Winter bok choy harvest, showing a row cover system.

by Courtney Llewellyn

The Transformers toy line began in the mid-1980s. It described the battles of sentient, living robots that could turn into other forms, often animals and vehicles. Transformer greenhouses follow a similar idea – using their wood and plastic forms, they can change shape to allow life to spring up within. And now, thanks to a new book, growers everywhere can tap into that awesome power.

Robert Houghton, the author of “Transformer Greenhouses,” is originally from northeast Indiana. Now retired in western North Carolina, he grew up around farming. His maternal grandfather had 200 to 300 acres, and he can remember riding in the big John Deere tractor with him. He said his whole childhood involved gardening. But he took a different path, and his last job was teaching digital literacy at Western Carolina University.

However, a seed was planted many years ago in his mind that led to his passion project today. His wife Janaye asked him to build her some raised beds in the backyard so she could garden, and he did. “To protect them, we began with just plastic over our first flower beds, and that did fairly well, so we started with a low hoop house,” he explained.

But the Houghtons knew they could do more. To expand their season, they first made the transition to growing cold-tolerant plants, like kale. “It’s amazing what they’ll recover from,” Robert said. “And much of this has been learning what to plant when.”

There were a lot of “related threads” that tied into this, Robert said of his greenhouses and his book. “One of my concerns was making the curriculum I was teaching as authentic as possible. I realized a lot of data comes from gardening.” So he put some ideas out into the school, and he was able to get some gardening programs involved, but actually designing a new greenhouse was a harder sell.

He and Janaye really wanted a greenhouse, but between the building materials, the watering system and the venting system that would need to be installed, the bill ran up pretty fast – to around $15,000. “So I started thinking of baby buggies,” he said. “They have that hinge that moves the cover up and down, and it works really well. So I designed a greenhouse that did that.”

His Transformer Greenhouse allows for four-season growing in most climates at literally a fraction of the cost of a traditional greenhouse. His 12×18 design can be built for under $1,000. Solar plastic is fitted over plastic ribs and attached to a wooden frame, which connects to the main structure with hinges. A rope is used to raise and lower the plastic. On warm days, the greenhouse is opened; on cool days, the doors stayed closed. All the steps for building are laid out in his book.

“Then I thought, if I could drop open on one side, I should see if I could drop down on two sides.” That design came next. “It’s fun to have a deck in the middle of that greenhouse,” he said. “It can be cold outside, but it’s Miami in the greenhouse.”

Robert noted this style of greenhouse is really flexible and offers a lot of options. Today, there are three greenhouses on his property, all of slightly different designs – one even directly abuts the house to capture and use passive heat escaping the building.

Check out this video of Robert explaining how the Transformer Greenhouses work.

“I’ve gotten excellent plant growth with different unheated Transformer Greenhouse models, though the advantages of electricity can always be added,” he stated. “For specialty growers, with the cost of the Transformer Greenhouse being a fraction of traditional designs, it’s easy to have different soils and to modify temperature and humidity conditions in multiple greenhouses controlled by adjusting the vents.” He added that in high heat climates, the plastic cover can even be exchanged for differing densities of shade cloth with all the same options for opening and closing.

He said he felt that having a greenhouse is “all about yourself” at first. “It’s food for you. But you quickly grow more than enough to donate to the Community Table, and the need is always there,” he said. The Houghtons give a lot of their bounty to the nearby Sylva, NC, emergency food pantries and soup kitchens.

The areas where the urban and suburban landscape are expanding are often last utilized as farmland. “Greenhouses provide a real opportunity to bring some of that agriculture back,” Robert said. “The good news is the culture is changing – you now see a farm in the middle of a subdivision instead of a golf course. I’m really interested in that farm/city connection.”

He said the challenge is working with creative and mechanical folks to see how far people can push the growing season. Technology is going to play a big part in that. “It’s gotten ever easier to attach devices to connect straight to the home Wi-Fi,” he noted, and that’s incredibly helpful since monitoring humidity in greenhouses is critical, as is information for venting, watering and monitoring soil water and soil temperatures. He also wants to work on automating the sides of the structures to be raised and lowered using those data inputs.

Mid-July, with shade cloth yet plastic still in place to defend from hard rains. Images courtesy of Robert Houghton

One of the best parts of this new design is it’s accessible to so many potential growers. “I have an eight-year-old grandson. I gave him a copy of the book, and he said ‘We gotta build this!’” Robert said. He added that Transformer Greenhouses are also beneficial for students, as they are a far better fit for school budgets and they enable growing when schools are actually in session (autumn, winter and spring), which is a great fit for farm-to-school programs.

With the book, he said his approach was “the National Geographic strategy.” “They start with the big four-page foldout with lots of pictures, then as you go along, move down to two-page stories with only one or two images, then toward the back it may only be one page with lots of text,” he explained. “I use the same strategy – I start with photos, then illustrated images, then additional information.”

“Transformer Greenhouses: Multi-season Food for All” was released in March 2021, and can currently be ordered from any independent bookstore (IndieBound helps you find your nearest location). Robert said the next step is to move his how-to guide into an e-publication format and add videos, making it even easier for those who want to grow their own food in greenhouses to see one way it can be done.