Here’s an end-of-year pictorial post with photos from our hoophouse through the year. Few words! Enjoy your holidays. Maybe Santa will bring you a hoophouse?
Because crops grow slowly in cold weather, if something goes wrong at the beginning of the winter, or in the fall, the consequences can cast a long shadow. It is not easy to make up for lost time. In spring, the weather is getting warmer, the daylight is lengthening, and you may have noticed that later sowings can catch up with ones a week or two earlier, allowing for a second chance. In the fall, the rate of growth is moving in the opposite direction, and later sowings will stand no chance of catching up. Even worse, they may get “trapped” like Persephone in the Underworld during the dark Persephone Days. But don’t despair – there are things you can do ahead of time to be prepared for plans going awry, and there are even a few things you can do instead of your original plan, to ensure you get some crops to harvest.
Starting outdoors in September
We sow a lot of our winter crops outdoors in September, and transplant them into the hoophouse in October. This gives us an extra few weeks to prepare the hoophouse beds, and gives the seeds the cooler outdoor conditions to germinate in. We have three sowing dates.
On September 30, we resow anything that didn’t do well in the 9/24 sowing, or substitutes.
This year, we had poor germination of a lot of the 9/15 sowings and too many of the 9/24 sowings. As a back-up for the back-up plans we sowed some crops in Winstrip trays, and spotted lettuce in open flats, which we kept inside the hoophouse. By that point, conditions in the hoophouse were more crop-friendly than outdoors. We did need some of these, and the rest we harvested for salad mixes right out of the flats! We were short of salad items because of the late establishment of the plants, so every plant was a help!
Our goal is to keep the space filled with useful crops.
Success with this goal relies on a cluster of strategies
- The fall transplant program I describe above.
- Follow-on crops: A sequence of different crops occupying the same space over time. It’s important to know when crops will bolt, and how to plant sensible quantities
- Filler crops: As well as scheduled plantings, in October we sow a few short rows of spinach, lettuce, Senposai, Yukina Savoy, Maruba Santoh, Tokyo Bekana to transplant into gaps as soon as they occur. We simply dig them up, replant where needed and water well. Bare-root transplants are much easier than many fear. They save time and money, compared to growing starts in flats, and save on greenhouse space. They are very sturdy plants, as they have the full depth of soil to develop big roots. Little extra care is needed, as they are less prone to drying out than seedlings in flats. Alternatively you could keep some plug flats of these plants handy. We fill gaps with Asian greens, spinach or lettuces as appropriate, until Jan 25. From Jan 25 to Feb 20 we fill all gaps everywhere with spinach From Feb 20, we only fill gaps on the outer thirds of the beds, leaving centers free for tomatoes, etc.
- Interplanting: After 2/20, we harvest the winter crops from the center rows first, plant the new early summer crops down the center, then harvest the outer rows bit by bit as the new crop needs the space or the light. This overlap allows the new crops to take over gradually. Our winter and spring crops end in April
- Fast Catch Crops. Some cool-weather crops mature in 60 days or less. Mostly these are greens and fast-growing root crops. Useful if a crop fails, or you have a small empty space. Details on some of these follow the list.
- Ready in 30–35 days in fall, longer in winter: arugula, many Asian greens (Chinese Napa cabbage, Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, pak choy,.Senposai, tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy), brassica salad mixes, chard, kale, radishes, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories) spinach and winter purslane. Peashoots in late winter or spring.
- Ready in 35–45 days in fall: chervil, corn salad, land cress, parsley and sorrel.
- Ready in 60 days in fall: beets, small fast cabbage, collards, kohlrabi and turnips.
Asian greens are better able to germinate in hot weather than lettuce, and are faster growing than lettuce. Transplant 2-3 weeks after fall sowing, or direct sow.
Asian greens are nutritious as well as tasty – flavors vary from mild to peppery – read the catalog descriptions before growing lots. Colors cover the spectrum: chartreuse, bright green, dark green and purple. A diversity of crops without a diversity of growing methods!
