Low Tunnel Hoop Bender

IMG_4136

In this post I discussed our garden plans, which included building a few low tunnel covers to help protect of squash from the bugs, and our greens from bolting. I looked into buying the hoops but was unimpressed with what I found. Either they were too expensive, or they looked cheap. I knew I wanted metal hoops but I wasn’t sure how to bend them.

I’ve been listening to the Chicken Thistle Farm coopcasts (podcasts) a lot lately and in one of them they mention their Johnny Seeds hoop bender. I was intrigued. If I could bend the hoops myself, why wouldn’t I—but did I need to buy a bender or could I make a bender? While using the Johnny Seeds hoop bender would be faster, I knew the cost benefit wouldn’t be there considering I didn’t need a ton of hoops, and the hoops I needed to make were small.

Before I knew it my fingers were flying as I looked up DIY hoop benders. I had a feeling I was going to find something and YouTube didn’t let me down. I really enjoyed this video from Brock Hammill who explained how to build a hoop bender from nothing more than plywood/subfloor, 1/2 inch EMT (electrical conduit pipe from a home improvement store at about $2.00 for 10′), screws, scrap wood, a tape measure, a piece of string and a pencil.

IMG_4104The video does a fantastic job of explaining how to do this, but in case you can’t watch it right now here’s how I did it. Mind you I also had access to a grinder to cut my pipe when I was done, but if you don’t you might want to have a metal pipe saw which you can get at Home Depot.

1. Figure out how wide you want your hoop, so you can get your measurements correctly. I knew that my mounds for my squash would be about two feed wide more or less, same with the rows for my greens. I decided to make them a little wider at about 30 inches. I made sure I had at least 40 inches of plywood to work with, since I needed some room for a next step.

2. Once you have your width figured out for your hoops (in my case 30″) measure out so you have half the distance (15″) on each side and put a screw in the center. Tie your string to the screw, measure out half the distance (15″) and with your pencil swoop around to make a half circle.

IMG_41063. Place screws around this half circle you made, with more screws at the beginning as they will take the brunt of the bend. Keep in mind that as you use this your screws will bend some, so choose a heavy duty screw like a deck screw. Note in the photo below, I didn’t use deck screws. I wish I could remember what I used but they were heavy duty. When you put these in keep in mind to leave at least a 1/2″, if not a little more, sticking out. You need the screws to be slightly taller than your 1/2″ EMT you’ll be bending.

IMG_41094. Once you have all of your screws in, place a piece of scrap wood about 1″ away from the beginning of your screws. You’ll use this as leverage.

5. To bend your EMT place it between the screws and scrap wood, about 6 inches below the jig. These extra 6″ will be what you will use to help stake it into the ground. Now, start bending! You will need to secure down your piece of plywood before you start bending or else it will move all around and screw up your bend. This was hard for me to do because I did this in a garage and the ground is frozen. Once it thaws outside this spring I’ll put some stakes in the ground around the plywood so I can easily bend the EMT. I used whatever heavy I could find in the garage, and used my weight on the board when the angles allowed. My first hoop has a weird bend in it because part way around the plywood jarringly slipping and it caused an awkward bend (the hoop on the left in the first finished photos below). Truth be told, it will still work fine. No biggie.

IMG_4115IMG_4123

6. Once you’re done bending, I suggest taking each end in both hands and give it a quick tight squeeze to help ensure you get the width you need as it will be slightly wider. You’ll feel super strong. It’s like a thigh master for your arms. Plus, who doesn’t feel cool being able to bend metal with their hands? Trust me, you’ll be like “I’M AMAZING” and run around like Rocky with your hands above your head. *disclaimer: I’ve never seen Rocky. I only assume he does this because why wouldn’t he?

7. Once you have your bend, cut the extra off. I used a grinder because it was there, and I could. Another option, which I did with my second hoop was to cut it to size more or less prior to bending. I have to say though, I love the grinder. Grinder, I hardly knew her. #imsupermature #getwiththetimesheather

IMG_4118IMG_4120

Once you’ve done all of the above – you have hoops! Tada! They aren’t perfect hoops but they are perfect for our use. I think once I am able to securely stake my jig into the ground this spring I’ll have smoother bends. As far as the size difference it’s due to the fact I have extra metal on the second one I made (right) to put it into the ground (which I still need to cut a little), and I gave the first one (left) and extra squeeze which made it a little narrower. Once I actually place these in the garden I’ll be able to press them all in so they are all the same more or less.

