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Winter Harvest in a Summer Greenhouse

November 8, 2015

June 20, 2015

Despite having some serious garden space devoted to hoophouses, we use them mostly for season extension, and reliable ripening of some warm weather crops.  But we let them rest during the winter months with the covers off.  Sort of like Eliot Coleman’s movable hoophouses, except we don’t move them, we just expose the soil and cover crops planted inside to real weather for the winter months.

In our maritime climate we usually (usually) can harvest hardy greens and some cabbages all the way through winter.  But last year November was about like this, and bam, we were down to the temperatures in the teens overnight.  My dahlia bulbs froze in the ground, that was how cold it was.  Some plants survived, but only survived as mushy looking stumps.  All our winter cabbage was turned to mush, and even the kale looked like someone took a blow torch to it.  The kale survived but there were no leaves left to harvest, just woody stalks that would hold over until spring.  Just like that we were out of greens, when normally we can harvest greens of some kind all the way through winter.  But… .

Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake or just plain lazy…we have two small hoophouses that we built for chicken brooding when we were selling pastured poultry.  We offered eggs, broilers and turkeys.  A hoophouse seemed like the perfect brooding setup for us, natural light and warmth, inexpensive, and away from any of our wooden buildings in case of fire.  And in the case of PPBO (pastured poultry burn out) we still had a some nifty hoophouses.

The chicken brooder hoophouses are shown to the left. They each measure 20' x 20'.

The chicken brooder hoophouses are shown to the left. They each measure 20′ x 20′.

We don’t sell poultry products anymore but we still use the hoophouses for chickens.  One to raise the babies in, and one for the laying hens.  Rather than do the whole pastured poultry thing with a small flock and not liking the fixed dirt yard for hens, we deep bed them year round and have turned them into our garden compost makers.  But that is fodder for another post.

That freeze last year really kicked me into gear.  Rather than just leaving the brooder empty all winter, why not grow in it again.  We have used it many times as a prop house early in the season, just because sometimes we don’t have the covers on the large hoophouses, and the 20′ x 20′ hoophouse really heats up with just a few hours of sun and provides the natural light the plants need.


So this year when we rotated out the old flock and moved the young pullets, we stripped the brooder of its deep bedding and watered the crap out of it.  You have no idea how dry soil in a hoophouse can get without irrigation.  Since chickens like to be dry, this hoophouse hasn’t seen water of any kind since we replaced the cover in 2009 after the 2008 snowstorm that wreaked havoc here on the greenhouses 😦  For a less sunny view of the greenhouses read here.

The next task ahead of us was breaking up the soil that had been compacted for a couple of months each year by twenty to fifty chicks.  Chickens are hard on the ground.  We don’t have a walk behind tiller so it was pure shovel work.  We weren’t so concerned about breaking up all the ground, just enough space for planting some winter greens.  We were planting transplants instead of direct seeding so it could be pretty rough.  A shovel and a little hoeing and raking worked just fine.

One concern we have with winter growing/harvesting is that our hoophouses are oriented north/south because we want the most light during the growing season.  But during the winter, the end walls cast some shade which is a fine trade-off to me for our needs.   But we have to take that into consideration when we plant.  So to that end, we only shaped beds on the northern most two-thirds of the hoophouse.

We planted in September which is a little late, you want your plants to be mature enough to harvest, but not too mature or they may succumb to freezing, and on the other hand you don’t want them to be too small because they will just stop growing until the days lengthen in the spring.  Each year is different too, what works one year may not the next.

Volunteer tomatoes November 6, 2015

Volunteer tomatoes November 6, 2015 If you think poultry will eat weed seeds out of compost, these tomatoes tell a different story.

