A How-To Guide For Installing A Home Garden

Adam Taggart
By Adam Taggart on Mon, Apr 10, 2017 - 7:05pm

This contribution in our Resilience Spotlight series, featuring stories from Peak Prosperity readers, comes from one of the site's founders: me. When I moved from Silicon Valley up to Sonoma County CA five years ago in 2012, I documented my steps when putting in a garden at our new home. My hope is this write-up inspires and guides a few new gardeners this year.

If you've been intending to become a gardener but aren't quite sure yet how to get started, this how-to guide is for you.

It chronicles the steps that I successfully followed to put in my own garden this year, in my spare time, all while working hard on the Peak Prosperity business as well as traveling frequently for work. From start to finish, it was a 1-manpower project - showing that if I could get this done on my own given my crazy work schedule, most anyone can do this, too.

Hopefully this guide will give you the direction, inspiration, and confidence that you, too, can be tending your own well-constructed garden beds soon.

Plan Your Work

Site Selection

To thrive, garden plants need sun, water, and good soil. Taking the (short) time to identify a site that offers the best combination of all three will dramatically increase your odds of successfully growing food.

During the prime growing months (May-Sept in the Northern Hemisphere), inspect your property for sites that offer the most sun exposure throughout the day. From those options, look then at the sites with the best drainage.

Worry less about the soil conditions at first, because you can control that easier than the prior two variables by using raised garden beds. But by all means, if you have sites of equal sun/drainage rating but different soil quality, pick with the one with the better soil (most vegetables like a sandy loam consistency).

If you have more than 0.25 acre of land on your property, then another factor to consider is proximity. You'll be making a lot of trips to your garden over time, so picking a convenient spot relative to your house (your kitchen and tool storage area, in particular) will result in reduced schlepping, which your future self will be awfully appreciative of.

In my case, I selected a spot tucked into the corner of my yard nearest the kitchen door and tool shed. It's not the sunniest section of the property, but it still gets about 80% of the day's sunlight while being easy to access. Months later, I remain very happy that I made this trade-off.

Here's a picture of what the plot looked like before I started work on it:

Make Your Measurements

Measure twice, cut once, the wise carpenter advises. This applies just as well to gardeners.

Once you've determined where your garden is going to go, then it's time to start visualizing the specifics about what it's going to look like.

If you're going to be taking this on as a one-manpower job, like I did, it's better to start small. You can always expand upon your initial plot in future years.

In my case, the spot I selected provided enough space for a 22' x 17' garden footprint. In my opinion, that's plenty of room for a first-time gardener to handle.

With your footprint perimeter in mind, start brainstorming how to best use that space. How many beds can it accommodate? Do you want a few large beds, or many small ones? What do you want to grow? Where in the garden do you want to grow them?

Get some paper. Or use a whiteboard. Diagram it out.

Once you have something visualized, show it to other gardeners. Bring it down to your local nursery. Ask experienced folks for their opinion. You're sure to get some good feedback that will improve your plans.

Here's the rough sketch I made for my garden:

With your visual plans now in hand, head out to your plot with measuring tape, a ball of twine, and a handful of stakes. Begin by marking the perimeter of your garden, then progress inwards to mark exactly where the raised beds (and any other physical components) will be.

Below is a photo of where I decided two of my 6'x4' beds would go:

When you've outlined your garden, take a walk around it. Is there enough clearance? Squat down between the beds. Do you have enough room to maneuver comfortably?  Will you be able to reach across them from all angles? If not, move the stakes around until you're content with the results. This is by far the best time to make design changes. (It's a heck of a lot easier to move twine around than a box filled with 30 cubic feet of dirt!)

If you're going to be putting in an irrigation system, now is the time to give thought to where the hoses will run. Map out how the main hose will bring water from your main spigot to the garden, as well as where the daughter hoses will run to each raised bed.

For a garden this size, you don't need an irrigation system you'll be able to water by hand with a standard garden hose, if that's your choice. But I highly recommend laying the piping for one, if you can, when you initially build out your garden. It's a lot easier to activate an installed system than it is to dig through a mature garden later to put one in.

Work Your Plan

Constructing Raised Beds

Now that you know where your raised beds will go, it's time to build them. Fortunately, this requires only the most basic of skills. So you carpentry novices (like me) can handle this just fine.

Get yourself enough 2"x6" boards to build the beds you'll need. Cut the wood to the length you'll need for each side of your bed frames, depending on how big you want your beds to be. I went with 4'x6' dimensions; most people prefer 4'x8'.

I highly recommend building double-height sides. That essentially means building two box frames and placing one on top of the other. In my first gardening foray a few years back, I only used single-height sides and found myself constantly weeding. With double-height sides this year, I've barely had to weed at all.

Use 1"x"1" stakes in the corners to add stability to your double-sided frames.

After your frames are built, you should cover the bottom with mesh wire to prevent burrowing rodents from attacking your plants from below. Out where I live, this is an absolute must; the gophers here are so bad that they drove away the initial Russian settlers back in the 1800s (and those Russians had a pretty high tolerance for hardship!).

I recommend using finer wire mesh (i.e., smaller holes) than standard chicken wire. The smaller the holes, the smaller the odds are that a critter can squeeze through them. Simply use a staple gun to attach the mesh to the frame and voila! Your raised bed is ready for installation.

Installing Your Raised Beds

Carry your raised beds over to your garden site. (While I was able to do this myself, you'll find an extra pair of arms is very welcome for this quick task).

Before you lay the beds within the twine outlines you measured out earlier, remove the ground vegetation within the footprint first. A hoe or the flat end of a pick work well for this (I used the latter):

With the vegetation gone, work with your shovel, etc., to make the ground within the footprint is as flat and level as possible on both the length and width axes. Use a carpenters level (the ruler with the little air bubble within it) to help you with this, if you have one. If your garden is on a slope, one wall of the rectangular clearing you're making will likely be higher than the other. That's okay.

