Building Greenhouses within the Shade House

Ducks on grasshopper patrol in shade house.

Ducks on grasshopper patrol in shade house.

Years past, it was possible to keep a cool season garden alive in winter without too much difficulty here in north Texas. But our winters have been getting colder, and the prediction for this year is no different. Last winter we had several bouts of single digit lows and even highs in the teens which is very exceptional here. Temps like that require a lot of protection if I hope to keep a winter garden alive.

This year I plan to fabricate a greenhouse structure within each of the four quadrants of the shade house. My goal is to build greenhouses that can easily be put together, or taken apart and are very durable. My plan is to purchase transparent heavy-duty tarps designed specifically for this purpose. I can hang them up within the frame work of the shade house, making tents.

I also plan to put together black plastic 55 gallon barrels attached to a thermo-siphon powered solar water heating system that I will build. And I will surround these with a woven wire trellis to support peas and maybe even beans if the temps stay warm enough next to them. And I want to create “hot beds” that will naturally keep the plants warm:

If everything works out as I hope, I won’t need to purchase transplants next year but will be able to grow my own tomato, pepper and other warm season seedlings. And I should be able to grow potatoes during the winter months when they actually will do much better (too hot in summer for them). It is my hope that the whole system will be low maintenance and passively heated. I plan to share pictures as I get this together.

The company I ordered the transparent heavy-duty tarps from:

Hugelkulture Beds in the Shade House Garden

This spring, I decided to add hugelkulture beds in the shade house, cover with aged manure, biochar, compost and then top off with a thick layer of wood mulch.

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This summer was extraordinarily busy in that I was caught up in a high priority labor intensive building project (including natural building techniques such as straw-clay, earth plaster, and cob,–another post). June and July were exceptionally wet. But August was hot and dry like most Texas summers. I did not have time to water at all, and the hugelkulture worked! The garden survived the worst of a Texas summer without care on my part and now I am still harvesting sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, cow peas, basil, etc. The only thing that didn’t make it to the fall was the squash. The exceptional rain of the early summer led to a horrible infestation of squash bugs which I was not able to deal with. But still, I got a good harvest of squash that is still in storage, even now.

Last year I piled wood mulch in various areas of the property, and in one area, I threw on compost including rotting squash from last year. The seeds from that sprouted this year and the squash plants grew vigorously without watering or care and produced additional fruit for us and the livestock. I am totally sold on the value of hugelkulture in an extreme wet/dry climate like north Texas.

Volunteer squash growing wild in the compost/wood mulch without care.

Volunteer squash growing wild in the compost/wood mulch without care.



Wild volunteer squash growing in wood mulch.

Wild volunteer squash growing in wood mulch.

Pictures of this year’s shade house garden:

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Growing Sweet Potatoes From Tubers Verses Slips

This year I planted sweet potato tubers (organic from a local store) in April and slips from a local nursery in late May. There was quite a difference in progress by the first week of June.

First week of June: Tuber slips planted as soon as they were available in late May.

First week of June: Sweet potato slips planted as soon as they were available in late May.

First week of June: Tubers planted in April.

First week of June: Tubers planted in April.

Now that I am harvesting, the sweet potatoes I planted from tubers are much more developed than the ones I planted from slips. I have successfully over-wintered sweet potatoes before. I plan to leave some in the ground, mulch heavily, and let them sprout when they are ready in the spring, well before when the “experts” think they should be planted, They seem to know best when to come up and grow on their own.

Here is a good article on over-wintering English potatoes. I plan to do that as well.



Our New Mealworm Farm

When I expanded the livestock barn to include a new poultry house, I also decided to build a mealworm farm.


This summer I experimented with growing mealworms in a variety of grain as well as dried sheep/goat manure. The only example of another person attempting to grow meal worms in manure online that I could find was in Florida. In that case, the experiment took place in plastic bins, inside a garage in a very humid climate and it failed due to mold killing the worms. North Texas is generally drier, my farm was in an open-sided barn where summer breezes regularly cross-ventilated the worm beds.

You cannot see the meal worms but I can feel them crawling!

You cannot see the meal worms but I can feel them crawling!

I am very happy to say, that in my case, the manure beds were by far, the most successful in raising the worms. I was extraordinarily busy this summer and had no time at all to feed the worms fruit or vegetables. Whatever moisture they got came from the air and their nourishment came completely from the bedding. So in my case, I believe the manure provided the best balance of moisture and nourishment, in the case of complete neglect on my part, while not leading to mold because of the good cross ventilation. The grain attracted moths and grain beetles so I really want to transition away from that. The only negative with the set-up is that it did attract spiders, including a black widow or two (I think the moths encouraged them). But I hadn’t had time to screen the side either (the doors are completely screened). Hopefully next year, with it finished, I will be better able to keep the spiders out.

I will be able to use the meal worms to feed the bullhead catfish in the aquaponics systems as well as supplement the poultry for an added treat.