While the hoophouse is warm enough to sprout and grow tomatoes in fall, the cloudy day and nighttime temperature only runs about one or two degrees warmer than outside.  Ventilation is the hardest part this time of year for the plants.  Low light, cool, and moist conditions make plant selection a little tricky.  We went with a pretty simple selection of greens to see how they would go into fall and possibly overwinter.  The lettuce is already done, tatsoi isn’t too far behind, while Tokyo Bekana and Joi Choi look promising for a while longer.  The workhorse of this planting is the kale, and we added a new leaf broccoli, Spigariello to see how it performs.  It’s pretty hard to beat kale in the maritime northwest for a hardy green, though.

If I made any mistake here with the plantings, it’s spacing.  Air circulation is a must with winter crops.  So I’ve been steadily harvesting the lower leaves of each planting to improve the movement of air between the plants.  It’s been quite some time since I planted  in the fall in the hoophouse, mostly relying on what was in the garden to tide us over, or not.  To really compare garden versus hoophouse we planted some of these crops outside and some in.  What I see now in hindsight, is that I wasted my time planting lettuce in here, our garden lettuce did much better in the fall, without the huge temperature swings.  A few 90F degree days in September really bothered the lettuce in the hoophouse due to the fact that 90F degrees outside is 90F degrees, and inside the hoophouse even with the door open and a north/south orientation it can easily reach 100F degrees.  I would have been better off using the space for more hardy greens, but that’s why gardeners experiment right?

44 Comments leave one →
  1. Stumplifter permalink
    November 8, 2015 7:51 am

    MoH, you sometimes have a way of reaching into my head and pulling out what’s been stewing around in there. As we venture towards permanent occupancy of our new farm, we are transitioning from a growing zone of 5 in the city of Milwaukee to 3 at the new place. Season extension is luckily something that I’ve been playing around with over the last several years, as it will be a necessity in those coming. Springs’ extension will consist of PVC hoops jammed in the ground this week in prep for a poly covered mini seedling house.
    Oh yeah, we finally got our garlic in last week (phew!) 1200 cloves.
    Would love to read a post further detailing the chicken houses!

  2. Karen permalink
    November 8, 2015 7:52 am

    “…you want your plants to be mature enough to harvest, but not too mature.. and on the other hand you don’t want them to be too small.. what works one year may not the next.” Sums it up perfectly. 🙂 Which begs the question could farming be a cause for neurosis?

  3. November 8, 2015 5:53 pm

    Your gardens are amazing! I never tire of looking at them.. c

  4. November 9, 2015 5:42 am

    Question Nita, as I want a hoop-house type greenhouse, did you design them yourself? Or order a pre-fab type one? Jade and I have been doing some research, but folks seem to be split right down the middle as to which is better. And frankly I am a terrible system planner outside of stock pens.

    • November 9, 2015 10:12 am

      Liz, we bought from a greenhouse supplier, there are several close that deliver. Once we figured out what we needed, we didn’t buy everything with the kit. We needed legs, bows, purlins, roll-up sides, hardware to put all that together, and the plastic. We built the endwalls and doors. If you want to till with the tractor, or bring in compost, build a big door, and even if your tilling with a walk behind, build the door at least 8 feet so you can easily put whatever in, or take whatever out. It could be veggies, or birds, but having enough room to maneuver is golden. But buying the heavy bows and getting some kind of truss system would be necessary in your area. Something that looks like this:
      And it would be helpful for you to go to other farms in your area and see what holds up to snow. There are a lot items in the kits you don’t necessarily need and that really drives up the price. For our small greenhouses, we didn’t have to buy plastic because there is always leftover from building a big greenhouse, so that saved some money. We reuse that plastic so many times it’s not funny, if its too aged for good plant growing we can use it for the birds, they need shade in the summer anyway, and a hole here and there makes no difference. The quonset or semi-quonset 20 footers seem to hold up to the snow great here without any add’l bracing so that might be a consideration too for you, our little ones took 4′ of snow and didn’t budge, and you know what happened to the big ones… 😦

    • November 9, 2015 10:20 am

      Thanks Nita, we have been to a few around here, but they all designed their own. We found one we really really liked, but the place sold and now we don’t know the new Amish owners. Also, your rooster!! o my gorgeous! Didnt notice him in the picture earlier but o my 🙂

    • November 9, 2015 10:22 am

      We have actually been thinking about buying one of the smaller glass ones to start with, and going from there. Another idea we had, that we aren’t sure if it would actually work, is buying the plastic etc, and putting it over the metal frame that is left from our garage in a box. The frame is good and solid, after 6 years in bad wind and snow cover. Just can’t seem to decide which way to go.

