baby basil gets off to a good start under
floating row cover on wire hoops inside the high
tunnel. That's overwintered garlic towering in the
JUNE 3 , 2003, Emmaus, PA: Where we live
here in the Northeast, January is a tough month for hoophouse
production no matter how you cut it. And in January of my
first season, I cut it very sparingly, delivering firewood
into New York City for a friend twice a week to make ends
Even if you heat your greenhouse, as we now do our largest
structure, it’s not so much the bitter cold as it is
the shortness of the days that depresses sales and farmers
alike. I think even the cold-hardy greens would rather be
in sunny Acapulco than in my Pennsylvania hoophouse for the
majority of the month. And why argue with them? You’re
bound to get a better tan from the tropical sun than sodium-hallide
When you get back peeling, refreshed, and in debt, you’ll
be more than ready to get to work. And with any luck, the
salad mix, beets, and carrots you direct-seeded before you
left will just be coming up, and you’ll have enough
regrowth from your big Christmas cutting to make the first
minimum payment on your credit card bill.
Now, although I feel it’s best for the beginning farmer
to focus, and establish himself in the marketplace with one
high-quality product so that name recognition will help ensure
the success of the carefully calculated expansion of his operation,
and although I think the most sensible product with which
to begin is salad mix, I understand that the commitment to
the perfection of a single production system can get, well...
I’ll address the issue of what I imagine to be the
most sensible marketing strategy in greater detail next time.
But for now, let me give you what I hope will serve as a little
guidance when the memory of your winter vacation has faded,
spring has begun to run into summer, and you have grown so
sick of salad mix the mere mention of the word ‘tat
soi’ sets you off. Trust me, it happens.
Fortunately, the word ‘tat soi’ doesn’t
often come up in casual conversation, and there are a number
of crops other than salad mix with which you can experiment
in the hoophouse to maintain your sanity in the present tense
and pay your bills in the future.
As I told you last time, I begin seeding lettuce in Speedling
flats in our heated starter greenhouse in January. I also
seed bunching onions, which will go in the hoophouse about
a month later. I plant them right along the baseboards spaced
about six inches apart, and though they’re not an especially
profitable crop I consider for year-round production, they
give me a little something extra for my first on-farm market
sales beginning in June.
January also has me seeding Early Cascade tomatoes in Speedling
flats on heat mats in our greenhouse.
Early Cascade is a red cluster variety tolerant to colder
temperatures, making it suitable for early and late season
hoophouse production. A few weeks later I’ll seed some
yellow cluster and heirloom varieties. My favorite of the
heirlooms for hoophouse production is the Brandywine, which
was developed in the 1800’s in nearby Philadelphia to
be grown in hothouses. Its taste is unparalleled, and the
quality of the fruit that comes out of the hoophouse is remarkably
better than that of the fruit harvested from the field.
wheels for tomatoes: Started with a simple
loop and a few wraps around the stem, tomato seedlings
begin their journey up a twine trellis tied to greenhouse
It took some trial. And error. But by visiting a hydroponic
greenhouse in Maine, I discovered and have over time refined
a system of growing tomatoes in the hoophouse which has proven
easily manageable and quite successful.
The major problem you face in growing tomatoes indoors: How
do you control the tendency of the plants to grow to ridiculous
proportions in the ‘tropical rain forest’ climate?
Try as you might to tie them up, excessive vegetative growth
sends sprawling plants toppling, and soon you can’t
even walk through, let alone reap a harvest from your hoophouse.
And, of course, mildew loves the hot, dark, dense depths of
the mammoth plants. Fruit rots. And bills don’t get
The same problem extends to a wide variety of other crops
that allow no easy solution. Tomatoes, however, if properly
pruned and trained, will pay the bills. And may even allow
you to put some money in your pocket.
I plant my tomatoes about a foot to a foot-and-a-half apart
in rows I line up under the purlins running the length of
the house. I try to stay toward the center of the house, because
the pruned vines may easily reach the 12 ft. peak.
that spaghetti?: They sure look like vertical
noodles, but the white twine will soon be covered
with towering tomatoes, not tomato sauce.
The plants are pruned, meaning I snip off all the ‘suckers’
and most of the leafy ‘branches’. The goal is
to keep the plant down to a single main vine which will be
wrapped around a string tied from the purlin above the plant
to the base of the vine. Pruning takes time, and may have
to be done as often as once a week at the height of the season.
And it can sometimes be hard to tell what’s the emerging
sucker and what’s continuing on as the main stem of
the plant. If you’re uncertain, give the plant a little
more time to differentiate before you snip it.
With adequate air circulation, even at this close spacing,
your plants will produce beautiful fruit unmarred by mildew
and rot, and they’ll also provide some degree of shade
to the south side of the house, where you might consider planting
your arugula or spinach, neither of which especially appreciate
the heat of deep summer.
I have shade cloth on one of the houses in which I have both
tomatoes and greens, and I’ll let you know how it goes
at the end of the season. I have the feeling it’ll work
out well, once we get some sunshine. It takes constant experimentation
and ‘tweaking’ to arrive at the most effective
methods for mixing crops in the hoophouse, so begin to expand
practically. Make small changes. Take small chances. See what
Peppers and Eggplant
They both love the hoophouse. But they take up quite a bit
of space, with no easy way to get around it. They’ll
eventually need to be staked and tied. You’ll have to
to stretch: Pepper transplants grow like
weeds inside the high tunnel. Unfortunately, they
take up alot of space.
Two years ago, I had our smallest house full of five varieties
of eggplant I got in early, and I harvested about a hundred
pounds a week from late June into mid-August. I beat everybody
else to market by two or three weeks. But the house was a
mess, cleanup for my fall salad planting was difficult, and
eggplant just wasn’t enough of a money-maker to justify
its occupation of the space. This year it’ll almost
all be outside.
Peppers are a similar story, but because of the wildly unpredictable
weather we have here in our little corner of paradise, we
often see alot of blossom end rot on our outdoor harvest.
So maybe 1/3 of this year’s planting is already indoors.
Lipstick, Antohi, Jimmy Nardello, and Jingle Bells are the
biggies this year. I’m going to attempt to contain them
with tomato cages and twine. Again, I’ll let you know.
The rest of the peppers will go outside . . . if it ever stops
We grow mostly Suyo Long these days, because they look almost
frighteningly different, taste great, sell well, and love
the hoophouse. I grow them on tomato cages to keep them orderly,
accessible, and off the ground, where they tend to yellow.
Basil’s really the only herb to which we give much
attention, and it responds well. It flourishes in the heat
of the hoop. Keep cutting back the terminal buds and it’ll
bush out. Give it an occasional shot of fish and it may produce