Scott in greenhouse. Torrey. Family.

Scott in greenhouse.

From February’s winter chill to July’s 90-degree days, our tomatoes have made a grand transition. It’s hard to believe that, what began as a quarter-inch seed and then became a viable transplant, is now this jolly green giant.

Greenhouse plants. Torrey.

Stupice tomatoes

But we see that metamorphosis with our own eyes and taste these lovely gems that adorn our almost-nightly salads. With their robust growing habit and tangy flavor, stupice tomatoes remain our long-time favorites. Sungold cherries are a close second and should be coming on soon.

Greenhouse plants. Torrey.

Last September, as we began building our strawbale greenhouse, we hoped for a bountiful harvest but didn’t really know what the results of our efforts would be. Our crops grew in March and April, and, until two weeks ago, there was enough spinach to feed our friends and ourselves, plus sell to farmers’ market patrons. The spinach bolted as temperatures increased, but the kale and chard are still going gangbusters. Mooribor hybrid kale and bright lights chard seem to be a good fit in the greenhouse setting.

We’ve just replanted carrots, lettuce, and spinach and have added cucumbers, leaf celery, and hot peppers. These compliment the plants in our outdoor garden.

Greenhouse plants. Torrey.

The greenhouse provides protection to our new apple grafts and jade plant starts.

Scott in greenhouse. Torrey. Family.

The two things we worried about – bugs and excessive heat – have proven to be inconsequential. As planned, we opened the doors on the east and west to create a moderating breeze. Inside temperatures have been no hotter than outside. And, once the doors were opened, the small aphid problem we experienced in April disappeared.

So far, the greenhouse has been a satisfying success. The next tests will be the seeds we just planted and then our fall crops, which will be planted in mid-August.

Greenhouse veggies. Torrey.

Jolly green giant tomato in its infancy

Greenhouse veggies. Torrey.

The first zucchini of 2016 – in April!

Greenhouse veggies. Torrey.

What will become the first cantaloupe of 2016

Greenhouse plants. Torrey.

Bright Lights chard sold at the farmers’ market

Sowing Seeds Soon

Finally, we’ve set the last paver and filled the planting bed with plenty of llama manure and topsoil. Scott attached the weather vane to the northwest eave. For the last several days we’ve been monitoring the low exterior temperatures, which have been in the twenties. Inside the greenhouse, temperatures have ranged from eighty during the day to just above freezing at night. We can almost taste the tomatoes, cucumbers, and greens we’ll soon be harvesting.






The windows on the south side of the greenhouse face our vegetable garden. The four panels are polycarbonate, just like the “glass” on the roof. Two awning windows open with Univent Window openers, temperature-sensitive devices that work automatically. These windows work in conjunction with the solar-powered Snap Fan to regulate the greenhouse environment. Current temperature data seem to indicate, that using heat provided only by the sun, we may be able to grow plants all year long.


Because we failed to think far enough ahead when the cement foundation was poured, we spent too many hours digging dirt out of the greenhouse and hauling it away in a wheelbarrow. We could have saved ourselves this labor if we had asked Tyler, our cement contractor, to spend ten additional minutes on the backhoe doing this for us. Ten minutes versus three days? Ouch.




To simplify construction and because greenhouse work will most likely be done during daylight hours, our structure has no electricity. There is also no plumbing. Some water will come from precipitation collected from the roof via a rain chain and water barrel. The majority of the water will be drip irrigation from the spigot just outside the building plumbed through a hose fitting penetrating the south wall.





Our weather vane adds personality. Pavers provide a space for a planting table and equipment storage. Amended top soil should yield fresh, homegrown produce. We’ve finished the construction phase and will soon be sewing seeds.

Workshop Weekend

When the big bad wolf came huffing and puffing into Torrey last weekend, his first stop might have been the greenhouse under construction at our house. Despite his previous success with certain pigs of note, this straw structure was impervious to his attempts at blowhard demolition. His efforts were in vain.

Not so the efforts of the folks building that greenhouse. They were learning the principles of building with straw bales and earthen plaster at our workshop sponsored by the Entrada Institute. Eight participants learned about building with bales from Bill and Athena Steen, leading experts in strawbale construction and natural plasters from Canelo, Arizona. The Steens drew from decades of experience, teaching everything from foundation and framing, wiring and plumbing, to stacking bale walls and finishing with plaster made from local earth.

Beginning with a presentation on the history of and possible designs for strawbale structures, and a tour of our strawbale home, the group then got hands-on experience by stacking 56 bales of barley straw within the previously constructed post and beam frame to create walls for the greenhouse. Bamboo poles and baling twine were used to stabilize the entire affair. Workshop participants spent the last days making plaster from clay, straw and sand, and then applying it as an inch-thick coat to the interior and exterior walls. While the final coats of plaster and finish work must still be completed, the builders left Torrey feeling successful, informed and maybe even inspired to raise strawbale structures of their own someday—all big-bad-wolf-proof.

Our teachers…


Bill Steen


Athena Steen


Preparing bales by smoothing ends by hand


and by more aggressive methods.