      • November 9, 2015 10:37 am

        I know, it’s a big step to take. It’s not a bad idea to start out small, but I can guarantee you will love it once you have one no matter how you build it.

  5. Bee permalink
    November 9, 2015 6:03 am

    “… but that’s why gardeners experiment right?” My word, yes. Given that I generally grow at least two different gardens a year, I figure I’m up to at least 100 different major experiments, not to mention all the little side trials. Speaking of experiments, Nita, remember we were talking about trying the Kaisers’ methods? I have to say that for the first year of the trial, it was very successful. I got about 1/3 more produce out of the kitchen garden beds with the same amount of water, in a hot, dry and windy summer. I did add one more small bed (about 6X7 in an odd-cornered shady spot) which gave me an additional couple of months of lettuce. This system was less work and I can see the soil will be in even better condition if I use this method for a couple of years. To really make it efficient, though, I need a better seed-starting/transplanting system, as there were several times when I should have gotten things in the ground and didn’t have room yet, or the bed was ready but the seedlings weren’t. The other thing I need to do is put retaining edges on the narrow ends of the beds so I can plant right up to the edge without worrying about soil washing down the slope (the kitchen garden is raised beds on a south-facing slope; the only spot close to the house where I had water and sun without having to worry about a frost pocket). Other lesson learned: if I were building from scratch to use this method, I would build the beds (we used logs to box in the raised beds) a little higher but not fill them with quite so much soil initially so I would have room to keep adding extra compost. The Kaisers use three to five inches of compost per crop, but they’re growing five to seven crops a year. I found two to three inches was good for my needs. I may just take the top three or four inches off the beds come spring and use it to jump start new beds, as I still have room in this garden for more beds. Like you, I use primarily chicken litter for this compost, although I add the bedding from the sheep’s night-time lockup as well. I’ll keep you posted as the experiment continues!

    • November 9, 2015 9:56 am

      Sounds wonderful! You’ll find that if you grow more transplants than you need and make yourself okay with throwing them out if you miss the window you’ll get more successions in. It took me awhile to not try to find a home for every single plant. I did find a home though, the chickens love them, and it’s really just recycling the plant matter a little sooner.

  6. Bee permalink
    November 9, 2015 9:46 am

    Hey, Nita, I put up a post earlier and instead of going to “moderation” it just disappeared; is it a spam folder or lost forever?

  7. Tom permalink
    November 9, 2015 10:06 am

    Looks absolutely amazing! My wife and I are working on doing sort of an urban version of a homestead so we can produce as much of our food as possible – as much as we can on half an acre. As part of it are building a small-ish enclosure to raise chickens for meat and eggs. But I did raise an eyebrow reading your post because you mentioned something I’ve never heard of and I can’t fine any information about it: What is pastured poultry burn out?

  8. November 9, 2015 11:35 am

    Your tomato seedlings made me smile – we just found an avocado tree growing straight up out of a compost pile we have under a doug fir out at the farm. It’s a good 8″ tall and fully leafed out (for its size). I’m curious to see if it survives the winter.
    I never tire of looking at pictures of your gardens, greenhouses and hoophouses ; D

    • November 9, 2015 2:25 pm

      I am curious as well to see how it goes, avocados in our future in the PNW?

