Cleaning Rainwater

rainwater filter

There are various strategies for keeping the rainwater in your tanks clean, including filters, “roof washers” and so forth.  No matter what though, you find that the water collects debris over time — especially when it’s stored for a  while.  Of course, it will be cleaned by sediment, carbon and ultraviolet filters before use, but the dirtier the water in the storage tank, the more often those filters must be cleaned or replaced.  It sure would be nice to keep the water in the tanks relatively clean.

Borrowing an idea from the swimming pool industry, why not circulate and filter the water from pool filtertime-to-time?  This seemed pretty easy to do, and I found a canister-style pool filter on eBay that seemed just right.  With the addition of an ultraviolet filter intended for pond service and a small pump used to circulate water in a hot tub, all the elements were present.  How to hook it up?  I knew I would be adding a second tank to my north tank farm, and I also wanted to be able to transfer water from one tank to the other.  Finally, and most importantly, I wanted both tanks to fill in parallel during heavy rain so that my collection capacity was increased.  Waste not, want not!

A scheme involving several valves and pipes evolved.  Five distinct “modes” of operation were identified: “rainwater fill”, ”use old tank”, “use new tank”, “transfer from old to new”, and “transfer from new to old”.  By clicking on the  graphic to the right, a schematic for each of the modes can be seen.  The white disks with an “x” represent closed valves.

In “rainwater fill”, water coming from the roof through a 4-inch pipe fills one tank while two 2-inch pipes connect both tanks together.  As the level in one tank rises, it forces water into the other and they fill together.  “Use old tank” supplies water from just one tank to the house and landscape water system.  “Use new tank” does the same from the other.

“Transfer old to new” and its opposite provides the filtering function.  In each case, water from one tank is forced through a cartridge filter and ultraviolet system by a small pump before flowing into the other tank.  valvesNot only does this clean the water, it allows one to drain a tank for service.  It is also possible to simply circulate water through the filter system and back into the same tank.

The picture at left shows the system as it is today — not quite complete.  The three valves (red handles, two large and one small) will ultimately be connected between the two tanks and the filter system.  The 4-inch pipe coming from the roof is also visible.

When complete, the system will provide a lot of flexibility for capturing, storing, cleaning, and using rainwater.

Penning the Plants

Simpson Lettuce

stock panel binIn an earlier post, I alluded to “bins” or “pens” That I constructed in the greenhouse.  Something of a cross between a raised bed and a giant pot, these miniature gardens are very efficient, and easy to construct.  Here’s how:

Start by getting some small “T” posts (the kindcommonly used to anchor erosion fencing) and some kind of rigid fencing.  Stock panels are ideal for this purpose, and are easy to find in ranch supply stores like Tractor Supply.

stock panel detail

They typically come in 10 foot by 20 foot pieces, with 2 and 4-inch wire spacing.  A medium-sized bolt cutter is handy to cut the panels.

Determine how big you want your “pens” to be.  I decided that a 4-foot square was just right — big enough to hold lots of plants while not-so-big to reach across.  That size also worked out well in my 12-foot by 20-foot greenhouse.  The pens are about 30 inches tall — enough for a couple feet of dirt with room above for deeper soil if that’s called for later.  Once you’ve decided on a size, pound the “T” posts at intervals around the desired outline of the pen.  I used a post in each corner and one in the middle of each panel — 8 posts in all.  Remember, dirt, water and plants can be heavy, and you want the sides of the pen to be relatively rigid.  Now, line the pen with some kind of organic material to contain the soil.

bin detail

Bales of pine needles are available at one of our local nurseries and they are attractive, while containing the soil well.  Many other materials are possible however — use what you have or can obtain easily.   I found it easier to line the bottom first with a few inches of pine needles going up the sides and then adding dirt.  More pine needles up the side, more dirt, and so on until you reach the desired depth of soil.  Now you’re ready to plant!

