Saturday, September 15, 2012

Hey, that’s life on the farm: The Greenhouse

When we go down to San Francisco or the East Bay to see friends for a BBQ or birthday party, the standard conversation starter is “So, what’s been going on?” They’ll respond with the typical news of job transitions, recently attended sporting events and perhaps the latest restaurant to pop up in the Mission (no doubt called “Mac” and proudly serving exclusively macaroni and cheese). “Hey, that’s life in the city,” we’ll say. We’ll reciprocate with stories of off-kilter outbuildings, mysterious water leaks, gender ambiguous chickens, sheep wrangling, pig enclosures and encounters with angry swarms of insects. To which they’ll respond, “Hey, that’s life on the farm.”

In an effort to post a little more frequently and for posts to have a bit more focus, I’m gonna do this one in parts. And with that, I now give you HTLOTF, Entry #1: The Greenhouse.

Of all the slanted shanties and spider web encrusted sheds we found on our property - not to mention a huge barn likely approaching 100 years of age - the only one the insurance agent had a problem with when we bought the place was the greenhouse. Sporting a saddle shape common among the older outbuildings of Petaluma, it’s possible that the ten light, operational overhead windows were about the only thing holding the roof up. Well, those and the thick fiber of webs spun by the countless Black Widow spiders, possibly a last ditch arachnoid retrofit attempting to save the place they’ve made their home.


One of our first projects after moving in May of 2011 was to get a garden planted for the Summer. We quickly began tearing down the twisted fences that enclosed a 20 x 20 foot section of overgrown ground in front of the greenhouse and laid out a new perimeter for a 44 x 56 foot space. Over the next weeks, we set new posts, pulled new fencing, installed gates, routed irrigation and built raised planting beds from recycled mushroom boxes. Take a look back in the blog if you’re interested in more pics or stories.


But we didn’t touch the greenhouse, only occasionally poking our heads in while showing friends around to point out the imposing shapes of venomous spiders and the egg sacks incubating hundreds of their creepy spawn hanging from the rafters.

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A couple weeks ago, I decided it was time. In a solid two hour push, I raked all the weeds out, blasted the spiders back to hell with the power washer and cleared everything out. Instantly, I started to see the potential


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Oh, sorry, I didn’t finish that sentence. I started to see the potential of being crushed and diced to pieces when the roof collapsed in under the weight of the windows. Remember, it’s likely the Black Widow strands were the only thing holding it together, something perhaps our insurance agent had known. A close look at the interior of the roof showed signs of at least one attempted repair where some pressure treated 2x6’s had been sistered to the original rafters. Unfortunately, they were never properly attached to the ridge beam so as the weight of the roof flattened it and pushed the walls outward, the rafters were drawn away from the ridge.


No problem. With an eye hook screwed into the west wall, I ran the winch cable from the ATV through the window from the opposite side (a barely visible cable coming from the left side of the picture below). As I winched the wall back to plumb, I used the tire jack from the “expedition vehicle” (which has been getting a lot of use lately!) and a 2x4 to lift the roof. With each small movement - a little winch, a little jack – I waited for a rain of glass from the torqued windows to come crashing down.


But it never came, and with everything held in place, I added a bracket to hold the wall vertical, added horizontal braces between the rafters to prevent them from sagging and secured the pressure treated reinforcement rafters to the ridge beam. When I loosened the winch cable and lowered the jack, there was a little drop, but everything settled into place nicely. Of course, I picked the two hottest days of the year to spend working inside the greenhouse.


Oh, and on an unrelated note, apparently you can’t put this kind of meat thermometer into the oven.

I asked Ann how many of the panes in the greenhouse windows she thought were broken. She guessed 5 or 7? It was actually only 2, we’d just been thinking the worst about this run down little building. But now, with a flat(ter) roof and a couple windows replaced, it was starting to look pretty good. A vigorous scrub and squeegee of the windows made a huge difference. 



I tapped into the existing water line, installed an irrigation timer and spread mulch between the beds to keep the weeds down.


Next step was organizing all the doo dads and spray thingies that had been rattling around loose on our outdoor planting table. Stacks of orchard pots nested 6 feet high provided endless containers for sorting all the bits.




The only thing left to do was plant some seeds: kale and romaine for us and turnips we’re hoping the four pigs we’ll be getting in a couple weeks will like.


We bought an old glass window which we’ll make into a door, but for now, I’d say we officially have a greenhouse. It may not be that exciting to everyone, but hey, that’s life on the farm!