"In terms of hoop houses our goal is not to grow, but to prolong survival," said Daniel Bodkin, owner of Laughing Dog Farm. Botkin, who runs the many-layered, sustainable farm in Gill, MA, became avidly interested in the extended harvest possibilities of hoop houses about ten years ago. "A trend developed and I got sucked in," said Botkin.
Hoop houses generally have the appearance of a Quonset hut. Steel bars or some types of wood are bent into an upside-down U shape and inserted into the ground in a row several feet apart over a garden space. The frame is then covered with plastic which is simply placed over the frame and held down by rocks or other heavy items.
While hoop houses can be virtually any size, Botkin said that small home garden hoop houses are great for supporting an average kitchen garden. They (small hoop houses) are essentially a larger form of cold frame," said Botkin. To be able to work in the smaller hoop houses the gardener can either open the side skirts of the plastic, or crawl inside. "Some people create a trench in the middle of the hoop house to work from," said Botkin.
Building a small hoop house can be easy and inexpensive
Botkin said he was thinking one day about how plumbers and people in similar trades bend pipe. He got the idea to create a simple "jig." "Once people see this, it will go viral," said Botkin with a laugh. The jig was also constructed with help from Botkin's associate John DiMatteo.
1. First you need a sturdy wooden table to attach the jig to.
2. Cut a 2'6" radius piece of ½ " plywood and bolt it to the center of the table, flush with the edge. (Essentially, it's an arch or bow shape). "Plywood is good for its smoothness to make bending the pipes easier," said DiMatteo.
3. Bolt or nail a 8" piece of plywood above the center of the bow, allowing room for the steel pipes to be passed through.
How to bend the steel pipes for your hoop house
Using this simple jig, anyone can bend ¾ inch steel pipe easily. "You can bend the pipe incrementally to create a perfect bow," said Botkin. "You can build a nice sized (10'x6'x4' high) hoop house in your back yard for about $100 using this method. And you don't have to be a big, strong man to bend the pipes. It's easy," said Botkin.
1. You will need six or more 6' steel pipes, depending on how long you want your hoop house to be.
2. DiMatteo said that you then insert the pipe one foot at a time into the channel and begin bending. "It's important to keep everything level and flat," he said.
3. "When you get to the end, to that last foot of pipe, I just turn it around and work from the other end," said DiMatteo "You never want to over-bend," he added.
Benefits of hoop house gardening
Hoop houses allow the gardener to control the temperature and environment for your plants to remain in a stabilized state. "You can do harvesting each month starting in November. Not much actually grows and by the end of January, you mostly have brown nubs," said Botkin. "After Groundhog Day, the sun starts to return, the temperatures rise, and the greenery starts to come back to life."
Botkin said that the only down-side to gardening with a hoop house is the need to be aware and actively tending your plants as well at the structure itself depending on the weather. "You can't just take a two-week trip to Florida and expect anything to be in good shape when you return," said Botkin.
Botkin said that snow and ice build-up is the primary destroyer of hoop houses. Snow and ice need to be kept off the hoop house as much as possible.
Plants that thrive in a hoop house
Botkin said that virtually any cold-hardy plant or herb would do well in a hoop house environment such as:
- Brassicas (broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, etc.)
- Root crops such as beets, carrots, and turnips
"That's the epiphany. You have a fantastic opportunity to prolong your harvest for many months," he said.