Hoophouse Winter Schedule Tweaks and Improvements

I’m always on the lookout for ways to pack more crops in, get higher yields, reduce or at least spread the workload. All while nurturing healthy soil and organic food that people enjoy.

Tweaking the Salt Wash-Down Dates

Using a lawn sprinkler to wash down the salt build up in our hoophouse. Photo Pam Dawling

I wrote about Preparing your Hoophouse for Fall and Winter on September 28. I belatedly realized that in my hurry to publish the post I let some out-of-date info slip in. We don’t do our fall salt wash-down in November any more – we prefer early October, while it is still warm enough for the plants to be improved by extra water, rather than drowned and miserable. We have switched from two days in the spring to three, as we think two days wasn’t quite enough water to get all the salt back deep in the soil profile. We had ambitions of doing three days in the fall as well, but I can tell you now, from experience, that we can fit in two days but no more.

I’ve described how we broadfork and rake all the beds in the fall, and the amount I can do in one day (along with all the other tasks) is 1/3 of a 96ft x 4ft (29m x1.2m) bed. That human limitation, and the logistics of crop rotation and planting dates, leaves a small window between preparing the first three beds to get planted (9/6-10/6), and the remaining four (10/10-10/24). It really doesn’t work well to broadfork and rake saturated soil! It’s better to have a few days for the water to soak in. So, we are satisfied with two days of salt wash-down in fall, for the time being.

Catch Crops

Mid-October photo of September-sown tatsoi and August-sown Tokyo bekana. Fast-growing crops make good use of small windows of time.
Photo Pam Dawling

Last fall I noticed that some areas of some of our beds were idle between being prepped and planting dates in November and December.  I hate to waste prime real estate like hoophouse bed space, So this year when we planned our bed layout, we herded all the little late sowings into one bed with the intention of finding some fast-growing crops to put in that space first. We also managed a more rational layout in each bed, planting the various crops in chronological order from the east end to the west.

Next, I researched what we might grow ahead of the main crop. There are some unknowns here. We have numbers of days to maturity for crops in ideal conditions (nice warm spring temperatures), but we are heading into colder temperatures and shorter days. So it might not work out as we hope. However, given our fondness for salad mixes, anything we have to pull up immature will still be eaten and enjoyed!

Salad Mix freshly harvested.
Photo Pam Dawling

The bed in question was all ready to plant on September 30. The areas I could see for catch crops included 11/9 “filler” spinach and filler lettuce, 11/15 tatsoi #2, 12/7 lettuce mix #2, 12/18 mustard salad mix, and 12/20 radish #5.

I decided to put the 16ft (5m) of areas for November 9-15 sowings (39-45 days to go) into 45day Tokyo bekana and the 18ft (5.5m) of areas for sowings after December 7 (79 days available at that point) into 60day Cylindra beets. The Tokyo bekana came up very quickly, and I expect it will be destined for salad greens, which will be very useful as our outdoor lettuce is waning and we’ve just had a patchy frost (early for here) – the colder weather will slow crops down.

Young Cylindra beets.
Photo Wren VIle

The beets have still not come up 9 days later, and the soil is 60F (15.5C). I’ll check again tomorrow. 10 days should be long enough with soil at that temperature. My niggling worry is that the salt wash-down has drowned the seeds. See Root Crops in August. If they are not up at 10 days, I think I will hoe the area and resow with something quicker – perhaps tatsoi (45 days). I was disregarding tatsoi because it will bolt in January. Umm, but this is a catch crop, that we’ll need to pull up in early December – January isn’t even on its calendar!

Carrots out! Cress in!

Belle Isle Upland Cress from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Last winter we grew a small patch of carrots because one of the crew really wanted to try them in the hoophouse. I wasn’t a fan because carrots are so slow-growing and provide only one harvest (usually). But I am a fan of democracy and participation, so we grew carrots. We could have harvested them sooner than we did and planted something else (in my opinion), but there they sat all winter.

Oh yes, about that “usually”: you can eat carrot tops and I have used finely chopped carrot leaves as a garnish. A major brand of crackers has carrot tops as one the herbs in their Herb Crackers. Read the small print!

This fall, as we planned our crops, I said I’d prefer not to grow carrots again, but I was out-voted, and hence we sowed carrots. Now those crew members have left, and I gave the evil eye to the carrots. I’d just read an interesting article about nutrient-dense vegetables, and learned that The 5 Most Nutrient-Dense Vegetables Based on Science are watercress, Chinese (Napa) cabbage, Swiss chard, beet greens, and spinach. We’re growing all the others, but no watercress. For the next-best thing, I wanted to try land cress/Upland Cress in our winter hoophouse.  So I hoed off the little carrots and sowed Creasy Greens Upland Cress and Belle Isle Upland Cress from Southern Exposure. They take 50 days to maturity (in spring) and I note:

“The yellow blossoms help nourish ladybugs, syrphids, and other beneficial insects”

So I plan to let some flower in spring for the beneficial insects.

Creasy Greens Upland Cress from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Flowers for beneficial insects

September-sown shungiku (chrysanthemum greens) in January.
Photo Pam Dawling

Last year, one of our trials was a collection of annual flowers to attract more pollinators into the hoophouse. None of the ones we tried seemed to do much, except for one shingiku (chrysanthemum greens) which is still flowering! Readers suggested I’d do better to just let some winter brassicas flower instead of growing special flowers. So upland cress might become part of our solution for that! We’re also growing a perennial, yarrow, to attract beneficials.

Shungiku chrysanthemum greens.
Photo Small House Farm

The other hoophouse tweaks on my list are more for spring and summer, so I’ll leave those for another post.

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