Category Archives: Hints, Tips, and How Tos

A Texas-Style Hoop Frame PVC Pipe GreenHouse

It’s almost Spring! Yes, there may be a foot of snow on the ground still. Yes, it may still be -10ºC. Yes, the ground may still be frozen solid. But Spring is on the way. Well, it may be a little while yet – at least, here in Alberta. But down in Texas Spring is just around the corner.

In fact, Big Jim just sent me a few pictures of the hoop-style greenhouse that He just built. Since many of you may be thinking about building your own greenhouse this spring, I thought I’d share Big Jim’s pictures and tell you about some of the modifications he made to my Inexpensive Hoop-Frame PVC Pipe Greenhouse. So first the pictures…

The first thing you might notice is that Big Jim has added some braces to his end walls. This is a great idea, since the ends tend to be pulled in by the weight of snow in the winter.

He also added some height to his walls. He’s a tall guy, so he’s used PVC pipes that were 22′ long instead of just 20′. Because of the extra length, He also used 1″ pipe instead of 1/2″ pipe to give it some more strength. Another change He made was to use electrical conduit clamps to attach the pipes to the base, as opposed to the strapping.

So this is what it looks like all said and done. He plans to grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, some flowers and hanging basket plants, and he even wants to try some hydroponics. Perhaps I’ll get a few more pics down the road and give you an update to how things are growing.

Anyway, hopefully that’ll inspire you  in your own greenhouse building endeavors. I think I may even integrate a few of his changes in my own greenhouse. But all in good time – I think I’ll let the ground thaw first.

Can Milk Jugs Help Grow Tomatoes?

Well, I’m trying something new in my greenhouse this year – milk jugs. Yup, milk jugs. Here’s the theory… All along my row of tomato plants are old milk jugs full of water. All day long the sun warms up the water in those jugs. According to science, water holds heat better than air. So when it gets cool at night, the air in my greenhouse will cool off much quicker than the water in the milk jugs. Thus, the heat in the milk jugs will slowly release through the night – heating the air around them. That means my tomatoes stay warmer longer. It’s kinda like a heat battery for greenhouses. The more milk jugs of water, the more heat is saved up all day and released all night.

So does it work? Well, I can’t really say yet. When I did my first thermometer test, the temperature on the ground six inches from the a milk jug was 0.6 degrees warmer than the temperature at knee height three feet away. So if warm air rises, the knee height should have been warmer. Tonight I’m going to take a another temperature test – one near and one away from the jugs – this time both at knee height. I’ll try to keep you posted.

I still need to seal up my greenhouse a little better so the warm air has a harder time sneaking out at night, so it’s hard to say if the milk jugs are really doing much good. But I’m pretty sure they aren’t hurting anything – at least my tomatoes aren’t complaining…. Take  a look!

Tomato Clusters

Nice, huh? Here’s another shot…

Heat Batteries

Has anyone else tried something like this? How has it worked?

Update September 28: Last night the temperature dropped to -4.7° C. Inside the greenhouse on the far side away from the jugs the temperature dropped to 0.2° C. But near the milk jugs the temperature got no lower than 2.3° C. So, I’m impressed.

My “Inexpensive Hoop-Frame Greenhouse” Design in Nova Scotia

Recently I received a comment on my post “How to Build An Inexpensive Hoop-Frame Greenhouse” from Stacy in Nova Scotia. Using the design she found at AlbertaHomeGardening.com, she built a 10 x 22 greenhouse. I asked her to send along a few pictures and she did. So I thought it would be good to share them with you to show you another example of how you too can build your own greenhouse. So here is her comments and her pictures. Thanks Stacy!

Well, we just built this greenhouse, with a few changes, we made ours 10×22. We put a piece of strapping 2 feet off the floor running the length of the greenhouse to sturdy it up. We also used strapping in the top centre (instead of pipe and zip ties)attached to the hoops with the metal electrical bands , we got a box of 50 for 8$.

Nova Scotia Hoop-Frame Greenhouse
It was complete in 2 days! Its wonderful! When we bought our farm it came with a huge pile of electrical conduit, enough for 3 or 4 of these greenhouses. We plan to build another very soon. We couldn’t have been happier to find this design! Good job!

Nova Scotia Greenhouse
It is now full of many vegetables, flowers and herbs getting ready for the upcoming season.
Happy gardening,
Stacy

Does Companion Planting Work? Just Ask My Beans!

After quite a bit of reading about companion planting, last spring I decided to try it.

