September 30, 2011

DENIS THOET: Hoop house keeps plants sheltered during harsh weather

Denis Thoet

The most important structure on the farm is our 26-by-96-foot hoop house. It protects plants from too much rain and wind, keeps them warm in the fall and winter, and gives us a relatively controlled environment in an otherwise unpredictable Maine climate.

We, along with several friends and neighbors, built our hoop house in 2005, laying on the protective poly cover that November. Since hoop house plastic has a "life" of four to five years, we were living on borrowed time. It was well past its expiration date.

We installed our new cover last Tuesday. Helping me were Mark Davis of Vassalboro and apprentices Jon Ault, Claudia Mang and Danielle Monroe. Starting time was 7:30 a.m. The weather was perfect -- warm, sunny, no wind. Even the slightest breeze would have made the job much more difficult.

Step one was to roll out the plastic on the ground beside the hoop house, reminding me of how the grounds crew at Fenway Park rolled out tarps in the infield on rainout days.

Step two called for bunching the plastic at both ends and in the middle and tying light rope to the bunches. Actually throwing the ropes over the 15-foot high steel structure was a comic event in my case, where the throws were pathetically short. My fishing days -- when I could throw a heavy line 20 feet and lasso a bollard -- were long gone. Mark did the best; Danielle was pretty good.

Then came the careful pulling of the ropes, gradually drawing the 104-foot long plastic over the top. Any hangup could mean a tear in the plastic, something to be avoided at all costs. It turned out that we did put two tears in the plastic -- one at each end where the wiggle wire track ends stuck out a tiny bit, but the cuts were outside the finished part of the cover.

Wiggle wire?

Wiggle wire was Mark's idea to secure the plastic in place. It means running tracks along the sides and ends of the hoop house, laying the plastic over it, then inserting W-shaped wire into the tracks to lock down the plastic.

Mark is from the D.C. area, so I just assumed "wiggle wire" was just a cute term from around there. He said it was sometimes called "Z wire," although its shape is like a continuous "W," and you do have to wiggle it to get it in place.

It took about 45 minutes to lay the plastic evenly over the steel structure. Mark climbed the ladder with wiggle wire in his hands to secure front and back to keep the plastic from turning into a large sail and floating away. The wire was laid on one side about six feet high, then on the other. The temperature inside the hoop house rose quickly to the 80s.

For ventilation, the plastic is clamped to a 100-foot length of pipe on each side of the house, then rolled up with a short pipe at the front end. By then it was time for lunch.

The rest of the afternoon was spent covering the front and back ends with plastic and cutting it to fit the shape of the structure. By 4 p.m., it was done. A good day's work!

Denis Thoet owns and manages Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner. www.longmeadowfarmmaine.com.

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