How Plastic Saved Our Homestead – Part 1, by H.P.

A Disclaimer: I have zero commercial interest or connection to the plastic industry or any link contained herein. All links and references below are provided for informational and educational purposes only. I strongly encourage readers to use locally owned suppliers and make your purchases face to face for all of the products I recommend. Or better yet- source them via second hand, scrap, or salvage. All photos are originals and taken at my property.

Plastic has been getting a lot of bad press lately. Plastic pollution in our waterways is certainly a problem that deserves our attention. Leaching of toxic compounds from plastic containers into the food supply should concern us all. However, what if plastic could save farming by reducing the need for toxic pesticides and herbicides? What if plastic could increase yields and help feed you and your family? Plastic as a material, is widely available, lightweight, relatively shelf stable, and easy to work with. Plasticulture is an agricultural practice that deserves consideration.

What is plasticulture? Wikipedia defines it as:

The term plasticulture refers to the practice of using plastic materials in agricultural applications.

The plastic materials themselves are often and broadly referred to as “ag plastics.” Plasticulture ag plastics include soil fumigation film, irrigation drip tape/tubing, nursery pots and silage bags, but the term is most often used to describe all kinds of plastic plant/soil coverings. Such coverings range from plastic mulch film, row coverings, high and low tunnels (polytunnels), to plastic greenhouses.

In his book Plasticulture | Farming for Everybody, Otis Lester Bray presents plasticulture as an opportunity to transcend the problems associated with modern agriculture.

What is plasticulture to me? Plasticulture is abundance in my pursuit of maximizing food production for my family. Embracing plasticulture has been the single biggest difference maker for the development of our homestead (buying a tractor being a close second). Being the co-owner of a commercial building firm and father of two, my spare time is quite limited so I need every edge I can get as we develop our homestead.

First, some background

Shortly after moving to our rural homestead 7+ years ago, my wife and I hastily began building our garden on the site of what was once a pole barn. Completely overgrown and waterlogged, the site was the sunniest area of the yard. Once the remnants of the barn and surrounding rubbish was (mostly) cleared, we set out to see what would grow. Without any plan whatsoever and using basic hand tools, I built rows and beds and Mrs. P planted them. Many long sweaty evenings later, things started to grow! It was fun and exciting to experience the fruits (pun intended) of our labor, albeit with modest results.

The elevation of our property (approx. 1300’) is high compared to the surrounding area. Despite this, our water table is quite high due in part to the capillary action of our dense clay soil. 9 months out of the year you can find water by simply sticking a shovel into the ground. This is great for gardening as it reduces irrigation demands. It’s also great for weeds. A basic definition of a weed is any plant growing where it’s not wanted; a nuisance plant. Due to the semi-feral nature of our property, we have no shortage of vigorous and abundant weeds. Early on in our gardening, we found ourselves tending to the weeds more so than the crops we planted. Because organic growing is very important to us, we refused to use any type of chemicals for weed control. The result of all our hard work was rather pathetic yields which was demoralizing.

Being located in the South-Central region of Lake Erie basin, our area in particular is subject to weather extremes as a result of “lake effect” wind patterns. Couple the lake effect with our relative elevation and it’s not out of the ordinary for us to receive several feet of snow while a few towns over receives a dusting. During the growing season, these patterns can give us extreme rain, fog, wind, and early/late frost. The importance of learning about microclimate conditions should not be lost on any gardener/farmer. This aspect certainly hastened our learning curve. Whether dealing with soaking rains, blight, frost, or wind damage to our crops- we began to seriously question all of our efforts.

