Back when my parents lived in Manhattan, they had no outdoor space – no patio, no balcony, not even a fire escape. This was a problem, because they enjoy grilling.
No, that’s not really true. They don’t enjoy grilling per se. They enjoy eating grilled food, and grilling is the only way to reliably produce grilled food, so they grill.
In their apartment on 92nd Street, they used to set up a little hibachi in the fireplace and grill their swordfish steak or chicken thighs.
If that was OK to do, wouldn’t other people do it?
One day my little brother Jake happened to stop by as this was going on. He looked at the hibachi, he looked at my parents, he looked at the hibachi again. “If that was OK to do,” he finally said, “wouldn’t other people do it?”
There are two ways to think about precedent. The first is that it makes very good sense to learn from the people who have come before, and do things in time-tested ways that have succeeded, over and over. The second is that it makes no sense to blindly follow the hidebound ways of the people who have come before, doing things in a particular way just because that’s how everybody else did them.
The sensible thing, of course, is to walk a middle path, paying attention to the lessons of those who came before, but with an eye out for how things might be done better. I think, though, that most of us err on one side or the other. We’re either too respectful of precedent, or not nearly respectful enough. If you’re the latter, you might end up dying of carbon monoxide poisoning from trying to grill indoors, or you might end up finding a brilliant new cooking method. If you’re the former, you might end up sitting on the United States Supreme Court.
I’m a precedent bucker from way back, but it’s not because I think it’s the better way to be. It’s because I’m lazy and cheap. And also because bucking precedent is fun.
I remember doing it in seventh grade, in Mrs. Gearhart’s Home Economics class, when she taught us sewing. The whole follow-the-pattern thing didn’t sit well with me and, although I don’t remember exactly what I did, I remember it made her apoplectic. I also remember that whatever modification I made didn’t work very well. No … make that didn’t work at all. But precedent bucking isn’t something you learn, from bitter experience, not to do. Either you’re hard-wired to it, or you’re not. I’m hard-wired to do it.
In fact, I used to think I was a world-class precedent bucker. But then I met Kevin.
Kevin has put quite a few of my personality traits into perspective. There was a time, for example, when I thought I was one of the ten most straightforward people on the planet. Kevin, though, makes me look like Henry James. And, in the precedent-bucking department, he knows no equal. He’s the Ron Popeil of precedent: “Set it and forget it,” he says.
Kevin is neither lazy nor cheap. He just likes solutions that use materials at hand and come in under budget – especially if they involve power tools. So, when the rafters in the garage started sagging under the weight of all the crap we were storing up there, he took down a nice, straight pine tree, cut a log to size, and wedged it between the floor and the beam.
When he had to cut a hole in the deck of the boat to work on the gas tank, he balked at the cost of a deck plate to seal the hole, so he made his own with a yoga mat and a cutting board.
I never really liked yoga anyway.
Mind you, not everything works out. The lid to the garbage can bin turned out to be too heavy, and broke under its own weight. And then there was the time we ended up with a huge 4’x8’ bag (called a Bagster), filled with a yard of sand, frozen to the bed of the landscape trailer. Kevin tried to use the Land Rover as a tractor, to get the bag off with brute force, by tying the Bagster to a tree and trying to pull the trailer out from under it. The Rover ended up with its front wheels in forward and its rear wheels in reverse, and we were this close to having to buy it a new transmission. And, oh yeah, the bag ripped.
But for every failure there are many successes. His chicken house is genius. His poultry plucker works like a charm. He made a turkey pen out of clam netting, and a step for getting in the boat out of a pipe and a rope.
And now, between the two of us, we’ve built a hoophouse.
We’d been thinking about it for quite some time, and even took the radical step of actually purchasing a book about building and using one – Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest. Eliot Coleman is one of the many people who can provide you with elaborate instructions for building a hoophouse, but he calls for things like fiberglass rods, which are expensive, and half-lapped corners, which are time-consuming.