Measuring the gap requiring a custom bale


Inserting a bale needle then


Tying knots



to make smaller bales


Fitting a notched bale around a post


Examining progress


Checking alignment


Making adjustments


And more adjustments


Rasping notches in bales for bamboo support poles


Using bale needle to pass baling twine through bale courses in order to


tie bamboo poles on either side of walls together




Learning about plaster



Getting our hands dirty



Filling large gaps between bales prior to first coal of plaster







Applying the slip coat


Screening dirt for plaster


Making plaster with Mort, the mortar mixer




Learning the proper technique





Applying the first coat around a niche





The beginnings of a shelf





A few moments to observe


to listen


and to rest


The first coat of plaster is completed on the interior and exterior


Merry and Mom – our support

Almost Ready for the Workshop

2015092137837In a frenzy of activity, Scott and I find ourselves nearly ready for the workshop to begin. Yesterday we hung the doors. They will eventually be painted robin’s egg blue. However, for the time being, we’ll remove the doors (leaving the frames in place) in order to provide easy access to the walls during the workshop.

2015092137838Because our greenhouse has a shed roof,  it will not meet the walls at a 90-degree angle. So we do not have to re-tie bales in custom sizes with angles to fit the roof, Scott built these boxes beneath all the eaves on the north, east and west walls. Our stacked bales will reach the bottom of these boxes. Then we’ll pack these boxes with light clay straw, which we will create using our own soil, water, and straw. Once each box is filled, we’ll attach diamond lath to the front to hold the straw clay in place and to act as the tooth for the first coat of plaster.

2015092137841Our Snap-Fan and solar panel arrived last week. When the greenhouse becomes too hot, the fan will automatically turn on and vent the space. Once the greenhouse is complete, the fan will be installed in the square box on the north wall. You can see space for the Snap-Fan in the photo above



Homegrown Tomatoes


A famous Guy Clark song expresses one of life’s truisms: There’s only two things that money can’t buy, and that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes. The song goes on to say, “Plant ’em in the spring, eat ’em in the summer. All winter without ’em is a culinary bummer.” And that’s why we’re building a greenhouse – so we can eat homegrown tomatoes in all year long…or as close to that as possible.

Our progress so far…


Roof joists perched on the frame





2015083037797A gap between the joists and the frame







2015083037798Is filled in order for the frame to better support the weight of the roof.






2015090637809After observing the amount of shadow cast inside the greenhouse by the joists throughout the day, we changed the original design by increasing the amount of polycarbonate on roof. Painting the ceiling makes a lighter space for growing.


2015090637811Fascia and soffits





2015090637808Drip edge at the bottom of the south windows







2015090737817Insulation in the roof










2015090737820Tar paper





2015090637812Tired Scott and Stentor the cat sitting outside our strawbale house at the end of a long work day.






All the roof needs now is the metal sheathing with drip edges and the polycarbonate “glass.”

Greenhouse Frame

greenhouse prelim

This is Scott’s preliminary design for our project. The windows face south directly toward the garden. Now that the foundation is complete, the next step is to frame the walls.

Torrey. Greenhouse.

Thousand Lakes Lumber, the local mill in Lyman, provided the required 5” x 5” wood – two twenty-four footers, ten eight footers and one twelve footer.

Torrey. Greenhouse.

Using a water level, we were able to determine if the foundation is level. This made it possible to determine how long to cut each vertical post.

Torrey. Greenhouse.

Rebar embedded in the foundation will support each frame post.

Torrey. Greenhouse.

Scott measures the position of the rebar in order to drill the hole in the post in the correct place.

Torrey. Greenhouse.

Marking the rebar position on the post

Torrey. Greenhouse.

Drilling the post

Torrey. Greenhouse.

After drilling, the hole is filled with epoxy and the post is set in place.

Torrey. Greenhouse.

Each post must be perpendicular to the foundation in all directions.

Torrey. Greenhouse.

Bracing in two planes holds the post in place.

Torrey. Greenhouse.

Tools used on the cross pieces

Torrey. Greenhouse.

Cross pieces were secured in place using 8-inch log screws and hurricane straps. Here Scott drills the pilot hole for a screw.

Torrey. Greenhouse.

One log screw in place, another in the pilot hole

Torrey. Greenhouse.

Horizontal members tie the entire framework together. Now it’s really beginning to look like a structure that will protect next year’s seedlings and maybe make it possible for homegrown tomatoes in the winter!

Greenhouse Foundation

Workshop participants will arrive October 1, less than two months away. Between now and then, much must be accomplished. The first step, the foundation, was completed when Tyler Torgeson, owner of Double T Construction – – poured the foundation.

Torrey. Tyler T and Bob pour cement for greenhouse.

The 22-inch north, east, and west sides will be strawbale walls. This will accommodate an 18-inch bale plus two inches of plaster on the inside and outside of the structure. The foundation on the south side, which is five inches wide, will be fitted with fixed and awning windows made of 8 mm, twin walled, polycarbonate panels.

Torrey. Greenhouse foundation.

Torrey. Greenhouse foundation.

To blend the foundation with the surrounding soil, Davis Concrete Pigment – #10134 (salmon) was added. Tyler recommended the color as the best match he has seen in the area. So far, so good.


In order to keep everything isolated from the concrete, we install tarpaper on the foundation. This will ensure that no moisture wicks from the concrete into the frame and straw. The treated wood 4 X 4 sill plate will anchor the walls to the floor and, again, keep the straw away from any moisture in the concrete. As one might guess, moisture and straw do not make a happy marriage.