Exactly what is companion planting, you ask? Companion planting is simply the process of planting different plants together that mutually benefit from having each other around. Native Americans used to do this with their corn, pole beans, and squash. They would make little mounds and plant several corn in the center. As the corn grew they would plant beans and squash around it. The corn provided the poles for the beans, the beans provided the nitrogen for the soil, and the squash acted as a mulch – preventing weeds and retaining moisture.

So I decided to give it a try – though not exactly as the natives did. I planted my corn in a block about 25 feet long and six feet wide with two feet between stalks. The corn was double planted and I planted two regular bush-type beans between the corn stalks. In the end, it looked like this…

Corn & Beans Interplanted

Yesterday I picked the beans. When I compared the beans planted with the corn, they were much bigger than the same beans planted elsewhere in the garden. I was impressed. Companion planting does indeed work! So next year I thing I might try a few more combos.

Try These In Your Garden

Onion – plant with parsley to keep away onion fly
Celery – plant with cabbage, broccoli, or cauliflower to deter butterflies (grows well with beans, tomatoes, and leeks)
Asparagus – plant with tomatoes, parsley, or basil
Swiss Chard – plant with cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, lettuce, or herbs – do not plant with string beans
Beets – plant with kohlrabi, carrots, cucumber, lettuce, onions, cabbage, broccoli, or cauliflower – do not plant with string beans, dill, or fennel
Brussels Sprouts – plant with onions
Cabbage – plant with herbs, onion, garlic, peas, celery, potatoes, or beets
Kohlrabi – plant with beets or onions
Peppers – plant with basil, okra, or tomatoes
Cucumber – plant with corn, sunflowers, peas, beans, beets, or carrots
Pumpkin & Squash -  Plant with corn, peas, or beans
Carrot – Plant with onions, annual flowers, lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, or peas – do not plant with anise and dill
Lettuce – Plant with cucumbers, onions, radishes, carrots, or dill (dill protects them from aphids)
Tomato – Plant with basil, parsley, and asparagus or French marigolds (French marigolds deter whiteflies)
Bean – plant with celery, corns, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower or melons
Peas – plant with beans, root crops, potatoes, or corn
Radish –  Plant with peas or lettuce
Potato – plant with corn, cabbage, beans, or marigolds
Spinach – plant with beans, peas, corn, and strawberries
Corn – Plant with beans, peas, sunflowers, cucumbers, squash, melons, and potatoes

Seven Essentials to Growing Tomatoes

This is my third season of growing tomatoes, and believe me, I have learned a lot in three years. But perhaps one of my greatest sources of knowledge came from a Hydroponic Tomato Growers Workshop that I attended last spring in California. This workshop was geared towards people who were considering starting their own greenhouse tomato business. This was a HUGE source of information for me! There were so many things that I wasn’t doing, and so many things that I was doing in the wrong way. So, from my experience and from what I learned at that workshop, here are are Seven Essentials to Growing Tomatoes.

Me & the tomatoes

#1. Start ‘em Early

Ok, you probably knew this one. In Canada our growing season is so short, not only due to the cold, but also due to our limited sunlight hours in the winter. We do have enough sunlight to grow foliage (like lettuce and the like), but we don’t get enough sunlight to produce fruit until about March. So if you have a sunny south window (or artificial lighting), start your tomato plants in late February/early March. That should give you a well established plant to transplant into your greenhouse. Read more about transplanting tomatoes…

#2. Grow Tomatoes in a Greenhouse

You know, tomatoes can be grown in the great outdoors, but they will be one or two months behind those that are in a greenhouse. I’m not sure how many frost-free days you have in your specific area, but you probably don’t want to lose two months of them.

So build a little greenhouse. It doesn’t have to be huge, although you can build a good sized greenhouse for little money as this article explains. Otherwise, Alberta’s weather may greatly hamper your bumper crop.

#3. Don’t Plant ‘Em Too Close

This can be said for lots of things. But especially tomatoes. They are such little plants when you transplant them, it’s easy to forget what a jungle they will grow to be in a couple of months. I did it. (twice) My mother-in-law did it. But don’t do it.

Tomatoes need proper air circulation, not to mention that pruning a jungle is difficult. The exact spacing will vary with variety, but as a general rule, put at least two feet between plants.

#4. Mulch Like Crazy

A good layer of straw mulch will help in a couple of ways. First of all, it’ll suppress the weeds. (That alone is worth it.) Secondly, it’ll keep the soil moist. Tomatoes are heavy drinkers and need a lot of water. A drip irrigation system coupled with a good thick mulch will make sure your tomatoes get the water they need. Just be sure not to over water – that’s what causes your tomatoes to split.

