Hoop house first planting

January 28, 2012

1/28/12 first hoop house planting

2pm, 39 degrees out, 75 degrees inside the hoop house, 70 degrees under the row cover

After using Eliot Coleman’s books for reference and researching the particular growing requirements of selected cold hardy seeds, I selected today, January 28th as the first planting date in the hoop house.

Equipped with a hand cultivator and a basket of seeds, mostly from Johnny’s Select Seeds, I began the day I had finally been waiting for, (minus the spring-like mud, ha), since late December.

Seeds to plant...arugula, spinach, radishes, carrots, mache, claytonia, tatsoi

I pulled back the row cover on the first raised bed and cultivated the soil, removing stones and root fragments.

While using the tines of the hand cultivator, I made shallow furrows about an inch apart. When growing greens for early harvest (think baby leaf lettuce), the seeds can be seeded closely in wide bands.

shallow furrows for the seeds

The first seeds to be planted are Space, spinach. Normally, it matures in 40 days, but I expect that it will take twice as long due to the low levels of sunlight this time of year.

small spinach seeds

With the use of Johnny’s hand-seeder, spinach seeds were dropped into the furrow every 3/4 -1 inch. Using the seeder is much easier than trying to pick up one seed at a time out of your palm and dropping it right where you want it.

The trick is to not tilt the seeder down too far or the seeds will come out in bunches. By holding it at a slight slant and tapping the cover with your pointer finger, you can get one seed to fall out at a time as you move slow down the row. That’s the idea anyway. It doesn’t always work.

To load the seeds, remove the plastic insert, added the seed and replace the cover. The seeder’s clear insert has small holes at the bottom edge to selected the seed size that you want to dispense. Notice the numbers 0-5. The 0 is in the closed position. Each numbered hole, 1-5, is a little bit bigger then the one before. Twist the edge of the insert to the size hole that allows the seeds to just barely fit through.

Johnny's Select Seed-hand seeder

After seeding 9 narrow rows of spinach, I seeded, Rover radishes, claytonia (salad-mix green), Nelson carrots, Rocket arugula, mache (another salad-mix green), tatsoi (similar to bok-choy), and scallions. This filled three-quarters of the first row.There was a sense of satisfaction with the first planting complete but also a strangeness of not knowing if and when any of the seeds would germinate and grow. Research says it can be done, but I need the proof to believe.

75 degrees in the hoop house, too warm for a jacket

I replaced the row cover and collected my basket of seeds. It was 4pm,  outside temperature was 34 degrees, inside temperature was 56.2, and under the row cover 52.7. Now we wait.


Spring time mud in January?

January 2012

muddy track

Spring time mud in Maine usually arrives in mid-late March and is a sure sign that Old Man Winter has given up on making our lives miserable, or at least for those of us who see winter as a cold, dormant time of year when nothing grows but the fuel bill.

Mud Season, as we call it ’round he-ya’, is the time when the days are getting a little longer, the sun a little stronger and the temperature gets above freezing during the day. This causes the snow to start melting and run off to start puddling up everywhere you go.

spring time mud in Maine

Tipicditocreps.” That’s not a dinosaur but a scientific term applied to a soil (a clay type) that is widespread in the state. Samantha Langley-Turnbaugh is a professor of Environmental Science and policy at the University of Southern Maine. She says certain properties of the clay favor production of the sticky stuff, unlike other soil types.

“You get mud when the water can’t infiltrate into the soil fast enough, if you have very sandy soil water can run off so you never have mud. You need water staying on the surface of the soil, if run-off is greater than infiltration, that’s when you get mud.”

Why is this important…, it’s only January, and it hasn’t snowed in weeks, so why am I talking about spring time mud?

Since wrapping the hoop house in plastic on December 23, I have been waiting, checking and recording. Waiting for the right time to plant some seeds, checking the hoop house soil to see it if was warm and DRY and recording the day and night temperatures. I knew that it would take a few weeks for the ground to warm up but I didn’t expect the soil to turn to mud!

Well of course, why wouldn’t it be mud season in the hoop house. The temperature inside was rising above freezing everyday and the moisture in the ground had nowhere to go with the ground being frozen outside. By putting up the hoop house in December, I had created my own mud season in January. How ’bout that!

On cloudy days, when the daytime high reached 29.4 outside, it was 33.3 inside. On sunny days, when it reached 36.7 outside, it was 60.4 inside. Pretty impressive sun power, I think. Something would surely grow with these temperatures. However, it was the night-time temperatures that concerned me. Several night recordings showed temperatures around 18.1 outside and only 23.9 inside.

hoop house with two layers of plastic

On January 8th, we decided to add a second layer of plastic to the inside of the hoop house. A majority of hoop houses are built with two layers of plastic on the outside with an inflation fan that keeps the space between them filled with air. The inflated space between the two layers of plastic serves as a layer of insulation. I didn’t have a power source out in the garden nor did I want to run a power cord out there to run an inflation fan. Seeing that there was almost always some air moving up here on the ridge, I figured we could use the wind to our advantage.

