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You can grow quite a bit, even in a small greenhouse. A greenhouse can extend the growing season by months, or even to grow things year-round in some climates, or with added heat. This can help make the most of small spaces.
Some greenhouses can accommodate two layers of plants, some work better with just one. You can have built-in beds, or you can use pots. Built-in beds can hold the heat a bit better than pots, but pots can be more flexible. Some greenhouses sit on the ground, and beds are sunk into the ground. Some have raised beds that are above the ground - a good choice if you need a weed barrier so you don't have as much problem with weeds or grass.
A greenhouse can be used two ways:
- To extend the growing season. If you choose plants that can handle cold well (broccoli, cabbage, etc), you can maximize this extension. You can use it just to start your own plants, and save money on plant starts, but since this can be done in a warm window in the house, we feel there are better uses for a greenhouse.
- To grow things you could not otherwise grow in your climate. This works for short season areas, but also for areas that are very cool in the summer.
In either situation, you'll need to ensure that the summer heat is controlled. Greenhouses draw heat, so hot summer days can result in greenhouse temps that cook your plants if you do not have adequate ventilation.
Seasonal extensions can be achieved by planting crops early in the greenhouse, or by planting late crops to grow into the fall. You also may be able to keep some crops going longer by moving them into a greenhouse at the end of the summer - but this assumes you have planted them in such a way that you CAN move them easily.
Many plants can be grown in a greenhouse right through the winter, in most places in the US. You can use row covers or coldframes inside the greenhouse, to increase the protection at night. If you choose plants that naturally do well in the cold - spinach, lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, turnips, carrots, beets, etc, then you only have to keep the temperature above 15 degrees. That is right... they can tolerate nightly freezing. The plants will freeze, and you'll go out in the morning and think they are gonners. Go out two hours later though, and they'll be thriving, thawed out and ready to harvest. Plants grow slowly in winter, but they do grow and thrive, if you just protect them from wind and keep the temps from getting below about 15 degrees.
Greenhouse specific plastics or panels are generally a better choice than opaque clear plastic, but when you are on a tight budget, a heavy weight clear plastic can substitute. You'll just have to be careful about summer temps and make sure your plants don't cook. A double walled greenhouse will hold heat better than a single walled - so even if you build it of sheet plastic, two layers are better than one - and this way you'll have a fallback if the outer layer cracks. In some climates, severe winter cold can shatter sheet plastic. Plastic with woven threads in it lasts longer than the heavy weight opaque plastic (especially in cold windy climates) - even though the opaque plastic says it is rated higher.
Even a small 6 X 6 greenhouse can be a help if you need to grow more crops for longer periods.