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Backyard Vegetable Gardeners: Go Get a Hoop House for Winter!

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!
  Hoop house ready for its plastic skin 

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.

 Hoop house greens
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.

maria silvers
12/2/2011 3:56:51 AM

I totally love this idea!! Thank you for posting. I'm kind of new to all of this building things, so are there any suggestions for a similar project but without the metal? I am unable to find the help or bend the metal myself, so I thought I'd build a pvc pipe one, but as we live in Kansas, the snow can be unpredictable and as the article suggested, can cause the plastic to collapse. As a divorcee, I am on a bit of a budget, so I would like to keep the project within reasonable cost of course. Thank you all!

james dhalluin
11/26/2011 4:14:20 PM

I used storm windows for my lean-to green house and the frame was quite easy to build and they can withstand the weather and be opened in the summer...

lois mills
11/25/2011 6:40:39 AM

Good idea. I'm not sure plastic sheeting would be strong enough to support icicles, heavy snow or strong winds. Although more expensive, thinner plexiglass would probably work better, but then framing too would be more expensive. The sound of earlier fresh veggies would make it well worth the expense!

larry lawton
11/24/2011 3:33:01 AM

I like this idea, but I wonder what kind of plastic people have found suitable. I have tried using the cheap transparent polyethelene sheets (over a wood frame) but they deteriorate after a year in the Sunshine, or get ripped apart by the wind, or both. Glass would work better, but it is expensive and heavy.

rochelle galloway
11/10/2011 8:37:47 PM

I agree that rain wouldn't be a problem. We get some monster icicles hanging from the metal roof as well as 'mini snow glaciers' sliding off the south side...

angela kantola
11/10/2011 5:24:16 PM

You've kicked my greenhouse dreaming into overdrive and now I'm pondering how to apply the attached concept to a greenhouse like this one: The ice/snow mentioned by another commenter would be a challenge, but, if properly handled, I think the snow and rain from our south facing metal roof could be captured as a water source...

rochelle galloway
11/10/2011 4:47:29 PM

I'm also curious how much you spent on the framework?

rochelle galloway
11/10/2011 4:44:39 PM

Do you have eaves above the attached hoop house? If so, did you have problems with icecicles or snow falling onto the plastic and breaking through?

jean nick
11/10/2011 4:21:40 PM

A simple unattached (to your house) hoophouse is easy and effective too! I made one on the super-cheap by bending 20' lengths of metal electrical conduit to make hoops (I put them in pairs to handle snow load) covered with plastic screwed down to a 2X4 frame at ground level. Here in PA I plant greens and roots in August and they will be full sized by the time growth slows or stops due to light levels in November and I can harvest them through the winter and plant more in January to start growing and producing in the very early spring. It is wonderful to shovel the snow away from the door on a sunny day in January, go in, and strip down to my skivvies to do a little weeding or harvesting. The only downside is the invigoratingly cold condensation that sprinkles down when I brush the plastic over my head.

keith karolyi
11/10/2011 5:01:30 AM

With the high humidity in the hoop house directly against the wall of your house, I'm wondering if any problems with mold or rot might be brewing. Still, I love the idea of extending the growing season here in Michigan. Good article!