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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

The Hoophouse Tomato: In the Ground!


hoophouse catBusy robins flutter all around finding bits and pieces of straw and filler to use for new nests. Flocks of geese and ducks are heading back North with occasional detours to nibble green wheat grass or take a swim in a nice size pond.

Here we are! Yes, it is already March and gardens are emerging all over the countryside. Gardeners are chomping at the bit with packets of seeds arriving in their mailboxes. It is an exciting time of year for the gardener, with hopes and anticipation of the growing season ahead.

Our warm spring days have been very windy, and thankfully my new hoophouse (which was raised last May) has stood up to those winds just fine. The weather this year has been seasonably warmer. Moisture has been light and I think a lot of us are leery that this may be the start of another hot dry summer. But, being optimistic, this is also the start of an early garden season full of potential and dreams. I am dreaming of a large abundance of beautiful red tomatoes to sell and to can. I didn't can a single tomato last summer, and it has caused me dreadful sadness. I shall not be completely at ease till I have several quarts of tomatoes stashed in my basement to get us through next winter.

Even if this does turn out to be another season of drought, there isn't any reason why we can't make the most of ihoophousetommiest now. I am continuing to strive for early tomatoes. This first week of March I have gotten 30 tomato plants transplanted into the hoophouse. These tomato plants were started in January by a friend of mine who has an incredible seed starting set-up. It consist of a heated filled water-bed that is kept at a constant temperature. Fluorescent lights are hung across the waterbed which is in a cool basement. Tomato, pepper and other seeds need to have warm soil to germinate. Once they germinate they cannot be kept too warm or the plants will grow narrow stalks and get leggy and fragile. I didn't have luck with the tomatoes I started, they got chilled early on and I think that stifled their growth. The plant varieties I am starting with are “Bush Early Girl”,“Polbig”, “Celebrity” and “Mountain Fresh” (in the order of their maturity dates. I have tried all of these except for “Polbig”. We will plant other varieties and heirlooms in the outside garden later this spring, but these are varieties that may do better in hoophouse conditions and also have staggered maturity dates.

Still Learning About the Hoophouse Climate 

My hoophouse is only solar heated, and this heat soon dissipates when the sun goes down. But as our days are getting longer, the warmth of the sun warms the hoophouse for a longer amount of the day. The ground is also heating, which helps maintain a more stable temperature. Our late frost date is not till mid-May, though, so I still have two months to keep an eye on dropping temps in the night-time.

hoophousetommiescovdTo protect the tomatoes from potential cooler temperatures, I did several things. I planted them in a trench. Keeping the plants lower in the ground will help them take advantage of the warmth radiating from the dirt around them, rather than the cooler air that would be up higher. This dirt that surrounds the trench will also be pulled around the plants as they grow. This will provide the tomato plants with a larger root base. I also went ahead and set up some small hoops over the tomatoes and completely covered them with white cover cloth. This will hopefully add another barrier of protection from chills by trapping in more heat and radiating light around the plants as they grow.

So far, so good! The extended forecast for my neck of the woods is fine, but the real test will be to see if the tomatoes survive a night-time low of 25 or colder, which can be a possibility.


photos:  top; Legolas, my lazy hoophouse companion, middle; the tomato seedlings ready to go in the ground, bottom; the tomato plants covered with the protective white cloth. 

sherry tucker
3/12/2012 5:40:27 PM

I am seeing a dramatic decrease in the amount of cool-off during the night now that daytime hours are growing. Of course, we have had a very mild winter and an early spring. The temperature this week will be above average. I will be planting out another row of early tomatoes without a cover, it will be interesting to note any differences in growth. Early spring means opportunity to get more crops out! Makes it hard for a farmer to keep up! Good luck with the hoophouse addition and keep us posted on how it goes!

t brandt
3/9/2012 10:23:57 PM

Thanks for your quick response...The heat inside a greenhouse is generated by the ground absorbing the sunlight and re-radiating it as heat. If each cover admits only 80% of the incident light, then only 64% of the sunlight actually makes it to the ground under the low row covers. The amount of heat the low cover traps may be less than the heat it prevents from forming if it stays in place during daylight. It'd be interesting to see if there's a difference in growth between rows left covered vs rows only covered after the sun goes down...A thermal mass heater is a mass, like a barrel of water, that cools off slowly afer heating. From the foto of your hoop house, you'd probably need a swimming pool to make a difference...I tried a pile of horse manure in my cold frame last year as a heat source, but didn't see much of a difference. Again, it's probably the ratio of compost to growing area that's important and the loss of growing area as compost volume increases may make it an unfavorable trade off...Like you, I live in zone 5 and late winter, early spring temps can still go down to 20deg at nite. I'm putting up a hoop house for the first time and am concerned that it'll cool off too much at nite. Thanks for the suggestion. I'm gunna give the inside, low hoops a try too.

sherry tucker
3/9/2012 1:34:50 PM

No, I am not removing the row cover during the day right now. That may be a good idea, though - because although the cover lets in 80 percent (I can't remember for sure - different covers have differing percentages, but it is a high number), the tomatoes would benefit from more sun. One thing that is interesting about these row covers (and greenhouse covering as well) is that the sunshine, though slightly filtered, becomes diffused and reflected in a way that seems to *wrap* the plants in light. Anyways...I will uncover them some when I know nighttime temps will be warmer - I suspect keeping them covered also helps trap in more radiant heat coming from the warmed ground.

sherry tucker
3/9/2012 1:29:49 PM

I have been wanting to experiment with compost heating! I think that would be an awesome way to add some subtle warmth to the environment. I just haven't gotten to that yet...hopefully next year. If I do that, I will use old cow manure, but I have to be careful to place it in an area where I know I will be planting veggies that require/love high nitrogen soil. Maybe next to the tomatoes where I would have cukes or canteloup? What exactly is a thermal mass heater?

t brandt
3/9/2012 12:18:23 PM

Do you remove the low row cover during the day and replace it at nite or does enough lite penetrate the low row cover to heat the soil adequaley?

christian mcmahon
3/9/2012 2:31:12 AM

I read somewhere you can heat your greenhouse by composting inside the greenhouse. You may also try a thermal mass heater.