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The SOLVIVA Winter Garden

The first Energy Self-sufficient, Cold-Climate, High-Yield Greenhouse.

"Greenhouse Gold"- Organic Gardening magazine

The SOLVIVA Energy Self-sufficient, Cold-Climate Greenhouse

My SOLVIVA home turned out to far exceed my highest hopes and dreams, and by the time I had lived there for 2 years, I was inspired to go further in my quest to find better ways to live - less polluting, less harmful ways for us to keep warm, cool, clean, and well fed, all year-round, without needing fossil fuels, without any pesticides or other toxic substances, aiming to reduce over-all harm to near-zero.

This time I decided to focus on Food Production.

Thus I designed the SOLVIVA WINTER GARDEN greenhouse in 1983, with hopes of producing excellent quality food year-round, without the need for grid electricity or heating fuels. Could it possibly stay warm enough even through the coldest darkest blizzards with only stored solar energy and the heat emanating from animals and compost - without any heating fuels?

Could it possibly be cool enough through sizzling heat waves without any fans, just with enough vents top, bottom, east and west to let the heat rise up and out, and be replaced with cooler air from outside?

With insanely small money, and a $50,000 line of credit at 11++%, I jumped off the cliff.

I sent out notices to various green colleges and organizations, inviting whoever to come help construct this game-changing food production system, in exchange for room and board.

Angels heard the call, and came streaming in from afar. Private sleeping places were improvised here and there. I kept the kitchen and pantry stocked, and everyone vied for their turn to cook the most nutritious and delicious meals - and they kept the garden continuously producing. While digging, cutting, hammering, lifting, planting, weeding and eating, we shared stories and information and ideas - everyone doing their very best, we worked hard from early til late, and we laughed, danced, meditated, and laughed some more. And on Sundays we went to the beach.

It was a truly spectacular time of positive vibes and creativity - a most stunningly positive project – and it turned out to way way exceed even my own wildest dreams – way beyond the highest I could have ever imagined.

The framing lumber was ordinary untreated hem/fir, except the wood in touch with the soil was pressure-treated, and wrapped with plastic to prevent the toxins from getting into the soil and plants.

The south wall was tilted to 45 degrees, to ensure that snow would slide off.

Top soil, animal manure compost, peatmoss, greensand, rock phosphate and lime were rototilled to make the finest rich airy soil.

The north wall was tilted to maximize solar reflection onto the plants in winter. Thus the plants are well lit from both the south and the north. All interior surfaces and the rafters are painted white to maximize reflected light.

Beds are 18" high for comfortable sitting and harvesting.

The full length east-west pathway is 30" wide, and the shorter south-north side paths between beds are 18" wide.

4 layers of 3M polyester glazing are applied with special 3M double-stick tape, to create 3 layers of encapsulated insulating air. The 2 top layers are applied on either side of the 2x6 rafters, and are kept under negative air pressure with 2 small DC exhaust fans, to prevent the glazing from getting stressed by flapping in the wind.

And "just in case": a way to heat with fire. This is the fire chamber under the hot tub, lined with an oil drum cut in half lengthwise. A strong base is made with hardpacked sand and strong steel cross bars, topped with an old sheet metal floor. A 550-gallon galvanized stock tank (made for farm animals) is set on top of this. Fuel: cornstalks, twigs, cardboard, newspaper logs, etc.

The stock tank is 7' diameter, 2' deep, and serves as the heat sink for solar-heated water.

It also makes a fabulous hot tub!

The long flue pipe runs all the way to the east wall, and therefore most of the flue heat stays in the greenhouse. Fire was never used after the greenhouse was done, except for an occasional hot tub. Very effective, easy and low-cost.

100 layer hens produce additional heat:

8 BTU per pound per hour. 100 x 8 pounds/layer hen = 800 pounds x 8 BTU/hour x 24 hours = 153,600 BTU!

Plus 300 cubic feet of warm compost. When a coldsnap is predicted, water the bedding lightly, and the bedding soon heats up to 90ºF! To keep this wonderful bedding system aerobic and sweet-smelling, add 2-3 bags of leaves every week, and plunge a pitchfork into the bedding, every foot or two, to the full depth of the bedding and rock it to let in oxygen. Plunge, rock, move, plunge, rock, move. Easy and quick. No need to turn it over, because the chickens happily perform that task.

