Simple Winter Hoop Garden Part 1
Simple Hoops Provide Fresh Winter Greens
A Lazy Man’s Winter Garden System
Every garden spot has its’ drawbacks. Some are too hot, some to cold, others too wet or dry. After experimenting with different techniques in various parts of the US, we’ve come up with a system that requires only minor adjustments to make it workable in almost every climate.
When Celinda and I met in Hawaii, she had a small organic farm. The climate in Hawaii, on the island of Kauai, is close to perfect for year-round gardening and the fruit flies consider it to be “heaven with a smorgasbord.” It wasn’t possible to grow anything that was red or yellow unless it had a thick skin. The small tough skinned cherry tomatoes were about the only tomatoes the flies couldn’t sting, lay their eggs in, and use as an incubator. Raising crops organically required a different approach.
We used hoops made from heavy gauge wire to cover the beds that had been dug two feet wide. We bent the wire in a half circle large enough to reach across the bed, to be tall enough so the covering didn’t touch the plants and long enough overall so it can be pushed down deeply enough in the ground to stay in place. Different crops and consistency of the soil require some testing to find the right combination. During the cooler times of the year, we used 4-mil plastic over the hoops. When living in Hawaii we hadn’t discovered Remay® and had to take our chances with the bugs when it was too hot to cover the beds with plastic.
After sailing back to Oregon, we lived on the coast in Reedsport, OR. The problem there wasn’t heat or fruit flies; it was cold in the winter and banana slugs during the summer. The same basic hoop and plastic arrangement worked. The main modification was sealing the edges of the bed, where the plastic touched the ground, with fine sand and small sharp rocks that the slugs didn’t like. Recycled glass would probably be a better choice. We’d heard that using copper wire around the beds would stop the slugs. We tried the copper wire with little success and found sand and rocks a lot cheaper. We lived on the edge of the forest, in the shade of a hill and the heat capture/retention of the plastic helped with earlier germination. By providing extra protection from some of the late spring and early fall killing frosts, the plastic covered hoops extended our growing season and kept slug damage to a minimum.
Moving to NE Oregon up Hurricane Creek Canyon outside of Joseph, OR. posed a different set of problems. The first year, a few weeks before the tomatoes were ready to pick, a cold blast came down from the Eagle Cap Wilderness freeze drying everything. We had black vines, shriveled tomatoes plus squash and peppers too green to eat. The next year we went back to the hoops and plastic, with the only modification being larger hoops to accommodate some of the taller plants and rollable sides so we could vent off some of the afternoon heat.
Moving to Halfway. OR. gave us a more moderate climate than in Joseph but we still had to start the plants under the hoops and put the plastic back on in the fall, extending the growing season.
In all of our experience before moving to New Mexico and the high Chihuahua desert, we had sufficient amounts of water and didn’t have to deal with caliche (calcium carbonate) that forms a hardpan. Gardening in the desert posed another set of problems.
In order to conserve water, I found it advantageous to use sunken beds. The beds were dug down below the hardpan and the dirt sifted to remove the rocks and caliche. The end result was a sunken bed.
Winter nights at 4100’ can be in single digits that are followed by sunny days in the 60’s. By modifying the wire hoops for the wider beds, and replacing the wire with PVC pipe, it was possible to slope the plastic to take better advantage of the southern winter sun. The problem was, when the wind blew hard, it ripped the plastic. I went back to hoops because they weather the wind better.
During the evening, when the temperature begins to drop, water condenses on the inside of the plastic, then turns to ice at night and becomes liquid again during the heat of the day. The water recycles itself by dripping back into the bed or running down the inside of the plastic cover(s). By recycling the water, we only have to water the beds once a week or less. This saves a lot of water, helps jump-start the seeds and keeps wind damage to a minimum. There are times when the ends have to be opened to allow some of the heat to escape, which speeds the evaporation rate.
When winter turns to spring in the desert, it’s necessary to replace the plastic with Remay®, a spun polyester fabric that protects plants from frost down to about 28 degrees according the manufacturer. With the hoops providing a warm air catch space, and not having the Remay® lying directly on the plants, it’s possible to protect against frost down to the low 20’s. Plastic holds the heat in better and the evaporation rate is higher with Remay®.
I start my first winter garden in early September using Remay® directly on top of the garden bed. This slows evaporation, which increases germination rates and helps protect from wind damage and birds eating the seeds and small plants. After the plants are an inch or so out of the ground, I take the Remay® off and either replace it with plastic if the weather is cool enough or leave the garden uncovered until the weather cools. By starting another bed the first part of October, which has a slower germination rate due to the colder weather, we generally have greens until spring.
Once the gardens are up and producing, my labor consists of harvesting when we’re ready for more fresh produce, watering once a week or less and opening the ends of the hoops on the occasional day that’s too hot.
The accompanying picture shows the first garden bed, with the soaker hose and the Remay®, before planting and covering with a small amount of straw to help retain moisture.
Tags: Food. Produce , Garden , Nutrition , Vegetables
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