The Tragedy of the Hoop House

Remember my hoop house? Remember my palpable excitement and hope for summer vegetables well into the winter?

I remember, too.


Sadly, it was not meant to be.

I think I severely overestimated the hoop house’s ability to store heat. I’d read so many warnings about overheating, I made sure to leave the ventilation flaps open when the sun was up. On the night of the first frost, I dutifully went down (after the sun had set) and closed things up snugly. It was dark, so I don’t know if my plants were already dead when I tucked them in for the night, but it’s a pretty striking image.


In retrospect, it makes sense that if the air inside the hoop house is cold when you close it up at night, it’s not going to heat up much. Plants produce a tiny bit of warmth when they respire, but nothing like a breathing animal would.

I remember covering blueberry bushes with my dad to protect the blossoms from late spring frost, and I was under the impression that this would have a similar effect. I think the difference is that we draped sheets over the blueberries, making a barrier directly between the blossom and the cold air, blocking heat transfer. The hoop house is a big room, with lots of head space for cold air to swirl around.

We also covered the blueberries before the sun set.

The pepper plants, though wilted, still kept their vivid green color. I thought maybe they could be saved, until I actually touched the peppers.


It was like squeezing a stocking full of Cool Whip. The slightest pressure made it distort, and I had to be careful not to put my thumb right through it. A stocking full of Cool Whip would have been sturdier.

The eggplant plants were stone dead, but the fruit fared better. I managed to salvage three small ones.


I left the plants in the ground for a week in case of a miracle, but none came. The cold weather plants, of course, don’t know what all the fuss is about and have been doing fine. With any luck I can keep them going and the hoop house won’t be a total bust. Going all-in on greens and roots, I ripped out the frosted plants and sowed some seeds. They came right up! I have tiny lettuces.


And tiny radishes. I’m a little worried about the shortening of days. Even if they’re warm enough, these guys may not have enough sunlight to grow. We’ll have to wait and see.


Funnily enough, the plants that did survive were only an afterthought. I brought all my healthiest specimens down to the “safety” of the hoop house, but they wouldn’t all fit.


The scragglers had to stay up by the house, where I hastily covered them with the leftover plastic the day before the frost to give them a fighting chance. I didn’t attach the plastic tightly, and they had air circulation all night. They also had something I never even considered: a shared wall with our house. They made it through the first frost and subsequent frosts with no problem.


I even have a brand new baby pepper.


The hoop house has irrigation! Possibly.

There is a system in place that may prove itself in time. But time is running out! Today I caught these guys beating a quick retreat.


Honestly, the irrigation is more important for me than for the plants. It’s a pain to open up that tent and water. And before long the city will turn off the water in the garden for the winter, meaning I’ll have to schlep water from home. It’s important for the plants because the easier things are, the less likely I am to skip a day or five and let them dry up.

Here’s a layout of the equipment as suggested by Ben, who’s a little more orderly than I am. We bought a 25-foot permeable hose that’s designed for slow-release, long distance watering. We also got two connectors that would thread into each other, and a bunch of rubber washers. Basically, we needed to create a tightly sealed passage through a hole in the bottom of the bucket leading into the hose. We just winged it in the garden hose section, but if you’re looking to have an easier time, this would probably do it.

Not pictured is Home Depot’s greatest marketing scheme, the trusty and unmistakable orange 5 gallon bucket. Maybe you don’t have them where you are, but they’re three dollars and versatile and in New England you can’t move for them.


We drilled a hole through the bottom of the bucket and pushed one connector through with a washer attached, creating a seal inside the bucket. Another washer went on the outside, which you can see here.


We screwed the two connectors together, tightening them to create a good seal.


The seal was not as good as we’d hoped. It took a few trial fillings and a few replacement washers to get it right.


Once we were convinced no water was escaping, we installed the whole thing in the hoop house. We fit the bucket just inside the tent in the hope that the water won’t freeze as quickly this way. We perched it on a milk crate so gravity will build up some pressure. That’s my biggest concern: Will lifting the water a foot off the ground be enough to push it to the plants that are 25 feet away?


I filled it up with a few gallons of water on Sunday morning, and despite a slow start, by Monday morning the water was gone! Those few gallons had gone somewhere, and I think it was exactly where I wanted it to go.


This hose truly is slow release. It seems to be full of water and ever-so-slowly beading it out. To human me, this seems like an unconscionably hard way to get a drink. But to the plants, this might be just fine, and preferable to waiting for me to get around to watering them.

One area I’m worried about is the container section. The hose takes a steep climb to get to these guys, and while there’s plenty of water seeping out farther down the line, this section is bone dry. Is this something to do with the pressure needed for the elevation change? Ben’s officially a physics PhD candidate now – figuring this out will be his assignment.


