Bioshelters for Year-Round Food Production

Coldframes Manhattan, New York

At the beginning of the 1900s, many modern cities were growing vegetables under glass during the winter months. Truck farmers in these cities, including Manhattan in the USA, and Paris in France, were able to grow significant amounts of food in simple cold frames. I’ve heard stories that some New England states were even shipping fresh winter vegetables to Florida during this period!

Cold frame growing and other greenhouse growing techniques have taken great leaps since those early days. Elliot Coleman has brought season extension to a new level and is the leading expert for small and medium scale cold weather organic vegetable production. Growing under glass has exploded into the industrial realm as well. In some regions of the world, large scale greenhouse farming is so large you can see it from space!

View of Spanish greenhouses from space

The preferred material for many present day greenhouse systems is clear polyethylene plastic film. Cheap, easily shipped, and simple to install, plastic film can be purchased through regional greenhouse supply distributors. Unfortunately even the best thin film is only built to last 6 years. That is a lot of plastic going to landfills! Not a very ecological material to be using…. Yet, I would say it depends.

What if we were to compare the plastic used to grow industrial scale tomatoes with plastic covering a structure that is more ecologically built, for growing food in more ecological ways? Could the use of plastic film on the ecological structure be a better use, in terms of calories collected, and life sustained, then if it was used in a more conventional way? One such ecological structure, a bioshelter, is a passive solar greenhouse that captures the sun’s energy, using it in as many ways as possible to maximize productivity.

Holyoke Edible Forest Garden Bioshelter

In Holyoke, Massachusetts, USA, we have built such a structure. Our bioshelter design was inspired by the early work done at the New Alchemy Institute decades ago, and greenhouses built by Steve Breyer at Tripple Brook Farm. Our bioshelter’s internal systems are a compilation of old and new technologies and techniques. And its low cost construction is almost entirely made up of reclaimed or recycled materials.

The 400 square foot building’s mechanical systems are powered with a solar panel, and it is kept warm by the sun and earth. Inside we grow hardy vegetables, subtropical fruits, aquatic greens, fish, fresh water clams, crayfish, compost earthworms, and soldier fly maggots (the worms and maggots are fish food).

Holyoke has an outside plant hardiness zone of 6, the bioshelter is designed to keep warm enough to mimic a northern Florida winter, zone 9. The 2012/2013 winter will be our first cold season. So far we’ve had the temperature drop to negative four degrees fahrenheit outside, while the bioshelter has stayed warm enough, 30 degrees F, to overwinter a hardy avocado.

Building the bioshelter was an amazing experience, and living with it has been even more mind blowing. We’ve been eating delicious bioshelter grown greens in our meals all winter long. Flying south for the winter hasn’t even crossed our minds.

We are excited to be offering our second year of bioshelter workshops. If you would like to learn more about this inspiring ecological project please be in touch with us. We’d love to have you for a tour some time! Find Jonathan Bates at

Jonathan Bates

As an ecological designer Jonathan’s been co-creating farms and gardens for two decades. He’s a contributing author of the award winning book "Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City”, and owns and operates Food Forest Farm a source for regenerative education and useful and edible plants. A passionate advocate for good farming practices, he’s currently on the board of several organizations including: Groundswell Center for Food and Farming; Apios Institute; and the Perennial Agriculture Institute. He lives and works at Shelterbelt Farm with his family in Brooktondale, NY.


  1. Great article! Greenhouses should be utilized in every backyard in America along with a food forest. As far as plastic is concerned, it can probably be used to make oil after it’s lifespan through a pyrolysis reactor. The oil can be burned in a powerplant or refined to make diesel.

  2. You should really name “plastic foil” name by its full name.
    You talk very likely about Polyethylene foil.
    Yes, this material has only a maximum life expectancy of 5-8 years.
    But there is an alternative.
    ETFE (Ethylene Tetra Flouro Ethylene) foil.
    The life expectancy of ETFE is more than 50 years.
    ETFE is unaffected by UV light, atmospheric pollution and other forms of environmental weathering. The ETFE Foil is naturally a very transparent material and transmits light across the entire visible light region (380-780nm). That’s incl. UV-A and UV-B. A greenhouse with ETFE foil prevent the typical sun burn effect if you raise woody plants in it. UV-A and UV-B are also influence fruit colour and flavour production. A single layer of medium weight ETFE has an approx. 90% light transmission.
    That’s the positive properties of ETFE.

    ETFE is quite expensive.
    There are only a handful producer of ETFE worldwide.
    The biggest one is
    Try to get the foil directly from a producer.
    I’m interested in ETFE quotes from producer.
    I’m still interested in a ETFE greenhouse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button