By Dan Chiras
Like many gardeners, Dan Chiras, author of The Chinese Greenhouse, experiences annual vernal melancholy and strives to extend the growing season. That’s why he began using a very special greenhouse to grow through the dead of winter. Today, Dan explains how the Chinese greenhouse cures his winter gardener's blues.
Excerpt from the Book
Like many readers, I’m a grower. It’s in my DNA—on a gene residing two doors down from the family of genes responsible for my love of all living things. The gardener/grower gene is in the same neighborhood as all the self-sufficiency and do-it-yourself genes that have compelled me to spend my life learning how to live independently, meeting as many of my needs as possible.
I started growing when I was in third or fourth grade, helping my mom with her large and successful gardens, first in Connecticut, and then in rural upper New York State. Mom would pay me a penny for every Japanese beetle I removed from her green beans and often send me into the tomato and cucumber patches to harvest baskets full of their generous fruit.
To me, gardening is a magical, utterly fascinating, and unbelievably rewarding experience—placing seeds in the ground and watching the tiny seedlings pop their delicate heads up through the soil, then growing a profusion of stems and leaves which bear delicious, colorful, and healthful fruits. And all of this occurs with a little help from the sun, soil, and atmosphere. Not a single app on my cell phone is required.
I live to grow. In fact, I’d probably do it if it were illegal. That’s why the Fall, low-sunlight, cold-day-and-night-inflicted demise of my gardens has, for years, caused me so much sadness.
To counter my annual vernal melancholy, many years ago, while still living in Colorado, I started experimenting with ways to extend the growing season—and with great success. Then I discovered ways to grow cold-weather vegetables like spinach, lettuce, and kale throughout the winter using Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest Technique. I even grew an assortment of vegetables indoors in my off-grid solar home in Colorado.
But the greatest success I’ve had so far growing through the dead of winter has come with my Chinese greenhouse, which I built on our 60-acre farm in Missouri. This marvelous invention—so different from conventional greenhouses—allows me to grow a wide assortment of food crops when my outdoor gardens are calling it quits.
Most gardeners are storing their trowels and hoes, then dreamily paging through seed catalogues and longing for the warm spring days. The snow is drifting alongside houses and fencerows and the temperatures are dropping well below freezing. And I’m planting, harvesting, and dining off vegetables from my earth-sheltered Chinese greenhouse--heated only by solar energy.
What I’ve found is so cool about my greenhouse is that it maintains temperatures suitable for growing a wide assortment of vegetables, especially warm-weather delights like tomatoes, cucumbers, and green peppers. We’re even growing an orange, a grapefruit, and a banana tree in our greenhouse. All kinds of leafy vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard and root vegetables, like beets, grow mightily throughout the dead of the winter–again, so we don’t miss the point--using only solar energy. No backup heat is required.
I’ve been growing in my earth-sheltered Chinese greenhouse for three years now, and while I’m still learning the ins and outs of this marvelous structure, I’m quite pleased. I watch the thermometer assiduously, and, get this: I’ve never seen the temperature inside my greenhouse drop below 50° Fahrenheit, even when outdoor temperatures have plummeted to well below freezing.
a photography taken of Dan Chiras’ Chinese greenhouse
What exactly is a Chinese Greenhouse?
A Chinese greenhouse is a passive solar greenhouse. It is designed much like a passive solar home in ways that allow it to capture as much of the low-angled winter sun as possible. The long axis of the greenhouse runs east and west, also like a passive solar home. And there’s no glass or plastic on the north-facing roof, which would lose an enormous amount of heat during cold winter days and nights.
Chinese greenhouses are also pretty airtight and very well insulated—again like passive solar homes—so that the solar heat they gain during the day isn’t lost at night.
Like a well-designed passive solar home, these greenhouses are built with an abundance of thermal mass—solid material like adobe or concrete—that absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night, helping to maintain suitable temperatures even on the coldest of winter nights.
Well-built Chinese greenhouses are also typically earth-sheltered, tucked into a hillside, or bermed. This helps maintain warmer temperatures in the winter and cooler temperatures in the summer.
In my new book, cleverly titled The Chinese Greenhouse (that took some thinking), I explain how to design and build one of these unique structures, including what materials you can use, and how you can do so, affordably. I even describe ways you can store surplus heat generated on cold but sunny winter days and make it available at night. And, I explore ways growers like you can store surplus summer heat for use many months later in the dead of winter. (These are called short-term and long-term heat banking, respectively.)
Don’t get me wrong, there are challenges. Growing inside a Chinese greenhouse in the summer can be quite difficult. But over the years, I’ve been working this out. I describe innovative ways to cool the greenhouse in the summer, so she keeps on producing all year long. I have also discovered ways to provide high-quality LED grow lights that help promote plant growth on cloudy winter days. You can read about them in my new book.
This book is true to my long-term policy of sharing mistakes and lessons I’ve learned, even if it makes me appear a bit…well…a bit dense at times.
Moreover, many of the ideas I’ve described to improve the performance of a Chinese greenhouse can be applied to improve the performance of a conventional greenhouse.
Chinese greenhouses are the best things that have come along for gardeners since the invention of the greenhouse. Even if you aren’t in the market for a greenhouse, they’re worth knowing about. If you are contemplating building a greenhouse to achieve greater self-sufficiency and perhaps grow commercially, you’ll want to give them a good study.