Greenhouse Buyer's Guide

Researching what you need will help make your dream of a greenhouse a reality.

February 9, 2011

For many gardeners, a greenhouse is a dream—a way to keep the growing season going year-round or the key to turning your hobby into a profession. A greenhouse may be as simple as a temporary shelter that costs less than $500 or as elaborate as a solarium you build onto your home. To help you sort through the bewildering array of options available, we've compiled the following questions to help you choose the right greenhouse for you.

Factors to consider
What purpose will your greenhouse serve? Will this be a purely functional building hidden from plain view so its appearance is unimportant or will you integrate your greenhouse into the landscape of your lawn and garden? Would you like it to also serve as a living space in addition to a greenhouse?

If you answer purely functional, then are you looking to grow vegetables and/or flowers year round? Or, maybe you just want a practical place to start spring seeds and cultivate some tasty greens in the cold winter months.

Now, perhaps most importantly, how much money can you invest? This may ultimately be your deciding factor. There is no simple answer as to how much a greenhouse will cost. The price depends so much on the materials, the size, and whether you'll be building it yourself or hiring a professional. A small, temporary walk-in greenhouse for spring and summer use can cost less than $500; a sunroom will cost as much as any other addition to your home. You will also need to factor in the cost of heating. With these parameters in mind, read on and see which options best fit your greenhouse needs.

Different structural options
In simplest terms, greenhouses come in two basic styles: freestanding and attached. Freestanding greenhouses allow you to choose the best possible site. Ideally, the greenhouse should receive full winter sun, and its longest side should face south. But because freestanding structures are more exposed to the elements, they can be more expensive to construct and operate. You'll need to have plumbing, a heat source, and electricity installed.

With an attached greenhouse, you'll probably have to compromise on sun exposure. But keep in mind that you can even have a greenhouse on the north side of your house if you're willing to add supplemental lighting or grow plants that prefer shade. If you plan carefully, you may be able to make full use of your home's existing features, including water pipes, heating, and electricity.

Materials
Frames

Wood is the easiest to use if you're building it yourself. It is strong enough to support glass glazing, but it is also the heaviest and therefore costs more to ship. In addition, you must treat even decay-resistant woods (cedar and redwood) with linseed oil or another wood preservative to prevent rotting in the humid greenhouse environment.

Galvanized steel and aluminum are also strong enough to bear the weight of glass glazing. One drawback is that they may conduct heat and cold.

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) frames are only appropriate for lightweight film-covered structures.

Glazing
You have numerous choices for glazing including: glass, polycarbonate, acrylic, fiberglass and plastic film. One common misperception is that transparency means better light transmission. The truth is that many translucent materials transmit just as much light as clear glass.

Tempered glass is still the longest lasting and easiest to maintain, making it the ideal choice for sunrooms and solariums.

Polycarbonate and acrylic panels are almost as permanent and transparent as glass. These three materials are more expensive than fiberglass and require a stable foundation.

Fiberglass panels, on the other hand, are relatively inexpensive and long-lasting when properly maintained. But you can't see through them, and their ability to transmit light tends to fade over time.

Plastic Film ranges from transparent to translucent. Some films with ultraviolet (UV) protection can last 5 years or longer. Other must be replaced yearly, so be sure to check on guarantees.

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