Greenhouse Cold Frame

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If you want to leverage your vegetable garden a little longer , or get started a little bit earlier, you can easily set up a “cold frame” around it. A cold frame is simply a plastic sheet “house” that your garden lives inside of, which shields your plants from wind & cold (and snow if it’s sturdy enough).

What you need:

  • 1/2 inch CPVC pipes (beige plastic plumbing pipes at Lowes). Get 1 for every 2 ft (I used 9)
  • 1 Plastic sheet, the thicker the better (I used 10mil). Should be wide and long enough to drape over the whole frame and have extra.I used 10ft x 25ft
  • (Optional): another plastic sheet for reinforcing the bottom and extra shielding from wind.

Step 1: Build the frame

Grab the pipes, and bury the ends so that it forms an arc.Space them every 2 ft or so. Since they sometimes bend to the left or to the right, you can tie the top of the pipes together with a long string/rope so that they stay equally spaced. Tie the ends to a brick or a stone and place the brick 2 ft away from the end pipes so that the brick pulls on them and keeps them straight.

 

Step 2: Drape over with plastic sheet

No magic here.. just put the plastic sheet on top of the pipes, making sure that there is at least  4 inches extra on the sides (put bricks or rocks on top). The ends should have plenty  of extra so that the plastic can go all the way down and be secured with bricks as well.

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Step 3 (Optional): Extra steps for colder climates

I’m on a Zone 6 area, in November our lows hit 25 degrees and I thought that would be the end of the growing season but to my delight some plants were still fine (celery,special kind of  chard, thyme, oregano). In fact I think the rest of the plants might’ve made it if it hadn’t been for a couple of super windy days which blew the plastic sheet right off multiple times and exposed the plants to freezing temperatures overnight. In any case, several types still survived and so I came up with some strategies to help the plants survive.

Tip 1: Place extra plastic sheet all around the lower perimeter: I’m hoping this will help in the cases where the main plastic sheet comes a little lose at the bottom (because of wind or rain or the weight of snow). The extra plastic should help keep the elements out. Don’t make it too tall since it’ll block the sunlight.

Tip 2: Round up your dry leaves or grass clipping and put them all around the lower perimeter, forming a protective wall around your plants. This should help insulate from the cold, and with some luck the decomposition will provide some heat to the microclimate inside the cold frame as well. I’m not sure if the nitrogen of the grass will be a problem just yet..

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Tip 3: Bury kitchen leftover scraps (veggies, peels, NO MEAT PRODUCTS) in several spots inside. The decomposition should provide some heat to the microclimate inside the cold frame, and might keep the ground from freezing longer as well. I didn’t bury it deep at all, it just has a very thin layer of dirt on top (I’m not sure if it’ll invite a rodent problem yet, I’m experimenting with this for now). Another plus is that your soil will be fertilized for next year.

Is it worth it?

Yes, it’s totally worth it! I have a thermometer inside the cold frame, and even though the reading has hit below 32 on multiple occasions for several hours, plenty of plants are still fine. On a cloudy day, the temperature pretty much reflects the outside temperature (but remember the cold frame still protects from the wind). On a sunny day where it’s 32 degrees outside, I’ve seen the temperature get to 50. More importantly, I’ve observed in December that the ground was frozen outside the cold frame so much that I couldn’t get dirt for a pot, but the dirt inside the cold frame was not. Also, if the cold frame is up very early in the spring, the dirt will start warming up sooner so plants can be planted earlier.

So what didn’t make it during the winter (Zone 6)?
November: We’ve had a few days with lows in the mid 20s. Everything was fine until a couple of strong windy days with freezing temps which blew off the cover multiple times. The tomatoes and a special type of zucchini died miserably. Since those plants had been find until then, I suspect they would’ve held longer had the cover stayed put. The plants looked dried up so I harvested some gourds that look like a small Pumpkin at the end of November.
Oregano, thyme, celery, parsley, special type of chard (not meant for this climate) still going strong.

December: Oregano, thyme, celery, parsley, special type of chard still going strong. We’ve had high temps averaging low 40s, most lows mid 30s, some days freezing.

January, February: we’ll see 🙂

 

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Quartz Tile Front Steps

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We had this gem of an entrance and decided to tackle the stairs:

The stairs are concrete faced with flagstone, go up steeply at different heights, and there’s a top landing about 6ft long. There’s an old wrought iron handrail with chipped paint, and plants to the side of the stairs.

To take out the concrete stairs, we broke off the flagstone, and rented a jackhammer to bust through the concrete.

20150621_111956 You can also break off the concrete with manual tools, but it’ll probaby take hours to do that, you’ll destroy your hands and your will to finish the job. With the trusty jackhammer, we were done in an hour for $75 😀

Because we wanted to expand our stairs into the adjacent hilly planter area, we also had to dig out a lot soil. We dug enough to have a min of 4 in. concrete depth but wound up having to backfill quite a bit since parts were 6in. deep. Note that any backfilling will need to be compacted…

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We didn’t do below-freezing-point footers but we did add quite a bit of rebar just in case to avoid cracks or splits. The concrete had a min. depth of 4in, and 2 rebars going horizontally for each step as well as 3 rebars going top to bottom.

Once everything was dug up, we hammered stakes into the ground and leaned (cut) 10x6x2s on them to contain the concrete that needed to be poured. It’s very important to level the wood and make sure it is perfectly placed (equal measurements between the 10×6). stair-wood-maqueta  Our stairs also needed wood on the side to prevent the concrete from falling off the side when it got poured.

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For our stairs which are roughly 9’x9′ with a rise of 3ft, we needed 160 bags of concrete (80lbs bags). To mix all this we rented a small cement mixer, which handled a whole bag at a time. This setup took us perhaps 10 hours to mix and pour.