Of course, we did find some glimmers of success here and there which kept us motivated. Nothing beats seeing the tassels on the sweet corn crop drying out and knowing you’ll be harvesting in the coming days. That is, if you can beat the raccoons to the punch. What a fist to the gut it is to walk out on the morning of harvest and find every last corn stalk has been torn down and chewed up. Not to mention our chicken flock that was also wiped out by coons. Watching our brassica crops turn to swiss cheese from the cabbage moth worms was too much to bear. Seeing our young and supple apple trees chewed down to nubs by the deer was infuriating. Helplessly watching the birds strip our berry plants clean was crushing. After going through a long season of weeding and battling the elements only to have our crops destroyed by animals- I was ready to call it quits. Mrs. P was brought to tears. This was devastating to say the least. What were we doing wrong?

It was around this time that my wife befriended a local commercial organic farming couple a few towns over. Over time, she began an informal “internship” type of arrangement with these great people. At the time, the farmers were running a CSA with approximately 30 members as well as weekly market. Quite a bit of work for an older couple, so the help was much appreciated. Because we home educate our children, we had the flexibility to make the schedule work. Mrs. P was compensated with the occasional basket of fresh organic produce, but far more importantly: knowledge. The techniques learned could be easily scaled down to suit our needs because we don’t grow commercially. These folks became an incredibly important resource. The knowledge we gained was beyond priceless. The importance of relying on your network/community resources to augment your own skillset should be noted. This is when everything began to change for us.

Plasticulture technique: hoop house

We began systematically tearing out all of the hastily installed beds and fences to make way for greenhouses and raised/covered rows. This time we had a plan, this time it would work. The biggest immediate problem we faced was the cost of a green house. After realizing we didn’t have $5,000 to spend on a professional high tunnel and on the advice of another farmer, we signed up for the USDA high tunnel lottery program. After not being selected the first year, we decided not to sign up again. The amount of control over your property that the government asserts in this program was not worth the “free” assistance offered.

Then I approached my neighbor about an old dilapidated 15’ x 65’ hoop house frame on his property which hadn’t been used since we’d moved there. He was happy to sell me the frame for $150 with the caveat that I had to disassemble and move it off his lot. Other than a little surface rust and a few bent/broken pieces, the frame was in fine shape and we were ecstatic to take it off his hands! It took us a long afternoon to tear it down and carry it through the woods to our garden. We decided to split the frame into (2) separate 30’ long sections to accommodate our layout and rotation needs. We would spend another $500+/- to buy the wirelock, wiggle wire, and poly film all purchased locally from an Amish supplier. The end walls were a work in progress until I recently developed a system using leftover aluminum extrusions from a commercial siding job I completed last year. I do not recommend using PVC or wood for any structural members in a hoop house.

The first year of growing in the hoop house was not without some trial and error but largely a big success. Our yields were like nothing we’d ever seen. We were still harvesting tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers into November. We finally could grow things like eggplant and melon. We even had luck growing spuds in there using poly potato grow bags. The poly film covered house helped keep the cold and fog out, and keep the heat and moisture in. The hard damaging rain and winds were no longer a factor, and the animal damage was mostly eliminated. DE (purchased at local Amish supplier) was found to be a useful tool against some of the smaller pests like flea beetles as well as many other uses.

After two years of growing in the first greenhouse, we moved the chickens in for a few years. After a few years of chickens working the soil and depositing compost, our yields in that greenhouse this year were the best we’ve ever had. We were still harvesting tomatoes and peppers from our greenhouse in mid October despite some nighttime temps in the low 30’s. Our winter crop of greens has been planted and looks great so far. The chickens are currently in the 2nd greenhouse where they’ll stay until next spring. So far, this chicken/crop rotation has been successful. The hens have continued to lay consistently through the winter months thanks to the warmth of the hoop house and a single 60w light bulb on a timer. We will likely build a dedicated hoop house for the chickens next year. Please note that the chickens require an outdoor run during the hot summer months which is easily set up using poly netting, t-posts, and zip ties. We also hang poly shade cloths (green windscreen/scrim salvaged from a commercial jobsite) to give them relief from the sun.

