Winter hoophouse growing

 

Hoophouse Yukina savoy at the end of November.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

Last week I wrote about Winter Preparations for Vegetable Gardens. For those with a hoophouse, here are some notes on all the work we can do to grow winter crops there! For those without a hoophouse as yet, scroll to the end for Twenty Benefits of Having a Hoophouse

First, a roundup of previous blogposts on winter hoophouse topics.

Planning winter hoophouse crops includes a description of how we do our hoophouse crop planning so we can maintain a crop rotation and still pack the beds fully with hardy crops.

Fall hoophouse bed prep and shadecloth removal includes spreading compost, broadforking, and a step-by-step guide to hoophouse fall bed prep.

Hoophouse fall bed prep Plans A-D and spider-webs includes some lovely spider photos and a short video of ballooning, as well as info about our first-planted winter crops.

Hoophouse bed broadforked to loosen up slumped soil. I’m happy to say our soil structure has improved in the 18 years since this photo was taken!
Photo Pam Dawling

Young greens in the hoophouse

After the set-backs with our winter hoophouse greens transplants that I wrote about in Hoophouse fall bed prep Plans A-D and spider-webs, 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” .

Plan D: Winstrip seed flats in our hoophouse on Oct 16, a late attempt to catch up!
Photo Pam Dawling

Ultimately if we don’t need them, they’ll go in a salad mix. I wrote about Making baby 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.

Sowing hoophouse winter crops includes some discussion of the tools we like; pre-sprouting spinach seed and growing multi-leaf lettuce.

What’s growing in the hoophouse; reading; planning for winter is an October view of crops.

Frilly Mustards in our Winter Hoophouse is exactly what it sounds like. Four sowings, six varieties. All delicious.

Making baby salad mix includes a discussion of ingredients and methods, balancing nutrition, color, shape and loft.

Young green Panisse and red Revolution lettuce in our hoophouse in November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cold-tolerant lettuce and the rest, our January 2018 assessment of the varieties we grew that winter and which survived the unusually cold spell we had. Includes sad photos of the casualties!

Also see my Mother Earth News blogpost from August 2018 Grow Great Lettuce in Winter

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Hoophouse seedlings growing outdoors under insect netting. Starting transplants outdoors helps the rotation by reducing the time the crop is growing in the hoophouse
Photo Pam Dawling

Do you value crop rotation in your hoophouse?

In the winter 2019-2020, 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.”


Doing a spot of research today, I find that Heterorhabditis bacteriaphora, (Hb nematodes) a beneficial nematode fromArbico Organics will attack flea beetles. also known as NemaSeek, and sold separately. This is the wrong time of year for introducing nematodes in most of the US. They need warm weather to thrive.

Another suggestion from Arbico is BotaniGard Maxx & other B. bassiana sprays, which infect and kill adult flea beetles. Repeat applications as needed throughout the growing season.

Kaolin clay (Surround) is another possibility.

Also see Harvest to Table on the topic of dealing with flea beetles

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View through the hoophouse doors in December.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

Add a hoophouse to your food production

For those of you wistfully thinking about a hoophouse, let me help you a step closer to having one next year! Sales of my Year-Round Hoophouse book are doing well, which suggests to me that quite a few gardeners and growers are thinking in this direction.

Twenty Benefits of Having a Hoophouse

  1. An extended growing season because plants are protected from cold weather.
  2. Faster growth and higher total yields.
  3. Beautiful unblemished crops not battered by the elements.
  4. Fewer foliar diseases because the leaves can stay dry.
  5. Crop survival at lower temperatures in the hoophouse than is possible outdoors.
  6. Better crop recovery in winter due to warm sunny days following the cold nights.
  7. Some protection from deer and other pests large and small.
  8. Soil temperature stays above 50F (10C) in zone 6b. Warm soil = faster cold weather growth.
  9. Higher proportion of usable crops – more food, higher sales dollars.
  10. Diverse crop portfolio – grow crops that wouldn’t succeed outdoors in your climate.
  11. Harvest whenever you need the crops, even during pouring rain!
  12. Wonderful working conditions – no need for gloves and hats; take off your coat.
  13. A food garden on a manageable scale.
  14. A place to enjoy practicing intensive food production.
  15. The chance to have an area completely free of weeds – new weed seed doesn’t blow in.
  16. No need to work with heavy machinery.
  17. Much better value for producing crops (per dollar invested) than a heated greenhouse.
  18. Can be constructed by generally-handy people. Specialists are not needed.
  19. NRCS grants are available for some hoophouses. Natural Resources Conservation Service, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, High Tunnel System Initiative.
  20. Ecological energy use. The embodied energy of the plastic is less than the energy that would be used to ship similar produce from somewhere warmer (Eliot Coleman, Four Season Harvest). Another study found this was not true for smaller (9 x 12 m) hoophouses – although the economic incentive for growers is still true, there is no energy efficiency advantage to the planet. Smaller carbon footprint: shipping 1 kg lettuce has 4.3 times the CO2 footprint of locally grown hoophouse lettuce. Plawecki, R., Pirog, R., Montri, A., & Hamm, M. (2014). Comparative carbon footprint assessment of winter lettuce production in two climatic zones for Midwestern market. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 29(4), 310-318. doi:10.1017/S1742170513000161.
September sown White Russian kale (transplanted in October).
Photo Wren Vile

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Know your climate

WeatherSpark climate summary for Louisa, Virginia. Go to the website to click for more information

The WeatherSpark website provides “The Typical Weather Anywhere on Earth”. Enter your nearest town or airport and you get clearly explained info with fascinating graphics of how the weather goes over the year in your locality. Note this is not a forecast site, it’s about average weather for each place. Useful to people who’ve recently moved and want to know what to expect this winter, or to new gardeners who haven’t paid so much attention previously. Or to those who want to check their assumptions (I really thought the wind was out of the west more of the time than records say). There are charts of high and low temperature, temperature by the hour each month, cloud cover, daily chance of precipitation (both rainfall and snowfall), hours of daylight, humidity, wind speed and direction and solar energy. A big help in making wise decisions. I know that climate change is going to cause havoc with averages, and we’ll need to learn to become better weather forecasters individually, and to use soil temperature and other metrics to decide when to plant. This website explains things well.