      • November 9, 2015 2:36 pm

        Well, who the heck knows how climate change will end up affecting us up here but I for one would love to be able to grow them. I LOVE avocados and I’m determined to give them a good try. I kept finding sprouted pits in my compost pile at home, so I’ve potted up about 8 or so now – recently brought them into my basement mudroom for the winter. I will have a greenhouse/workshop attached to the barn and we plan to have a solarium on the south side of the house – so maybe, just maybe I can get some to produce fruit. If the one in the farm compost pile survives – I’ll be using it to propagate new ones for sure!

        • November 9, 2015 2:50 pm

          🙂 I have several friends with producing citrus trees so who knows. Worth a shot for sure.

        • KAYTHEGARDENER permalink
          December 16, 2015 4:06 pm

          Good luck on your proposed avocado trees. They need 2 varieties (A & B types) for better pollination & fruiting (within a few hundred feet). The CA extension service used to have pamphlets (pre-Internet) on home avocado growing.
          That’s one thing from the Bay Area that I miss in the PacificNW…

  9. November 10, 2015 8:38 am

    MOH, may I ask an off-topic question? We’re buying a piece of land, most of it forested, but maybe 3 acres or so clear, which is about perfect for the small farm I envisage; big gardens, lots of herbs, small orchard. No livestock (I’d like chickens and/or ducks at some point, but DH would not). The land is foothills; flat(ish), then sloped to swale, and back up again, and DH wants to build the house by the woods, across the field from the road, on top of the swale, for a walk-in basement. Which means crossing the field with a driveway, of course, and I’m struggling with whether it’s better to put it across the upland or the swale. I was wondering if the swale, which according to soil definitions stays saturated until April or so, would be a good place for the dryland garden, on the theory that maybe it holds water well through the summer. Would sure appreciate any advice you have to offer. I’m busy going back through your posts to learn more about how to read the weeds (queen anne’s lace, cat’s ear, tansy, oh boy. I have some work ahead. None of it’s great soil, btw; steiwer and panther creek silty loam. Oh, well). I think it was used for growing wheat, could be wrong. Lately just been cut for hay, which I devoutly hope is not actually being fed to anything, given the amount of tansy.

    • November 11, 2015 10:06 am

      NM, hard for me to say except to throw out a few things. Driveways are hard to maintain in a wetter area, the more drainage you have the better, so maybe the upland would be a better choice for the driveway, less cost, easier to maintain. For your garden I think the biggest factor is if you get enough light and the same goes for the garden as a driveway, you don’t really want to start in a area that stays saturated until April. Of course, there is hugelkultur to consider, to if the swale looks like the best place to site your garden. Hope that helps.

  10. November 11, 2015 12:00 pm

    Thank you for the thoughts! Really appreciate it. We will think about that. I need to look into hugelkultur. The main reason for running the driveway along the side of the ridge (not directly at the bottom as I was thinking) is to leave the upper area that gets the best light free for orchard and gardens. The wet area would clearly be terrible for anything that wanted to be planted early; I was thinking about using it for tomatoes and squash, maybe some dry beans, for dryland gardening, since they don’t typically get planted until May anyway. But I’ve never actually done dryland gardening, and I have no idea whether my theory that poorly drained soil might hold water better in summer has any validity (was going to say if my theory holds water … haha).

    • November 11, 2015 12:33 pm

      Another thing to think about is water catchment at the house and gravity to your “dryland” garden. I would add that you’ll never know what is the best choice, sometimes ideas change, and what sounds so good when you read about it, in reality “it” doesn’t work so well.

      • November 11, 2015 1:03 pm

        Ha- yeah. Never-ending learning process… I thought I’d hedge my bets, and put some of each dryland vegetable in an irrigated bed, too.
        Water catchment is definitely in the plans! using all those slopes for gravity-feeding, brilliant. Also, omg; why have I never learned about hugelkultur before? Speaking of something that sounds really great in all the websites I just looked up…
        I harvested 4 beautiful sweetmeat squash this year. So excited. And beyond excited about the land. The basement is going to hold a root cellar. At the moment, my kitchen (overwarm for the purpose), is filled with pumpkins, winter squash and potatoes, plus a lime tree, and it’s getting hard to walk in there.

