“All we need now is a greenhouse …” A half-grinned declaration one morning over coffee in the sunroom with my husband, Randal. Morning coffee conversations overlooking the backyard had become, and continue to be, a much-anticipated way to start our day. A micro date where we race to get up, grab the coffee and claim the comfiest chair. To see who can be the first to spot a deer passing through to the tree farm next door or to point out the abundance of wildlife and birds gathered around the feeders.
It’s a few minutes each day to discuss everything from work to family, parenting to pandemic, future dreams and goals, and to take in the view of this little piece of the world we call home.
We built our home in 2009, smack dab in the middle of the woods on a hill, with absolutely no view. Besides the old moss-covered rock wall running along the driveway and remnants of an unkept logging road through the backyard, the land didn’t offer much character—something we both grew up enjoying. Slowly, we have been chipping (literally) away at the overgrown trees, adding lawn and highlighting the winding road.
Early spring 2020 provided a perfect opportunity to stay home and build a small family orchard, something Randal has wanted to do since we moved here. Our “quarantine” orchard, in addition to the rough-sawn outbuilding we added that same year (a free find that required some very creative planning and work to be moved from the neighboring town to our yard!) has added so much to the property that the whole family enjoys. The work, while difficult, has been a welcome distraction from the noise of the world. We love the homestead feel we are creating here with the logging road now making perfect sense as it passes by the white fence of the orchard and the blossoming fruit trees. It’s a view we now enjoy each morning in a room barely used before.
Fast forward to April 2021, and here we sat as I rattled off ideas for yet another project. After all, we were still kind of stuck at home and would need something productive to do. I am an avid repurposer. I have a passion for creating from reclaimed materials—wood, pallets, antique and vintage finds, things that are often overlooked or destined to be thrown away. I had seen pictures and posts of greenhouses, garden and potting sheds built entirely from antique windows and materials. Dreamy chippy white buildings filled with antique garden tools and potted plants—the “final” (I almost always promise both myself and my husband each one will be the last!) project to complete my ideal backyard. I justified the build with my already-acquired stash of wavy-glassed antique windows that came out of an old barn in Blue Hill. A Marketplace find I could not pass up (and one where the family road trip to pick them up led to the discovery of our new favorite Thai restaurant). I had already used one in the outbuilding renovation and another for an upcycle project. The rest would be perfect for a greenhouse!
Randal and I began bouncing ideas around. I had several inspiration photos that I had saved or pinned with elements I loved for this “someday” project. We both had opinions about how it should be built and what it should look like. While we have each done our fair share of DIY projects, furniture builds and renovations, we had never stick-built a building from the ground up and the thought of it was a little daunting. I was adamant that I wanted an all-white, cottage-style building with lots of glass. Randal has always loved the idea of designing and creating a post-and-beam-style building. Knowing I was planning to paint everything white, along with the fact that his design would require the two of us hefting four-by-six timbers, I couldn’t see the point of all that extra work. I also thought the rough-cut beams would look too bulky and masculine for my cozy-cottage-style dream building.
What happened next determined the entire build, which led to both of us getting our way—a beautiful compromise.
While still in the very early planning stages we visited the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Rockport to see if they had any doors or unique windows we could use for the project. As fate would have it, they had a collection of 10 matching windows—tall, double hung, chippy white windows with galvanized hardware and the frames (mostly) intact! There were eight of one size and two that were just a bit narrower. We both immediately knew—these would be perfect! Four windows to a side, with the two smaller ones on the end. Perfectly symmetrical (which was going to be difficult with the various size windows I had been planning to use) and, more importantly, easy to frame for our limited building skills! We got a great deal on the windows with the money going to a great cause. Randal began drawing up the plans and I began the hunt for doors and windows to fill the gaps.
In early April, we began by leveling the ground and preparing the land using a small excavator borrowed from our good friend, Brian. We had the timbers delivered and I was eager to get started. I remember the conversation as Randal was leaving for work one morning. “We need the ground level and the base timbers set and leveled first,” he told me. “Then we can start framing the walls.” By lunchtime that day I sent him a picture of those things done with the caption “All set.”
And so it began. I would do as much as I could during the week without him and we would work some nights and weekends together on the big stuff. Randal (whose office is next door to our home) would find himself coming home at lunch to check the progress, many times getting caught up in working on something with me before heading back to the office with sawdust on his clothes to finish the day.
Again, the project proved to be a nice distraction from other demands. Two major areas of concern, and beyond our expertise, were making sure we framed and attached the roof correctly (kind of important from a “we don’t want it to collapse” standpoint) and installing the windows so they would open and close as they should. We were able to borrow the professional skills of Randal’s childhood friend Mike, who generously (and patiently) guided and helped us in those areas for a couple of weekends we spent working together and catching up.
Our daughter, Emily, was just getting ready to graduate high school and had been stuck at home remote learning for a great part of her junior and senior years due to the pandemic. While she has little interest in building things with us (yet), she would cheer us on from the sidelines—bringing us cold drinks on hot days spent working on the project and humoring us as we explained every “neat” little detail of what we were doing. She even followed me around one afternoon while I taught her how the chop saw worked and how to use the nail gun to put on the exterior window trim. Using rough-cut lumber and old windows (some with missing or rotten sills) is not precise work and I remember reassuring Emily that building most things was “not usually this hard” as we would go back and forth from window to saw because each window, while technically the same size, required different measurements and cuts. She may never build another thing in her life, but I love knowing that by watching the process she can appreciate the work that goes into a project and know that she can do it too if she chooses.
