Minnesota pair reuses old materials to build hothouse

KRAGNES, Minn. -- Ranae Willman and husband Mike Anderson have truly put the "green" in greenhouse. The rural Kragnes, Minn., couple used mostly repurposed materials to erect a picturesque, bright-blue greenhouse in their backyard. Measuring in a...

KRAGNES, Minn. -- Ranae Willman and husband Mike Anderson have truly put the "green" in greenhouse.

The rural Kragnes, Minn., couple used mostly repurposed materials to erect a picturesque, bright-blue greenhouse in their backyard.

Measuring in at 9 by 12 feet, the structure is built primarily from materials that might have otherwise wound up in a landfill.

That includes the original windows from Willman and Anderson's 1920-built farmhouse, two windows given to them by a relative, an old screen door and lumber from a previous project and railroad ties.

"I keep telling Mike: 'It's so much cuter than what I had pictured in my head,'" Willman says. "And he'll say: 'Did you think I was going to make a shack?'"


Hardly. Willman knows her husband is an electrical engineer who meticulously plotted out every detail while rendering sketches of the structure with AutoCAD, a computer-assisted software package for design and drafting.

"He's not a gardener at all, so I'm pretty excited he made it for me," Willman says.

In fact, Willman eagerly takes on the role of family green thumb. Ever since she and Anderson moved to this small development west of Kragnes in 1992, she's added flowers, herbs and vegetables to the landscape.

Her most dramatic addition is a backyard perennial garden intersected by stone-lined walking paths, benches, a gazebo, fire pit and fish pond.

Willman's flair for breathing new life into found objects already is evident here. A trellis made from salvaged deck lattice skirting marks the entrance to the garden, and an Adirondack chair filched from a boulevard during a cleanup week sits next to a garage-sale milk can in one corner.

Old windows' new use

Willman also fashioned her own red cloches -- domes shaped from chicken wire -- to protect tulips and other delectable plants from rabbits and deer.

But the greenhouse is perhaps her greatest recycling project yet. When the couple replaced the windows in their home 12 years ago, Willman suggested they save them for a possible greenhouse someday.


"I had always wanted a greenhouse, but I didn't think I could afford it," she says. "I knew if I wanted one, I would probably have to scavenge for it."

By using repurposed materials , the couple estimates it cost about $400 to build the greenhouse, which could have cost anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 to build otherwise, according to estimates from

The old windows collected dust in a storage shed for years. Then, in spring 2010, her husband said he would build Willman the long-awaited hothouse for her birthday gift.

Anderson and Willman's dad, John, spent a lot of time taking measurements and planning the little greenhouse. The gardener herself picked out the ideal construction site: a sun-baked spot on the north end of her perennial garden.

Slowly, whenever the couple wasn't spending weekends at their cabin on Birch Lake, the little building took shape. The 90-year-old windows had to be partially re-glazed, and several panes needed to be replaced.

Four-foot footings were placed in the clay soil to ensure stability. Railroad ties formed the base. An old screen door, also from their house, was salvaged for the project, as were two screened windows from Willman's sister-in-law's house.

As the project progressed, Willman realized a ceiling vent was needed. Anderson designed one entirely from old screen-door parts. Now Willman can open or close it with a long pole to regulate temperature.

The building doesn't have a lot of new materials, although there is a smoked, polycarbonate roof and engineered fiber paneling.


Anderson also custom-built a potting table for inside the shed. The south end of the building is basically an open bed, filled with amended soil, so plants can go directly into the ground.

The final, and toughest, task was painting the shed a vivid shade of blue. Willman had seen that color in a gardening book some time ago and decided she wanted that very same shade.

Then came the fun part: starting seeds. Willman made her first trek to the little house March 17 and had to trudge through thigh-high snow to get there.

An early start

Months before she normally could have been able to do so, Willman was able to start all sorts of plants: radishes, arugula, tomatoes, peas, beans and cucumbers, to name a few. She also overwintered geraniums and started small decorative perennials, annuals and herbs.

The little house has worked exactly like it should. Willman bought a portable heater for the space but only needed to use it on four nights when outdoor temperatures fell below 25 degrees.

In fact, the temperature is more likely to climb the other way. One day, Willman left for work without opening the ceiling vent. When she got home, the temperature was 110 degrees.

Fortunately, her plants were fine.

"As long as they're watered, they don't seem to mind the heat," she says.

Willman would like to add a few more features to make her greenhouse picture-perfect. She plans to install pegboard and shelves to maximize tool storage and plant space. And she may place a box fan in one window to add ventilation.

But, overall, she couldn't be happier with the house ingenuity built.

"I love it," she says.

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