Caveat Lecteur
Any information you get, either from this talk or another speaker, has to be taken in context.  Joe Caputi, one of the earlier speakers,  is my son’s age and has one set of needs and goals.  Dave Lines, another speaker, like me is over the hill and working with another set of circumstances.  In my case, I’m 68 and retired from one career.  For better or worse, my wife and I seem to have flowers or something every month of the year, we sell both retail and wholesale, and we do bouquets, arrangements, weddings, and anything else that comes along. Weddings are becoming more important all the time. We have four growing structures of various sizes.  Our north-facing, hilly, farm is located in Zone 5 in the mountains of western Pennsylvania, with last and first frost dates of about May 15 and September 15.  We grow annuals, perennials as annuals, perennials, woodies, vegetables, force bulbs out of season, and anything else that looks profitable.  We have been known to pickle garlic, paint faces on pumpkins, and make sauerkraut.  Your circumstances will be different, and, again, anything I say needs to be evaluated against your operation.

Greenhouse vs. Protected Growing Structure
That said, I want to reorient this article a bit.  First I’ll give the answer so you can decide if you want to read on: Yes, you need a greenhouse or other protected structure, except in rare circumstances.  Now, let’s make a change.                

Let’s change the title to “Do I need a protected growing structure?” so we can enlarge the scope of the talk to consider greenhouses, hoophouses, and high tunnels.  

Flower Farmer or Horticultural Entrepreneur?
Next let’s look at you:  I think I can assume you are either growing flowers or plan to in the future.  A second assumption is that since you are growing flowers, you want to sell them, and if you want to sell them you probably want to make some profit from your efforts.  Since your goal is to make money, I want to enlarge your views – get you to think out of the box as it were – and have you consider yourself as a HORTICULTURAL ENTREPRENEUR.  If you look at the cut flower industry over the last twenty years you will see many significant changes.  If you want to be able to roll with the punches and survive future changes, you have to see yourself as an entrepreneur and behave accordingly.

Definitions Clarified
Before going too much further, we need to clarify some terms.  When I refer to a greenhouse I mean a structure that can be closed tightly, with forced heat and forced exhaust.  A hoophouse, in my dictionary, is a greenhouse with no heat nor mechanical ventilation, and whose sides do not roll up nor down.  A traditional high tunnel is a structure with provisions for natural ventilation (by removing the ends and or eliminating the sidewalls and/or rolling the roof cover out of the way) and a heated high tunnel is just that – a high tunnel with provision for full or partial heat.  You can also think of a heated high tunnel as a greenhouse with sides that roll up or down.            

At least two firms make simple, relatively inexpensive, large high tunnels.  One is Haygrove, which is represented at the Trade Show by Ralph Cramer, and you will see a working example of this product on the tour tomorrow.  Agra Tech makes a similar product to cover large areas.  You can also make your own high tunnel by converting traditional greenhouses or hoophouses.  We could, but won’t, talk about cold frames and hot beds, but these are small variations on the larger houses.

Use of a Protected Structure

What do you do or what do you think you can do with a protected structure?  Some options are:
1.  Germinate seeds.
2.  Force plants out of season to take cuttings.
3.  Root cuttings (any season).
4.  Force bulbs out of season.
5.  Overwinter tender perennials.
6.  Grow plugs until it gets warm outside.
7.  Protect plants from frost (season extension).
8.  Protect plants from climactic extremes – wind, rain, frost, sun.
9.  Grow high value flowers and vegetables in the off seasons. (see Elliott Coleman).
10.  Grow cut flowers for late spring sale.
Some of these ideas are better than others.  I like to germinate seeds in a more controlled environment and use germinating devices in our dining room.  I do want to move the small seedlings into natural light just as soon as I can to avoid stretching.                                

Forcing plants, rooting cuttings and forcing bulbs are all viable uses.  Forcing bulbs is a great use, and there are three talks over the next two days on this subject and at least four of the vendor booths – Bulbmark, Ednie, Gloeckner, and Zabo – will have information on this subject.  Just look out for variety and order minimums, consider shipping costs, and pay attention to the number of days required for flowering.            

You can overwinter plants in a number of ways that don’t involve a structure.  Some of these are covering plants with straw and plastic, wood chips, or a thermal blanket.  However, you have to watch the weather and not let the pile get too warm or wet.  For the low cost of even a homemade shelter, using pvc pipe and white film, I prefer to use a shelter with provisions for venting on warm or bright days.  If it gets really cold for an extended period, you can always use a small, electric or propane heater to avoid freezing the roots.            

