Friday, January 29, 2010

How to build a simple hoop house.

We have a wide row garden layout and it worked out perfectly that our 3' wide rows and 2' wide aisles were the right distance for a hoop house to be built over them. Cattle panels are typically 16' long and as such when they are arched over they are about 7' high in the middle when they are bent over 9' apart.

The cattle panels (that you can purchase at any farm supply and a lot of hardware stores) are 50" wide and 16' long. They are arched over to create sidewalls and a roof support so if you want a 17' x 9' hoop house, you will need 4 panels and if you want an approx. 21' x 9' hoop house, you will need 5 panels.

Incidentally, these panels are useful for so many things. If you have the money, buy more than you need as they can be used as arch arbors for growing vining crops or temporary fences in a pinch. The base supports are simply 2" x 6" treated boards on end 8'-9' apart that are secured by 36" concrete form pins pounded into the ground. I pounded the concrete pins in place 9' apart then screwed the boards on the inside. You will need one other person to carry the cattle panel and place it carefully inside the wood 2x6 that will hold it in place.
Click on any photos to enlarge them.

After the panels are in place, I used zip-ties to hold them together along the ridge line where they abutted each other. We then draped the shade cloth over the top. I purchased a 24' x 20' piece of 50% shade cloth that kept our hoop house about 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the garden in summer and enabled us to grow cool season vegetables through June and July. 20' wide allows for 2' of overlap on both ends to hold it down at the base.

Heavy-duty shade cloth.

Some people prefer 50% white plastic that has the shade benefits in the summer as well as the ability to hold heat in during cold weather, so that you can grow your greens all winter long. I have not taken this step yet, but may in the future. I have not had luck with plastic and I hate throwing away huge sheets of it every other year after it breaks down. I do think that the heavy duty shade cloth helps with extending fall greens into November because it holds in some heat at night and minimizes wind damage.

The finished product!

Spring greens in our new hoop house. You can clamp the ends of the metal panels to the boards, and I purchased the clamps when I built this, but never got around to installing them. The hoop house has lasted through a winter of winds without the panels being attached at the base. More importantly is that the tops be fastened to each other, where they abut along the ridge line, so that they hold together as a unit. I use rocks to hold down the shade cloth on the outside at the bottom.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

January garden planning

Winter is a great time to look at your seed catalogs, see what you have in storage and make sure that the seeds you have are in good shape for Spring planting. Sorting seeds is a fun thing to do to get excited for Spring.
Throughout the Fall I collect seeds from my herbs, vegetables, flowers, ornamental shrubs and trees that I want to grow the following year. They typically are prepared for storage and then placed in plastic zip-loc bags, glass jars, plastic containers (honey containers and aspirin bottles work great) and paper envelopes. I then place them in a tupperware that is sealed from mice and stored in a cool dark place in our basement. Some time in January I usually get excited for Spring and get them out to see if there are any seeds I need to purchase and/or new varieties I want to try this Spring. I sort the seeds out and make sure that none are moldy and get excited to prepare my growing room for starting seeds in mid-February. I separate them into herbs, flowers, ornamental trees and shrubs, edible trees and shrubs, warm season vegetables, and cool season vegetables that will need to be started indoors soon. I further separate out my warm season seeds into beans, grains, tomatoes, peppers, okra, etc. and my cool season seeds into greens and root crops so that I have a good feeling that all the basics covered for the next year.

Seeds packaged up and organized for planting!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Root Cellars

I have always enjoyed the beauty of root cellars and the power of the earths soil around a small stone or concrete structure to keep the space a constant temperature, cool in the summer and warm in the winter, a constant 56 degrees year round. I have collected hundreds of photos of root cellars as I have travelled throughout the midwest and southern Missouri in particular. I hope to share these with you later, but I am also happy to share this plan I have found for a solid well designed root cellar that could be built anywhere for probably a couple of thousand dollars. The technology has not changed for hundreds of years, with the exception that new root cellars have more elaborate design allowing for ventilation. Here is a great design that will last for a 100 years or more. The plans are from the USDA from the 1970's, but I have not found newer ones that are any better.

Wine Making

I have never made wine before, but it really intrigues me, especially from the stand point of preserving fruit juice without refrigeration. I am sure that the first wines were juice that fermented by accident and people liked the results and the additional benefit of the alcohol or vinegar, however the first batch turned out. I am sure that for primitive people thousands of years ago and explorers even hundreds of years ago one of the most difficult aspects of survival was getting vitamin C during the winter months when fresh fruit and vegetables were not available. Wine was the cure for Scurvy! With wine they were able to drink their vitamins year round. Now that I am having better crops of grapes as well as blackberries and elderberries, I have been looking around for good websites for making wine. I may try to make some wine this Fall.

