Progress in the Potato Patch

I thought I’d provide an update on what we’ve been up to for the CSA this year at Sunflower Farm.

This is, of course from the perspective of the “I hate to buy new stuff/hoarder/make due with what I have/reuse/repurpose” person who runs the joint. I am honestly to the point where I experience a negative physical reaction when I am forced to purchase new things, so whenever I can make use of what I have on hand, I’m up for for it.

For instance I have a tote for water storage that I got from a neighbor 4 or 5 years ago and it was probably already 5 years old at least at that time. You can tell it’s one of the older ones because the external metal cage is made of steel rather than aluminum. Over time plastic gets brittle and last fall as I attempted to remove a hose out of this one the whole water delivery extension broke off … and the tote was full of water. As sad I was to see it break, I felt a childlike joy watching the water gush out of that sucker. ‘Come Ma quick!, the dam has bust!”

With the force of the water in a full tote there was no way to repair that section. So I tipped in on its side, and drilled a new hole in the top, screwed a tap into it, and now it’s working fine. Now, I will qualify that I practiced a number of times on the top (near the break) because there is an art to screwing a brass threaded tap into plastic. I have done it before, but if you drill the hole too small … it won’t fit … too big and it leaks. This time I got it just right and the repair bought me another year or two to use this one. Just one less hunk of plastic at a landfill.




Two years ago my neighbor Sandy gave me an old portable garage frame that had crumpled under some heavy wet snow that hit unexpectedly a couple of Novembers ago. This was the same heavy wet snowstorm that bent my PVC hoop house like a fine leather horse saddle. Luckily my PVC bounced back, but this metal did not. So I bent some of the steel and asked my other neighbour Ken to weld a few of the places where it had broken.

Then when the grocery store in town was replacing the plastic on their greenhouse that they use to sell plants from in the spring, I of course was first in line for the old plastic. And yes, I could probably scrape together some money to afford a new greenhouse, but why buy a shiny new thing when you can hack together something that looks like crap, but is functional nonetheless?

So last year I threw the plastic over the garage and had a greenhouse. Turns out the plastic was way too long. Plus I had only put one door in the greenhouse which just wasn’t enough during really hot spells to get proper ventilation. So this spring I moved the metal frame, then doubled the size with my own “wooden” supports, fashioned, obviously from scrap from my neighbor Don’s millwork business. If you were thinking that I’m probably getting a reputation as a scrounger in my part of the woods, you would be absolutely correct ….”Who ya gonna call…”

The greenhouse is now twice as big as it was last year and has doors in each end. The new section I built is big enough for the rototiller to fit through so I can actually till inside the greenhouse. Sometimes my brain hurts with my ingenuity. Is there an “Inventors Hall of Fame” I should nominate myself for? A “Scroungers Hall of Fame?”

Regardless, the greenhouse seems huge and every time I walk in I say… “I did this!” I should’ve made the door even wider to fit my inflated head through.

new greenhouse metal frame


One of the other experiments I’m trying this summer relates to our melons. We are far enough north that I am challenged to have much success with melons, water or musk…i.e. cantaloupes. We just don’t seem to have quite enough heat, or else I keep picking the wrong cultivars.

Our main garden surrounds a huge granite rock outcropping. As I do so often, I saw this a bad thing. I had expanded the gardens close to it, but still had a ‘weed death zone’ where grass and weeds would encroach on the garden. So last fall I got Ken and his tractor to push that expanse of weedy mess into the garden. I hacked and dragged out all the weeds and grass and was left with some good soil. So now the garden goes right to the rock.

On a hot sunny day that granite really absorbs the heat. So I put all the melons in hills around it, hoping they may like that heat, and even get a little latent heat kicked back out on those cool nights we often have. What d’ya say… is this a brilliant concept or what?

And as an even bigger bonus about the whole process, I now have a big rain collection area, so when it rains, all this additional moisture drains down the rock into the surrounding soil, improving its water retention potential, which when you’re growing “water” melons I’m thinking is a pretty big deal. Sometimes my ability to turn a bad situation into a good one is just amazing!

rock for heat

We’ll see how this goes. I planted my first garden in the subsoil clay of a subdivision in Burlington Ontario when I was 16. So I’ve been putting seeds in the ground for 40 years now. Every year I try some new things and every year I get a little bit better. When I plant my last seed at 92 (or 58, we’ll see that goes) I will in fact be the most knowledgeable food grower in this part of the world, in eons. The daughter of our late neighbor Florabelle will dispute this fact I assume. No one will know, except me. But is there a “Food Growers Hall of Fame” I could get nominated for?

If my melons are fabulous this fall, rest assured you, along with our CSA members will be the first to know. If you never hear about this experiment again, I’m sure you figure out the rest. A million other factors will influence how well those melons grow, but at least I feel I’ve given it my best shot to tilt the odds in their favor. Heaven knows with the way our crazy weather is going, the odds seemed to be constantly stacked against those producing food.