Exceptionally healthy and happy, these chickens lay a bounty of delicious nutritious eggs.

Chicken Feed: a constant supply of grain, plus wheat grass, slugs, earthworms, weeds, salad seconds -

plus whatever they find in their lush outdoor areas, and in their deep bedding.

Constant access to clean water is essential.

To prevent the chickens from eating their own eggs, they must be collected daily so they never get dirty. And if there any droppings, add a fresh layer of shredded leaves, shavings or sawdust to the nesting boxes (not powdery or chunky, not from cedar or treated wood). That way the eggs don't have to be washed, which saves time, and keeps them fresh longer.

Once a week, remove the accumulated nest linings, and start a fresh cycle.

It's so easy to keep chickens happy and healthy, and it takes less than 15 min/day.

Roosters? I don't much like their attitude, they are real bullies, and after one of them decided to become an attack dog, I decided to give him away, and then avoid getting any more.

Five dozen eggs per day and the angora fiber from the rabbits paid for the animals’ feed, while their body heat, CO2, compost fertilizer and good company were immense free fringe benefits.

30 angora rabbits lived in spacious enclosures in the northwest corner of the greenhouse, and they too produce 8 BTUs per hour per pound of rabbit. The soft angora fiber was mixed with the sheep wool, to make a gorgeous yarn, which I dyed.

However, I don't recommend rabbits because they are much more work than chickens. Also, the males are pretty miserable - they must be kept in separate spaces because they eat their babies, rape the females, and fight with other males. And if the rabbits ever get out - ooh boy - they can destroy the whole garden as you try to catch them.

The sheep live in the long narrow lean-to barn along the north wall of the greenhouse, helping to keep it warm. They are wonderful and easy, and keep several acres of pasture free of poison ivy and brambles, rotating them to prevent overgrazing.

They provide wool, meat, compost and body heat, and love. The ewe in the rear is Heather, looking straight at me. She chose to come to me, and was the leader of the flock from the beginning, until the day she died of old age at 15. She was as intelligent, loving and sensitive as a good dog. Over the years, she had 30 lambs, mostly twins, sometimes triplets. She was the Queen of Solviva Farm.

A favorite hangout under this old apple tree. Cool, fragrant and oh so yummy and nutritious. A huge crop every year.

The key factors for easy sheep care are: good fencing to keep the sheep in and keep dogs out, a barn with well aerated deep bedding, a couple of small pens for lambing, and easy ways to provide water, grain and hay.

Our dear old friend, Jenny - a rescue burro from out west, she felt at home from day one, welcomed by the sheep, the chickens and us folks.

She was the Clown and the Guard of Solviva Farm.

Sometimes she'd let out the most bloodcurdling god-awful donkey brheehaws, terrifying any city visitor. But sure enough there was always something she wanted to warn us about, especially any threat to the sheep.

Spittin' image and character of Eeyore, and sometimes hilariously funny. Ah, the stories!

Most (but not all!) of the deep bedding in the animal quarters, containing all their manure and urine, is cleaned out once a year (yes only once a year!), at the end of the cold season, and placed in large enclosures made of snow fencing. Here the temperature quickly rose to 170ºF, and, after just a few months, yielded 300+ bags of superb manure compost.

The Earthlung Filter greatly increased the yields

The breath from the chickens and their bedding contains 2 main molecules: harmful ammonia, which burn the stomata of many plants as they breathe it in, and beneficial carbon dioxide which increases the building blocks available for the plants to breathe into their bodies and which makes them grow faster and stronger.

This air from the chicken room is filtered through the Earthlung filter, which enriches the air around the plants with several times the normal level of molecules of carbon dioxide. The plants breathe in this invisible CO2 through the stomata (nostrils) on the underside of their leaves.

