Teaching an old dog new tricks.

I know I’m not really considered old. But with this past milestone birthday I know I’m climbing that hill. Forty is the new thirty, right? 

In the spring of 2021 we underwent a huge learning curve on our farm. We purchased a kit to construct a heated greenhouse. It has always been something we wanted to do. With the huge floral craze and “through the roof” local flower demands, we decided it was the best time to get flowers sooner —and later—than we normally would. We already grow in several high tunnel/unheated spaces but heating was new. Our zone is 6a, southwest Ontario, Canada. 

I am speaking only from my personal experiences and costs in this process. I felt the need to share because of all the roadblocks and learning I had to do along the way. My brain grew a few sizes, that’s for sure. 

I knew for a while that I wanted to expand our controlled growing space area so I signed up to take the “Growing Cut-Flower Crops in Hoop and Greenhouses” course taught by Steve and Gretel Adams presented by The Gardener’s Workshop. I was very happy with the information that I learned from that course and I’m glad that I am able to go back to the course information often to review. Every greenhouse is different so there isn’t an exact manual or “how to” that is the same for everyone.  

There are not a lot of choices of suppliers for production greenhouses. I looked at the websites and info sheets from the suppliers in our area. We decided to construct the 30×96 “Growers Choice” gothic style greenhouse from DeCloet Greenhouses in Simcoe, Ontario. Their facility is about a one-hour drive from our farm.  

With the greenhouse kit, we chose double-inflated poly, a motorized roof vent, manual roll-up side walls, a 300,000 BTU natural gas furnace, and an automated Bartlett Controller to program the greenhouse to our specifications.  

We had to apply for a building permit from our county. The building permit application was fairly straightforward and I was able to get any of the necessary documents that the county wanted.  

Production time for the greenhouse was 9-10 weeks. The greenhouse was delivered on a flatbed truck in mid-March. DeCloet doesn’t build the greenhouse, they only sell the kits. They were able to recommend a company that has built many of their kits. The construction company was a little distance from us but they agreed to the travel time.

The first learning lesson was “The build happens when it happens”. They wanted to build the greenhouse days after the kit arrived at the farm. This was not possible because the farm was wet—a spring mud pit. They needed to wait until the ground dried up a bit. I didn’t want them tearing up the field with their equipment. They are accustomed to building over a concrete pad and in a sandier area than our farm.

Building started in May. I have been around a few greenhouse builds in my time, growing up on my parents’ vegetable farm, but I have never seen a structure go up so quickly. The “plastic morning” was a sight to see. My husband left for work and called me to say “I think the plastic is going on today.” The plastic was rolled out along the greenhouse roof. The installers were walking along the roof line, and within an hour the top was on and secured on the greenhouse. The build took about 10 days. 

Once the greenhouse was built, we were able to work the ground with my compact tractor. The tractor will fit through the rolling doors of the greenhouse. We chose to have rolling doors at each end of the greenhouse so that tractor can go in. With the roll bar down on the tractor I am able to work quite close to the sides of the greenhouse.  

We went back and forth on choosing the layout for the beds. In my mind and for my sanity, I like full beds. So instead of having a few full long beds that went the length of the greenhouse I chose to have an offset pathway the length of the greenhouse. There are two long beds that go the length, then I have quite a number of beds that are perpendicular to the length of the greenhouse. This way I can visualize the bed and what I am putting in each “hump”.

For the first summer we had two beds of dahlia going the length of the greenhouse, and mixed flowers in the shorter beds (lisianthus, tweedia, statice, snapdragon, etc.). We also chose to have a small eucalyptus forest at the south end of the greenhouse. We are not always able to overwinter eucalyptus successfully without protection so we chose to have some that will be permanently in the greenhouse.  

We hired a local electrical company to wire the greenhouse and bring it to life. We did the trenching of the hydro line underground ourselves to decrease the costs. We buried the water lines four feet deep, then filled back in to two feet, laid the hydro lines, then filled in the trench. We put the lines in the same trench (different depths) to reduce the number of trenches we had to make.

We decided to put a frost-free hydrant on the outside corner outside and one inside the greenhouse. Once the greenhouse had electricity the controller was set to factory settings. The roof opened and closed as it pleased. We left the manual side walls rolled up. It was a pleasure to be in the greenhouse even on a hot day.   

Once the weather started to change and fall was coming, we arranged to have a gas fitter come to hook up the natural gas to the furnace. The furnace was hung by the construction company and the gas fitter. Again, we dug the trench to decrease the labour cost. I also think my Dad just likes running the mini excavator. The gas was hooked up to the furnace but we didn’t turn it on until the weather got colder.  

The next step was learning the controller. This was probably the hardest part to learn. I assumed (my fault) that DeCloet had someone on staff who knew how to operate the Bartlett controller and that they would come and teach me how to use the equipment. WRONG. The instruction I was told was that I can watch the Bartlett YouTube videos or call their technical support line. The manual provided is best described as being written in Latin. It was not easy to understand. I found myself Googling definitions as I was reading the instructions. The YouTube videos are helpful, once you understand what you are doing and your end goal with the programming. The videos also are best viewed in front of the device so a Wi-Fi or data signal is required. 

Once I had a handle on the programming, we were good to go. I felt good going into the winter. I had my temperatures set and the greenhouse was running. Then winter hit. About a week before Christmas, we had the coldest temps we had had so far. Suddenly I started getting alerts in the middle of the night telling me that the greenhouse was WAY too cold. I woke up my husband, bundled up, and we went out to figure out what was wrong.

We found the furnace not running but the controller was telling it to turn on. We couldn’t find the problem and our only idea was to reset the breaker for the furnace on the panel. The furnace fired up! We thought we had solved the problem, but I continued to get alerts when the temperature dipped. Of course, always in the middle of the night. I called DeCloet; they said to call Bartlett. I called the electrician to ask for advice, he couldn’t diagnose the problem. I called the gas fitter. He came to verify and set the gas pressure. We thought this was the issue. But after he left the farm the same fail code on the furnace was happening.

Luckily the crops in the greenhouse could handle a little cold. We added frost cloth to anything that was more tender. Then I called another greenhouse grower, asking him if this was normal—am I going to be at the mercy of my greenhouse and the alerts on my phone? What had I done? I remember newborn baby stage, this felt similar. I thought I would never leave home again. He suggested to call the furnace manufacturer. I looked up the information and called him. I told him that the “Rollover sensor is alerting and causing the furnace to not fire unless I reset the breaker on the panel.” Almost immediately he had a suggestion. There is a hood cover on the back of the furnace that is in on place for transport, and in the instruction manual it says to move that cover from its place to the burner hood after the furnace is installed. Sure enough, I looked up and the hood cover was not moved to the correct installation and functioning position. I climbed up and moved the hood to the correct position. The furnace has been functioning correctly since.  

It is late February as I am writing this and I am admiring the first few ranunculus buds in the greenhouse. So, all the stress and concern was worth it. The flowers are blooming over a month earlier than we would normally have them. Throughout my learning curve of the heated greenhouse, I was the only common denominator. This greenhouse build and operation came together because I learned what I needed to make it work. It was a huge challenge to try to mesh together so many people who all did their part but didn’t understand how the other parts of the puzzle worked. So, as you are dreaming and planning of your next expansion, or seeing another farm’s early blooms, I challenge you to think what was behind that flower and how did it come to bloom. This investment in our farm and our knowledge will be used to produce A LOT of blooms for many years to come.

 

Janis Harris

Harris Flower Farm

Contact her at [email protected]