Adding the plastic on the inside was a bit of a chore, no, better said, it was a chore. Something that should have been attempted with four people instead of two. We spread the plastic out and worked our way under it while trying not to let too much of it resting on the mud. That might have been the easy part.

While I tried to hold one edge of the plastic up to the top of end wall with two hands, Jamie tried screwing a strip of wood to the collar-tie (piece of tubing running across from one side to the other)  to secure it. Nothing was going well. I was standing on my tippy-toes and getting tired. I couldn’t keep the plastic straight with the weight of the remaining plastic hanging down across my back. My arms were aching, and Jamie was having trouble holding the plastic and the strip of wood with one hand while aligning the screw bit and screw with the other. Funniest home video, maybe, but it wasn’t funny at the time. Once we got the first strip in place, the other ones got a little easier  but still not having fun. At least when we got to the side walls it didn’t feel like we were trying to fight our way out of a deflated plastic bubble.

making adjustments

Okay, so with the second layer of plastic in place, I thought the mud would be a thing of the past. Eventually, the ground would absorb the water, or it would evaporate during the day, right? Mmm…no, not so right. After several warm days nothing had changed, in fact, things got worse. Condensation was building up on the inside and raining down like a spring shower on a sunny day. Nothing but squishy mud from end to end. At night, the muddy ground would freeze, making the inside temperature colder than it was before we put the second layer of plastic up. Frustration was setting in.

I went to the internet, thinking I could find a remedy. Surely, someone out there must have encountered this problem before. A quick Google search for ‘mud in the hoop house’, ‘muddy hoop house’, ‘spring mud in the hoop house’, got me nothing but “The Mud House Cafe”, a song called “Mud in the house”, and houses built with mud. I was beginning to think putting up a hoop house in December was not such a good idea after all.

Then I relied upon some prior knowledge.

In years past, I remembered having a spot in the yard that I wanted to utilize for a garden  but it did not drain well. I had brought in some railroad timbers and raised the growing area with 6-8 inches of soil. This proved to be a good solution. Although, I didn’t want to bring timbers into the hoop house, I could certainly move the soil (the mud) around to resemble three raised beds. It was nearing my first planting date. I needed this to work, or I’d have to be defeated until the real spring mud season past.

What fun, what fun, workin' the mud.

With hoe in hand, I entered the hoop house and closed the door with a good pull to latch it. Immediately, several large droplets of water hit my head. I looked at the plastic overhead laden with hanging water droplets and then to the ground below. I could see boot impressions in the mud from the last time I came in to check for improvements.  Another drip fell silently and hit the soil leaving a pot-mark in the mud. With a sigh, I began in one corner, hoeing the soil away from the side wall. By the time I reach the other end (20 ft stretch), I had sweat dripping off my brow. Laborest work, it’s good for the soul, and the heart! It drives my ambition. Mud or no mud, I would get to the end of the this!

I took a tape measure from my pocket and measured 30 inches from the ridge I had just made. Working back in the other direction I dug with the hoe and pulled the dirt up towards the middle forming a raised piled of lumpy dirt. In some spots the ground was more like taffy then it was pudding. It didn’t want to move without my insistent demand to conquer the force of spring-time like mud.

I worked from one end to the other, while the wind outside shook the droplet down upon my head, playing a tune something like Tommy Petty’s song, I Won’t Back Down“I’ll stand my ground and I won’t back down. Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out, I won’t back down.”

When I was through, I had managed to

raised bed with row cover

make three raised beds, 18 ft long, 30 inches wide and raised 4 inches high with a 10 inch path between them. If this worked like I had imagined, the raised beds would dry out and any remaining moisture could gather in the pathway or along the sides.

1/25/12 Update: It worked! My persistence paid off. In just a matter of days, the soil was moist but not wet. We made some wickets (arches for support) and added the row cover. With the addition of the row cover, the temperature beneath the cover will be as much as 10 degrees warmer than the air temperature in the hoop house. It’s like giving the soil a nice cozy blanket. three row coversSmiles galore from me and the soil!

A new idea comes to life

December 2011

Four Season Farm

After reading Eliot Coleman’s books this summer, I was sure that I wanted to give growing in a hoop house a try. The idea of an extended growing season had really been weighing on my mind since attended the hoop house workshops, at the New England Small Fruit & Vegetable Conference.  And with production ideas needing to be explored for the business grant,  a hoop house seemed like the logical way to test extended season crops. The question was, how soon could I get a hoop house and could it be built before the ground froze solid. After all, I lived in Maine and it was December. Well, if there is a will, there is a way. I never been one to let anything stop my willingness to explore something new, especially if it meant that I would be working towards self-sufficiency. So, the more I read about it, research it, talked about it (a lot), and finally ask for a hoop house as a Christmas present, the hoop house idea became a reality.