Now that you've stripped the ground vegetation and leveled the base, place your bed into the footprint you've created (again, a few minutes' assistance from a friend would really help here). Make sure it fits snugly within the footprint in the alignment you want, and use your pick or hoe to trim the side banks if need be to make the fit perfect. Confirm (with your carpenters level, if you have it) that the sides of the bed frame are indeed level. You may need to lift the frame up to add or remove dirt from underneath it to correct the pitch.

A successfully installed bed should look something like this:

Setting Up Drip Irrigation

As mentioned earlier, if you can lay in an irrigation system now, you'll save yourself a lot of time and heartache compared to installing one in the future.

For detailed guidance on how to do the installation, read the very good WSID post Installing a Drip Irrigation System. I must admit, I was a little daunted before tackling this task, as I'd never worked much before with water systems. The basics are so simple, though, that in almost no time I felt like an expert.

The key things to figure out at this time are

  • How water will get from your spigot to the garden
  • How water will get from the garden entry point to each of the beds (and anywhere else you may want it to go)
  • How water will flow within each of your beds

Here's a shot of how I laid things out for my garden:

They're not the best photos, but you'll see how I was laying down the hoses that would bring water to the beds, as well as a main hose for each bed, from which smaller drip lines will eventually extend (pictures of the finished system are further down in this article).

You'll find that working with the components of a drip irrigation system is sort of like working with Tinker Toys. You build it, decide you want to make some changes, quickly disassemble parts of it, and rebuild the way you want. Really, anyone can do it.

Filling Your Beds

Okay, now we get to start talking about dirt. 

A principal benefit of raised beds is that they allow you to optimize your soil conditions. What makes great soil is a topic that requires a full What Should I Do? article all on its own. But the easy guidance I can provide here is just to head off to your local nursery, tell them what plants you want to grow, and let them guide you to the best soil options.

In my case, it was an artisan mix produced by a local soil and mulch producer. (I didn't really realize this kind of company existed, beforehand).

Be warned: Raised beds require a surprising amount of soil! My four 4'x6' beds needed 2 cubic yards of dirt. That may not sound like much, but it is.

I was able to save a TON on the cost of the soil by bagging it myself. It's a good thing for my wallet that I made that decision before realizing how much work it would be. On my first trip for soil, I was astounded by how much dirt I was going to have to bag when the front-end loader dumped its full bucket-load at my feet. But that astonishment quickly turned to disbelief when it returned to dump a second load.

For perspective, here's what the back of my Toyota Highlander looked like when I arrived home (and yes, the middle section and passenger seat were piled to the ceiling as well):

And that was just for 1 cubic yard...

Anyways, once you've got your soil home, start filling up your raised beds with it. One important thing to know is that your soil will settle over time, so add more than it looks like you need. Mound the excess dirt in the center of the beds.

Before planting anything, you'll want to wait 2 weeks for the soil level within the bed to lower as it settles. You can then spread the mound out evenly across the bed to raise the dirt line back up.

Congratulations, your raised beds are ready to go!

Fencing In Your Garden

After all this work, you definitely want to protect your investment.

Putting in a fence is highly recommended if you live in a location where deer, rabbits, chickens, dogs, or other garden menaces are a factor.

Again, if that sounds a little daunting, don't worry. The mechanics here are extremely simple.

Corner Posts

Your fence needs the greatest stability at its four corners, so this is where your effort will be most concentrated. 

First, obtain your corner posts. For my garden, I went with four 8-foot redwood 4"x4"s, which I bought at the hardware store.

The twine you previously laid down for your garden borders should make it easy to see where the corners are. At each corner, dig a hole at least 12" deep; enough to hold the 4"x4" vertically upright with stability. If you have one, a post hole digger makes this job much easier and more efficient. You can usually pick up a used one for $10 or less at a good flea market or garage sale. (I did). 

If your garden is on a slant, dig the holes on the higher end deeper so that the tops of all of your corner posts are at the same elevation. Once they are, you're ready for the concrete.

You can buy quick-setting fence post concrete for a few dollars a sack at your local hardware store. It usually is a just-add-water mix and is simple to prepare -- just be ready to use it quickly, as it begins hardening fast.

But there's one last thing you should do before mixing your concrete: Near the top of each fence post, on two adjacent sides, hammer a nail halfway in on each side. From each nail, hang several feet of string with a weight tied to the end (like a large washer). These weighted strings will be your plumb lines, which you will use to ensure that the post is in perfect vertical alignment. If the plumb lines are touching the post or are angled away, gently move the top of the post until they both hang parallel to the post.

Okay, back to the concrete. Add your water and stir to prepare. Starting at one corner, remove the post, pour some concrete into the bottom of the hole, put the post back in, and then fill up the remaining space around the pole with concrete. Use your plumb lines to ensure that the pole is perfectly vertical. Stand there for several minutes while the concrete sets you can leave once the pole doesn't shift at all when you let go of it.

Repeat for the other 3 corners.

The next step is to put up your fence wire between the poles. Before doing so, though, it's wise to create a trench several inches deep along the line where the wire will run, so your fence wire will ultimately extended into the ground to discourage hungry critters from digging under it. A miners pick, again, proves useful here.

With the trench completed, attach one end of your fence wire to a post with U-nails, which hammer into the wood pretty easily (this should be done at least one day after pouring the concrete, to make sure that the post is solidly fixed in place). Run the fence wire along the trench over to the next pole. Pull the wire as taut as possible (a friend's assistance comes in handy here) and affix to the new pole with U-nails, as before.

