Category Archives: urban farming

winter update 2015

it’s something of a wonder that anyone reads this blog or that i have had new subscribers in the last 6 months as i’ve been so neglectful in posting.  i’m not promising anything like i’ll post more often, but i did tell myself i’d get one more post in this year.

if you would like to stay up to date – you might want to follow on twitter or instagram – my handle on both of those services is @dirtysabot – and i post much more frequently.

thanks to those new readers, and now on to the post.

the main reason i’ve not been posting, is that i’m busy doing the stuff i could be posting about, instead of posting about it.  also my kid is really demanding of my attention these days, and i’ve been getting some freelance work.  all this is to say that i’ve not had a lot of free time.

so a few highlights of summer/fall.

out in the garden we install nine 4×8 raised beds.   while our soil is generally good quality and the lead levels not very high, because of the kid’s elevated blood lead levels we decided to take no chances and installed the raised beds. i didn’t take any shots that give a good perspective, but this gives you a little bit of an idea.  raisedbeds

we also installed rain water totes – which gets us off the grid for outdoor water use – at some point i’ll post about the pump we are using and irrigation systems.  raintotes

successes in the garden – strawberries planted last year (that was only last year?) gave us a great harvest – i ended up with 8 gallons of berries in the freezer plus lots of fresh eating.  the kid loves strawberries – so we only have one bag left.  i’m thinking we will need to put in more beds this coming year.  maybe next year, we have a lot going on. strawberriesour peach tree – which really shouldn’t be bearing yet, gave us a nice little crop of sweet fruit. peachesi successfully grew sweet corn for the first time in years – though by the last picking the squirrels had noticed – i’m not sure i will be as lucky next year.  still it was worth the effort and i enjoyed these ears of silver queen. cornwe had a huge harvest of cantaloupe, more than i could eat – so i ended up freezing it.  makes a pretty good base for smoothies, even the stuff that is not nearly so ripe.  melonsthe fig tree survived another  record breaking winter and even provide us with a bit of tasty fruit.  figsthis years break away winner for most exciting new variety to grow in the garden – pink princess – the most amazing cherry tomato i think i have had.  pinkprincesseven alice waters said it might be better than sun gold.  speaking of – alice waters and will allen came to visit – that’s pretty cool right?  willandaliceother big new variety highlight for me was stocky red roaster pepper- a frank morton selection – anytime i see his name associated with a variety i’m willing to give it go.  these are prolific, delicious peppers that kept going well into november in the hoop house.  i’d be ok with only growing this variety.

my folks came to visit and they were kind enough to help put in this flower bed. it’s right outside my dining room window – so i can stare at the flowers while i eat breakfast.  flowerson an east coast visit i collected paw paws from the banks of the tuckahoe river – i saved seeds from the best ones – and perhaps in another 15 years i can be saving seeds from michigan maryland paw paw crosses.  pawpawfinally the project that has been taking up most of my free time this fall has been enclosing my back porch and making it into a mudroom.  this has many major advantages  – storage for coats and muddy shoes – but also added security and warmth.  it also helps keep the house cleaner – and soil from being tracked in – we are still working to get the kids lead levels lower and soil from outside is a possible source for higher levels.

before porchbeforecurrent mudroominclosedi still need to finish the siding – but that may wait until spring – inside is insulated – but still need to be drywalled, and painted – but now that it is inclosed we can work on that even on cold days.  thanks to s for looking after the kid so much so we could work on this project and to my friend j for all the help framing and installing door and windows.

what have been yr big projects of the summer/fall?


hoop house planting

we have been eating out of the hoop house for at least a month – mostly arugula, swiss chard and mustard greens for salad.  rather than purchase new seeds i just sowed heavily what old seed we had.  i had pretty poor results, and plenty of spots were left blank.  later i went and bought some new seed and seeded two beds in spinach and one in arugula. spinachandarugulathis photo was taken a few weeks ago – and these plantings are actually further along now, i’m expecting that they will be ready to harvest in a couple more weeks – and since it’s more spinach and arugula than we can eat i’m planning on selling a little to help offset the cost of building the hoop.  plantingwe also planted a mid october planting in those blank spaces left over from the poorly germinating seed- which should be ready quite late if at all this year – it may be the first harvest of next year.