Now, no one in there right mind who lives in the northeast, unless maybe if you’re a native Mainer, begins construction of a hoop house from scratch on the first weekend in December. At this point in time, most New Englanders and farmers alike would have packed up the yard and moved activities inside for the long cold months ahead (little did we know that we wouldn’t have much of a winter to speak off this year). One thing for sure, the weather was on our side.  The first project weekend, it was 50 degrees, and the second weekend it was 45 degrees. Quite comfortable weather for this time of year.

24 x 36 hoop house kit with automated controls cost around $5995.

Hoop houses come in many sizes and can be built as large as 30 ft x 100 ft. Prices range from $1000-$10,000, depending on the size, and if automated ventilation systems and heat are to be included .Here is a nice article by Cornell University on high tunnels, explaining many consideration for building a high tunnel (another name for a hoop house).

Gothic-style tunnels a good choice where winter snow loads are a concern.

When it comes to deciding which hoop house to build, there are several options, 1.) buy a kit complete with galvanized tubing, hardware, lumber, doors, greenhouse film (plastic), and optional heating and ventilation systems. 2.) DIY with PVC pipe, lumber and plastic from your local home improvement store, or 3.) make it out of whatever recyclable materials you have available. We chose option 3.

In October, (just before Acton, Me received 20 inches of snow on October 30th! Thank goodness it melted away) Jamie and I had dismantled a collapsed car port, took it home and had planned to modify and reassemble it as a storage structure for the boat. Somehow though, we didn’t get round to resurrecting the structure. The piece laid in a pile behind the shed until my spark of interest for a hoop house glowed brightly, and Jamie put his engineering skills to work.

October 30, 2011 snowstorm in Maine

10/30/11 young fruit trees under 20 inches of snow

Our working platform was the concrete basketball court out back. It was easy to lay all the pieces to get an idea of how to reassemble the car port into a hoop house. It was like erecting a giant Erector set. There were the galvanized pieces sorted by size, a stack of lumber, assorted nuts and bolts, a step-ladder, and some hand tools. Many of the bent galvanized pieces needed to be cut. This shortened the overall height of the structure from 7 ft to 6 ft. It would still be tall enough to walk in and strong enough to support hoop house type tomato plants.

As the tomato plants grow they are clipped to a string. When they reach the top of the string the fruit is harvested from the bottom branches and then the tomato plant is lowered 1-2 ft. This gives room for the tomato plant to grow upward again. Some tomato plants can grow 30 ft in six months.

Next, we built a wooden base out of 2 x6’s for the 5 ft sides to attach to. Once the galvanized sides and roof pieces were assembled, strapping was added to square it up and make it sturdy. The end walls were built in the garage and carried out to be attached. One end wall was designed with two drop down windows for ventilation and an old screen door fitted with a glass insert. The other end wall, was built with a used louvered vent that was in the junk pile waiting to go to the dump. Good find! It will do the job and it was free!

Ventilation in a hoop house is very important. Temperatures inside should not exceed 95-100 degrees.

On December 18th, with the help of many hands and our 33 HP tractor, the hoop house was moved from the basketball court to it resting place in the south-east garden. It was a little tricky moving the 12 x 20 structure. Jamie and three young men picked up the front end while I was in charge of driving the tractor which was lifting the back end. I was nervous and excited all at once. It creaked and swayed as I inched along, down over the lawn and across the narrow stone path to the south-east garden. A couple of times, I thought it was going to slide off the tractor forks. (I wish someone had taken pictures or a video of this moving event!) But, without any disasters it was put in place, in an east to west direction, with the door facing west. The hard part was over, now I just needed the plastic to close it up tight.

I desperately wanted to wrap the hoop house with plastic before the weather changed. I had placed an order for greenhouse plastic (actually two orders, one for 4-mil DIY consumer-type plastic and one for 4-mil UV protected greenhouse film) several weeks before, hoping one of them would arrive in time to close up the hoop house. But neither order had come in. I feared that winter would arrive for good and the ground would freeze ending my hopes of a late winter-early spring planting in the hoop house.

