Friday, March 22, 2019

The Greenhouse Edition: The Farm Report 3-23-2019

The Greenhouse Edition
The Farm Report 3-23-2019

Or should it be 'Addition?'

Here is the more-or-less completed Oakdale Farm Greenhouse. More accurately, it should be called a hoophouse or polytunnel. It is a single layer of plastic covering a wood and wire frame. The intention is to extend the growing seasons without any heat source. It isn't a winter greenhouse in the old Victorian terms. I've had several requests to show this structure and tell a little more about how I built it. So, while the seeds are busy sprouting and I have a little time, here it is!

I am adding a lot of pictures this time to show the construction details for anyone interested. If you like gardening, then I think everyone should be interested. Unlike in the Victorian days when bricks and mortar and glass were involved - and lots of money needed, a poly-hoophouse-greenhouse is in the affordable range for everybody. These are essentially a hoop arched fence with a plastic sack covering it. Mine is made mostly from a little wood, some cattle panels and leftover concrete reinforcing wire. 

So we begin. First, select a site. This is my 3d go at a greenhouse, so I wanted to build mine on a more permanent plan. I have lots of space, so I picked a spot on the edge of my field gardens and ran it with the long dimension going east and west. If you get started wrong, then everything else goes wrong. Establish your size based on the available stock sizes of greenhouse plastic and set the corner posts. Get 'em right, and get 'em square! If you were dozing during geometry class, the diagonal distance from one corner across to the other should be EXACTLY the same both ways. If not, make adjustments or you will hate yourself every time you make a move. Trust me. Get it square. 

I used old Emmie, my 1947 Farmall M, with a post hole digger. If you don't have one, there are lots of ways to make a hole in the ground. As I recall, in the Pecos Bill stories, he was trying to make a living selling fence post holes to the public. There's lotsa ways to 'git-er-done' as they say. My posts go about 30 inches into the ground - as deep as the digger would go. 

Once the corners are set, then dig in the rest. I just tamped in soil to hold the posts. Since this is in my field, I didn't want my boys - or whoever follows me - to cuss too much if they had to pull them out sometime. I used 8-ft 4X4 treated posts because they were cheap and available. They are working fine. Just set them down into the ground solidly, and don't worry about how high they stick out above the ground. All will be fixed later. 

As in right now. I wanted a 4-ft high 'knee wall' effect. I'm using commonly available 16-ft cattle panels and I had figured out how much headroom I would have if I used a 4-ft knee wall height. Oh, and by the way, my floor plan is 12-ft by 25-ft long. Why 25-ft? Because for some strange reason, cattle don't work on a 4-ft plan like every other builder in the world does. Cattle like their panels to be 50 inches wide. I'm using 6 panels, so that adds an extra 12-inches, which comes out to 25-ft. 

It is easier to see the cattle panels arched across the span here. TIP: These panels are available everywhere and they are cheap (under $20 each when I bought these). They are strong steel and the steel is tempered. They are big springs! On the first two, we just arched them and put them up in place. The springs kept pushing outward. On the next 4, we 'pre-bent' the panels so they wouldn't push out so much. It worked, but in my haste, I didn't take out the first ones and give them a little bend. I'm sorry about that even today. They push! Also, see the two posts that will form the door? See the boards going up to the panels? We essentially built to fit. The door frames get better later, and the rest of the posts were sawed off to correct height. 

The panels are all in place here, but it ain't pretty. See how they nearly line up? To make the arch one continuous run, I joined each panel with twisted wire. How could a farmer not make something without some twisted baling wire in the program somewhere? I joined each intersection of each panel this way. In the end, I have one continuous arch with integrity from front to back, start to finish. It is strong. Very strong. 

Once wired and joined, you can see the arch looks much better. Also, look at the doorway. More framing material added. I took the cutoffs from the side walls and simply added them onto the tops of the two door framing posts. They don't do much but add to the door frame, but it looks better. 

The threshold pieces are just held in place with a cleat. I built them so they can be removed in the event I want to take them out and drive a vehicle inside. 

You have to stand back and admire your work from time to time. Really. Getting a long distance view sometimes lets you see when unexpected things are going wrong. Or, it looks great and you breath in before quitting for the day. 