The building itself has a unique story to tell and is made up of pieces of local history from all over the state, as well as locally milled lumber and building supplies from N.C. Hunt in Damariscotta and Jefferson. Picking up old windows and doors in Bangor, Blue Hill, Rockport, Rockland, Friendship and Searsport, as well as reclaimed brick from Scarborough, provided perfect opportunities for family road trips and days of rest and recharging—something we all enjoyed.
Each trip to pick up something (usually found on the Marketplace) brought a conversation with new and interesting people—all excited to hear about our little project. We found beautiful scenery, tried new restaurants and usually made a day out of the trip—while bringing home a cool new window or the perfect doorknob. A win-win.
One of our favorite places for windows and unique parts and pieces is the Treasures & Trash Barn in Searsport. Jeff, the owner, has everything you could possibly want—a repurposing candy store! It was during one of our early morning coffee dates overlooking the project that I boldly declared, “We need more windows.” The building was framed, the 10 main windows installed, and I had just laid the beautiful reclaimed-brick floor. From my comfy window seat above, I could see the brick floor inside the building and knew it was too beautiful to cover up. I wanted to see it from the outside, too. And the space under each window, that I had intended to fill with siding, would need a window—a reverse transom of sorts.
We would need to find the perfect window, the perfect size, and we needed eight of them. Sure enough, a call to Jeff confirmed he had many small windows, like we knew he would. We took some measurements and made the drive, coming home with all the windows we needed and many other treasures we just couldn’t leave behind. With our newly acquired window installation skills, Randal and I were able to install all the stationary windows ourselves and after watching several YouTube tutorials we even made the large triangular plexiglass windows in the peak of the building.
The story of building the greenhouse/potting shed, while so rewarding in the end, didn’t come without hurdles and hard days. Days of being tired and physically worn out, days when I had to learn a new skill, or try to do things with two hands when I really needed six, days when I thought I’d rather do anything else but paint another piece of rough-cut hemlock while standing on top of a ladder, which was itself balanced on top of staging.
But it wasn’t until the end of July that the biggest hurdle was thrown at us. Randal, after experiencing some more than usual fatigue and other symptoms, was diagnosed with a leaky heart valve. The condition, a defect that was caught with some routine testing and may have been there since birth, had worsened over time. It would require open heart surgery in September. The whole world stopped as we took the news in.
In terms of the project, it seemed a no brainer. I told him we would just wait and finish it next spring. Installing the clear roof panels, which was the last part that I would be needing help with in order to get the outside buttoned up before winter, would just have to wait. But after the initial shock of the news and with a surgery date set, Randal was determined to help get that roof on. So, on August 15, just over three weeks before the surgery date, with Randal hovering above the building in the bucket of a borrowed bucket truck and me and a friend we had hired to help perched on ladders below, we managed to get the roof on and capped. It wasn’t easy—and in hindsight we should’ve probably done it before we hoisted the roof onto the frame in the first place—but it was done and now we could relax and prepare for the days ahead.
After a successful surgery and a few weeks of recovery at home, Randal was eager to resume his role in the project. Not allowed to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk, I made sure he only watched and took progress pictures from his comfy chair in the window as I painted and trimmed the inside of the building. He offered advice and walked me through what needed to be done when there was a particular cut I was unfamiliar with, or an unanticipated obstacle I stumbled upon.
One of his first walks outside after the surgery was to the potting shed, where I let him lift a razor blade and help me scrape paint from the window glass. Since then, we have had many walks to the orchard, stopping at the potting shed so he can rest and see the progress. We have been able to sit together and watch the sun set through the French doors just as we had planned.
As time has gone by, and more of his restrictions removed, we are enjoying going out to find unique pieces to furnish the building and put the finishing touches on the inside. A chandelier I bought and upcycled from a lady who sells used furnishings to benefit a local nonprofit, Steppingstone Housing Project, now hangs between the beams. An antique wooden workbench that came from a home on Cape Cod, which we purchased as an anniversary gift to ourselves, will be used as a potting bench. Numerous vintage and antique garden implements, door pulls and hinges picked up from another favorite spot, Elmer’s Barn in Whitefield, can be spotted in the building…
More stories, more memories.
Not long ago, someone saw the building, thought it was beautiful and asked me if it was a “kit”? At first, I wasn’t sure whether I should be offended or proud. We certainly could’ve bought a kit or a pre-made greenhouse. It would have been easier and probably wouldn’t have taken as long to enjoy … my elbows, knees and every other joint in my body would be less sore. But what can’t be replaced by something manufactured is the story—the memories attached to each and every timber, brick and window. The excitement we felt each time a milestone was complete or a new idea had. The way we encouraged one another as a family to build something we could all enjoy together for years to come.
About halfway through the process, after being asked what I would be growing, I went from calling the project a greenhouse to a potting shed. A “greenhouse” began to sound like far too much work and expectation … but a potting shed I can handle. Seeds can be planted, views can be enjoyed, escapes from the noises of the world can be had—and if something new grows, even better.
. . .