The Hoophouse Tomato: In the Ground!

Reader Contribution by Sherry Leverich Tucker
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Busy 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 i
t 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.

To 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

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.