This CO2 enrichment greatly enhances the growth and vigor of the plants, because it provides them with many more carbon building blocks to build their bodies. Here's how it works:

  1. Rat-proof insulated concrete slab foundation (a must to prevent rats).

  2. Gravel-filled plenum, filled with triple-washed 1-3” stone, the kind used in septic system leaching trenches.

  3. PVC pipe, 4” diameter, with capped ends, perforated to enable air from the chicken room to disperse within the gravel plenum.

  4. Duct: 4” diameter, unperforated PVC pipe,

  5. Fan to move air from the chicken room to the Earthlung filter.

  6. Filter sock (nylon stocking) prevents fine dust from plugging up the Earth-Lung filter.

  7. Air containing ammonia and carbon dioxide.

  8. Waterwall for passive storage of solar heat.

  9. Biocarbon filter (aged leaves + sandy soil) transforms ammonia to nitrate, and lets carbon dioxide pass into greenhouse.

  10. Wood framework forms raised beds.

  11. Plants (rye or wheat grass for chickens, and nasturtium and other flowers for attracting beneficial insects) absorb nitrate (transformed from ammonia).

  12. Deep litter bedding (mostly leaves).

  13. Concrete footing for waterwall.

  14. Plastic liner.

  15. Landscaping felt prevents filter material from falling down into gravel plenum.

  16. Chicken room.

  17. Insulation board prevents heatloss to subsoil.

This image might help explain the EarthLung filter

Solviva Insect Management without toxic pesticides

Much more in both books

From May to October, continuous outdoor salad production adds up to 300 pounds weekly.

And in the summer, the greenhouse produced bumper crops of several different kinds of heat-loving basil, peppers and squashes.

Then comes winter again ...

The first Winter in the Solviva Greenhouse - 1984.

On sunny days, even at below zero Fahrenheit, the greenhouse was as sweet as the tropics.

Solar heat warmed the waterwalls to 85ºF.

550 gallons of water in the big tub was warmed to 103ºF by the sun shining on the 1,000 feet of black poly pipe running along the peak inside the greenhouse.

In an underground tunnel along the north foundation wall, stand 350 wine bottles full of water being heated to 75º by the 95º hot air ducted down from the top of the greenhouse by two 12" solar powered fans.

The last night of 1983 was bitterly cold, and there had been no sunshine for several days, and because the greenhouse still was not finished, the low temperature threatened to damage the 100 thriving tomatoes plants.

So I and my three daughters (home for the holidays), lit a roaring fire of scrap wood, cardboard and newspapers in the fire chamber under the big tub. The long stovepipe quickly got hot and warmed up the whole greenhouse, and after about two hours the water in the tub had risen from 55ºF to over 100 degrees. It did not take long for us to recognize a great opportunity. We all got in, fitting easily up to our chins in the 7-foot-diameter, 2-foot-deep tub. We tossed in fragrant herbs and oils, lit candles, and soaked and hummed in the hot water for hours. This was bliss ... free-floating in warm water, in a thriving garden, exquisite tomatoes within reach, with cozy happy animals to the east, west and north - while dark deep cold winter roared outside.

When we finally were ready to leave, we discovered that one of the female rabbits had given birth. Deep down in the coziest imaginable angora-lined nest lay eight adorable little silky blind bunnies, the size of my thumb, three gray-brown, two black, one white, one silver and one golden. A few weeks later we applied the final layers of glazing and insulation, and plugged up the remaining gaps. ........

And - backup heat was never again required!

By early 1984, the 100 tomato plants I raised from seed (thinking tomatoes would be the main crop), were now 5' tall and producing many hundreds of tomatoes. We had also planted some 50 different kinds of salad and cooking greens, plus herbs and flowers.

BUT – most of the tomato plants turned out to be troublesome - diseases, pest insects, constant up-keep with pollinating, tie-up and and pruning - and they were not fun to deal with, leaving our hands and arms dark green and itchy.

As I was discouraged by the failing tomato plants, I got inspired by the salad greens! - WOW! they were so way way WAY more tasty than any of the heads of this and bunches of that, which, at that time, 1984, was the only salad greens available in markets and restaurants.

Out of my re-inspired mind came an idea for something really new, really good, really nutritious, really beautiful - and, as it turned out, also really profitable:

Ready-to-Eat, mixed organic Salad Greens!