#5. Prune Often

This is the one that often gets missed. Some people believe that the more leaves the plant has, the more energy the plant will receive. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Yes, plants do need some leaves, but too many leaves will actually drain energy away from the plant. All the water and nutrients that the roots soak up must be distributed to those extra leaves, instead of the fruit. So here’s what you need to do.

First, eliminate all suckers. Suckers are the little shoots that appear in the elbow between the stem and a branch. Just bend it over and it will snap right off.

Tomatoes Needing Pruning

Secondly, remove any branches that are brown or wilting at the bottom. These do your plant no good. Get rid of them. For these, grasp the stem firmly in your hand and push the branch down with your thumb – it will snap off at its natural breaking point.

Did you know that it only takes three branches to support one cluster of fruit? A healthy, unstressed tomato plant should put out three branches, then a cluster of fruit, three more branches, another cluster of fruit, etc… Once the tomato plant has reached a good size, you can start removing three branches per week from the bottom of your plant. Thus, by the time you are ready to pick your tomatoes, there will be no leaves below that fruit cluster. Sounds crazy, I know – but that’s what the professionals do!

Note: For all tomato pruning, avoid cutting them off with a knife or other tools. Snapping them out with your fingers is very easy and the wound caused by breaking heals quickly. A cut is more likely to allow disease to enter.

#6. Pick BEFORE Tomatoes Are Ripe

This is another one that sounds crazy. Popular belief would have you “vine-ripen” your tomatoes. Surely they are sweeter, tastier, and probably better for you…. NONSENSE.

The fact is, by the time the tomato just starts to turn color (that slight greeny-orange color), it already has all of it’s goodness in it. And it’s actually the seeds inside that make the tomato ripen. As the seeds release ethylene (the gas applied to green bananas to make them turn yellow), the tomato ripens.

Don’t get this confused with the tomatoes in the store that are picked green and sprayed with ethylene – these are picked too early and do NOT have all the goodness inside yet.

So why not let them stay on the vine? A plant’s job is to reproduce itself. If the plant thinks it has successfully produced fruit, it will begin to shut down and produce less. But if you take the fruit away before it sends the “Mission Accomplished” signal to the plant, the vine will continue to pour it’s energy into producing fruit. (I hope I didn’t get too scientific for you there…)

#7. NEVER Refrigerate Tomatoes

Store tomatoes at room temperature. Never refrigerate. Temperatures below 12° for even a half an hour will begin to destroy the flavor. They may keep longer, but the amazing flavor that comes from a home-grown tomato will be lost.

So there you have it – not a comprehensive list by any means, but it’ll certainly get you on your way to growing delicious tomatoes in your own backyard. If you know of any other essentials to growing tomatoes, feel free to leave your comments!


How to Build an Inexpensive Hoop-Style Greenhouse

One of the most valuable assets in my garden is my greenhouse. It has allowed me to grow plants that I normally would not be able to grow, produce crops that the season is not usually long enough to produce, and protect my plants from frosts, hail, or other severe weather that normally would have destroyed my garden.

But I don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on a greenhouse. I just priced out an 8’x12’ greenhouse for $3,500. I would love to have a large, professional greenhouse, but that simply isn’t financially feasible for me. So, instead I’ve found a way to make a large greenhouse that is functional, easy to build, and inexpensive. This article will explain to you exactly how to build a 12’x32’ hoop-style greenhouse for under $400.

Protecting Your Tender Plants From A Spring Freeze

Last spring I bought six kiwi seedlings. Within a couple days of getting planted, they were promptly destroyed by a fierce hail storm. This year I thought I’d try again. I order a few more kiwis and they arrived yesterday. So not wanting them to linger in the box any longer than they needed to, I planted them promptly. However, this morning the weather forecast tells me to expect -6° C overnight. True, the kiwis I ordered were the ‘Arctic Beauty’ variety, but I didn’t really want to push them. I needed to protect them from freezing somehow.

So what to do?

After doing a little research, I discovered a couple of ways I could go about preserving them. Bringing them inside wasn’t an option I wanted to entertain (digging them up, bringing them indoors, planting them in a pot, and three days later transplanting them back in the ground just didn’t seem like a good idea). Putting a tent up over top of them with a little electric heater inside would be tricky (as the rain had already deeply puddled around my new seedlings and I’ve never liked the idea of being electrocuted). So the logical step was just to put an upside down bucket over top of the plants. I had built my trellises with enough clearance underneath to fit a three gallon bucket.