Apart from in that one elevated section, the hose seems to be doing its job. My main worry now is that there isn’t enough of it. Twenty-five feet of hose for a forty square foot area may not be enough, particularly with a drip this slow. 20151011_124218For the moment I’m going to wait it out and see how well the plants fare with no additional watering. With the plastic roof and constant water flow, I may wind up creating a self-contained ecosystem. A little bio-dome.


If the nuclear fallout comes, I’m gonna go live with the vegetables.

Winter Is Coming

Inspiration is a funny thing.

Gardening Know How asked me to write a piece about building hoop houses. I didn’t know a single thing about building hoop houses. So I researched it, and then I wrote my authoritative article, and then I built one of my own. In that order.

This little guy is my boyfriend, Ben. I enlisted his help because he loves building projects, and he loves trips to the Home Depot. He’s never been too keen on squishing around in foamy buckets of fermented fruit, so this was a good opportunity to do something together. 20151004_142425

We’re hovering right around the first frost date for our area, depending upon who you ask. Some say it’s as early as October 3rd, and some say it’s as late as October 31st. Looking at the forecast, I’m more inclined to believe the latter. This wild map suggests that it varies by a few weeks within the city, with the line following, as far as I can tell, the contours of the hills.

So I may be a few weeks early. Or I may not be. I have too many frost sensitive plants that are just starting to produce in earnest to want to cut it close, though.

Construction was a breeze. My plot is roughly ten feet by three feet. We bought four ten-foot lengths of PEX tubing and sunk them deep into the soil. This made a tunnel just high enough to cover everybody. The trellis didn’t make the cut, but the cucumbers and melons on it had all but given up for the season, anyway. It was a mercy killing.

The cross beam was… improvised. Across the top we zip-tied three wooden stakes I’d been using as a trellis. The ends were still wet with dirt. The plan is to replace them this weekend with an irrigation pipe of some sort. But for now the stakes are performing admirably.


We draped a single translucent plastic tarp over the whole thing. It’s ten feet wide, so it overlaps just right with the sunken ten foot poles. It’s roughly a million feet long, so even with plenty of slack to fold up securely on either end, we cut off quite a bit extra that I plan to rig up into a smaller enclosure for my container garden by the house. We attached it to the structure with a bargain bag’s worth of plastic clamps.


And that’s it! From inside, it looks like a veritable tropical paradise!


From outside, it looks like that scene from Independence Day.


“Release… me…”

After just a few minutes, it definitely felt warmer inside. It was a windy day, though, so I suspect this came more from the plastic functioning as a windbreak. I’m sure the plants will appreciate that as the wind gets nastier.


There was some room on the end where I’d ripped out the cucumbers and melons. I had planned on planting peas there, but since the trellis didn’t make it into the enclosure, it wasn’t in the cards. Rather than planting something new, I decided to fill the space with as many hot weather containers as I could fit.

This is my secret garden – the three-foot-wide strip of concrete along the side of my house. It gets full sun, it’s not in anyone’s way, and while it’s a pain to water, it gives me a steady supply of tiny eggplants.

Plus, the cat loves it.


After some agonizing, I picked out my strongest producers and carted them down to the garden. I fit three eggplants, a pepper, and a tomato, which I removed from its cage and stretched lengthwise along the kale. You can see one little arm reaching up in the distance. Quarters are tight, but they live in buckets. They’re used to it.


And that’s that! The thing that distinguishes a hoop house from a greenhouse is that it’s labor intensive. Where greenhouses rely on heaters and fans to regulate temperature, hoop houses rely on the sun and wind. The sun is absorbed passively. The wind, however, is left to human intervention. The ends have to be opened up daily to allow for air circulation, otherwise the heat from the sun will get so intense it’ll just cook your vegetables where they stand.


Since it’s still warm out, I’m leaving the ends perpetually rolled up, and I’m treating the hoop house mainly as surprise frost protection. Once the temperatures start dipping lower, I’ll have to roll the ends down at night and up in the morning. With any luck, this will keep the warm weather guys alive long past their unprotected neighbors. With even more luck, pollinators will be able to find their way into and out of this thing.

I’m expecting the eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and squash to give up the ghost eventually. The days are going to get too short and the bees are going to go into hiding, and any tomatoes I eat in January will come from California. For the leaves and roots, however, I have high hopes! With some mulching, and maybe a flap cut into the roof in preparation for access through the many feet of inevitable snow, there’s a chance I could be eating fresh vegetables on Valentine’s Day.

It’s just like they say: Beets are a girl’s best friend.