The Crestone Eagle, February 2008:

A frost-free community solar greenhouse

by Paul Shippee

In these days of peak oil, resource depletion and wars, and worries about the economy, a community needs to learn how to grow its own food, especially in winter. The San Luis Valley is an agricultural community that exports and sells elsewhere most of the food grown here. Mosca and Crestone and a few other areas have organic food growing operations, and some families have successful food gardens in summertime.

We in the Crestone community are located at the end of a long highway and may be vulnerable to interruptions in food supplies, especially low-priced, good quality organic vegetables in the winter season. For this reason I have taken an interest in finding how we can grow our own fresh vegetables in the winter. Naturally, I thought of a solar greenhouse to serve this purpose. Therefore, in December and January I traveled around the northern Valley visiting solar greenhouses that might qualify as models for a good frost-free winter design. I didn’t find much that was impressive or successful in this regard.

Yes, the commercial greenhouses at the Sand Dunes swimming pool in Hooper, the solar greenhouse dome at Joyful Journey Hot Springs, and Erwin Young’s greenhouse building at the Alligator Farm all sport exotic plants and flowers and vegetables in winter. But these free-standing solar structures are mainly heated by warm geothermal water flowing up from deep in the ground and piped under the growing beds or into the tilapia fish ponds. While the sun provides light for the plants to grow, these designs are not adequate to provide enough solar heat to support survival through the winter. Observations I made at other free-standing solar greenhouses, such as the various grow domes and Hanna’s greenhouse in the Baca, Lillian’s Green Earth Farm solar greenhouse in Saguache, and the Haidakhandi Ashram greenhouse, all are vulnerable to below freezing temperatures in winter.

Although these types of free-standing solar greenhouses are great for extending the growing season for all plants, they are not adequate for growing a variety of vegetables through the winter unless supplied with an auxiliary source of heat. In other words, they are not designed properly for a frost-free 100% solar winter operation in our climate. In technical terms these solar structures have too much heat loss (due to their shape), do not have nearly enough thermal mass, and their glass is not at the correct angle or high enough R-value. Also in technical terms, in contrast to this, it definitely is possible to make a 100% solar-heated greenhouse for winter vegetables.

It is worth mentioning that the type of solar greenhouse that is attached to the south side of a private home is quite capable of producing winter vegetables when designed correctly. This is mainly because the north side is coupled to the home and loses no heat, but rather can gain heat from the house when needed to keep temperatures above 40°F.

However, having exhausted the available resources for a free-standing frost-free solar greenhouse winter design in our northern valley I did not stop there. By some good fortune I remembered hearing about a successful model of such a greenhouse built in 1977 in Wyoming. When a solar friend in Alamosa mentioned that the Cheyenne Community Solar Greenhouse was still thriving, and was still operated under the original designer/director, I called Shane Smith and arranged a tour in early January.

Arriving in Cheyenne on a sunny Monday morning I was at last introduced to a frost-free, free-standing, 100% solar-heated greenhouse that was blooming with orchids, bougainvilla flowers and many green vegetables. The building, which also gets 50% of its electricity from the sun, is now called the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens ( ) and is run by the city. There are six employees including a horticulturist, a development officer, the managing director, Shane Smith, and many volunteers composed of seniors, disabled folks, and troubled youth who help care for, harvest and distribute the yield.

I asked Shane Smith many questions about the design and performance of this wonderful solar asset. Heated 100% by the sun in the harsh Wyoming climate, the greenhouse never gets below 40°F (except for a very occasional 38°F) in any windy winter weather, cloudy or not. I had finally found what I was looking for: a model winter solar greenhouse that really works! The transparent south roof angle is 45° and Shane confirmed that he has never found a reason to modify or change it. This critical shape lets maximum full sun into the greenhouse in winter, but not too much in summer, while providing enough sunlight for year-round growing. The north roof is also 45° and covers an interior north walkway, two stories of office and library space, as well as access to a full basement under the middle third of the building.

The key to the superior winter performance of this solar gem is the very large amount of thermal mass arranged along all of the north walls and also the lower portion of the south glass wall. These are 55-gallon barrels full of water stacked three-high and also many tall plastic columns of colored water as well. In a quick eyeball observation I estimated the thermal mass volume to be at least two cubic feet of water for every square foot of south glass. The east and west walls are solid with no windows. Two large fans high up on the north wall are necessary to exhaust warm air in summer.

This free-standing solar model would certainly lend much confidence to the design, financing and construction of a frost-free 100% solar, winter food-producing greenhouse for our Crestone community, as well as demonstrate the necessary details required for surrounding San Luis Valley communities. Toward this end I have been advocating such a project to potential stakeholders such as Shumei International and other interested parties who will join together and help make this vision a reality.