Brassica (Mustard) Salad Mixes
Interesting mustard mixes are sold for salad mixes. We often mix our own Brassica Salad Mix from leftover random brassica seeds. For a single cut, almost all brassicas are suitable – just avoid turnips and radishes with prickly leaves! We sow between 10/2 and 11/14 for winter harvest and from 12/4 to 2/12 for March and early April harvests. We’re zone 7, central Virginia.
Chard and Beet Greens
Green chard is hardier than the multi-colored Bright Lights. Days to maturity: 61 – 103 days, a big difference, depending when you sow. Sow 9/15, harvest 11/15 – 5/10; Sow 10/26, harvest 2/6 – 5/10.
Varieties we like: Easter Egg, White Icicle, and Cherry Belle. Sparkler got too fibrous for us, as did Cherry Belle after mid Oct. We make 6 sowings 9/6 – 1/26. Small radishes take 27–52 days to maturity, not counting days too cold to grow.
We sow 9/6 for harvest 12/1 – 3/1; 11/18 (following radishes) for harvest in early spring. This winter we are trying a sowing 10/20 also (we happened to have a space at that time, in a spot where it fitted our rotation). Evergreen Hardy White and White Lisbon scallions are hardy down to 0°F (-18°C)
We loved Tyee and now grow Escalade, Reflect, Acadia and smooth leaf Renegade. Renegade makes good Nov/Dec growth; Acadia, Escalade yield well Jan – April; January sown Reflect does well.
- Succession Planting for Winter Hoophouse Crops
We do 2 sowings of chard, scallions, tatsoi and yukina savoy; 3 sowings of mizuna, turnips and bulb onions; 4 sowings of baby lettuce mix and brassica salad mix; 5 sowings of spinach and radish. Our goal is to provide a continuous supply.
As temperatures and day-length decrease in the fall, the time to maturity lengthens – a day late in sowing can lead to a week’s delay in harvesting. As temperatures and day-length increase after the Winter Solstice, the time to maturity shortens – later sowings can almost catch up with earlier ones. To get harvests starting an equal number of days apart, vary the interval between one sowing date and the next accordingly. Here’s the most dependable method:
Making a Close-Fit Plan Using Graphs
- Gather sowing and harvest start and finish dates for each planting of each crop you are growing as successions.
- Make a graph for each crop: sowing date along the horizontal (x) axis; harvest start date along the vertical (y) axis. Mark in all your data. Join with a line. Smooth the line.
- From your first possible sowing date find the first harvest start date.
- Decide the last worthwhile harvest start date, mark that.
- Divide the harvest period into a whole number of equal segments, according to how often you want a new patch.
- Mark in the harvest start dates and see the sowing dates that match those harvest dates
Working around the Persephone Days
In Indiana (in Zone 5b) Ben Hartman (The Lean Farm) sows salad greens & spinach for winter harvests every week Sept 15–Oct 15. Baby lettuce sown before Oct 22 takes 5–6 weeks until harvest. If sown Oct 24–Nov 16, it takes 8–17 weeks to harvest. In Zone 5b, if you want baby lettuce mix before December, sow before Oct 22.
Spinach sown before Oct 11 takes 4–6 weeks to harvest. If sown from Oct 20–Nov 1, it takes 12–15 weeks. To harvest spinach before December, he sows before the middle of October.
For new year harvests he sows every week Oct 15–Nov 1. He then takes a two month break from planting (Nov-Dec). Jan 1–Jan 15 he sows both salad greens and spinach for late winter.
In Zone 7 we can harvest outdoor lettuce and spinach in December, and we have less urgency about early hoophouse sowings (and we get no winter break!).
This post will be mainly photos. Outdoors the weather has been grey and dreary, and November was the coldest in 38 years, according to AgWeb, from the Farm Journal. But in our Virginia hoophouse, crops are growing well, and we have been harvesting salads every day, radishes every week, and have even started harvesting cooking greens. (I say “even” because we still have spinach, kale, collards outdoors too, which we normally harvest while we can.)
We’ll start harvesting the outer leaves of these Koji greens soon. Koji is a hybrid, rather like the open pollinated Yukina Savoy. Here’s our senposai just after I harvested 10 gallons of the biggest leaves:
Soon we will start harvesting leaves from our Russian kale
.For salad mixes, we are harvesting outer leaves from the leaf lettuces, along with spinach, Bulls Blood beet leaves, and often the brassica component has been tatsoi.