I started with swiss chard, radishes, beets, bok choy, broccolini, malabar spinach, lettuce and mustard greens.  It was the end of January, and still cold at night.  We don’t get a lot of cold weather in the Texas Hill country each year, but enough that I was still using the propane heater a little each night.

swiss chard

With propane-aided 50-degree nights and sunshine-aided 80-degree days, the plants grow quickly.  There were radishes by mid-March, with the greens becoming usable shortly after that.  It’s also easy to regulate the water in a greenhouse — something that encourages rapid growth.  The little battery-powered water timersavailable at most home improvement stores are perfect for this application.  A little water delivered consistently twice a day is perfect.

And how did they taste?  Great!  I’ve had lettuce, greens, chard and radishes all spring — long before there was any produce available in the garden. What a great way to keep fresh produce through the winter months!

The Greenhouse “Flowers”


The greenhouse has been in operation for a couple of months now, and beginning to show some results.  Since this is my first real experience with one, I’m learning as I go along, and there are some surprises along the way.  For one thing, it is very efficient at gathering heat on sunny days.


We’ve had a warmer than normal winter with a couple of days even making it into the 90’s during February and March. There’s usually 20-50 degrees difference between the inside and outside temperature on a sunny day, so the interior temperature of the greenhouse has reached 120 degrees or more on the warmest days.  This is true even with the thermostatically-controlled vent and fan.  As a result, I’ve gotten into the habit of opening one or both doors on those days when it will be above about 70 degrees outside.

Along with the heat, it’s been very dry and windy.  This means I’ve had to water more often since the wind really dries plants out quickly, but it has been gratifying to see the greenhouse withstand winds of over 50 miles per hour!  The plants seem to thrive in spite of the heat however.

simpson lettuce

The hibiscus shown at the top of this page was rescued from the front porch just before  the hard freezes in January  and just produced its first flower the other day.  The veggies in the large “bins” are growing quickly also.  Soon there will be lettuce, greens, chard, beets and radishes for dinner!

Brindle and P.T. are very curious about all this of course.  Since the greenhouse has been closed for most of the winter, they’re not sure going inside is wise — “what y’all doing in there?” seems to be their question . . .

Brindle & PT

A Commercial Greenhouse

This morning marks the completion of a long-standing project here at the ranch. You may recall the construction of a greenhouse last year, one made of PVC and plastic sheeting. Well, now for the rest of the story: it was completed early in December of 2006 and blew away (yes, literally) while I was away on a ski trip in February. It was securely anchored to the ground, but the high straight winds we often get here at the ranch get the better of it, and it disintegrated right before my neighbor’s amazed eyes. I heard all about it when I got back from the trip.

This is take two. Sometime during the year, I got a catalog from Grower’s Supply. After pondering the various models (there are literally hundreds!), a commercial structure made of steel tubing, polycarbonate panel and multiple layers of dense plastic sheeting seemed the way to go. I settled on a 16 foot by 20 foot version, with an 8 foot maximum height. Quite a bit larger than the destroyed, home-built version. It arrived by truck on December 4th, and I began work the following weekend.

Initially, I imagined that a weekend or two of effort would result in a finished greenhouse, but the foundation alone (a dozen 2-foot, 1 5/8-inch steel pipes sunk into the caliche) took a whole weekend. The video above tells the rest of the story in pictures so you can see how the whole process went. Enjoy, but beware the file size (about 27 mBytes).

The Greenhouse (part 2)

greenhouse complete

Saturday dawned clear and warm.  The perfect day for completing the greenhouse!  I had a nearly square frame to use for the foundation, done the previous weekend, and now it was time to level the ground and anchor the frame.

The site was nearly level, so small adjustments would be sufficient.  This is an important consideration in the Hill Country, since we have levellittle top soil and digging in the “caliche” (a kind of soft limestone rock/soil) is difficult.  I proceeded with an old-fashioned pick axe and a carpenter’s level.

Since the pick-axe blade was about four inches wide, the channel it cut in the ground made a perfect bed for the PVC frame, and I didn’t have to remove much caliche.

