Tag Archives: greenhouse

Raised Bed Gardens

For the last 2 weeks my project has been renovating and recreating the fallowed gardens here at Good Life Ranch.  It’s been a long process because of the amount we’ve let the gardens go over the spring (when we weren’t here yet) and the summer (when other items rose to the top of the priority list), the large size of the gardens, and the fact that I am doing all of this with hand clippers, shovels, and a wheelbarrow.  Everything takes longer that way, but it doesn’t make sense to use more calories of energy in fossil fuels than we’ll reap from the vegetables in the garden now does it?

This is the "garden" before clearing and beginning the raised beds.

The picture above shows what we are starting off with – two large overgrown areas in which the previous owners grew flowers.  Since they didn’t work it in the spring before they left and I haven’t really touched it since we’ve arrived these gardens have just grown up with some flowers, some weeds, and some pioneering bushes and saplings.  For a sense of scale, check out Scooter’s head in the bottom right corner of the picture.  Step one of the project involved clearing out all of this material and setting it aside for use in the raised beds.  While I was cleaning out the two new areas I also cleared out the other two beds that we’ve let go as well.  Those two beds will not be made into raised beds, but will be planted in the spring with perennial and self-seeding annual flowering and fruiting plants – like lilies, dogwoods, mayhaw bushes, blueberries, large ornamental grasses, and hollyhocks.  But we did use all of the prunings from these gardens to help create the raised areas in the two new gardens.  We don’t waste any organic materials here!

Step one involved clearing out 4 large garden areas – 2 old flower gardens and 2 heavily overgrown former veggie gardens.  After those areas were clear, I took stakes and a measuring tape and laid out the new boundaries for the raised beds.  Each raised bed is 4 feet wide and will be elevated to knee-height on me.  Between each 4 foot raised area is a 20-inch pathway.  This way we will only have to reach 2 feet into the raised bed to plant, weed, mulch, and harvest.  This means that we’ll never have to step on the beds and compact the soil.  That’s key to maintaining the tilth and microbial action in the soil.  The picture below shows the staked-out layout of one of the new garden areas.  In this area the raised beds are about 30 feet in length.  The other area has beds that are roughly 60 feet in length.

The area has been cleared and stakes have been driven to mark the dimensions and placement of the new beds.

Note in the picture above that I left the grass underneath all of the previous overgrowth in place.  We are about to smother it with organic matter anyway so it will be smothered and add to the big pile of decomposing stuff – no use tilling it up.  All that tilling will disturb all the earthworms and microbial life we need at work for us to decompose all of the new material we’re going to give them to digest.  They need to be at their best, not tilled up and driven off by the disturbance to the soil.

So now that the beds are laid out, I took all of the trimmings from the four garden areas and piled them up to the height of my knee in the 4-foot-wide bed areas.  These trimmings consisted of stems, leaves, branches – everything.  The leaves and vegetative stuff will break down very quickly.  The larger, woodier branches may take several years to decompose, and that’s great!  They will provide long-term fertility as they release their nutrients very slowly; they will sop up water in the winter and spring and release it slowly in the drier summer and fall; and they will encourage the growth of beneficial insects, worms, and fungi that will help develop a good soil culture for our veggies.  I didn’t do this much because we only had a few available, but tree stumps and cut trunks are one of the best materials to use as a base for your raised beds.  We had a few laying around that I utilized, but most of the woody material I cleared out of the gardens was less than an inch in diameter.  Hopefully what we lacked in diameter we more than made up for in volume!  There was a LOT of it!  The Germans call this method hugelkultur.  Supposedly potatoes, squash, pumpkins, and beans absolutely go nuts for this stuff in the first year, and in successive years the soil becomes better and better for basically any type of plant you’d like to grow.

The raised beds are built up with garden and tree prunings, but have yet to be capped with manure.

The picture above shows the contrast in height between the beds on the right that have had the organic matter added the beds on the left that hadn’t yet been done at the time this picture was taken.  Note the almost 2-foot height of the bed on the far right.  This height is important to give the plant roots enough space to develop and to lessen the amount of time we’ll spend gardening on our knees.  In this picture you can also see that the greenhouse is conveniently located near the new gardens.  We won’t have too far to go to transplant seedlings when the weather warms up in the spring!