You probably will not be able to remove 100% of the slack in your fence wire line no matter how hard you try. Not to worry. You'll shore up any slack with T-Posts.

Most hardware stores carry these, but you can usually find older ones on Craigslist that will fill the bill just fine. Place them at regular intervals (I used 2 per side in my 22'x17' garden), hammering them in to the ground by 12" or so. A post driver is perfect for driving them deep, if you have access to one.

Then tie the fence wire to the T-posts at several points using baling wire. Once done, your fence wall should be pretty straight and well-supported.

Here are some pictures of the fencing going up around my garden. Note that the further the fence extended, the more the chickens wanted to be inside the area I was enclosing to keep them out of!

The last photo is one of my daughter, Charlotte, and her chicken, Fuzzy. Poor Fuzzy was taken out for lunch by a coyote soon after, where she was the main dish :(

At this point, your garden beds should be "boxed in" by your fence. Just be sure you're on the outside!

Determine where you want the main door to your garden to be, and cut a temporary (or not) access entrance there in your fence wire. This worked so well for me that it's still the entrance I use now that my garden is finished: I just went on to create a "door" from additional fence wire, using carabiners as "hinges." Simple, yet very utilitarian.

Congratulations your garden is now securely fenced! At this point, you're pretty much ready to start growing food. 

I know, it seems like a lot of work to have done before a single seed has been planted. That's because farming, even backyard gardening, requires real effort! But it's some of the most rewarding effort you'll ever put in. When your first harvest arrives, the vegetables will taste incredibly wonderful, in no small part because you'll appreciate what it took to grow them.

Also, remember that this sweat work you're doing is an up-front investment. You'll be able to use these beds for years and years. Your future self will be very grateful for the effort your current self is putting in now.

Finishing Touches

If you planned for them, now is the time to put in any special features you want in your garden. For example, in mine, I installed:

You may want to try some of these, too, or you may have other ideas to explore. Be creative and inventive. My only advice is to keep it manageable. Remember that your main time and attention will be spent on the raised beds, so don't add too many distractions.

One other finishing touch I definitely recommend is to remove the rest of the ground vegetation between the beds in your garden. You don't want weeds and unwanted seeds finding their way into your beautiful beds. 

Here's how my garden looked at this stage. Note the 4 drip lines extending down each bed.

Last, you should strongly consider laying mulch between your beds now that you've removed the ground cover. If you don't, you'll find that the weeds and grass grows back in faster than your vegetables. A good 3" layer of mulch made of weed-suppressing woods (your nursery can help you pick out the best options) will save you a lot of weeding, plus it makes the garden look substantially better, aesthetically. I was able to purchase all the mulch I needed for under $17 an investment I'm so glad to have made.

The Payoff

With your garden beds in place, you're now able to grow a multitude of vegetables, herbs, and flowers throughout the year. Plus, you can help nurture local pollinators, make your property more visually pleasing, and provide yourself with healthy outdoor activity (exercise, emotionally-centering contemplative time, Vitamin D the list is long...)

In my garden alone this year, I'm growing:

  • strawberries (2 varieties)
  • potatoes (5 varieties)
  • tomatoes (3 varieties)
  • onions (2 varieties)
  • peppers (4 varieties)
  • carrots (2 varieties)
  • cucumbers
  • bush beans
  • butternut squash
  • rainbow chard
  • watermelon
  • broccoli
  • kale
  • basil
  • cantaloupe melon
  • arugula
  • lettuce (5 varieties)
  • corn (3 varieties)
  • pumpkin
  • sunflowers
  • Concord grapes

And I'm certain a more creative gardener could squeeze even more diversity into this space.

Now in full bloom, the garden is looking great:

And I must admit, I experience no small satisfaction every time I look at it, knowing that this abundance came from my vision and sweat (though I also feel very humbled, too, knowing that this is a pretty small garden compared to those managed by many of Peak Prosperity's more seasoned gardeners!)

Hopefully this article has provided you with the clarity, confidence, and inspiration to do the same. If you decide to undertake putting in a garden, you won't regret it. But watch out you might become more addicted than you intended!

Know that, at any time, you can tap the expertise of the hundreds of gardening enthusiasts in PeakProsperity.com's Agriculture & Permaculture Group when you're in need of guidance or support. It's a fantastically valuable resource, having that much experience at your fingertips, and it's completely free.

And if you do create your own raised bed garden, be sure to share photos of it in the Comments section below.

Good luck!

~ Adam Taggart

To share your own story, email us at [email protected]


jw4994's picture
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Are the boards for the beds

Are the boards for the beds made of treated lumber?  If so, are you concerned about arsenic contamination of the ground/produce?  Also, could you show a picture of your door?  Thanks for the step-by-step.

greendoc's picture
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Bagged vs. Loose soil

Having more money than time, we have always made the decision to have compost, wood chips delivered and dumped on our driveway. We pay the cost per cubic yard plus delivery cost of around $75 per ten yards. In the last twenty years we have had at least 100 cubic yards delivered. Shoveling and wheelbarrowing is a great workout. I would suggest calling around to landscape supply companies and seeing what possibilities exist. Typically you can do split loads too...8 yards of two different materials. We are lucky to have a wide driveway so easy for trucks to back up and dump....and nothing atracks neighbors more than a fragrant pile of 10 to 20 yards of steaming compost.

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Treated Lumber

FWIW, I've been researching this topic lately. CCA Treated lumber has the arsenic in it and they don't produce it anymore. In my area we have a new product called AC2 treated lumber. The product information claims it is playground and vegetable safe. I haven't found any independent information on AC2 treated lumber since it is so new. I'm going to build a 4' x 8' bed this year and test the soil each year as an experiment. Should be interesting.

