Clearing the Ground: Proof That I’m a Flatlander Lost in the Hills

I laid out my first real garden in 2009. (That’s it in the masthead; partially planted.) I’d made a few feeble attempts in the previous 20 years, but never had the time or composure to take agriculture seriously.

Semi-retiring to Vermont re-awakened a dormant urge. But 2009 was the year of heavy rains, and that damned blight that destroyed my 27 tomato plants just before the fruit ripened. It was so wet in 2009 that even some yellow squash rotted, the lettuce got beaten to a pulp and drowned, and the watermelon never came up.

On the other hand, we had zucchini, spinach, and lots of snap beans and snow peas – which is all it takes to keep my wife happy. Still, the experience was depressing enough after the heavy labor of preparing and fencing my 27′ x 55′ plot that in 2010 I only planted a third of the space. Then I went to Germany and left the harvest to my wife’s father.

But somewhere along the way I got seriously bitten by the green garden bug.

While I more or less ignored the vegetable patch in year two, I did plant apple, peach, plum, butternut, and black walnut trees, as well as raspberry, blackberry, dwarf cherry and northern loganberry bushes. I fertilized the suffering blueberry bushes my father-in-law had planted in 2003, added a half dozen new blueberries, and tended to the aged raspberry patch on the knoll. I also picked the brains of a new friend who has kept bees for 50 years, then orderd a couple hives of my own. And I built a new tool shed down by the garden.

By late fall, I wanted to get back into vegetable farming – which was too bad; the season was over. But that made me start wondering if there isn’t a way to keep fresh vegetables coming to the table through the winter. It was an itch I wanted to scratch.

Initially, I quietly examined the possibility of starting an indoor winter garden. But short of knocking out the west-facing living room wall and replacing it with a greenhouse (not feasible), I couldn’t imagine how to create enough space to grow enough produce while containing the mess and making it all look presentable to visitors.

I also got increasingly concerned about the printing of money by the Federal Reserve. My business background tells me that the net result of loose dollar printing practices will be high inflation and the reduced availability of goods. Despite the Administration’s assurances, it is an economic fact that we cannot produce enough new gross domestic product to pay back all we’ve borrowed. For every dollar Americans earn this year, we owe $2.50 to our nation’s creditors. That’s like saying you earn $50,000 a year, but owe $125,000 on your credit cards. Imagine the interest payment vs. your income! That’s what we’ve done as a nation. And both parties have had a role in the debacle. Today, we could liquidate all of our national assets, including confiscating every penny owned by private citizens, and we would still not have enough to pay off the trillions of dollars of debt facing us.

Imagining the possible consequences of what we have done got me even more interested in my garden – and in finding a way to keep produce coming to our table all year despite our deep winters.

Then, quite unexpectedly, I stumbled upon the answer three weeks ago: Hoop Houses!

A Hoop House is an inexpensive greenhouse. Inexpensive means I can build a 24′ x 16′ structure for about $300. Jeez! Before I discovered this miracle, I bought a 3′ x 5′ plastic cold frame for a bit less than a third of that!

If you’re not familiar with the Hoop House, it’s made up of a series of metal or plastic pipe bent into arches and secured to the earth. A length of greenhouse-quality plastic is laid over the ribs and anchored to the ground. End walls can be built of wood and plastic with a door, or made of extra plastic in a drop and droop fashion.

Hoop House floor plan w/strawberries pencilled in. Ea square = 1/2 foot.

A twenty-four by sixteen foot “greenhouse” is enough room for three 3′ x 20′ beds, separated by 1′ walkways and flanked by two 18″ x 24′ beds, one along each side wall. That’s 120 square feet of growing space – which is plenty of room for extended fall crops and for growing winter-hardy veggies.

 

Of course, a giant cold frame is not enough to keep vegetables from freezing to death when the temperature drops to 20 below zero. But the genius of the Hoop House technique is in adding a second layer of protection. Either traditional cold frames, or row covers draped over growing produce will keep the stored heat of the earth close enough to the plants that they will survive even bitter Vermont winters.

The double layer of protection keeps the winter wind away, helps trap heat from the sun, and offers a blanket of warmed air close in among the plants. According to Eliot Coleman, who pioneered this idea on his commercial organic farms in Vermont and Maine, that’s enough to do the trick.

I’m now reading Coleman’s books, “The New Organic Grower” and “Four-Season Harvest.” They are my organic growing and Hoop House bibles. (Full information on the books is listed under my “Resources” tab.)

The whole thing is so exciting that I stayed up till 1 a.m. last night, laying out next year’s garden, placing a seed and supplies order, and refining my plans for building a Hoop House of my own.

There it is. I’ve got the bug. I want to figure out the systems that make an organic, self-sufficient farm work. In time I’d like to be able to produce everything we need to feed ourselves on our 10 acres, including meat. (I’ll talk about “grass farming” another time. Totally cool, but not yet on my To Do list.)

Along the way, I want to create a bigger system that takes my homestead as off the grid as possible. If I don’t have to depend upon the “outside” for food, shelter, heat, water, or electricity, it doesn’t really matter what happens to the economy, does it? Whether it tanks or recovers, I’m ahead of the game financially, and I’m truly free to live as I wish.

By gosh, that’s a bit of the Woodchuck rubbing off on me already!