garden update

i’ve had a surprisingly large number of new followers given the fact that i’ve written close to nothing in months.  i’m not promising that new followers is gonna change anything – in fact i’ve given serious thought to packing in this blog and calling it a good run.  i’m not quite at that point yet – but the reality is that reality is really in need of my time.  having a kid certainly is taking up a large amount of what little free time i have, plus lots of work around the house, working, and supporting s with her business and  art.  i’ve been thinking about switching to some sort of print type thing likely in the form of a zine, but if i can’t get my act together to post something on the interweb, am i likely to do a zine? not likely.

it’s been months since i’ve done an update on the garden, so here is a quick one, i’ll try to get images of the hoop house up soon.

the strawberries and asparagus are doing well.  the strawberries in particular seem to have taken to their new home like champs.  they are spreading in every which a away making it look like one big carpet of plants not three beds.  one of the  difficulties of growing strawberries is the need to pick off the flowers in the first year so that plants can focus on root development.  while i was diligent in my flower removal i did miss few, and i can say that these are some of the best strawberries i’ve consumed. i’m looking forward to next summer.  my son will also be old enough to enjoy strawberries (strawberries can be a big trigger for food allergies so are off limits until age one) which i’m looking forward to.


i’ve done a good job of keeping the asparagus plants weed free – but the asparagus has been attacked by asparagus beetle.  i wasn’t expecting the asparagus beetle to attack so quickly as my patch at work took a couple of years for the beetles to discover.  i still need to finish filling in the trench that i set the plants down into – and get the plastic out of the way that surrounds them.  i’d hope it would keep the weeds at bay, but not really done so.  asparagus

we planted a couple fruit trees, a peach and a cherry tree.  both i would never plant were it not for my love of these two fruits.  these trees are too much work to keep pest free using organic methods – but i also want to have plenty of these lovely fruits – and my lovely s requested these.  what we do for love…cherry

we also planted hardy kiwis – a male and a female.  what do hardy kiwis taste like you ask?  yr guess is a good as mine, but at 50 pounds of fruit a year and a flavor somewhat like the not so hardy kiwi, it seemed like a good choice to plant.  plus the variety we selected was bred at michigan state university – so i figure it will do well.  kiwi

finally the fig.  you might remember that last fall we planted her after she had been tended in a pot for years.  we sheltered her with plenty of straw and yet after last years crazy cold winter, she showed no signs of life in the spring.  i wasn’t sure anything would come of her, and s had pretty much written her off but after a couple of warm months she sent up a shoot and by the end of summer took off with a vengeance.  she is gonna be a lot more work now that she is so much bigger to cover – but i’m looking forward to figs in the years to come.



what’s happening in your garden?  what projects have you been up to?

hoop house build part 4: bows, ridge pole and wind bracing

i could have been taking lots of photographs of all this, but i was more interested in doing something than documenting.  weird i know.  the hoop house has been going full steam ahead, and if you have worked hard to make sure everything is level and square, you should find that the house does come together very quickly.

raising the bows.

depending on the size of your house you might have to assemble the bows first, if it is wide the bows often come in two parts and then truss supports are added.  our little 14 foot wide house has none of those parts, it’s simply a single piece.  most bows are all the same, but the bows for the ends often are pre-drilled for purlin connection, make sure you tag those and put them at the ends where they should go.  with people on both sides, walk your bows to to the ground posts and slide them in if they are swaged or in our case use the sleeve to connect them.  pre-drilled holes that are swaged get connected with carriage bolts, we used self tapping screws to run though the sleeve into the bow.  if your ground posts are not square this is where is can get really difficult, as the bows will not want to go into the ground posts if they are not properly set and you find yourself pushing and pulling to work them in.

the bows usually go up pretty quickly, and it’s amazing what a difference having the bows up makes.  it really gives you an idea of scale.  it’s very difficult to imagine what the house will really look like on the site until you have the bows in place.  then it tends to look big, and in our little side lot, it looked really, really big.  bows

you really shouldn’t put the bows up unless you also have time to add the ridge pole or some of the purlins (if your house uses them).  If you don’t have the ridge pole or purlins attached then the bows can knock about a lot in a major windstorm.

