Quick Hoops: Use Low Tunnels to Grow Vegetables in Winter

Low tunnels, also known as "quick hoops," are inexpensive tunnel greenhouses you can use to grow vegetables in winter.

| October/November 2009

Winter garden

Eliot Coleman uses low tunnels to grow carrots, salad greens and other crops in winter — in Maine!


As a farmer, I’m always looking for new ideas and simple, low-cost solutions to improve production and efficiency. I have never found any activity that cannot be improved (and then improved again) by a diligent process of critical evaluation. Long before my wife, Barbara Damrosch, and I came up with the design for our low tunnels (miniature greenhouse tunnels, also called quick hoops), we had already improved our greenhouses by making them moveable, first on skids and later on wheels. But innovation is a never-ending process. The ideal solution is always less expensive, simpler to build, and less complicated to manage. We consider it pleasant mental exercise to refine all aspects of our agricultural production to the essentials.

For a harvest of mature onions in early summer to sell at our farm stand, we were interested in growing the fall-planted onion varieties listed in seed catalogs. ‘Olympic,’ an overwintering onion from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, has become our favorite variety. It only keeps in storage for a few months, but that’s no problem because they all sell by the time later onions are harvestable. Because the low temperatures here in Maine are too harsh for overwintered onions to survive, we needed to grow them with protection from the weather. We decided to grow them in one of our unheated moveable greenhouse rotations.

We drilled the seed in late August, left the onions uncovered until we had harvested the last of a late sowing of greenhouse-protected lettuces just before Thanksgiving, and then moved the greenhouse to cover the onions for winter. To be sure there would be sufficient winter protection, we put an inner layer of floating row cover supported by wire wickets inside the greenhouse. In late March when we moved the greenhouse, the worst of the winter cold was over. The onions looked green and beautiful, and they matured in June to give us the early harvest we had hoped for.

But we knew we could do better. Although we had onions to sell in June, we hadn’t sold anything from that greenhouse all winter. In another mobile greenhouse rotation, we had harvested mid-September-planted spinach from mid-November right through the winter. And in April we followed that spinach crop with transplants of Tuscan kale, which we were also selling in June. The demand for winter spinach was insatiable, and we would gladly have had that onion greenhouse filled with spinach. But the onions were a great crop. We started thinking about simpler, less-expensive protection than a greenhouse.

Low-tunnel Greenhouses

Because the spinach was harvested all winter, it needed to be in a greenhouse in which we could walk and work comfortably. But the onions were just hibernating for the winter, so to speak, so we didn’t need to walk in and visit them. We decided they should be able to survive under lower, less expensive winter protection.

We knew the wire wickets that supported our floating row covers wouldn’t hold up under winter snow, but we thought that sturdier low tunnels might work. When we looked for materials to construct the low tunnels, we realized that 10-foot lengths of half-inch electrical conduit would be ideal. A 10-foot length of conduit bent into a half-circle with the ends inserted in the soil covers two of our 30-inch-wide growing beds with a 1-foot path in between. What we came to call “quick hoops” were born.

9/23/2013 5:21:15 PM

We love quick hoops! To make it easier for the backyard gardener, we have packaged this system. Visit us at tunnelgarden.com

wendy boardman
4/10/2013 5:22:27 PM

Is it ok to use very old railroad ties(wood) for raised boxes? I'm afraid of the creosote leaching into the root vegetables and other above ground crops.

tamara hanson
10/26/2012 1:58:29 AM

Being Eliot Coleman's beds are 2.5 feet wide, the 6 foot shape is all that Johnny's has. My beds are 3.5 feet wide with a 2 foot path so I want a low tunnel 9 feet wide and can't find anything. I love and hate Eliot Coleman- more love though.

barbara pleasant_3
10/23/2009 8:39:33 AM

In my experience, wind rather than animals is the biggest enemy of low or high tunnels. Deer find low tunnels and row covers in general to be quite spooky, so they leave them alone. However, mice and voles occasionally discover the shelter and make use of it for the winter.

10/12/2009 11:29:38 AM

Quick question on these low tunnels - if they are out in the field do you have problems of animals digging at the plastic and tearing it? Would think a passing deer( or Moose or dog or ..) might get a little curious and paw at it leading to tears.

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