Solar Dehydrators

So how has man preserved food for thousands of years? Native Americans used to hang strips of meat on sticks to dry in the sun. Solar dryers are a wonderful way to preserve your meat, berries, herbs, and vegetables. Currently we have an electric dryer that has a very small capacity and it takes a long time to dry food (several days). For the most part, we have stuck to fruit, tomatoes and peppers for drying, but this summer I plan on building a large capacity solar dehydrator that hopefully will be able to preserve vegetables and jerky as well. The link below is to an article on what I think is the best dehydrator I have seen so far. It costs a couple hundred dollars to build, should last years and is totally free to operate.

I will let you know how construction of this goes later this Spring.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Vegetables we have had success with

Vegetables we have had some success with (all heirloom)

The definition of heirloom I use is varieties of plants that have been passed down for many generations (proven) and seeds tend to remain true from year to year even when they are openly pollinated. We keep the seeds from the best vegetables each year at the end of the growing season to plant the following year. Many hybridized seeds will cross pollinate with other varieties of the same vegetable and so if you keep the seeds at the end of the season, you do not know what you will get the next year. Below is an article on how to save your own seeds:

A good days harvest in early August!

We have had a lot of success with the following vegetables:

Arugula, Kale, Chard, Spinach, Lettuce (Hoop House):

Here is our garden in spring. We have just planted the tomatoes (on the right) in wide rows. We are just starting to build the hoop house over the cool season vegies. You can see them inside the boards that will be the support for the future hoop house. Wide rows are the only way to go with your garden. The basic idea is that with wide rows you can get 5 times more vegies in the same amount of space as if you planted single rows, because you do not have all the wasted space between the rows.

Here are the lettuce, Arugula, kale, spinach, chard, radishes and carrots mid summer under 50% shade clothe of the hoop house doing great. You can see how this is a more effective use of space than a single row of lettuce with 3' aisles on both sides.

Tomatoes, Peppers and Tomatillos: All need a lot of sun and are grown best with tomato basket supports. I have the best luck with grape, cherry and banana tomatoes as they produce so much and they don’t get big enough to crack or rot. The biggest tomato I grow is a Roma. Larger tomatoes tend to either grow very slow or really fast after a rain and split. I have learned to not fight whatever comes difficult. Why try to overcome the obstacles of growing difficult tomatoes when there are so many varieties that are easy. This is true with most vegetables.

Tomatoes are the best! Cherry and grape varieties are easy and produce all summer long.

Tomatillos are fun, easy and make great salsa! They grow just like tomatoes, in full sun. They need support or they will vine along the ground and take up a lot of space.

Beans are our best protein staple other than nuts and they do very well. We grow them in tomato cages so that they can vine up and be supported. Soybeans and bush beans can support themselves. More on this later!

Peas do well in spring and fall and they also grow on tomato cages in our garden. More on this later!

Asparagus is an absolutely perfect plant as it is perennial and it requires no care. We get new shoots for about 2 months from spring into early summer. Every garden must have asparagus. Pickled asparagus is almost as good as pickled okra.

Carrots, Potatoes, Beets and Turnips do better in our garden every year. Each year our soil gets better and looser and deeper and you can tell by the length and quality of our carrots. The more compost we add to our native clay soil the better our root crops do.

These potatoes were planted barely in the soil and then covered with 6" of straw. It was amazingly easy to harvest. We just pulled back the broken-down straw and the potatoes were right at the surface of the soil. I did let this patch get pretty weedy over summer.

Peanuts of the Jumbo Virginia variety are great. We have not had as much luck with the Spanish varieties and I think they produce less per plant.

Peanut harvest
Picking peanuts out of the ground is super fun.

Onions, Garlic: More on this later!

Chick Peas: More on this later!

Soy Beans: More on this later!

Cucumbers, Zuchinni, Squash: We love spaghetti squash and butternut, but all the others are a waste of space in my opinion. We have several types of cucumbers. They are great producers for the amount of space. I love this apple cucumber we get from It is great to eat whole like a round apple, as the name implies, as well as some pickling cucumbers and a Marketmore variety. We also love a Gherkin Cucumber we got that is an amazing vine. It is self seeding since the first year we planted it and is so hardy I actually have to weed it out of parts of my garden. This Gherkin has tiny fruit that are about the size of a quarter, but it produces all summer (until frost) and a single vine growing on a tomato basket will produce hundreds of fruit. I have found that Gherkins, Tomatoes, Huckleberries, Arugula and Ground Cherries are some of my worst weeds as my garden matures. It’s a good problem to have.

