Going underground: Salvaged building materials make solar-powered greenhouse

2010-05-18T01:15:00Z 2013-05-09T18:05:10Z Going underground: Salvaged building materials make solar-powered greenhouseBy Melissa Davlin - Times-News writer Twin Falls Times-News

GOODING — Arden Schmitt’s home is a monument to do-it-yourself mastery, efficiency and resourcefulness.

Nearly everything on the property — from his gazebo with a giant satellite dish as a roof, to the exotic-bird coops built with salvaged wood, to the 1,200-square-foot addition to his house — is built with recycled materials. And now, he has a new trophy in his refurbished collection.

Last summer, Schmitt designed and built a partially underground greenhouse, heated entirely by solar power. While gardeners across Magic Valley have struggled with a cold spring and high winds, he and his family have enjoyed fresh tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers for more than a month.

After reading a few books and attending a greenhouse workshop at College ofSouthern Idaho, Schmitt designed his own greenhouse. The structure is partially underground, taking advantage of soil’s natural insulation, and is hooked up to solar panels that provide much of the warmth.

The solar panels — which he bought used for $1,000 — are connected to pipes with antifreeze, which he gets used from a local cheese factory. The heating requires no electricity, though two small electric pumps circulate the antifreeze in pipes running through the walls of the greenhouse.

And it works. When the outdoor temperature hit negative 6 degrees in December, his greenhouse stayed at a comfortable 46 degrees.

The placement of the greenhouse helps. The windows face south, so the sun hits the plants directly in winter when they need the most heat. The same placement shades the plants in summer, when the sun is parallel to the north side of the structure. The setup also includes fans attached to a thermostat. When the temperature reaches 140 degrees, the fans kick on so the plants don’t overheat. Attached garden beds with cold frames sit on the south side and add even more to his harvest, as do Schmitt’s raised garden beds, built from wood from a torn-down bridge, on the other side of his property.

When he opens the door to the greenhouse, startled birds flutter and toads hop across the concrete for shelter in the moist soil. Schmitt, an organic grower and avian enthusiast, keeps pests away with canaries, finches and toads. The birds nibble on the plants and leaves, too — they’re big fans of broccoli — but not enough to cause substantial damage to the veggies. Tomato vines full of more plump green fruit will be ready to harvest soon, and the green beans are ripe, juicy and delicious.

Whatever his family doesn’t eat fresh, he sells at farmers markets in Hailey, Ketchum and Gooding. He also cans some of the food in a summer kitchen in the home’s addition.

“Imake all the bread and do all the canning,” he said.

Schmitt’s friend Les Patterson of Gooding helped him build the greenhouse and is impressed with Schmitt’s ingenuity.

“He’s got great common sense to be able to do that,” Patterson said. “He’s growing vegetables like you would not believe.” Patterson added that Schmitt’s passion for birds pays off — chicken manure is a great source of nitrogen and phosphate for the plants, he said.

Total cost of Schmitt’s greenhouse construction:about $10,000. Of that, $7,500 was for concrete, Schmitt said. Had he bought most of his materials new, he would have spent twice as much, he estimated; new solar panels alone cost up to $800 apiece.

“I’m into recycling,” he said.

And as his greenhouse full of produce shows, recycling has paid off.

Melissa Davlin may be reached at 735-3234 or melissa.davlin@lee.net.

DIY, Garden

Copyright 2015 Twin Falls Times-News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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