North Shore Gardening Life

Days Until First Frost

The Greenhouse of Vilis and Magi Nams

By Elizabeth Spence

Vilis and Magi Nams live in a clearing in the forest.  They have a large garden with a fenced-in area for growing their own food.

Since the winters can be long and brutal here on the North Shore, they decided three years ago that one way to extend their growing season was to build a greenhouse creating a warmer microclimate, in effect.

The first thing they did was to go and visit everyone they knew who had a greenhouse, pick their brains and do a lot of research online as well.  They developed a general idea of what they wanted.

They went scrounging for windows and found some large ones, second-hand, that were perfect for the purpose. 

Trouble was, there weren’t enough of them.  So Vilis, a retired professor of animal ecology, went back to what his father, a carpenter, had taught him, and made more windows to fit.

Then the real design started.  Magi, a biologist and writer is extremely artistic, and she took the reins here and came up with the layout of a beautifully symmetrical building.


  • The prevailing wind comes from the west. They wanted to take advantage of this by having the opening windows and door positioned on a westerly axis to provide maximum ventilation.
  • One of the longer walls then faced south to take advantage of the sun.


  • The size of the greenhouse was dictated by the size of the windows. So that was a given.  It ended up being a 10’ x 18’ rectangle, with a height of 8’ 10” from the ground to the crossbeams holding the roof..


  • The windows were made of wood and single-pane glass.
  • Poles were embedded into 4’ holes in the ground and cement was poured around them.
  • Individual footing cement base was installed.
  • The horizontal main structures were 2”x6” raw hemlock boards


  • Boron rods were inserted into the bottom of the uprights to ward off decay.
  • Polycarbonate, not glass, was used on the roof, mainly for ease of handling and lightness. It was installed over laths attached to the rafters.
  • Metal roofing (18” high) was used around the base of the exterior to provide protection. It was also used as a ridge cap.
  • Insulating spray was used everywhere to stop drafts.


Internal Design 

  • The first essential was to have a 4” path down the middle so that a wheelbarrow could go in and out.
  • Two 12” high raised beds were planned on the either side of the path. They were to be made of hemlock sourced from a local mill.  A raised bed is much easier to work with than bending to the ground all the time.

A place for sitting and enjoying the fruits of their labours and the peace and quiet in their greenhouse was also very important to them.


  • Ventilation consisted of four opening windows opposite the door.
  • No roof ventilation was planned.


Once everything was up and the wood was stained a lovely mid-brown colour, it was time to start setting up the inside.

First thing: getting wood chips down on the path.

Then:  filling the raised beds.  On top of the natural earth, they used a layer of wood chips, a layer of native soil and then a loam/compost mix on top of that.  No digging!  Every year they top up with their own compost.

Setting up a sitting area with brightly coloured chairs.  I wonder if Vilis plays his cello there on a quiet evening, the gentle breeze carrying the dulcet tones into the forest.

Still-to-do: repainting chairs. inserting screens; setting up barrels to collect rain water.


There is no electricity or strings of grow lights or anything like that in the greenhouse, so everything relies on natural daylight. 

The greatest benefit from the greenhouse has been extending the seasons of growth – starting vegetable seed much earlier than you can outside, and keeping plants going for much longer at the end of the season.

It is lovely to be able to plant things like kale and other cool-weather crops in the fall, and then to seed spinach in January and have them all succeed magnificently all summer long because the beds never freeze. 


Vilis and Magi swear that apart from growing faster, the veg and toms have a “softer” taste, they are less coarse and not bitter at all.

One thing they have learned is that it is very easy to overwater, so they advise caution on that front.

They also find they don’t need to use artificial fertilizers apart from a bit of lime now and then.  The soil in the raised beds looks after itself because there is so much organic matter in it.

The first thing on their “still-to-do” list is to paint the bright pink chairs and table another colour, since hummingbirds are attracted to pink, and are less likely to hit the glass trying to get at them.

In the spirit animal world, the hummingbird represents freedom and perseverance.

What with the amount of work and the determination to do everything themselves, these qualities most definitely describe Vilis and Magi – down to the ground.

Copyright © Elizabeth Spence. 2024

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One Response

  1. Thank-you for this inspiring and informative post and to the Nams for sharing their techniques, materials and outcomes.
    This article is a keeper for future reference for me as we plan to construct a greenhouse next season.

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