If you have a hoophouse, you may now be planning or planting crops for fall, winter and spring. If you don’t have a hoophouse, this is a good time of year to consider getting one. See Twenty Benefits of Having a Hoophouse at the end of that post. There are grants available from NRCS, including reparation levels of funding from traditionally underserved groups of people. There are now companies that will construct your hoophouse for you, if you don’t want to do it yourself, or can’t. If you do want to build your own, there are detailed instructions in my book The Year-Round Hoophouse. You can buy the book here on my Books page direct from me, or from my publisher New Society, or you can buy it wherever books are sold.
I have many posts about winter hoophouse vegetables, so rather than try to write something completely new on the topic, I am going to give you a guide to find your way around the information already here.
“I have actually been thinking of building a tiny house and putting it inside a big hoophouse, creating a living area that would include a yard, trees, and gardens – allowing me to snowbird in place in northern New England – but I’m concerned about outgassing, since I’d be there almost 24-7 most days (I work out of my home). Have you done any research on outgassing of hoophouses?”
A Tiny House is generally a residential structure under 400 sq. ft
First off, No I haven’t done any research about hoophouse off-gassing, but I wouldn’t worry about out-gassing from the polyethylene of the hoophouse. Other products are much closer to your nose: All the materials used to construct, preserve and decorate the house and all the products within the house, such as furniture, fabrics, soaps, appliances etc.
There are some other things I’d wonder about:
1.Temperature. When the sun shines, the interior of the hoophouse warms up. When the sun doesn’t shine, it doesn’t. Would you heat the tiny house? You’d have to avoid heating systems that could damage the plants.
2.Snowfall. When it snows, you need to remove the snow from the roof of the hoophouse. Some snow can be carefully pulled down from the outside. Usually we also walk around inside the hoophouse bouncing a broom on the inside of the plastic to move the snow off. You can’t do that if you have a house in the way.
3.Humidity. In the winter we grow cold-tolerant hoophouse crops. We are aiming for 65 F (18C). We need fresh air for the plants and to deter fungal diseases. It doesn’t work to keep the hoophouse sealed up and “cozy”!
4.Strong winds. In hurricanes and gales, hoophouses sometimes collapse or get destroyed. You don’t want to be inside when that happens.
5.Height. Our hoophouse is less than 14 ft (4 m) at the apex.
In conclusion I’d say it’s better to have a small patio seating area within your hoophouse for suitable sunny days, rather than plan to live inside all the time.
Do you value crop rotation in your hoophouse?
A reader in the Pacific Northwest wrote: “This winter I have been re-thinking my crop rotation plan after having some issues (with flea beetle larvae in the soil outsmarting my diligent insect netting of my brassica salad crops). These days I see intensive market gardeners seeming to not worry so much about rotation (i.e. Neversink farm, etc), and yet I’ve always been taught that it is such an important principle to follow. I reviewed your slideshows on crop rotation and also cool crop planning in the greenhouse (which briefly addresses salad brassica rotation with other crops). With how much space I have and the high demand I have for brassicas, for salad mix (mustards) and also the more mainstay cole crops, I had settled on a 2.5 yr between brassica crop rotation (but planting two successions of mustards in the same bed within one year, in the year the bed was in mustards, with a lettuce or other crop breaking up the successions, with the idea that they were very short day and also light feeder crops). Wondering if you think this just doesn’t sound cautious enough, or if this sounds like a reasonable compromise with not having more space to work with (and wanting to satisfy the market demand for brassicas).”
I replied: “Yes, I do think crop rotation is important. I do know some farms seem to have given it up. I think what you are seeing shows one reason why rotation is important. In our hoophouse, we do as you do, allocating brassicas to a space for that winter season and perhaps doing more than one round of brassica crops. Then moving away from brassicas for the next two winters. If doing that doesn’t get rid of the flea beetle problem, and you are being thorough about netting with small-enough mesh netting (sounds like you are, but maybe check the mesh size), then my next step would be spinosad when the flea beetles appear. You can spray the inside of the netting too, and close it quickly. It’s that or a longer rotation, which it sounds like is not financially viable. You could also try farmscaping and/or importing predatory insects (not sure if there are any), Are there beneficial nematodes that attack flea beetle larvae? These are things I don’t know about, but might be worth looking into.”
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute and the National Taiwan University found that when sweet potato plants are attacked by insects, they emit a bouquet of odors and start production of a protein called sporamin that makes them unappetizing. Neighboring sweet potatoes sense the odors and start their own production of sporamin.
Insect damage cause stress-response production of anti-oxidants
In a related piece of news, Agrilife Today from Texas A&M AgriLife Research has found some evidence that wounded plants produce anti-oxidants as a stress response, which may make them healthier for human consumption. Read the report here.
A reader wrote in that the European Fire Ant is now found in Toronto.
“There were two nests of these in my allotment garden 2018.
