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Extending the garden

October 2, 2013

The Vogls’ hoop house stands at approximately 15 feet by 20 feet. (Photo by Dr. Sonia Vogl)

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

We pulled dead tomato vines this morning, saved good cooking tomatoes and fed the dubious fruit to the chickens. While it’s sad to see them die, it’s reassuring to think that they will soon be transformed into eggs.

Of course, the living vines will provide us with fresh tomatoes until frost. Then, we’ll let the green ones ripen hung indoors.

It reminded us of last year when we tried end-of-season transplanting tomato plants (and peppers) into the hoop house. The temperatures were warm enough, so we hoped for success. As we expected, hours of sunlight were insufficient for them to thrive. Various cabbages lived, but didn’t produce much. It was another learning experience.

We built the hoop house nearly three years ago, finishing it just before a November cold snap. It stood idle for months. Then, according to our scanty records (we intended to keep a full journal in our attractive Country Garden Journal, but weren’t too diligent), we planted our first crops Feb. 27. The “indoor” temperature was 50 degrees. Beets, carrots, parsnips, daikon radishes, red, yellow and white onions, spinach, kale, mesclun, kohlrabi, swiss chard and choi grew promisingly and provided us with a bounty until they bolted in the hoop house’s late spring heat.

The hoop house stands parallel to our vegetable garden, so in effect, it is an indoor extension of our outdoor garden.

Last year, we planted in early fall. This year, we will get an early start again on winter-hardy vegetables. We’ll grow lettuce, spinach, beets, carrots, chard and kale. The very best feature of winter crops is that they are so sweet and tender.

We’ll plant soon and will check the temperature frequently. Today, in the late summery heat, the hoop house was a toasty 108 degrees. The temperature should remain high enough for rapid growing through December. Then, during the depth of winter, our crops will appear to hardly hang on, but with the sunlight warming them just enough, they will be upright and healthy looking, ready to harvest.

A hoop house is the ideal source of fresh greens during the usual non-growing season. Inexpensive to build, it requires no heat — ideal for energy conservation. If the temperature falls too threateningly low, we cover them with cloth or black plastic, which raises the temperature at least 10 degrees.

While our hoop house is large enough for numerous crops and high enough to comfortably walk in (approximately 15 feet by 20 feet), small ones are possible. They can be high enough to stand in, yet shorter and narrower to fit into a small yard. Low tunnels are also available. Usually, they are less than 3 feet high and short enough to reach in to tend crops.

Unused flat urban roofs provide another possibility for hoop houses. A variation on green roofs, these waste spaces could be used productively for growing vegetables.

As with any garden, a hoop house could well provide bounty enough not only for its owner’s family, but also for friends and neighbors longing for tasty, nutritious fresh food.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Oct. 2-8, 2013, issue

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