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April 7, 2015 - Raised Beds and Hoop House Challenges

One thing that has always been part of us, has been our Do-It-Yourself spirit and our “Life is like a Science Project” mentality.  And like many experiments, there are some  successes out of the gate, but more often we have to live thru a few more set backs before putting our stamp of approval on them.  Sometimes, we have to live through several rounds of trials and errors before perfecting a system.  Sometimes we wonder, why are we doing this and that is kind of the case of our hoop houses we are building for our raised beds.

This one feels more like an object that turns into a creature of sorts.  How hard could it be to place some reinforced plastic on some bent plastic pipe or a  re-purposed garage in a box frame that is on top of wooden boxes?  Well, difficult enough for us to blog about it.

It’s early Spring up here in Minnesota and time for us to get our hoop houses in place, but the challenge is that it is also the most windiest time of the year.  It’s not uncommon to experience 40- 60 mph sustained winds and we see the power of nature with our little hoop houses.  Obviously, we need to dial in the recipe and suggest that you do the same if you are struggling with getting your hoop houses in place.

Last year we started out with schedule 40 PVC pipe thinking we could bend the pipe in a nice curve.  There are a few tricks, but it really comes down to brut force, or a jig that you make and get your heat torch to warm and soften the plastic pipe to assist in re-shaping to a proper form.  With all the challenges we had with getting in harvest, completing the winery building, and getting everything ready for winter, I shelved the whole plan until Spring.  Now, I have a background in plastics and pretty comfortable with my skills and knew what I needed to do, but I couldn’t get to that place where I really wanted to build a bending jig or go and get several little propane tanks for my little household torch.  The other issue I have is working with PVC (PolyVinyl Chloride) material.  It’s very dangerous stuff if it catches fire, because it can release Chlorine gas, which is lethal.  I saw a plastic molding shop evacuate when someone pushed a regrinding machine to hard and a spontaneous fire occurred with PVC being in there.  People scrambled, oxygen masks came out exhaust fans kicked on and the fire department showed up with monitors checking for Chlorine gas levels to ensure it was safe to re-enter the building.  Now, I am asking myself, how bad do I want to go beyond just bending these pipes for these raise beds. Well, not too far and so I brut forced them into the best shape the best I could, but it was really too much of a bend and really stressed out the material.  Plus, the bent pieces of pipe were really springy and I was concern that if they gave way, and sprung upward,  they could ruin the hoop house and maybe hurt someone.  So I called it for a winter to ponder my dilemma over until the Spring.

Here we are and its Spring and my dilemma is in now in front of us to get this sorted out so we can get a jump on early growing, otherwise, forget about it and wait until June.  That’s when it is usually safe to plant this far north.  We have seen late May frost and like all good experiments with Mother Nature, getting defeated by the old gal, really drives us to think we can actually win against her forces….. But we still try and think we can win.  

Another venture to our favorite home improvement outlet and looking at the selection of pipe material again, when I remember that the plumbers on the building used a very flexible “PEX” material for piping our building last year.  I grabbed a chunk of it, gave it a bend, and it had the right flex and proper rigidity needed to do the job.  Gave it to my better half, so she could give it a try.   Bam and just like that we are “high-fiving” and took  a roll of that and now that problem was solved with a few pipe clamps of the same size as the PEX hose.  Then, we stopped by the plastic roll goods, and see that had a roll of the reinforced poly.  Not as thick as what we hoped, but the price was more in line of what we wanted to spend.  Another cost experiment to check out the value vs dropping 4 times the amount for the greenhouse material.  

We are always looking to find cost alternatives, because any material under the alpha and beta rays of the sun are going to breakdown and we have experienced pre-mature failure when the manufacture says it’s supposed to last for ten years, the stuff might last a couple years.  Kind of like a temporary structure that we purchased for our boat.  We had it up for 3 or 4 seasons, when we actually got to see the plastic covering fail right in front of us and saw the snow-covered structure collapse right in front of us.  As a huge layer of snow came crashing down onto our boat, we looked at each other and said, I guess it is time to re-think what to do with boat and frame.  Well, we moved the frame to the raised bed garden to re-purpose that for one our bigger hoop houses, and the boat may just go up for sell to fix that problem.  (We’ve all heard the old story of boats.  There are the two days of owning a boat that are the happiest days of boat ownership and that is the day you buy it and the other is when you sell it… another story).

So back to the hoop house horror story and this time I am traveling for my paying job and my wife decides to tackle the smaller hoop houses.  Now, she has the itch to get out into that soil and wants those houses in place to warm up the soil.  It is amazing how warm a hoop house can get and what is beautiful about the hoop house is that it captures the heat in that space and really super heats up the raised bed in comparison to everything else around it.  When the raised bed heats up, it retains the heat pretty well during the evening and night because of the thermal properties of the box that it gains during these sunny days in early Spring.  Just one layer of plastic film can provide a whole growing zone of improvement.  So we are in growing zone 4B and by putting us in a hoop house we  move to 5B and can realize a growing benefit of an additional 2 - 3 weeks in Spring and Fall that give us almost a total of 4 - 6 extra weeks of growing, which is pretty substantial to us, just by the one layer of plastic.  That is what get us so excited about the hoop house concepts.

We are totally motivated and I get a text from my wife that she went out there to the raised bed garden and conquered the challenge without me.  Then, I get another text with a picture or two of the hoop houses.  I said, “Wow, you go girl.”  She is on a roll. 

Here they were, two structures up doing the job, until the next day when I get a text from her saying that the science project has a small glitch.  Now, you remember that I said, we have some pretty gusty winds up here in the spring time.  Well, the next day she had gotten the structures up, and those 40 - 50 mph winds came through and caught an edge where she had stapled the plastic to the wood box.  That wind came underneath that material and tore that plastic away from the box and here is what was remaining to the hoop house. 

Like all good horror stories, there is villain, a victim, and a theme of good vs evil.  Well, the victim in this story is the little hoop houses or maybe my wife’s disappointment of defeat.  The villain is those damn gusty Spring winds and me traveling; saying, “Just wait until I get back home to give you a hand”.  And the theme right now is evil, but I am sure we will figure it out to get our system working to temporarily beat Mother Nature against her winds for a season or two, until her sun rays break down our plastic, making us start all over again with new plastic.  For now, we laugh and shrug it off and chalk up another experience to all the experiments we try here at Bahrstead’s.