A new idea comes to life

December 2011

Four Season Farm

After reading Eliot Coleman’s books this summer, I was sure that I wanted to give growing in a hoop house a try. The idea of an extended growing season had really been weighing on my mind since attended the hoop house workshops, at the New England Small Fruit & Vegetable Conference.  And with production ideas needing to be explored for the business grant,  a hoop house seemed like the logical way to test extended season crops. The question was, how soon could I get a hoop house and could it be built before the ground froze solid. After all, I lived in Maine and it was December. Well, if there is a will, there is a way. I never been one to let anything stop my willingness to explore something new, especially if it meant that I would be working towards self-sufficiency. So, the more I read about it, research it, talked about it (a lot), and finally ask for a hoop house as a Christmas present, the hoop house idea became a reality.

Now, no one in there right mind who lives in the northeast, unless maybe if you’re a native Mainer, begins construction of a hoop house from scratch on the first weekend in December. At this point in time, most New Englanders and farmers alike would have packed up the yard and moved activities inside for the long cold months ahead (little did we know that we wouldn’t have much of a winter to speak off this year). One thing for sure, the weather was on our side.  The first project weekend, it was 50 degrees, and the second weekend it was 45 degrees. Quite comfortable weather for this time of year.

24 x 36 hoop house kit with automated controls cost around $5995.

Hoop houses come in many sizes and can be built as large as 30 ft x 100 ft. Prices range from $1000-$10,000, depending on the size, and if automated ventilation systems and heat are to be included .Here is a nice article by Cornell University on high tunnels, explaining many consideration for building a high tunnel (another name for a hoop house).

Gothic-style tunnels a good choice where winter snow loads are a concern.

When it comes to deciding which hoop house to build, there are several options, 1.) buy a kit complete with galvanized tubing, hardware, lumber, doors, greenhouse film (plastic), and optional heating and ventilation systems. 2.) DIY with PVC pipe, lumber and plastic from your local home improvement store, or 3.) make it out of whatever recyclable materials you have available. We chose option 3.

In October, (just before Acton, Me received 20 inches of snow on October 30th! Thank goodness it melted away) Jamie and I had dismantled a collapsed car port, took it home and had planned to modify and reassemble it as a storage structure for the boat. Somehow though, we didn’t get round to resurrecting the structure. The piece laid in a pile behind the shed until my spark of interest for a hoop house glowed brightly, and Jamie put his engineering skills to work.

October 30, 2011 snowstorm in Maine

10/30/11 young fruit trees under 20 inches of snow

Our working platform was the concrete basketball court out back. It was easy to lay all the pieces to get an idea of how to reassemble the car port into a hoop house. It was like erecting a giant Erector set. There were the galvanized pieces sorted by size, a stack of lumber, assorted nuts and bolts, a step-ladder, and some hand tools. Many of the bent galvanized pieces needed to be cut. This shortened the overall height of the structure from 7 ft to 6 ft. It would still be tall enough to walk in and strong enough to support hoop house type tomato plants.

As the tomato plants grow they are clipped to a string. When they reach the top of the string the fruit is harvested from the bottom branches and then the tomato plant is lowered 1-2 ft. This gives room for the tomato plant to grow upward again. Some tomato plants can grow 30 ft in six months.

Next, we built a wooden base out of 2 x6’s for the 5 ft sides to attach to. Once the galvanized sides and roof pieces were assembled, strapping was added to square it up and make it sturdy. The end walls were built in the garage and carried out to be attached. One end wall was designed with two drop down windows for ventilation and an old screen door fitted with a glass insert. The other end wall, was built with a used louvered vent that was in the junk pile waiting to go to the dump. Good find! It will do the job and it was free!

Ventilation in a hoop house is very important. Temperatures inside should not exceed 95-100 degrees.

On December 18th, with the help of many hands and our 33 HP tractor, the hoop house was moved from the basketball court to it resting place in the south-east garden. It was a little tricky moving the 12 x 20 structure. Jamie and three young men picked up the front end while I was in charge of driving the tractor which was lifting the back end. I was nervous and excited all at once. It creaked and swayed as I inched along, down over the lawn and across the narrow stone path to the south-east garden. A couple of times, I thought it was going to slide off the tractor forks. (I wish someone had taken pictures or a video of this moving event!) But, without any disasters it was put in place, in an east to west direction, with the door facing west. The hard part was over, now I just needed the plastic to close it up tight.

I desperately wanted to wrap the hoop house with plastic before the weather changed. I had placed an order for greenhouse plastic (actually two orders, one for 4-mil DIY consumer-type plastic and one for 4-mil UV protected greenhouse film) several weeks before, hoping one of them would arrive in time to close up the hoop house. But neither order had come in. I feared that winter would arrive for good and the ground would freeze ending my hopes of a late winter-early spring planting in the hoop house.

Then on December 23, I came home from work to find a large cardboard roll leaning up next to the door. Finally, and just in time. I called Jamie and asked him to try to get home before dark so we could wrap the hoop house since snow was predicted to fall that night. So at  4pm we unrolled the DIY plastic and began tacking it in place with strips of wood on the south side. Daylight was waning quickly and by the time we moved to the north side we had to turn the car’s headlights on to complete the task. I chuckled to myself, thinking that no one else would be doing this right now would they, after dark on December 23rd! Ha, so what. You do what you need to do to get results. Just as we were finishing up, checking all the corners, snow began to fall. It was  6pm and the hoop house was wrapped tight. Go ahead, let it snow!

early morning in late December

My dream of winter gardening would soon become a reality! I gave Jamie a hug and said, “Thanks for the early Christmas present.” He smiled.

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