Meanwhile, I shall keep my eyes and ears open for the next best thing someone is going to throw out, so that I can incorporate it into our food production system. I am blessed that my amazing wife will just roll her eyes at me, accept the chaos, and not leave lock and stock and barrel back to the comforts and organization of suburbia. I am a lucky man.

* * * * * *

Thanks to T.H. for his recent generous and most welcome donation! I think you can tell from Cam’s various posts that donations are never wasted on new items when something used can be repurposed!

7 Responses to “Progress in the Potato Patch”

  • Musia:

    Howdy howdy Cam

    It’s been a long time since I wrote. I was planning on sending you some cool seeds and totally forgot until just now – not melon but a type of squash that is fantastically sweet and can be stored (proper cellar conditions) for two years.
    The squash is called HOPI GREY SQUASH and each can grow twice the size of a rugby ball ( shaped like one too but fatter in the middle)

    The CSA we are part of here just outside Ottawa ( called Rock n Horse) grows them at my humble request. I think the two of you and your CSA will love them. The squash is an American Heirloom and I originally got the seeds from Iackie Clay-Atkinson in Minnesota. (Backwoods bloher ‘ask Jackie ‘

    I will send you seeds ASAP and again in the fall once we harvest and dry the seeds.

  • Jim:

    Cam I beat you in poking seeds into the ground. I remember doing it at 4 so that is 61 years ago.
    When the plastic in your tote (we call them IBC’s here in Oz) totally gives out, you can reuse the steel frame. I use one as a small cubic metre wood shed now, the wood stays in the sun during summer then covered up with a tarp as winter and wet approaches to keep it nice and dry for winter use.
    Your use of the big rock to absorb heat and passively heat your melon patch at night sounds good to me. Just hope you have a nice short season variety to harvest. The other thing you can do is where you grow your seeds, cover them at night with some sort of frost protection (I use plastic tree guards for young trees) a couple of weeks or so earlier than you would normally plant which gives the new plants a good start. You can even just put the cover around them at night for the first few weeks so they get going faster too.
    I don’t think you need a bigger doorway into the hothouse. I am sure you are a modest man with lots of good ideas….and prepared to have a go…….anyway join the club.

  • Andrea:

    The Minnesota Midget Melon is a personal size melon for northern climates. I’ve had one and love it. I grow them in fall in Texas as the summer is too hot. It’s a short season melon.

  • Lula Johns:

    Great post! Love those scrounging ideas! Nothing better than finding a good bargain or re-purposing something. Maybe a coat of white paint would make the tote last longer especially if its in the sun. Water picks up chemicals from plastic if its heated. You could plant a clematis or some type of vining plant in honour of your long-suffering wife (tee hee) Of course your melons could go up that frame too. Keep writing! You capture many of our own trials and triumphs. Thanks you!

  • Hey you guys…. great post as always. We got one of those big plastic cubes from a friend and used it the whole time we were building the house to use the water to mix the plaster for the straw bale walls. Now we have it parked beside the kitchen garden gate up on a stack of pallets. Still working after our 6 years here. We also had a couple of the “town” rain barrels but ours were from Newmarket. Both of them broke within 2 years and alas are in the landfill as there was really nothing that we could do with them.
    While I am happy to make do on many occasions, when it came time to put the raised beds in the garden, (the only way to combat the perennial weeds/wildflowers), we opted to spring for brand spanking new wood boards from a local mill. 2 x 8 Hemlock. They tell us that the boards should outlast us as all the docks on the Big Rideau Lake are made of Hemlock and most are over 100 years old. True or not? Who knows. Fingers crossed they are correct.
    Cheers, Melanie

  • Neil B. (Orleans):

    Great post Cam! Funny comment Michelle!

    I purchased a food grade tote this year and am collecting rain water to use in the garden. It is great in the amount of extra rain water I can now collect. However, I noticed that it comes with a plastic spot and was disappointed that it wasn’t brass…however I will now remember your tip on how to re-purpose it with a brass tap (I do keep it out of the sun to protect – the tap faces north…I had to use the “Cam ingenuity method” to think of this…resulting in a longer lasting tote…
    I have many other rain barrels. The last ones I purchased and scrounged All have brass taps…however, my last rain barrel is from the City of Ottawa…I got it from my daughter who doesn’t want it anymore. Although it is the newest of the rain barrels, it already is broken because it has a plastic tap…when the City of Ottawa decided to sell rain barrels at a discount…good idea…when they sold them with plastic tap…very bad idea…they didn’t use the “Cam ingenuity method” in selecting the right rain barrel…anyway I will be purchasing a brass tap for it soon so it can be re-purposed.
    Thanks for the tip Cam!

  • Tricia:

    Great ideas! I’m beginning to learn that every time I spend money on my garden, it’s mostly wasted. Between the millions of slugs, groundhogs, and squirrels I think I had better start adapting without spending…I’ve ultimately spent thousands of dollars so this dang groundhog can have gourmet organic lettuce. I did not know I loved animals so much?

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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