Hoop House Phase #2

Kory has been pointing out that I am overdue for some Hoop House shots, and that is mostly because I am overdue for getting into the Hoop House! April here was VERY wet- with decent rains every other day like clockwork. Soil work was out of the question for almost the entire month. About a month ago we moved the Hoop House off the greens we overwintered in it as it was too hot for the Spinach and mache –pictured in the background behind the trash can (full of Comfrey Compost Tea!). At this time in a smooth system it would have been placed over fresh ground ready to plant, but the ground was not prepped, the Grillo was not in yet, and the soil far too wet for anything bigger. So it sat as a solar heated shed for a month as the soil dried out. The second shot shows the weeds to the south of the house that thrived in the warm, moist air. The ground to the East was turned by the Grillo -more on that in a post this week (hopefully!).

The trick was to till all around the house, and then move the structure with the help of 2-3 others. If you click on the pics to expand them slightly you can tell that the structure is free standing, but stoutly built. It is essentially riding on 4×6″ treated lumber which serves as skids, frame and foundation. We are getting better at it: basically you get 2 people per side to prop it up with 6′ levers (pipe, pry bars, whatever) and slide planks under it. Then you lift it again and put some rollers under it -we chopped up some old fence posts last year. 3 per side do it nicely. Then the teams switch to front and back with the back team pushing with their levers, and the front team steering. The ground is not level and we typically fall off the planks a few times, but start to finish we can move a 500#, 12’x25′ structure 30 feet in about 30 minutes w/o a tractor. Nice.

So what’s in it? 37 Peppers (Valencia Orange) and 20 Tomatoes( Isis Candy, Oregon Spring, Cosmonaut, and Brandywine). The peppers are on the perimeter as they only get about 2′ tall, and the maters are in 2 rows down the middle. Temp in the house at the time of this shot is 92 degrees with an ambient outside of 68!

The Tomatoes will be allowed to grow in fairly densely, but are spaced close enough to pick from 3 sides. The paths will be between the peppers and the tomatoes on all 4 sides. As the tomatoes grow I will string some baling wire across the inside of the hoop house about 6-7′ up and then drop jute twine down to another wire line. This will allow the tomatoes to be trained up these for air circulation and ease of picking. I should have tomatoes 4-5 weeks earlier than if they were planted out.

Key Learnings:

  • Plan your moves. My ‘maters would be 3’ tall now if I had moved the house onto prepped ground
  • Plan your space. Due to lack of time I just through the plants in -with better planning I could easily have fit 20% more in
  • Plan your plantings. Next time I will surround the Mini-Maters with lettuce transplants. That way I would be harvesting from the soil for an extra month until the tomatoes fill in.

Speaking of tomatoes here are some better shots of the transplants. My first transplants were a decided failure -all spindly and sad. My farming mentor stressed the need to up the intensity so I doubled the lights and this is what I have now! These are the first batch -about 4-5 weeks old and well over a foot tall. They are in 2.5 inch pots and getting a bit root bound. One thing I MUST get better about is not fretting about culling the seed trays. I let 2-4 tomatoes fight it out in there -I planted the trays heavy due to old seed. But come planting time the transplants then have to be teased apart, damaging the roots excessively and hogging time like crazy. The next day I went back to my home transplant rack and counted 96 more pots -each with 2-4 plants in them. My goals are only for 110 plants… I started pinching.

When it comes time to plant the tomatoes, I had great success with trenching them. The transplants are about 12″ tall, but I pinch off all but the top sets of leaves. I then dig a long, shallow hole big enough to fit 3/4’s of the plant laying it down, and then carefully bend the last bit above the soil so only the top 4″ are showing (at right). Tomatoes will root anywhere the vine touches soil, so the 8″ of buried vine will send roots out within days, and removing the leaves helps prevent transplant shock. The shallow trench also keeps more of the tomato roots near the soil surface which is the warmest soil in this critical early time -even in a hoop house.

MUCH to learn, but Hoop Houses are absolutely incredible tools for stretching growing seasons up here in Wisconsin. The Hoop House uses about 350 sq feet. With 1600 sq feet you could set up a path grid of 4 400 sq ft spots and rotate the house around it as you overwinter spinach, get a jump on an early set of tomatoes, and leave 1 more for melons/squash in the open air, and the fourth in cover crop.
Ah the possibilities!

Even if you weren’t growing food, the joy of walking into 90+ degrees of humid air thick, with the heady aroma of tomato plants would be worth it on the crisp May Days!


6 Responses

  1. Wow – looks awesome! I bet it is nice and toasty in there.

  2. Eureka!

    Thank you rob, I have been reading Four Season Harvest (which if you havent I highly suggest) And all the talk of tunnels, cold frames and hoop houses with drawings are nice, but I really wanted to see some pictures. Thank you thank you.

    And btw 4×6! those are some hefty chunks of lumber. I had 4×4’s as a border around the raised bed before I split it in two and stretched it. now I use 1×6’s My wife asked me if I could find a use for all the 4x lumber…and I just got some inspiration.

  3. Rob, I just wanted to thank you for the great inspiration. I’ve been working to learn to grow my own food in my urban yard for a couple of years now, and your blog has been the inspiratoin to not be afraid of scaling my efforts up.

    I see your efforts as charting a reasonable and steady course from a suburban life to being a farmer, which is a dream of mine also.

    Stay strong and God Bless!

  4. Thanks Matt!

    One thing that I hope I do not lose sight of this year is that you can be BOTH. I still hope to grow 2000#’s of food in the backyard of our suburban home while still having a deck and play system for the kids.

    But the chance this year to try growing on a MUCH bigger scale was too good to pass up and lets me practice things like growing in Hoop Houses, using power equipment, drip irrigation, and covercrops rit large.


  5. I am a tomato fanatic, which is a challenge here in Montana. I have evolved a method that works great for tomatoes in my hoop house, if you have time you might want to go look at my tomato posts on my blog.

    I used jute twine, second year decided to reuse it since it was still hanging. Very bad idea. When the plants were large and heavy with tomatoes the twine started breaking, which let my poor plants slam to the ground. Awful.

    Leggy tomatoes can be just fine if you repot them, burying most of the stem so it sends out roots. A big root ball makes a serious tomato factory! Letting them fight it out, simply means not as extensive root development as would be ideal. That is my opinion on it anyway.

    I grow extra tomato plants each spring and only put the largest and most vigorous into the ground in my hoop house. My friends are always eager to take the excess plants.

    I think I will try out your covercrop ideas on my big round garden which presently is a shambles after being neglected while I wrote my book.


  6. […] first seeds (70 sq ft of Bloomsdale spinach) and placed my first order for seeds.  The Hoop House (11×25 not the proposed monster) soil is still completely frost free, but is wicked dry. I […]

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