After growing seeds indoors, to get them started prior to the last frost in spring, we gradually move them outside to harden them off before they go in the ground.

Some vegetables require too much space for the amount of food you get in return. Sometimes we grow pumpkins because they are fun to have, but I have found that most pumpkins and melons are not a very efficient use of space.

I have had very little luck with wheat, corn, and broccoli as corn requires too much nitrogen and depletes the soil and broccoli is hard to get the heads to produce before worm damage sets in. I am convinced that each area is different and the best thing to do is to start growing seeds of different vegetables to see where you have success and keep those seeds while trying new ones each year, adding to your staples.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Fruit Trees and Berry Bushes

Fruit Trees that don’t need to be sprayed

You may have a friend who has a fruit tree or berry bush that they inherited with their house and they do not know what variety it is. Or maybe you just want to get some fruit trees and berry bushes for free. My goal is to find fruit trees that are not sprayed and still produce good fruit. I specifically look for neglected trees and grape vines that have decent looking fruit on them. If you want a beautiful glossy apple with no blemishes on it, you will have to spray gobs of pesticides on your trees, but if you want very tasty fruit that may not be as large or pretty as store bought fruit, keep your eyes open as you walk in your neighborhood or are driving around town. If you see a Pear tree in a neighbor’s yard that has nice fruit, ask them if you can take a cutting to attempt to grow yourself. It will do no damage to the tree and you can grow a free fruit tree. Not all trees, vines and shrubs are easily propagated by cuttings, but many are. Grapes, Elderberries and Blackberries are particularily easy. Give it a try. What do you have to lose?

These apples may not have store quality fruit, but they produce well without the use of chemicals and they taste great.

Grape and Paw Paw cuttings in tall pots of perlite in a tub of water to keep moist.

Grapes growing in a mixture of perlite, peat moss and compost before being planted.

Some basic knowledge of plant propagation can help you turn one specimen tree, berry bush or grape vine into many for you to grow in your own yard. Here is a link to a good website to learn about propagating plants:

Here is a great article about grafting the fruit bearing top of a tree to hardy root stock:

The following is a list of some of the fruit trees we currently are growing. I hope to get more good photos up soon.

Crabapples with large tasty fruit. Many types of crabs do not require spraying and they have very tasty fruit, albeit smaller than full size apples. More on this later!

Plums: Native and varietal. I really like our native plum. The fruit is sour and about the size of a cherry, but it is very hardy and a reliable producer. More on this later!

Apricots: Manchurian and others. More on this later!

Pears: Asian Pears that do not require spraying and are sweet as can be. They taste like candy. More on this later!

Peaches: I got a great variety from an old timer at a seed festival in Mansfield, MO that he got from a farm in Dent Co. Not a great looking fruit, but reliable and does not require chemicals. More on this later!

Apples: Some require so many chemicals that they are not worth growing, I look for neglected looking trees on old farms and either collect some seeds or cuttings (with permission of course). Make sure they are not grafted by looking for a knobby growth near the base of the trunk. If there is a knobby growth just above the soil, it is probably grafted and you will not likely have success with a cutting. On grafted trees, often the fruit bearing portion is not very hardy and that is why it is grafted to a hardy root stock. You can take a cutting and graft it onto a hardy root source, but that is pretty advanced.

Cherries: Black (native) and Bush Cherries. More on this later!

Persimmon are native to Missouri and we happen to have some choice trees in our woods. Not only are they a beautiful tree, they taste good when ripe. they are almost mushy-soft when ripe. You have to be careful to make sure they are all the way ripe before picking or else one bad fruit can ruin a whole batch of jam. If you eat a bad one, it will make your mouth pucker up like nothing else in this world, but a good one is sweeter than molasses. There are some Asian varieties I want to try that have larger fruit and are less astringent than our native tree. The large fruit varieties can be dried like prunes as well.

A small harvest in October 2009.

Paw Paw: More on this later!

The following is a link to a great fruit growers guide from Missouri State U

Berry Bushes

We have had great success with blackberries, blueberries and strawberries. We are seeing a lot of promise with chokeberries, elderberries and our Concord Grapes (very reliable), but because we got them planted later than the other berries we will have to post more on them later. Raspberries are growing, but yet to produce much. Native gooseberries continue to be a favorite of my kids, but because they are so prevalent in the woods around our house, we do not have to plant them. If you have never had one, think of a sweet tart without the sweet. They make a great pie with plenty of sugar added.

Blackberry bushes are very hardy and reliable. They can be aggressive and send up shoots where you don't want them.

My son picking Blackberries.

