Hoopla!

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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.

The finished product

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 FOUNDATION:

The foundation

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.

THE HOOPS:

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:

Ample support ... we hope

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?

THE IRRIGATION:

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.

THE PLASTIC:

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.

Ilyas, trying to focus, after a chicken pecked his butt

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.

Steph, Aly, and Ilyas, headed for pizza

THE FINISHING:

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.

Inside

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Comments

  1. hooray! wondering how you’ll choose what to grow in there. limited real estate….

    • Heads, arugula. Tails, spinach.

      It’s actually more space than it looked to me as we were putting it up. There’s a lot of lettuce planted in there now.

  2. Nice hoop house. Built the same basic PVC house in the 12’x 28′ size here in West Hyannisport in September. Loaded it up with spinach, lettuce and arugula. On a related note, had the great pleasure of visiting Eliot Coleman’s farm in Maine last summer.

    • Jeff — If I had known there was a similar version as close as West Hyannisport, I would have snuck by in the middle of the night to get a look. Is yours also just a single sheet of plastic, no heat? And, if so, how long is your growing season? Tell! Tell!

      • Single sheet plastic from Farmtek. Our place is very windy, and the hoop house really rattles in a strong breeze. We have five ground stakes, so hope we don’t see it blowing away some winter night. We also have a metal 18’x 24′. Both are getting temps down into the mid-30’s at night, so not sure what can survive and how long. Have bought wire “wickets”, and hope to use Eliot’s system of Agribon down low, as a secondary covering. I have a couple photos of the house itself, if you want me to e-mail them.

  3. Pretty elergant.

    Making a mental note on the college students, i.e., athletic ones….

  4. It looks fantastic! You two make me feel like such a sloth. I wish the college I attended had a swarm of willing students. I think I will have to settle for paid call firefighters who will also work for pizza and beer, plus are good for a few pranks and dirty jokes. Please keep updates on this, I’d really like to see how it works out!

  5. Pretty awesome. We’ll be putting in a tiny hoophouse next year, and have been poring over EC’s designs as well. Totally agree about young muscle, by the way. That’s what makes WWOOF such a great arrangement. I don’t even have to take them out for pizza. They seem to get a kick out of pulling food out of dirt and eating it.

  6. This is ingenious! Nothing like using the know-how, the brawn, and the materials at hand. It sure looks good, and rather professional. I am concerned about the lack of heat source (I know, the sun) but worry may be for naught if you want only late Fall and early Spring use. Do let us know how this works for you.

    • Margaret — We don’t know if it’s ingenious yet. It may blow away, or it may be a bust because, as you point out, it’s not heated. We have no idea how much this will extend our season by, but we’re putting it to the test as we speak.

  7. Love this, congrats! I think there’s no rules behind how you build something, as long as it’s safe and it works for you! Can’t wait to read more about how this works out for you!

  8. Tamar- I’ve read of a couple in Wisconsin who manage to grow things in an unheated greenhouse in winter- they put the really tender stuff under cloches. I guess the double insulation keeps the cold temps at bay. I figure if they can do in in Wisconsin, you could probably do it almost anywhere.

  9. Re: Grilling ~
    When we lived in a hermetically sealed apartment in Switzerland, we just used to BBQ in the car park. We paid for 2 spaces, and by-Jove we were going to use that ‘spare’ one. The first few times certainly twitched a few curtains.

    Re: Heating ~
    If you get a huge pile of manure, the bacterial action will generate lots of lovely heat for your greenhouse. When fermenting nicely, a big pile o’crap will reach 70C. In well-to-do victorian gardens it was common to build glass-topped frames, half-filling them with manure. Vegetables were then planted (in pots) nestled in the compost. This kept them just that little bit warmer for an early start. It looks like you already have one of these in the photo. (Bottom right).

    • Kingsley — You’d get along great with my parents! As for the pile-of-crap heating system, I think it’s very intriguing. We’ve got a cold frame right in the hoophouse (which you spotted), and we could give it a go.

  10. That is a beautiful thing. I work in greenhouses for a living and you did a beautiful job! You will be happy with the fancy vents. It can get mighty warm in a cold frame in the winter.

  11. WOW Tamar I’m so impressed! The hoop house is superb and I love the way that it already has it’s own cold frame. Well done both of you.

  12. It looks amazing! and you already have a cold frame in it. If you go with the Victorian pile-of-crap idea, let us know how it works out!

  13. Kevin can come live with us for room and board!

  14. Tamar:

    Exceeded all expectations. Gorgeous. Cozy. I may squat there for the winter.

    And to think I knew her when she was just a modest foundation, crooked over the rocky soil. My girl, you and yours done created a masterpiece.

    A

  15. Can I come live with you guys?? I also work for pizza.

    I am seriously impressed with your hoophouse. And I can tell you from experiece of growing in large polytunnels that those automatic vents are the best decision you could make. Humidity is the bugbear with growing under plastic (vs. glass), especially 4-season growing. Your crops will perform so much better with those autovents, and you will reduce any fungal problems straightaway.

    On the concept of precedent, I have a theory that it takes self-confidence to be a precedent bucker, and that’s why they’re more rare than the tow-the-liners. I push myself to buck when possible, because those successes are so much more rewarding (and the failures are pretty humorous).

    Lastly, anyone who can reference Henry James and Ron Popeil in the same train of thought is a wildly creative thinker, bonafide precedent bucker, and my hero(ine).

    (I’m hoping the compliments will bolster my bid to come live with you guys…)