“The Onion” published an article in September called “Full Summer of Tending Backyard Garden Produces Single Edible Cherry Tomato.” To my dismay, the headline, which clearly pokes fun at overzealous hobby gardeners, captures my first attempt at growing tomatoes this season – except my garden yielded no ripe fruit at all. I harvested about 15 pounds of green tomatoes, which I fried and used to make chutney. Although delicious, these foods still disappointed the palate when compared to the vision I had of eating hot, ripe, juicy, plump tomatoes directly from a hand-tended vine.

Friends who have gardened much longer than I assure me that tomatoes are balky, especially in a micro-climate like Latah Valley where the frost holds on later in the spring and creeps in earlier in the fall. Although I am the victim of an “Onion” article spoof, my garden was not a failure. The carrots, spinach, turnips and zucchini all did beautifully. And, thanks to an old metal carport and some heavy duty plastic, it’s December and I’m still eating fresh greens from my garden.

Photo: Summer Hess

Photo: Summer Hess

The most important thing I learned from this growing season is how important and easy it is to create some kind of hoop house or greenhouse structure that can add precious time to the beginning and end of the growing season. When my housemate introduced me to the simple, cost-effective pleasures of a hoop house, I was reticent. Having a hoop house seemed like an advanced ambition, especially since I was intimidated by the prospect of growing food on any scale other than a few herbs in the kitchen window. Here are a few things I would recommend as I reflect on my first season of producing cold-weather greens:

  1. Take a walk or bike ride around your neighborhood and look at what other people have. This shows what might work in your neighborhood. If you’re brave, you could even knock on your neighbors’ doors and ask if they like their set-up.
  2. Use a repurposed frame for a hoop house. We used an old carport, but recycled lumber or even chicken wire could work. The more traditional, low-cost method is to create an arched structure out of PVC pipe, and there are plenty of DIY websites that provide more information.
  3. Purchase heavy-duty plastic from the hardware store. When anchoring it to the frame, be sure that the plastic joins on one side in such a way that you can pull it aside to enter the hoop house or to ventilate as needed. Zip ties and staples can offer enough strength when anchoring the plastic to the frame, and clothespins can be used to keep the entrance open or closed.
  4. Consider designing a hoop house that is portable. We were able to move our hoop house over the tomatoes and greens once the weather began to cool. This is especially useful in areas that are prone to early frosts. Although it didn’t work with the tomatoes, the chard and kale are still thriving.
  5. Plan your garden and plant in succession so that you seed some hardier greens and vegetables by mid-August. This way the plants are healthy and established by the time frost arrives. Also, planning allows you to group hardier plants together so that they can all be captured under the hoop house as the weather cools.
  6. Be ready to cook the greens down. When the plants face colder weather, they can become bitter. This can be remedied by long, slow cooking with butter or olive oil and by adding another flavor such as onion or garlic.
  7. Plant flowers. You can’t eat them, but they will make you happy.
  8. Take a class this winter through the Washington State University Extension Office or the community colleges. With centuries of knowledge accumulated by farmers and determined gardeners, it is possible for anyone to produce at least a small amount of food for themselves, even early or late in the season. //