A Glass Bottle Greenhouse

I live in a town that doesn’t recycle glass. Your eyes do not deceive you—in 2014, in this world of growing environmental awareness, my town does not recycle glass. Plastic and cardboard—that’s it.

I found out the hard way. I’d collected a stack of glass bottles over about a 6-month period that nearly filled our spare room. Then one Saturday, I happily loaded up our trailer and took them to the local recycling facility, only to be told upon arrival I’d have to take them home or put them in the household trash bin. I was NOT happy. I was told that it was not financially beneficial for them to collect glass, because they would then have to ship it out to a glass facility, which was simply too far away.

So now I have a growing stack of glass bottles. What to do with them? Well, over the last couple of years, I’ve been attempting to become a gardener. I had my first vegetable garden last spring, which I am delighted to say, was a spectacular success (other than my black lab going over the fence and eating the vast majority of my tomatoes—a blog, or rant, for another day…).

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Sweet Summer Love Clematis

My husband and I have also become a bit obsessed with ornamental plants, dressing up our front yard with cherry trees, roses, clematis, blueberry bushes, butterfly bushes, and more. It’s a sickness, I know.

I bought my husband a banana plant last year, which has become 5 banana plants. It’s his pride and joy! It even has a name: Seymour. At the moment, our hallway is home to 5 banana plants, an 11-foot orange tree, an avocado tree, a money tree, a variegated lemon tree, a sour mandarin tree, and several small houseplants. We love them all, but if we keep going, our house during winter is going to become a jungle that requires a GPS to navigate.

Therefore, I believe I shall have to build a greenhouse. Hence, the glass bottles. I’ve decided to attempt to build a functioning greenhouse out of mostly beer and wine bottles (because of their uniform shape and size), an old door we removed when renovating part of our house (it has small windows from top to bottom), and any other bits of material we have hanging around.

Needless to say, the first thing I did when I decided I wanted to do this was go online and see what others had done. And I was thrilled to see that many people out there have been creating greenhouses, as well as a variety of other types of buildings, out of recycled bottles. It appears that most are using plastic bottles for their greenhouses, but more are starting to use glass as well.

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An Actual Greenhouse offered by Jackson & Perkins

My research tells me that a 6 x 10 structure will require somewhere around 1400 bottles. Obviously, if you decide to try this for yourself, this figure will go up or down depending on the exact size greenhouse you want, how the bottles are placed (upright or on their side), and any other materials included (windows, etc.). However, this is a good figure with which to begin. Also, I’m going to use as much clear glass as possible, so as not to actually block the sunlight, as brown and green glass will do. I am going to have layers of green and brown bottles at the bottom of the walls, up to about 3 feet high. Then, the rest will be clear glass. This should let plenty of sunlight in while allowing me to use the colored bottles I have as well.

So I have my stockpile of bottles, washed and with labels removed (by the way, this part is a good project for the kids in the household), and I’ve decided how big I want the structure to be. What next?

Location is important. In most cases, a greenhouse should be placed where it will receive 3 to 5 hours of direct sunlight each day. This will vary depending on where you live and how well ventilated the building is. Especially in extremely warm climates, any more than 3 to 5 hours per day can cause the greenhouse to become overheated, which can damage the plants. Cold climates may do well with a little more direct sunlight. Remember, the glass or plastic will intensify the sunlight.

Next, I want to make sure the location is well drained and on level ground. I don’t want it getting flooded every time it rains nor do I want the trouble of building on a hill. Obviously, you can build on a slope, but it requires a lot more effort and potentially more materials.

Third, I have to consider possible damage to the structure, such as falling limbs, play areas that may involve thrown balls or rocks, and places that are extremely windy. Trust me on the part about wind. I have personal and unpleasant experience with this. About ten years ago, I had purchased a build-your-own plastic greenhouse and set it up in my backyard, not considering the amount of wind that area received in spring. One day, it simply blew away, which was devastating for many reasons, not least of all because I hadn’t finished paying for it yet. And yes, it was my own fault, for not having secured it properly to the ground. Lesson learned.

So if you decide to try this, ideally build away from anything that could cause damage but close enough to your garden (if you have one) and a water source to be convenient. Every situation will be unique. And don’t forget, your greenhouse doesn’t necessarily have to be a free-standing structure. A lot of people build them as lean-to’s on existing buildings.

