When we built our second shadehouse, one of the design challenges was what to use for growing benches. We have visited a number of greenhouses, large and small, and have seen a few great configurations. But what would work for our situation — a relatively small shadehouse (6′ x 8′) that would eventually be relocated (we rent our property) — was proving more elusive than I thought. Metal commercial benches are very expensive, and I didn’t want to invest so much in a temporary location. Wood, the standard choice for slatted benches, is rather heavy. My husband cast a wary eye towards building the benches and then unscrewing all of the wood pieces to transport. He also very well knows that I like to change things and constantly have ideas for improvement.
That’s the prelude to stumbling upon an unexpected solution that has become the indoor and outdoor mainstay of our orchid growing areas: epoxy-coated metal restaurant shelving. This is the industrial version of what you would see in a home pantry, or as pre-made shelving units at a big hardware store.
These particular shelving systems are designed for use in “moist” environments: walk-in freezers and refrigerators, and dish-washing areas. They are built to regularly get wet, get cold, and be used commercially for years.
Before I elaborate on our many uses, the caveat for anyone considering these for their situation is to consider their local humidity and temperatures. We live in central California, with a dry season in the summer, and cool, wet winter. Temperature extremes are 25-100F, with the “usual” being summer nights in the 50s and winter nights in the mid 30s. Standard daytime highs range from the 50s (winter) to 80s (summer). Our outdoor benches are all covered (in a cold frame shadehouse) or under polycarbonate roofing. They don’t get rained upon, and, in the summer, they dry off relatively quickly (a couple hours at most) after watering or misting.
That being said, after a couple years, the benches are almost all still in pristine condition, both indoors and outdoors. The exceptions to “like-new” condition are a few small hangers that extend out from under the roofing during the summer, and have been exposed to direct sun. These have faded to a light color and look weathered.
What makes great growing benches
There are several versions of these wire shelves, with different coatings. We exclusively use the “green epoxy” version made by Regency Shelving since it is designed for wet conditions. (Other coating types are intended for dry storage or displays).
What makes these work so well as benches? First, they are designed to support up to 300 lbs per shelf — zero sagging with two rows of large Cymbidium pots. Second, they come in a wide variety of sizes: from 24″ – 60″ long and 14″-24″ wide. I’ve found that the 18″ and 21″ widths are most versatile; they also accommodate standard plastic pot trays.
Third, they can be assembled, disassembled, and stacked easily. You can set the height of the shelf anywhere from 6″ to 72″ above ground, depending upon the legs that you select (legs come in sizes from 14″-84″ tall). Each leg is individually marked with height lines so you can even level the shelf without too much fuss.
Also, for stability, we have created tiered benches — both stacked vertically and tiered horizontally. It is much easier to view and reach pots when there are two 18″ shelves, separated by 12-18″ in height, than to reach across one 36″ deep platform. We use these horizontal tiers both in the shadehouse and for our indoor cool area with LED grow lights.
Going beyond benches
There are rather unexpected applications of the accessories for these shelving units … I cannot imagine what the restaurant originators would think seeing a line of mounted orchids on them! You don’t see the accessory options offered at stores, and I only discovered them when perusing the online catalog.
The shelf systems offer a series of cross bars (14″-48″) and 6″ hooks that can be attached to the legs, either supported on each end by a pole, or, for lighter applications, just anchored on one pole. With these, I have used the tall leg poles (72″ or 84″) to make a series of hanger bars for orchids mounted on sticks or in baskets. Similarly, we have utilized the hooks for hanging small baskets or mounts; you can see these in several of the photographs of our growing areas.
In several locations, indoors and outside, I have attached cucumber trellis panels from Gardener’s Supply Company to make a vertical area for hanging cork mounts. The 4″x4″ grid of the cucumber trellis panels is a good size for mounts and the panels are coated with a green vinyl material that makes them waterproof.
To avoid ceiling mounts indoors, we attached the 48″ hanger bars to 84″ leg poles to hang our LED light fixtures, with the benches below. These units are exceptionally versatile for indoor use, from free-standing growing areas under lights to movable shelving in front of windows/doors.
Similarly, outdoors, we have used a wooden garden trellis, attached to hanger bars on 64″ poles with plastic zip ties, to create a frame for a polycarbonate roof over on two sets of benches. This simple roof keeps leaves and debris from a nearby deciduous tree off the orchids in the summer/autumn, and offers rain protection in the winter.
Finally, we created a 24″ cart on wheels for smaller plants, so we can offer the excellent eastern light that comes into the house through glass doors to Phalaenopsis and Paphiopedilum. I simply roll the bench cart out of the way when I want to open and close the door. In the winter, the cart just stays put and we add a hanging bar for a basket or two to winter indoors.
I hope the photographs of our growing areas, and the brief description above, sparks your imagination. I am very pleased to have maximized the horizontal and vertical indoor growing space that we have, both under grow lights and in front of six glass doors. Likewise, I’ve been able to create three outdoor areas, with different light conditions, to accommodate a diversity of orchids.