The cross arch guy wires help hold the arch in the event of a snow load. More about that later! They also help the arch operate as a single structure during high winds. I have HIGH winds here.

To hold the cattle panels, I just made a ledge out of framing lumber. The panels simply sit on the ledge. Since they are pushing out anyway, it works great. 

Once everything was in place, I added a clincher to stop the panels from being able to lift off the ledge. Again, high wind strategy! 

I added a footer rail. My drawing used 2 X 10 treated lumber. That is what you are seeing in this pic. When I got to the lumber yard, 10-inch lumber seemed huge. I questioned myself. I bought it anyway. When I was putting it on, I questioned myself again. I put it on anyway. Now that it is all done and I am using the greenhouse, I was right all along. You want a big wide footer rail to put earth up against inside and out.

More framing details around the opening. 

The diagonal support members are just cut to fit.  

The bottom rail is higher than the surrounding field/garden. Don't build your greenhouse so it is the bottom of a hole. You'll be walking in water if you do. You want to build one of these for yourself so you'll be so happy you could walk ON water when it is done. Make the structure a little high, and fill in later. 

Most polytunnels or hoophouses don't use this drastic construction I'm using. Most are just bent tubing spaced every 4 or even 6 feet apart, and the plastic is stretched over. I live where the winds do blow! So I build for gale force storms. They happen here all the time. I had some 6X6 concrete reinforcing wire left over from another job, so I added that to give the plastic extra wind support. It is ugly, but it is really working out for me. 

Although it is 6X6, that is just a guideline. The wire isn't very precise, so things don't match up perfectly. Come as close as you can and go on. 

Ragged edges are just part of the bargain. 

To save money and save materials, I cut in pieces where ever I could. This wire is to add wind support for the plastic skin. It isn't giving the structure any strength or integrity. 

Greenhouse suppliers sell a fiber/plastic tape to help protect the plastic from sharp things like concrete reinforcing wire. It comes in black. If you don't like black, then it is a Henry Ford deal: you can have black, or black if you would rather. But it only comes in black. (OK kids: Henry Ford only sold Model T's and Model A's in black. No colors.) 

Every sharp exposed edge got black taped up. 

Call me Edsel if you want, but I didn't like the black. So, I painted the black tape with some brown camo spray paint from Walmart. (Edsel was Henry Ford's son. It's part of the story.) 

So then we put on the plastic. I don't have any pictures of that happening because believe me, we were BUSY! when we were doing that. It was a perfectly calm day, but once we started the Wind Gods spotted us and kicked up a blow. Yikes! We laid out the huge plastic sheet on one side. Tacked it all along the bottom rail footer, then tied ropes to the opposite corners. We hurled the ropes over the arch and pulled the plastic up into place. There were 3 of us doing this. Two held the plastic, and one tacked it down to the bottom footer rail. You want to stretch the plastic tight when you put it on.  

A note about the plastic. This is not ordinary 'builder's plastic' that you might get from a home supply store. This is a special greenhouse covering plastic. It costs more than the builder's supply stuff, but not that much more. The builder's supply plastic will not last 6 months in the sunlight. The greenhouse plastic is guaranteed for 5 years, and many folks say it will last even 10 years if it is supported from the wind whipping it around. I have a little baby greenhouse that has been skinned with the same plastic for 6 years so far. Greenhouse plastic is laminated with a nylon sheet in the middle to give it strength. It is also treated to resist UV light destruction. If you build one of these, use the real thing for greenhouses. 

Because of the way I framed out the opening, I had to do a little black smithing on the hinges. I used common 'T' hinges and bent the long leg so the hinge pin could stick out and align with the far frame surface. I wanted my doors to be able to open and swing all the way back around during the summers. For fancy hinge pins, you'll see I used extra special pole barn framing nails. Because I had 'em. 

Common gate latches are all I need for my doors. No burgelers or thieves here. I do have raccoons and 'possums and coyotes and wind though, so I need something positive to latch and hold the doors.

'And it's just that easy,'  as Red Green would say. I built this project over a two year period from start to finish. I took my time because I was really building this for another person in my life who hated winter and grey days. She needed a sunny warm place to go on bad days. Things somehow didn't work out like I had planned, but what's new? We both got a lot of pleasure designing and dreaming about it though, and that's something.