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Adam Taggart
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Old Redwood boards

jw4994 --

The lumber I used for my beds is of old weathered redwood boards that have been outside in the elements for decades. I inherited a pile of it when I moved onto this property.

Not knowing whether these boards had been originally treated or not (they are so old and weathered they have no color or surfacing left that indicates any kind of treatment), I asked our local nursery about using them for my garden. Looking at the wood, they told me not to worry -- that if they had been treated, so much of the chemicals to worry about had long leeched out that anything remaining was at too low a concentration to matter.

As for the garden door, I'll take a photo for you later today. But it's very simple: I used wire cutters to cut a door opening in the center of one wall of the fence. I then used the resulting cut-out wire rectangle as the "door" -- using several small carabiners as hinges on one side, and one on the other side as the latch. It functions surprisingly well, and has the added effect of looking "invisible" (on initial glance, most folks remark: "Hey, how do you get in there? You forgot to add a door!")

macro2682's picture
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How much food?

What percentage of a family's vegis can be grown in an area like this?

Swampmama3's picture
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Lovely garden, Adam!

It's very satisfying, isn't it?  I'd recommend that you look into books by Carol Deppe (sp?)  if you haven't already done so. 

If you're growing butternut squash and pumpkins in a garden that size, you probably almost won't need mulch!  The vines are so creeping and long that much of your area will be covered if they do well.  That's a good thing, and you may find yourself picking walking paths among the vines.

Your fencing is almost exactly like mine, and probably for the same reasons.  Local deer and my own chickens can wreak havok.  If your chickens have a place where they perch at night, then save the poo that collects underneath.  Properly aged, it makes excellent organic fertilizer for your garden.

About raised beds... They're great if your native soil just won't do, and if you can have a nice irrigation system like you have.   In places where hand watering needs to happen and where the summer can be blisteringly hot and dry, sometimes it's hard to keep up with watering raised beds.  Anyone wanting to go away for a weekend or longer may return to parched plants if they don't get daily watering.

Kids in the garden is a huge YES!!  Getting a little dirt on them is good for their immune system, lovely for their mental health and understanding of the natural world around us, and a wonderful way to spend quality time with your kids.  They're more likely to eat veggies if they take pride of ownership in planting and tending them, and there are so many interesting, colorful varieties to choose from nowdays.

Thanks for the detailed step by step guide with all the great pics!  Love the ingenuity of your carabiner hinge gate.  Nobody has to be rich to garden.   It can be done for very little if you think hard enough.

Afridev's picture
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Productivity of vegetable garden

Some information from Sweden on productivity: we live in an area with winters down to -20oC (-4oF), around 4 months of snow, generally warm summers. Very short days in winter, long daylight in summer. Mid-April: soil thawed up 2 weeks ago, but we still have frost during the night.

Last year we grew vegetables outside on freeland on around 60m2 (72 square yards), have an old rickety greenhouse of 10m2 (12 square yards) for tomatoes and sweet peppers and had around 20 pots outside with more tomatoes and sweet peppers.

We're a family of 4, with 3 who love vegetables and a son who every day lifts the lid of the pot in horror :).

  • Vegetables (around 50m2 planted in freeland) and production from greenhouse and pots: we were self-sufficient for 4-5 months (difficult to give an exact time as we freeze, can, store in the root cellar and use other preservation methods. We leave several vegetables in the ground also to reap in spring (e.g. leek, parsnip).
  • Potatoes (around 10m2 planted): self-sufficient for 20-30 days. They seem to have stored well in the root cellar (first year we tried), we still have a trial batch stored from last year that still looks (and last week tasted) excellent.

Some considerations:

  • We use mulching, great for soil life, moisture management, and saves a lot of time in avoiding to have to deal much less with weeds. Very bad for slugs though who thrive in the mulch... With mulch we water very little, even in dry periods. Without mulch we had to water maybe 30 times in a year, with mulch 10 times max?
  • We started gardening vegetables seriously 3 years ago, where I do most of the 'dumb work' (i.e. digging and preparing the beds, buying the books :) while my wife does the 'clever work' (i.e. planning, planting, reading the books, research), so we're not very experienced yet, and have on-and-off success. It's like most things in life, you try many things, some work great, many are OK, some are disastrous; learning is continuous. My wife is amazing, the amount of knowledge and experience she has accumulated in such a short time is admirable, it's the commitment and trying things that counts.
  • We pre-grow plants inside to have an early start, we have had pots and growing lights all over the place since March (we actually took in some sweet peppers after last summer, which have continued to give some peppers throughout the winter, not efficient though as it took 2m2 of space and we possibly had 15 peppers over the entire winter). We hope the plants will pick up again this year though.
  • We did heat the greenhouse between end of September and beginning of November, stiff electricity bill.
  • The first beds we made were wooden frames, but later ones we just raised a mound, while still early, it seems to work well too.
  • We want to go to the no-tillage approach, which worked well last year. Works well with mulching.
  • I do put a lot of work in preparing the beds in removing roots, breaking up the original soil (dense clay), and mixing it thoroughly with compost, planting soil (bought) and manure (2 years ago it was too fresh, so it burned the roots of the squash, they picked up after 6 weeks though).
  • We rotate vegetables to manage nutrient demand and avoid disease. We do adapt fertiliser levels to the needs of the crops planted (at least we try :).
  • Last year we tried to plan the beds so we can have several vegetables on the same area in different periods of the growing season. Our inexperience, lack of time, and competition with slugs made this less effective, but the potential is there.
  • We fertilise regularly with green fertilisers.

I think these are the key points. It is quite intensive if you combine with two full-time jobs, a family, fruit production and processing, and maintenance of several wooden buildings in various states (in the growing season the vegetable garden takes on average probably 1-1.5 hours/ day?), but is is possible to have a good production even in colder climates if you manage the agenda well and have the ability to prepare things.