the ridge pole is the pole that connects the bows at the peak of the house (technically a ridge pole is purlin too, but unlike other purlins, it is not paired, if someone calls the ridge pole a purlin they are accurate).  usually the ends are pre-drilled and you slide a carriage bolt though and connect them, then the rest of the bows and pole are connected using cross connectors.  use your same 4 foot spacing tool you used while pounding the ground posts to make sure the bows are properly spaces as they can flex quite a bit.  i don’t tighten the cross connectors fully down until i have everything put together as i find i some times have to make adjustments and it’s much easier if they are not fully tightened.  cross connector nuts are usually 7/16th and it’s great to have a deep socket on yr impact driver to drive these in quickly.


purlins are similar to ridge poles, connecting the bows together but go further down the house.  our house lacks these because it’s so small.  the bigger the house the more purlins.

any house that is gonna have roll up sides, and i highly recommend that it does, is going to need to have a hip board.  the hip board is located a few feet above the bottom board.  it functions as a purlin, providing strength, but it is also where the plastic that covers the majority of the house meets the plastic that will make up the roll up side.  if this isn’t making much sense, don’t worry too much about it, give it time.

the hip board is installed very much like the bottom board.  we use a 2×4 mostly so we have enough wood to drive the lag screws which connect the pipe straps.  figure out where you want the bottom of the hip board to be located, four feet about the top edge of the bottom board is  a good location and mark that.  much like the bottom board you will need to cut the first board so that its end is between two boards, and you will need to make plates to connect them.  screw the pipe strap to the hip board with a lag screw and then use a self taping screw to connect the pipe strap to the bow.  level the hip board as you go, connect the boards together with a piece of wood (make sure it goes on the inside so it doesn’t interfere with the plastic when it gets pulled.  on the outside of the hip board you are gonna wanna put a piece of channel – either single or double for attaching the plastic cover.

hipboardchannelyou are also gonna need to attach the corner wind bracing on the hoop house.  this just helps it be a little bit more secure by providing diagonal connection between the bows.  usually they have holes in the end that you can drive a self taping screw into.

coming up next – framing the end walls.


hoop house build part 3: installing the bottom boards

once the ground posts are in place, it’s time to put on the bottom boards.  some folks put the bottom boards on after they have put up the bows and installed the ridge pole, pulins, and hip board, but i like to put the bottom boards in first.

the reason is pretty simple, when you install the bows they tend to put a good amount of outward pressure on the ground posts, and if they aren’t linked together with bottom boards they will tend to push out more, and lose their square position.

bottom boards provide structure and also are where your plastic is connected, or your roll up sides rest depending on yr setup.   bottom boards also help to keep excessive water from coming into the house, and soil from washing out.

if the ground you are working on is not level, start working on the higher end. if you are working with eight foot lengths of material you will need to cut the first bottom board you lay out so it is only 6 foot long, and makes it half way between two posts (no matter what length of material you are working with you will want it be laid out so the connection of boards happens between posts).  with the extra two feet of material, cut that into six inch pieces that will be used to join the bottom boards together.

lay yr first board out and make sure it is level and then attach it to the corner post.  some systems use carriage bolts, but we used pipe straps and self taping screws.  screw the pipe strap to the bottom board and then run a self taping screw threw the strap into the bottom board.

leveluse one of the six inches pieces you cut to join the next bottom board to the one you have already attached.  use outdoor deck screws so they don’t rust out.  make sure you attached the wooden plate to the inside so it doesn’t interfere with the roll up side later on. level, attach to the next post and repeat.

keep this up until you get the the far end.


next step is putting up the bows, ridge pole, the hip boards – then it really starts feeling like you are doing something.

hoop house build part 2: driving the ground posts

in our last episode i stressed the importance of spending time making sure everything was carefully laid out, and we even used math to check our work.  if you have done all that correctly, you shouldn’t have to think all that hard for the next part; driving the rest of the ground posts.

while there is less thinking, it’s important to still take yr time and make everything square and level.  it is about finesse more than brute force (though you do need some brute force from time to time).  for this operation you are gonna need the following

