Sowing hoophouse winter crops

New spinach seedlings in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

We are on our way with our late fall, winter and early spring crops in the hoophouse. On September 6 and 7 we sowed five crops in our first bed – spinach, tatsoi, Bulls Blood beet greens, radishes and scallions. On September 15 we sowed lettuces, chard, pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy, in an outdoor bed to be transplanted into the hoophouse in a few weeks, after we’ve prepared another bed.

Broadfork from Way Cool Tools.
Photo Way Cool Tools

To prepare hoophouse beds for winter crops, we first remove the summer crops to the compost pile, then spread a generous layer of compost over the surface. We use about five wheelbarrowsful for one bed 4’ x 90’. Next we move the three lengths of drip tape off to one side or the other, and broadfork the whole area. We have an all-steel broadfork from Way Cool Tools that we really like. To use a broadfork, work backwards either going the length of the bed or the width. Stab the tines into the soil and step on the crossbar, holding the long handles. Step from foot to foot until the bar touches the soil, with the tines all the way in, then step off backwards, pulling the handles towards you. This loosens a big area of soil, which hopefully crumbles into chunks. Lift the broadfork and set it back in the soil about 6” back from the first bite. Step on the bar and repeat. We’ve found it’s important to only broadfork the amount of space you have time to rake immediately, otherwise the warm hoophouse conditions dry out the soil and make it harder to cultivate into a fine tilth, which is the next task. Sometimes we use a rake, breaking the clumps up with the back of the rake, then raking the soil to break up the smaller lumps, and reshape the bed.

7″ stirrup hoe.
Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

Sometimes we use a wide stirrup hoe very energetically. This isn’t the job scuffle hoes were designed for (that’s very shallow hoeing, and hence why we call them scuffle hoes), but the sharp hoe blade does a good job of breaking up clumpy soil. We’ve also found it important to lay the drip tapes back in place in between each day’s work, so that the soil gets irrigated when we run the system and stays damp. We don’t want dead, baked soil.

Once the bed is prepared, we measure out the areas for different crops and mark them with flags. Next we use our row-marker rake (bed prep rake) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Johnny’s Bed Prep rake with row marker pegs.
Photo Johnnys Selected Seeds

We plant crops closer in the hoophouse than outdoors, and closer to the edges of the beds. We don’t have many weeds in the hoophouse, and the paths are marked off with twine, to keep us from stepping on the beds, compacting the soil. We find that the soil does slump and compact some of its own accord, even if we don’t step on the edges (and of course, some feet do find themselves on the bed edges sometimes), hence the once-a-year broadforking. We found out how valuable the soil loosening is, because one year before we started broadforking, we decided to loosen the edges with a digging fork to make up for several years of accidental steps. The edge rows of spinach grew much bigger than the inner rows, and we realized that the whole bed needed loosening.

After the rowmarking, we deepen the furrows if needed (often it’s not needed), using a pointed hoe, then sow the seeds. We pre-sprout our spinach for a week in a jar in the fridge. Just soak the seed overnight, drain it in the morning, fit a mesh lid on the jar, and lay it on its side in the fridge. Once a day, give the jar a quarter turn to tumble the seeds and even out the moisture. This year the seeds were a bit wet when I came to sow them, and clumped together. I poured them out on a cloth to dry a bit before I sowed. This year we are growing two varieties (Avon and Reflect) side by side, still seeking a replacement for our much loved Tyee, which was pulled from the market, because it was prone to a disease prevalent in the West.

Easter Egg radish seedlings in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

The spinach, tatsoi and radishes came up very quickly, with the beets a day or two behind. The scallions came up in a week, which is quicker than at other times of year.

One week after the sowings, I thinned the spinach and radishes to 1” apart in the row. We are growing Easter Egg, Cherry Belle and White Icicle radishes. The Cherry Belle will be ready first, Easter Egg next (they mature relatively gradually, giving us a nice harvest period). Icicle are unusual long white radishes which are slower to mature, and slow to get woody.

Buckley One-cut (Eazileaf) lettuce.
Photo High Mowing Seeds

Meanwhile, outdoors on September 15 we sowed the first half of the crops that we transplant bare-rooted into the hoophouse. Our planned schedule called for 10 varieties of lettuce, but I ended up sowing 12, partly because we are trying three new Vitalis one-cut lettuce varieties from High Mowing Seeds: Ezrilla, Hampton and Buckley.  These are bred to provide lots of similar-sized leaves from cutting. They can be cut and mixed for baby salad mix or cut as whole heads for easy-to-prepare salads, or harvested by the leaf (or layers of leaves) once the plant has grown to full size. This is how we use them. They were previously called Eazileaf varieties, and are now called One-cut lettuces. They are only available as pelleted seed, so I regard them as too pricey to grow for baby salad mix, and best used for multiple harvests.

Johnny’s Green Sweet Crisp Salanova lettuce.
Photo Johnnys Seeds

Osborne’s Multigreen 3 lettuce.
Photo Osborne Seeds

You can click here to read the New Head Lettuces article Andrew Mefferd wrote about this new type of lettuce in Growing for Market magazine. We have previously grown Johnny’s Salanova and Osborne’s Multileaf varieties and I wrote about them here and here. This year we are trying the High Mowing ones. We did a small trial of them outdoors in spring, knowing that in our climate (very different from High Mowing’s in Vermont) they might well bolt. They grew into handsome plants, but clearly they are more suited to fall than spring in our quickly-heating-up climate.

Other lettuces we sow for our winter hoophouse crops include Oscarde, Panisse, Tango which have a similar shape of lots of same-sized leaves, and Green Forest (romaine), Hyper Red Rumpled Wave, Merlot, Revolution, Salad Bowl and Red Salad Bowl. I would have sown Red Tinged Winter but we seem to be out of seed.

Red Salad Bowl lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

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