Easy to buy, easy to use, no fuss or mess -

just grab a handful of clean, perfect, superb organic salad greens, and a few edible flowers - and, voila! - "The best salad ever!" (Bill Murray)

And, surprise! the salad in the bags stayed beautifully fresh for 3 weeks or more!

Yes, in 1984, this was a brand new product, never before seen in markets or restaurants: Ready-to-Eat Salad Mix - SOLVIVA SALAD! - and organic, of course.

Boston’s finest chefs were stunned by the Flavors! - the Textures! - the Beauty!

And all the new varieties!! And edible flowers!!! And the shelf life! -

It took off like a rocket. They wanted more and more, and in response I rapidly increased the production capacity of the greenhouse - and by strategically hanging 7 levels of grow-tubes above the raised beds, the production rate probably quadrupled. (This too was a brand-new idea - would it work?? YES, it sure did!!)

Soon the harvests were up to the astonishing amount of more than 60 pounds a week!

That's 1000 one-ounce servings, as shown above - enough to provide 5 such salad servings weekly for 200 people, or 4 salads/week for 250.

And this was produced in a greenhouse of just 3000 square feet,

through brutally cold sub-zero-F raging blizzards,

without any heating fuel whatsoever, without any plant lights or heating pads, and without any pesticides or chemical fetilizers.

This was way beyond what had ever been achieved before anywhere. And I know the production could have gone so much higher.

Soon the whole world knew about SOLVIVA, as CNN, ABC, NPR, TBS, NY Times, Boston Globe, Mother Earth News, Organic Gardening, etc, etc, reported the really Good News about these amazing new energy-selfsufficient organic Solviva methods for food production, heating, cooling, and wastewater management – and soon thousands of people wanted to know how to do it.

Awards, speaking engagements, consulting jobs quickly followed. It was obvious I had to write a book in order to pass on the information. All this took serious time away from running the business.

I learned an important lesson:

In order to run it as a viable business, an enterprise like this needs two managers, one for the whole production system from seed to ready-for-delivery, the other one for the delivery, marketing, bookkeeping, and maintenance.

In order to maintain the highest quality, the production manager needs to be onsite whenever work is being done - supervising and participating in all aspects of the work, working shoulder to shoulder with the staff and students - sowing, transplanting, watering, harvesting, washing, packing the salad greens, as well as collecting the eggs and managing the deep bedding system, observing the insect population, and ordering seeds, supplies, tools. If things are done correctly when they need to be done in order to keep the production rolling, then the work is a wonderful peaceful dance - if not done correctly, it becomes a nightmare.

To Experience this Solar/Animal Heating System: Come along with me as I re-visit one Memorable Night

It's two years later, and no more heating fuel has been required since completion. But on this particular night, the temperature is the coldest in decades, 4ºF below zero, plus extreme windchill factor. I sleep fitfully, concerned about the greenhouse: Can it possibly survive this killer cold night without backup heat?

At 4 a.m. I am suddenly wide awake as ice and snow come crashing off the roof and the gale screams around my windows. Now I am really worried. Rather than lie there fretting, I get up and pull layers and layers over my pajamas, shovel out a 5-foot snowdrift right outside the door, and set out across the fields.

It is an arduous 800-foot passage, leaning into the ferocious biting wind. The surface of the snow sometimes supports my weight - other times I crash down to my knees. One false move and I could break my leg and be trapped in the snow with no one to hear my cries for help except the brilliant moon and the silver-edged clouds chasing matching shadows across the landscape.

Twenty long minutes later I finally reach the greenhouse, nestled in a deep snowdrift at the far end of the pasture. Whirlwinds of white wisps whip around in the moonlight. My breath has turned to ice on the muffler pulled over my face. I struggle to shovel away several feet of compact wind-driven snow blocking the west door, wrench the door open and quickly close it behind me.

To my utter amazement, in here it's like a balmy night in June. The first thermometer, in the rabbit area, reads 55ºF. (Whaat!?!) The 30 angora rabbits are quietly muffling about in their communal dens while their body heat is helping to keep their area this warm, along with the warmth radiating from the west water wall.