Me planting blueberries and strawberries in our newly tilled garden in 2007. Almost all berries like acid so I planted grapes, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries around the perimeter of our entire garden (inside the fence to protect from critters). Grouping of plants with similar soil needs can greatly reduce the time it takes to care for your garden. Our soil is clay so I had to add a lot of peat, sand and compost prior to planting. My daughter picking blueberries!

We have had great strawberry production. There are several weeks in June where the kids come inside with multiple bowls of berries. We grow the strawberries under the blueberries and grapes in a 3-4' wide swath around the entire vegetable garden. See: Our Vegie/fruit garden 2009

My daughter helping me pick strawberries!

Concept Plan for a Sustainable Farm

Here is a sustainable-living concept plan for a 1/4 acre home in an urban setting. I hope you can get some good ideas from it for your own home! Following this plan is a concept plan for a home on acreage. Click on the plans for larger views!

Below is a conceptual plan for a hypothetical sustainable farm that could be created on between 2-10 acres. Our own home is on 2 acres and as such we do not have any animals other than pets. We would like to have chickens, but our covenants do not allow it. Obviously this plan is just an idea and would have to be modified to suit your site. We started out with a ranch home that is not a stellar example of passive solar architecture or earth contact, but like so many things in life, you make do with what you have. Very few of us can start building our own Eden from scratch with the budget we desire.

Some things we have found particularly beneficial is siting the garden below our home so that we can collect the rain water off our roof and store it in a 500 gallon barrel to irrigate the garden. This may or may not be possible at your homesite and of course you want to also consider where you have the best sunlight and the richest soil. We have built our garden fence with our dog run area around the garden. This has proven to be very valuable in keeping the deer and rabbits out of the garden.

What sustainability means to me!

More great ideas are available at Mother Earth News online:

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Nuts and beans are a great source of protein!
We have a lot of native Shagbark and Shellbark Hickories in our Missouri woods. I think that Hickories are the best tasting nut that will last through the winter without refrigeration. We are also growing 3 Chinese Chestnuts and 17 pecans. They are outstanding fresh and for about a month after harvest, but they go bad really soon because of their high oil content. Hickories and Walnuts will last a lot longer in their shell in dry storage. If you want to store Pecans and Chestnuts for long periods of time, you must shell and freeze them.

This is one of the best tools we have. You can pick up these nut crackers for about $20 in several nursery catalogs. I just ate these Hickory nuts 4 months after harvest and they were great.

We are not set up to process our own native Black Walnuts, so we take them to a country store where the kids can sell them. We are growing Carpathian English Walnuts, but have not yet had any nut production.
They utilize everything. The Walnut meat is sold for candy products and cooking. The shells are used as an industrial abrasive for many uses including oil drilling and polishing metals.

Our Vegetable/Berry Garden Summer 2009

Please view the photos below. The notes on the photos describe what we have done. I hope you enjoy our photos.

A view of our garden early summer. We got a late start because this part of the garden was torn up for utility work in the Spring.

Check out Construction Kid by clicking above. It is a wonderful kids movie where Sawyer, a 5-year old, learns to build a house from grading the site and concrete work all the way through framing and finish work. He has lots of help from real contractors along the way!

Our hoop house allows us to grow cool season vegetables nearly year round.

An easy to build hoop house.

Cool season carrots, kale, chard, lettuce and spinach mid-summer.

Asparagus, tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, and huckleberries mid-summer. Notice the grapes, strawberries, blackberries, huckleberries and blueberries around the garden.

Our simple 4' fence with 6' posts allows for grape growing and rabbit control. The 6' height of the top wire keeps the deer out and the 2" x 4" welded wire fence fabric keeps the rabbits out. A big help comes from our dog run area being on 2 sides of the garden to scare away any critters that might otherwise be able to penetrate the garden fortress.

Grow your own food

Indoor tropicals that are fun and edible

We have a lot of fun growing small fruit bearing tropicals indoors. We put them outside when concern for freezing temperatures is past and they come inside in the winter after they have been pruned back to save room.

Orange, Tangerine, Lemon, Lime, Avocado, Pineapple, Aloe and Carissa in their winter home, a west facing window.

My son collected some Kukui Nut seeds when we were in Hawaii. He brought them home and planted them and now we have Kukui Trees in our kitchen. I will let you know if we get nut production.
Kukui Nut Trees in our kitchen for the winter.

Growing Herbs

With herbs, a little bit goes a long way and because there are many aggressively spreading herbs, we like to grow them in containers, on our deck, close to the kitchen. Most herbs are easy to grow and selection is per individual preference for cooking. Herbs are an easy and fun way to get started with plants.

Herbs just getting started in Spring.