An innovative P.E.I. hobbyist

March 25, 2009
Written by Kathy Birt
1978bellgreenhouse
Cobbled together with mostly recycled
materials, the structure was built into
a hillside.
1978cucumbers
 
lbell1978
 
1978watersystem
Laurie Bell explains the watering
system.

Growing a variety of grapes, cucumbers, tomatoes and even kiwi in a partially underground greenhouse is more of a hobby than a business for Laurie Bell of Huntley, Prince Edward Island. But this veritable mini-Eden is a source of great pride for this Islander who operates a poultry farm for a living.

Salvaging old guardrails and recycled telephone poles, Bell built a 25- by 65-foot hillside greenhouse in which he grows fruit and vegetables well into December. The idea had been brewing for a few years, but it wasn’t until three years ago that he set to work on it. The project took four months and cost $3,000.

The key to its energy efficiency is that it is built into the side of a hill. “I always had this idea in my head that this type of greenhouse would have very little temperature differences.” It retains heat quite effectively in the winter, and remains cool in the summer.

ENGINEERED TO MAXIMIZE SOLAR ENERGY UTILIZATION
A lot of research and planning went into the project. The roof was engineered and built at an  “almost” 45-degree angle to get the greatest benefit from the sun. Bell cut up black spruce from his own property for the roof structure.

The greenhouse is 15 feet tall at its highest point, barely containing his tomato plants. “Anything and everything we plant, grows.”

He is a firm believer in recycling and using materials that are readily available at minimal or no cost. For example, seaweed, chicken feathers and “lots of leaves” were added to the three feet of topsoil he set over the clay soil base.

Bell bought old pop coolers and used 60-watt bulbs to start the plants. “It’s great because they have insulated sliding glass doors and racks. I can spray water onto them with no problem.”

UNDERGROUND WATERING SYSTEM IS FED FROM POULTRY BARN SOURCE
The watering system for this one-of-a-kind greenhouse was planned with just as much ingenuity. The system uses soaker hoses buried in hand-dug trenches that originate in the adjacent poultry barn. Underground watering, he says, helps minimize many disease threats, including blight.

Except for some electrical work, everything else was his handiwork.
The water to the greenhouse is left on year-round and never freezes. In fact, he housed ducks in the greenhouse last winter to help control bugs and weeds.

He started some plants last March, heated only by 40-watt bulbs, and they all survived. It was no easy feat installing upwards of 100 old guard rails to make a wall. Bell had to resort to heavy wire cables to secure them.

To assist with air circulation, Bell created vents in the six-mil plastic roof.
Crops include grapes, cucumbers and tomatoes. Bell says his wife Linda and daughter Brenda make preserves with much of the produce and that these are primarily sold by word of mouth.

The greenhouse may be his pride and joy, but so are the plum and cherry trees, raspberry canes, gooseberry bushes and pear trees that fill an orchard near the family home.

“My raspberry canes grow as high as eight feet,” says Bell and adds that gooseberries make premium jam, as do the four or five varieties of plums.
Bell is proud of the greenhouse, which requires no heating and can still produce fruit and vegetables well into December.
“Some people can’t believe it when they come in and see cucumbers growing in the fall. And the volume of grapes that we get, man, it’s just a jungle,” Bell enthuses.

Kathy Birt is a freelance writer and photographer in Prince Edward Island.

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