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Hoophouse Winterization

November 11, 2012

Season extension (adding to the growing season on each end) is the reason we built our greenhouses in the first place.  Not for winter growing.  Back in the day, we housed our laying hen flock on deep bedding in these spaces during the winter.  But the large numbers of grain consuming livestock weren’t really a good fit for our farm or our location in the Pacific Northwest.  The choices are either prohibitively expensive “local” grains or grains shipped in from faraway places.  Others may find a way to make this work, but for us it was a no-brainer to go “against the grain” and ratchet back to ruminants.  So now the greenhouses are for growing vegetables.

November 2012 – GH2

Trying to be more in tune with nature, (if that’s possible with a greenhouse) we have opted to remove the covers before snow flies.  This generation of hoophouses will be winter safe.  That is the new refrain.  After years of growing in a fixed greenhouse situation,  I am happy to report that the difference in the soil is amazing.  New greenhouse growers know nothing of the honeymoon period, when it’s a delight to have some season extension, but after a few years the soil gets, well, wonky.  Too dry, and out of balance, and no amount of irrigation and amending makes the soil the same as growing outside.  Eliot Coleman’s moveable design addresses these very things, sadly, our growing areas won’t accommodate moveable houses due to slope issues.  But, by removing the cover and exposing the soil to the vagaries of winter weather we can achieve the same effect.  However, the rolling greenhouse is not really necessary here in the Pacific Northwest as we can harvest many crops throughout the winter, negating the winter cover Coleman needs in Maine.  Nice, but not absolutely necessary.

Charmant F1

Winter harvest means summer planting here, and sometimes the best laid plans have a mind of their own.  Case in point:  fall and winter cabbage.  Some of my cabbage matured faster than I thought it would, which is great, but…mature cabbage has a great habit of splitting when water uptake is high.  I remedy that in the garden by root pruning, and I did that for the garden cabbage but the greenhouse cabbage has been enjoying a charmed life of being watered by me, instead of Mother Nature, up until we took the cover off yesterday.

Root pruning cabbage

I did want to make another batch of sauerkraut, but not this week, and with heavy rain predicted and the greenhouse cover off, I needed to save my cabbage from splitting.

Cabbage row ready for heavy rain

There are several ways to root prune, you can use a shovel and dig around each plant on at least three sides, or you can twist the heads to sever the roots.  I chose the latter, no tools but hands required and you can make short work of a cabbage row in a few minutes.  The main idea is to slow down the uptake of water so the heads don’t split.  With less roots the cabbage head will get less water and the heads should be fine and stay in good enough condition for a prolonged harvest.

In a nutshell we treat the indoor garden areas the same as the outside garden areas for winter.  We select varieties that will succeed here in our cool, wet winters, and we inter-seed cover crop or sheet mulch to protect the soil from those unrelenting rains of winter.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2012 9:16 pm

    Thanks for the info regarding the cabbages. I’ll be using that next year. Here’s to no more split ones!

  2. November 11, 2012 10:45 pm

    Feeding chickens on grain is a very commercial, profit-driven feed plan. I augment a grain ration with vegetable and other scraps. Have you considered a non-grain feed plan, and perhaps adjust the number of chickens to the amount of stuff you have going to the compost pile?

    I remember one family (Nordeens) in Pennsylvania using a three-step compost plan. They threw the scraps and manure into pen 1, with chickens there to pick over everything. When full they began filling pen 2, moved the chickens, and turned a pig into pen 1 to keep it “turned”. They bribed the pig with a scant grain ration, dribbled into holes into the compost to keep the pig interested in the under layers. When they started filling pen 3, they shifted chickens to 3, pig to 2, and began excavating the compost in pen 1. And continued the rotation from there, back to pen 1, with chickens and pig rotation as before.

    My neighbor back when I was in high school, kept a moderate size cattle lot. He ran forty to fifty sows behind the cows, and all the pigs got was the cattle poop. When the sows got close to farrowing, he sorted them out, and started feeding them pig feed. And he raised some nice pigs.

    I guess my point is that feeding grains is an easy and popular way to feed livestock, but it isn’t that cheap as energy prices rise, and isn’t necessary if we understand better what they actually need to flourish. I see all those cabbage leaves, and wonder how many chickens that would feed, even if it did require spacing the cabbages out a few each week. My chickens will eat some squash, berries, fruits, carrots — which opens questions about mangel-wurzel and other beetstock. And save the grains for vacations and inter-season gaps.