Then on December 23, I came home from work to find a large cardboard roll leaning up next to the door. Finally, and just in time. I called Jamie and asked him to try to get home before dark so we could wrap the hoop house since snow was predicted to fall that night. So at  4pm we unrolled the DIY plastic and began tacking it in place with strips of wood on the south side. Daylight was waning quickly and by the time we moved to the north side we had to turn the car’s headlights on to complete the task. I chuckled to myself, thinking that no one else would be doing this right now would they, after dark on December 23rd! Ha, so what. You do what you need to do to get results. Just as we were finishing up, checking all the corners, snow began to fall. It was  6pm and the hoop house was wrapped tight. Go ahead, let it snow!

early morning in late December

My dream of winter gardening would soon become a reality! I gave Jamie a hug and said, “Thanks for the early Christmas present.” He smiled.

Exploring new ideas for the farm

December 2011

With just thirteen months to complete phase 1 of the business grant, we had no time to waste. Four of us, attended the New England Small Fruit and Vegetable Conference in Manchester NH. There were so many options to explore, but mainly we focused on hoop house production; root cellar crops; berries, brambles and fruit trees; and cut flowers.

The blackberry is a bramble

With lots of new information, decisions need to be made as to what direction to go in and what to experiment with. Out of the seven siblings involved with the business grant, three of us have working ideas for improving the farm’s crop production. This is not to say that the other four siblings are not involved. Two sisters have accounting and banking backgrounds and are helping out with the financial side of things, one sister is researching marketing ideas and the benefits of fertilizing with seaweed, and our brother is working on a building plan for a future farm stand.

Our sister, Linda, is currently enrolled in a bee keeping course, offered by the University of Maine, York County Extension Service, and will be taking care of two hives this summer. They may be located at Rivard Farm or at the sister site, Stuart Hill, here in Acton. She will also plant corn, beans and squash together in a plot, called Three Sisters Garden.

The Three Sisters all work together. Critters will find it harder to invade your garden by interplanting your corn, beans and squash. The corn stalk serves as a pole for the beans, the beans help to add the nitrogen to the soil that the corn needs, and the squash provides a ground cover of shade that helps the soil retain moisture.

strawberries grown on black plastic

This summer, several plots at the farm, that are currently in hay production, will be plowed in and prepared for future vegetable, herbs, fruit trees and cut flower crops. Additional raspberry plants will be planted this spring along with a variety of ever-bearing strawberries for fall production. Our sister, Annette, will be tending to the strawberry plants, growing them under black plastic, irrigating with a drip system, and picking the early blossoms to encourage plant growth and strong berry production in the fall.

12 x 20 hoop house

My (Diane) project, is experimenting with various crops that can extending the growing seasons with a hoop house. It is my intention to grow year round with very little or no additional heat. Eliot Coleman’s books, The New Organic Grower, Four Season Harvest, and The Winter Harvest Handbook, have been an excellent resource on the subject of four season gardening.

We have a lot ahead of us, but I feel confident that the energy given to this business grant will help pave the way for future productive years at the farm.

Business Grant

November 2011

Last fall, after receiving our acceptance into the Land for Maine’s Future program, we applied for the Maine’s Farms for the Future grant. In November, we were notified that Rivard Farm was one of 15 farms (in Maine) state-wide to receive the grant. Our application scored third highest of the 15 farms, scoring an 89 out of 100. 81 points was the cut-off.

The Farms for the Future Program is a two-step program that helps Maine farmers increase the long-term economic viability of their farm.

In Phase 1, farmers apply to receive a package of services, worth up to $6,000, to work with skilled professionals in developing a detailed business plan. Applications are accepted once a year in late summer. Most of the research and writing of the business plan takes place during the fall and winter months.

Farmers who have completed business plans during Phase 1 are eligible to apply for a competitive grant to implement the changes identified in their business plans. Farmers who are awarded a Phase 2 cash grant receive 25 percent of the cost to implement the changes in their plan. Grants are limited to $25,000 and farmers are responsible for the remaining 75 percent, which may include cash, low-interest loans, other grants, and in-kind services.


September 2011

Jerry mulching the blueberries

In the fall, it is important to give the blueberries a good covering for the winter months ahead. Blueberries do best with a 2-4″ mulch over the roots to conserve moisture, prevent weeds and add organic matter. Bark mulch, acid compost, sawdust, grass clippings, etc. all work well. Buying enough pine mulch to cover three acres of blueberries can be very costly. In our case, Dad cuts down pine trees out of the forest and chips his own pine mulch. He then uses an old modified manure spreader, pulled along with his Kubota tractor, to complete the job.

Another Great Season

September 2011

The blueberry season finished a little early due to the extended heat this summer. But never-the-less it was a record year of picking. Customers old and new alike, enjoyed endless summer days of picking ripe tasty raspberries and plump blueberries. Many overflowing buckets left the farm to find their way into blueberry preserves, muffins, pies or the freezer for a winter treat. Although, Mom and Dad love to socialize with their loyal customers, they were content to see it end, at least with the phone finally quiet, and warm afternoons to sit lazily on the front porch.

Thanks for a great season of picking!