Sweat, tears and sagas

Victoria has quite a long harsh winter. From around mid-May to typically the end of October, on most days you can only do pleasant activities outside if you’re wrapped in three layers of clothing. So, if you want to grow edible plants productively, you have to extend your growing season utilising some kind of a greenhouse. Just driving through rural South West Victoria you will see every second large property either has a greenhouse of sorts, or long grow tunnels.

Greenhouse 101

Our objective was never to seriously grow food in the greenhouse; we only wanted to extend our seasons by getting seedlings germinated earlier in spring and later in autumn. So way back when we did what we seemed to do in most situations during those early years – we ran to our local hardware warehouse. We bought a small greenhouse kit, screwed the frame together, pulled the plastic cover over the frame, fixed the guide pens into the hard clay soil, secured the guide ropes, installed some fold-up seedling racks and we were ready to rock and roll.

Greenhouse - unsustainable

Original little DIY greenhouse

Initially we even wisely installed it outside of the vegetable patch, not using precious real estate where we could grow vegetables. But later on, as we did the backyard re-modelling, we moved it into the back of the vegetable patch, close to the Eucalyptus trees, where nothing else grows. I guess for a small operation in a protected backyard the little flimsy frame and see-through plastic with its little plastics zips would have been OK, but with the strong onshore gusts we get, it didn’t last long. It started showing serious signs of wear and tear, and then suddenly with one storm it was just totally blown apart.

Greenhouse 202

It seems as with so many things, we had to learn our lessons by doing things twice in those early days! One summer when my in-laws were visiting, I got this sudden rush of fermented cow poo to the brain that we should give Patricia a “proper” greenhouse for Christmas. My father in law loves to shoot the breeze with a good Scotch in the hand while the barbecue is going, and in that era I didn’t mind the Scotch either – so maybe that’s where the crazy idea was born. Be that is it may, we googled around and found a place selling greenhouse kits in Geelong. Not able to contain our excitement, we rushed off, checked the displays, juggled around with the measurements, selected the biggest one we could squeeze into a little earmarked space, loaded the kit and off we went – in a day we were going to have a proper greenhouse! Well, let me tell you, it takes days and days of hard work to put such a kit together, despite what the sales guy tells you – especially when the model in the instructions does not match with the model provided in the kit. But we eventually figured it out, got the ground sort-of levelled, cemented in the posts, affixed thousands of little bolts and almost broke our fingers trying to get the panels tightly fitted into the frame. I can’t remember whether we made the Christmas deadline, but eventually we had a “proper” greenhouse!

Subsequently, we paved the floor with pavers recycled from the backyard renovation project, installed a hardwood box on the one side, built a hardwood flower box against the back wall and re-installed our original seedling racks.

Greenhouse - initial fitting

The new greenhouse completed and fitted out

Who has the last say?

I must say, that greenhouse has been giving us great service. We’ve got cut flowers growing in the back box, we often use the big hardwood box to either grow large seedlings or to carry capsicums through winter into their second growth, and it has safely harboured many seedlings and small plants. But it has also harboured many spiders, ants and other critters…

Two springs ago, Patricia was very, very organised. We had many, many seedling trays neatly labelled and planted with pumpkin, zucchini and a few other types of seeds too. All the shelves were filled, and we couldn’t wait for the warmer days to start when we would be transplanting all these seedlings (to be) into the prepared beds outside. But that specific year we had particularly cold and late spring, and a serious mouse plague to boot. The mice dug out all the seeds and devoured them all – in one night. What a disappointment! Poor Patricia was in tears. Everything had to be re-done.

So she started all over again, redid the punnets, re-did the labels, painstakingly planted new seeds again and re-arranged the punnets neatly on the shelves again. Would you believe it? The mice again devoured everything in one night! This time round she was devastated beyond what words can describe.

So she started all over again, re-did the punnets again, re-did the labels again, painstakingly planted whatever left-over seeds we could find, again. However, this time round we thought – stuff the mice and the greenhouse, we’re going to put the punnets on an old tea trolley we still had and put them in a sunny position on the patio every day and cart them into the washroom every night. So this worked well for a few days, but can you imagine Patricia’s heartbreak when the wind changed direction one day and blew the whole trolley off the patio, spilling all the seeds and soil into the rose bed and over the paths. All that hard work and effort all wasted – and we had no seedlings for that spring! That year we had to buy a lot of seedlings from Diggers Club, our great friendly neighbour Graham gave us a lot of seedlings and plants and so by-the-by with the late planting we scraped through.

Nowadays, whenever we plant new seeds, we set a few mouse traps as well. We use inorganic (cheap) peanut butter in the traps – the mice love it. But many other things also love cheap peanut butter – slugs, snails and ants too. So you have to re-bait the traps quite frequently. It beats poison though.

Further developments

This last summer was my turn to be very, very organised. I have many times over learnt the lesson that anything that is not semi-automatically irrigated on our property will very quickly die a premature and torturous death. We just don’t have the time to walk around and check little plants and make sure they are watered. You may have the best daily routine, but something is going to disrupt it somewhere along the line – probably on a 40C day as well.

So I did what we always seem to do – rushed off to our local hardware warehouse – but I only bought a few mist sprayer fittings. Reusing an old battery-operated timer from our first driveway project and some 13mm pipes given to me by our neighbour, we installed misting sprayers with little flow taps for all the seedling racks. Luckily the battery-operated timer can be set to run for 1 minute. Anything more would just totally drown the seedlings. On some really wet weeks, when we basically have no evaporation, I have to switch the seedling sprayers off for a day or two at a time. Fortunately on the hot days, it just works, that is, if the battery doesn’t run flat.

Greenhouse - seedlings

Greenhouse irrigation

Lessons learnt

  • Small little backyard structures or equipment just doesn’t make the grade at the scale we need to operate on – neither do they survive in our harsh conditions. Not even the little play wheelbarrow and spades we got this kids lasted – they were digging and loading such heavy (little) lumps of dirt that the toys just broke.
  • Seeds are attractive food for a great many critters – be prepared to set traps or protective screens around all new plants or seedlings.
  • In our world, everything has to be irrigated to survive.
About martin@muchmoremulch.blog (46 Articles)
My name is Martin Rennhackkamp, I now live happily in Lara, Victoria, Australia with my wife, two children and two dogs. My interests, apart from the obvious Organic, Biodynamic and Permaculture Gardening and Farming, include sustainable living, surfing, a wide variety of music, dancing, nature, birds, reading, Christianity and a few other things which I never get to...

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