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(Please excuse the gratuitous capitalization – I like this subject.)
I love to garden, but here in Colorado, the radical shifts in weather, dry climate and strange cycle of seasons can be somewhat limiting. The dryness of the air can sap moisture right from plant leaves, and the hail can leave beautiful plants looking like Bonnie and Clyde when the law finally caught up with them. Surprise frosts can show up as late as July and as early as, well, July. On the opposite end, daytime temperatures can easily exceed 100 degrees in the summer. We sometimes have 80-degree shifts in temperature in less than 24 hours. I am the type of person that likes to do things the hard way. In most situations, I will do things the most difficult way that I can. The reason that I love to grow my own food in Colorado (aside from the incredible declining dollar) is that it is hard. The soil, if you’d call it that, it essentially a mix of sand and gravel. You MUST build your own soil to even begin, or you’ll be relying on liquid nutrients to get you through the season. The list of challenges and obstacles goes on, but there is a point of frustration that I am not willing to tolerate.
Watching broccoli get shot full of holes 3 weeks before the first harvest is something I don’t want to go through again. Watching the wind turn chard leaves yellow right before my eyes is on that list, too.
I’ve played around quite a bit with cold frames, hoop houses and large greenhouses as well, and have found that in this climate, they are the way to go for most of the plants a person would want to eat. While they are not necessary, they not only extend the growing season (even without heating systems), but they protect against what can be devastating mishaps. One thing I have found, though, is that watering them can be a pain in the ass. Whether it’s lifting and moving cold frames or dragging a hose around a greenhouse, watering can be a serious chore.
It can be so serious, in fact, that I BLAME WATERING AS THE NUMBER ONE REASON (aside from a culture of complete dependence on anything but our own effort) THAT PEOPLE DON’T GROW THEIR OWN FOOD! It is too much to remember, and even when it’s not that, it’s too much to actually do. Letting it slide one day invariably leads to letting it slide again, and that leads to dead plants, frustration, and a complete lack of joy from the process. That’s not good. There is nothing like the boost in your sense of self worth that comes from harvesting from your own garden and eating what you grow.
Enter the self-watering greenhouse.
It hit me while I was alone in the workshop one day; surrounded by PVC pipe, mister nozzles, hose interfaces and most importantly, PVC benders in different lengths than I have seen anywhere. If I was to integrate the watering into the frame of the greenhouse, not only would it save much-needed space and time, but as it was charged, it would also increase the weight and structural integrity of the building.
I set to work right away and in about two hours, I built a 4’x6’x42” tall hoop house that had the watering system built into the framework. We charged it up and POW! Water sprayed down evenly over every square inch of the inside. Since then, we’ve made set ups that were 7’ tall and 10’ wide that functioned exactly the same.
The advantages of self-bending the pipe instead of ordering a pre-fab greenhouse are many, and we have yet to find drawbacks. People ask, “But isn’t PVC light and flimsy?”
We say, ”Not if you use heavy, sturdy pipe.”
Simply put, 2”, Schedule 80 PVC pipe is some sturdy stuff. For greenhouses 16’ wide or less, it is overkill. Spaced 24” on center, you could have a horse on the roof and it wouldn’t sag. For larger structures, use larger pipe, and there is always a size/strength combination to fit your needs.
One awesome thing about the PVC system is that it is completely customizable to your needs. If you have a bender, YOU select the exact material and construction you want. The PVC fitting system is simple enough for anyone to learn, and from there, you can design and build a structure to fit your needs precisely. If you’ve got a terraced hillside, there is no way to buy a pre-fab greenhouse that is going to work for it. However, with PVC and a bender, you can make a short curve for the uphill side and a longer curve for the downhill point. With the proper nozzles and fittings, you can charge the entire structure and evenly water the entire thing.
If you have plants with different watering needs, you can put different flow rate nozzles over their zones so that all watering is complete in the same amount of time. With a water valve timer, you can automate the whole process so that you NEVER miss a watering. If you also have a thermostatically controlled valve, you can kick on the misters when the temperature gets too high. With a reservoir and pump system (especially if the reservoir is below a slatted floor for recollection) you can distribute nutrients, beneficial bacteria or even pesticides if you’re into that sort of thing.
Cover options are as varied as they are for any other greenhouse: any flexible material will do. From simple tarps, shade cloths and window screens, to corrugated thermoplastics and double walled polycarbonate, anything that will bend to the same radius as your house curve will work beautifully. Using snap clamps around the base and zip ties around the ridge pipe will ensure secure fastening of your cover for years on end, or you can always weight down your material around the edges for easy removal.
AND it is fun, fast and very easy to bend any size of PVC using the PVC Bendit system. AND it is WAAAAAY cheaper than ANY other way. AND I just wanted to use another “and” with even more excitement than the first two.
For a better look, cruise on over to our Videos section and watch Episode 9, where we show the fundamental principles of self-watering greenhouse design in a scalable form that can be whatever size you need.