Tatsoi, which we sowed September 6, has been very prolific. We have been harvesting the outer leaves and chopping them for salad mix, after removing the stems. These causes the patch to look messy, but feeds us well.
Once we’ve chosen our basic three ingredients (lettuce, spinach/chard/beet leaves, and a brassica), we customize the mix with other ingredients, such as Tokyo bekana, baby chard or frilly mustards such as Scarlet Frills, Golden Frills and Ruby Streaks. We are harvesting our first sowing, cutting outer leaves, and thinning our second sowing.
Looking to the future, the first sowing of baby lettuce mix is almost big enough to harvest. We grow both leaf lettuce to keep alive all winter, and several sowings of baby lettuce mix to cut whenever it is big enough. Growing both gives us more resilience when the weather is so unpredictable.
We’re also looking forward to turnips and chard.
The Virginia Biological Farming Conference will be held January 11-13, 2019 in Richmond, VA. See you there! See my Events page for more about my presentations.
In early November, during the Carolina Farm Stewardship conference I went on the afternoon bus tour to see 10 high tunnels and how they’re used for season extension, irrigation, disease control, pest protection, and trellising. Red Hawk Farm grows salads and greens year-round in six high tunnels (more under construction!), and sells primarily to local grocery stores and restaurants. Funny Girl Farm grows produce year-round for its popular farmstand and CSA, with four high tunnels and a greenhouse.They were focusing on the sweet potato harvest outdoors when we visited.
At Red Hawk Farm I was astounded to see this whole hoophouse planted wall-to-wall with multileaf lettuces. No aisles! The farmer Brett Evans plans to harvest with a walk-behind motorized salad harvester machine that makes a 4 ft wide cut. Then he’ll leave the lettuces to regrow. He uses the paperpot transplanter which I mentioned last week. Here are the starts growing in their propagation house.
They still had peppers bearing well in one high tunnel
Another interesting feature was the opening roof vent, which I had not seen in operation on a hoophouse before.
And this past week, I went to Potomac Vegetable Farms in northern Virginia for a talk with Future Harvest CASA members, and a tour of the hoophouses used there led by farmer Zach Lester. I was interested in seeing the success he is having with caterpillar tunnels. These are smaller tunnels with a single layer of plastic, held in place by ropes, as you see in the photo below. They can be temporary or short-term, and Zach showed us one which is a “swing house” with two sites side by side, sharing one row of ground posts, and having just one row to move each time. Another way to deal with crop rotations and reduce the chances of pests and diseases!
At the ends, the plastic is gathered up and tied to well-anchored stakes, as you can see here.
Zach got these frames custom made by Nolts. They have taller sidewalls than many models. He is also a firm believer in having a ridgepole in caterpillar tunnels, to reduce the likelihood of collapse with snow or high winds. As you can see here, they had some snow already.
At both these farms, I learned the technique of laying landscape fabric along the side walls to reduce weed growth. You can burn holes in the landscape fabric where the ground posts go through, and it will keep the weeds away for a long time. I wish I’d known that technique when we put up our hoophouse. We have to hand weed, and in some places we have wiregrass (Bermuda grass) which has grown under the baseboards and even between the boards where there are joins.
Lastly, I have of course visited our own hoophouse at Twin Oaks, and have written a post for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening on Dealing with Snow on Your Hoophouse. So if it’s snowing where you are, you can click on the link to read about that.
Here’s my Many Crops, Many Plantings slideshow from my shared Friday morning pre-conference intensive workshop at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference.
Scaling Up: Maximizing High Tunnel Production
Gena Moore, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and Pam Dawling, Twin Oaks Community
High tunnels provide high-value space for growing various crops throughout the year, but maximizing production comes with challenges. In this workshop, Gena and Pam will discuss how to effectively use high tunnels to maximize potential. Topics include monocropping for wholesale production, diversified high tunnel production, and effective management throughout the year.
The November/December issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article on Hoophouse Squash and Cucumbers for Crop Rotation.