This year we're working on an interesting (for us new) thing: perennial vegetables (see http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/vegetables/perennial-ve... for some background); many advantages compared to annual vegetables...

Though we continue (and count on expanding) on our annuals too.

Here a picture of what it looks like (in summer '16):


Afridev's picture
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Additional point

Concerning the vegetable garden that I forgot to mention above but that may be important:

  • We rotate in the beds using groups of plants that work well together and avoid combining plants that negatively affect each other (not sure if this is clear, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_companion_plants for more info). Linked to this we do combine (in beds and close to them) with plants that attract positive insects and repulse or disorient the ones we don't want (some produce edible flowers/ pods).

ps Inserting image doesn't seem to work...

LesPhelps's picture
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Controlled Environment Agriculture

I attended a 2 hour seminar on growing hydroponic tomatoes recently, in the controlled environment agriculture  center at the University of Arizona.  Here is a pic of tomato plants, grown from suckers, that produce non stop for 10 to 12 months.  

You should check out LDSPrepper on YouTube.

He built a 20 X 40 geothermal greenhouse that he operates year around in Idaho, with only geothermal and passive heating sources.  

I'm thinking about giving it a try, on a smaller scale.  In Wisconsin, however, I doubt geothermal will work keep a greenhouse above freezing in Wisconsin, in January and February.  Wisconsin gets much colder than Idaho.

LDS stands for "Later Day Saints."  LDSPrepper has quite a few videos on YouTube.  He spends a large portion of his time teaching and helping others, building community, if you will.

lambertad's picture
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Greenhouse design

MotherEarthNews recently had a good article in their latest edition, I can't seem to find it online, though I haven't looked hard. 

They featured "Chinese Style" Greenhouses. Essentially south facing glazing with N, E, and W walls heavily insulated. This reduces heat loss mainly to the south facing wall where all of the heat gain comes from. Apparently they have a system where they actually roll insulation down onto this south face at night, but if you had double wall Poly with an air buffer in between it could act similar with an R-value of around 6.

The article stated that china will have about 2.2 million acres of production under these greenhouses by 2020 or thereabouts. I guess there is a large push by the government for this to happen. 

The article also mentioned that this style of greenhouse, at the same latitude as Chicago, will stay above 40 degrees year round without any external inputs. That's pretty amazing. 

If you had passive heat storage like 10-20 black 55 gallon drums of water or this geothermal design, couple with a Chinese Style greenhouse, one may be able to keep the greenhouse above freezing year round, possibly even in zone 4. 

There's another great YouTube channel of a backyard gardener in Chicago - OneYardRevolution. Here's a link to a video where he features 8 plants that did great during the polar vortex in Chicago this year. It's worth noting that you're not going to get tomatoes in January in Chicago, but he is eating fresh greens year round from his garden and he doesn't even have a Chinese Style greenhouse. He simply has a home built greenhouse and then hoop houses inside the greenhouse for 2 layers. Eliot Coleman in his book Winter Harvest Handbook claims that for each layer of cover it increases the growing zone by 1.5. So if you have 2 layers you're up 3 zones. That takes zone 5 to zone 8, without any active inputs (i.e. heating with electric, propane, etc.) and with the inefficient design of just 2 layers of plastic. Lastly, here is a video of OYR showing you how to build double layer hinged hoop houses. This will allow you to experiment with a small raised bed to see just how much production you can get in winter without building an entire greenhouse. 


dcm's picture
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year round up north

Adam already did a great piece on Canadian folks growing more in calendar months than you'd ever expect. Here in the Puget Sound area, I've been growing year round for some time with nothing more than some simple 3 by 3 foot mini greenhouses set in a clear view to the south. The sides are 6 mil plastic and the top, with a hinge lid has solid clear material from home depot. Folks like Elliot Coleman, Geoff Lawton and others have helped educate me. It's mostly about timing. The plants go dormant more by lack of light than heat. UP here, I have found that under cover, by the third week of january, I can start to see growth in kales, spinach and other hardy greens. I have also diversified my greens a great deal adding all sorts of perennials. Many "annuals" have stayed alive for years. Primates can recognize and eat hundreds of edibles...and get a wide variety of nutrition fresh off the plant in its greatest concentration. We used to do that too....and they say we've evolved. Much of it is about timing and you can put lots of things in the ground that will sit in nature's refrigerator and stay in great shape ... if you keep it out of the wind, rain and away from the critters.        

Grover's picture
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Earth Air Tubes

It looks like LDS Prepper's "geothermal" system utilizes earth air tubes. Essentially, this requires 100+ foot lengths of those corrugated black plastic tubes buried 6 feet (or deeper) where the air passing through exchanges heat with the native soil. The soil at that depth remains at a more constant temperature year round in northern climes. So, these tubes cool the air in the summer and heat the air in the winter. It takes very little energy to push the air with a fan. This is a good use of a PV panel and battery system to keep plants alive during cold winter nights.

Here is a website that provides some answers to questions about earth air tubes, design, and installation: http://earthairtubes.com/ I don't agree with all his recommendations, but his customers in Iowa are obviously satisfied with his systems. I like the almost passive operating nature of this system (after the incredibly energy intensive installation.)


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Greenhouse Design

I was thinking 2X4 walls, clear corrugated exterior, with an inner wall of clear 6 mil, geothermal heat pump and a row of 30 gal black barrels on the North wall.

If I remember correctly, LDSPrepper's greenhouse gets down to 40 with a similar setup in Idaho.  

Idaho's average low temperature in Jan-Feb is in the ballpark of 25f degrees , vs Jan 4f and Feb 9f, average lows in Central Wisconsin.  Years ago, we would get an occasional -40f.  More recently, we rarely exceed -20f, but still, it's cold.

