From an Old Swingset to a Greenhouse

Swingset greenhouse
Swingset greenhouse

Is it a tiny greenhouse?  Or a walk-in coldframe?

I’ve always wanted a greenhouse. I have several coldframes that I’ve been using to extend the gardening season at both ends, so that we have fresh salad from the garden at both Christmas and Easter! But I want more! I’d also like to do a better job growing plants that enjoy more heat than we get here near the sea – tomatoes, peppers and basil, for example.

The front of our one-acre property, where my main garden is, is exposed to wicked northerly winds during the winter. I worry about how a greenhouse would stand up to the storms. But the back of the house is more sheltered, and faces south. I dream of building a sunroom – let’s call it an “orangerie” to be exotic – onto the house, but that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

However, I had this rusty, outgrown swingset, a pile of scavenged lumber, and some ideas:

  • Perhaps a solid back wall on the north side would better resist the wind and the snow.
  • Then I could put in a proper door that would make the interior easy to access during the winter.
  • Start the door a foot off the ground and it would be easier to shovel it out when the snow is thick and hard. No matter that you have to step over it to get in; it would be like stepping into the cabin on a sailboat.
  • Make the door big enough for heat to escape during the summer, since the structure isn’t big enough to cross-ventilate.
  • Add an opening window in the door for those in-between days when you need just a bit of ventilation.
  • Use up that pile of old wood and make room for new things to happen.
Swingset with tomatoes and cucumbers
Swingset in summer with tomatoes and cucumbers

My six-foot-tall son – as tall as the swingset now – helped me move the frame to the garden last spring and roughly level it. We nestled it next to the asparagus bed and let tomatoes climb ropes up to the swing hooks.

As plants died back in the autumn, I redefined the garden paths to go around the future greenhouse, and set the bootstrap-engineering part of my brain to work figuring out how to build out the structure.

The first thing was to build a box around the space using old 2x4s, some of which were nailed together into thicker pieces. If I’d had bigger dimensional lumber I would have used it.

The wall after placing it on the swing frame.
The wall after placing it on the swing frame.

Meanwhile, I set to work building the wall on a flat space in the driveway.  I cut the bottom of the 2×4 studs at the required angle, and set the side studs to slope inward at the slight angle required. Then I framed in the doorway. An old piece of treated plywood determined the width of the door and became a hinged flap at the top. Because I had a lot of strapping, it became the cladding – after we pulled the old nails out.

The picture at right shows the wall after we had carried it to the swing frame and placed it in position. It was a heavy, two-person job.

I had cut the bottom boards but left them off until after I had nailed the sills to the bed frame, so that I could swing the hammer effectively.

My carpentry skills are rough, but I’ve built on what I learned from my grandfather and father by helping friends in various situations. It felt like I was using everything I know in this project, and had to make a lot up as I went along. Plenty of opportunity for problem solving!

greenhouse wall
After placing the wall and adding a post under the door.

For example, after placing the wall, I realized that it would be tempting to sit on the door sill, so I added a vertical post to support it (left), which would be standard framing technique anyway. In fact, there should be another short post on each side, next to the studs – if you were building to code, which I wasn’t.

wall borded in
The wall boarded in.

Then I boarded in the bottom of the wall using the pieces that I had pre-cut.

Any stained or treated wood is high up in the structure, away from the soil.

Because the season was getting late, and I had seedlings already growing too thickly in my coldframes, I had prepared the bed and transplanted a variety of seedlings into it before the wall was ready. It was easier to do while the space was open. I had no need to step on the bed while assembling the wall.

I built the door on the flat driveway and hung it after the wall was in place, using heavy hinges.

Once the door was hung, we added the plastic, which had come second-hand from a commercial greenhouse via a friend. We stapled it in place, one plane at a time, and applied my best gift-wrapping technique to make it flat. I nailed strapping in place to hold the edges all around. It needs to be well attached to withstand the storms.

I hadn’t intended to cover the boards with plastic, but it turned out that it was possible to do so. It will make the greenhouse warmer, though it will breathe less.

The almost finished greenhouse
The almost finished greenhouse

All I had to buy for this project was the hinges. I used up most of the scrap wood I had on hand, and I had enough nails and screws from former projects – some mine, some my father’s, and some my grandfather’s! I’m lucky in a way to have inherited everybody’s stuff, and I’m delighted to put them to good use. My grandfather, who built the first coldframes I ever saw, must be smiling at this little structure.

One unforeseen benefit of the design is that the weight of the door on the inward slope keeps it in place whether it’s closed or open. I don’t think I’ll need to use a latch or hook, even in the howling wind.

Inside the greenhouse
A short person could stand up inside. Not me.

It already feels like a greenhouse inside – warm, sheltered, moist, a place to grow. I’ll be looking for excuses to hang out here during the winter. A little kitchen stool is all the furniture it can handle, but even that will allow one to sit rather than squat. Hmm… maybe a hammock which I can tuck up and away when not in use…. the swing hooks are still there, after all.

