by Ryan Moeggenberg
Gardening and providing food for my family is important to me for many reasons. Mainly, it’s how I was raised. On our little ‘hobby farm’ we had a big garden, a large multitude of fruit trees and a variety of farm animals that would make Old MacDonald envious. When I think about my younger years, I recall memories of our family working together doing things like making and selling apple cider, putting up hay in the barn, butchering our Thanksgiving turkey, snipping a bazillion green beans so mom could get them all in jars, trying to ride our pigs, caring for the twin baby goats Bonnie and Clyde in the mud room to make sure they survived a cold January in Michigan. These are all fond memories of my childhood that I would like to recreate with my family. This summer I remarried and now — along with my 8-year-old son — I have a 13-year-old daughter and my beautiful wife, Marcee, to make these new memories with.
In order to create a setting to bring my family together to make these memories, I first have to consider what I am working with. Rather than owning ten acres in fertile Michigan, we rent three acres in inhospitable climate and soil conditions on the east side of Bend. Therefore, we aren’t putting too much into infrastructure that we can’t move. I have built a chicken coop that I can pull up into our horse trailer with a cum-a-long. We had fun hitching up the horses to it last spring and dragging it to a new spot! Originally, I had a different run that I attached to the coop, but it had a flat top that I had to squat down to get into and in the winter it about collapsed due to the snow load. Last spring I built a chicken tractor to raise meat birds in that ended up being too heavy to move. It graduated into being the run for the coop.
Before the wedding this summer, which was at our house, I built two, 2.5 foot tall raised beds just off from the back deck. I needed to do something different with that area anyway — it was so difficult to water without soaking the house and the grass had died. I built them taller than normal for several reasons. You don’t have to bend over to work in them and the two by six on top is perfect for a seat. Grass won’t make its way into them and take over like most shorter beds. I was able to fill them two-thirds full with a mix of straw, horse and chicken manure. That mix will retain water more efficiently and compost over time with the addition of UltraSoil from High Desert Mulch on top to get the garden started. They are each 12 feet long and 3 feet wide with 2 feet in between them. After the wedding, as fall approached, I thought, “How can I cover these in order to let my tomatoes ripen long after our first frost?” which happened on August 26th at our house!
Most PVC-style hoop houses do not stand up to the wind and snow load in Central Oregon, so it needs to be rugged and heavy. When I was thinking about the redesign of the chicken tractor it hit me. Meat birds only need to be in the chicken tractor for 7-9 weeks in the summer. The greenhouse is only going to be used in spring and fall. Building a dedicated tractor to only be used a short time and then sit around the rest of the year didn’t make sense. Could I make one structure to fit both purposes? I think so!
Let’s define the objectives I used for building our greenhouse/chicken tractor. At first, I figured the size to sit on top of the raised beds which would be 12 feet by 8 feet. Once the tomatoes grew to full size I realized that if I set the greenhouse perfectly on top of the beds, the plants would lean against the sides. If it freezes outside, any part of the plant that is touching the side of the greenhouse will also freeze. So, I would have to make it 12 feet by 10 feet, and let it hang over the sides of the beds to make room for large plants. It needs to be light enough to move but heavy enough to not blow away. The first chicken tractor that was too heavy to move was 20 feet by 10 feet and I could almost move it without hurting myself. This smaller size won’t be such a struggle and I won’t have to visit my chiropractor the day after moving it. It has to be able to withstand wind and heavy snow. Baby chicks and baby plants both need to stay protected from the cold temperatures. The whole thing needs to fit on our flatbed to be able to go with us to a new house if we move.
Building with the same idea as the chicken run but smaller and lighter I knew the basic materials needed. Construction is not something I am skilled at, but I know how to swing a hammer, measure angles and run a skill saw. We aren’t building a rocking chair here. I didn’t have plans to start with so I don’t have plans to pass on to you to recreate what I have built. The ‘hoops’ are made from galvanized cattle panels I bought at Wilco for about $20 each. They are 16 feet long by 50 inches tall. I cut 6 inches of one panel off with my angle grinder to get an even 12 feet. I used 2x4s, instead of 2x6s like I did on the first version, to reduce weight. All of the lumber I used was scrap that I had laying around from old projects that needed to be used before it wasn’t usable for anything but firewood.
Fencing staples work best to attach the panels to the boards and the tarps on the chicken run are from Harbor Freight. The tarps are on their 3rd season and will probably need to be replaced this fall. They are starting to get brittle and flakey. If you are only building a chicken tractor, you won’t need clear plastic because a cheaper tarp will work fine. For the dual purpose structure I am building the plants obviously need the sun, but the chickens need shade in the summer. In order to make that work I will permanently attach the clear plastic and put a tarp over that when the chickens are living in it. To protect your tarp or plastic from the wind blowing and ripping the grommets out, run twine back and forth over the top wrapped around nails or screws on the outside of the frame. On the chicken run, I didn’t cover the entire thing with tarp so I had to run chicken wire around the bottom to keep the chicks in. Once they are big enough to fly they will be too big to get out the holes of the cattle panels.
Having the kids working together with Marcee and I allows us to teach them the valuable lessons of hard work, determination, persistence and responsibility. When someone has to endure going outside in the coldest part of winter to take care of the animals, later in life when they have to put tire chains on while driving over a snowy pass it won’t be as difficult because you know you have experienced worse in the past. Getting outside to mow the yard or work for an employer in the heat of the summer isn’t too tough when you have bucked 1,000 bales of hay and put them up in the barn over the 4th of July weekend.
A humble little greenhouse can be more than just a structure. It is food security; it teaches life lessons; it is knowing where your food comes from; it provides the best nutrition available. They are a place to relax and a change of atmosphere. For us, most of all, it is memories for our family.
As you can see in the picture on page 32, I didn’t get the new structure finished in time to use over the raised beds this winter. If you are interested in seeing the final product, I will be posting it on the HomeSpun Facebook Group.