Our garden layout is now set with two 15’x30’ hoop houses which are fully enclosed on the tops and sides with UV rated poly film. The end walls are seasonally adjusted to be enclosed with either poly film or poly netting based on the level of air flow and temperature we need to achieve. The soil is amended as needed seasonally with compost, silica sand, and aged manure. We’re going into our 5th year with the film on the first hoop house, and it is holding up well. There is a greenhouse-specific clear tape that can be used to patch small holes in the film which we’ve found to work well. I fashioned a few handy work tables from pallets and scrap lumber which are used for seed starting and crop drying in the hoop house during the summer. We still start spring crops inside the house by the wood stove.

Early this Summer we completed our hybrid hoop house/berry house. This structure is 12’x70’ and currently houses strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and serviceberries with room to expand. I made the bows using 2 pieces of galvanized fence rail, and a pipe bender. The top half of the hoop is poly film, while the sides and end walls are poly netting. This design serves several purposes including slightly increasing temperature while maintaining air flow, keeping out birds and other critters, and keeping rain and frost off the delicate fruit. It’s been hugely successful. As of late-October, we were still harvesting raspberries and strawberries- both of which were planted this Spring. All 3 hoop houses also make for good winter overflow storage. We’ve found ventilation and irrigation to be the biggest challenges to consider when growing indoors.

Plasticulture technique: irrigation and drainage

We quickly realized that water is everything. Being that our garden is in a low-lying area of our property, flooding became an issue. I found an old overgrown ditch along the East line of our property that could be used to divert stormwater away from the yard and garden. Using combinations of corex and pvc, I installed a series of field drains in the garden as well as storm drains for the house gutters. Moving the water quickly offsite dramatically improved the soil conditions.

Our irrigation system consists of buried ¾” poly irrigation tube which was given to me by a plumber friend. I installed this piping when I trenched to the green houses to install electrical conduit (also poly) which was needed to run fans. The irrigation tube goes to a manifold that hooks into our poly rain barrel collection system (not completed yet) as well as our domestic well-fed water supply. When the system is completed, we’ll be able to select between rainwater and well water delivered to the garden underground. Once at the garden, the water will feed through a low pressure poly drip irrigation system that delivers water directly to the root of the plant. This system is fully customizable with options including filters, timers, and liquid fertilizer injection ports. Because of our high-water table, the drip tape irrigation is only needed in the green houses. Despite the drainage we installed, the field crops rarely dry out once they are established. It’s important to remember when irrigating your crops to deliver the water to the roots, not the foliage. Using sprinklers and hoses to “rain” water over a large area is inefficient and can be damaging to your crops. Another irrigation tip we learned is to bypass the water softener- plants do not like softened water!

Plasticulture technique: weed control

Overall, our biggest challenge in the garden is keeping the weeds at bay. You can never fully control them, but you need to keep them away from your crops. Weeds will steal nutrients and water, over-shade, and block air flow that your crops need. They can also attract unwanted pests. We have fully embraced the use of woven poly cloth (mulch) to control weeds throughout our property. This fabric is a must have item at our homestead. It’s durable, versatile, and reusable. Mulch is the most common use, but there are other uses for this fabric. It can be used underneath driveway gravel to prevent material loss. It can be used for silt fencing and inlet protection. It can be used in the construction of retaining walls. It is basically a UV-rated tarp material that comes on a roll in many common lengths and widths. We buy it from a local Amish produce supplier. Do not buy the cheap stuff that is sold at the big box stores! You’re better off doing nothing rather than using the junky stuff. Along with extra rolls of mulch, we also lay in bulk boxes of sod staples.

Plastic mulch is used around all new trees, both edible and ornamental, that we plant on the property. All trees are planted on a mound with a mix of aged manure and tilled native soil then topped with plastic mulch. By extending the material flat and tight out into the yard, I’m able to drive the mower over it and virtually eliminate the need to weed whack. The mulch is also used to cover all borders and paths in the garden. It is used for mulching the garlic and strawberry beds by means of burning holes with a torch spaced accordingly then direct planting. I was able to make my own strawberry planting tool for free using a drop from an 8” metal stud from work. This makes planting a snap, and the strawberries thrive using this method.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)




16 Comments

  1. Depending on your approach to growing, there are others far less expensive and sustainable, yet, provide same outcomes.

