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Plasticulture: How Plastic Saved Our Homestead

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?

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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.

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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.)

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