and tuberous begonias are stand-bys for her corsages.

In conclusion. I’d like to give you a few pointers on putting up a greenhouse. If you decide, as I did, to take what is probably the most economical course, that is, to build one with used materials, the first thing you must do is go out and find yourself a greenhouse no longer in use. An abandoned one, overgrown with weeds, with broken glass and rusty (but not pitted) pipes, will do fine, and the owner will probably be glad to get rid of it for next to nothing. How much should you offer? Estimate the number of feet of framing and heating pipe at 5 cents a foot and the number of unbroken panes of glass at 5 cents a pane. Estimate cypress or cedar sash bars at 2 cents a linear foot. Add it up and offer a round figure. These prices are about a tenth of the cost of new material. but labor and cartage must be taken into account. If you must raise your offer, you still have room for a bargain for you have not included pipe fittings, valves and ventilator hardware in the total.

Now comes the question of where to erect your greenhouse. The choice is somewhat restricted. Full morning sun is an absolute must. The greenhouse can be shaded in midday but will benefit from at least some afternoon – sun. Deciduous trees to the south and west are beneficial as they shade the greenhouse in summer, when your problem is to keep it cool, and they cast very little shade in winter. A windbreak to the north is also good.


The lean-to type of greenhouse is not as desirable as the full-width type unless the architecture of your house calls for a lean-to. However, attaching the greenhouse to the house does keep the home workshop, potting room and heating plant all under one roof, which is a convenience especially in inclement weather. And under the zoning laws of some districts, it’s also a necessity.

The greenhouse doesn’t have to he kept as warm as many people think. Because of the high limpidity, a night temperature of 55 degrees is comfortable for humans and amply high for the majority of plants. In fact, many plants do better in a 45 degrees night temperature. If you have an oil-fired hot-water system, you can simply attach to the boiler a separate circulator for the greenhouse. running the heating pipes beneath the benches. Or you can buy a small hot-water boiler very cheaply and install it in the potting room adjoining the greenhouse.

But whether you decide on a simple or elaborate layout, you can feel that you are making a capital investment which will earn an income for you in proportion to the time and effort you put into it.

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