I step into the greenhouse, through the jungle of nasturtium vines and 7 levels of hanging growtubes filled with salad greens. And here, in the middle, the thermometer reads 45ºF. (Amazing!!)

I proceed toward the east end, inhaling the sweet, mild air, fragrant with tomatoes and nas- turtium, thyme and sage, and living earth. I open the door to the chicken room, and step down onto their soft fresh-smelling deep-bedding floor. The 100 roosting chickens acknowledge me with sleepy murmurs, cozy in their warm, spacious quarters. Here the thermometer reads 70º F! (I am stunned!!) This warmth is generated by the chickens’ body heat and their deep bedding, and also by the solar heat stored in the west waterwall that separates the chickens from the greenhouse.

Thus, on this blizzard night, with temperature 4º below zero Fahrenheit, the inside of this Solviva Winter Garden greenhouse is warm enough to produce a weekly harvest of 1000 servings of superb organic mixed salad greens, plus herbs and edible flowers. That's 5 servings weekly for 200 people, from a greenhouse of only 3000 square feet, without any heating fuels and without any toxic pesticides. Imagine the implications of what was then a brand-new reality! This was indeed something new under the sun! And replicable and adaptable to any place on Earth, including cities.

I can go back to bed without worrying about the greenhouse freezing. So I tromp carefully back across the fields, more easily now with the wind on my back, and retracing the deep footprints I left on the way down - feeling great joy and entirely at peace and as one with Earth, Universe and self.

This is true Plenty, Freedom and Security -

without causing any Harm!

The next day is still extremely cold and windy, but with brilliant sunshine. The min/max thermometer shows that during the night the greenhouse never dipped below 43º F.

By 9 a.m. it's still below zero outside, but inside it is 75º F. I turn on the hose and with quick quivering motions provide everything with a light refreshing shower. They perk up immediately.

Two 12" fans, powered by the sun shining on the photovoltaic panels, hum as they move 95º air from the top of the greenhouse, down through ducts and into heat-absorbing water-filled wine bottles along the inside of the north foundation wall (one of the heat-batteries).

Some of the heat-activated vents are slowly opening, increasing air circulation and preventing mold and overheating. The massive waterwalls, the primary heat batteries, are slowly rising to 85ºF as they passively absorb solar heat equivalent to 3 gallons of kerosene.

Twenty-five varieties of lush greens and herbs fill the raised beds, with names like hon tsai tai, arugula, tah tsai, Osaka mustard, mache, radicchio Treviso, mizuna, and the divine lemon-flavored sorrel de Belleville.

Above them hang 150 growtubes in seven tiers to the top of the greenhouse. They are overflowing with 25 varieties of lettuces with names as lush as their appearance and flavor: Lollo Rossa, Rouge Grenobloise, Rosalita, Merveille de Quatre Saison.

Three of the seven tiers of growtubes are set upstairs along the catwalk, and here are also a steady succession of dozens of seedling flats ranging from just seeded to 3 inches tall and ready to be planted into the raised beds and growtubes. Here the seeds sprout and grow strong without any heating pads or plant lights, even through prolonged cloudy cold spells. (Very surprising!!)

Is it because they grow stronger from the increased CO2 provided by the chickens and rabbits??

A few tomato plants remaining from the first winter now have hundreds of tomatoes ripening on 20-foot climbing and cascading vines.

Along the north wall, where the light is too dim for greens to thrive, there is a tall wall of nasturtiums with hundreds of blossoms in infinite varieties of pastels and deep velvety colors.

Fennel reaches 8 feet, tipped with 6-inch umbrels of tiny yellow flowers, exquisitely anise flavored. The delicate red trumpet flowers of the 6-foot pineapple sage bush yield a little drop of nectar that actually do taste like pineapple. Another variety of scented sage reaches 16 feet tall, covered with sweet pink flowers, also edible. A lime geranium yields exquisite fragrance, as do carpets of honey-scented sweet alyssum.

A few square feet of bed was planted with radish seeds three weeks ago and now yields 1-inch red and white globes, mild, crunchy and succulent. Another patch contains hundreds of the sweetest carrots.

