Monday, 6 March 2017


When you start growing your own plants at home you soon run into a small dilemma.  To pull it off with any degree of success and consistency you need a hothouse, or at least something that emulates hothouse-like conditions.  For years I’ve made-do with plastic storage boxes, the ones you can pick up for cheap at the local two dollar shop (our local is called ‘Hot Bargains’, and their range of plastic boxes has to be seen to be believed).  Those wee plastic boxes make highly effective hothouses.  Whack a layer of sand in the bottom and an upside down soft drink bottle filled with H20 and it will even water itself.  I wrote up a story on them when working for Gardening Australia a couple of years back and the internet hits went through the roof.  They’re genius and just enough space to grow seasonal seedlings and few cuttings for your average suburban backyard throughout the year.  They do well but they’re really only a stopgap solution.  Try as I might I couldn’t find one made of UV-stabilised plastic.  Within 12-15 months the plastic becomes brittle and shatters and you have throw the whole lot out and start again.  It’s wasteful and plastic boxes don’t look particularly visually appealing, both of which led me to look for a more permanent alternative.

Crappy plastic storage boxes make a functional, handy mini hothouse!

My backyard isn’t large by Reservoir’s standards.  Reservoir is the name of our suburb (beguilingly pronounced ‘Rezza-vore’ by those raised here).  We have a mere couple of hundred square meters to play in, but the amount I’ve squeezed in over the years has lent it a TARDIS-like quality.  Like a bolt of solar wind-generated lightening, the solution hit me - what about an old phone box?  The footprint is slightly larger than the plastic boxes I’d been using all these years, but with the added bonus of installing layered shelving I would more than triple my propagation space without taking up more horizontal room than I’d ever used before.  

Great idea, but a quick bit of internet research soon saw me crestfallen.  The crappiest, worst condition old phone box I could find would set me back three grand.  From plastic box to pricey box?  No fucking way was I forking out that much.  I can’t remember where the idea to use old doors as a replacement come from.  I claim it as my own but we had two others living with us at the time so the idea might have equally been either of theirs’.  It was settled that we’d use old doors, preferably French doors with glass panes from floor to ceiling in keeping with the original idea of a phone box as closely as possible.  No sooner had I settled on the idea than despondency set in yet again.  French doors are not only expensive but finding matching doors at the local tip shop, it soon became apparent, was going to take a while.

A while quickly turned into three years.  Some months I’d look every week, sometimes a month would go by when I hadn’t looked at all.  But I kept hearing my Scottish mother, whose love of the value of a dollar knew no temper, and faith in thrift led to the rise of a now rusted-on family saying, “Everything comes into Vinnies eventually.”  The new hothouse was going to be an exercise in patience as much as anything.  Then, like a bolt from the TARDIS-blue, there were five matching French doors at the tip shop in late January this year, twenty five bucks-a-pop.  And I only needed three.  ‘Bewdy.  

The bargain French doors, after searching for them for years they were finally, greedily snaffled and awaiting their metamorphosis into the hothouse of my dreams.

Once they were offloaded on the front verandah my enthusiasm waned yet again.  I realised I now had to build it.  I hadn’t tinkered with wood in any meaningful way since I was in year 10, going on 20 years ago now.  I kept telling myself I had experience with woodwork throughout the whole planning process, but now I had to prove it.  Confronting as it was, the simple solutions are often the best.  I decided to use 100mm pine posts, into which I’d cut sashes for the doors to slot into, just like a window sash.  That way, it would all just click into place after a few carefully measured cuts and a bit of chiseling.  

Cut sashes into simple wooden frames.  The doors just slot in, easy peasy.  Recess your sashes to the depth of the door frames you buy and you can't go wrong.  I did all this with a circular saw set to the depth of the doors and a chisel to clean up the frayed bits.  Did I mention I have limited woodworking experience?  You can do it too!

It makes the build sound relatively easy, and in retrospect it really was.  I was surprised at how well it all came together, miraculously, without incident.  I did the whole thing with no more that a circular saw, drill and chisel.  No glass cracked, all measurements lining up.  You know that saying, when it sounds too good to be true it probably is?  That should apply to this story, but I’m glad, even surprised to say it doesn’t.  It all unfolded like well-measured clockwork.  Cut sashes into your posts and just screw it all together - what could be simpler?

I built the basic construction in the driveway before assembling the lot in its new home out back

Nearing completion, the pine posts I cut the sashes into were concreted in using metal 100mm post footings at 450mm deep. Once the roof was on the whole thing was sturdy as sturdy can be.

The roof took me a good week of  thinking and a great deal of YouTubing to even attempt it. Cutting a bird's mouth at first seemed beyond my skill level.  But it, too, was remarkably easy.  Watch a few videos on building rafters and all of a sudden you’re a dab hand at it.  All I did was use hardwood two-by-fours to make a box for the top of the frame, which I then screwed into place to make the whole structure ridgid.  I then screwed the two rafters onto the box and topped it all off with a couple of bits of polycarbonate roofing and aluminum flashing to make it water tight.

Rafters were by far the most challenging part of the build. But YouTube (and a well-remembered high school trigonometry class) is your friend. Take your time and you'll get there.

The shelving is going in as we speak, after which it will be the fully functioning, propagation powerhouse of my dreams.  In the end I even had to paint it TARDIS blue.  The colour was an apt metaphor, not only because the seedlings I will grow in it will be the start of much larger, flourishing productive plants once their roots get into the ground, but despite my creeping crestfallen moments, small ideas often grow into the most grand of projects, ending up in something beautiful, often without you even realising it.  And, in the end, isn't that what gardening is all about?

 The hothouse of my dreams.  The original idea was a phone box, but this mash of matching French doors looks just as good, to my eyes, at least....
She's all done and looking grand.

Until next time, dream big and tinker!



  1. How's this working for you James? Would be interested in a review

    I have four identical french doors in a shed (which I paid $75 each for about 20 years ago (grrr..)) and have never used. I was only looking at them yesterday, and thinking it was time to get rid of them.

    How is your ventilated? Do you just chock the door open whenever the sun is shining?

    Michael McCoy

    1. Hi Michael,

      I'll have to do a follow up on it.

      But it's worked very well thus far. I've raised a crop of winter veg seedlings in it, struck cuttings in it and it's house for a couple of frost tender numbers I grow in pots. Performed all jobs sterlingly. The seedlings were admittedly a tad leggy, but that was more to do with an overhanging acer from next door - I suspect I won't have the same problem with winter/spring seedlings.

      It's ventilated with two small perspex windows I I recessed into the rafters, one at either end. On warmer days I open one, on bloody hot days I open both and it seems to be ventilation enough.

      I've been mulling over installing weather stripping around the door frame to give it a bit of extra sealing. One day I might even do it.

      I would say go for if you're thinking of putting those doors to use! If I had the space I would have made a four-sided one and sat it in a more open position, but alas I have but a wee back garden and it had to go hard up against a boundary fence.

      p.s. If the blue colour catches your eye, let me know. I inexplicably bought 20 litres of the stuff. I gave the hottie three coats in an attempt to use more of it, and to try and placate my other half (to no avail).