IMG_4126IMG_4135

So here are a few tips I learned from my first take at this:

  • I bent my first piece at full length, and cut the second piece shorter pre-bend once I got an idea of how much I needed, simply because it made it easier to bend.
  • How to figure out how much EMT you need per bend: A general and easy way of figuring the length of each hoop is the following equation (width of hoop x 2). So for me this would be 30*2  = 60″ / 12″ = 5′. This means generally I need 5 feet of EMT to make my 30″ hoop. However take in account the fact you need some extra on each end. I made mine about 5’7″. Why? It’s my height so it made it easy to measure the EMT against myself to get the right length.
  • It’s so important to have your jig staked down unless you want a few messed up hoops. They’ll still likely work but once it’s bent it’s bent.
  • Don’t use over 1/2″. According to the video above he had trouble with anything above 1/2″ EMT conduit so I listened to his advice. 1/2″ is all you really need anyway.

So that’s that! I expect as I keep making more of these I’ll have a lot more conformity to the hoops. Honestly, as long as they just work I’m okay. I’m very happy with how the hoop bender turned out and any errors in the bending are operator error, not the jig. If I end up having to make a lot more I might buy the bender, but for now, for this season, this jig is where it’s at!

Happy garden planning!

xo,

Heather

2013 Garden Update & Pest Control Plans

This year is a big year when it comes to our vegetable garden. It may seem early to start planning, but January is the perfect time to make changes and order seeds. While we’re not expanding our approximately 1,100 square foot (about 24′ x 48′) garden this year (future plans perhaps), we have a lot of new ideas under our belt for how to increase productivity in the short and long term by:

  • reducing pests and pest damage with minimal use of organic sprays
  • helping the soils remain productive over the long haul through a four year crop rotation plan
  • start some of our own seeds using the winter sowing method and possibly a homemade interior lighting system
  • using the space more efficiently through vertical squash and cucumber growing
  • plant/soil testing to figure out if chronic disease is soil related, seed stock related, or both

Each of these topics can easily be their own blog post, so let’s get right to it! Let’s just go right down the line and start at the top.

Reduce Pests and Pest Damage with Minimal Use of Organic Sprays

One of the biggest ways we’ll be combating early bugs this year, as well as help our plants while they’re young, is through low row tunnel covers. A low row tunnel cover is essentially a series of half hoops covered in a specific fabric. We’ll be using these not only for pest damage, but to help keep our kale and lettuce from bolting so early which causes it to become very very bitter and inedible. Thankfully the 2012 kale which bolted is still useful since we let it winter over to grow for seed stock to harvest this year. Seed saving is a whole different topic so let’s discuss what caused the final push into deciding to use low row tunnel covers.

In the 2012 growing season we had a horrific squash bug and cucumber beetle infestation, and our kale and lettuce bolted unexpectedly thanks to a few scorching hot days. Despite growing up with a garden, I’m still fairly new at this and it’s all a learning process. I’ve realized there are two ways you learn, through education and organization and when something screws up – like lettuce and kale so big and beautiful but so bitter you can’t eat it, or a total lack of cucumbers and a sad realization you won’t have any pickles. The squash were hard hit with only a few of the hardier species surviving including one of each butternut squash, hubbard and acorn, which didn’t produce like they should have.

Squash

When it comes down to it row tunnel covers will allow us to cover our plants with different weight fabrics, dependent on the environmental needs of the plant, throughout the growing season. We will likely start with a heavier fabric as here in Maine it can turn unexpectedly very cold, even if it’s past the last frost date. After we’re past when it might dip unexpectedly cold at night I’ll likely switch to a light weight fabric to help keep the bugs out and allow the max sun and rain in. Once the plants are hearty enough, and are flowering (squash, etc.) I’ll uncover those rows to allow pollination to take place.

The current plan is to try both vertical squash/cucumbers (another post on this later) as well as traditional mounds. The traditional mounds will be covered with low tunnel covers. Once these plants are hearty enough I will move the covers to the greens and switch the cover to a shade fabric to help keep them from bolting. We’ll see how it goes.