His greenhouses are, of course, beautiful and sturdy, but we needed ours to be A) inexpensive and B) up in time to get a few lettuces going before winter.
So we read accounts of several different kinds of hoophouses, and then we threw away the books and headed for Home Depot. We had a basic idea of what we wanted to do, and we figured we’d design it as we went along.
This is how we did:
The usual procedure is to start by sinking lengths of rebar into the ground at four-foot intervals, and using the sticking-up parts to anchor the metal or fiberglass tubes that form the hoops. We decided against that, mostly because our ground is very rocky, and sinking a length of rebar two feet, and still having it be both straight and in the right place is very difficult. Instead, we cobbled together a 12′x20′ foundation of scrounged 4x4s and 6x6s, and topped it with new 2×6 treated lumber.
Once we leveled the foundation, we drilled holes the diameter of the PVC pipes that would be our hoops at about three-foot intervals along the foundation. We stuck one end of the twenty-foot pipe (which was really two ten-footers, connected and glued) in a hole on one side, formed the hoop, and stuck the other end in the other side. A couple of screws to hold the ends in the holes, and we had our hoops.
Trouble was, they weren’t very sturdy.
THE SUPPORT STRUCTURE:
Kevin built a frame, with a doorway, on either end of the arch, and then came the tricky part. Lateral bracing. We didn’t have anything that was twenty feet long, and could reach from the frame on one end to the frame on the other, so Kevin improvised a series of staggered ribs.
That helped keep everything together, but it still wasn’t stable enough. Luckily, our friend Mary Ann, who is an architect, came to visit, and helped us figure out how to solve that problem. Trussing!
Running diagonal supports from the lowest ribs to the base wasn’t as easy as you’d think it would be. There are a lot of angles to take into consideration, and you can’t screw anything directly into the PVC. Luckily, our friend Amanda, who is an excellent problem solver, came to visit, and helped us figure out how to solve that problem.
Once we had the trussing in, the whole structure seemed pretty sturdy, but I’d certainly never seen anything quite like it before. If it was okay to do, I couldn’t help wondering, wouldn’t other people do it?
We ran a pipe from outside the hoophouse, under the foundation, and up on the other side so we could attach a hose on the outside to get water on the inside. This we did all by ourselves. So far, no leaks.
Then came the exciting part: putting the plastic over the hoops. (We’d ordered it, cut to size, from gothicarchgreenhouses.com.) The plastic is very big, and has to be held taut in several spots while it’s being attached. Luckily, our friends Russ and Mylene, who have a daughter at Brown University (which is only an hour away), came to visit, and helped us solve that problem.
Their daughter, Aly, came along and brought two of her friends, Stephanie and Ilyas. The seven of us got the plastic over the hoops, tightened and attached, in less than an hour.
If you ever have work to be done around the house, college students are the way to go. They’re in the prime of life, with the muscle power to prove it. Aly and Steph both play for the Brown softball team, and if there’s anything better than college students to do the hard work, it’s college student athletes.
Aly, Steph, and Ilyas also seemed to get kind of a kick out of using power tools. And Ilyas bonded with the chickens.
The best thing about college students, though, is that they’ll do anything for pizza. We told Aly she and her friends could come back any time.
Once the plastic was over the top, we battened the ends to the frames, and cut pieces to fit the last few sections. Then we installed four vents, two on either side, and a door, which we’d bought for five dollars at a garage sale.
The total cost was just under $300. And that was only because Kevin couldn’t resist the fancy-pants vents that automatically open when it’s warm and close when it’s cold. Without those, we’d be at about $230.
Our hoophouse is like no one else’s. It might be a brilliant, cheap solution to extending the growing season, or it might blow away in a storm a la The Wizard of Oz. You can’t know ahead of time.
Hell, I didn’t want to sit on the Supreme Court anyway. And neither did Kevin.