Lettuce loves to grow in hydroponic basins. These corner shelves and some sweater pans from Walmart work perfectly. 

Actually, those corner shelves are a sneaky way to reinforce the corners. Remember, this thing is really just a fence with a wire arch roof and a plastic bag covering over it. The shelves are glued and screwed into the corner frames as a strengthening corner support. 

Bottom view, for those who care. 

See the doors wide open? During the summer, that's the way they stay most of the time. It gets really hot in there! 

In the winter, it gets really cold in there! 

One storm was a windless, heavy wet snowfall. The arches just couldn't take it. 

The snow load caused them to fail and compress inwardly. 

Remember when I said these panels are tempered steel? Well they are! Once I got the snow off the top, poof! they popped right back into place with almost no damage at all. This summer, I am going to add stiffening 'joists' across the wires to help divert the snow load when it happens again. Thanks to Youtube's Norwegian gardener, I have seen how to do this. We had snow this year, they have snows like this EVERY year.

Well, that's about all I can tell you about my greenhouse project for now. I hope it is helpful to you. All in all, I figure I have less than $500 total invested. If you add in for my time, then we might just as well quit and go to town. But my time was spent doing something I love to do, and it kept me off the streets and out of the bars at the same time. So let's not get into relative labor costs. Pills ain't free either, and I figure when I'm doing something like this, I won't need to take the pills. It averages out.

All is well at Oakdale Farm.  


On December 15, 2021 we experienced a 'Derecho' storm here. Winds blew steady all afternoon at up to 50 mph sustained constant speed, with gusts between 60 to 85 mph. There were some reports of 100 mph gusts. With 4-year old plastic and a bunch of good luck, I am happy to report that my little slice of protected paradise sailed through it just fine, with no damage whatever! There is something about the arched dome that defeats the wind. The wire reinforcement giving support to the plastic skin didn't hurt, either.

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Game Is Afoot! (but watch where you step): The Farm Report 3-16-2019

The Game Is Afoot!
(but watch where you step)
The Farm Report 3-16-2019

The Gardening Game is officially ON! I have begun the seed starting business. First up is leeks. I have for several years enjoyed the BBC gardening shows featuring Monty Don. The English, I have determined, are the real gardeners of the world. They do it in earnest, and they do things in ways that are a little unusual for us. Growing leeks is one thing I have learned to do from Monty Don. Leeks are used in the kitchen as late season/overwintered onion substitutes. In soups and stews, they are delicious. They love cold, and will winter over even in our brutal climate. They take a LONG time to grow, so even though they will be November's crop I need to start them now. I'll teach you how I do it as the season goes on. They are easy and fun. I start them in a little tray with the seeds spread thickly. Not all will make it, so no need to be fussy about spacing right now. Today's goal: Get 'em to grow! 

Here's an English Monty Don trick: After the seeds are pressed down into their growing medium (potting soil) I cover them with stone chips. I'm using granite chips I get from the farm supply store - because I have them. Pea gravel would work too. According to Monty, and supported by my own experience, the stone topper provides heat to the seeds, stays dry to ward off the dread 'damping off' disease, and gives the little sprouts something to push up against driving their roots down into the soil. 

Of course, I cheat every way I can. I also set the trays on insulated growing boxes with an electric heat mat underneath them. The lights are on a timer. Some seeds need light to sprout (like lettuce) while some don't care, and others need dark. I have a piece of black plastic I can lay over the seed trays for the night owls. 

This thermostat controls the temperature in the seed trays. There is a little probe sensor that I stick into the actual potting soil. 

With all the tricks and some heat and good luck, after just a few days, Hey Presto!, we have new little plants up and growing. So far, I have leeks, several kinds of onions you just can't get without starting from seeds and some flowers. Fancy geraniums, French marigolds and this year's planter box flowers: salvia. We alternate the flower boxes in front of the shop each year. One year it is salvia, and the next year it is French marigolds. The marigolds had the jurisdiction last year, so it will be fire red salvia this year. 