I thought about building a rocket mass heater under a row of 30 gal water barrels to use on really cold nights.


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Matt Holbert
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LDS are big time preppers

Les- Thanks for the LDSPrepper link. Inspiring. I suspect that you mean Latter rather than Later. If you live in Wisconsin it might be worth a trip to Illinois (Nauvoo and Carthage) for a visit to Mormon's temporary home in Illinois before being forced to move west. Mormons (LDS) supposedly keep a one year supply of food in their homes and at their places of worship. One of their churches west of town (Spokane) has a small grain bin behind the church. I've been told that it contains water.

Several weeks ago I noted that you indicated that you grew up near Jan Spencer. Small world story coming up... My wife and lived in Galveston in the late 80's and early 90's and played tennis on Sunday mornings at some public courts near our home. Several times we played next to two highly competitive men. One of those men turned out to be Jan. Several years later I spotted Jan at a community conference in Olympia. Jan had moved to Eugene and we had moved to Boise. Jan eventually got into Permaculture and we did as well. Small world...

LesPhelps's picture
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Small world
Matt Holbert wrote:

Several weeks ago I noted that you indicated that you grew up near Jan Spencer. Small world story coming up... My wife and lived in Galveston in the late 80's and early 90's and played tennis on Sunday mornings at some public courts near our home. Several times we played next to two highly competitive men. One of those men turned out to be Jan. Several years later I spotted Jan at a community conference in Olympia. Jan had moved to Eugene and we had moved to Boise. Jan eventually got into Permaculture and we did as well. Small world...

Yes, latter.  I'm not religious, but respect their prepping.  They have an outlet warehouse near Chicago where they sell long shelf life food items.  I've been thinking about going there to stock up.

Jan and I played tennis when we were growing up.  He lived next door and there was a court across the street.  My recollection is that we were, at that point, fairly evenly matched.

I lost track of him for a number of years, but we've been keeping in touch for the last couple of decades.

He's the one who brought Chris Martenson to my attention.  He asked my opinion of the earliest version of the crash course.  I've subscribed to the website ever since.  I do not believe he is a regular visitor to this site.  I suggested he share his story here.

dcm's picture
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Posts: 219
low level geothermal

low level geothermal, along with passive solar are probably the smartest (and easiest) things we could do to not only help heat anything but to grow all sorts of crops just about anywhere.I've come to conclude the only reason we aren't is corruption. Check out "Citrus in the Snow" on youtube. This guy has done amazing tropical and near equatorial crop growing in the high plains of Nebraska...for ENERGY COST of a simple fan. Now I'm a fan.   

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Wendy S. Delmater
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Such great advice

Thanks for sharing the details of your journey, Adam! Great article. 

And yes, you need to plan it out in advance. I did so the first time before our garden reset: on paper, asking locals what to grow and how, and although we had single-height boxes (with 1/4-inch hardware cloth on the bottoms) we fully intended to make them deeper.  The only reason it did not work was that the climate was so different. Zone 5 to Zone 8 was a huge change, and the main change was insects

So when you say new gardener, understand that with 30 years of experience a new climate can make you a newbie all over again. 

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One other thing to note that

One other thing to note that might be encouraging to some people is that, iirc, Adam rents this property--he didn't wait to buy before creating this awesome garden and learning these mad skilz.

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Adam Taggart
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darcieg76 wrote: One other
darcieg76 wrote:

One other thing to note that might be encouraging to some people is that, iirc, Adam rents this property--he didn't wait to buy before creating this awesome garden and learning these mad skilz.

You recall correctly, Darcie.

There's no reason not to start a garden if you don't own your property. You develop skills, you eat better, and your landlord appreciates the improvements your efforts make to the property -- everyone wins.

And if/whenever you eventually do own your own property, you won't be starting from scratch. You'll have your prior experience to inform how best to garden on it.

fated's picture
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Measuring produce produced.

Quite a lot I would say - if planned and managed well. We aim to improve our management this year.

We have a veggie patch similar in size to Adam's. Also a back and some front yard, and driveway strip, randomly planted out, as well as pots on our deck.

I have been trying in various ways to get a measure of the effectiveness of our gardening endeavours.

One way is weighing in kg the food produced and consumed each year. The things we eat while in the garden aren't counted, nor are the things that we throw directly back into compost. Sometimes a carrot is just not worth trying to peel, or a moth eaten apple goes into our council bin to get the codling moth away from our property.

2012/13 = 180kg    




16/17=222kg  so far!smiley.

But when you do the math for our family last years crops would be only 110gm per person per day. Famine.

Some years it's a lot of watermelons that give big numbers, other years it's the zucchinis, or apples, or spuds, or tomatoes. Never the same bumper crop so far. This year no melons grew, but the apples have been raining down. The other big factor has been time available for planning and garden work. Full time study, 7 week holiday, and working two jobs have all had impacts at various stages. As does crop failure due to weather or bird damage.

Because herbs weigh very little I record them on a number of uses basis. Mainly because it's $3-5 for a takeaway pot from the supermarket, which likely is only used once before it wilts away. So I consider if I use a herb in a dish we have either saved $2- or would not have used that ingredient.

Another guage we use is how many of the veggies or salad ingredients on our plate came from our garden, or via traded goods. A plate of all home grown, served with self caught fish or prawns is a moment we acknowledge.

I also dry a lot of beans to use in soups/stews in winter. So they are shelled out and only the dry beans weighed.

It definatley hurts a lot less to have to throw something out of the fridge and into the compost when you have grown it, rather than paid for it. We get to eat much more seasonally and really notice what is in the shops that is out of season. Plus our guinea pig is fed for free from fresh scraps - and turns them into poop for the garden.