Next, I needed to fix the frame to the ground in some way.  Since the greenhouse would be very light weight and covered with plastic, it would make an excellent “sail”.  With the substantial straight winds we get out here, the greenhouse would simply blow away if I didn’t take precautionary steps.  Also, I intended to flex the ribs in slightly when joining them to the ridge pole, and the PVC frame would bow out at the sides if not anchored.

spike anchor

One of my many trips to the hardware store revealed a good solution — 12” spikes (essentially big nails), washers and “stretch” wire. The wire is commonly used in fencing around here, and can be twisted and bent into a variety of shapes.  By sinking spikes at intervals along the PVC frame sides, and then twisting a piece of wire to join the pipe and spikes together, I was able to create a stout anchor system for the greenhouse.  So far, so good.

Next, the sides.  I started by cutting several lengths of PVC and laying them, along with the needed connectors, into the center of the frame. pvc uprightsThe length of the uprights wasn’t critical,I was just going for a pleasing shape when the structure was all done.  Each pipe was then glued into one of the “T” joints in the frame using “wet/dry” PVC cement.  There are several grades of PVC cement, and the “wet/dry” version (commonly colored blue) is easy to use because it doesn’t require the use of a “primer” (the purple stuff) to adhere to pipe.  Using it reduces the gluing process to one step.  Short horizontal pieces were added at the top of each upright using “T” and “cross” connectors to stiffen everything up.  A structure was starting to emerge.

The “rafters” were next.  This had been given a lot of thought, and using a single ridge pole with sections of pipe flexed pvc uprights and topsinto it to create a kind of “A” frame shape, that seemed the simplest way to go.  I started by laying all the parts out to make sure I had all the pieces.  After cutting of the pipe, I started gluing each rafter together.  It’s worth noting that the hardest part of all this is cutting the pipe.  I recommend getting a good PVC tubing cutter, a pliers-like cross and 45 connectorsdevice that cuts PVC quickly and easily.  It speeds up the entire project quite a bit and takes most of the effort out of what I consider the worst task.

Time to connect the ridgepole into the walls.  My idea was to flex sections of PVC from the top of each wall upright into the corresponding ridgepole partial roofconnector.  The first couple of connections went pretty smoothly, but it was clear that I was stretching the pipe and connectors quite a bit.  I would have to be careful if I wanted to avoid sudden failure of the ridge joints.  A bit more work and I had it.  The structure was complete, and ready for the plastic covering.

I was planning to use heavy(6 mil) plastic,full roofthe type normally used by contractors for creating dust barriers on remodeling projects.  It’s not very expensive, and can be replaced every season if necessary.  Incidentally, I plan to replace the plastic in the spring with 50% shade cloth.  That way, I can get double-use out of the greenhouse to provide shade and  “harden” seedlings before transplanting them into the direct sunlight of the garden.

Attaching the plastic to the PVC frame proved a bit tricky.  I had already thought of taking short lengths of trapped plasticthe thin-wall pipe, and cutting a small section lengthwise so that it could be flexed over the frame with the plastic trapped underneath.  But by Sunday, I got up to discover that half of the plastic have worked it’s way loose in the wind, I knew some refinement was needed to my plan.  Self-tapping sheet metal screws proved to be the answer, since they added that last little bit of strength to capture and hold the plastic to the frame.  The screws can be added to the PVC easily since they will drill their own hole.  One easy step!

I was nearly done.  The addition of plastic to the front and dirt floorback followed by some “gorilla” tape at the seams made for a nearly air-tight structure.  Since I was running out of daylight, and I needed to get plants out of the cold, I skimped on the door, opting instead for a “tent-flap” opening sealed with spring-loaded clamps.  One last step: a plastic ground cover and a thick layer of shredded hardwood mulch on the floor and around the outside perimeter.   Besides making a nice surface on the floor, it would help “seal” the greenhouse down to the ground.  Incidentally, I left the plastic long on all four sides to that it draped  the open for businessoutside ground by about a foot — a place for the mulch to “anchor” the plastic to the ground.  “P.T”  made a final inspection of the project.

