Intro: Hoop Houses- Gardening All Year Long in New England.
I live in Massachusetts, either USDA zone 5 or 6 (it's debatable), meaning we get a possible low of -25 degrees F. Our last frost date is around May 31, and our 1st frost date is is around October 1st, leaving a fairly short growing season. But with hoop houses this all changes. Also, they keep the bugs away. No bites taken out of your spinach, and no slugs in your lettuce.
You will need.
- a garden, about 4' wide, by however long you like.
- metal conduit
- a conduit bender
- fabric row covers
- plastic row covers
Step 1: Make the Hoops.
We used, and I would recommend 1/2" metal conduit, 10' long. They were about $1 a piece at the hardware store.
Now you can bend the conduit by hand, you can make your own bender, or you can buy one. We purchased one from Johnny's Seeds. We tried making one, but the hoops came out fairly wobbly and wonky. This bender gave us perfect arches. The arches don't have to be perfect, but they certainly look a lot nicer, and if your garden is visible from the street, you neighbors might appreciate it.
I have 6 garden beds, each are about 4'x8'. I put three hoops per bed. That means the hoops are bout 4' apart.
So, I needed 18 pieces of conduit.
Once you make the hoops, there are a few different ways you can install them.
I have raised beds, and I installed the hoops on the outside of the bed. It gives a little more room to the plants, and the hoops are not pushing the bed apart. It makes mowing the lawn a tad tricky, but i don't mind.
My favorite method was to push the hoops about 6' into the ground, and I secured them with a pipe clamp.
You can also just put them in the ground. They stay up fine, if you don't have kids swinging on them, or if you don't expect several feet of snow.
The most secure way, although time consuming, it to buy some 3/4' conduit, cut it into 2' lengths, hammer them into the ground, so only a few inches are remaining, and insert the hoops.
Step 2: Fall and Winter Gardening.
Hoop houses start being very useful in the fall. You can cover the hoops with fabric as the weather starts to get cold, protecting your tomatoes from light frost, and keeping them nice and toasty. Sometimes, we have a frost in early October, and then it can be fairly warm right up through December. This method will save your plants.
In the fall, you can start planting spinach, swiss chard, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, and anything else that can stand the cold.
I use one layer of fabric in the fall, then as it starts to get very cold, or when we are going to get snow, I add a layer of plastic. This brings the climate of my garden from Massachusetts, to the equivalent of Georgia.
This is the fabric I used: http://www.johnnyseeds.com/p-5452-agribon-ag-19-83-x-50.aspx
This is the plastic I used: http://www.johnnyseeds.com/p-7709-tufflite-nursery-clear-greenhouse-film-10-x-100-roll.aspx
For the winter, I made two large hoop houses, each one covering three beds. This was easier, than individually wrapping each house. There are several ways to secure the fabric and plastic. They sell plastic clips. They work okay, but they tend to tear the fabric, and they tend to break, and get lost. I find they work best on the ends of the rows. putting spare wood and fence posts worked the best to keep the fabric down. I would put them on top of the fabric on the ground, and push them right up to the beds.
When everything freezes, it stays in place. Nothing keeps the plastic secure like feet of ice and snow.
In the spring, I used extra hoops, (the wonky ones) and rested them over the houses. That helped keep the fabric from blowing around too much.
Now, plants do not grow quickly during the winter, I was able to harvest chard, lettuce and spinach most of the winter. You can go look the plants in the morning in the winter, and they look wilty, but it's just from the cold. They perk back up once the sun warms up the house.
Because I covered the grass between the beds, it stayed nice and green all winter. It was so pleasant to go into the hoop house, sit on the grass, and pick spinach while it was cold and snowing outside. It smelled like spring all winter long.
For more info about what to grow during the winter check out this book.
Step 3: Spring and Summer Gardening.
So, you know those seed packets that say you can plant as soon as the ground can be worked, well, with the hoop houses that can be February!
In the spring, your chard and spinach will start to die off and/or bolt. I got about 4 harvests out of mine. Now it's time to plant peas. They grow quickly, and will be ready in just a month or so. You can also harvest seeds you planted in Nov/Dec. I have broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, kohlrabi all ready to eat in April/May.
You can also put your tomato plants in the ground in April, a full month earlier than without the hoops. We started the tomatoes indoors in March. Slowly we let them harden for a few hours at a time under the hoops.
As it gets warm, You can remove the fabric for the season. The plastic can be used for several years. The fabric is iffy on whether you can reuse it or not. Mine has some holes, but some big chunks are fine for individual beds. You can also remove the hoops, or leave them up and use them as supports for you plants. You can also leave plants that really like heat covered all summer. (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers) It's up to you. It's a lot of experimenting. It's tricky to give exact directions, because the weather is different every year, everyone's soil is different, etc.
Step 4: Enjoy Your Harvest.
Here are a few pointers.
- Use lots of manure and compost, since you are using the soil all year, it needs to be replenished. In France, they use fresh horse manure to heat the green houses. Try it if you got it.
- Don't forget to water! Plants that are covered don't get the rain. (some goes through the cloth, but none through the plastic) We have two big rainbarrels next to our beds, and we use them year round. We make sure they are close to empty if we are getting super cold weather, so they don't burst from ice.
- Plant a lot of seeds! Seeds are cheap, take a chance, try different things at different times. The worst that happens is they don't grow. The best is you have too many delicious veggies.
- Write it down! Label what you plant, make a map, make a chart of when you planted things. This will help you year to year, learning what works, and what doesn't. Also this helps you remember what you planted where. Spring came this year, and I couldn't tell the difference between my broccoli, kale, and kohlrabi for a while.
- Have fun! Let the kids help! They love playing in the hoop houses, they're good at weeding, and it's great for them to learn about their food.