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Hoop-house Gardening

As promised, we are starting with the first post about winter farm activities, and it is one of our personal favorites. 

We began hoop house, or tunnel gardening after I bought Eliot Coleman’s book, The Four Season Harvest, as a Christmas present for my spouse.  We started our first hoop house that January, a small structure, only 12×16 feet, made of PVC pipe and some boards.  By March we were enjoying salad, radishes, and cilantro.  That winter may have been a warmer winter than most, but we were sincerely impressed with our first attempt.

Inside first hoophouse.  First year.  This also gives a good look at the PVC bracing for do-it-yourselfers who want to make one for yourselves.

Inside first hoophouse. First year. This also gives a good look at the PVC bracing for do-it-yourselfers who want to make one for yourselves.

That little structure is now gone and has been replaced by two sturdier versions made of bent fencing and a wood “foundation.”  Both are set directly on the ground and we plant directly in the soil.  We have one layer of agricultural plastic on one and two layers on the other.  Each layer is supposed to give us approximately one more agricultural growth zone, but we find that the extra layer actually reduces the amount of sunlight, so you don’t actually get two full zones.  Meduseld is in a 6b agricultural zone, and we are not getting to 8b with the extra layer.  We find that the plants in the one layer house seem to do better, and when the weather warms, we will reduce the other to one layer as well.

We have been working on amending the soil gradually and I wish we had focused on this more during construction phase.  We have still had to contend with insects and less than ideal growth at times, and we think this is due to the fact that we did not follow all Mr. Coleman’s advice about soil amendments, especially copious amounts of compost.  Over the years, we have gotten better at composting, and hopefully this will pay off.

None-the-less we have enjoyed chard, lettuce, fresh herbs, brassicas, every year since but one.  That year was exceptionally cold and there was not enough sunlight to warm the soil during the day.   We could have resorted to heating the tunnels, but that seems contrary to what we are trying to achieve – namely growing produce without consuming non-renewable energy.

Hoop houses are wonderful for rotating “crops” and for extending growing seasons.  There is also no waste.  Anything that does not do well,  becomes overgrown, or gets insects, becomes chicken feed.  We see this as a win/win situation even if we can’t put something on our table – we’re certain the chickens are glad for fresh greens in the middle of the winter, or as the case today, right after a snow storm.

Mr. Coleman’s book had excellent charts with plants that can be grown during the winter months and that are tolerant to cold temperatures.  We strongly recommend this book and it is available in the Meduseld Amazon store.