All of this chatter brings us to the semantics – how to build a low row tunnel. I want to be clear that I am by no means an authority on how this needs or should be done. There are so many wonderful websites all about this if you just search around. This is simply what we’ve decided to do here on our little farm. There are so many options when it comes to these tunnel covers. You can buy ones that are already put together, but you can’t change the fabric on. You can build them out of rebar and PVC, you can build them out of EMT (an electrical conduit that’s fairly easy to bend) as well as a plethora of other options.  If you go with something like EMT, you can either buy a bender from somewhere like Johnny’s, or with a few simple things around the house you can build your own albeit it’s a little more work.

I did a wicked amount of research and decided the best option for us was the EMT / Home-built bender route. I decided to go this route for one reason: affordability. EMT is very affordable and long lasting where as PVC is more expensive and breaks down in the sunlight over time. I’m hesitant to spent a lot of money on something I might decide isn’t worth it. That aside, why buy something I can build? Building my own bender will help off-set the cost of the cover fabric, so I consider it worth it. Maybe if we expand a lot in the future I’ll buy a bender, but for this year a handmade bender is where I’m at.

I’ll do another post explaining how I built my bender, but here’s a preview.

IMG_4109

That’s pretty much it, screws, plywood, a pencil, a ruler, and some string.

I’d say this post is quite long enough at this point, and I have a dog on my lap who has simply decided snuggling is far more important than me typing, so before my arm goes entirely to sleep I’ll wrap it up with this – here’s to the beginning of a big 2013 garden season, hopefully big in both testing results and production!

xo,

Heather

Winter Sowing Seeds – Update

While the final deck post is on it’s way, I thought I’d update you on a little experiment I started a few months ago.

Do you remember when I attempted to winter sow some seeds for our garden? To refresh, the premise is that you plant seeds in containers which can be left outdoors in the winter. The reasoning being it requires no special equipment, and it will result in hardier plants that can be transplanted before last frost, which is pretty late around here.

Do you remember when a few weeks later I checked on the plants and wrote this post all about how excited I was it was working because they were filled with shoots?

And do you remember how I told you I’d let you know how it worked out and how we would transplants them yadda yadda yadda?

Yeah, well, that’s not going to happen. A few weeks after my last post I opened those suckers up to water them. They looked good. And then something dawned on me. They didn’t look an awful lot like the plants I had planted. I would consider myself a novice gardner, but I certainly know what swiss chard looks like coming up and it doesn’t look like that.

And then the final straw came. Or lightbulb. Or whatever you call that moment of “ahah!” followed by “ohhh maannnn”.

I went to plant some iris’s I got from my mom, which had been a bucket with peat moss. You know, the same peat moss I planted my seeds with…

…and it had the same green shoots in it.

So what the heck was going on?

Mice.

Andy figured out that the peat moss bag was below a bag of grass seed on the shelf in our barn. The mice, being clever little *name I shouldn’t say* that they are, found their way into the grass seed bag. They decided to take said grass seed and in the process, they dumped a ton of grass seed into the peat moss bag, which was open. Now, because the mice managed to tip the grass seed bag just enough that it dumped directly into the peat moss bag, we didn’t notice it. There was also still grass seed left, though a lot less than we had thought we had used. We chalked it up to just not remembering we used that much.

As it turns out however, when I put my little trowel into the bag of peat moss and mixed it a couple times all I did was mix in grass seed. Into our peat moss.

Cue head hitting laptop.

To look on the bright side of things, I did succeed in winter sowing some seeds. They were just grass seeds which choked out most of my other seeds. I will proudly state that I did get a couple spinach and tomato shoots. At least we needed some grass in certain patches, so I pulled out the few miniscule veggie seeds that had started and spread the pre-started grass seed on the lawn.

I’d say this experiment proved something everyone already knew—you can winter sow seeds. I also further learned that mice are little bleepidy bleeps. I also learned (rather, learn regularly) that God does indeed have a sense of humor.; and that I need to make sure my darn soil bags are closed tight and nowhere near another seed over the winter.

xo,

Heather

 

Hold The Cherry Pie

Remember how a little while back I posted about our poor cherry tree? Well, I discussed the issue with MOFGA, the Maine Organic Farmers & Growers Association, and there wasn’t much hope for the tree. It looked like mechanical damage plus a mix of a potential canker disease.