    How one views world, personal circumstance, etc. does grow literal cults of farmers and gardeners.

    I have moved over the years from one cult to another slowly going down a rabbit hole while learning about plants first, then to soils and am now wedged in a new place for me.

    It is taking the trip from dependence to independence. The more you learn and practice the more Ah-Ha moments.

    Both are wonderful journeys, I highly recommend for all.

  2. Nice article. And yes, plastic, which is often presented as a “demon” by the environmental faction definitely has a role to play in agriculture and home-scale growing. On my organic farm I used black plastic mulch to eliminate weed issues in some of my crops. Yes, it’s plastic and a petroleum product but it also allowed me to avoid a lot of cultivation, tiller use and of course herbicides which as an organic grower I didn’t use.

    Plastic covered tunnels allowed me to successfully grow crops and sell them locally without any use of supplemental heat. I never would have been able to harvest these crops at my elevation and latitude to any great degree without plastic tunnels.

    And drip tape as you note is a marvel; very efficient use of water. It was developed in Israel where water use is a major concern.

    And yes, heavy duty landscape fabric is a wonder for weed control in pathways, etc.

    I look forward to reading part 2.

  3. We built our “hoop house” greenhouse out of two 2x6x12ft boards, cattle panel fencing, and greenhouse plastic salvaged from the local commercial growers when they replace theirs. They put it out next to the road for locals to take. One year when I missed the recycled plastic I bought extra large plastic drop cloths from Harbor Freight and layers those. They are a little more fragile but worked well enough for one winter. The ends are framed in lumber and covered with more plastic to let in the light. The first few years I connected the chicken coop to allow them to free range of the greenhouse. Now I garden all winter so they have their own run, also covered in the winter in greenhouse plastic. The greenhouse is a little taller than my head, and wide enough for an 18 in bed down each side and across the back, that leaves a path down the middle to walk on. You can control the width of your greenhouse by how far apart you set the side boards. I use a shop broom to sweep the snow off of the top. It has had almost two feet of snow on top without more than an inch or so of compression, but the snow blocks the light so I try to sweep it off every morning.

  4. Here is brief description of low cost green house made from poles taken from the woods. To start, use this method to make 2 tripods: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_1uTJh-Ats

    Run a pole between two tripods. Using planter’s plastic, or heavy mil plastic sheeting, drape over the top of the ridge pole. To close the end of this tent made out of plastic, bring the corners together so the shape is similar to the old U.S. Army pump tent. To secure the corners and edges and anchor them to the ground, sealing the green house up, simply place the excess plastic on the ground and put another but heavier pole on top along the edge. Then fold the plastic over that pole and place, yet another pole on top, locking the plastic in place. Cover with dirt to better anchor it.

    This is actually easy to make and strong, and the plastic can easy be removed and saved for subsequent years. If using heavy plastic, the sheeting to could last several seasons, and can with stand the harshest weather, snow included. And it is easy to fold one side up to gain access. Sometimes ‘simple’ is best, and the cost it as low as it gets. And this kind a frame can be use to make tents, wood sheds, and used as cover for temporary projects.

    1. This speaks to my condition, friend. I lack the money and mobility to follow most hoop house plans. Here is something that I can afford. I appreciate your post.

      Carry on

      1. Once a Marine,

        I believe there are many folks who are overwhelmed with daily expenses and who are in the Boomer generation, whom are also Patriots, that need low cost alternatives. As it turns out, these low tech alternatives are actually more resilient, and in creative hands, effective. I would rather put my limited funds to work in critical areas first, and then go for the optional.

