Sowing and Transplanting Winter Crops in a Hoophouse

Reader Contribution by Pam Dawling
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Our spinach variety trial in February, showing Avon, Renegade, Acadia and Escalade

At Twin Oaks Community (central Virginia) we are on our way with our late fall, winter and early spring crops in the hoophouse. If you haven’t got a hoophouse, I recommend you consider one, and hurry to get it in place before winter! See 20 Benefits of Having a Hoophouse and Winter Hoop House Harvest Schedule for inspiration. I am giving workshops on Lettuce Year Round and Hoophouse Cool Season Crops at Mother Earth News Fairs, so catch those to learn more.

See Planning winter hoophouse cropson my website, for our step-by-step process.

Hoophouse Bed Preparation

I have written previously about Hoophouse Bed Prep for Fall Plantings. To extend the season of the summer crops in the hoophouse and to make the physical work of bed renovation easier (by spreading it out), we prepare one bed per week. Other growers might use machinery and prep all the beds at once. Your choice.

We plant crops a little closer in the hoophouse than outdoors, and nearer to the edges of the beds, as it is easier to tend crops where there are no weeds (that’s thanks to our no-till system). The paths are marked off with twine, to keep us from stepping on the beds, compacting the soil. We find that the soil does slump and compact some of its own accord, hence the once-a-year broadforking.

We found out how valuable the soil loosening is, because one year before we started broadforking, we decided to loosen the edges with a digging fork to make up for several years of accidental steps. The edge rows of spinach grew much bigger than the inner rows, and we realized that the whole bed needed loosening.

To prepare hoophouse beds for winter crops, we first remove the summer crops to the compost pile, then spread a generous layer of compost over the surface. We use about five wheelbarrowsful for one bed 4’ x 90’. Next we move the three lengths of drip tape off to one side or the other, and broadfork the whole area.

We have an all-steel broadfork from Way Cool Tools that we really like. To use a broadfork, work backwards either going the length of the bed or covering the width in two sections. Stab the tines into the soil and step on the crossbar, holding the long handles. Step from foot to foot until the bar touches the soil, with the tines all the way in, then step off backwards, pulling the handles towards you. This loosens a big area of soil, which hopefully crumbles into chunks. Lift the broadfork and set it back in the soil about 6” (15 cm) back from the first bite. Step on the bar and repeat. We’ve found it’s important to only broadfork the amount of space you have time to rake immediately, otherwise the warm hoophouse conditions dry out the soil and make it harder to cultivate into a fine tilth, which is the next task. Sometimes we use a rake, breaking the clumps up with the back of the rake, then raking the soil to break up the smaller lumps, and reshape the bed.

Sometimes we use a wide stirrup hoe very energetically. This isn’t the job scuffle hoes were designed for (that’s very shallow hoeing, and hence why we call them scuffle hoes), but the sharp hoe blade does a good job of breaking up clumpy soil. We’ve also found it important to lay the drip tapes back in place in between each day’s work, so that the soil gets irrigated when we run the system and stays damp. We don’t want dead, baked soil.

Our spinach variety trial in February, showing Avon, Renegade, Acadia and Escalade.

Direct Sowing

Once the bed is prepared, we measure out the areas for different crops and mark them with flags. Next we use our row-marker rake (bed prep rake) from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. After the rowmarking, we deepen the furrows if needed (often it’s not needed), using a pointed hoe, then sow the seeds.

On September 6 and 7 we sow five crops in our first bed – spinach, tatsoi, Bulls Blood beet green (for salad mixes), radishes and scallions.

We pre-sprout our spinach for a week in a jar in the fridge. After extensive spinach variety trials, we have replaced our much loved Tyee, which was pulled from the market with Renegade for fast harvests early in the winter (less later), Acadia and Escalade for strong growth and best December and January harvests, perhaps adding in some Reflect for later spring harvests. For simplicity, grow Acadia in the winter hoophouse.

The spinach, tatsoi and radishes came up very quickly, with the beets a day or two behind. The scallions came up in a week, which is quicker than at other times of year.

