Homemade hoop houses and intensive gardening techniques allow John Hass to grow his own food year-round.
The gardening movement is an ever-increasing endeavor for people to have control over their own food supply as much as possible. More and more people are following what is happening with the industrialization of food: the chemicals, the genetic engineering, and the contamination that happens before it reaches our tables. The past two decades have seen a return to gardening by experienced gardeners and an introduction to gardening by newcomers of all ages. The one thing that keeps many more from joining the movement is the misconception that growing food for personal consumption has to be expensive. While food production can be an expensive undertaking, it does not necessarily have to be so.
Meet John Hass of Hartville, Missouri, a tiny little town tucked into the rolling hills of the Missouri Ozarks. John and his wife Beverly moved to the the Ozarks from northern Idaho in 1995 seeking a milder climate where they could grow more of their own food. They started with a little stucco 900 square foot house and gradually added five additions onto it, resulting in the spaciousness they now enjoy.
The Hasses have taken the science of “growing food” and turned it into the art of “growing food on a slim budget” and they are setting a good example for others to follow. They grow food year round, even though the local temperatures often drop below freezing for days at a time and occasionally even reach sub-zero Farenheit. John has devised and created simple and inexpensive hoop houses out of recycled and reclaimed materials readily availble for little or no cash outlay.
Before even entering the greenhouse, one notices the construction of the structure and sees reclaimed barn lumber used for the frame, reclaimed door hinges, and a door made of recycled materials; a recycled candle holder even serves as the “doorknob.” The “roof” structure is formed by wire cattle panels curved to form a dome which is covered with clear plastic to allow sunlight penetration. Opening the door, one sees that the greenhouse contains 2 rows of raised growing beds with an aisle down the center. The structures usually end up being 20 feet long, 7 feet wide, and 6 feet tall. Walking into one of the growing houses in January, typically the coldest month in this geographic area, one immediately feels the warm humidity and sees all of the luscious plants growing.
Looking around, there is no artificial heat source to be found. All of the heat has come from the sun’s energy—warming the growing area and being held there by covers of plastic. What one does see is bed after bed of greens — in fact, 10 varieties of mustards, kales, and more. John is also growing carrots, onions, garlic, radishes, and beets. He points out that the onions have been growing for two years since he first planted them from seed.
A close look at his raised beds shows just how frugal one can be if the desire to grow food is there. John gives a careful explanation of his growing beds made of reclaimed materials. He starts with old truck tires that are no longer suitable for their original intended purpose. He stacks the tires three high, and as long as he wants his beds to be — usually eight tires long. Knowing that tire rubber chemicals can leach into the roots of growing plants and have possible adverse affects on both the plants and the people consuming them, he prevents his plant roots from ever having contact with the rubber. After creating his tire stacks to the proportions that he desires, he then lays recycled barn tin over them to create a flat growing surface. Next, he covers the tin with two layers of plastic that will not allow the plant roots to reach down and come in contact with the rubber tires. He uses more reclaimed barn tin to form the outsides of the bed. Starting at the ground, he places one layer of tin turned horizontally but placed on edge vertically to form sides for his beds. He goes around the entire bed, bending the tin to make the corners.
A second layer of tin above the first one is high enough to cover the row of tires and still be tall enough to provide a structure for the “soil” in which to plant his seeds. For planting medium, John uses a combination of vermiculite and peat moss in order to have good permeability. He mixes those with good quality topsoil that he purchases in large bags and provides a growing bed of at least 4 inches, or deeper depending on what he plans to grow. He also makes his own soil using his homemade compost tumbler. People around town call him to bring his mulching lawnmower and mulch their leaves, giving him mulch that is much cheaper than buying straw. And then he plants!
Starting in October John begins planting in the covered beds, producing more food than he and his wife can use. Even though they freeze, can, and dehydrate in abundance, they still have enough to share — giving some away and even selling some. He does all of this with only two small tools: a hand rake and a small spade. No big bulky tiller to maneuver around and no long handled tools to wrestle.
Using succession planting at two-week intervals, John is able to grow all year long. At the height of winter when the temperatures drop low enough to endanger his crops, he simply adds a lower arch of PVC over each bed and covers the arch with plastic. That provides an extra layer of insulation to keep his plants from freezing. John explains that each additional layer of plastic that he adds to provide thermal insulation gives the same protection as moving one growing zone to the south.
He particularly likes winter gardening, as he can do it with no sweat and less watering, but is addicted to growing year round and is always experimenting. One of John’s latest endeavors is to learn to produce mushrooms, and he has created a woodland lot for that purpose. He went online and researched how to grow mushrooms and then created a dappled sunlight area. He explains how he has learned to cut the logs at a precise time of year, before they bud out in the spring, which is when they contain a natural fungicide. Then he orders spore plugs from which he grows mushrooms to sell, distributing them as far away as Alaska.
Over the years John’s wife has developed physical conditions that no longer allow her to bend over to do traditional gardening; nor can she manage the uneven terrain to get to the main growing beds. However, John has created a patio garden next to the house just for her, where she continues to enjoy growing food in large containers and to contribute to the household food supply.
John and Beverly have an ever-widening food supply as they grow more varieties, including wild chickweed that most people consider to be useless. John quoted his wife as saying, “I don’t like those weeds you put in the salad.” The next week they were watching television and saw a chef explaining that wild chickweed is high in healthy Omega 3. He went on to point out that, “People will walk across ‘weeds’ to go to the store to buy things less healthy.”
Kathy McFarland is a former English teacher and a life-long gardener who likes to travel, read, write and do almost anything outdoors. She is currently renovating her Hope Haven Farmstead in the Missouri Ozarks to make it more sustainable and productive.
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