They Built Their Own Greenhouses. Did They Reap What They Sowed?

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When the pandemic arrived in the spring, Genevieve Lopez, 27, and her fiancé, Jacob Garnett, 30, of Driftwood, Texas, suddenly faced many of the same disruptions that others their age were dealing with: They had to postpone their May wedding, and shortly thereafter, Mr. Garnett lost his job in account sales. But unlike their millennial counterparts, who coped by bingeing “Tiger King” and maybe baking a sourdough loaf, Mr. Garnett and Ms. Lopez threw themselves into a more intense quarantine project: building a greenhouse in the yard.

“We had a lot of time on our hands,” Ms. Lopez said. “It was a great distraction.”

The two were already avid gardeners, but building a small house from the ground up involved unrelated skills. So they enlisted the help of Mr. Garnett’s stepfather, an electrician, for what Mr. Garnett described as “the more technical stuff that was over my head.” But otherwise, they built the 8-by-12-foot structure using a wood frame and UV-protected plastic film, picking up supplies from Home Depot and using plans “Frankensteined” from photos online.

When they finished, the real work began. Faced with triple-digit heat over the summer, they opened vents and ran a fan to keep plants from scorching. They decided to keep most of their vegetables in the yard, using the greenhouse for their tropical plants, including an avocado tree, some bird-of-paradise trees, and one looming monstera plant that now stretches 10 feet across the greenhouse. Now, as winter approaches, they’re preparing to install a heater to keep things toasty.

“By myself, I would probably be stressed,” Ms. Lopez said. But the two are splitting responsibilities, with Mr. Garnett handling structural maintenance and Ms. Lopez managing pest control and watering.

“I think we’re a good team,” Mr. Garnett said.

For those who couldn’t possibly construct a little house with their bare hands, Lem Tingley is here to help. Mr. Tingley, president and “chief growing officer” of Growing Spaces, a greenhouse kit company based in Pagosa Springs, Colo., spent his summer selling prefabricated units to homeowners across the country.

It was a welcome change of pace: The pandemic had initially decimated sales at the company. “When it really started to hit the media and the stock market was down, people were reluctant to spend money,” said Mr. Tingley, 50. “It’s a big investment.”

ImageBen George, co-owner of Greenhouse Megastore in Sacramento, Calif., said the company saw an 80 percent jump in sales during the spring. These days, sales remain 50 to 60 percent above normal numbers.
Credit…Preston Gannaway for The New York Times

Growing Spaces kits, which include a geodesic polycarbonate greenhouse, planting materials and other supplies, range from $8,450 for a 175-square-foot dome (“fresh produce for 2-3 people”) to $39,950 for a 1,385-square-foot dome (“ideal for growing a forest of plants, fruits and vegetables”). But it’s also an investment of time. Whether sourcing parts from a home-improvement retailer or buying a kit, building a greenhouse can take anywhere from a few days for simpler designs to several months for larger, more complicated structures. Then you have to make it work.

Today, Growing Spaces is booked until February. And they’re not the only ones. Sales of hobby greenhouses have skyrocketed. Ben George, who co-owns Greenhouse Megastore in Sacramento, Calif., said the company saw an 80 percent jump in sales in the spring, and even now sales remain 50 to 60 percent above normal numbers.

Mr. George recalled a similar surge a decade ago, when the global economy cratered. “It also bred a lot of fear and uncertainty in people,” he said, “and I think it’s just the innate human reflex, that need to have more control over what you’re eating, what you’re growing, because who knows what tomorrow holds.”

Vendors have also noted a shift in their target audience. “Our core demographic in the past was retirees and semi-retirees,” Mr. Tingley said. “But with Covid, our demographic is getting younger and younger, with more people with young kids who want to teach them about gardening, or want to feed their kids fresh veggies.”

For Mark Wells, 52, and his wife, Magdalena Wells, 46, of West Milton, Ohio, building a greenhouse was a way to secure those fresh veggies. Like many Americans, they were alarmed in the spring when they saw the shelves at their grocery store picked clean — when they even wanted to go in the grocery store.

“At the time, if you were looking at produce, how many people touched it?” Mr. Wells said. “Did you want people touching all your produce and squeezing your melons and putting them back? We’re not germaphobes by any means. But you didn’t know anything back then.”

So, they decided to grow their own. The couple had the benefit of time: Before the pandemic, Mrs. Wells ran a cleaning service in Cleveland and Mr. Wells was working as a general contractor, two industries curtailed for months. The greenhouse gave Mr. Wells the chance to hire some of his staff to help him. “I didn’t lay people off,” he said. “I was able to keep everybody busy.”

While Mr. Wells was largely in charge of construction, which took about a month and a half, Mrs. Wells now runs it. Before he had finished installing the automatic vented windows and a fan, she planted several tomatoes that ended up dying in the heat. Since that first “overzealous” mistake, she has grown a new round of tomatoes, as well cucumbers, eggplants and onions, thanks to a curtain she installed on one side to further reduce heat. Now, with the change of season, she has started focusing on raising herbs like basil and dill.

Credit…Preston Gannaway for The New York Times

The couple also hung lights and decorations according to Mrs. Wells’s vision, making it a space not just for growing plants, but for an occasional glass of wine. “It’s really more of a she-shed,” she joked. “But Mark helps me a lot with maintaining.” He recently installed a heater so she can continue using it through Ohio’s impending winter chill.

Building a greenhouse is much better done together than alone, agreed Steve Smith, 66, and Lorraine Smith, 69, of Davis, Calif. The vegan couple were experienced gardeners before the pandemic, and decided to spend their summer building a greenhouse instead of traveling. The construction ended up taking about a month, even with Ms. Smith’s brother and another friend helping out.

“We made a few mistakes along the way,” Mr. Smith said. “We’re not construction people.” But both agree that while the learning curve was steep, it was good to spend the quality time. “Building this together, we built our relationship as well,” he said.

Plus, Mrs. Smith said, “I learned how to do caulking!”

The Smiths said their greenhouse has also turned out to be a vital tool for maintaining relationships with others. When in-person services were canceled at their church, Mrs. Smith shared growing tips and recipes with fellow gardening friends, and grew extra plants to share with their community.

“They would come walking up to the house with their little masks on, and we could share plants,” she said. “We had lots of fellowship during the time of serious lockdown.”

Speaking of fellowship, Ms. Lopez and Mr. Garnett are now planning their wedding, again, for next year. In some ways, their backyard greenhouse has been an enduring symbol of this fractured year — a project that has created unexpected challenges (in their case, a battle against aphids and some fungal spores) and occasional moments of hopeful rebirth. Six months in, Ms. Lopez still finds pleasure in that process.

“Sometimes I spend months and I don’t get anything to fruit,” she said. “But it’s just so great when I finally can master that specific plant, and I can finally make it bloom.”

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