After piling up the material I gathered from the overgrown gardens in the right spots I covered each row with a mixture of fallen leaves and composted rabbit bedding.  Our rabbit hutches (for the breeder rabbits that aren’t out on pasture) have wire bottoms and the rabbit droppings fall through onto the ground.  We throw some straw down on it every week or so and the poultry love to scratch through it looking for worms, grubs, fly larvae, and the scratch grains we put in to encourage this behavior.  In the process the poultry mix up the straw and the rabbit manure and turn it into excellent compost.  This mixture went in with the leaves on top of the branches and prunings.

The next step was to cap these layers with a layer of composted and well-aged cow manure we got from our Amish neighbor David.  He had dumped it in a big pile in a field at the request of the previous owners, but they never got around to using it.  David’s forgotten how long it’s been sitting there, but at this point it is basically just rich, black, crumbly soil.  No smell, no caking, and full of earthworms!  This material was wheelbarrowed over to the new gardens and shoveled on top of the leaves and rabbit bedding to a depth of 2-3 inches.  This will be the layer into which the seeds and transplants will be placed next spring.  You can see what the garden looks like now in the picture below.

The near-completed new garden. All that's left is to finish manuring the last row and to cover with leaves to protect the new soil.

Now the only thing left to do is wait a couple days for some more leaves to fall.  Once that happens I’ll cover this newest layer of aged cow manure with a layer of leaves to protect it from washing away in the rain and blowing away in the wind.  When it’s time to plant in the spring we’ll brush the leaves away a little, plant the seed or transplant, and brush the leaves back into place.

The first year, we’ll have to weed this garden just as much as any other.  But in each successive year the amount of weeding necessary should decrease.  The weeds, along with the parts of vegetable plants that we don’t eat will be left in place as mulch to break down and return the nutrients to the soil.  The roots of plants will be left to decompose in place as well.  From this point on the only additional thing these gardens will need is the seasonal application of some mulch – which we’ll have plenty of in the form of grass clippings, fallen leaves, shed wool from sheep, etc.  The result of these practices will be a garden that doesn’t need any inputs except weeding and mulching.  Other practitioners of this method report that the fertility of their garden increases each year without the addition of synthetic or organic fertilizers.  Mulching and leaving plant waste to decompose in place is enough.

We’ve got the smaller of these two gardens completely done and the other, larger one is in progress.  It’s warmed up enough now to make working on it pleasant, so I’m off to go do that.  Have a great day, and thanks for reading!

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The Greenhouse

We have a greenhouse!

One of the things I was most excited about on our new property was the prospect of finishing the greenhouse that the previous owners had started.  Being in a temperate region, we’ve definitely got some seasons here in Kentucky.  We are located on the border of USDA Zone 6 and USDA Zone 5.  For you non-plant people, that means that it gets kinda cold here in the winter and if we want to extend our growing season we’ll need a finished greenhouse.  Completing this project means that we’ll be able to start seedlings earlier in the year and transplant them outside as the temperatures warm up.  It means that we’ll be able to continue growing plants later in the fall and early winter.  It means that we may be able to produce lettuce, spinach, chard, and such all year.  It means that we can have our aquaponics set up.  And it means that our lemon and lime trees won’t die.

A little about the greenhouse, as we inherited it:
– it’s on a 21′ by 21′ concrete pad
– it has 2 sides built, but no roof or front
– it has a couple of drains and what appear to be heating elements installed in the floor
– it has water pipes in every corner
– it has an electrical box ready to be hooked up on one side.
– it has all of the panels that need to be installed, but they’re lying in the barn
– it has the roof trusses to create the roof, but they’re lying in the field

I’m not sure why the former owners stopped where they did.  They had lovely gardens and obviously could’ve made use of a greenhouse.  They bought all of the materials, made the sides, even welded the roof trusses together (but didn’t put them up).  But they did buy all of the materials and sold them to us with the property.  And they created a wonderful footprint for us to build on.

A little about the construction materials.  The sides, front, and roof of the greenhouse are made from 2″ x 4″ steel tubing.  The panels called PolyGal and are made by a company in the UK.  There is one storm door providing access to the greenhouse.

