Tools for small-scale growers

Rolling drip tape on shuttles for storage and reuse.
Photo Luke Stovall

It’s been raining all day, so I look around for inspiration and useful rainy day work. Repairing things and making useful tools are usually satisfying.And I found a couple of fun and inspiring inventions by others to share.

Drip tape shuttles and winding system

I’ve written before about our drip tape shuttles, which enable us to save and reuse drip tape. Here’s our Perfect Drip Tape Pack-up Check List

  1. Gather spring clamps (4 per cart), rebar axles, carts, small bucket for end caps, black marker, yellow or white grease pencil (in Drip Tape First Aid Kit), a few pieces of rope 2-4 ft long.
  2. Remove end caps and collect in small buckets
  3. Remove any rope/cord tying drip tape to end stakes (if any)
  4. Pull up stakes
  5. Disconnect drip tape at main pipe, by unscrewing the connector from the tape, not by pulling the connectors out of pipe. Don’t disconnect any short drip tape blank ends, leave them in the pipe.
  6. One person coils the mainline pipe in big 4-5 ft diameter loops, with NO kinks. Tie in three places with rope. Make and affix a plastic label if there is not already one attached. Describe what crop it was used for, and what row spacings, number of rows. Store.
  7. Meanwhile, other people free up the drip tape without destroying the crop too much, and write the length on the ends, using the grease pencil.
  8. Set up the cart with the axle and spring clamps, on the uphill side of the patch (helps drain the tape as you roll it)
  9. Then roll it on appropriately labeled shuttles, two lengths at a time, tightly and tidily, each keeping to cos own side of the shuttle (so they can be unwound separately). Tuck last end in, and ensure the end of the drip tape is labeled with the length, and both sides of the shuttle are labeled.
  10. Take all the shuttles to the barn, and hang them in pairs over the beams using rope. Use knots that a normal human will be able to undo easily. Hang shuttles high enough so people won’t bang their heads, but low enough to be reachable by someone standing on a chair.
  11. Return all the tools and supplies.

Unrolling drip tape from shuttles, using a garden cart as support.
Photo Luke Stovall

I was reminded of our drip tape system when I came across this Rowcover roller

Rowcover rolling with crank handle.
Photo Rodale Institute

Taming the floating row cover is a blog post on the Rodale site by John and Aimee Good. They say

The row cover reel is our favorite part of our system, and it is super low-tech. It is comprised of two portable saw horses with pipe straps attached and a PVC crank we made to fit on the end of the row cover pipe. We set up the saw horses at the end of the bed about eight feet apart. We then push the PVC pipe through the pipe straps on each saw horse and hammer our crank onto the end of the pipe with a rubber mallet.

By using long pipes to roll the row cover on, they have handles to hold, and a space to label length, width, condition of the row cover.


While researching a term new to me: “Personalized Harvie Farm Shares

I learned from the Small Farm Central blog that Harvie connects customers directly with  local farms who deliver shares of farm fresh produce customized to meet personal preferences. Like a CSA, but with choices.


Towards the end of that post I got a chuckle when I saw this flame weeder:

Repurposed stroller makes a fine flame weeder.
Photo Sustainable Harvest Farm Kentucky

The blog post is entitled

3 Themes from 2,000 miles of driving visiting farms in TN and KY

and the inventive farmers Ford and Amanda are from Sustainable Harvest Farm in Kentucky.

I’ve written before about the wonders of flame weeding. We bought our Red Dragon backpack flame weeder from Fedco.

We’re going to need the stroller! Single-torch flamer saves lots of weeding time.
Photo Kati Falger


Broadfork from Way Cool Tools.
Photo Way Cool Tools

Another tool we love is our all-steel broadfork from Way Cool Tools.

I wrote about it last September, when we were preparing our hoophouse beds for winter crops.

This tool is great for aerating compacted soil without inverting it. The soil beasties thank us.

Below is a photo of a hoophouse bed after broadforking before the (immediately following) task of raking to break up the big clumps and produce a fine tilth. It’s important not to let the soil dry out into bricks before raking, or life will be hard (and those soil beasties may be dead).

Hoophouse bed broadforked to aerate the soil without inverting.
Photo Pam Dawling


Lastly I’ll mention our blueberry hoop method. Maybe your bushes, like ours, are flowering now, and maybe you are determined to have a better netting system than you had last year. I described our (then new) blueberry hoop system in 2013. The blueberry area is 16′ x 65′ approx. Height of the netting supports needs to be 7′ or more for most of the space. The 20 blueberry bushes are 66″ apart, in two rows.