I’ll watch and listen carefully for flapping and wear and tear on the plastic. Maybe I’ll cut clips out of PVC tubing to attach the plastic to the metal on the south side.

The plastic will need to be replaced every few years; something to plan for.

My seedlings look happy.

Now I’m actually looking forward to winter!

UPDATE 2018: The size of the plastic on the south side is too big, and has stretched as it flaps on windy days, especially if the door is open. It happens to be near our bedroom window and the noise of the flapping is annoying. When I replace the plastic, I’ll build a frame similar to that on the north side, but not boarded in, so it flaps less and gives me a little more room to move around inside.

You could also design your frame to hold old windows. However, I’ve used old windows on coldframes and they have two disadvantages:

  1. If they break, it’s a pain to clean up the broken glass in the soil;
  2. Windows old enough to have lead paint are also old enough to have that paint flake and get into your soil. Not healthy.

I’ve had better experience with tempered glass, from shower doors, for example, which I’ve used for several years on coldframes without mishap. Aluminum screen doors and windows are also good. I’ll be sticking with those in the future.

Oh – and I LOVE going into my little greenhouse and at colder times of the year to pick a fresh salad for guests, or for Christmas dinner!

The Foreign Protestants of Lunenburg – Video

Lunenburg is unique in Nova Scotia in its history and personality. Much of that has to do with the people who settled the town in 1753.

My son participated in a youth documentary filmmaking workshop in September 2014. It was part of the (first annual, as it was a great success) Lunenburg Doc Fest.  Here is the result of his work:

Arctic Kiwi Male and Female Flowers

I have a male and a female Actinidia kolomikta (one of a couple of species of Arctic Kiwi that grow in our climate) in bloom. A male plant is needed to fertilize the blossoms of the female plants, and they both make flowers. I was curious to learn how to tell the flowers apart.

Easy, as it turns out, once you look. The female flower has white stigmas and styles that radiate from the center. The male flower has yellow stamens dangling from thin filaments.

When I first saw the variegated foliage, I thought it was diseased! But no, it has splashes of white and even pink. A most attractive plant. Some people even grow the male plants only, just for the foliage. But the fruits are delicious, grape-sized little kiwis. You don’t need to peel them as the skin is smooth. They taste just like the larger variety that you can buy in the grocery store. They will fall off the vine when they get really ripe and sweet, so it probably pays to harvest them a bit early and let them ripen in a bowl.

Spring at last, and salad

It was getting hard to believe that spring would ever come. There is a collective weariness of snowstorm after snowstorm. Finally, however, the force of the entire planet tilting on its axis, turning the north pole toward the sun, will overcome all obstacles and we will really have spring! Crocuses have been sighted. The spinach I planted in a coldframe last month has sprouted. The first salad of spring, culled from coldframes and a mini hoop tunnel, appeared on our supper table yesterday. The snow is almost gone from the yard.

Don’t visit Nova Scotia in March and April. Go to Europe or Vancouver instead, where the daffodils have long faded and the grass is green. Come here in May! You may fall in love.

salad in bowl
From the coldframes: lettuce, green onion, chervil, claytonia (miners lettuce) and fresh dandelion greens

The Juan-a-be Storm of the Year

8 years after Hurricane Juan, Point Pleasant Park still looked ragged.
8 years after Hurricane Juan, Point Pleasant Park still looked ragged in 2011.

In September 2003, Hurricane Juan swept through Nova Scotia like a giant chainsaw, wreaking havoc from Halifax’s Point Pleasant Park, inland across the province, all the way to PEI.

After White Juan in Kentville. We had a lot of fun digging out.

Five months later, in February 2004, a “weather bomb” dumped a metre of snow on Nova Scotia and was unofficially named White Juan after the previous season’s hurricane. It paralyzed much of the province for several days as citizens dug out.

Rendering of the storm at 6 pm on March 26, showing wind direction and barometric pressure, from
Rendering of the storm off Nova Scotia at 6 pm on March 26, showing wind direction and barometric pressure, from

Today’s nor’easter has been unofficially dubbed “Juan-a-be”. Meteorologists apparently learned a lot from White Juan, and had this storm pegged to be a similarly serious weather event far in advance. Apparently all their computer models were pointing to the same story; that a low pressure system would form off Cape Hatteras and move up the coast, walloping Nova Scotia with wind, snow, rain and then more snow.

And so it has come to pass. One can only marvel at the science that can predict such things. Everyone was talking about the storm for days. We took it for granted that school would be cancelled. The bread shelves in the grocery store were emptied by shoppers preparing for power outages. All day, my Facebook feed was mostly about the storm, with people staying connected to each other even while isolated by impassible drifts.

The snow came sideways, starting this morning and continuing all day. It continues to blow even harder, having backed to the north, though less snow is falling.

