SolViva Greenhouse

A legend in greenhouses ..



That night is the coldest it has been in decades, and extremely windy. I sleep fitfully, concerned about the greenhouse: Can it possibly survive this night without backup heat? 

Outside: 4 degrees below zero Fahrenheit

At 4 a.m. I wake with a start as ice and snow come crashing off the roof and the gale rattles my windows. Now I am wide awake and really worried. Rather than lie there fretting, I get up and pull layers and layers over my pajamas, push through a 5-foot snowdrift right outside the door, and set out across the fields. It is an 800-foot passage. The surface of the snow sometimes supports my weight; other times I crash down above my knees. One false move and I could break my leg and be trapped in the snow with no one to hear my cries for help except the brilliant moon and the silver-edged clouds chasing matching black shadows across the landscape.

Twenty minutes later I approach the greenhouse, nestled in a snowdrift at the far end of the pasture. Whirlwinds of white wisps whip around in the moonlight. My breath has turned to ice on the muffler pulled over my face. I hastily shovel away several feet of snow blocking the west entrance door, wrench the door open and quickly close it behind me.

To my utter surprise, in here it is like a balmy night in June. The thermometer reads 55 degrees F. The 30 angora rabbits that help warm the greenhouse with their body heat are quietly muffling about in their communal dens. I step into the greenhouse, through the jungle of tomato vines, and here the thermometer reads 45 degrees F.

I proceed toward the east end, inhaling the humid, mild air, fragrant with tomatoes and nasturtium, thyme and sage, and living earth. At the far end I step in among the 100 roosting chickens who acknowledge me with sleepy murmurs, cozy in their warm, spacious quarters. The thermometer reads 70 degrees F and this warmth is generated by the body heat of the chickens.

Inside the rabbit room: 55 degrees F.

72 degrees Fahrenheit
in the chicken room

The sheep help keep
the north wall warm

Outside: zero degrees Fahrenheit

The sheep, enclosed in the barn along the back of the greenhouse, their bales of hay stacked up against the wall, further help protect the greenhouse on this blizzard night. 

Thus, while the outside temperature is 5 degrees below zero F - though actually much colder because of the windchill factor - inside the Solviva Winter Garden greenhouse it is warm enough to maintain a thriving garden, abundant with vegetables and flowers, without any heating fuel. I can go back to bed without worrying about the greenhouse freezing. So I tromp back across the fields, a bit more easily now as I retrace the deep footprints I left on the way down, feeling entirely at peace and as one with Earth, Universe and self. This is true plenty, freedom and security. 

The next day it is still extremely cold and windy, with brilliant sunshine. The min/max thermometer shows that during the night the greenhouse never dipped below 43 degrees F. By 9 a.m. it is 75 degrees inside, and I turn on the hose and with quick quivering motions provide everything with a light refreshing shower. Two fans, powered by the sun shining on the photovoltaic panels, hum as they force hot air from the top of the greenhouse down through ducts and into heat-absorbing water-mass storage. Some of the heat-activated vents are slowly opening, increasing air circulation and preventing overheating. The massive waterwalls are passively absorbing the solar heat.

Inside: 80 degrees Fahrenheit

Nine levels for growing

Twenty-five varieties of lush greens and herbs fill the raised beds, with names like hon tsai tai, arugula, tah tsai, Osaka mustard, mache, radicchio Treviso, mizuna, and the divine lemon-flavored sorrel de Belleville. Above them rise 150 growtubes hanging in seven tiers to the top of the greenhouse. They are overflowing with 25 varieties of lettuces with names as lush as their appearance and flavor: Lollo Rossa, Rouge Grenobloise, Rosalita, Merveille de Quatre Saison.

Three of the seven tiers of growtubes are set upstairs along the catwalk, and here are also a steady succession of dozens of seedling flats ranging from just seeded to 3 inches tall and ready to be planted into the raised beds and growtubes. Here they sprout and grow strong without anyextra light or warmth, even through prolonged cloudycold spells.

Seedling thrive upstairs

Wall of Nasturtiums

Three of the seven tiers of growtubes are set upstairs along the catwalk, and here are also a steady succession of dozens of seedling flats ranging from just seeded to 3 inches tall and ready to be planted into the raised beds and growtubes. Here they sprout and grow strong without any extra light or warmth, even through prolonged cloudy cold spells.

Hundreds of tomatoes are ripening on 15-foot climbing and cascading vines. Along the north wall, where the light is too dim for greens to thrive, there is a tall wall of nasturtiums with thousands of blossoms in infinite varieties of pastel and deep velvety colors.

Fennel reaches 8 feet, tipped with 6-inch umbrels of tiny yellow flowers, exquisitely anise-flavored. The delicate red trumpet flowers of the 6-foot pineapple sage bush yield little drops of nectar that actually taste like pineapple. Another variety of scented sage reaches 16 feet tall, covered with sweet pink flowers. A lime geranium yields exquisite fragrance, as do carpets of honey-flavored sweet alyssum.

35 fully productive productive plants on one 4-year-old Swiss chard root system.

Gigantic 2-year-old collard plant. One leaf can feed a family.