  11. November 11, 2015 12:14 pm

    Do you have a picture of the plastic roll-up system for the sides of the greenhouse? I’m trying to visualize it… Was it hard to set up?

    By the way, I just saw that flawless Provence pumpkin in your instagram. Wow! When did you pull it from the vine, and was it that color when you pulled it? I’ve got three big, knobbly Thai moschatas on the vine (Rai Kaw Tok) but they’re still green and I hope they’ll be mature enough by the first frost.

    • November 11, 2015 12:31 pm

      Emily, here it is:
      There might be other photos of the ends too if you just search through any greenhouse posts.

      We pulled those about a month ago, and they were green. I have never grown moschata before and wondered if I should leave them on the vine but was told by a more experienced moschata grower to harvest and cure. So I did, we were expecting frost, but that never came. We put them in the greenhouse to cure along with all our other winter squash and they just started to turn tan over time. We put the largest one (37#) in the barn, and it hasn’t cured so I have to believe the warm temperatures in the greenhouse had something to do with that.

  12. Carrie permalink
    November 15, 2015 3:14 am

    In the 20 x 20′ greenhouse (I assume that’s nearer 15 x 20′ of usable space?), what’s your maximum stocking density for layers? What rule of thumb do you use?

    • November 15, 2015 4:58 am

      Carrie, yes, the front five feet is a foyer for the humans to store feed and chicken supplies, so 15 x 20 for the chickens and 10 x 20 for the greens in winter. I’ve done 30, but I like 25 much better. We doubled the 5 square foot recommended for laying hens and that seems workable. Using the 5 sq ft number would be too crowded in that small of space, for us I think.

      • Carrie permalink
        November 16, 2015 1:48 pm

        Thanks, Nita. Do you rotate the flock/new chicks between the greenhouses on an annual basis, or stick to one house and rest it for a few months while the new chicks are in the brooder? If the latter, do you take active steps to lessen parasite build-up in the soil… how?

        Currently I use a two-part run arrangement. An inner, netted-over, run in which the hens are fed and spend from pre-dawn to mid-morning and an outer ‘moat’ run which is fenced but ‘open’ to the air. (The inner netted part has almost solved the problem of sparrows taking 50+% of the chicken’s feed. Hurray!) I’m contemplating re-making things to end up with one larger completely netted/part-covered run.

        However, I’m short of space so cannot really rotate/rest the ground with either option. The current arrangement gives a brief respite to the outer area each day but it’s hardly significant. So conundrum! Hence the questions. (I suspect you’ve answered these before so point if it’s easier/quicker – thanks.)

        • November 16, 2015 2:59 pm

          Carrie, I try to give the egg house 30 days between the old hens, and the pullets coming in. And the chick house gets about 8 months. It’s most important for the day-olds to have really clean surroundings, the older ones not quite as critical. To make the 30 day thing work I start saving eggs, and try to find homes for the hens about a month before I expect the pullet to commence laying. Get the bedding cleaned out, wash down the surfaces and plant a quick “cover crop” of oats or something. It’s not perfect but it works pretty good. It’s cloudy here this time of year and my 22 hens are laying 19 – 21 eggs a day without lights. I removed the shade cloth at the equinox because it was still hot here, but they haven’t really dropped their production. I think greenhouses should be employed more for hen houses than they are just for that factor alone. And that doesn’t even take into account that if I didn’t want chickens anymore I still would have a greenhouse not a dank old chicken house 😦

  13. Carrie permalink
    November 17, 2015 3:28 am

    Nita, I’m impressed with the laying ability of your hens. We’ve been overcast for about 10 days and production has become very variable; my Black Rocks give the appearance of going off-lay soon. Info is very useful, thanks. I’m unlikely to swap out my huge flock (ahem, all four of ’em) each year, more like every 2 to 3 years. The discussion is useful because it helps me sift through the options and constraints in the face of the priority which, as always, is healthy, happy hens producing quality eggs. Thanks.

