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My Greenhouse Story: Clearing the Hurdles

Friday, September 15, 2023


I started working on this Real Greenhouse idea back in December 2022. A Real Greenhouse is made of glass and aluminum (or polycarbonate, whichever you choose). It doesn’t need Gorilla Tape to hold it together. Everything is square and true and the weatherstripping stays put. There are louvers and a fan, and it’s not a lot harder to heat than a sunroom would be. This was my goal: to graduate from my wee hobby-grade kit-made plastic box (above) to a Real Greenhouse. After 12 years of dealing with small uninsulated plastic structures, I was more than ready. 

The dream was to hook it onto the downstairs bedroom in the tower part of the house so I could get there without clearing away snow or falling on ice. What a concept! I drool at the possibilities. Roll out of bed and go putter in the greenhouse in my slippers and PJ's on a snowy morning. Yeah. I've earned that luxury, and I was prepared to pay for it now.

 I looked around for greenhouse companies. I was seduced by BC Greenhouses’ Instagram feed, showing softly lit glass greenhouses glowing in snowstorms, but it didn’t make much sense to me to engage a company from British Columbia. Could I find anything farther away than British Columbia? Maybe Alaska?? So I came east and settled on Botanical Greenhouse Builders LLC, based in Rocky River, Ohio. I liked their quality, liked that they are Ohio-based, and I liked Jen Sutton, the person I interacted with. She was helpful, responsive, and empathetic to the problems I would encounter along the way. She gave great advice and was always clear in her communication.

 I sent her photos of my house and she sent back some rough drawings to help me envision a lean-to on my tower. And we were off and running…sort of. I still didn’t realize what lay ahead of me. In the least. So I’m writing these posts to remind myself that nothing good comes easily; that you have to save and spend and claw and scratch away at your big dreams to make them come true.

 In order to create a lean-to greenhouse, I needed to do several things. First, I needed to find someone to demolish the Groanhouse and remove its existing concrete pad, which was badly deteriorated. While I was at it, I’d have the concrete retaining wall to the left, and the old patio taken out. It was too narrow to house the greenhouse Jen and I had come up with: 10 ½’ wide x 16’ long. And it likely wasn't near thick enough, either, to support a lean-to's weight, and it didn't have monolithic footers.

 Then, I needed a new concrete pad poured, 6” thick with monolithic footers dug 2’ down. That meant large excavating machinery. 

 After that, I needed a low wall built from concrete block, for the glass to rest upon and be anchored to. I'd have it faced with nice looking stone, inside and out. Only when all those things were in place could I have the glass kit installed. 

The foundation would look something like this, but higher and with different stone facing.

 In short, I needed an excavator, a concrete person, a mason, a gutter guy, and a glass installer. Suddenly, I was thrust into the role of a general contractor, but the magnitude of the work in front of me, to line all this up in sequence, snuck up on me over time. Putting a greenhouse on the side of your house is tantamount to building an addition, plain and simple. It is not cheap, nor is it trivial. 

 In December 2022, I emailed a local landscaping company looking for help and never heard back. I didn’t know they simply shut down in winter and didn’t answer emails. Lots to learn. So I went through the Yellow Pages, more or less. I struck up a correspondence with a guy from a small glass company who said he could do both the concrete foundation and the glass installation. In one phone conversation, he even offered to be the general contractor for the job. Wow, I thought. This is AMAZING. Everything in one! I was hooked!

I called and left him a message on February 3. And then I left six more. On February 13 he finally picked up my call. Said his “phone was all messed up.” Oh. Right. I hate it when I’m running a business and my phone is all messed up. On February 14, the landscaping company emailed and said they were ready to help, having seen my email two months later. Well, I had someone, thanks. Or so I thought.

 I kept leaving messages for the glass guy/magic general contractor. He kept never answering his phone or his messages. So one fine day I drove 40 minutes to his storefront and introduced myself as the Julie Zickefoose whose calls and messages he never answered. He was NOT happy to see me. He looked like a fox caught in the headlights. Somewhere along the line, he’d decided he wanted nothing to do with this job, but he didn’t have the grace to tell me that. Thus cornered, though, he promised to come to my house on March 6, maybe even with his concrete guy in tow. And then, a big surprise! He never showed up. I was shocked! 

 After two months of steady pursuit, all I’d gotten out of the interchange was the slim satisfaction of facing him down in person about his constant ghosting and avoidance. If any of this sounds familiar, I’m sure you feel my pain. The pandemic, which had everyone renovating their living spaces because they couldn’t do much other than hang around them, made a lot of contractors fat and happy, and made some individuals extraordinarily lax about, um, answering their phones. Supply and demand--those laws are in full force. I kept feeling my dream slip through my hands, and I felt helpless to change any of it. Why couldn’t anyone return a dang call? It’s not like I’m crazy, or rude, or unwilling to pay them for their work…what was it? Was there a SARS-Unreliability-19 virus going around, and every tradesman for miles around had caught it? Nobody I talked to seemed to care that there was work to be had.

 I had good reason to be frustrated. I couldn’t order the glass until I had someone committed to pour the pad and build the foundation wall, and there was an 8-month manufacturing lag time AFTER the glass was ordered until it would be shipped and installed. So every week and month of my spring and summer the fibby contractor wasted pushed the greenhouse glass delivery later into the fall—and into the winter. 

 Finally I did what I should have done FIRST, and called my neighbor Kathy, who takes care of Curtis when I have to be away overnight, who waters my plants, who loved my Groanhouse and everything in it. And she recommended two people for the concrete. I called the first one on March 23 and left a message. He didn’t return my call until April 6. OK, he’s out. Been there, done that, not playing that phone tag any more.

After waiting for the first guy for a few days, I called the second person: AJ Johns Excavating,  a small local concrete and  construction firm. Owner AJ returned my call the same day. What was this new sensation? Someone was paying attention? Wanted the work? Oh, how I wished I’d started off with Johns Excavating! I’d really be somewhere by June! 

 He knew my road, and he knew where I lived, because he’d worked right down the road for two of my neighbors. Now we were shopping local! We made a date for him to come and look at the job on Saturday, April 1. And you know what? He kept the date! No big surprises nor April Fool’s from AJ Johns Excavating! By April 16, I had an estimate and a plan for the work from AJ.

 Together, we made a plan for July, when the yard had finally dried out, for the excavation of the footers. The greenhouse would be so heavy, and frost heaves such an issue with an attached lean-to, that we had to make sure it wouldn’t move around and tear itself off the house. Next, I had to have the gutter moved around to the south side of the house, to get it out of the way of the greenhouse glass. AJ recommended Eric Stemple, who did a fabulous job and was a delight to work with. Each little bit of progress made buoyed my spirits. After five months of screwing around, we were finally on a path. It felt marvelous!

                                      Extra points for loving on my sweet Curtis, Stemple Gutters! 
                                                 And for knowing just where to scritch.

I know y'all hate cliffhangers. Just know that I'm not hiding anything here...just doling it out in pieces. 
I am still waiting for the glass to be delivered, as of September 15. 


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