How do others measure?

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Quercus bicolor
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Easy source of compost/good soil

Three years ago when I built my raised beds, I put down free wood chips from the town on the paths.  That fall, I began dumping  oak/maple leaves on the paths not so many that they weren't easily walkable.  This spring, I'm raking off any undecomposed chips and leaves, scraping the rich black soil that has been developing under the leaves and chips down to the subsoil and tossing it onto the adjacent beds.  In one section of the garden where there was room to build a new bed, there was about 1/2 the soil needed for the 8" deep bed on the path immediately adjacent to it.  I've done stuff like this before.  Usually it gives a nice boost to productivity.

The next step is to start over with more chips from the town (being careful to keep norway maple and black walnut chips out of the garden).

pinecarr's picture
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Picture of garden door using carabiners for hinges

Hi Adam-

    First, thanks for the wonderful step-by-step "how to" guide on starting a raised bed garden.  I have had both gardening successes and failures, and I value the chance to see how people who have been more consistently successful achieved that success!

   Also, I may be overlooking it, but if not, could you still provide the picture of the door you made in your garden fence, using carabiners as hinges?  I am building an enclosed wire fence for my dogs right now, and would like to copy what you did for your garden fence.  It would also be helpful to see what type of carabiner you used. 

   Finally, you had suggested that writing about building up soil nutrition would require its own how-to page...yes, please, could that be added to the pp.com to-do list?  That would be a wonderful addition!!

   Thanks again.

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good soil

my soil is good, but too may gophers, and I have 14 4'x12' raised beds, which is alot of soil. So, what I did was use the existing soil for the raised beds, so for 12" deep beds, level off about the top 8" of soil for the first bed, and path next to it, set aside in a pile. Put down first raised bed. Now, level and take down 8" of soil in the next spot by shoveling directly into bed #1, and go like this until done, putting the pile of dirt into the last bed.

I also found that staples from a staple gun did not hold up, and I use the poultry netting staples you have to nail in. I also generally use the small opening wire

Grover's picture
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Measure What Is Important

Hi fated,

Your post has haunted me since I read it a couple of months ago. My only advice is to be careful to measure only what is important. Why? We always strive to improve the numbers we are measuring. It is human nature. If you just measure weight of your produce or the calories you produce, you may miss out on what is important and hiding under those easily measured quantities.

Here is a half hour long video with Dr. August Dunning and Ben Davidson. I got 2 big take aways from the video:

  1. The epidemics of modern diseases correlate quite well with modern agriculture and our dependence on nitrogen fertilizers. Our modern foods do not contain the same percentages of minerals that foods from a century ago had. Our bodies are craving these missing minerals and compensating by overeating.
  2. The GMOs in our food supply have been haphazardly created and subsequently selected for commercially viable traits. They don't know what all the side effects of inserting foreign DNA into a plant are. Profit is their main concern. That inserted DNA (that kills caterpillars or makes the plant immune to glyphosate) is in every cell of the plant - including the parts we ingest.

I have a moderately small garden that I fertilize with 2 year old aged horse manure compost. I've been applying this compost to my garden and trees for years. This year, I've been harvesting asparagus for the last 11 weeks. I'll pick some more sporadically, but I have to let the plants go to fern to collect the sunshine and store the energy in the roots for next year's crop. Swiss chard and cilantro are going strong and my edible pea pod peas are just starting. The other plants are well on their way and will produce over the course of the summer (except beans that a rabbit decided to trim just above ground.)

You know how joyful it is to pick the first meal of each plant. Unless you are fertilizing the way big ag does, your produce is tastier, fresher, and much healthier than anything you can buy. Keep doing what you are doing. Plant the plants that you like to consume. Enjoy the whole process for what it is. If you have to measure something, try measuring happiness.



fated's picture
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measure what is important

Hi Grover,

Thought provoking video. Our soils in Australia are known to be generally poor, compared to other parts of the world.

I'm hope the haunting caused by my post has in no way a negative for you.

To clarify, we enjoy our gardening as a hobby, it's my number one hobby, other than reading about gardening and the three E's!

I suppose we currently measure in the way we do because its an objective way of identifying our output, whereas my happiness doesn't tell us whether any modifications we have made are producing more edibles. The aim of our growing is quality food, and if we can increase yields by modifying when, where, or what varieties we planet - even better.

I'm trying (very unscientifically) to get a handle on a number of things. What our space can produce for us - and in the event we need to really rely on it for survival - which crops will best feed us calorie wise. Which crops are best for saving grocery budget dollars (biennial capsicums producing early and late are more $$ saving than planting onions or carrots around here). how the effort I put into certain crops or annuals and their output, compares to others. Is all the training, trimming, mulching, netting and poo I put into the raspberries worth it - absolutely as I love raspberries. But when compared calorie/weight and effort wise to the strawberries - no. For a time constrained gardener the strawberries win hands down.

I guess having answers to some of these things adds to my happiness.

My aim in gardening is to produce wholesome food, reduce waste, reduce the chemicals we digest from eating store bought edibles, save money, and encourage a diversity of creatures in our yard. I hope the worm castings, leaf mulch, guinea pig waste, vegetable compost etc that goes onto our veggies is doing this. We throw our eggshells into our compost (calcium). I'm also playing with the idea of trialling rock dust for minerals. I dunno if you seed save, but that also carries some big satisfaction in success and security, and is a way to help prevent loss of various varieties.  Start with peas and beans first as they pretty much self pollinate and stay pure. Happy gardening!

