The High Price of Being Cheap

Andrew and I are notoriously frugal. We shop at second hand stores for clothing. We rent movies from the library and call it date night. When we really want to splurge, we go to $5 Friday night yoga, and follow it with dinner from the taco truck on the edge of town (where dinner for two costs $7.50—it’s pretty awesome). Most of the time, this thriftiness is a great boon to us. Starting a farm is inevitably expensive, but by making do and DIYing, we’ve gotten off the ground without going into debt. But don’t congratulate us yet. There is a fine art to being cheap, and as I’ve lately seen, we’ve not yet fully mastered it.


This January, I bought a used heater for our greenhouse. We found it advertised in Lancaster Farming, a weekly agricultural newspaper that covers everything from the price of corn to the crowning of the local Dairy Princesses. While the articles are not always the most scintillating, the classifieds are compendious, and heavily laced with things that only a farmer would want. I found our heater advertised for $250, when a new one would cost me more like $800. I was all smiles when we picked it up in Pennsylvania, convinced that I had scored yet another point for team cheapskate.

As we prepared the greenhouse to transition from unheated winter growing to heated spring propagation, we ran a frost-free hydrant out to the house and laid conduit for electricity as well. I shopped around for a propane company and, once satisfied, made an appointment for them to bring me a tank. Then I encountered my first snag. My heater needed to be vented.

Having never installed a proper greenhouse heater before, I had no idea that large, industrial heaters need vents, nor that older model heaters (such as mine) require extensive lengths of (expensive) B-vent to do the trick (newer heaters are self exhausting. Who knew?) I considered adding HVAC to my list of DIY skills, thought better of it, and called a pro. Seven hundred dollars later, my heater was hung, vented, and connected to the propane tank.

We still needed power, however, for the heater’s fan to run. And here we stalled. A friend who had been helping me with electrical work stopped returning my calls, and I began seeding. At first, my lack of a heated greenhouse did not present a problem. I have six growlights in our freezer room, each of which can accommodate two flats of seedlings. Once my seeds came up and developed true leaves, I moved them out to the unheated greenhouse. The mildness of the spring worked to my advantage—most of the crops I was seeding were unperturbed by temperatures even as low as 31 degrees. The tenderer stuff, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, I kept in the house, under lights.

Last week, however, I reached capacity. The tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants all moved out to the greenhouse. I seeded herbs, flowers, fennel, squash, and cucumbers. The nights stayed warm, and I finally got power out to the greenhouse. On Wednesday night, with the help of our new electrician-friend we fired up the heater. Or rather, we tried. The pilot lit; the fan kicked on, but no flames appeared on the main burners. We tried a second time, then a third. We scanned the manual for clues that we might have missed. Nothing. Regretfully, our friend diagnosed the problem: a malfunctioning valve.

My goal in the greenhouse is to keep temperatures above 50 degrees. Nothing will die unless we experience a frost inside the house, but temps below 50 could stress my tender summer crops. A few degrees below 50 I can tolerate, but when I looked at the forecast for the weekend and saw lows in the high 30’s, I knew that I need to fix the heater or start playing musical transplants (moving plants out by day and in by night—no fun). I called our HVAC guy and he delivered the worst news yet: a replacement valve would run us $265, plus labor to install. I fumed. I stomped around. I shook my fist in the general direction of Pennsylvania. But in the end I capitulated. The valve has been ordered, and in the meantime I wait, with my greenhouse warming by day and cooling by night.

This weekend we received much needed rain: long and slow and kind to the soil. While the break from the perpetual motion of the past few sunny weeks has been good for our office work, I’ve started playing musical transplants. New seedlings have claimed the grow lights, moving the hardiest tomatoes out to the greenhouse in the morning and in from the cold at night. As the clouds linger and the mercury hovers under 40, the seedlings aren’t growing by the leaps and bounds of last week’s summer sun, but all the plants remain strong, vibrantly green, and apparently unperturbed by their nomadic lifestyle. As always, I am reminded, it could be far, far worse.

One response to “The High Price of Being Cheap

  1. That’s why you have CSA members – we’re here to help! I have 6 little hands (plus my 2 big ones) already tuned up for playing musical transplants! Call on us if there is anything we can do to help!

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