Our little farm is situated in damp, foggy and ultra-rainy western Washington. Some years the sun won’t make an appearance for months, literally. Springs are cool and long, and unless you have a ton of bulbs or greenhouses, cash flow doesn’t really start until the field flowers wake up in June. But by March my inbox is already full of notes from excited customers, ready to begin another flower season with us. When demand is at its peak, we seem to never have enough flowers to go around.
To attempt to start the season earlier, over the last year we have increased our hoophouse fleet by five. We now have two 20 x 60 quonsets that we acquired through an NRCS High Tunnel grant; two structures we made ourselves, 17x60 and 17x140; and one 16 x 60 double inflated poly heated greenhouse for seedling production. We are limited to building permanent structures on a 65-foot-wide strip of land next to our house — the rest of our land is rented.
The 20x60 Quonsets were purchased from Oregon Valley Greenhouses in Aurora, OR. I highly recommend working with this company. Their prices, service and structures have all been great. The double-inflated house was purchased from a local outfit, Steuber’s Dist. in Snohomish, WA. It too is a great house but doesn’t feel nearly as sturdy as the Oregon Valley ones. We went with the local company since they offered a house that was only 16’ wide, just the width we had left in our lineup.
The last two hoophouses — we call them “hooptys” were inspired by the small, semi-temporary structures we saw in action at Bare Mountain Flowers in Oregon, which I wrote about in the January 2012 issue. Complete directions, including a material cost list, pipe bender specs and a very thorough step by-step with photos can be found for free on the Kerr Center for Sustainable Ag’s website. http://www.kerrcenter.com/publications/hoophouse/index.htm.
With no more space to erect permanent structures on our property, we will build only “hoopty” models from now on. These easy-to-build houses are amazing, especially if you’re not super handy or are on a tight budget. A 17 x 100 hoophouse can be put up in a weekend, including pipe bending, for around $1,000.
The two main drawbacks with the “hooptys” seem to be that they aren’t designed for high winds or heavy snow and have such low ceilings (7’) that some crops are too tall. But if you’re in a mild climate or just need covered space for three seasons, these houses are certainly worth looking into. My favorite feature about the “hoopty” is the adjustable sidewalls which allow for excellent air flow throughout the entire house. We modified our two just a bit from the directions. Since out soil is pretty much pure sand, we poured small footings for each rebar stake that the hoops sit on as well as the door frame posts and the large endwall anchor pins. Our area sees quite a bit of wind so the extra effort to securely anchor the houses seems worth it.
I’ll admit, hoophouse construction is probably one of my least favorite activities in the entire world! Since our onlydowntime is in the winter, all building takes place in freezing, wet conditions. Digging post holes through frozen ground, pulling plastic with the help of two small children, hurriedly building endwalls in anticipation of the next wind storm and screwing together pipes by the light of a headlamp is certainly not my idea of a good time! But planting seedlings in early March during a hail storm, in a tee-shirt, inside one of these plastic covered gems feel like cheating. While we spent what felt like the entire winter constructing our fleet of hoops, the extra work paid off and we were rewarded with an incredible bounty this past year.
Originally I had hoped the hoops would help spread out some of the workload by increasing our window of harvest and allowing for a slightly slower pace in summer. While our season was certainly extended, we still ended up being swallowed by the summer madness — only it started quite a bit earlier. Ha! This was mainly due to the fact that all of the hoops were finished and planted about 4-6 weeks behind schedule. Flowers that were planned for Mother’s Day and earlier didn’t come into their prime until mid to late June, right alongside early field crops. The poorly timed overlap left us low on flowers early and scrambling right through October with a new level of abundance. This coming season we should have the kinks worked out and will be swimming in flowers by early April.
Another gift that the hoops provided was improved quality across the board. Stems were consistently much longer, there was no damage from the wind, rain or hail and disease pressure was much less than in the field. Hoophouse growing certainly can boost your confidence as a grower!
In our climate, warm season crops consistently struggle to thrive. Basil and Celosia rarely get tall and always melt into a moldy mess shortly after the rains return in September. For the first time, I grew celosia with success. Lisanthus stretched tall and bloomed profusely. Peppers, gomphrena and tweedia all thrived in their new homes. The scented geranium bed cranked out bunches and bunches of spicy foliage steadily all season long. For the first time we enjoyed tall trachelium, spot-free bells of Ireland and monster basil. With the added heat and extended growing window each hoophouse bed was able to grow two abundant crops, whereas much of our field space can only handle one. Not only are the crops better when grown under cover but the space is much more productive indeed.
Next season I plan on going whole hog into a bunch of warm season crops that I’ve never had much success growing. A celosia trial will certainly be taking place! More peppers are planned, this time in every color I can get my hands on. The basil list is already at half a dozen varieties. I see a gomphrena rainbow, a long row of passion vine, pastel lisianthus, vivid asclepias, every color of trachelium, fall toned mums and so much more spilling out of the hoops. I can hardly wait for spring!!!
While most of the experience with hoop growing has been positive, there were a few bumpy patches too. First, I planted a large bed of early larkspur in one of the homemade “hooptys”. In the field our larkspur generally gets about 4’-5’ tall. In the hoop it hit the 7’ ceiling before the flowers even started opening. I caught it too late and the entire crop was a loss. Ammi majus suffered the same fate. Cerinthe, generally about 24’’ in the field, stretched over 4’ and crushed itself on the curved sidewalls, leaving only half the crop harvestable. Lupine ‘Sunrise’ shot up to shoulder height before half the crop tipped over under the weight of its own foliage. Peppers grew so lushly that about 25% of the fruiting stems were lost to rot due to poor circulation. Mums were another strong grower that were staked too late and ended up tipping over, resulting in many crooked stems. Peonies bloomed abundantly under the plastic but then became a nuisance as they took up precious real estate all summer long.
Another issue was plant spacing. In the field, we grow most crops on 9x9” spacing, with paths only 12”-18” wide. Harvesting in these tight conditions can be tough but is still pretty doable. In the hoops this approach was insane! Plants outgrew their beds in every row, in every house. Navigating through the jungle of foliage without damaging them was almost impossible. Looking ahead to next year, we’ll be increasing plant spacing and path width to accommodate the lush, unchecked growth. Staking is another must. Many of the crops we successfully grow without netting the in the field tumbled over in the houses.
While I still have so much to learn and adjust, tweak and master, hoophouses have already completely changed my experience as a flower grower. While they haven’t solved the issue of fatigue and overwork, I can certainly see potential for more ease by having them as a core part of our operation. Once constructed, having the covered space to work in when the weather is bad has been the finest luxury of all. From getting an earlier start in the spring, to protecting crops from the elements, expanding what we can grow in our cool climate and keeping flowers and foliage going long after frost has made life as a flower farmer much easier indeed. I now kick myself for waiting so long to add more of them to our farm.
Erin Benzakein runs Floret, a small organic flower farm in western Washington. Follow her flower farming adventure on her blog, www.floretflowers.blogspot.com