Giant 3-year-old kale and pepper plants

Donna with eggs

A few square feet of bed was planted with radish seeds three weeks ago and now yields 1-inch red and white globes, mild and succulent. Another patch contains hundreds of the sweetest carrots. I pull up one daikon and find to my amazement that it has a three-pronged root, each prong pure white, thick as my wrist and 16 inches long. Many branches of one pumpkin plant (a volunteer from the compost) cavort 15 feet in all directions, with pumpkins up to 12 inches supported and hung on various improvised shelves and slings.

The breath from the chickens and rabbits and their bedding enriches the air with several times the normal level of invisible molecules of carbon dioxide. The plants breathe in the co2 through the stomata on the surface of their leaves, and the co2 enrichment causes them to grow much faster and healthier because it provides them with many more carbon building blocks to create plant tissue.

Five dozen eggs per day and the angora wool more than pay for the animals' feed, while their body heat, co2, compost fertilizer and good company are free fringe benefits.

"Biological islands": various nectar-producing flowering plants provide habitat
for beneficial insects.

Good soil is full of endless varieties and numbers of lifeforms, billions of microscopic ones in just one teaspoon. Here an earwig cares for her nest of eggs. Earthworms are essential.

Syrphid fly, Brown Lacewing, Green Lacewing and aphids in various stages of develpment.

Nasturtium is favorite for harmful insects, which then attract the beneficial insects.

Ladybugs eat aphids, miniscule Encarsia formosa wasps lay eggs in the pupae of whiteflies, while green lacewings flit about like little fairies in search of any vegetarian insect. Syrphid flies seek nectar from fennel flowers, hovering like hummingbirds, and a dignified praying mantis is surveying the scene and, blessing me with her eye contact, pronounces it Good.

Praying Mantis Heaven

That day, in spite of the cloudy, cold, short days of mid-winter, we harvest, picking leaf by gorgeous leaf, wash and bag 80 pounds of Solviva Salad, enough for 1,280 servings. Some go off by UPS truck to the finest restaurants in the Boston area, and the rest is delivered to customers in local Vineyard restaurants and stores. 

Above: Brian harvesting from hanging growtubes.

Left: Annika harvesting.

Marianne harvesting upstairs

Tara washing Solviva Salad



Seven months later we are in the middle of a sweltering record-hot summer. There has been hardly a drop of rain for three months. This day in August is more of the same. By now, the lettuces in most other gardens have bolted. But because of the Solviva growing techniques, the outside garden is a continuously productive patchwork quilt of lettuces and other salad greens in brilliant rosy reds, deep wine reds, lime greens and sun greens, dark greens and blue greens.

Continuous salad production even through hottest summer conditions

The sweetest cantalopes
on 30-foot vines

Inside the greenhouse it is surprisingly cool, and yet there are none of the expensive, roaring, energy-consuming exhaust fans that standard greenhouses run continuously. The hot air is rushing out through the top vents, and cooler replacement air comes in through bottom vents, and east, west and north doors. Surprisingly, the greenhouse is as stunningly productive in summer as it is in winter. It is hard to stay away from superlative adjectives when describing this scene. 

At the west end 10 varieties of peppers grow up to 6 feet tall, yielding hundreds of fruits from sweetest to hottest.

The center of the greenhouse is filled primarily with 10 different varieties of melons and cantaloupes, with vines over 30 feet long loaded with ripening fruit suspended in net bags and slings. Their flavor surpasses anything grown in an outside garden. 

A tall bower of European cucumbers fills the east end, with 30-foot vines and 16-inch leaves, and foot-long tendrils seeking the next handhold. Drooping from this bower are 18-inch delicacies, almost 2 pounds, with tender thin skin and no seeds. 

Tomato plants with 30-foot vines form other bowers, heavily laden with thousands of ripening fruit. The wall of nasturtiums continues to flourish along the north wall, now cool and shaded from the high summer sun.

In front of all the climbing vines is a long bank of five different kinds of basil, more tender, productive and flavorful than any grown outdoors. In here are also many different greens of the Crucifera family. When planted in the outside garden, these greens are devastated by flea beetles, but for some reason these pests are not in the greenhouse.

Bees, hover flies and lacewings flit around sipping nectar and at the same time performing the important task of pollinating the flowers. Without this service there would be no fruit, unless we take the time to touch each of the hundreds of flowers every two days, which we need to do in the winter. 

A quick shower for the whole greenhouse a couple of times daily provides highly effective evaporative cooling. As in winter, there are no mildew problems. Most plants are more productive, tender and flavorful in the greenhouse in summer than they are outside. In here they are sheltered from the harsher conditions that prevail in the outdoor gardens, such as whipping winds and occasional pelting rain, and the full blast of the sun's ultraviolet radiation.

The sheep mow and fertilize the pasture and keep it free of poison ivy and brambles, and provide wool, fleeces and delicious clean meat.

Everybody adores Jenny,
and vice versa.

The chickens roam free,
no mess or odor

I walk across the fields toward my home, passing the grazing sheep and Jenny the burro. They are followed by the chickens who happily clean up any parasite eggs or larvae, thereby gaining good protein while keeping the sheep and burro healthier. Grazing, they provide ongoing mowing without which the fields would become an impenetrable tangle of poison ivy and brambles. In the process all parts of the entire ecosystem, from plants to insects to animals to humans function harmoniously and effectively together.

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in this e-book