We transplant one bed each of summer squash and bush cucumbers in our hoophouse on April 1st. This gives us harvests a month earlier than the outdoor crops. It also helps us have a crop rotation (compared to tomatoes and peppers in all the beds every year.) We find that people really enjoy early squash and cucumbers, as a welcome change from winter crops, and a harbinger of what is to come. We end the squash and cucumber sin July, once the outdoor plantings are bearing well, and use the hoophouse space for cowpeas or edamame, usually. Summer cover crops would be another fine option.
A great resource I discovered quite recently is Modern Farmer.
Lots of interesting article, including the good news for certified Organic growers that the paperpot system is now accepted under Organic regulations. See
Machine Makes Planting a Breeze https://youtu.be/J_ia4KpVLKs via @YouTube
There are sections on animals, how-to, politics, videos, environment, lifestyle, recipes, food & drink, plants and technology. You can sign up to receive their weekly newsletter.
While at teh CFSA Conference I participated in the High Tunnels Bus Tour, and saw a whole hoophouse planted wall-to-wall with lettuces at 6″ spacing using one of these. For next week, I’ll sort out my photos from that event and also my visit to Potomac Vegetable Farms where Zach Lester is focusing on protected crops using hoophouses and caterpillar tunnels.
Lastly (how can I forget), my publisher, New Society, is doing a Book Giveaway on Facebook this week (starting Nov 15) with my new book The Year-Round Hoophouse. It’s on their Facebook page and Instagram. Enter a question, I answer it, and someone wins a copy of the book at the end of the week (very soon!)
After the set-backs with our winter hoophouse greens transplants that I wrote about last week, we worked really hard and got the whole house planted up. Most of the transplants have recovered from their transplant shock (wilting each day), during the cloudy weather we had.
The new seedlings are coming up fast and calling on us to thin them. We ended up not needing so many of the Plan D plug flat plants, but we’ve kept them for now “in case” .
Ultimately if we don’t need them, they’ll go in a salad mix. I wrote about making salad mix last year. The past two days I have been able to harvest a mix in the hoophouse. The ingredient we are shortest of is lettuce. My first mix was spinach, Bulls Blood beet leaves, a few leaves of Tokyo Bekana, Bright Lights chard, Scarlet Frills, Ruby Streaks and Golden Frills, and a handful of lettuce leaves. Red Tinged Winter is growing fastest, of all the varieties we planted this year.
The mix I made today had fewer ingredients. I left the frilly mustards, the lettuces and the Tokyo bekana alone to grow some more. I used Bulls Blood beets, spinach, tatsoi outer leaves and a few Bright Lights chard leaves and stems.
I have a new Mother Earth News blogpost, about the nematodes in our hoophouse. And I’m preparing a new slide show for the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association conference. See my Events page for details
For those of you on other social media, here are their handles and links (use the hashtag #CFSAC2018).
One of my colleagues noticed this beautiful web, like a crystal chandelier with dew drops. A few days ago I noticed lots of baby wolf spiders scurrying about. Next day they had started “ballooning” when they carry themselves on the breeze to a new place, spinning out a length of spider silk.
We’ve pulled our peppers, the last of the summer crop to remain in our hoophouse. This dislodged lots of spiders, both the zipper spiders and wolf spiders. We like to keep as many zipper spider egg-cases as possible in the hoophouse over the winter, so we have plenty of pest control next year. We move them off the plants onto the framework of the hoophouse or the hipboard “windowsill”.
This fall we have kept up with our vigorous bed prep schedule, and tomorrow we will finish. Some years it’s a strain to keep up, but we’ve now set a one week-per-bed schedule in place, to reduce stress. This year our problem has been with getting transplants germinated and thriving. We’re now on Plan D! Plan A starts with making sowings on 9/15: ten varieties of leaf lettuce and romaines, chard, pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy, in an outdoor bed to be transplanted into the hoophouse in a few weeks. See Sowing hoophouse winter crops 9/19/2017.
On 9/24 we sowed ten more varieties of lettuce, Red Russian klae, White Russian kale, Senposai, Yukina Savoy #2, and several frilly mustards (Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills, Scarlet Frills). We also resow anything that didn’t come up well in the 9/15 sowings (Plan B). This year, many crops did not come up well, or at all. Some seed was too old (mistakenly kept at inventory time last November). Some plants were eaten by cutworms.
