Extending Your Growing Season: Hoop Houses, Row Covers, and Cold Frames

Extending Your Growing Season: Hoop Houses, Row Covers, and Cold Frames

Think of hoop houses, row covers, and cold frames as small, unheated greenhouses that can extend growing seasons in either direction; imagine earlier springs and later summers.

(originally published at Fix.comOriginally published at Fix.com by Christine McLaughlin, reprinted here with permission))

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Four-Season Farming: Greenhouse-Chicken Synergy Experiment Underway

Chickens enjoy a warmer climate where they can still scratch on the ground, while the plants get a heated home in which to grow.
We've utilized cold frames, mulching and greenhouses in the past at Better Farm to extend the growing season for our produce; but have had yet to stumble upon something that would truly allow production to continue year-round for our use and the use of the people we serve.

A recent partnership between Redwood's food pantry, Hearts for Youth, the Redwood Neighborhood Association, and Better Farm utilizes Redwood's Community Greenhouse to cultivate food that will be donated to the food pantry for disbursement to those in need. That greenhouse was moved to Better Farm, where the people staying here have agreed to tend to the garden and provide daily care for the plants as they grow.
Community greenhouse.
But how to contribute year-round to the food pantry?

I began looking into ways to heat greenhouses year round and found a ton of information on heaters, solar panels, fans and insulation. But all potential solutions fell by the wayside when I discovered Anna Edey and her work on Martha's Vineyard with her Solviva Greenhouse.

A basic Solviva greenhouse design, as found at Backyard Chickens.
Anna, who has been an organic farming pioneer since founding her business, Solviva, in 1984. One of the most stunning project's she's worked on has been a combination greenhouse-chicken house, where chickens heat the space with their body heat and manure (which is composted along with hay). Rumor has it that on 0-degree days, Anna's greenhouse is a lovely 80 degrees.

Awed by this potential, I brainstormed ways to protect plants while keeping them in the greenhouse with chickens. There are a lot of added bonuses to this chicken-greenhouse setup besides the plants, of course. The chickens also enjoy a break from all the cold and wind, which will boost their egg production throughout the winter. Plus, all the bedding and compost will be perfect to shovel into the garden come spring.

To prep the greenhouse, a few things had to be done first. The outside of the structure had to be wrapped in chicken wire to prevent predators from simply scratching through the plastic:

A trap door was added next to the front door to allow birds access outside on manageable winter days (accomplished here without having to leave the main door open and potentially subjecting plants to a chill):
Plants (broccoli, radishes, peas, spinach, lettuce and beets) had to be covered with protective netting so plucky chickens wouldn't damage the produce:

And lastly, the birds needed a protected space to sleep and lay that even a weasle can't get into in the middle of the night:
All the materials we used for this project were upcycled scraps of chicken wire from the herb gardens, handles from a kitchen demolition project on Fishermans Rest Island, and plywood scraps leftover from a construction project in June. We pulled a ramp from one of the other chicken coops, moved the water dishes and food to the greenhouse, and began catching birds we found huddled up outside. They couldn't be happier to discover there are still some places with green grass:

The project is officially underway.  In the coming weeks we'll be tracking overall temperature in the greenhouse to determine whether the birds are able to produce enough heat, along with passive solar, to keep the greenhouse above 60 degrees all winter long. If early findings are promising, we'll be adding shelving in the greenhouse to fill it top-to-bottom with yummy plants for food pantry patrons.

Want to design a Solviva Greenhouse of your own? Get in touch with us at info@betterfarm.org.

New Resource for the Four-Season Farmer

Checking out neighbor Rick's four-season greenhouse design. Photo/Dave Ciolli
The Sustainable Agriculture and Resource Education (SARE) group recently launched a new  Season Extension Topic Room offering oodles of resources for the four-season farmer.  The web address is a one-stop collection of dozens of guidebooks, curricula, webinars, bulletins and other how-to materials to help farmers, educators and researchers across the country implement effective season-extension strategies.

We're particularly excited about the new topic room, as we prepare to create our own hoop house/greenhouse next month that will allow us to provide the community with fresh greens from early spring through early winter (yes, even in the tundra of the North Country!). SARE's free advice, tutorials, and in-depth information is giving us all the tools we need to make our vision a reality.

Information products in the Season Extension Topic Room derive from SARE-funded research and education projects, and are organized according to key topic areas: Overview; Types and Construction; Variety Trials and Selection; Fertility Management; Pest Management; Water Management; Energy; and Marketing and Economics. While the Season Extension Topic Room includes extensive information on high tunnels (also known as hoop houses), some materials also address greenhouse and nursery production, low tunnels and winter storage.

Examples of what the Season Extension Topic Room offers:
Recognizing the role that high tunnels can play in diversifying farmer income while meeting growing consumer demand for local food, NRCS offers grants that help pay for high tunnel construction. In 2010, its first year, the program led to the construction of 2,400 structures in 43 states in 2010.

The Season Extension Topic Room will be updated with new resources as they become available. Check out the page here: www.SARE.org/Season-Extension.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.