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What to start in the hoophouse
When daylength is less than 10 hours, as it is during the depths of winter in much of North America, most plants stop growing because of the lack of light. But in early to mid February, the days are long enough again for plant growth to resume. If you have a heated greenhouse or an unheated hoophouse, you can get an extra-early start to your season. Here are some ideas for plants to start now through April.
In an unheated hoophouse, you can start direct seeding cold-tolerant plants including beets, carrots, cilantro, radish, salad mix (mesclun), scallions, spinach, and turnips. By Feb. 15, it is generally safe to plant these anywhere in the U.S. inside a hoophouse. In very cold areas, you may also need a low tunnel inside the house to provide extra protection. At the same time, you can start transplants in a greenhouse or under grow lights for planting into the hoophouse in two to three weeks. Plants that are better transplanted than direct seeded include chard, Chinese cabbage, Choi, collards, kale, head lettuce, onions, radicchio, and tatsoi.
Choose varieties best suited for the weather you expect one to two months after planting. In the North, where cold weather will continue into April and May, choose cold-tolerant varieties. In the South, where the weather will be hot in a month or two, choose those marked as heat-tolerant, because they will be less likely to bolt.
Prepare your soil by removing any plant debris from last season, and spread compost or a fertilizer such as alfalfa pellets. Aerate the soil with a broadfork and hoe or rake the top inch or two to create a good texture for direct seeding. If the soil is frozen, put hoops on the bed and cover it with row cover. A sunny day will heat up the soil under the low tunnel and soon it will be warm enough to plant. You should also bring a hose into the hoophouse so that it warms up during the day and can be stretched to the water source for irrigation. You won't need much water in the cold days of February, and you may even have enough soil moisture without irrigating.
Once your beds are prepared, calculate how much of each crop you can use at the expected maturity date. If you have a farmers market or other place for early spring sales, plant optimistically. Hoophouse growers report that their products are immensely popular in early spring, when people are starved for fresh, local produce. If you won't have a market until May, you can still plant now for your own table, and schedule your market plantings for later.
Reprinted from JSS Advantage February 2010