On 9/30 we resow anything from the 9/24 sowings that didn’t come up well. This is Plan C. We resowed a lot this year. 9/30 is actually a bit too soon to tell if 9/24 lettuce will come up or not, if the soil temperature has cooled down a fair bit already.
We have some spare lettuce plants from the sowings made for our unheated greenhouse beds.They will help us out, as the outdoor seed bed only has half enough plants, and the numbers are going down daily as the cutworms feed!
Given the situation, we moved to Plan D. This involved sowing plug flats of crops we were still hoping for, setting the flats on one of the empty hoophouse beds, shading them and watering whenever they looked at all dry. The idea is that there are no cutworms here, and the temperature inside the hoophouse is warmer and now more suitable for faster seedling growth. (In September it is often too hot in the hoophouse to germinate lettuce, spinach and some other crops, which is one reason we sow them outdoors).
Usually we would have been busy every late afternoon transplanting all these crops, but because of our rounds of crop failures, we have had more time to devote to the bed prep.
For more about fall hoophouse planting, see these earlier posts:
Hoophouse Bed Prep for Fall Plantings in my Mother Earth News blogpost in August along with step-by-step instructions on using a broadfork, a scuffle hoe and a rake to produce a well-prepared bed with good tilth.
Hoophouse vegetable rotations in my September Mother Earth News blogpost
Planning winter hoophouse crops for our step-by-step process for hoophouse crop planning
What’s growing in the hoophouse 10/10/17
First a photo of a couple of sweet pepper plants in our hoophouse. They are looking a bit “back-end-ish”, but are still producing fruit. We plan our rotation so that the bed which had peppers during the summer is the last to get planted to greens. This lets us get the most peppers possible. Plus, preparing the other beds keeps us fully occupied.
This week’s post is a catch up on various topics. I have been busy with speaking events (see my Events page at the tab on this site), and the busiest time of the year in the hoophouse, preparing to plant the winter greens.
On the topic of hoophouse vegetable crop rotations, I have just posted something on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog. There are two lovely pairs of photos, winter and summer, demonstrating crop rotations.
At the Heritage Harvest Festival I spoke on Feeding the Soil. Here’s my slideshow on that. Click the diagonal arrow icon to view it full screen.
Last weekend I presented Season Extension for the Allegheny Mountain Institute Farm at Augusta Health, and I will be presenting that topic again this weekend at the Center for Rural Culture, Goochland, VA 23063.
I will include that slideshow in a couple of weeks. Next week is my Alliums for October post.
I haven’t found much reading time lately, so a magazine is just the thing! I’ve finished the September Growing for Market and am just moving on to the newly published October issue.
The September issue starts with an article on profitable bouquet making (something I’ve never tried to do) by Erin Benzakein. She gives ingredients for each season, “recipes”, and systems for ergonomic working. Spencer Nietmann writes on managing seasonal farm income using a cash projection spreadsheet. If you see yourself heading for disaster, you delay buying equipment and move that expense later in your projection. Simple and effective. No bad surprises! He also advocates for using zero interest credit cards short-term to pay for an expense you are confident you can pay for before the end of the free period. His example is paying for a hoophouse until the NRCS EQIP grant money came through.
Ellen Polishuk’s Farmer-to-Farmer profile is Blue House Farm in California. Franklin Egan writes on strategies to grow organic matter levels and reduce tillage at the same time. This is to help answer the challenges of some farmers on new land that was previously in continuous industrial corn production. The farmers were growing impressive bulky cover crops in sequence, but needed intensive tillage to get those covers incorporated. This tillage knocked back the organic matter levels each time. They used a farm walk to invite other farmers to suggest improved methods to bring their land into good heart.
Sam Hitchcock Hilton wrote about an urban farm in New Orleans using events and farm meals to develop interest in their vegetable sales. It is written in the voice of the farm goat, which adds an entertaining touch.
The October issue starts with an Introduction to Korean Natural Farming, which was a new topic to me, and may well be new to most of you. The method includes indigenous microorganisms, or “bugs in a jug” (a fermentation process is used). You can learn how to try this for yourself.