Keep in mind, these are all simply my plans. Do not think this is the only way to go or that there aren’t better ways of doing things. I’m sure there are, and I’m sure I’ll discover all of my mistakes in short order! I’m not a builder or engineer, just an amateur gardener who wants to try to create something unique and functional. I’m going to try, and hopefully, it will all work out beautifully. And if anyone has done something like this and has any suggestions or corrections to my plans, please feel free to let me know. I’ll gladly listen to any advice from those with more experience than myself.

Obviously, I want the frame to be strong enough to handle the weight of rows and rows of glass bottles, so I’m going to use four 4×4 posts as the corner supports. From what I’ve seen, 2×4’s will probably work as well, but since I’m using glass bottles instead of plastic, I’m going to go for the heftier posts. These will be placed a foot or two into the ground and secured with concrete.

Next, I’m going to dig trenches about 6 inches deep between the corner posts. These trenches will be filled with a layer of gravel, then filled in with cement. I’ll let it set for 2 to 3 days.

I’ll use 2×4’s to create the frames for the walls, the doorway, and the roof, which is going to be peaked, requiring two triangular gables. A horizontal beam connecting the two gables and vertical supports connecting the peak of each gable to the top of the front and back panels should complete the frame. I will probably also put in an additional 2×4 support about 3 feet up the wall, which will allow me to frame in a window and help alleviate the amount of pressure on the bottom layers of bottles.

It appears that Type N mortar is what is most often used in the construction of bottle walls, so that’s what I’m going to use. There seems to be some disagreement out there as to whether the bottles should be left open or if it’s ok to have them sealed, as in the bottles placed end to end or upright, meaning the mortar covers the opening. Some people say that the expansion of air inside can cause them to break if they’re sealed. Others say beer and wine bottles are designed to take that kind of expansion. I am going to attempt to place the bottles in horizontal rows with the bottoms of the bottles making up the exterior of the walls and the tops facing inward. Then I’ll “seal” the bottles with cork, which will hopefully allow for some expansion of air and keep any creepy-crawlies from making homes inside them. Below is an example similar to what I’m wanting to do, although my walls won’t be as colorful, and the top half will be all clear glass. It comes from a really neat blog created by a man who has built walls, greenhouses, chicken coops, and more out of recycled glass bottles. He really is very creative!

Now, when it comes to building the roof, there are different options. If your greenhouse is constructed of plastic bottles, you can rather easily make a roof from them as well, continuing the same process as the walls. (See the Greenspace Education Project link below). However, since I’m using glass bottles, I don’t want to have to try to accommodate that amount of weight, so I’m going to use the easy way out—plastic sheeting. Not only is it simple to install, but it’s easy to replace as well in case of damage or wear over time.

There are four main types of plastic sheeting from which to choose: Polyethylene, Copolymer, Polyvinyl, and Polycarbonate. They are of different grades, providing differing levels of durability. They’re pretty inexpensive and can be found at your local DIY store or online.

Now, for the floor inside the greenhouse, there are loads of options: bricks, old paving stones, pebbles, etc. Personally, I plan to put down a 3- or 4-inch layer of pea gravel. It’s fast, easy, and provides great drainage when watering plants. The only thing I would not recommend is not putting anything down. In short order, you may be overrun with weeds (and honestly, who wants to cut grass INSIDE their greenhouse?) or have a big mud pit.

There is another option as well. My husband told me of a few greenhouses he had seen in England that had a brick footpath up the middle with a layer of peat on each side in which the gardeners grew tomatoes. So really, there is a wealth of opportunity here.

Not only is this a great project for your home garden, but it’s a wonderful thing for schools to do as well. I know some schools are already involving their students in this type of activity, such as the Greenspace Education Project in the UK, which brought school kids together to build a greenhouse out of recycled plastic bottles.

Well, I have most of my materials and the perfect spot in my yard picked out. So it’s time to start building. I’ll add pictures as I get it done. And I’d love to see others’ recycled projects as well. And please, feel free to send suggestions/corrections/cool ideas concerning this blog or any other topic along these lines you think I and fellow gardeners would find interesting and useful.

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