As a horticultural entrepreneur, you can consider early tomatoes, or valuable crops that require less heat, like small lettuce, spinach, turnips, etc.  For details see Elliott Coleman’s books.  My point is that if you have a structure, figure out how to make the most of it, and this may mean something other than cut flowers.  You can also consider pot plants, hanging baskets (use the vertical space) containers, wreaths, topiaries, bedding plants, etc.  I want to emphasize that your individual talents and circumstances will dictate if any or all of these options are viable.  You have to have the right consumers and a place to sell your products, and you must tailor what you do to a marketing and sales strategy.                    

Season extension is a term Penn State likes to use.  Using a hoophouse or high tunnel, without supplemental heat, they feel they can up to a month on each end of the season.  If you have a market, that’s good.  If you add a little supplemental heat you can do even better.  How much heat will depend on the crop since some are more cold sensitive than others, whether you have one or two layers of plastic, the minimum temperature desired,  and don’t forget the wind and infiltration.  The idea is to keep the plants from freezing during short temperature dips, so that they will continue to produce until prolonged cold conditions arrive.  In our area, we frequently get one or two nights of light frost in September followed by a month or so of warmer conditions before it gets cold for good.

Early Flowers: A Basic Need
We are now getting down to why you really thought a greenhouse might be necessary – raising small plants to transplant outdoors.  This too depends on what you want to do and your marketing strategy.  I’m assuming that you want flowers to sell somewhere around June 1.  Personally, I want a good selection of flowers when the market starts in order to become the prime flower vendor in the market, and the only way I can do this is by growing in the ground in a shelter.  With a last frost date of May 15 I have to grow inside.  Some examples:                                

The summer issue of The Cut Flower Quarterly had a column by Brenda Smith that listed her favorite flowers, and I’ll use it for illustration.  She listed Godetia, Asters, Celosia, Dianthus, Rudbeckia, Lisianthus, Snapdragons, Statice, Sunflowers, and Cosmos as her favorites.  My list would be different, but hers is at least impartial.  With the exception of Sunflowers and Cosmos all of the flowers require 100 days from seed to flower.  We use some monster 34 and 72 deep cell plug trays, but even so, with some exceptions, you probably shouldn’t leave the seedlings in them more than 8 weeks which is about 60 days.  That means we need 40 days or more in the ground before flowering, and that means planting somewhere, inside or outside (which is impossible with our climate and last frost date of May 15) in mid-April.                    

So, for us, with our climate and marketing strategy, we need a place to grow in the ground, and because of the dates, with heat.  You will certainly grow plugs to transplant outside, but you may well need the flowers grown to maturity inside. “Okay for him,” you say, “We have a milder climate.”  You can meet those dates without a structure.  I will predict that if your climate is milder, the markets will open sooner, and you will have the same problem, just earlier in the year, and you still need a structure.

Reality Check – Costs
As I wrote this, I could hear the mumbling from here in the hills.  “He says we need a structure, and they are expensive.”  I have bad news for you.  Structures do cost, and they cost even more with heating and cooling systems.  However, the real costs come with operating them, heating and especially cooling.  It has been bad enough in past years when propane could cost $30-40 per day, and it will certainly be even worse this year, probably 50% higher.  Ventilation of a traditional greenhouse may be even more expensive over the entire season.  There are at least four
strategies to deal with these costs:

1.  Buy a used structure.  The trade journals are full of ads that want to sell out.  You should be able to buy the structure and equipment for 30 – 50% of the initial price.  I’ve done this twice.  Sweat equity.  Physical labor.  Nasty but effective.    

2.  Build your own.  Make it simple, small, and find out what really suits your operation.  My initial effort,  still in use, was a 12’ x 16’ lean-to on the side of our house, using a wood frame.  Be sure all wood, even the rafters, is treated.            

3.  Build a high tunnel with supplemental heat.  This will reduce the size of the ventilation and heating components and reduce the operating costs.  The disadvantage is that the structure will not be as airtight as a traditional greenhouse.  Even so, when we install new coverings at least one and probably both of our older structures will be converted to high tunnels.        

4.  To keep size and costs down, consider out of the box solutions, because regardless of how much you build, you will always want or need more.  To get capacity, we use bay windows in our house with shelves at the sill level and at supported at the top of the lower sash.  We also take plants out to the porch daily, and bring them back to the kitchen and living room at night (this is a late season, short term measure!).  To get even more capacity, we put flats on a hay wagon and roll it in and out of the shop as necessary.                

5.  To reduce the need for the greenhouse you can buy plugs instead of growing them from seed, or you can buy even larger plants ready to be transplanted outside.  This will require more money for plants and you lose the flexibility of having your own production facility.

Nostradamus Revisited
My prediction: Based on my personal experience, and observing others, you will start with one structure. Eventually you will need  to grow more flowers and you will want to grow more of your flowers under cover.  With a cover you can control light and heat conditions better and you will be able to grow more, better quality flowers in a smaller area.  In the future I think you should study Haygrove, AgraTech and similar, relatively inexpensive, structures carefully.  Probably not for your first structure, but for the future.