Jed Beach writes about his top crops for profitable wholesaling. His hypothesis is that “there are four factors that predict which crops can be competitively profitable for small farms to grow, even at close to distributor prices.” Perishability, matching planting to sales, gross sales per square foot and gross per harvest-and-pack hour. He provides a chart of his seven most profitable seven least profitable crops assessed on these factors. Thought-provoking stuff.
Ellen Polishuk’s Farmer-to-Farmer profile this month is Sassafras Creek Farm in Maryland, with 6 acres of vegetables and 17 acres of grains. The farmers there have a clear system of employment expectations and benefits, and instructions. Half of farm sales come from a farmers market and the other half come from wholesaling to restaurants, natural food stores, caterers and other farms’ CSAs. They decided early on that running their own CSA was not for them.
I was startled by the next article: “You don’t need a high tunnel to grow ginger” from three growers in the Midwest. (“Surely you do”, I thought). They used grant money to test out growing ginger in low tunnels, some with in-ground heating coils, some with in-ground foam insulation. Soil temperature is key (60-85F). But, personally, I’d still rather have a high tunnel!
Doug Trott wrote about planning and ordering now for next year’s flower crops – useful tips for flower growers everywhere.
We drove home seven hours from the Pennsylvania Mother Earth News Fair yesterday through the rain. The remnants of Hurricane Florence. We were among the lucky people. Earlier forecasts for Florence had the hurricane raging across central Virginia.
At the Fair, I gave two workshops: Fall and Winter Hoophouses and my new Lettuce Year Round, which you can view right here. Click the diagonal arrows icon to get a full screen view.
I had a bit too much material for a one-hour time-slot, so those of you who were there and felt disappointed at what I had to leave out, you can see it here.
While I as at the Fair I did a FaceBook Live Interview about gardening in hoophouses, with another author, Deborah Niemann. Look on Facebook for Deborah Niemann-Boehle or click the topic link above. She has several books: Raising Goats Naturally, Homegrown & Handmade, and Ecothrifty.
Meanwhile, Mother Earth News tells me that my post 20 Tips for Success in Germinating Seeds in Hot Weather is in third place for most popular posts this summer.
The winner An Effective and Non-Toxic Solution for Getting Rid of Yellow Jackets’ Nests by Miriam Landman got 43,328 views in 3 months!
Looking at my own website statistics, I find that for this week, the most popular posts are
- Winter Kill Temperatures of Winter-Hardy Vegetables 2016
- Soil tests and high phosphorus levels
- How to deal with green potatoes
- .Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2018
- Alliums for September
For all-time, the bias is naturally on posts that have been around longest,
- Garlic scapes! Three weeks to bulb harvest! Is most popular, followed closely by
- Winter Kill Temperatures of Winter-Hardy Vegetables 2016.
- How to deal with green potatoes is still #3.
- The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month,
- Harvesting Melons
- Book Review, Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier
- Wnter Hardiness
- Book Review: The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman and
- Setting out biodegradable plastic mulch by hand
I’ve updated my Events page again, now that the September- April “Events Season” has hotted up. I’ve added in a couple of new ones and updated some others. Click the Events tab to find conferences and fairs near you, and be sure to come and introduce yourself!
The Heritage Harvest Festival is September 21-22 Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia
I’m giving a Premium Workshop on Friday Sept 21, 3-4 pm Classroom 7. Click the link HERE to book for that.
Feeding the Soil
In this workshop I will introduce ways to grow and maintain healthy soils: how to develop a permanent crop rotation in seven steps, and why your soil will benefit from this; how to choose appropriate cover crops; how to make compost and how to benefit from using organic mulches to feed the soil. Handouts.
Book-signing Friday 4.15 – 4.45 pm.
On Saturday there are events all day from 10am to 5pm. $26 general admission.
Saturday September 29, 2018 Allegheny Mountain Institute Farm at Augusta Health, Fishersville, VA 22939. 9 am – noon
I’m giving a two-hour Class on Season Extension, followed by one-hour Q&A teaching tour of the hoophouse and greenhouse.