1. post driver 2. post level 3. pounder 4. ear protection 5. marker 6. spacing jig 7. four foot or longer level (recommended but not required)

if you are not sure of what any of these is, see the last post for more info, with the exception of the spacing jig, which will be explained soon.

ground posts for hoop houses are almost always placed four feet apart.  i’m told that in warmer climates where they don’t get nearly as much snow that they can be placed five feet apart.  you can measure them, but you often find the post drifting about as you drive it, and it helps to make a spacing jig.  this is simply a 2×4 that has square cuts in it four feet apart that are the size of the pipe you are using.  it is especially helpful if you are trying to drive posts by yrself.  ideally it would have three cuts in it to help make sure you are staying in a straight line – as you may recall from geometry class, three points make a straight line, but i didn’t have that long of a 2×4.

mark all the posts to correspond to yr level line – in my case i made marks two feet from the top of my posts.

using the measuring jig place one of your corner posts in a notch and use it to measure where the next post will be positioned.


slide post level over the post, put the pounder on and slide the post driver over it. put it in the notch of the jig that is empty and then work to get it so it is close to the level line as possible without pushing it out, and is square in both directions.  put your ear protection on, and drive it a couple of times.  check to make sure it is square in both directions again and close to the line and keep driving until you reach the line you marked on your post.  if you are using the four foot plus level it’s great to rest it between your post that is at the proper level and the post you have just driven to make sure they are driven to the same level.  this is more of an issue when you are building a long house than it is when you are building a short house like ours, as the line level can sag over a long length and give you a bad read.

life is not always so beautiful as you want it to be, and when driving ground posts you often come across problems such as rocks and foundation.  it’s pretty well impossible to drive though these materials so they must be tackled.  two basic methods can be be employed, removal and post cutting.

of these two post cutting is the easier.  if you hit an obstacle and you have over two feet of post in the ground but have yet to reach your level mark you can simply cut off the excess.  use a hacksaw, cut off wheel on a angle grinder, or a pipe cutter.  i prefer the pipe cutter as it’s slow but often provides the best cut.

in many situations you hit obstacles before you have driven two feet worth of post in the ground.  you have little choice but to remove that which is in your way.  commonly this required digging with a shovel what is in the way.  you can find some pretty large items if they are large enough you might have to use a sledgehammer or jack hammer to break them apart.  i’ve even heard of folks boring though foundation in order to put in ground posts.

hopefully you won’t hit anything – i repeated the process of driving posts with only a couple of incidents, having to cut two pipes, and digging out a huge piece of concrete on the very last post i drove.


in our next episode we install bottom boards.


hoop house build part one: laying out and driving corner posts

thirteen years ago that i built my first hoop house.  it was a deeply transformative event.  at that point in my life i’d never really built anything bigger than some sculptures i did in undergrad.

i remember looking at all the parts and the field where the hoop house would go and wondering how i would be able to put it up.

i had plenty of help, jay was there to give day to day instruction and chris my co-worker plenty of encouragement.  it wasn’t the sort of encouragement i was used to.  chris was about twice as big as me and extremely strong, and he held me to the same standards as he did myself, making me work as hard as he could.  i often thought of neitzche’s  thus spoke zarathustra, and contemplating  the will to power.  i’ve now built many houses for other folks, dreaming of the day when i might be able to build one for myself.  now that we have property of our own, building our own house has been high on the list of priorities.

this last week the weather has finally broken after the snowiest winter in detroit since 1880 and we started working on installing our hoop house.

what follows is a multi part how to guide to install a hoop house.  i hope you find it helpful or interesting.  if you find it neither, it will be over soon enough.

this section is on laying out the house, driving the corner post and leveling everything.

for those that are scratching their heads wondering just what a hoop house is – it’s basically a low cost greenhouse for extending the growing season.

for this section of building the hoop house you will need the following.