We cut off all of the dead limbs like suggested and kept an eye on it but there was just no hope. The branches have been continuously dying and becoming brittle. As mentioned in the previous post on the tree, it looked slightly discolored. I realized if I licked my finger and wiped the bark I could wipe the discoloration off. I tried this on a few other trees and they all dried back to the same color. I knew something was on my tree, and it made me sad.

We also knew we had to get it out of there before whatever was going on spread to our other trees—if it hasn’t already. We’re keeping a close eye on them, especially our plum tree.

I’ve researched all around and it looks like you essentially only have to look at a sweet cherry tree wrong and they die. It could have started with the rootstock, been a mixture of mechanical and winter damage, been from pests, other diseased trees, planting it wrong, pruning it wrong or simply walked by it wrong. In other woods, they seem to be pretty susceptible to death.

So while I was gone fighting off Jaws in Martha’s Vineyard, Andy took to taking the cherry tree out. When I came home it looked a little more like this.

Just to be safe, we won’t be growing anything except grass in this same spot for at least a few years. We aren’t sure there is any damage to the soil, but given the condition of the tree we’re going to let it have a few years rest.

As of now the tree is in the burn pile, awaiting the next torching. We’ll need to do it soon so the tree can’t potentially transfer any airborn diseases to our other trees.

What surprised me most when I saw the tree in the burn pile was how small the root ball was. I would have expected after three years it would have been bigger than this. I may be entirely incorrect however.

Oh well. Long story short, we no longer have a cherry tree. Growing whether it be an orchard, a garden or personally is all about trying new things, figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and learning from your mistakes. For now I’ll keep researching and reading, and maybe down the line if we try another cherry tree we’ll end up with a sweet cherry pie at the end.

xo,

Heather

There Is Unrest In The Forest, There Is Trouble With The Trees

The band Rush said it best, and it’s true. There’s trouble in tree paradise around here, and momma ain’t happy about it. About three years ago we planted three fruit trees in front of our garden, a pear, cherry and plum. For the last two years they all bloomed beautifully.

Then it happened. This year while the other two were budding, the cherry tree didn’t. I thought maybe the roots got choked. Or too much water formed. But we have good soil with good drainage, that couldn’t be it. I am so new at fruit trees that I feel completely in the dark about what’s going on, despite researching a ton.

Then. Andy came in and said, “I think we have a problem, I can snap the branches. It’s dead.”

After analyzing again, we realized there was still play in about half to three-quarters of the branches, just a few were clearly gone to the orchard in the sky. But now I’m pretty concerned not only for the welfare of the cherry tree, but for all of the other fruit trees including the apple and pear trees we planted last year in a separate part of the yard. The photos below are where my concern stems from-no pun intended, and it’s getting worst.

Damage on the leader

I’ve looked up every disease I can find for a black cherry tree and none of them look like this except maybe, maybe silver leaf. Here are some more shots.

Where the trunk meets the ground.
Trunk just above where branches start.
Trunk. Top left of the wound is where I cut a sucker off last year I believe-I'm pretty sure that black mark wasn't there.

And then there is this, which I spotted after carefully staring at the tree for a while. A weird white spot that looked like it was on the surface. The camera is focused in right on it, to the right of the bud.

White Spot On Cherry Tree

And finally, branch discoloration. Is this normal? I’ve never noticed it before but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been there all along.

Cherry Tree Branch discoloration

After all of this, I started inspecting the other trees, especially my plum tree and I gulped. The same plum tree I just fertilized and put saw dust around. How I didn’t see this before, or think, “that’s not right” I don’t know. I honestly have no idea what I’m looking at, but it doesn’t look good. Maybe this is normal, but it doesn’t look normal.

Plum Tree Trunk

The rest of my plum tree is beautiful though, with what looks like no damage to the branches like the cherry has.

Finally, the pear. It’s not blooming as much as it did last year, but this tree despite being a dwarf has always seemed slightly more stunted than it should.

Pear Trunk
Pear Branch
Pear Bloom

Someone please tell me I’m paranoid, this is normal, and whatever has taken my cherry tree hostage hasn’t destroyed my other trees. Unless that’s not the truth. I’m at a loss. Thank God for MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association) as they help me try to figure this out. Which is part of the reason I wrote this post. If any of you have suggestions though, speak up. . I need real proven knowledge from those who have dealt with it.

xo,

Heather