    • November 17, 2015 5:08 am

      Carrie, it’s impressive only because they are young chickens. I only keep them for a year of lay and then sell them or stew them, if they were on their second year they would be molting now, and we would be waiting for eggs until after the Solstice and still feeding the chickens. With younger chickens laying at a high percentage I can justify the cost of raising replacements each year, and I usually sell some pullets to offset the cost as well.

      • Carrie permalink
        November 17, 2015 11:00 am

        Well, mine are only 38 wks and I was expecting them to lay through until some kind of moult in mid-February; then, if a full moult, come back into lay around mid-April. Maybe my figuring is awry. Certainly the high winds/gales we’re experiencing, coupled with shortening days and predominantly overcast weather seems to have put these girls’ body clocks/cycles out of kilter. Maybe they’ll settle again once the gales pass through. Hope so. They were late-ish into lay at 25/26 wks, but after a couple of ‘wobbly’ weeks they’ve settled to an average 3.6 eggs per day – about 90% productivity, so a bit behind your girls, I think. I toy with the idea of replacing my birds every year but I am such a wimp about culling!

        • November 17, 2015 12:38 pm

          Carrie, it is hard, I have two friends that take them on alternate years because they don’t want to mess with chicks, so that is much easier than putting them in the freezer, but they do make excellent bone broth… I plan on them beginning to lay by about the first of September before the days get too short, and then they will lay a full 12 months before they molt. So depending on the breed, I have to count back on the calendar to decide when to order my chicks. These are hybrids so they started laying at 20 weeks, and they have been good hens, nice and quiet and productive.

  14. Carrie permalink
    November 17, 2015 2:09 pm

    Yet more useful info. Nita, thanks for taking the time to share. Appreciated.

  15. November 17, 2015 3:40 pm

    I wish we could get ours to even lay at 25 weeks. We have to wait until the eggs won’t freeze to start on incubating them and then we have the problem at the opposite end of the year with the lack of light. I am seriously thinking of adding lighting to get pullets into lay before February. The dark days in Latvia do not help obviously.

    • November 18, 2015 6:33 am

      Joanna, that makes me a cheater, I buy the day old chicks. Never did get into the chicken rearing thing :p

      • November 20, 2015 10:26 am

        We have thought about it, but I like to know that my chicks are reared well from the start and with kindness. I think you will have access to some better companies for that kind of thing. Here in Latvia it is either huge enterprises or backyard rearers and not much in between so we raise them ourselves. In fact we have raised them for others too

  16. Carrie permalink
    November 18, 2015 7:35 am

    The final question on this hens’ greenhouse topic, I swear! Nita what do you use to deter the hens from digging under the edges of the house and wrecking the mechanisms (whatever they may be) that anchor the plastic to/into the ground at the sides/ends? I have gravel boards around the base of the netted inner run and these little bug*.*s work away under that and pull up the netting and the ground pegs. In the face of their tenacity, I’m just pondering how I would keep the plastic of a cheapo greenhouse buried/undamaged.

    • November 18, 2015 12:14 pm

      Carrie, no bother, I like sharing if it helps 🙂 The poly is on the outside attached with aluminum channel and spring lock. From the inside out, you have the greenhouse legs/bows then boards on the outside at ground level and hip boards at about 4 feet, then we attach chicken wire, then the aluminum channel. The plastic goes on outside of all this. We did have problems with a few digging our so we poured a concrete curb to alleviate that although once in a while a persistent chicken may start to dig down but we keep an eye on it. Interestingly all our greenhouses have the chicken wire treatment to keep critters out when the sides are open in the summer. Never underestimate a tomato eating deer, or sheep. We don’t have sheep anymore but there is no way to get rid of the deer :p

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