"Why explain miracles to your kids when you can just have them plant a garden."
"A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers,
but borrowed from his children."
-John James Audubon
"...Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
My mother had a garden when I was a child. She was a stay at home Mom when I was very young. She took care of me, my older brother Shawn, my sisters Wendy and Kelly, and our dog Skruffy. The little time she could steal away for herself was spent in the garden. I can't remember much of what she grew, but I remember enough to say it was not strictly a vegetable garden. The garden was simple, lined with large rocks that were acquired from around the property. As I remember, it was not well organized, it was not huge, it was not overly manicured.
It was perfect.
Fast forward 30 years, now I am the one who wants to play in the dirt. I do not have any experience or formal training, I have never worked on a farm, I have never had much success with house plants. I just think it is a really romantic idea that people can live off the land, to strive for a simplistic life in this complicated and hurried time we live in. I would like to share with you my attempt to do this the best I can.
For starters, I work full time. We make a decent living, but we are not independently wealthy and do not have sums of money we can dump in to this en-devour. Our kids are involved in sports and are very active, we always have something to do. The time invested in this adventure is nibbled away from what time is left.
We live with family on a nine acre plot, subdivided in to four properties - something pretty much unheard of on Long Island. We are very very lucky. I had grand dreams of a huge hot house for starting the plants from seed, but I knew I had to do it on the cheap. I did extensive research online. Greenhouses can be expensive, regardless of the style. I settled on a custom fabricated hoophouse covered with shrinkwrap. Because the greenhouse needed to be inexpensive, the design and fabrication was provided by me.
Picking the exact spot for the hoophouse was tough. I HATE cutting down trees for any reason. We settled on a location that had a mix of the best sun exposure while minimizing the number of trees to be cut. Christine's brother Tom assisted grading and prepping the site.
New year's day, 2015 was the start.
I found a company online that sold fittings for a do it yourself hoop house. Check out http://coloradometalworx.com I ordered the fittings, hardware and a pipe bending tool from them. Really good quality stuff, manufactured in the U.S.A. I sourced the pipe that was needed at a local fence supply company. I learned that bending pipe by hand is an Art, it takes a bit of finesse.
As with anything in life, the hardest part is getting started. Figuring out the math for the bottom frame, the front and rear walls and the hoops was challenging. I second guessed myself repeatedly, until the first rib was up. Once I got a taste of real progress I did not want to stop. I worked in to the dark each evening. The entire skeleton took four days.
Once I had the structure completed, I called around and found a shrink wrap contractor that agreed to do the work. Rich was knowledgeable and had some great tips. I did not install foundation for the structure. Rich was able to wrap around the frame at the base and affix the shrinkwrap to itself. This was a pain in the ass for him and big money saver for me. In the end, the finished product is perfect.
Our family contributed a lot. Uncle Joe gave us a pair of windows, Christine's brother Peter had a custom exhaust vent fabricated for us. Everyone contributed time and encouragement, which I needed a lot of both.
I forgot to mention that we already owned a small fixed frame greenhouse that our great friends Todd and Ashley gave us. (A pretty awesome gift I might add!) The small greenhouse gets REALLY hot during the day. I was expecting the same from the new hoophouse. Unfortunately, the new hoophouse did not create the heat like our small greenhouse. In fact, it was a disappointment. It was better at retaining heat overnight, but it would just not create that much energy during the day. After falling one more white pine that was on the southern side, it is completely different. In hindsight, I was fooling myself that this would work without taking more trees.
Now that it is up and running, I am determined to using this new space to grow as much food as I can.
(Click the image for more pictures)
Meanwhile, I had another dream to make a reality. The crops outside. I looked everywhere for organic topsoil. It seemed like everyone I contacted had the same quality soil, and they could not tell me much about where it comes from. If I was going to start growing food for my family to eat, I did not want it to have contaminants in it. I finally found a company that had a website with lots of information about their product. Their compost consists of nothing but mulched tree stumps and their organic topsoil is the same stuff, just composted for a few years. They recommended a mix of 1 part mulch, 3 parts topsoil. I took the chance and ordered 40 yards.
We had no idea what we were in for. Everyone pitched in. I planned on east-west oriented rows to maximize the southern exposure. Moving that much soil was a lot of hard work. As I saw it starting to take shape, well, it was pretty exciting.
After the rows were shaped I had to get to work on the irrigation. I chose a black soaker hose to minimize water waste and a battery operated timer. I found both of these on Amazon. Very inexpensive and perfect for the job. The hose is really easy to work with. After I ran out the lengths of hose, I pinned it in place with metal irrigation stakes. The hose cuts with regular scissors and you push on the plastic fittings. No glue, no clamps, no mess, quick and painless.
Once the plants from the greenhouse hit the dirt, it really felt like we had something going. Tomatoes, onions, zucchini, squash, peppers, lettuce, eggplant all went in at once. They grew really fast.
I also set up some raised beds. I filled them with the same soil that was used in the rows at the back of the yard. The soil seemed really rich and I had high hopes. The family favorite is potatoes, so I planted a lot of them in two of the beds. Brooke also wanted a flower garden, so we used two beds for that. The remaining was a mix match of tomatoes, strawberries, herbs and others.
I had a lot of plants to get in the ground. Instead of clustering crops together, I wanted to spread plants around to see if they did better in certain parts of the yard. The rows on the south end of the yard get partial shade during the day. In the end, the experiment was a bust, because for the most part, everything did really. All of the plants on the south end that got shade did poorly. Everything else did really well. I'll consider it a lesson learned and it will be much easier clustering crops next year.
As the season progressed, I kept batching seeds to replace plants as they were harvested. I experimented for the first time with a few different crops. I had never grown corn or wheat. I had great results with both.
Brooke loves working in the garden or in the greenhouse. If I was working on something, she wanted to be right there as well. She is an excellent helper.
While Brooke's flower garden was exploding with color, it was time to harvest potatoes. We were all very excited. The potatoes did really well. Thirty seven pounds of yellow potatoes from one bed. Not so bad considering I had not done anything since putting the seed potatoes in the ground a couple of months before. The irrigation system watered everyday and the large leafed potato plants blocked sun, preventing most weeds from growing. Man were they yummy.
As the season winded down, the harvests grew larger. The veggies were big and beautiful.
Man, looking at these pictures again, I cannot wait for the Spring!