        Using short season, cold weather crops reduces the need for green houses. However, I am still growing Swiss Chard under a low tech green house. It is matter of what one might prefer to eat. I consider it a luxury item, if one chooses to grow items from warm weather regions in a cold weather environment.

        I would rather use limited resources to acquire essentials. This requires knowledge and discipline. I am therefore in better shape than most, even those with better finances, because I live lean and mean now. For myself, it is on going FTX. Those with a comfortable living now, will have additional challenges when their standard of living radically changes, whereas I could build a cabin any where in the woods with an old fashioned hand saw, and ax, near water, and live comfortably. Brushcrafting skills are helpful as well.

        In uncertain times, any thing can happen.

        1. Thanks for reading TR. I certainly recognize that my designs wont work for everyone. However, I’d like to caution readers from being mislead into believing the design you suggest is more “resilient” or “effective” than mine. Everyone has unique circumstances that will determine priorities. A greenhouse that cost us less than $400 gives us unlimited “luxury items” from June to November. How does that cost compare to your radio equipment? Do you also view the purchase and consumption of non native, out of season foods as a luxury?

          1. I was speaking in general, and not with your fine article in mind. It was actually inspirational! What you have do there is wonderful, far nicer, more desirable, and at a very low cost. We should all strive to do the same. Food production is of course key, and a good quality green house can be of great assistance. I wish I could afford a nice green house like that, and given the opportunity as was presented to your self, I would. However those materials are not available to myself at this time, and at that low cost for such a high quality green house, it is ideal. Therefore, just like with radio equipment, I find low cost alternatives to fill the gap, so that I can afford other things instead. I actually have little money in to radio gear. I have twice as much invested into solar powered irrigation system, the Dankoff Slow pump. Even though radio is an interest, I have other interests as well. It is balancing act. Without the ability to pump lots of water, we cannot grow lots of food. Yet I still have much to learn about gardening, and will increase my pile of antibiotics as well. The balancing act never ends. And I can do get it done even on an extreme low budget, yet it requires discipline and innovation.

            In the near future, the ability to operate with little to no money will a critical skill to have. We can easily lose our middle class living standard, and be left with nothing. After 6 massive heart attacks and other illnesses, my life suddenly changed as I lost everything. So I live in the future most only contemplate. When the lights go out, my life will change less, because I have already adapted. I have for years lived by faith, and can say, that the Lord is indeed faithful. He has provided so well that I am actually amazed. Because of my physical issues that greatly limit myself, on an income of only 3-5K, I am yet, well prepared. For example, I’ve recently been so ill I cannot go out an get enough wood for the winter. Yet He provides, and it will be delivered tomorrow! Free! Amazing! Praise the Lord.

            I apologize if I may have insulted you in anyway.

    1. No heating system currently in place. Our winter crops- spinach, kale, raab, cabbage, arugula, lettuce, etc- dont mind the cold as long as the ground doesn’t freeze. One neighbor was heating a hoop house with a woodstove with mixed results. Keeping the the snow off the cover helps let light/heat in during the winter.
      Oppenheimer Ranch Project on youtube has a number of videos on high alpine greenhouse growing. Their heating techniques include geothermal “earth tubes” and thermal mass “heat sink”.

  5. Hey Tunnel Rabbit- not sure why but I can’t reply to your last comment- no reply button. Anyway, wanna thank you for helping provide some perspective on your situation. Certainly no offense taken here. In fact, your comments highlight the importance of developing a group/community. Limitations, whether financial, physical, emotional, or otherwise, can effect anyone at anytime. No one can do it all by themselves. It’s great to have areas of expertise, but we all need to develop diverse skillsets. You also highlight some areas in need of improvement for me personally- comms, solar, and grid down water pumping are a few that come to mind. Glad you were able to get some firewood! Thanks for your work!

    1. To explain: I had to cut off additional comments to one article, because they got out of hand. I must remind readers: Keep your comments civil, and keep them on topic.

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