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Quick hoops easy-to-make mini-greenhouses.

Stretch the growing season to savor fresh, homegrown veggies all year by using these nifty quick hoops in your winter vegetable garden.

Gardeners through the ages have tried to extend summer, and inventive minds have worked hard to find ways to keep flesh food on the table with year-round gardening. A sheltered area used to protect plants from cold and wind can often take those plants past their normal season. A south-facing stone or brick wall will absorb enough heat from the sun's rays--even in winter--to create what's called a "microclimate" at its base. At night, the heat radiated from the stones creates warmer conditions for anything growing alongside the wall. In fact, placing growing areas against the south wall of any structure will have that effect. Even the south side of a board fence or a thick hedge blocking cold north winds will provide a slightly more benign climate. Old-time gardeners took advantage of these warm, sheltered spots to keep crops going as long as they could in their winter gardens. Today, you can extend your growing season and enjoy your own fresh harvests in winter by using quick hoops in your garden.

Simpler, Lighter and Less Expensive

Harvesting winter fare is so satisfying that, after you try it, you'll probably want to extend your repertoire. But adding cold frames to winter gardens means time and money spent acquiring them. That's why we came up with simpler, lighter, less expensive structures we call "quick hoops." They're just sheets of clear plastic or row cover material supported by 10-foot lengths of pipe bent into half-circles and then poked into the ground. Quick hoops operate as 3-foot-tall mini-greenhouses.

You can use two types of pipe material to build quick hoops. One isplastic electrical conduit, which is cheap, lightweight and easy to bend by hand. This option is fine in parts of the country where no more than a few inches of snowfall can be expected in winter. But to support the amount of snow we get in Maine, we found that we needed half-inch galvanized metal conduit, sold as "EMT" (electrical metallic tubing) at most hardware stores. In addition to its strength, the advantage of EMT is that, after it has been bent, it holds its shape permanently and is therefore easier to work with.

To give EMT a curved shape, bend it around a quick-hoop bending form (see photo, top). You bolt the form to the top of a large, flat surface such as a workbench or a sturdy picnic table. Insert one end of the pipe, pull it against the curved surface of the form, slide it in farther, and pull again until you achieve the desired shape. The form itself is reasonably priced and could be purchased by a garden club or a group of friends and made available to everyone for year-round gardening projects. (Quick hoop benders can be purchased from Johnny's Selected Seeds, www.JohnnySeeds.com, for $59 plus shipping.)

If you take a 10-foot length of EMT and bend it into a half-circle bow, it will have about a 6-foot diameter. That 6-foot width will cover two of our 30-inch-wide beds, leaving a 1-foot path between them. We make 10-inch-deep holes with an iron bar on either side of the two beds and insert the ends of the conduit into the holes, placing one of these conduit bows every 5 feet along the beds. Just three bows cover a 10-foot-long area.

Then, we drape a 10-foot-wide piece of floating row cover material over the bows. This spun-bonded, white polyester fabric lets in water and light, boosts the temperature by about 4 degrees Fahrenheit to provide frost protection, and excludes insect pests. We cut it long enough so that it drapes down to the ground on both sides, with an additional 2 feet at the ends of the structure. We then secure the edges of the row cover around the perimeter of the structure with sandbags. These can be recycled plastic bags filled with soil, or you can purchase sandbags and fill them with sand or gravel. Be gentle with the row cover fabric, but try to secure it without any slack so the wind is less likely to catch it and blow it around.

Year-Round Gardening

You can plant much more ground under quick hoops than under a cold frame, and you can also grow and protect taller crops, allowing for more extensive winter gardening. You might start seedlings in one covered bed and grow early salads in another. Because spun-bonded floating row cover is self-venting, there's no need for automatic vents to prevent overheating. You can access the crops by removing the sandbags and folding back the cover.

Another trick is to add a layer of dear plastic over the row cover for extra protection during extremely cold weather. With added plastic in place on your mini-greenhouses, you can overwinter crops such as spinach, lettuce and onions without worrying about the snow load, which can rip row cover fabric. The plastic layer can be held down with sandbags along the perimeter and ends, just as with the row cover. But, because we live in a windy area, we also use form-fitting plastic clips (available at www.JohnnySeeds.com) to secure the plastic to the bowed pipes. If the temperature inside a quick hoop rises to 75 degrees--which it often can--you'll need to vent the plastic by opening the ends, or remove the plastic entirely so only the underlying row cover material remains.

To read all about cold-hardy crops that can thrive in your quick hoops during winter, see "Best Crops and Varieties for Winter Gardening" on Page 38.

Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman are organic gardening pioneers whose Four Season Farm in Maine produces vegetable crops year-round. They have authored a number of books on organic farming and gardening. This excerpt is from their latest book, The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook, available on Page 79 for 25 percent off until Nov. 30, 2013.
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Author:Damrosch, Barbara; Coleman, Eliot
Publication:Mother Earth News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2013
Words:1000
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