One week after the sowings, we thin the spinach and radishes to 1” (2.5 cm) apart in the row. We are growing Easter Egg and White Icicle radishes. Cherry Belle would be ready sooner, Easter Egg next (they mature relatively gradually, giving us a nice harvest period). Icicle are unusual long white radishes which are slower to mature, and slow to get woody. We only grow Cherry Belle in our first planting, as they get woody here if sown later.

On October 1 we sow more radishes and some brassica salad mix (baby mustard mix). In mid-October we sow turnips and “filler greens” to transplant later to fill gaps. In late-October we sow more radishes, scallions, filler greens, turnips, chard and spinach; some filler lettuces, and our first baby lettuce mix.

In early November we sow more radishes, frilly mustards, tatsoi, baby lettuce mix, scallions and some filler lettuces and spinach. In December we sow more radishes and brassica salad mix.

Here in central Virginia (winter-hardiness zone 7) we get crop growth throughout the winter and we still plant a few new crops, even in December.


Radishes in early October.

Transplanting from an outdoor nursery seedbed

Meanwhile, outdoors on September 15 we sow the first half of the crops that we transplant bare-rooted into the hoophouse: ten varieties of lettuce; chard, pak choy, Chinese cabbage, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy.Because the pest pressure outdoors is fierce at that time of year, we cover the beds with insect netting.

In a few weeks, after we’ve prepared another bed, we will dig up those transplants and replant them indoors. Mostly they are big enough to transplant after only 3 weeks growing outdoors.

On September 24 we sow the second half of our transplants: ten more varieties of lettuce, Russian kales, senposai, more Yukina Savoy, some frilly mustards for salad mix, and we resow anything from 9.15 that didn’t come up well. On 9/30 we make more resows if needed.

Lettuce in particular

See Cold-tolerant lettuce and the rest, for our January 2018 assessment of the varieties we grew that winter and which survived the unusually cold spell we had.

Our schedule calls for 10 varieties of lettuce (twice), including three Vitalis One-cut lettuce varieties from High Mowing Seeds: Ezrilla, Hampton and Buckley.  These are bred to provide lots of similar-sized leaves from cutting. They can be cut and mixed for baby salad mix or cut as whole heads for easy-to-prepare salads, or harvested by the leaf (or layers of leaves) once the plant has grown to full size. This is how we use them. They were previously called Eazileaf varieties, and are now called One-cut lettuces. They are only available as pelleted seed, so I regard them as too pricey to grow for baby salad mix, and best used for multiple harvests.

We have previously grown Johnny’s Salanova varieties and I wrote about them here.You can click here to read the New Head Lettuces article Andrew Mefferd wrote about this new type of lettuce in Growing for Market magazine.

Other lettuces we sow for our winter hoophouse crops include Oscarde, Panisse and Tango which have a similar multileaf shape of lots of same-sized leaves, and Green Forest (romaine), Hyper Red Rumple Wave, Merlot, New Red Fire, Red Tinged Winter, Revolution, Salad Bowl and Red Salad Bowl.

My favorites were Buckley,Ezrilla, Revolution, (much faster growing than most Lollo Rossa types) Red Tinged WinterandTango.

Red Tinged Winter lettuce from a September sowing looks this good in January and provides leaves all winter.

Winter Hoophouse Harvest Schedule in Central Virginia

  • October: beet greens, radishes, spinach, tatsoi.
  • From November onwards: As October, plus arugula, brassica salad mix, chard, lettuce leaves, mizuna, frilly mustards and scallions.
  • From December: As November, plus kale, senposai, turnips, and Yukina Savoy.
  • From January: As December
  • During December: whole plants of Tokyo bekana, Maruba Santoh.
  • During January: heads of Chinese cabbage, pak choy.

Having the heading crops in December and January gets us through the slow-growth period when the loose-leaf greens might not keep up. Most of the loose-leaf crops last until mid-March or later.

Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MEN Fairs, as well as sustainable agriculture conferences. Pam also writes for Growing for Market and other magazines. Her books, Sustainable Market Farming, and The Year-Round Hoophouse are available atSustainable Market Farming. Her blog is on her website and also onFacebook.

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