Our new poultry house

We, unfortunately, have had some difficulty with our next door neighbor. And our poultry going into her yard has made it worst. I like the idea of free range poultry because they eat less commercial feed, have more nutritious eggs, eat grasshoppers (a real problem here), ticks, black widows, scorpions and all sorts of creepy nasties. They have also, amazingly, completely eliminated the poison oak from the front of our property. I guess their scratching did the trick. Anyway, our neighbor doesn’t appreciate all these great benefits and it got to the point where we had to do something, quick. I couldn’t take the stress anymore.

I also had to build something big, because our flock is big, especially the Muscovy ducks. So I ended up building a 20’x30′ partially covered enclosure for them attached to our livestock barn.

Though it was under stressful circumstances that this was built, in the end, I am very grateful for having it. I can easily find eggs, I don’t have to worry about predators or the birds flying off the property, and I can develop a sustainable organic, non-gmo fodder production system for them using duckponics, soldier fly composting, and home grown mealworms. It is also much easier to keep track and harvest birds as the population grows.

I do worry about the poison oak and other unpleasant arachnids and insects coming back. But we still have a few birds free that we haven’t been able to catch yet. Maybe, as long as they can keep out of the neighbor’s yard, they can keep the bugs and poison oak in check.

Here are some links that I found especially helpful:

Five gallon bucket nesting boxes

Growing meal worms

Soldier fly composter

Permaculture News: How to set up aquaponics with ducks








Home-made Ollas (clay pot) irrigation


The benefits of Ollas irrigation: here an here.

I used 1/2 inch PVC pipe fitting and selected the clay pots that fits the fittings. I am using these Ollas pots both for trees and garden irrigation. My plan is to utilize a flow-through irrigation, using water from recycled ibc tote tanks filled with catfish. Here is an example of drip irrigation successfully being done using water originally  from a well, flowing through catfish tanks then on to the fields.












shade house 2

The IBC Tote tanks holding catfish that will be connected to Ollas for flow through irrigation.

I just finished the Geoff Lawton Online Permaculture Design Certification Course

And passed! It was a huge undertaking, but doing it online was the only way it could be possible in my circumstances. I am just too busy to attend a major course like this in person. I already knew quite a bit about permaculture and how to use permaculture principles on our farm before the course. But still, I learned a tremendous amount from it and am very grateful for taking it. That experience will hopefully transform our farm into something completely sustainable and self-sufficient for our most necessary needs.

I haven’t made much progress this year in planting fodder trees because I need to build swales first, which will help them establish better and survive our hot and dry summers. And I learned how to do that through this permaculture course. An example of what can be done with swales in a hot arid climate can be found here:

We also got a very important piece of infrastructure in, a solar powered well, with a 900 gallon tank, near where I want to plant the fodder trees. This will allow continuous drip irrigation in the summer to also help them get established.

I have managed to collect the seeds I want for this purpose: tree lucerne, mulberry, honey mesquite, honey locust, I also built a shade house that will allow them to grow a year or two in pots without being burned to death by the hot sun. I just need to buy a heat mat to get them started indoors this winter so that I can put them in pots in the spring and into the shade house by summer. While they are growing in pots, I will be digging swales, no small task.

Another fodder system I plan to build, which will be the primary system until the trees are established enough to harvest from, is a sprout fodder system. You can buy these for a considerable amount of money. But it is my plan to build an aquaponics system that will allow me to sprout barley grain. I will sow barley grain each day in enough trays to provide a day’s worth of feeding. And in seven days, I will feed it to them. This system can also work for horses. Though barley is not recommended for horses, once it is sprouted, it is considered very safe and nutritionally dense and can replace a significant portion of their hay. Cost-wise, it is significantly cheaper. They do need some low quality hay for roughage. But in our case, we usually have enough of that in the pasture. We just don’t have much green grass during the hot summer. The nice thing about recirculating aquaponics, is that its water use is actually very low compared to conventional agriculture.

As I see the pasture improve and we are able to use more of our own fodder trees, I plan to transition this aquaponics system to growing mints and sweet potato greens. These are very fast growers, high in protein. I do not know if they grow biomass as fast as barley sprouts. I would like to experiment to see. But they are a more sustainable, long-term perennial option for us since we won’t need to purchase grain for sprouting. And they do grow very fast.

UPDATE: But after watching these videos;

I now realize I won’t be able to maintain the desirable 60-65 degree temperature range for growing barley sprouts year round. Growing mints and (in summer) additional sweet potato greens will be more practical in my situation. I want to build a large fodder growing system in a new greenhouse. But it will be a while before I can do that so I plan to build a smaller 16-20′ one attached to the shade house. I will build two 2′ wide levels 16-20′ long using sun-resistant organic certified pond liner that I can purchase from an aquaponics store locally. The fish tanks are already in place there as a part of a flow-through drip system to the shade house garden. I will incorporate them for this too.

shadehouse garden           shade house 2

The shade house I built this year. You can see the IBC-tote fish tanks in back, containing bullhead catfish. I will attach the fodder grow beds to the frame outside of the shade house. There is enough shade cloth to cover the additional beds, protecting the mints from the hot summer sun. I am also planting mint in the 50 gallon tanks above the IBC fish tanks.

And another inspiring video by Geoff Lawton (you can sign up for all his free videos here):

And about his very inspiring Zaytuna Farm: