Mini Hoopty: Frost Free!

1 week after mini hoopty #1 went up, I built the second one.   In the spirit of experimentation, I spread a full inch of 75% cooked compost down to see how if the darker surface would hasten the snow melt.  The answer is a qualified yes – it is faster than pure snow, but I found an even better way.  Temps were averaging over 10 degrees warmer than the first tunnel, but with a full inch of compost, it appeared to be acting as an insulating mulch and the snow remained under the mulch for a solid week.  Once I figured that out, I initiated a 3rd trial in the footprint of the 3rd, not yet built, tunnel.  Onto this 6×80′ area I sprinkled 2 5 gallon pails of compost onto the shoveled surface (about 1-2 of snow left).  This flecked the surface, but only about 15%.   Verdict?  The flecked surface was snow free sooner than the covered hoopties!  The frost is still in the ground, as night temps are refreezing, but this very encouraging.  To speed it a bit, you can see that I have laid the tufflite from #2 over the footprint of #3 for the week while I beat the rye into submission.

Hoopty #2, frost free in 2 weeks. Witness the Quail Manufacturing sod cutter. Its bad ass.

Hoopty #2, the one that got the 1″ of compost, was frost free in 2 weeks.  Nighttime temps were 12-20 and daytime was 25-35 with some solid sunny days.  Once the snow was off the winter rye cover shot up like crazy.  this is posing more than a minor problem.  The soil is a soup of compost and snow melt, and even scuffle hoeing is doing as much pulling as cutting and the rye is re-rooting with abandon.   Looking through my agricultural arsenal, the Grillo was out – too wet even for the rotary plow.  Then I spied my Sod Cutter.  This thing is a beast, and it cuts 1-2″ into the soil.  My hope was that this wold offer enough resistance that the roots would be cut rather than pulled.  Even this is not working uber well, but I’ve hit the patch twice now and the rye appears to be getting the worst of it.

All this toil, from having to use an 8lb sledge to pound in spike to make holes for the hoops, to shoveling the snow and spreading compost, to having to then remove the hoops and try over several days to kill a cover crop speaks to the need to PLAN for winter farming in October or September.  Back then I was thinking to cut back on my activities this year, but then my work schedule changed and I ended up more than tripling my grow plans and added a greenhouse to boot.  Next year will be SO much easier!  Clear the summer crops, apply compost, seed the soil.  As November approaches I will cover with Agribon, then as the frosts get fierce, over this will go the Tufflite you see here.  Frost will NEVER get into the soil and I will harvest throughout the winter with replanting of transplants in late Feb.

In the mean time, my learnings are awesome and even without a harvest the ability to walk across delightfully spongey, frost free soil in my little 6′ strip of heaven while the rest of the farm is under 6″ of snow would have made it worthwhile.  Tomorrow this will get the remaining transplants, and the rest will be seeded to spinach.  I have 3 more flats of lettuce that will be ready when Hoopty #1 is frost free, and Hoopty #3 will be getting the 20#’s of potatoes sprouting in my basement.  Baby spuds in May anyone?  Excellent.



11 Responses

  1. Great results!

  2. Learning is painful as well as fun. My hoopties (nice word) got buried in snow and crushed the seedlings inside. Not sure whether I should have taken the covers off while the snow was falling (and left the seedlings to get crushed by the snow……?!). Or maybe attached a ridge (rigid) pole. We only usually have one or two very light snowfalls but this year, we’ve had lots. You can never second guess the weather it seems.

  3. I wouldn’t bet on the mini hoopties being frost-free all winter; my greenhouse(8×12′) couldn’t manage that until I raised the beds 8″, because it doesn’t have enough thermal mass. And the snow load issue is not minor…I’d think it would be a crapshoot whether they’d survive any given winter. One heavy snow could do them in.

    But hey – I’m doing this from my armchair! As always, I eagerly await your data from actual trials. 🙂

    • I think digging a trench with that rotary plow and slotting in flakes of straw might be an easier way to carve out an insulated thermal mass, than raising the beds. Lots of houses are built in a similar way, with rigid insulation fairly deep around their foundations.

      Not sure how deep the water table would allow this, though. Some deep mulch could cover the ground between the trench and any soil needed to keep the hoops upright. The straw could produce a yield of mushrooms, potentially, as well, to make up for the need to replace it every year or two.

    • This winter was remarkably mild – I am only running on about 3-5 yrs of data, but we had NO frost under Jan Wk 2, and my field peas never winter killed, and that is a first. We had a week of bitter cold (minus teens), but had plenty of snow cover at the time. The small hoopty (11×25) was frost free all year – it crept in about 6″ for a week, but then retreated. Heavy snow is very much a concern, considering running a rope along the hoops and looping around them – the edges will be tied to ground stakes. Spacing them 3′ from each other may help incase snow removal is an issue. Time will tell.

  4. That sounds frustrating. I guess maybe black oats/purple vetch next year?

    Does flooding kill rye?

    • Flooding – MIGHT kill rye, but would need to be sustained. A true winter kill cover such as oats would be better, but would still need to be tilled in. It is likely that if I am going to 3 crops per field that I will reach the same conclusion that Eliot Coleman and John Jeavons have – they both run large sections of compost crops separate from their beds, and then apply compost liberally into the growing beds. Not entirely pleased with that as you are losing the root mass benefits.

      May switch to a summer cover in some beds – “summer” alfalfa is something I want to try. Running a hoopty only once every 3 years in a rotation per bed is another option, but not sure I have enough space as the winter options are limited due to low sun angles and high pine tree hedgerows.

  5. Rob, what you’re doing never ceases to impress.

    Meanwhile, I’m conducting a reader poll on the following question: What do you add to your soil to maintain fertility, and how much?

    Before the advent of factory-made fertilizers, farmers/gardeners spread manure on the fields or they simply looked for a new plot of land when their soil was used up. Nitrogen and other plant nutrients need to be added back to the soil to replace what crops remove. What is your practice?


    • Ed,

      I am embarrassed to say that I likely have been running a mild soil deficit for the past 2 years on my plots. Due to planting in 18-36″ of pure compost the soil has ALOT of buffer. I am not a control group 🙂 The practice on the potato plots to date:

      Plant winter rye in late october then let Geese graze it from late November to late April. This adds significant nitrogen from manure and the rye root mass and stubble is turned in 1-2 weeks prior to planting. 20% of the land was rested in a full year of cover – crimson clover and oats. another 20% got a winter kill cover of field peas, oil seed radish, and oats planted in late September (1 month late).

      This year 75% of the plots will be getting no cover due to 2-4 plantings and season extension. To overcome this I will be using extensive mulches and will be purchasing 1-2 tons of straw ($100-200). Between beds will be swaled and backfilled with 1′ of shredded green woody material that will compost in place. To this I will add composting worms. Between plantings .5-1″ of compost will be applied, with side dressings of pelletized chicken manure, vermicompost or fish emulsion as needed for heavy feeders. May experiment with compost teas as well. Compost will be a mix of horse manure/municipal leaves/harvested green manures (willow, millet, sudangrass) from 3 large windrows 10′ wide, 5′ tall, and 75′ long built using a pto driven manure spreader loaded with a skid steer. Test plots using biochar from the gasifier will also be run. General goal is to produce 100% of soil amendments on site using compost, compost teas, vermicompost and biochar. Will be experimenting with using straw from 1 of the 3 prairie plots on the farm to offset straw imports. Compost goal for 2010 is 20 tons with a surplus of 5-10 tons to be sold.

      Whenever possible I seek to backhaul compostables from my restaurant clients -6000#s in 2009 from one client- to close the loop.

      Hope this helps!


  6. How do you “turn in” the stubble and roots from cover crops?

    • Rye can be an issue. I have the advantage of my Grillo at the farm -the rotary plow will turn under 4′ tall lamsbquarter. But at home I cut the crop down with a hand sickle if I’m using if for mulch in another bed, or my electric mulching lawn mower if I want it in the soil. Then I go through the bed with a digging fork and turn it. At least 2 weeks is needed to let the roots break down, then I rake the beds and plant. Transplants are easier than seeds as rye has allopathic effects. I have yet to find a good no till way to mange winter rye. Despite all of this, I am hooked on it though due to the obscene amounts of root mass it puts into the soil- nothing I have found comes close.

      If spring plantings are in order for the bed, a winter kill mix of field peas and oats planted at least a month before first frost date will put up good organic matter and the peas will get nitrogen into the ground. Assuming your winters are tough enough (modify plants if not) Spring prep is merely pulling off the dead mulch into the paths or for compost, or chopping it lightly with a hoe and incorporating it with a cultivator if you have some time. If you are transplanting, just leave it in place and plant right through it.

      Cover crops and/or succession planting is very important for soil health. Essentially plants are the conveyor of solar energy, through sugar, into the topsoil. As plant photosynthesize they channel sugar into the soil via their root hairs where they exude it in exchange for minerals, nutrients, and water with the soil organisms such as bacteria and fungus. Keeping green plants on the soil as long as possible keep that conveyor working, which keep the soil ecosystem robust and populace. Mulching is the next best thing as it at least provides organic matter for decomposers and the worm population will love you.

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