    • November 12, 2012 7:14 am

      Brad, we already do all that, our house sized flock is part of our compost generating, garden scrap clean-up crew. I was talking about our “commercial” 800 hen flock we used to have. To have a business you have to have a steady feed supply, or if you don’t, you don’t get many eggs to sell, which is the entire reason to have a large flock anyway. The one size fits all small farm livestock business model doesn’t always work the same in different parts of the country. Sure it can be done, but at doubling grain prices, we all have to ask the question, “should it be done.” The average US consumer eats a lot of chicken and pork that takes a lot of grain to prop up, red meat has such a bad rap it will take a generation to turn that around.

      Side note, my chickens do better with the brassica leavings, and the milk cow does better on the mangels…the chickens waste them and the cabbage and kale leaves make the milk taste like, well, ick.

  3. November 12, 2012 10:11 am

    I”m intrigued by this root pruning, as I had a fair number of split heads on the cabbage. What percentage of the roots would you say you are breaking off when you do this? I’m fearful of killing the plant, I guess. When you twist prune, what degree of rotation are you making left and right? (Just trying to get a feel for how completely you are severing roots.)
    Thanks!
    So you are pulling the covers off your greenhouses to prevent snow-load damage and to renew the soils. Do you leave your cold-hardy crops in the ground when you do this? How long do they survive once the cover’s off?

    • November 12, 2012 10:53 am

      Sue, I actually pulled them out and set them back down and maybe one or two roots are still attached somewhat to the soil, the shovel method has given me less than stellar results with some percentage of split heads. Cabbage keeps really well in root cellars with the roots attached, so in cool weather like this, the garden is basically like a refrigerator. However, we don’t really experience hard freezes so this method works well in my area. The cabbages that aren’t fully mature I left, because they will benefit from the rain and may grow a little more, maybe.

      I do leave the crops there, the cabbage won’t entirely go through the winter, but the kale will for sure, and the chard may die back but the roots will survive enough to send up shoots in the spring. Of course, it all depends on the weather, a cold, dry freezing spell may really set the kale back, but quite a bit of the time we get snow cover and that insulates, so it’s a gamble but one definitely worth taking.

  4. November 12, 2012 11:20 pm

    do you just discard the plastic roof and replace it every year?

    • November 13, 2012 5:59 am

      No, it’s too expensive to do that, it’s pretty easy to remove and subsequently reinstall with the channel and springlock. Much like shade cloth application and then removal.

  5. November 13, 2012 8:55 am

    Hi Matron, What is root-pruning for the cabbage?

    • November 13, 2012 8:59 am

      Hafiz, it’s severing the roots so they don’t take up too much water and split before you are ready to use them.

  6. November 14, 2012 8:03 am

    I look at that cabbage and think to myself, “Maybe someday…”

    • November 14, 2012 8:27 am

      HFS, what do you mean, someday you will eat that much cabbage or you will grow that much cabbage? I’m pulling out the 12 gallon crock this week…with fresh milk and some other roots, a little bacon, some sauerkraut – yum, cream of sauerkraut soup :)

      • November 14, 2012 9:04 am

        Is that an invitation?

        My cabbage never looks that good. I have blue-ribbon broccoli this fall but my cabbage is just leafy.

        • November 14, 2012 10:05 am

          HFS, he he.

          It doesn’t hurt that we are in the brassica belt…as an aside, you can just call your cabbage collards ;)

      • November 14, 2012 1:01 pm

        I hope some day to have rows that clean and well tilled. The obviously fertile ground, let alone well-grown produce, well, I haven’t come close to that, yet.

        • November 14, 2012 1:07 pm

          Brad, it’s always a work in progress – before the pretty picture of cover crop, it took some weeding and hoeing to make the ground ready for the rye. A good time to reflect on life, while you’re cultivating. I am sure you have pretty nice garden :)

  7. November 14, 2012 4:47 pm

    I always seem to pick up a tib bit or two when I read your post. I wish it was as easy to keep down the splitting of tomatoes.

    • November 14, 2012 5:02 pm

      clayheels, I hear you on that one! We grow our tomatoes in the greenhouse and I quit watering them the 1st of August to speed ripening along, and if we get a rain I have to be on the lookout for splits even though they are inside under cover :( Seems like I always miss some though and get some mold going – not fun!

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