The first problems we encountered were attaching the roof trusses and constructing a front to the building.  I have not welded since Career Orientation class in high school.  I’m pretty sure Lindsey has never welded.  I’m also positive that we do not own welding equipment.  Since I didn’t want our new greenhouse to fall down and since I’m loathe to operate machinery with the capacity to melt metal when I have scant understanding of how to use said machinery, we decided that hiring a welder would be a good idea.

Around here, welders come in pairs.  And they argue with each other.  A lot.  All day.  And they attempt to get you to settle their disputes.  Yay!  But they were good welders and completed the job in one day for a few hundred dollars.  I think that’s a pretty good price for an entire greenhouse, and I’m willing to not attempt it myself when I can watch someone who knows what they’re doing do the job right.

The welders and I spent about 10 hours one day putting the roof trusses up, installing the roof beams, and putting a front on the building.  They did a great job.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t come back for free and help us put all of the panels on.  That took a long time.

Putting the plexiglass panels on the greenhouse was fairly straightforward.  It was just time consuming.  Especially the roof panels.  Holding a roof panel straight and level, drilling the holes, changing bits, and screwing in the screws is hard to do with only 2 hands with 15-plus feet in the air.  I was always tempted to use one hand to hold onto something.  Silly me.

Anyway, we got all of the roof panels on, installed all of the side panels, and then cut the pieces for the front of the building.

With the building suitable enclosed in plexiglass, we set about installing the door.  We found a storm door in the barn near the panels.  If it wasn’t originally intended for greenhouse use, then it was co-opted.  It’s on there now.  We also put in a closer so that the door can be propped open on warm days to help ventilate the building.

Next task in the greenhouse: putting in the trellis for our climbing beans and fruits and finding something to use for holding the fish we’ll get in the early spring.

Enjoy the pictures and the movie!  (Rated PG: Parental Guidance.  Mom – I was safe at all times in the following pictures)

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Lindsey’s Fall “Break”

 

The foliage along Dry Creek is beginning to change colors.

 

Lindsey has had the last 11 days off of work, so on her fall “break” she became my willing helper!  I’ve saved up 2 large tasks that needed two people to complete – cleaning out the barn and setting up the greenhouse.  The greenhouse will be covered in its entirety in a separate post once it’s finished, so stay tuned.

I must apologize for not writing as often as I should.  If excuses are necessary, then mine are:
1.  we’ve had visitors, farmsitters, and went to a wedding.
2.  it hasn’t rained in many moons, so my indoor time has been greatly diminished.
3.  it really does take a lot of work to get this place up and running, and sometimes after completing the physical work the last thing I want to do is rehash it.

The wedding was my brother’s.  It took place in Breckenridge, Colorado, which meant vacation time!  Lindsey’s parents were kind enough to farmsit for us while we went to the wedding.  They took care of all of the animals and gardens while Lindsey and I celebrated with Billy and Keri.  Breckenridge was beautiful in the fall and the weekend was almost perfect.  The wedding was perfect.  The Razorbacks blew the lead they had over then-#1 Alabama, and that was the only perfect weekend foil.

 

Lindsey and I keep Billy's dog Maddie company during the rehearsal.

 

 

Ten Mile Station, site of Billy and Keri's wedding. Isn't it gorgeous?

 

 

Aspens in fall colors provide a backdrop for the wedding.

 

Back in Kentucky the trees are changing colors, too.  Some of them, like the maples and pears, are changing colors because it’s October and that’s what they do.  Others of them, like the cypresses and pines, are changing colors because it’s been so dry here that they are starting to yellow and brown.  Needles are drying up and falling off.  Our brainstormed U-Pick-‘Em Christmas tree idea is starting to lose inventory before December even gets close.  The pasture crackles underfoot.  We need rain badly.  Hopefully it will rain before winter.

If we do get winter storms, we now have a place that can shelter the animals!  Lindsey and I spent 3 days clearing out the barn from top to bottom, eliminating many years of junk, debris, and manure.  Now we’ve got some stalls for the goats in case we get wet windy weather in the winter.

