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What Makes the Chinese Greenhouse So Special?

Cucumber Plants in a Chinese Greenhouse

Any gardener can relate to the dread of the cold frosty mornings…. For those without a greenhouse, it often creates a daily ritual of checking to see which plants succumb to the freezing temperatures. It subsequently also marks a time in which one’s energy bills increase to keep the greenhouse at the right temperature for those with a greenhouse. Since 2014, Dan Chiras has been looking for solutions to build greenhouses that are designed to not only withstand a cold environment but reduce the costly energy bills that can be associated with greenhouses. In The Chinese Greenhouse: Design and Build a Low-Cost Passive Solar Greenhouse, Dan Chiras explains how he expanded on his four-season harvest technique by building a greenhouse to grow not only cold-weather veggies but a variety of warmer-weather ones as well. Today, we explore six ways that differentiate Chinese greenhouses from conventional ones.

Excerpt from the Book

What Makes the Chinese Greenhouse So Special?

Chinese greenhouses are everything that conventional greenhouses are not. They are considerably less voluminous or spacious— meaning there are fewer cubic feet of space to heat and cool, which makes it much easier and a lot less expensive to maintain optimal growing conditions.

They have less surface area of glass or plastic exposed to the elements— which reduces surface area for heat loss on cold winter nights, as well as reducing solar gain, and overheating, in the summer.

They are very well insulated— enabling growers to create and maintain suitable temperatures for optimal growth, even in cold weather.

They contain lots of thermal mass— to store and release heat and maintain thermal stability during cold months.

They are oriented on east-west axes to better capture the low-angle “winter sun”— increasing heat gain in the late fall, winter, and early spring and reducing heat gain throughout the rest of the year.

Finally, many are earth-sheltered— meaning they naturally stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

a photography taken of Dan Chiras’ Chinese greenhouse

Dan Chiras’ Chinese greenhouse

All these design features mean that Chinese greenhouses can be heated solely by sunlight. Unlike conventional greenhouses used for year-round production, in most locations Chinese greenhouses require no additional sources of heat. You won’t need to burn wood, natural gas, or propane, or pay for huge amounts of electricity to run space heaters. Its energy intelligent design eliminates heating and cooling systems found in many conventional greenhouses— fairly expensive equipment that greenhouse manufacturers are happy to sell their customers.

Because of their design, Chinese greenhouses are about as sustainable and self-sufficient as a greenhouse can be. My wife and I often joke about carving out some living space in our Chinese greenhouse, just because it’s so comfortable in the winter. You might consider leaving room for a few comfortable chairs and a table to enjoy your morning coffee and a good novel.

About the Author

author Dan Chiras playing guitar

Author Dan Chiras

Dan Chiras, PhD, is the author of 38 books, including Solar Electricity Basics, Power from the Wind, Power from the Sun, and The Homeowners Guide to Renewable Energy. He has taught workshops on solar electricity and passive solar heating for the Evergreen Institute, the American Solar Energy Society, the Colorado Renewable Energy Society, the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association, and the University of Colorado. Over the past 45 years, Dan has published articles on natural building, green building, solar electricity, passive solar design, self-sufficiency, and sustainability in publications such as Solar Today, Home Power, and Mother Earth News. He has installed numerous solar electric and wind systems in Missouri and has lived on solar electricity since 1996. He lives on a solar- and wind-powered farm in Gerald, MO.

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