I get a farmer's news rag in the mail. It usually has old pictures from the ag days of the past. This one really caught my eye. They are growing celery in Nebraska! So here's today's 'Joyce Story.' Some years ago when we were visiting our sons in Wisconsin we just had to (had to!) stop at the Jung's Nursery store in Sun Prairie where my son Jon and his family live. Joyce added some celery plants to the loot we were going to drag all the way home. I ridiculed the idea, saying it wouldn't grow, it was too cheap to buy, and why would we ever want to grow that!? I was pretty outspoken. She just smiled at me and told me to pay the bill. I did and we left. Time passed. The celery not only grew, it flourished. It not only flourished, it became MY favorite garden veggie plant. Joyce smiled some more. Why is it my fav? Aroma! We (I) discovered that the celery growing in the garden scented the whole garden from morning to night. My morning garden strolls were greeted with that wonderful homemade soup smell of celery! So, ever since, I have grown celery. We never actually used too much in cooking, and certainly never tried to preserve very much of it. But the fresh product out in the garden is worth every ounce of trouble it takes to grow. Stay tuned; I'll teach you how I do it as we go along. You'll probably want some too. 

But let's recap for just a moment. This winter has been absolutely brutal. Did I mention BRUTAL!? This is my good neighbor Steve coming to plow me out for the umpteenth time. His tractors seem to keep getting bigger and bigger as the snows accumulate. Sometime this summer, I'll probably have a picture of my 1947 Farmall M (Emmie) in the show. When you see Emmie, remember that her back tires - the working ones - are smaller than the front tires on Steve's tractor. Emmie has 4 tires including the two little front ones. Steve has 8 great big tires. That tractor is serious business. And the blade ain't kid's stuff either. 

My 1952 Henry Ford 8N has a 7 foot blade. I don't know how long Steve's is, but it is WAY longer than Henry's Blade Could this be called blade envy? 

Out he goes until next time. We both hope there isn't going to be a next time. Thanks Steve - and Brady! 

So even when it is miserable out, there is still some fun to be had. I watched this little squirrel one morning. He was digging for walnuts. He found some too! How do they do that? What was special fun was that the snow was about a foot deep right there where he is digging. He'd dig and dig, then come up for air. He'd look around to make sure he wasn't going to be somebody else's meal, then he'd do a nose dive and only his tail would be sticking up.

It is a little hard to see, but that's him out there with his tail in the air. 

Then March came. Just a couple of days after Steve plowed me out, the weather changed. If you're keeping souvenirs then you can call this the March Calendar picture.  

Tons of snow, then all of a sudden way above freezing temps during the day and a bright powerful sunshine and guess what you get? Lake Inman behind the shop. The water was almost to my shop door, and the pool was almost a foot deep out there. The ground was frozen, so it just sat on top. 

At night, it froze again. My car has been frozen in the ice for about 6 weeks this winter. It is helpless on slick surfaces, but when the tires get frozen into little ice cups, she ain't goin' nowhere. Thank goodness for a 4-wheel drive pickup! 

And in case you are keeping Iowa Shop Window Calendar Pictures, you could also call this one the March Calendar picture. About 4 days after the other one where the snows started to melt, they REALLY melted. Poof! all the snow was gone. The ground is deeply frozen. So what happens? Flooding! Walnut creek, that notoriously ornery little creek, loves to flood. It is an old Corp of Engineers case study in what happens when engineering types mess with Mother Nature. It isn't good. Mother Nature will have her way! The Missouri River is flooding now with record highs. Walnut creek backs up into the Nishnabotna river, which backs up into the Missouri river. Where I live, this all happens within a matter of just a few miles. The ducks and geese love it though. Rumor has it that the Corp is using explosives on the Missouri to blast out the ice floes. This might help get the flood waters out. Rumor also has it that the Corp has opened the flood gates upstream at the Gavin's Point dam. Fun to follow. I can remember seeing people water skiing on the flooded Missouri river bottom in 1960. My Mom reminds me that the floods in 1952 were devastating. We're about to break those records, I fear. 

I think I've found OJ's secret to long life. He uses a charger. 

It doesn't seem to have any negative effects. But he doesn't seem to charge up too fast either. 

Maybe he overheats once in awhile. I don't know but he seems happy. I hope you are, too. Other than that, all is well here at Oakdale Farm.