I don’t know exactly when our barn was built.  The previous owner of the property said the 1920’s or 1930’s.  I know that it was standing for sure in 1947, because there is a whole family’s worth of initials from the original family to have owned the property carved into one of the planks and it’s dated “1947.”  My father-in-law’s a detective.  I listen and learn.  The barn is 2 stories with a drive-through lane through the middle of the ground floor.  On one side of the drive through lane are 2 stalls, a large storage area, and a staircase to the hayloft on the second floor.  On the other side of the driving lane is a single stall and an even larger storage area.  On that side there is also a small storage area above the stall.

We found all manner of stuff in the barn.  Greenhouse panels (yay!).  Ancient corn cobs and tobacco leaves (expected).  Large piles of rusty barbed wire (boo!).  Manure, hay, tobacco plates, tobacco sticks, trellises, lumber, scrap metal, an antenna, plastic mulching sheets, planters, draft horse collars.  We learned that baling twine never disintegrates and that it’s best not to think about how old that cloud of manure dust may be.

In any case, most of the barn is in good shape.  Two of the three stalls are usable right now if we needed to put the goats in there during a severe winter storm.  The other stall needs a new floor and a new floor beam.  That’s a project for another day, but other than that and some rotted floorboards in the hayloft the barn is in surprisingly good structural shape.

Almost everything we found got saved or recycled.  We did dump one load at the landfill, unfortunately, but that couldn’t be helped.  One load of trash that we couldn’t think of a use of from at least 64 years of inhabitation isn’t too terrible, I guess.  We paid $13 to dump the load of trash and got $37.50 for the aluminum and scrap metal, so all in all we have a clean barn and enough money to see a couple of movies.  That’s right, big city friends, I said a couple of movies.  For both of us.  Life’s cheaper at the Green River Theater.

Enjoy a few pictures of the barn cleanin’:

 

Lindsey sweeps out one of the barn's stalls.

 

 

No, I'm not robbing the barn. The hankerchief was necessary to keep manure dust out of my mouth.

 

 

Shoveling ancient hay and manure from the barn's hayloft.

 

 

The floor in the barn loft could use some work, but at least it's visible now. It was buried under corn cobs and tobacco leaves.

 

 

Any guesses as to what these might be? The one on the left is ceramic. The right one is metallic.

 

 

One of the stalls has a floor that has seen better days. A future project...

 

 

The big pile of junk in the barn. Most will be re-used in Lifestyles Lane, some had to go to the scrap metal place. A little went to the dump, unfortunately.

 

 

The turkeys enjoyed perching on all of the new stuff coming out of the barn and generally getting in the way as much as possible.

 

The turkeys enjoyed sitting on all of the new perches we were providing them as we cleaned the barn.  Being old heritage breeds, they are quite good flyers and are capable of roosting in the trees and on top of the barn when they want to.  Their favorite nighttime roost is the tailgate of the trailer, but I make them go in the poultry house.  We have enough coyotes around here at night without putting sleepy turkey on their menu.

 

Everything's a turkey perch. Fence. Trash. Front porch swing. Truck. Tree. Cold frame. Dog. Chicken tractor....

 

The turkeys are getting pretty big now.  Big enough that they’ve decided that they can chase Scooter, our 45-lb dog, around with impunity.  One hen in particular seems to enjoy tormenting him, but the whole flock will join her.  He will mostly stand his ground with the one hen, but as soon as multiple turkeys enter the fray, he takes off running and the turkeys take off chasing him.  Bailey, our older dog who is roughly twice Scooter’s size, occasionally comes to his rescue and chases the turkeys away.  Mostly she seems to enjoy watching the turkeys do to Scooter what Scooter does to her most of the time.  I’m not sure what brought this on.  Scootie’s new favorite thing is finding the turkey feathers on the ground and running all over the place with the feathers in his mouth.  Maybe the turkeys think he’s stealing them.

 

Scooter's latest fascination is turkey feathers. He loves to collect them and run all over the place with them in his mouth.

 

Besides the barn, our farm is starting to appear more legit.  We’ve made some money lately selling rabbits.  The goats are rotating through the pasture.  The junk, debris, and construction materials have been removed from the fields.  Neighbor David has harvested his corn from the fields he leases from us.  In exchange he’s cut and baled the hay in the front pasture.  All in all, the farm is looking much better than when we arrived in June.