We chose PVC Electrical conduit to make our hoops. Unlike PVC water pipe,  plastic electrical conduit is UV-inhibited for outdoor use. Lengths have flanged (bell) ends, and can be joined without any connector pieces. It’s lightweight, and no bending tools are needed (unlike for metal conduit or fencing top-rail). It packs flat for out-of-season storage, and is relatively cheap.

We made a “Spider-House” temporary framework: An idea used for temporary “field houses”. It consists of pairs of bows fastened together at the apex, in a way that spreads out into a 4-legged structure. A row of these make up the frame. An advantage is that the spiders are stronger than simple bows, and that the whole thing can be dismantled relatively easily. The shape helps add strength to lightweight bows.

Blueberry netting on hoops.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Irrigation

We run out stored drip-tape using a garden cart, rebar axle and four spring clamps. CREDIT: Luke J Stovall.

We run out stored drip-tape using a garden cart, rebar axle and four spring clamps. CREDIT: Luke J Stovall.

It’s hot, it’s dry, and a vegetable grower’s mind turns to irrigation. Originally the manuscript for my book Sustainable Market Farming had a chapter on irrigation, but when it became clear that the manuscript was way too long, I had to cut out some chapters. One of them was on irrigation.

The other topics I cut out (radishes, mulches, tools, shade cloth and row cover) have since all made it into print in Growing for Market magazine or in this blog. But not irrigation. Recently I got an email from a reader who wanted to know if I had written anything on the topic, so I dusted the chapter off, and made it a pdf. You can see it here: Irrigation text only

One of  our drip tape shuttles. CREDIT: Luke J Stovall.}

One of our drip tape shuttles. CREDIT: Luke J Stovall.}

 

 

We haven’t changed much since I wrote this, except for twice accidentally buying medium-flow drip tape rather than the low-flow we really like. I just finished separating it all out, and passed the medium-flow tape on to some other growers. We like the low-flow versus the medium-flow drip tape because you can run more at once. Naturally, you need to water for twice as long as with the medium-flow, but that suits us better too. Having two kinds was too confusing!

Stay cool, stay hydrated! Water for growers as well as crops is important.

Qualified praise for biodegradable plastic mulch

Tomato transplants waiting in the cold frame. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Tomato transplants waiting in the cold frame.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We’re having a very busy time in the garden. Because of late cold weather followed by too much rain at once, all our transplanting has been delayed. We’re up-to-date in the permanent raised beds – we’ve planted out lots of lettuce, senposai, early cabbage, scallions, our first cucumbers and summer squash, and chard, tomatoes, eggplant, celery and okra. We’re also up-to-date on raised bed sowings of carrots, turnips, beets, snap peas, snow peas, bush beans, edamame and asparagus beans. But in the row-crop areas, it’s a different story. We have planted out our main-crop cabbage and broccoli, our “spring” potatoes and sown our first corn. We’re about a week behind on our big transplantings of Roma paste tomatoes, peppers, melons, sweet potatoes, and therefore watermelons. It’s also time to sow more beans, cucumbers and squash. But we’re getting to it as fast as we can!

We’ve added in late afternoon transplanting shifts, and some random evening weeding (which has helped us get the first round of carrot and beet thinning done). Yesterday I measured and flagged the areas for Roma tomatoes, peppers, melons, beans, edamame, watermelon, and sweet potatoes. I set out the mainline tubing for the drip irrigation and dropped the shuttles of drip-tape at the ends of the patch. I wrote about our drip tape shuttles a while back. They are part of our commitment to minimize our agricultural plastic usage by making our plastic stuff last. The shuttles let us fairly easily reuse the drip tape.

Re-using drip tape, unreeling it using our shuttle and garden cart system. Photo credit Luke Stovall

Re-using drip tape, unreeling it using our shuttle and garden cart system.
Photo credit Luke Stovall

After running out the drip tape, flushing the lines, capping them off and testing (and fixing!) any leaks, next we’ll roll out biodegradable plastic mulch. This wonderful product has changed our lives! And yet we are not all firmly convinced it is an ecological choice. The language in the accessible information can be confusing.

We like using biodegradable plastic because it warms the soil, leading to much earlier crops, it keeps the weeds down for a few months, and then it falls apart, so we don’t have to remove it and add to the heaps of agricultural plastic trash. It’s especially good for vining crops like watermelons and sweet potatoes, because by the time the mulch disintegrates, the vines cover the ground and weeds have little chance. Why we qualify our praise is because it has been hard to find out what it’s made of, and what it disintegrates into. And for some, there’s that knee-jerk reaction to anything plastic!

