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Garden Shelter | Spring 2015 Out Here Magazine

Extend your growing season with a hoop house

woman in overalls, hat, and gloves working on a hoop house
Out Here

By Erin McIntyre

Photography by iStock

If you're one of those gardeners who itches to see the first sprigs of green in the spring and mourns the frosty end of the garden each fall, an affordable hoop house is the ticket to extending your harvest on both ends of the growing season.

This simple method of sheltering plants allows gardeners to get a head start in the spring and delay the end of the garden, and it's fairly simple to do.

Unlike greenhouses, hoop houses don't require any electricity or special construction skills. They're very low-tech, simply made of some type of bowed frame — usually plastic or metal, but sometimes wood — and covered with one or two layers of heavy clear plastic or cloth for insulation that arches over the bed of vegetables.

Hoop houses can be permanent or removable, depending on how the gardener wants to use them. They can be fashioned for any size or space, so they're well-suited for a variety of yards and growing situations.

Brad Hinckley, owner of Coldwater Creek Farms in Gold Hill, N.C., gardens year-round with the help of hoop houses and greenhouses. The organic farm's Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) shareholders benefit from the season extension provided by the structures, as Hinckley usually is able to plant sugar-snap peas by the end of February. Their CSA program lasts at least 28 weeks, and the farm sells produce at farmers markets year-round.

Coldwater Creek Farms' hoop house is what Hinckley calls a "high tunnel," which is tall enough for gardeners to work inside, with a double-layer of plastic.

"It's very cheap to manage," he says.

Home gardeners sometimes use "low tunnels," which are hoop houses measuring only tall enough for the vegetables themselves.

The biggest benefit Hinckley sees in using a hoop house is the extension of the growing season on both ends.

"For the backyard (gardener), if they could be getting an extra month or two months out of their garden, that's a huge savings in food costs and you're able to get a jump in the springtime," he says. "If you wanted to do some tomatoes, you could have them a month, two months before anybody else would have tomatoes."

Besides sheltering plants from biting frost, hoop houses also protect plants from the blistering sun. Gardeners can swap out the clear plastic for sun-shading fabric in the summer and protect plants from direct sunlight in the afternoons to prevent sunburned peppers.

Hoop houses also offer protection from certain pests and helps contain problems, Hinckley says.

"I consider the greenhouse and the hoop house controlled environments," he says. "I always have an infestation of aphids in my greenhouse or my high tunnel at some point. If I'm having a problem with aphids, I'm going to get a gallon of ladybugs and add them to my hoop house."

The structure helps keep those beneficial insects concentrated where the aphids need to be eradicated, he says.

For home gardeners, Hinckley recommends planting leafy greens in hoop houses, because they can produce over the length of a season. He calls them "Pete and Repeat plants."

"Kale or collard greens, you can pick off the bottom leaves and leave the center," he says. "With Swiss chard, too, pick those bottom, outside leaves off and two weeks later, those smaller leaves are ready to pick."

Colorado writer Erin McIntyre is anxious to get something green going early this spring in a hoop house, when there’s still snow on the ground.


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