I was expecting cold, but not freezing weather that night.  A good chance for a test!  Some time before, I found a nifty “recording” thermometer at a surplus two thermometersstore, and thought this would be the perfect application of the specialized device.  It consists of a dial-type analog thermometer with two additional pointers that can be adjusted.  By placing them close to the actual thermometer pointer, they are moved along as the temperature varies leaving a record of the high and low extents.  One would go inside the greenhouse and the other would stay outside

Time to move the plants inside.  plants in the greenhouseSome inexpensive plastic shelving multiplied the floor space and provided different levels for small and large pots.  In theory, the warmest parts of the greenhouse would be off the ground, so I planned to favor the most temperature sensitive plants and put them on shelves ( or at least off the ground some).  There were quite a few, so by the time I finished, the space was nicely filled.  A 1500 watt, oil-filled, electric space heater completed the for the night

The following morning, I looked at the thermometers and found that a temperature difference of a few degrees resulted.  Just enough for typical winter conditions around here.  While this simple structure wouldn’t help those with extended below-freezing periods, it is just the ticket for protecting plants from the occasional freeze.  Mission accomplished!

The Greenhouse (part 1)

first greenhouse

One of the problems we have periodically here in the Hill Country are hard freezes.  Given the length and heat of the summers, it’s a surprise to some and it catches many off-guard.  Folks with tropical plants in their gardens for example, might lose everything in a single night — one that is preceded and followed by warm weather.

This was a struggle at Roy Creek Ranch for years.  The first couple of seasons, I resorted to heroic measures in an attempt to save this plant or that bush — eventually accepting that you can’t save everything.  Perhaps there was a smarter way.

My friend Joe had the right idea.  Having grown up in Indiana, he knew it would get cold, and that specific steps had to be taken to “winter over” a few prized plants.  His solution was a simple greenhouse.

joes greenhouseGreenhouses can be very elaborate, and I had looked into them from time to time.  From my point of view, they were simply too extravagant for Roy Creek Ranch.  Joe’s design was different however.  He devised a simple “rib” design, one that could be duplicated easily, and connected several of them to make a “quonset hut” like structure.  Not only that, but he covered his greenhouse with only heavy plastic. Because the freezes here tend to be short-lived, simple protection was sufficient.  Now this was a practical idea!

joes greenhouse interiorI began to give it some thought.  The wooden rib design Joe used was more elaborate than needed — I wanted something that could be completed in a single weekend and at low cost.  Finally, it occurred to me — PVC pipe!  It’s easy to work with, low cost, and can be made in an endless variety of shapes.  After experimenting with various sizes and thicknesses of pipe, I decided to make the greenhouse spine with 1-inch thin-wall (200 PSI) pipe.  At about a $1.75 per 10 foot length, and with ample flexibility, it seemed like the perfect choice.

Next, I needed a plastic skin.  A trip to the home improvement store revealed that the heavier plastics (6 mil) came in 10 foot widths and at least 25 foot lengths.  These sizes would help determine the size since I wanted to have as few seams to seal as possible.  I sketched a rough design on a piece of paper, made a bill of materials, and went back to the store.  About $125 was needed to get the initial material.

greenhouse base

Construction began late on a Sunday.  We’d already had a hard freeze, and I was feeling some pressure to get it built since the plants I intended to keep all winter were sheltered on the porch surrounded with tarps, etc.  They had survived the first freeze, but there was damage and I knew that another one would finish them off.

The first step was to lay out the “foundation” — a footprint of roughly 9′ 6″ by 10′ 2″. No special magic here — by keeping the depth less than 10 feet, I could use one piece of plastic to cover the roof and two sides.  Given a bit more thought, I would have realized that the same thing applied to the width.

corner detail

That way, it would have been simpler to cover the two ends.  Oh well, a little improv is always good in a construction project.  The corners were tricky.  I stood in the plumbing aisle for quite a while looking for a PVC part with three connections that would work for the corner.  Finally I spotted a “corner tap”.I glued up the four sides of the foundation and called it a night.  Salvation for the plants would have to wait for one more week.

2006 Harvest Classic

The Harvest Classic, recognized by the readers of Ride Texas Magazine as one of the top 10 rallies in Texas, is in scenic Luckenbach, Texas (near Fredericksburg). Organized by Central Texas Motorcycle Charities, this gathering of Classic and European motorcycles raises money for Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation. We welcome anyone who enjoys classic motorcycles (from any country!) and scooters and above all, a good time.

The Pond

I began the pond project on April 9, 2006.  It’s gone through many changes, and continues to change.  Here’s a snapshot of the pond up to early June . . .