Hoop houses bring gardeners fresh produce in the dead of winter
A shock of green disrupts the white and brown winter landscape in Neil Bertrando’s backyard as he peeks beneath the covering of a hoop house. Under the arching fabric, baby greens, turnips and kale grow in a wild, enticing mass.
Beside this hoop house sit three others, their fabric either sagging beneath a layer of icy snow or torn off in the wind. It’s testament to the trial and error that’s come with attempting to extend the growing season with a hoop house.
“If you’re going to try something like this, you have to be willing to make mistakes,” says Bertrando, owner of Radiant Tortoise Permaculture. He lives at Loping Coyote Farms, the home of the Rosenbloom family, which is developing their roughly one-acre property in Reno as a permaculture demonstration site. In hindsight, Bertrando says they probably should’ve started with one hoop house and managed it intensively, rather than several at once.
“Start small, pick a good location in the sun, and think very specifically about how to deal with snow and wind in the winter,” he says.
Hoop houses, at their most basic, involve arching rebar and PVC piping over a crops on the ground and covering them with either fabric or plastic. Tunnel-like in appearance, they’re similar to greenhouses but not built to be permanent. The main benefit? Adding 30 to 60 days on either end of the season, and the ability to harvest fresh produce in the dead of winter.
With hoop houses, the usual rules don’t apply. “If you want winter vegetables, you’d plant cold-hardy vegetables as early as August and September,” says Virginia Johnson of the certified organic farm Custom Gardens, which has used hoop houses since the 1990s. “You can’t plant lettuce in January and have your crop in 30 days like you would in better weather days. Having a hoop house puts you into a whole different climate range of what’s going on outside. It might move our zones two or three zones to the south.”
Depending on your needs, scale and budget, there are different ways to build a hoop house. Bertrando and his farming partner Nate Rosenbloom were aiming for low-maintenance, low-cost hoop houses. Using materials from a local surplus store, they bought PVC pipes, rebar, Agribon row cover in bulk and clothesline string, allowing them to build a hoop house for less than $30.
Ray and Virginia Johnson are working farmers, with CSA subscribers and an onsite produce stand. Their priorities were high yields and longevity, leading Virginia to advise, “Don’t skimp on your cover.” She says fabric and even some plastics don’t hold up long-term, as evidenced by the stories of many farmers and backyard gardeners who’ve tried both and watched them flail in a harsh wind. Custom Gardens uses a super strong woven plastic from Northern Greenhouse in North Dakota. It’s held up to Nevada wind and snow for about 10 years.
For those interested in building a hoop house, Virginia advises they research the structures, then visit farms, such as theirs, that have them.
“See what their experience is, take what you want, and leave the rest,” she says. “It has to fit what you’re looking for. We love ’em.”