They actually moved the nest in order to be closer to the zucchini
plants. Hand on heart: I never had any cucumber beetles develop past
the instar stage. The ants did not eat the eggs but they ate the larvae
as soon as they hatched. Same for potato beetle. My neighbours had
the best cucumber harvest in history. What I’ve read is these Fire Ants kill colonies of native ants. Summer 2019 I had a Pavement Ant war that went on for days. Clearly the Fire Ants did not wipe them out. There are black ants and other smaller red ants
in my garden. The Fire Ants appear to have moved on for some reason known
only to themselves. Perhaps they too have enemies.”“There’s a guy with a Youtube channel who keeps ant colonies. AntsCanada although he is in the Philippines. What happened was the feral Pharaoh Ants invaded his colony of Fire ants and killed them. Pharaoh Ants are much smaller but perhaps that’s what gave them the advantage. We have Pharaoh ants in Toronto also. I spend a lot of my time looking at the little critters in my garden. Like red velvet mites: there were many in 2016. Have not seen a single one in two years now. “
I’ve just been on an intensive conference hopping jaunt, three weekends in a row with not much time at home mid-week. One notion I heard discussed is the “Actionable Nugget”. It’s an idea you learn from someone else that inspires you as a possible solution to a problem or challenge you’ve noticed. I’m going to share some I picked up this month.
First I’m going to share my half-day presentation on Hoophouse Production of Cool Season Crops. To view it full screen, click on the diagonal arrows icon. Use the forward pointing triangle to move to the next slide. There are a lot! It was a full afternoon!
Asparagus Beans (Asian Long Beans, Yard-Long Beans) as a summer hoophouse crop.
I got this idea from a Year-Round Organic Vegetable Production workshop at the Virginia Association of Biological Farmers Conference. It was presented by Rick Felker of Mattawoman Creek Farms on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Rick said that Asian long beans are a star crop for them, and produce extremely high yields compared to outdoors. Yes, they need trellising, and yes, they need frequent harvesting. On the plus side they are a legume, so they are adding nitrogen to the soil the whole time they are growing. At Mattawoman Farm, they harvest these from June to October. In recent years we have not been growing bean seed crops in the summer hoophouse as we used to do. Last summer we grew Iron and Clay cowpeas as a cover crop, but were disappointed to need to cut them back every 6 days, because we’d decided not to stake them in any way.
Sulfur: The Forgotten Nutrient, Secret Ingredient for Healthy Soils and Crops.
At the Future Harvest Chesapeake Association for Sustainable Agriculture Conference, I much appreciated this workshop by Ray Weil. A whole workshop on one element! When deficient, the plant has symptoms resembling nitrogen shortage. It caused me to wonder how often I have made this mistake. Brassicas and legumes are the crops to pay closest attention to. I learned that the standard soil test for sulfur is fairly meaningless – I have been putting my faith in a poor source of information. The key piece of information from Ray Weil is that with a S shortage, the yellowing starts on the younger leaves, which is opposite to nitrogen shortages, when the yellowing begins on the older leaves.
S-deficient plants will be thin, spindly and slow-growing. The leaves will be high in nitrates, because the poor plant can’t use all the N it has absorbed from the soil. I already know from winter hoophouse growing that high levels of nitrate are not healthy. Legumes cannot do a good job of fixing nitrogen if S is too low. Sulfur shortages can affect the nutrient density of the crops, the protein level in beans. Now I know what to look for and what to do if I find the problem. Add 5-10 pounds per acre of S if plants seem deficient.
Cucurbit Blossom End Rot
At the same FHCASA conference, I learned about cucurbit BER in a workshop by Emily Zobel. I had not known cucurbits could suffer from blossom end rot, which is a problem caused by limited calcium uptake, often in cold weather and when water supplies are too variable. I do see a little BER on our first hoophouse tomatoes to ripen, but the plants quickly grow out of it as the weather warms up. The photos of young yellow squash Emily Zobel showed looked just like what I have been thinking was lack of pollination!! Now I will need to see if encouraging the plants to take up more calcium can solve the problem. This “actionable nugget” arrives in good time for this growing season!
I also learned that duct tape can be used to remove squash bug eggs. (I’d given up trying)
Yellow Shoulders on Hoophouse Tomatoes
From a workshop on Organic Soil Management for High Tunnels at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference, presented by Krista Jacobsen, I learned some valuable tips about dealing with salt build-up in hoophouse soils. – she referred to hoophouses as “irrigated deserts”!
I also learned about yellow shoulders on tomatoes. Previously I had read that the green/yellow shoulders were (unfortunately) genetically linked to good flavor in some varieties. At this workshop I learned that yellow shoulders (as opposed to green), can be a sign of potassium deficiency. Temperatures above 90F can also be a factor. The determinant hybrids have less of a problem than other varieties. Excess magnesium can be a factor, as can the choice of variety, a virus infection, pH over 6.7. Our pH isn’t over 6.7. Ideally, the grower would increase the magnesium to calcium ratio to 1:6 or 1:4, and/or increase the potassium. Perhaps we are short of magnesium. I will need to study our soil tests more carefully.
Organic Weed Management
In this SSAWGworkshop by Daniel Parson, I learned a technique for training newbies on weed control: Make them get down on the knees and point to and touch the crop plants before hoeing or pulling weeds. He says : “If you can see the weeds without getting down on the ground, you’ve waited too long! ” Weeds should be dealt with while tiny. Bring your trainees back in a week to to see the results of their hoeing. I like this idea! Too often it is hard for new workers to learn from their experience because they don’t study and critique their work as they learn!
Lean Farm Ideas
Ellen Polishuk gave this workshop, and I went because I had both enjoyed and been challenged by Ben Hartman’s Lean Farm book. I wanted to hear someone else’s perspective and remind myself of the best bits. To my surprise, one idea that stuck out was to work in 90 minute chunks, with short breaks (or longer meal breaks). I’m not sure I fully embrace this idea, but I’m mulling it over.
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.