Winter gardening in eastern Tennessee is a challenge, especially at 2500 ft.
We've always known that our small farm would have to be unique in order
to compete with others. It's a known fact that we can't grow heirloom
vegetables any better than other farmers using the same seed and
practices. Our tomatoes don't sell any better at the Farmers' Market
than other farms do. In order to set ourselves apart, we've tried to be
creative. That's one reason why we're opening our campground. Most
farms don't have 80 acres of mountain forest land backing up to a
national forest for folks to explore.
As I've mentioned before, we're huge admirers of
and what he's accomplished on his farm in Maine. Last summer I read his
book on winter gardening under a hoop house without heat. The more I
read, the more I was inspired to try it here. Growing salad greens in
the dead of winter in an unheated hoop house seemed to fit our simple
life style perfectly!
For a copy of his book "The Winter-Harvest Manual- Farming the Back Side of
the Calendar", go to his farm at
Four Seasons Farm - "Winter Gardening Guru extraordinaire"
I added that part. The subtitle says it all... Commercial Greenhouse
Production of Fresh Vegetables in Cold-Winter Climates Without
Supplementary Heat. It may also be noted that this book was published
in it's 15th printing in 2001 and Eliot is continually experimenting
with way to increase his production efficiently.
Snow on the Mountain...
This is a picture of our farm on April 14, 2004. Every time I doubted our
success with this idea, I just reminded myself that the snow must be
much deeper in Maine!
The first obstacle was to build a hoop house big enough to have at least
one planting bed in it.
This is the small hoop house we moved to the front yard last spring
(08) so it would be closer to the house when we started seeds for the
garden. We also propagated a bunch of soft cuttings under the
intermittent mist system in this house. Check it out on our
page. Be sure and read Ed's snake story there!
Although this small hoop house served us well, it was a pain in the
pitootie to use. We'd talked and dreamed for years about how nice it
would be to have a hoop house large enough we could walk into and grow
those winter garden greens ourselves. With our new-found knowledge of
winter gardening, we had the perfect excuse to try our hand at building
one. The big question was: how big to make it and what to frame it
Well, as good fortune would have it, our friend and neighbor down the road
at Bee Berry Farm (you'll hear more about her on our Farmers' Market
page) had a prefab garage kit with a canvas cover, brand new still in
the box, which the previous house owner graciously left. We swapped a
dog pen to house their new puppy Lydia and free salad greens for the
mysterious box and we had a start on our winter gardening adventure.
The garage kit is 10 ft. wide x 20 ft. long x 8 ft high. I thought I could
replace the canvas cover with greenhouse plastic and we'd be in
The site in the picture above is an ideal site for a hoop house except for
the steep slope. I handled that problem by using a bunch of old
landscape timbers which we'd removed from flower beds my dad built
about 25 years ago. We recycle everything here at Blackberry Blossom
Farm and our winter gardening idea was perfectly suited to reusing
Our New Hoop House!!
As you can see, I built a retaining wall on three sides of the site
just large enough for the hoop frame to fit on.
The frame just bolted together and was then bolted to the top of the walls.
The lower side of the house was dug out and filled with
soil from an old raised bed we moved to enlarge our black raspberry
patch. This is the bed we would try our first winter gardening in a
hoop house in.
The upper side of the hoop house will be filled with gravel and be used
to start our garden plants in the late winter/early spring as well as
our mist system for plant propagation in early summer.
I didn't get the end walls framed in as I had intended, so for this
year I just covered them with plastic. The right "door" side in the
picture is covered with two overlapping pieces of plastic to allow us
to get in. The flaps are held together on the bottom by a big rock. We
have plenty of those lying around...
BBRRRR!!!! Baby it's cold outside!
It's 22 degrees as I write this on Nov 21st, 2008. I covered the bed with a
floating row cover to add additional protection for the greens. The
only thing we put on this bed besides a row cover was water as needed
to help them grow. Simple winter garden greens at their finest.
Not bad for a first try, huh?
This is what's under the row cover. Winter Gardening at Blackberry Blossom
Farm is a success!
We've been cutting and eating these greens since three
weeks post planting. The greens are very tasty, not bitter at all and
with absolutely no insect damage. Bee Berry Farm friend, Janel
says she likes them better than our summer greens. I think we agree.
We've been eating these for weeks and of course sharing with our friends and
neighbors. We'll be updating our
page for cold season crops we planted in late summer, so take a peek at that.
Sunlight and Time for Growing Winter Gardens...
I remember reading somewhere, I believe it was in one of Eliot Coleman's
books, that plants do not grow any more after the daylight length drops
below 10 hrs each day. The length of daylight depends mainly on your
latitude. I put on my "nerd hat" and found an equation on the internet
which calculates the length of any day at any latitude. I wrote a short
computer program which does these calculations and displays the
daylight length for every day of the year. It also counts the number of
days below any daylight threshold (such as 10 hrs) and calculates the
amount of time each day is below the threshold.
The whole idea seems a little silly I know, but my idea was that maybe grow
lights could be used during the below threshold times and the plants
would continue to grow all winter. I’m sure the 10 hour threshold is
not exact. Few things in nature are. It turns out that where we are in
East Tennessee, daylight length drops below 10 hours from Nov 25th
through Jan 18th. The shortest day, which is Dec 21st of course, is
still 9 hrs 41 minutes long. Grow lights over the beds for a hour at
dusk just might do the trick.
We'll post results as we acquire the data.
Update: Jan 30,2009
The winter greens did very well until late December. The shortened
daylight didn't seem to have much affect on them growing so I
never tried the growlights. They survived a 10 degree F. night with little
damage but in late December a cold front dropped the temperature to -2 degrees
F and the salad greens did not survive. However, we have some carrotts and kolrobi planted in
the same bed and they are still growing! We replanted the salad greens
in late January. We have had some days in the fifties, but it
remains to be seen if the soil in the bed warms enough for the seeds to
Update: Dec. 2009
This has not been a good year for our farm. All of our crops suffered from the recent drought followed by a really wet summer.
We did have hopes for the greenhouse though. I finally enclosed the front end and installed an old screen door we found at a second hand store and covered it with plastic
Two weeks before Christmas a winter storm with very high winds blew the plastic out of the back end of the green house.
The next day, the temperature dropped into the teens and killed what crops we had growing.
The week before Christmas the storm shown here dropped 13" of snow.
Such is life in these mountains!
When the weather breaks a little, we will clear the beds and replant and hope for the best!