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Winter gives a time for most of us to ponder success, failure, and possibilities for doing things differently.

 

Planning winter hoophouse crops

Cowpeas in our hoophouse. Photo Nina Gentle
Cowpeas in our hoophouse.
Photo Nina Gentle

This is our hoophouse today. We’ve pulled our early tomatoes and squash. We’ve got three beds of cowpeas, a seed crop of Carolina Crowder for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. All being well, they’ll appear in next year’s catalog. Pea and bean seed crops do very well in the hoophouse in summer – the pods don’t get moldy as they can do outdoors, and the crop matures faster.

The empty-looking bed to the left of the crop in the foreground is newly sown in buckwheat, hopefully ready to be cleared by September 6 or so, to make way for early spinach and other crops.

Here’s a photo of our invention, “cat’s cradle” string-weaving, which supports these tall viney plants and keeps them within the bounds of the 4ft wide bed.

"Cat's cradle" string-weaving for a bed of cowpeas. Photo Nina Gentle
“Cat’s cradle” string-weaving for a bed of cowpeas.
Photo Nina Gentle

We also still have a bed of West Indian gherkins, one of edamame for seed and a half-bed of peppers.

And while we are having a quieter time in there (as far as planting and harvesting), we are launching into planning our fall, winter and spring harvesting crops. After several years of using the hoophouse year-round, we have settled into a happy routine. We plan September-March harvesting crops in early-mid August and March-September crops in February. The September-March crop plan is by the far the more complicated, involving many different crops and several successions of many of those. And each one usually only occupies part of a bed. The late spring and summer crops, on the other hand, are mostly a single row of something per bed.

Here’s our step-by-step process for hoophouse crop planning:

Updating the map:

  1. Make a blank map (currently we use an Excel spreadsheet, but squared paper worked well for many years).
  2. Update the map by writing in the previous crops at the top of each bed, and the dates it will be available.
  3. If using a spreadsheet, merge the rest of the cells in that bed, to give a big open space to write in.
  4. Write in the main crop type if known, bold and vertical, with start and finish dates.
  5. Print a map, make copies for the planning meeting when the details will be decided.

You can see our current maps at these links:

Hoophouse Map

Hoophouse Map Sept-Mar

Updating the schedule (a spreadsheet of tasks in date order):

  1. Copy last year’s
  2. Change the year dates. Replace this year (2015) with next year (2016). Then replace last year with this.
  3. Adjust column widths and heights to fit the data
  4. Check Harvest Start and Finish dates for new info recorded this past year. Add it to the appropriate column. (Knowing what to expect is so helpful!)
  5. Check the Notes column and add relevant info, or make changes as directed.
  6. Check Nematode Plan (we’ve been dealing with these beasties for a few years)
  7. Set the print area, fit all columns on 1 page, landscape, Repeat column headings on all sheets.
  8. Print draft copy for planning meeting
Baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse. Photo Twin Oaks COmmunity
Baby lettuce mix in the hoophouse – what we’re planning for!
Photo Twin Oaks Community

Planning meeting (the fun bit):

  1. List the crops to be grown. Spinach, head lettuce, baby lettuce mix, baby brassica salad mix, Chinese cabbage, pak choy, Tokyo bekana, maruba santoh, tatsoi, Yukina savoy, radishes, scallions, turnips, Russian kales, senposai, bull’s blood beet greens, mizuna and several similar mustards, maybe arugula (maybe not), chard, bare-root transplants to go outdoors in spring, maybe beets, snap peas at the beginning of February. Several crops have 2-6 succession plantings.
  2. Decide which main crops could go in each bed, considering crop rotations, Nematode Plan, edge beds being narrow and colder, dates of availability, climate change, need for rowcover.
  3. Mark the main crops on the map, including how much space they need.
  4. Mark the available space left in the bed.
  5. Make a list of questions to resolve: quantities, succession crop date tweaks, variety changes, what to do if nematodes are found elsewhere.
  6. Make decisions as you go along, and write them down clearly.
  7. Figure out the Early September bed and the Nematode bed first, then the others.
  8. Work down the schedule and find a home for each crop in a space available timewise and suitable rotation-wise. Write the location on the schedule and the crop on the map, along with how much space it needs. Watch out for changes between growing something in a 2ft edge bed or a 4ft middle bed. Twice as many rows in a middle bed, twice as much length in an edge bed.
  9. If changes are needed be sure to follow through and make those changes both on the map and on the schedule.

Making final versions:

  1. Make the changes on the computer files. Can use Search and Replace, if done carefully.
  2. Two people should proofread for sense and for compatibility with the map.
  3. Make any needed corrections. Print the final versions.
  4. Take copies to hoophouse, field manual, greenhouse, hoophouse file. Original goes in the Garden Notebook file.

I’ll be giving presentations on The Hoophouse in Fall and Winter, and The Hoophouse in Spring and Summer at the Mother Earth News Fair in Pennsylvania September 18-20.


And if you want to enter a draw to win a copy of my book, Sustainable Market Farming, read the review by Deborah Niemann on The Thrifty Homesteader and enter the draw. Just a few days left. Deborah has written several books herself, including EcoThrifty, Homegrown and Handmade, and Raising Goats Naturally. Read about them on her website.