Grow House vs. Greenhouse for Winter Food

Growing during the winter can be challenging but a DIY indoor grow house helps dramatically.

Nutritious leafy greens are prime candidates for fresh veggies all winter long using a grow house
Nutritious leafy greens are prime candidates for fresh veggies all winter long using a grow house

Winter Food Drought

For every family growing at least some of their own food, locations with cold winters present a challenge. We try to preserve as much of our summer and fall harvests as we can through either canning or freezing. However, you just can’t beat the taste of fresh produce. Some people use the term “winter food drought” for this season. That’s the reason why old homesteaders had root cellars to keep as much produce on hand as possible during the winter. Not having fresh produce often leads to repetitive and predictable meals during the winter. It can also greatly diminish nutritional value for you and your family.

Fresh vs. frozen produce during the winter

Fresh produce is king for both flavor and as the most nutrient dense version of virtually any vegetable. It’s unfortunate that what many people think of as “fresh” produce in the grocery store has actually lost quite a bit of it’s nutritional content before it’s even purchased. When you factor in the number of days before it’s often cooked and the nutritional value goes down further.

Before you discount this time frame, consider what Dr. Diane Barrett from the University of California, Davis shares in her article about maximizing nutritional value in vegetables.

“In the U.S., fruits and vegetables grown in North America may spend up to 5 days in transit following harvest before arriving at a distribution center. Transportation time for fruits and vegetables grown in the southern hemisphere for winter and spring consumption in the U.S. ranges from as little as a few days if transported by air freight to several weeks if sent by refrigerated ship. At the retail store, fruits and vegetables may spend 1–3 days on display prior to being purchased by the consumer, who may store them for up to 7 days prior to consumption. This means that fresh fruits and vegetables may not be consumed for a significant length of time following harvest, during which time nutrient degradation may occur.” ~(Dr. Diane Barrett, UC Davis)

That means that “fresh” produce you’re cooking tonight is conservatively a week old if you cook it the day you buy it. In all probability, it’s probably closer to 2 weeks old. She also shares that vitamin C degrades quickly and between 15-70% of it can be lost in the first 7 days.

Penn State University researchers have concluded that even frozen or canned vegetables may retain more of their nutrients than “fresh” spinach. That’s primarily because of the temperatures it’s kept at during shipping and subsequently in your refrigerator. The article goes on to cite differences in folate and carotenoid retention based on temperatures, but none of that is in your control until you get it home.

The best solution is to grow your own leafy vegetables during the winter, but how?

A simple grow house situated by a south facing window can produce a significant amount of leafy vegetables

What’s the difference between a grow house and greenhouse?

Greenhouses are typically standalone structures used to extend the growing season or even grow year-round. They are often called “hoop houses” where metal or PVC braces are used to support plastic covering that allows solar heating. They can also be more permanent glass structures that cost more but have long term usability.

Greenhouses are either heated directly through electric or by propane/natural gas heaters. Because they are typically stand alone structures, greenhouses can accommodate large scale growing. However, this often makes them costly and inaccessible to most backyard gardeners.

Conversely, a grow house is typically a small movable structure inside an existing home or building to grow plants. It leverages the room temperature already in the home/building to reduce or eliminate heating expenses. Farmers can get a jump on seed germination and also grow leafy produce year round using some of these inexpensive tools.

You can see step by step instructions on how we built our DIY grow house here.

Grow house… a 21st century invention

The term grow house has a bit of a stigma. Why? Well, it stems from the term originating largely within the lexicon of the marijuana growing community. Grow House was even the title of an actual movie a few years back. This article isn’t designed to address the hotly debated topic of marijuana/cannabis growing. However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that growing high quality leafy vegetables inside today, owes much of it’s existence to the technology that burgeoned from the hemp industry.

Growing cannabis was still illegal in many places during the latter parts of the 1990’s, with California legalizing medical uses in 1996. Scrutiny from federal agents didn’t stop the growing of cannabis but instead shifted it inside… out of the view of planes flying overhead. This process created an entire mini-industry of lights, humidity controls, and lots of other things needed to grow plants effectively inside.

There was also another major event beginning in the early 2000’s that made cheap indoor growing possible; the mass production of high quality LED’s for flat screen TV’s. Don’t believe it? Between 2008 and 2015, the prices of LED’s dropped from $170/kilolumen to only $10/kilolumen, which increased availability and lowered costs for the average person to affordable levels. Companies like Samsung and LG were selling high quality excess LED’s to 3rd party companies that then used it to make things like high intensity grow lights.

Now fast forward to today and you can easily find affordable grow lights online that produce high lumens while sipping energy at levels that couldn’t have even been imagined 20 years ago. Our favorite light for performance is this bloom plus model and if you’re looking to daisy chain several together, we like this one that’s 1200W (affiliate disclosure here).

The combination of natural light and grow lights can jump start your plants in the shorter winter months

Which one wins?

For full disclosure, we have both a green house and a grow house. For our Midwest winters, it’s nice to extend the growing season with an early start and a later end. However, the reality is that unless you heat your greenhouse in our cold temps or retain the suns heat into the night, greenhouses have limits.

We can’t afford to heat our greenhouse at night, so we choose to store the heat as best we can (more on that in a separate post) and then grow cold hearty produce in there. We’ve had great luck with established carrots, collards, spinach, onions, garlic, and swiss chard growing all winter long in our greenhouse. However, they don’t grow fast and you can’t get seeds to germinate in the cold ground for a second planting. So you better make that fall planting last as long as possible.

For the time, effort, and expense… our suggestion is that most people utilize a grow house and grow indoors. First of all, you’re already heating your living space during the winter, so you remove that expense out of the gate using a grow house. Secondly, you don’t have to cart water to and from a greenhouse when your hose and rain barrels are likely frozen or drained to avoid freezing. You can just save rain water from outside and bring it in as needed (or bring in ice and let it melt depending on where you live).

The third reason to use a grow house (and it’s the biggest) is because you can fully control the light. This is a big deal when the winter brings short days for almost everyone and can mean almost no daylight for those in places like Canada or Alaska. We added a thick reflective film on our grow house to reflect sunlight and the grow lights back to the plants where it’s needed.

Finally, a grow house allows you to control the soil conditions as well. Potting soil may sound good, but it’s not for growing nutrient dense veggies to eat all winter. Homemade compost is your best option for growing indoors. If you’re interested in making your own potting soil directly in your garden, check out this post. Since we also raise rabbits on our homestead, we use rabbit manure as a great growing medium. It’s a slow release fertilizer that keeps the plants fed all winter long. It also won’t burn your plants like many other natural fertilizers. It’s considered a “cold” manure in the fact that it doesn’t have to be composted like other animal manure (chickens) that have high nitrogen content and can carry pathogens.

If you’re interested in building your own DIY grow house, check out the video above. We use a PVC structure and fittings that can be found at any home improvement store and it will cost you about $30 without the lights.

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