 

Neighbor David's hay bales decorate the front field.

 

In other news on the bird front, the Cornish X White Rock broilers have a date with the processor on Tuesday morning.  This time, in an effort to be as local as possible, we are using the processor 8 minutes away from us for the first time.  We’ll see how he does!  I can tell you that we won’t be having any underweight chickens this time.  Check out these fatties in the video below:

The guineas have also been growing, although we’re just using them for tick management around the house and barn area.  Some of them have fallen prey to a couple of critters, but the remaining ones sure do a great job clearing out ticks and grasshoppers!

Speaking of predators, the coyotes have been coming close at night.  The other night they were right outside the goats’ paddock.  I could hear the coyotes making a racket and I could hear our livestock guardian dog Maggie growling.  Usually she barks a lot at night as she patrols, but this was deep-throated, threatening growling.  The coyotes eventually took off, so Maggie did her job in the first challenge of her authority.  Way to go, girl!

 

Maggie's mug. This is what coyotes see when they sniff around the goats at night.

 

 

Lindsey feeds Maggie while Bailey investigates the possibility of pilfering her food.

 

 

Maggie's goat herd is rotating through the pastures, hopefully focusing on the many weeds that choke out our grasses and legumes at the moment.

 

Our last project over Lindsey’s “break” has been building the greenhouse.  We’ve had our first frosts already, so we need to get our sensitive San Antonio plants inside the shelter of the greenhouse soon.  It should be ready inside of a week now, and we’ll have a post dedicated to it once the structure is completed.

 

We had our first hard frost on October 2nd. The goats didn't seem to mind, but the basil sure did.

 

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Livestocking Plans – Fish

Koi

We sort of have a greenhouse on the ranch.  What I mean is that the previous owners had begun to construct a greenhouse.  They put up some steel wall supports for to form the two long sides of the greenhouse and attached those to one side of the shop to form a third side.  They also have bought most of the polycarbonate sheets to attach to the steel.  What I have to do is build a roof and a front.  So we will have a greenhouse soon, and that greenhouse will be used for aquaponics.

Aquaponics is the blending of aquaculture and hydroponics.  Individually, they both come with some pretty serious flaws.  What do you do with the thousands of gallons of poopy water produced in aquaculture?  What do you do with thousands of gallons of phosphate-ridden water created by the fertilizers used for the plants in hydroponic systems?  Both of those systems generate a lot of pollution that usually just gets shipped to the treatment facility or, all too commonly, dumped into the local creek.

Aquaponics eliminates those issues by using the fish waste as the sole fertilizer for the plants.  The plants and the gravel they are grown in filter the water for the fish.  The water does not have to be changed!  This system eliminates the pollution of local watersheds and allows you to grow plants with much less water than you would need in a garden of similar size.  Fish feed the plants, plants filter water for the fish.  If you have extra plants, you can even feed them to herbivorous fish.

Basically we’ll have a large pool for the fish, a pump to send the water to the grow beds for the plants, and some PVC or old guttering to bring the water from the grow beds back to the fish pool.  15’ x 24’ x 5’ above ground pools are only $299!  We don’t need one that large yet, but if large ones are that low in price then smaller ones should be even more affordable.  I’m going to try to use a solar powered pump with a powered backup pump just in case the first pump fails.  That will run about $200.  The rest of the system will run about $50 for miscellaneous PVC connectors and junctions, as we already have lots of PVC pipe laying around.  The gravel is free from the streams on our property, and I plan on making the grow beds out of old bathtubs that people get rid of when they remodel a bathroom.  They are just the right size, free, fit with our sustainability mindset, and even already have the drain installed.  No drilling!  That will make the total cost of the system around $550, not including the fish and seeds.  That’s a great deal on a system that can produce literally a ton of fish per year in addition to all of the produce we can grow in the beds.