1. scrap lumber for making batter boards 2. wood screws 3. an impact driver or drill, with phillips bit and 3/8’s inch driver bit.  4. a post level 5. a properly sized pounder  6. fence post driver  7. self taping screws 8. builders string 9. a line level  10. a shovel 11. ear protection

step one

identify where you are going to situate your house.  most folks run the house east-west as this allows you to catch the most sun, but a poorly situated hoop house is better than no hoop house.  with a shovel test to see if there are any major rocks or foundation in line with where you plan to put the house.  i dig at least 1 foot down to test, but that doesn’t always mean that you are going discover everything lurking below.   once you have tested everything and feel as though it is free of impediments, you can start marking where it will go.

i start by driving corner takes where i think the house will be located.  it’s helpful to have some fixed points in this situation.  measure off sidewalks, or fences or building that are likely to be square if you have that convenience.  look it over and make sure it will be convenient to get to, have plenty of sun and all that.  i laid our house out about 10 feet from our fence so it’s shadow wouldn’t interfere with growing, and we would have good ventilation.  spend a day or two looking at the where the house will sit before you get down to the business of driving corner posts .  you don’t want to realize that you should have placed that house two feet to the left after you have driven all the posts.

step two

once you have the approximation of the corners of your house, set up your batter boards.

these are boards that are set up around the corner of where you plan to actually drive your corner posts. the batter boards give you the ability to adjust the layout of your ground post before you drive them.  getting ground posts out is not fun.  moving string is easy, though not really all that fun either.

drive three vertical posts and then attach the horizontals to make a little wooden corner .  do this on each of the corners.   drive a screw into the top of each of the horizontals approximately where you think the outside edge of the corner post should be.  then run a string between the screws to form an approximation of the outside of the house.


this is where it gets tough; math gets involved.  if it’s been awhile since you have cracked a geometry book you might want to get a drink and come back.

ok?  good.

you remember pythagorus right?  not really?  well the guy is rumored to be brilliant and may have come up with the theorem attached to his name; the pythagorean  theorem.  everything is a bit murky considering that most that is know about his life was recorded years after his death.  we all learned about his theorem in geometry class and it’s one of the few useful bits of mathematics i routinely use.  when trying to find the length of a hypotenuse on a right triangle, it says that the square of the length and width added together with equal the square of the hypotenuse.

why am i bringing this up?  because it’s the simplest way to make sure your angles are all square.  first check that the length  and  width are right.  in the case of our house it’s 14 feet by 36. then check the distance between the two corner posts which based on the pythagorean theorem should equal  38 feet 6 inches or so.  if all these are the same you are in great shape, but most of the time you have to move yr strings and screws around until you have everything in the right place.  it takes a while but it’s well worth getting the ground posts square.  everything goes so much smoother if they are square.

step three driving the corner posts

make a mark on your ground posts for 2 feet.  if you are using 4 foot ground posts this is the center, if using 6 foot this mark will be two feet from the bottom of the post you are going to drive.  all posts need to pounded at lease two feet into the ground to hold secure.

slip the post level over the post, slip the pounder in the end of the ground post, slide the post driver over top and put on yr ear protection.  take yr time and get the post as close to the corner strings without pushing them out and then make sure that it is square in all directions.  then pound it a few times.  check and resquare, continue pounding and checking until you have two feet of the post into the ground.  you want to have at least 2 feet of ground post into the ground, no less.

repeat with each of the ground posts

that is if you can.  in my case we hit massive foundation when we went to drive the two post on the west side and had to start laying out the batter boards and start again.  this is not what you want to happen, but you should be prepare. if you have to remove corner posts, easiest way is to use a pipe wrench and twist and pull up at the same time.  it is not fast but it does work.


lets assume everything goes well.

step 4 leveling the ground posts

drive a self taping screw into the side of each of the post at a level that works well for you.  i chose the two feet below the top of the post because it was well below where it would get in the way of the stake driver, but also gave me plenty of room to adjust stakes.  wrap a line around each of the screws making sure to maintain the same orientation on each of them, so the string comes out either on the top or the bottom, but not both.  pull the string taunt, put a line level on the lines,  and check them for level, if they are all level wonderful, if not slowly drive the posts down that are too high until they are all level. try to drive as little as possible to make them level so you have as much ground post above ground.

stringlevelwith all four corner post square and level you have a major accomplishment on your hands, and your house is well on it’s way.  this is the most crucial step as all the other ground posts, and the rest of the house will be based on these four posts.

don’t be in any hurry, make sure everything square and level, take yr time do it right and you will be much, much happier as you build the rest of the house.

in the next post we will drive the rest of the ground posts.