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 meet.
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 grow-lights anyway.
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
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... Boring.
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.
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
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 paid.
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.
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
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 works.
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 get creative.
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 raining.
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 for months.