Do you grow your own vegetables and live in a cold climate? Do you spend too many months of the year longing to get your hands in the soil and eating greens grown by somebody else while waiting for spring to arrive?
I did until two years ago. On a cold October day I was out cleaning the garden, cutting my losses, saying goodbye to my annuals and putting my yard to bed for the winter. For several years I had eyed a garden bed that faced south and ran along the back of our house. Was this the year to pick up some recycled windows and experiment with a small cold frame?
One thing led to another. Why such a small winter experiment? I could take advantage of the full 18’ length of the garden bed! We had been members of a winter CSA for more than 15 years. The farmers, just 12 miles south of us, grew spinach all winter in a hoop house. Every other week, from October through April: we got a bag (the size of a basketball) of fresh, squeaky, sweet spinach leaves. If our local CSA farmers grew greens all winter long, couldn’t I?
I went through the machinations of project development: reading, sketching, pacing the perimeter and revising plans. I consulted with my husband and kids. I hauled out my copy of Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest and reread the book, this time scaling down his hoop house into a miniature version that could fit in my backyard. Thankfully our our friend Dan (a guy who can build anything) stepped in. He scanned my dog-eared copy of Coleman’s book and saw what I wanted right away. Dan rejected my idea of PVC for the job: he said it can warp in the sun and can fail with the weight of a snow load. So we bought steel (electrical) conduit for the hoops. Dan borrowed a bender from a friend. Several intensive work sessions later our backyard hoop house was born!
We made some decisions that determined the design. We wanted it high enough so my six-foot-tall husband could walk comfortably inside. We settled on a lean-to construction to assure that water would fall away from the house. The hoop house would enclose the entire 18’ south-facing garden bed and the doorway to the basement. That way we would enter the hoop house directly from the basement, keeping the harvest (and us) protected from winter exposure.
The first winter and spring far exceeded our expectations of fresh food — both quality and quantity! From early March into summer we were eating lettuce, spinach, kale, onion, chard, mache, tatsoi, bok choy and more from the hoop house.
The backyard hoop house had added three months to my spring growing season! I had my hands in the soil in February and had halved the time that I was waiting to garden each year. And we discovered that the hoop house is a warm, sunny and humid habitat for us on winter afternoons!
If this idea appeals to you — or if you already have a small-sized backyard hoop house and are willing to share information about your methods and harvest — please stay tuned to this blog and speak out here by leaving relevant comments.