NUTS & BOLTS & DREAMS: A beginner's guide to farming

The A to Z Greenhouse Growing Guide, Part II
How to grow tomatoes, peppers and eggplants in your hoophouse without them going to riot and rot.

By Don DeVault


Editor's NOTE:

In his last installment, Don got you growing greens like a pro. Check out:
The A to Z Greenhouse Growing Guide, Part I.

Miss the two artcles on getting your greenhouse up? Visit Hoophouse How-to, Part 1and Part 2 for detailed instructions on assembling 21 by 48 feet of steel and glory.

View a complete listing of all articles in the NUTS, BOLTS & DREAMS series.








Stay tuned
next time . . .

  • washing
  • packing
  • and sales strategies.

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 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... 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 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 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 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 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.