Some plants grow gigantic (again: is it because of the additional CO2 from the animals??) - I struggle to pull up one daikon and find to my amazement that it has a huge three-pronged root, each prong pure white, thick as my wrist and 16 inches long - like a giant molar (Ouch - I missed that photo-op!).

One leaf from this collard green is enough to feed a family! It thrived on all the nutrients its roots found under the rabbit enclosures. When it finally started to flower, the leaves turned bitter, as all the sweetness went to feed the flowers and seeds. A chain saw was needed to remove it.

Many branches of one pumpkin plant and one cantalope (volunteers from the compost) cavort 15 feet in all directions, with immense pumpkins and cantalopes supported and hung on various improvised shelves and slings. In March!

The breath from the chickens and their bedding is ducted through the Earthlung filter, and enriches the air with several times the normal level of invisible molecules of carbon dioxide. The plants inhale the CO2 through stomata (tiny nostrils) on the underside of their leaves, and the CO2 enrichment causes them to grow much faster and healthier because it provides many more carbon building blocks to create plant tissue. Five dozen eggs per day and the angora fiber more than pay for the animals' feed, while their body heat, CO2, compost fertilizer and good company are free fringe benefits.

Ladybugs eat aphids, miniscule Encarsia formosa wasps lay eggs in the pupae of whiteflies, while green lacewings flit about like little fairies in search of any vegetarian insect. Syrphid flies seek nectar from fennel flowers, hovering like hummingbirds, and a dignified praying mantis is surveying the scene and, blessing me with her eye contact, pronounces it good. All is well in this little world.

Early the following at day, in spite of the cloudy, cold, short days of mid-winter, we harvest, picking leaf by gorgeous leaf, wash and bag more than 60 pounds of Solviva Salad, enough for 1000 one-ounce servings. Some go off by UPS truck to the finest restaurants in Boston, and the rest is delivered to local Vineyard restaurants and stores.

And the seedling and transplants kept coming - in continuous waves,

on the upper level, with the best warmth and light.

They thrived, without any heating pads or lights (which was an exhilirating brand-new reality, with immense implications).

And no damping-off or other problem.

No weeklings reaching for more light - just perfect standup robust, succulent, crisp fast-growing little plants.

Below, they are on their way to the summer garden.

So, one Solviva greenhouse can produce at least 1000 salad servings a week = 4 salad servings/week for 250 people.

Four Solviva greenhouses can fit on one level acre, including enough space for the chickens.

Thus, 4 greenhouses @ 1000 servings/week = 4000 servings/week x 5 acres = 20,000 salad servings per week = 4 salad servings/week for 5000 people. 10 acres to produce for 10,000 people.

And it does not need to be good land because good soil can be made on any site.

What would one Solviva greenhouse cost? Back in 1983, the cost for materials was $17,000 (not including the Sungain glazing, which was free from 3M company).

Prices for everything fluctuate wildly, but checking on a few current prices, for instance:

2000 sft of triple-wall polycarbonate glazing ($6000), 300 lineal feet of concrete stem wall foundation ($20,000), 3000 sq.ft. of rat-proofing hardware cloth to cover the whole floor ($2000), lumber, insulation, windows, vents, plumbing, electrical, etc ?... (Go to the Solviva Design section)

I am working on the numbers, and will add them here as soon as I feel they are ballpark close. And regarding the land - I trust that some of those who own acres of old farmland would be happy to lease out one acre for a cluster of Solviva greenhouses. Among the many benefits for the land owners would be: tax reductions, a magnificent place to hang out on cold winter days, fresh salads and eggs, plus a glorious halo for good deed done.

There's no need to wait for some future miraculous new technologies, because we already have all the technology, resources and know-how we need, right now. To me, they all still seem like miracles - but there they are - you cannot argue with reality.

We are living in a time that is pretty much forcing us to stop causing harm - we all know that it's either that, or it's succumbing to the horrific fate we know is coming if we don't stop causing harm.

This is a perpetually recycling circular food production system that does not require any fossil fuels or nuclear power.

This greenhouse and my home are proof that, even if the grid goes down and everything stops for a long, long time, and no help will be coming from anywhere else, we can still keep warm, cool, clean and fed - but, of course, only if we prepare for it.



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