Rumors have it that the temperature under the bucket should stay 3-4° warmer than the air outside. If this is the case, my kiwis should be ok. But time will tell. If it didn’t work I’ll be sure to put an update at the end of this post.

Just one note: If you try this method, be sure to take the bucket off in the morning and put it back in the evening if you suspect cold temperature. Your plants will need the light and the fresh air.

When Can I Plant My Garden?

Well, it’s May and by now every gardener in Alberta is biting at the bit to get out there and plant their garden. Traditionally in these parts, gardens get planted on the May long weekend – this year landing on May 16th through 19th. Two years ago I planted my garden the first weekend in May and suffered no ill effects, but I don’t think I would dare do that every year. So what’s a gardener to do?

Find Your Frost Date

To start, find out what the ‘average last frost date’ in your area is. BE SPECIFIC. These can vary greatly from place to place. For example, Red Deer’s frost date is May 25. I live just 15 minutes south east of Red Deer, near Pine Lake. Pine Lake’s frost date is June 9th. That’s a whole 2 weeks difference!

And you can’t even guess based on north/south location. Hannah (south) & Edmonton (north) both have a frost date of May 10th! By the way, I think it is very unfair that Edmontonians (150 km north of me) should get to start their gardens a whole month before me! But that’s the way it is.

You can find the frost dates for your area at the Alberta Agriculture & Rural Development website.

Check the Forecast

Secondly, watch the long range forecasts for your area. I personally like the Environment Canada website, but they only forecast five days in advance. So for the long range forecast, I go to Accuweather Canada. They have a 15 day forecast that, of course, isn’t quite as accurate, but it gives you a good idea.

Guess, Hope, & Trust

All the averages and all the forecasts in the world will NOT guarantee that frosts or snow will not arrive after you’ve planted your garden. There comes a point when you just have to go for it.

For me, I’ve worked out a bit of a forumla: If it’s May, if the long range forecast has nothing colder than plus 2°, if it hasn’t pouring rain, and if I feel like it – then I plant my garden! Perhaps not the most scientific method, but thus far it’s worked for me.

This year things are shaping up to be ready to plant… [looking at accuweather forecast] Hmmmm. May 16th – the May long weekend. Go figure.

Transplanting Tomatoes

Today was the day to transplant my tomato seedlings, and I think I may have done it a little differently than you might expect. Or perhaps you’ve done it this way all your life and I’m just catching on to it now. Either way, here’s what I did.

Now if you’re wondering when to transplant, my seedlings are now four weeks old and stand about about four inches tall. Ideally, I think you’d want to give them another week or so, and do the big move when they’re about five inches tall. But, I was in a hurry and was itching to get things moving.

Tomato & Watermelon Seedlings ready to transplant

First of all, I gave my tomato seedlings one more watering before I transplanted them. Not only does that make it easier on the plant, but it also makes it easier to get out of the container. Then I took my three inch pot (that I was transplanting into) and put just a small layer of dirt in the bottom. So far, not so unusual.

Here’s what you might not normally do. I took my tomato plant and laid it down sideways in the container (as much as I could in that small space). Then I buried as much of it as I could, leaving just the top leaves showing.

My transplanted tomato

Now, why on earth would I do that? Well you see, when you bury a tomato stem, it will send out roots. These extra roots will make the plant stronger and healthier. To further improve your tomato’s root systems, do this again when you plant him in the ground. Just dig a little trench, lay the plant down in the trench, bury it and keep the top sticking out of the ground.

Don’t believe me? Try it yourself!

Yellow Leaves On Your Seedlings?

Over the past few days I’ve noticed two things. First, my cucumber seedlings have a tendency to die for some reason. Secondly, many of my plants have a growing yellow tint. Some tiny spots on the leaves have gone brown. Like this…

Yellow Leaves on my pumpkin seedlings

This hadn’t happened in the two previous years of starting seedlings indoors, so I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong.
So I did a little research on the internet and it wasn’t hard to find the answer. It was… lack of fertilizer. As I was reading several articles that explained this to me, I realize that I had neglected to fertilize my seedlings this year! So, today I gave them a healthy dose of fertilizer (though I was tempted to do extra, I refrained…). We’ll see how long it takes for them to recover and if my problem was actually what I think it was.

If you’ve got a more accurate understanding of the problem, let me know!