Today we’re removing the giant piece of shadecloth that has been over the top of our hoophouse since mid-May. We’ll unclip the ropes, roll them up, then pull the shadecloth off onto the ground, roll and bundle it up. It’s important to store it so mice can’t get into the bundle and make holes. We already have a few of those!
We’ve just finished preparing the first of our 7 hoophouse beds for the winter greens. Crops grow so fast in the hoophouse, and the organic matter in the soil is consumed at a rapid rate. Every new crop requires a fertility boost. In the fall, we prepare our beds by removing all the summer crops, and spreading four or five wheelbarrows of compost per 4′ × 96′ (1.2 × 29 m) bed. This is a generous 46 gals/100 ft2 (or 680 L/36 m2 bed)or more. A full wheelbarrow generally holds six cubic feet (44 gallons or 170 liters). 1 ft3 = 7.5 US gals. An inch of compost is about 8 ft3/100 ft2, or 60 gals/100 ft2; 20 gals/100 ft2 is 15 tons/acre (8.6 L/m2). Other professional growers use anywhere from 12–40 gals/100 ft2 (5–17 L/m2). Some use much more.
There are 3 concerns about using too much compost: high phosphorus levels, raised salt levels and nitrate accumulation. Some growers like to do two years of high compost rates (40 gals/100 ft2, 17 L/m2 or more), then reduce the rate to half that and add fish or kelp, at only 5 oz–8 oz/100 ft2 (15–24 gm/m2) per year. Sustainable alternatives to compost include organic pelleted chicken manure, alfalfa meal, etc.
A few years after we put up our hoophouse, we noticed that despite our best efforts, we were walking on the edges of the beds and compacting them. Initially we simply loosened the edges of the beds with a digging fork. We then noticed that the plants on the edges grew better, and we realized the whole bed width needed loosening. If you have designed your hoophouse to use tractor equipment there, that will deal with soil compaction. We wanted our hoophouse to be free of internal combustion engines and fossil fuels, and the broadfork has provided the solution. Ours is an all-steel broadfork from Way Cool Tools. We do an annual broadforking each fall, before planting our winter greens.
We set nylon twine to mark the bed edges, holding it in place using sod staples. The string alone has not been enough to stop us walking on the bed edges. Loose soil is important because our winter crops grow all the way to the edges of the beds. After spreading compost, we broadfork the beds, then vigorously work the compost into the top of the soil with scuffle hoes and rakes. We learned the hard way the importance of raking the soil to a fine tilth immediately after broadforking — you don’t want to let the broadforked clumps dry out into bricks before you rake! See the photo below and imagine what could happen!
I wrote about our bed prep method and tools, and also our outdoor sowings for transplanting into the hoophouse, with a special focus on suitable lettuce varieties in my post Sowing hoophouse winter crops here in Sept 2017.
We have just started planting our late fall, winter and early spring crops in the hoophouse. We are pre-sprouting our spinach for a week in a jar in the fridge. 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. If the seeds are a bit wet when you need to sow them, and clumped together, pour them out on a cloth to dry a bit before sowing.
We will sow five crops in our first bed on September 6 and 7– spinach, tatsoi, Bulls Blood beet greens, radishes and scallions. On September 15 we sow 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.
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. 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), hence the once-a-year broadforking.
Step-by-step guide to hoophouse fall bed prep:
- Remove the summer crops to the compost pile,
- Spread a generous layer of compost over the whole bed surface.
- Gather the soil staples and move the drip tape off to one side or the other,
- Broadfork the whole bed, but not all at once. 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. We tackle 1/3 bed each day.
- To use a broadfork, go backwards working the width of the bed. Stab the tines into the soil and step on the crossbar, holding the long handles. Step from foot to foot until the crossbar 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” (15 cm) back from the first bite. Note: you are not inverting the soil – this is not a “digging over” process. Step on the bar and repeat.
- 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. More often we use a wide stirrup hoe very energetically. This isn’t the job stirrup hoes were designed for (that’s very shallow hoeing), but the sharp hoe blade does a really good job of breaking up clumpy soil.
- We’ve 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.
- When 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.
- After the rowmarking, we deepen the furrows if needed (often it’s not needed), using a pointed hoe, then sow the seeds.
For more on winter hoophouse crops, see