The joke is that most of our winter storms this year have happened on Wednesdays!
Most of our winter storms this year have happened on Wednesdays!

In the late afternoon, at high tide, I made an excursion down the road to see what damage the storm surge might cause. The snow stung my face and the wind bent me over as I trudged along. In sections sheltered by evergreens on both sides of the road, the snow lay quiet and even, untouched by blade of plough or rubber tire. Elsewhere, the wind had swept the road bare.

Approaching the Oak Island causeway, I saw that the storm surge would not damage the road, even though the water level was high, because there was still ice along the shore which buffered the energy of the waves. The northeast winds did not travel far across water and did not raise high enough waves to do damage here.

But I can only imagine what is happening on the Northumberland shore.

Nova Scotia’s Rose Vaughan goes digital

The Rose Vaughan Trio in the early 1990s.
The Rose Vaughan Trio in the early 1990s.

CBC Radio host Peter Gzowski once said, “Rose Vaughan’s songs are like Alice Munro short stories.”

High praise, given that Munro just won the Nobel Prize in Literature!

Halifax singer/songwriter Rose Vaughan has penned many iconic tunes over the decades. As a young and vibrant septuagenarian, she still performs occasionally and plans more recordings.

The Trio’s second album

One of her tunes, “Stone and Sand”, from the Rose Vaughan Trio’s 1993 Fire in the Snow album, is featured in this video:

Rose’s songs have been going around in my head lately, as well as on my DVD player, because she recently hired me to get her songs online so people could buy them digitally. 

Winter Rose album cover
The Trio’s third album

I was delighted to be asked, as I’ve known Rose since the 1990s and even played a little accordion on her Winter Rose album. Cathy Porter, a consummate musician who did most of the Trio’s arranging and has gone on to be a sought-after side performer with some of Nova Scotia’s biggest stars, also enhanced the sound of bands I was in back then – much smaller stars in the firmament, I assure you. 

Their music was part of my life in the years after I returned to Nova Scotia and before I had my family. They’re lovely human beings whom I feel privileged to know.

The Trio's first album, Sweet Tarragon
The Trio’s first album, Sweet Tarragon

Each of Rose’s songs paints a story. The music is gentle and melodic, and the lyrics thoughtful and introspective. I can’t claim to be objective because of the nostalgia factor, but I’m truly enjoying listening to the albums again.

If you like “Stone and Sand” above, I invite you to take a listen to the songs on the Artist Playlist on her Facebook page, and samples of her other songs there and on her website, where she now sells CDs and mp3s.

Breaking the Back of Winter

It has been a long, cold, tough winter in Nova Scotia.

But now it’s time to Break the Back of Winter – a warrior’s act of vengeance and liberation. An epic tale of perseverance and cunning.


Our enemy: a treacherous layer of ice up to 2″ (5 cm) thick that invaded everything a couple of months ago, malingering on this shady slope long after fleeing from sunnier areas.  If we wait for it to melt, slipping tires and feet will continue to result in casualties on our side. So we must attack.


Our weapons: shovels, scrapers and a teenage warrior wielding a crowbar. Our key ally: the strengthening March sun, as it heats up the black asphalt even when the air temperature remains below freezing. Our strategy: observe and hold back until alternating melts and freezes have detached the ice from the surface. Then study the enemy’s weaknesses and reclaim swaths of territory, chunk by chunk.

Victory is finally ours when our beachheads join and we reclaim safe passage for our troops. Hurrah!


Winter lockdown, winter gardening

Icy inlet
Dawn on January 24, 2014, near Western Shore

It has been a cold winter, except when it thawed of course, as it usually does once in January before the snow locks us in again.

garden in January
Jan. 15: Coldframes, hardy strawberry plants toughing it out, and double-covered greens

The snow we had in December, which made us happy at Christmas, had melted completely by January 15, exposing the coldframes and mini hoop houses in my garden.

lettuce in January
Lettuce  ‘Merveille de quatre saisons’

Peeling off the layers of plastic and row cover on the mini hoop house showed that there was lettuce within, still looking perky after the deep freeze.

No wonder; its name is “Merveille de quatre saisons” – which you could translate as “Four-Season Wonder”.

If you pick your plants well, plant them at the right time, and shelter them adequately, you can indeed eat from the garden year round.

Niki Jabbour, who lives and gardens not far from me, and also has a radio show on gardening, has written a wonderful guide to year-round gardening (left). It is inspiring many people like me to expect more from our gardens.

When the hoops are iced up, however, and the coldframes piled high with snow, I yearn for a greenhouse.



Bluenose II sitting pretty in Lunenburg

The newly rebuilt Bluenose II sits at Lunenburg Foundry at the innermost part of the harbour. Sails and rigging make the job seem complete from a distance, though I’m sure there’s lots going on below decks. She’s a beauty.

Bluenose II
Bluenose II at Lunenburg Foundry, October 24, 2013.
Photo by Heather Holm