Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hoop House 1

It took two days to build. It didn't cost a dime.

I am trying to listen to real farmers. So here's one lesson I can recite, but have yet to learn (and the story of how I am obstinately trying to defy it). Real farmers know better than to try to force an early Spring. Around here, they say mid-May is the time to plant. (Of course, it depends on what you're planting, but...) I have not practiced patience, and this winter is killing me. This time last year, I was planting tomatoes and peppers in raised beds in Arizona.

The Indy Star has run pieces on hoop houses--"greenhouse like structures"--that the USDA is supplying farmers, to extend the growing season. Also known as "tunnels," (low and high), these plastic structures retain heat and protect plants from the elements.

Fortunately, the articles and pictures motivated my Dad. That is all it took to start the project. I've talked big about converting our covered porch into a greenhouse someday, but it needs to come in stages, and I need help.

We used scrap wood from his barn and mine, scrap metal from the roofers, river pebbles Mom and Dad had collected, some kind of wire mesh (I still don't know its original purpose), plastic sheeting from painting the house, and we had all the nails, screws and tools we needed on site.

To make the hoops, we took dry-wall brackets from his barn, bent them to 30 degree angles and locked two into each other so there was no sharp edge, pounded them flat together, then bent them into semi-circles. Voila! Hoops.

I confess I did buy dirt. I needed this mix. Good starter dirt is inert, and I just have buckets of worm compost. Here's something I learned: nutrient-full soil is not the ideal way to start seedlings indoors. Sure, it gives the plants a boost--makes them tall and green--but you want to be strengthening the root system instead. It's all part of the hardening process, preparing sheltered plants to move outdoors. I thought that slowly exposing baby plants to the elements was all you needed to do.

The real problem: I need purely passive heat, from the sun and plastic. If the energy-food balance is off,--if I supply electric or fossil-fuel generated heat and light--I won't be living up to my ideal. From the beginning, I have called this a 21st Century Sustainable Energy Farm.

Alas, "real life" intruded, and the something-for-nothing wish was denied. On the second night, we had snow and the temps dropped to the 20s. The caulking to seal up the corners was in danger of not drying. Without good sealant, I'd have a mess on my hands every time I watered. I found myself running Dad's kerosene heater at full blast, burning fossil fuels--both directly and indirectly, as it plugged into an outlet. (If I were to start on how much propane we have burned this season, this discussion would be moot. That is a more pressing goal, but this project was a fun diversion.)

Was Hoop House 1 a success? Not unequivocal, but perhaps I can call it a compromised success. Actually, Hoop House 1's real test has not yet begun. That starts when I plant the seeds.