While the concrete dried up, I prepared the tile by painting some impregnator on it to seal it. Once the concrete dried up, it was time to lay some tile. We choose an Green Indian Mica (quartzite) with a shimmery black quartzite tile for contrast. Since this was an exterior job, we got frost-proof tile, exterior thinset for stone tiles, and we decided to use an impregnator to seal the tiles.2015-08-01 15.13.18

Since we were using the black tiles to make a straight line going up each step on both sides of the front door, we needed to make sure the black tiles would line up perfectly.

To do that, we extended a string from the first tile of the top row all the way to the landing on the bottom. This string would tell us where exactly to put the first tiles on the left on each step and would guarantee the lining up of the black tiles.

We used the little spacers to do the separation between the tiles, but since these tiles are sometimes not perfectly square, sometimes you have to move a tile around to make it look squarer. Here’s a pic of the progress:      20150801_151156

For the placing of the grout I took a different approach. Usually you’re supposed to spread the grout all over the tiles and let it go into the space between the tile. This makes the tile really dirty though.. and trying to clean a tile that has a rough porous surface takes a lot of time. So I cut a small hole in the bag that the grout came in, poured the grout into the bag, and used the bag as if I was decorating a cake to squeeze the grout between the tiles. Then you push the grout down with your finger. Worked great and made the job a hell of a lot cleaner!

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And here’s the finished product. Btw, we also added a retaining wall to complete the look 🙂

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Patio Privacy Screen

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This post is on how to build an easy patio privacy screen that will hopefully blend with the patio and not have the impression that we’re trying to shut the neighbors out.

You’ll need:

1 4’x8′ privacy screen (go plastic/vinyl to avoid yearly maintenance)
2   1x4s (or 4 1x4s if you’re making 2 screens). You could also use 2x4s.
Cement (1 50lbs bag will be enough for 4 posts)
Post-digger or shovel
Exterior screws (aka deck screws) (though I’m using a staple gun for a temp solution)

Build the Screen

20150512_192601 (1)You could just have 1 massive privacy screen or you can cut it in half or 3 pieces.. it’s up to you. In my case I made 2 half-screens and later I added another whole-screen.

Secure each side of the screen to the posts by using exterior or deck screws. For now I’m just using a staple gun as a temporary solution, but as soon as the staples rust I’ll have to switch to the screws.

Dig the Holes

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Measure where the posts will go and dig a hole at least 1.5ft deep. To do this I prefer to use a post digger since it digs a smaller hole than using a shovel (which saves on lugging cement around). 1.5ft is not below the freezing-point where I live so there’s a chance the posts might move, but in this case I think it might be overkill to dig 4ft 🙂

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Set the Posts

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Fill up the holes with cement up until 1 inch below the ground surface. Pour water in gradually and mix to achieve a heavy cream consistency. Make sure you mix all the way to the bottom.

Set the screen posts in the cement and level them horizontally (both sides equally tall) as well as vertically (posts not falling forwards/backwards/right/left).

Use patio chairs, other posts, whatever you have to keep the posts from moving until the cement hardens. Once the cement has hardened, fill the remainder of the hole with dirt and stain the posts to match the privacy screen and voila, you’re done.

Retaining wall block planter

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You can easily stack blocks like these (find them in lowes/home depot) to make nice flower planters. It’s very easy to assemble, and requires only very basic DIY skills.

The critical First Row

First, you need to lay the first row of blocks in a way that’s “near level”. By near level I mean it doesn’t have to be perfect, but when you do put the next row of blocks on top it should not wobble too much. The rule is, the taller your wall is, the more diligent you should be in leveling your rows.

20150507_200931Depending on your terrain, you might have to dig with a straight edge shovel on some points to straighten the ground under the first row of blocks. If you’re building the planter on a hilly patch like I am, you can either bury the blocks into the hill or you can lay a partial first row and just continue with the 2nd row once your 2nd row can rest at least partially on the soil (backfill holes with dirt)

Block placement

In the best case scenario, you’d lay the blocks s.t. the 2nd row of blocks would start at the midpoint of a block below, making the blocks look like a brick pattern. That’s very easy to do if you’re doing a straight wall, but in this case the blocks have a lip on the bottom (which interlocks them with the block below) and which forces you to lay the next row of blocks slightly behind the face of the row below…and in a circular/oval setting this has the side effect that each new row of blocks will have a shorter run to go around and then all of a sudden your brick pattern is no longer there. You could circumvent this problem in 3 ways:

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1) by ignoring the lip and laying the blocks on top of each other with their faces on the same vertical plane, but that may compromise stability (since a lot of the blocks will be inclined) and the cosmetics (blocks may look like they’re falling)
2) by laying the blocks with gaps between them to accommodate for the differences in lengths
3) by laying the blocks with no gaps and cutting the last block to fit.

I went with choice 2, out of sheer laziness… maybe I’ll adjust to choice 3 sometime in the future if I ever get bored 🙂

Fill’er up!

Once your rows of blocks are placed and you’ve finished adjusting and readjusting the blocks so that it looks good, you’ll have to fill it up with dirt.

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To keep the blocks looking tidy and avoid dirt stains running down between the blocks, get some vinyl flashing (or any kind of plastic) and place it all along the inside of the blocks. This will keep the dirt from getting to the blocks when it rains.

Notes

If you’re doing a real retaining wall (i.e. once that has to hold the ground, as opposed to just a few plants in a planter) you’ll have to follow manufacturer/township rules such as making cement footings under the freeze level, leveling the blocks properly, getting permits, etc). In my case, my planter wall is just 2 feet tall, so I can just use my judgement.