The plant beds are great for growing lettuces and other leafy greens, herbs, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, watercress, beans, and even corn!  The fertilization from the fish makes the plants grow very quickly.  Plus the use of the greenhouse will extend our growing season by 1-2 USDA plant hardiness zones.  I’m hoping the greenhouse will remain warm enough for our lemon tree, lime tree, and olive tree to survive the winter in there.  If not, then they will have to go in the house by a nice sunny window.

On to the fish!

I’ve kept aquariums my whole life (I literally cannot remember a time when I did not have a fish tank), and I’ve had 4 or more tanks in my classroom at any one time for the past couple of years.  Out of all the enterprises on our ranch, this is the one I may not ever live down.  My dad is going to make fun of me for this….  I took Aquaculture as one of several vo-tech classes in high school (Wildlife Management and Ranch Management being the others).  Since then my dad has never let a year go by without referring at least once to my “catfish farming” education.  Now that I’m actually going to use that in an actual career, I’m just holding my breath to see what he’s going to say.  Anyway, the point is I like fish, I’m good with fish, and I’ve had training to succeed with fish.

So what fish to grow in our aquaponics system?  Here are the contenders:

Tilapia – This is the fish we grew in our high school Aquaculture class way back in 1994.  Since then it has become the fastest-growing seafood trend in the US.  There are many species and hybrids out there, but all tilapia is white, flaky fish with good flavor and a great nutritional profile.  They thrive in warm water and in tanks and pools, and are easy to breed.  They are mouth-brooding fish, so they might have better maternal instincts than some of the cattle breeds we’re looking at!  There is evidence that the Egyptians have been cultivating tilapia for thousands of years.  Their lone detrimental aspect is that they are an invasive species in some US states like Florida and Texas.  They can’t survive Kentucky winters in the wild, so that wouldn’t be a problem here, but that result of the hardiness and adaptability of the tilapia has sometimes made owning and transporting them difficult, as you have to navigate red tape for permits and licenses.  I’ll have to look into Kentucky law for this one.

Channel catfish – Channel catfish are very popular table fare throughout the south.  Fried catfish is found on the menus of almost every southern restaurant, and is the featured dish for many.  Channel cats are small, hardy, and breed readily.  They can get to market size a little faster than the tilapia, but also need more space per fish in which to do it so overall yield might be lower.  They are also more time-consuming to process than tilapia because they have skin rather than scales.  They are very efficient converters of feed to meat and grow very rapidly.  They also are native to the US, and therefore non-invasive.

Crappie –  My favorite tasting freshwater fish!  Crappie are simply delicious.  There are 2 varieties of crappie that are different in color, but similar in all other aspects of their characteristics.  They taste the same, they act the same, they live in the same places, and they are caught in the same manner.  This fish is also native to the US, but is relatively new as an aquacultured fish.  Farmers do produce them in ponds, but they breed so readily that people are still trying to work out methods to keep them growing rather than making more little stunted crappies.  I haven’t read too much about growing them in tanks despite searching, but I think they’d be an ideal candidate for a tank or pool system.  They are schooling fish and can crowd themselves out of ponds, so they don’t mind close quarters.  Their breeding rate my be slowed by tank culturing.  Additionally tanks or pools might allow me to sex the fish more readily and possibly separate them into male and female pools for growing out.

Koi – Obviously these fish are not for eating!  These are ornamental fish for ponds and water features.  I’ve had a koi pond at a previous house, and koi are so beautiful and personable.  For a fish, they are about as interactive as it gets.  They learn to recognize their keepers and swim up for treats.  They also grow very quickly.  My koi grew from 3” goldfish-looking fingerlings to footlong torpedos in 7 months.  They can grow to 3’ long and the oldest koi on record is 228 years old and still swimming.  The plan here would be to acquire some nice breeding pairs and then raise the young to a nice size to sell to collectors or to water garden centers.  They are domestic fish, so non-invasive, and are easy to breed.  They also command a very nice price compared to food fish.  However, they are more expensive to acquire and feed than fish for eating.

One of our dogs, Scooter, very much looks forward to the acquisition of our fish.  At our house with the koi pond he learned that “Scootie, let’s feed the fish!” was a real fun time.  To this day, if you say the word “fish” in his presence he goes really crazy and starts jumping all over the place.  We have to have good fish as Scootie’s pet project.

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