Build a Cattle Panel Hoop House
My sweet neighbor of almost 20 years and soul sister Laura French came down the hill to give me more tomato plants, while I gave her more shallots from a fellow gardener Joanne, who had many to share. We discussed the huge black bear near her place and the monster “foxasauraus” who’s been haunting our land. Laura thanked me again for sharing honey with her family while I grabbed an empty sugar container from our newest buzzing beehive. We took a look at the fresh goldenseal in our wild beds; then I showed her the cut oak logs for our soon-to-be inoculated new shitake mushroom garden. I offered to share shitake inoculant and process if Laura could send her oldest son to help us with more cut oak logs. Laura, thrilled to know she’d have shitakes for their eight member household this fall, agreed happily, then looked at me and said, “We are growing our own civilization here aren’t we?” to which I replied, “Yes, we are.”
I have a lot of friends who are engaging in community endeavors. Soulfire Farm feeds an ever-growing number of Albany/Troy, New York families; Dan and Liz at Tamacoce provide outdoor wilderness experiences for Free School children; Wyomanack Farm provides a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for locals and Columbia County residents; Laughing Dog Farm’s Daniel Dog Botkin, goatboy and creator of Footbags Feeds, and teaches in western Massachusetts; Mariam Massaro at Singing Brook Farm, home of WiseWays Herbals, creates medicines, sings and dances her way all over western Massachusetts and Vermont, along with generously hosting many community gatherings…and the list goes on.
The way we build our civilization is through working together, just like folks used to do back in the “old days.” True, we have new technology, and most of us carry cell phones, but we build our community through the judicious use of our collective muscle power. Then, we sit down to a wonderful meal together, pray over our food, and give thanks for our day together. It’s a beautiful thing.
One of my favorite projects is to see a new greenhouse pop up, just like a mushroom in the forest, where once there was none. Mariam Massaro, owner of WiseWays Herbals and fellow llama lover, always wanted her own greenhouse. She grows everything from kiwis to goldenseal, and her climate is even colder at times than ours here in Cherry Plain, New York. I was visiting Mariam recently, when she turned to me and said, “Jules, I really want a greenhouse. Will you build it for me?” I thought briefly about my own farm garden, busy paramedic school and yoga teacher training schedule, and said “Of course!” Here’s how Mariam’s greenhouse grew, and along the way, these are directions so you can create your own homegrown greenhouse.
First, take a look at the required equipment list (box far left). Everything on here (except the repair tape that you may need later) is absolutely necessary before you begin building anything:
Now that you’ve purchased a roll of 6mm guaranteed UV protected greenhouse plastic, enough for three to four greenhouses, and you’ve driven, with a pick-up truck, to purchase four cattle panels ($21.99 apiece) and six stakes ($4.75 apiece), and you’ve collected your lumber, screws, tools, and friends, you are ready to begin the day.
First, lay out your site, and hopefully you have good soil because the best way to create this greenhouse is on a site that will allow you to build one bed on either side with a walkway down the middle. Some people prefer to just use the space for their potted plants, so a site with good soil is not always necessary. I built two raised beds in my greenhouse because we don’t really have “soil” here on my farm, just lots of raised beds filled with old poop I’ve hauled in over the years.
Build your sturdy wooden frame around the site, using screws and either hinges or small pieces of wood to brace each corner. Next, fit each panel, one within the other, to form a type of high tunnel, which you can walk under comfortably. See how they fit together so that you understand what will be needed to create the hoop. Take the panels back out, and pound six metal stakes into the wooden base, two in the middle, and one for each corner. Everything inside the greenhouse should fit flush against the wooden base, including stakes and cattle panels. Cover the heads of each stake with copious amounts of duct tape wrapped around a couple of pieces of foam insulation. Really pack it on there until you have fat stake heads. Remember, anything metal that touches the plastic will rip it. These stakes will be inside the flexible greenhouse, bracing it against the wind, storms and snow that are to come with winter.
Next, fit all four cattle panels inside the greenhouse, one within the other. This requires several people even though I created my own greenhouse alone. It’s so much easier with teamwork. As you fit one, tie it down to the stake, and to the next cattle panel using hay bale ties, preferably the blue plastic type but any hay bale ties or string will do. Now you have everything nice and flush inside the base, you can see a skeleton of how your greenhouse will appear.
Here comes some tedium. You must wrap the end of each cattle panel with foam insulators, and double duct tape them in place. With six people at Mariam’s this took us over an hour. Look carefully, each cattle panel has burrs on the ends, and must be wrapped for 5-1/2 feet on every end that will touch plastic. After you have exhausted all of your foam insulators and double-checked to ensure that every single possible cattle panel burr spot has been wrapped with foam insulators, it is time to measure and cut your plastic.
Roll out the plastic next to the greenhouse, and cut it to fit the length and breadth of your greenhouse. Cut two more pieces for the doors, which are simply plastic that is clamped on the two open ends of the greenhouse. First, stretch the longer piece of plastic (the smallest roll from Griffins is 16 feet wide by 100 feet long) over the greenhouse width wise, and clamp one end neatly to the base. Cut two pieces of greenhouse plastic stripping approximately 12-feet long, and then carefully staple stripping over the plastic, as you continuously adjust the plastic to wrap tightly around the cattle panel frame. See why we foamed up all the ends? Once finished stapling both ends to the sides of the greenhouse, wrap the plastic snugly around both open ends, and clamp them. Next, take your two smaller pieces of plastic, the doors, and clamp them each, starting at the top or bottom, to completely enclose your new greenhouse for the coldest weather.
During the spring, summer and fall, you’ll open the top of the greenhouse doors by unclamping them part way down, allowing an air-flow. Otherwise you’ll cook your plants, which I discovered several times. Best to leave the top cracked open from early March throughout late December (depending on your climate), because your greenhouse will get very hot. I highly recommend placing a large container of fresh barnyard animal poop, covered with straw, at one end of the greenhouse to heat it during the cooler months. This natural heating strategy will keep your seedlings warm at night, provided they are off the ground.
Total cost of this greenhouse, factoring in the small amount of greenhouse plastic and plastic stripping used, is approximately $300, with enough plastic left over to build three more greenhouses. I’ve used my same plastic stripping roll to build four greenhouses, and the same roll of greenhouse plastic to build three. Sure, you can buy a greenhouse on the Internet for $300, not including shipping, but why? With these cattle panel greenhouses, you also have a built-in raised bed should you decide to use it. I’ve had my cattle panel greenhouse for over five years now, and only replaced the plastic last year for the first time because the cats jumped on it. It has survived feet of snow, pounds of ice, and very harsh winds. You do need to occasionally scrape the snow off the top but that is all. Building something homegrown with friends from locally sourced materials is just, well, so much more fun!
After we built Mariam’s greenhouse in under three hours, we all sat outside and shared our food. Mariam made a vegan key lime pie with avocados and dates, which was unbelievably good. A guest showed up with vegan pizza, while Robin created a huge and wonderful fresh salad. I passed around my favorite fake cheese from the co-op made with tapioca (mmmm) and we happily stuffed ourselves silly while gazing at our new creation, Mariam’s greenhouse.
I wish you all great success on your collective journeys as we co-create our own new civilizations, one greenhouse at a time, one shitake mushroom at a time. It all starts with a request, from one friend to another, and the answer is “Yes!”