Biodegradable is not the same as bioplastic, nor as bio-based. Bioplastics are a type of plastic made from biological substances rather than from petroleum products alone. Some are biodegradable, some are not. Wikipedia distinguishes two types of bioplastics 1. Oxo-biodegradable plastics (made partly from natural sources, with non-biological additives) – they break down into biodegradable materials;  and 2. Plastics made wholly or in part from vegetable material. The second type are often made of cornstarch or sugarcane, but could be made from other agricultural crops. Some biodegrade, others don’t (eg those made from sugarcane ethanol). I found the Wikipedia explanations confusing and some read as if they were funded by petrodollars: “It is difficult to see why . . . resources . . . should be used to produce them when the raw material for conventional plastics is so inexpensive and is available in unlimited quantities.” Really.

I found a European Factsheet on bioplastics which clears some of the confusion. There are conventional (petroleum-based) plastics and there are bioplastics. Bioplastics may be divided into three categories. The first is the bioplastics which are not biodegradable. The other two are biodegradable, and differ in whether or not they contain fossil-based materials or only bio-based materials. Our goal would be to get biodegradable bio-based materials.

The two most commonly available biodegradable plastic mulches in the US are Eco-One and Bio360  from Canada. Novamont, an Italian company, imports Biotelo, the original mulch film made from their product Mater-Bi.

Eco-One describes itself as Oxo-degradable. It claims “Environmentally sound degradation: Laboratory studies indicate that this degradable plastic breaks down into CO2, H2O and biomass without toxic residues. Degrades fully both above and below the soil.” It’s available clear (for encouraging early emergence of sweet corn) and black, including an extended lifespan version for those wanting a 5-6 month window before it degrades, rather than the usual 3-4 months.

Bio360 is made by Dubois. It’s entirely biodegradable, and made from Mater-Bi, a non-genetically-modified starch with vegetable oil resin. Mater-Bi® is a wide family of fully biodegradable bioplastics, sold in pellet form to the industry of bioplastic converters. Mater-Bi®’s ingredients consist of plant starches, “mainly corn starch, with fully biodegradable aliphatic-aromatic polymers from both renewable raw materials (mainly vegetable oils) and fossil raw materials. Mater-Bi breaks down into carbon dioxide and water, with no mulch residues in the soil.” (see also the Cornell University 2006, Biodegradable Mulch Product Testing). Ah! So even Mater-Bi contains some fossil raw materials. And of course, fossil fuels are used in the manufacturing process. Life is so full of trade-offs!

I found explanation of the chemistry from the Biodegradable Products Institute, as part of a 2012 petition to the USDA National Organic Standards Board to allow “Biodegradable Mulch Film Made From Bioplastics”.  The bioplastics they were petitioning for are not polyethylene like regular plastic mulch, but “polyesters, polymers formed by the reaction of a hydroxyl group and a carboxyl group. The natural world is full of ester linkages. Living cells and organisms have developed enzymes to hydrolyze the ester linkage. Examples of natural esters are fats and oils, where three fatty acid molecules are esterified to glycerol/glycerin; natural waxes, where long-chain alcohols are esterified to a fatty acid; and some natural flavors, such as banana flavor, n-amyl acetate, an ester of n-amyl alcohol and acetic acid.” Biodegradable bioplastic mulch film materials can contain carbon black to make the film black to absorb heat from the sun. Or titanium dioxide to create  white mulch, which can cool surface soil temperatures slightly, by reflecting most of the sun’s heat.

NatureWorks‟ PLA INGEO, Ecoflex® F Blend C1200, Ecovio® F Film and Ecovio® F Blend, Mirel™, were also listed in the petition as suitable Biodegradable Mulch Films made from bioplastics. In contrast, oxo-biodegradable materials were not included in their petition, because they did not fulfill the two criteria proposed to address the concept of “fully biodegradable plastics”.

The Organic Standards are inconsistent, as §205.206(c)(1) permits “mulching with fully biodegradable materials” but §205.206(c)(6) requires that “plastic or other synthetic mulches . . . are removed from the field at the end of the growing or harvest season.”

I’ve been buying from Nolt’s Produce Supplies in Leola, PA (717) 656-9764. They sell Bio360 BTB645 4′ x 5000′ for $345 plus shipping, and Eco-One E1B548 4′ x 8000′ for $243 plus shipping. They are a company that doesn’t use email or websites, and they’re closed on major Christian holidays, so don’t call then! Johnny’s sells 32′ lengths for $17.95. Robert Marvel sells whole rolls of Eco-One and Bio360 (call for prices).

The first biodegradable plastic we used was Bio-Telo, (Mater-Bi). Since then we have sometimes bought that and sometimes Eco-One. I had not appreciated the difference. Knowing what I know now, I’ll buy the Mater-Bi types in future, rather than the oxo-biodegradable ones.

Next time I’ll write about how we set out biodegradable mulches without he use of any machines. Sorry for the delay in posting. I’m working on making improvements to my website, honest!