6 Unique Features of Permaculture Greenhouses

Permaculture greenhouses differ from conventional ones, both in growing practices and benefits they can bring you and your farm.

by Karen Lanier
PHOTO: Karen Lanier

Year-round growing is a hot topic these days. Hothouses stretch the growing season and shrink the miles our food travels. More than 30 years ago, Shane Smith summed up the benefits of growing indoors in his book, The Bountiful Solar Greenhouse (John Muir Publications, 1982):

What is the potential here? Well, in 1944 more than 40 percent of our fresh vegetables were produced by home “victory” gardens. Now, for the first time we are capable of producing food year-round in solar greenhouses. In these greenhouses (with proper management) we can produce 1/2 to 1/3 of a pound of food per square foot of growing space per month. That’s not to mention the other major benefit of a solar greenhouse … free heat. Yes, it takes time and energy to have a year-round garden. But a few hours per week need not be considered work; rather, it may be experienced as a relaxing pleasure.

A greenhouse is not only a microcosm of plant life, but also a testing ground for basic permaculture principles and your own imagination. In a permaculture greenhouse, you can integrate care for the earth, care for people and sharing the surplus, each one supporting the others through the overlapping design functions. In other words, you can kick back and relax here while feeling good that your self-indulgence is a self-sustaining system.

Here are six ways a permaculture greenhouse differs from a conventional greenhouse—find out if one will work for your farm.

1. They Grow People

Permaculture gardeners aren’t trying to bend nature into submission. They work with nature, rather than against it, to create a thriving ecosystem. Good greenhouse design supports the needs of the humans inside it, especially in cold winters, when people need a space to breath in oxygen-rich air, exercise, rest, make art, meditate or play in the dirt. Permaculture intertwines nature and culture. Greenhouses can nourish gardeners as much as anything else.

2. They Maximize Diversity

While yield and productivity are important considerations in selecting plants for the greenhouse, the permaculture greenhouse is not simply a food factory. Rather than row after row of identical seedlings, permaculture greenhouses flow with design elements you might expect to find in a botanical garden. Diversity of plants, levels of vertical growth, and attention to microclimates define the space.

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Designed with a holistic approach, the greenhouse feels more like a place of discovery than a place of work. There’s always something to do—vines to trellis, herbs to dry, fruit to harvest —but the variety of tasks keeps you in good shape while minimizing repetitive stress injuries. Plus, the healthy mix of plants reduces disease or pest issues.

3. They’re Closer to Home

Permaculture design is based on zones, where Zone 0 would be the closest to consumption, aka your kitchen. The zone numbers progressively increase to areas, such as an herb bed (Zone 1), production fields (Zone 2), commodities (Zone 3), wilderness (Zone 4), your neighborhood or watershed (Zone 5), larger community (Zone 6) and world (Zone 7). A solar greenhouse attached to a house is an obvious choice for anyone trying to reduce reliance on fossil fuels for heat. Rather than a stand-alone, isolated facility in an agricultural field, permaculture greenhouses often share a wall with another structure, where heat can be exchanged as needed, and the gardener can pay closer attention to the growth of plants.Awareness and enjoyment of the space are just natural benefits.

4. They Integrate

Permaculture design includes understanding the impact each element will have on the system. When the greenhouse is functioning properly, the parts can’t be separated from the whole. Each element provides multiple functions, and there are multiple elements that provide each function. An example would be that a small pond could hold the day’s heat as thermal mass, slowly releasing the humid warmth throughout a cool night. The pond also serves as a meditation space and frog habitat, which gives you a spot to reflect and rest while listening to the natural songs of creatures perfectly suited for insect population control.

5. They Embrace Nature

Nature still rules, even inside the greenhouse. Pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, and wasps, along with decomposers, such as earthworms and soil bacteria, all cohabitate in the permaculture greenhouse. Each organism plays an important role in balancing nature’s food production and recycling services. Winds will continue to bring a chill from the north, and the sun’s rays will beat down throughout the summer. Orienting the building so that the north wall is protected, and planting deciduous trees outside the windows to provide shade will increase the efficiency of the greenhouse. The idea is to bring nature indoors, with awareness of the environment at large, rather than sterilizing or isolating plants from nature.

6. They’re Aesthetic

Our deeply rooted psychological and physiological affinity to connect with nature is as good a reason as any to create a permaculture greenhouse. All the senses can be engaged during all seasons and times of day. At Jerome Osentowski’s permaculture greenhouse in the high Rocky Mountains, he can work up a sweat in the attached sauna, step into his tropical forest filled with the intoxicating scent of night-blooming jasmine, and rest his bones in a hammock, while listening to uplifting music and insect songs. The permaculture greenhouse provides an ambiance where all living things thrive together.

To get inspiration or to get started on your own permaculture greenhouse, look for Osentowski’s book, Bringing Nature Indoors ( Chelsea Green, 2015).

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