Grover's picture
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You're On The Right Track
fated wrote:

My aim in gardening is to produce wholesome food, reduce waste, reduce the chemicals we digest from eating store bought edibles, save money, and encourage a diversity of creatures in our yard. I hope the worm castings, leaf mulch, guinea pig waste, vegetable compost etc that goes onto our veggies is doing this. We throw our eggshells into our compost (calcium). I'm also playing with the idea of trialling rock dust for minerals. I dunno if you seed save, but that also carries some big satisfaction in success and security, and is a way to help prevent loss of various varieties.  Start with peas and beans first as they pretty much self pollinate and stay pure. Happy gardening!


Your aim is spot on! I was haunted because I had a boss the last several years I was working who insisted that we needed to develop measures to show that we were improving our product. We were supposed to come up with thoughtful, meaningful measures and still get the same amount of (or more) work done. I wish we could have measured worker morale to show how idiotic this obsession was. After all, how can you measure the most important things? Try telling your significant other that your love has steadily increased by 0.02% on a daily basis (doubles in 10 years.) Somehow, "I love you more than ever" is enough. I feel the same way about a garden. Grow what you enjoy and enjoy it.

I have had mixed results with saving seeds. I've had great success with beans, peas, chard, cilantro, onions, and garlic (garlic and onions take a couple years to get to harvestable size.) Some plants (like asparagus) have seeds that volunteer on their own. When I see them, I transplant them into a small pot until they get big enough to transplant in the right space. I'm leery of saving seeds from plants that can cross pollinate with prolific weedy relatives. We've got wild carrots and nightshades everywhere. The neighbors like to plant gourds. If gourds cross with an edible cucumber, it could be toxic. I saved seeds from some bell peppers once. Unfortunately, some had crossed with a habanero pepper I grew for a friend that year. The resulting peppers may have looked like bell peppers but were too hot to enjoy.

Instead, in the depth of winter I buy my seeds in bulk (at least 5 years worth) and separate them into convenient yearly portions. Then, those portions get vacuum sealed, labeled, dated, and put in big zipper bags with other seeds for each year and then they go in the freezer. I've had great results that way. Occasionally, I get an urge to plant something different. I splurge and buy a retail packet of seeds then.

Before you go through the trouble of adding rock dust to get the minerals in the soil, you may want to have your soil tested by an agricultural testing laboratory. I did that when we first moved here and found out what deficiencies I had to correct. Since then, I've augmented with worm conditioned compost yearly. My garden is doing great! I've found that tomato plants usually tell me what minerals need to be augmented.

I'm no where near self sufficient with my garden. I have enough space, but I don't have the motivation to do that much work. I want gardening to be joyful rather than drudgery - my version of "happy gardening." If SHTF before I die, something I hadn't planned for will likely get me before my food supply runs out. It is just the way it is ... and I'm okay with it.

Six months from now, I'll be in the depth of winter like you are right now. I'll be thinking of last year's garden, looking at seed catalogs, and making plans for next year's garden. I'll also still have some of the fresh produce stored in the garage and frozen/canned goods from the garden to eat. It is all rewarding.


richcabot's picture
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Did you have the fence in place when Fuzzy met her end?  Were her wings clipped?

We lost a chicken to a local dog, even though she was fenced it, because the dog came up to the fence and started barking furiously.  The chicken got scared and flew out of the fenced in area, upon which time the dog went around and attacked the chicken.  We learned our lesson and clip their wings.

We later lost one to a hawk and had to put up a large weave plastic mesh across the top of the chicken run.  Haven't lost any since.

Adam Taggart's picture
Adam Taggart
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Posts: 3214
Hole in the fence

I let our chickens free range on our property during the day. We have a fence perimeter around it, except there was a hole where the coyote squeezed through.

Patched that up, and haven't had a repeat attack yet (5 years later).

A shame Fuzzy was the tuition cost of my learning curve :(

New_Life's picture
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Posts: 396
geothermal greenshouse = very impressive
LesPhelps wrote:

I attended a 2 hour seminar on growing hydroponic tomatoes recently, in the controlled environment agriculture  center at the University of Arizona.  Here is a pic of tomato plants, grown from suckers, that produce non stop for 10 to 12 months.  

You should check out LDSPrepper on YouTube.

He built a 20 X 40 geothermal greenhouse that he operates year around in Idaho, with only geothermal and passive heating sources.  

I'm thinking about giving it a try, on a smaller scale.  In Wisconsin, however, I doubt geothermal will work keep a greenhouse above freezing in Wisconsin, in January and February.  Wisconsin gets much colder than Idaho.

LDS stands for "Later Day Saints."  LDSPrepper has quite a few videos on YouTube.  He spends a large portion of his time teaching and helping others, building community, if you will.

Hey Les, very interested in this, thanks for the video, I've been helping an old friend get a new farm off the ground, a few of us have helped him over the last few months assemble his first 22m x 8m commercial Polytunnel that he hopes to use Hydro and then Aquaponics, he'd love to try and grow year round but we live on the mid 50N lat, so get snow and below 32F in the dark months..

Barnbuilder's picture
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Posts: 104
Great Thread

Have a little 6 by 8 greenhouse double wall 6mm poly with four 55 gallon barrels on the north wall.  It has worked well for seedling plantings and can keep us in lettuce almost till Christmas.  We have a new 12 by 20 double wall poly yet to be erected and have been thinking of a way to install a thermal solar panel to the side of it with a small 12V panel to power a pump into a line of 55 gallon drums lining the north face. If any of you have done something like this I would really appreciate any tips or lessons. I'm still trying to figure the freezing problem.  Do I go with a heat exchanger with anti freeze or is there a better solution. On another note I have been growing Silver Rose garlic for about 8 years.  We plant it in November and harvest mid to late summer.  This year looks pretty good so far it is growing nicely.  It keeps very well and we braid it and hang it in the basement.  Usually will last till the new crop comes in but last year it got soft and went bad a few months earlier than normal. So goes learning to be a good gardener.

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