A hoop house is like gardening hundreds of miles south

The Audiberts’ hoop house is going strong after four harsh winters. The thick plastic sheeting is sturdy, even with heavy snow loads, and it is a a simple matter of using plastic tape when it needs repairs. (Andrew Birden | SJVT/FhF0

AROOSTOOK COUNTY, Maine — The planting season is approaching in northern Maine,  which has one of the shortest growing season in the contiguous United States.  A low-cost solution, which experienced gardeners call a hoop house or a high tunnel, allows people in The County to extend the growing opportunities by a month or so on both ends of the season.

Laura Audibert, a forestry consultant and master gardener, has a high tunnel as part of her gardening strategy in Fort Kent, which she uses to stretch the season.  She said, “I was picking spinach in December.” As for tomatoes, “It was into October, I’m sure.”

Typically, the hardcore local gardener would use the month of April to clean up the cold boxes from the previous year, nurture seedlings beneath protective grow lights in the basement, and head to the local gardening shop to buy young plants to gain a small advantage over the few months available before harvest arrives. Building a low-cost hoop house this summer means gardeners can extend the growing season a month or so this year, and they can start planting their crops much earlier next season.

A hoop house works similar to a greenhouse or cold box, but uses lower cost materials and requires no additional heating. Essentially, the gardener anchors bent aluminum tubes or PVC pipe in a series of arches to create a long-ribbed structure that he or she covers with a sturdy translucent plastic tarp. It’s a simple matter to stretch the plastic over the ribs and attach the edges to the baseboards.

The ribbed structure is sturdy enough to withstand season after season of use, and the plastic covering is easy and cheap to repair or replace.

Master Gardener Laura Audibert pushes her way through the deep snow of a northern Maine winter to get to her high tunnel, or hoop house, which she uses to grow vegetables for an extended growing season. (Andrew Birden | SJVT/FhF)

Four years ago, Laura and her husband, Don, decided to build their high tunnel. “I wanted to try to grow some more produce and other things I wouldn’t normally be able to grow.” With a grant from the state of Maine, they soon had a sturdy shelter with raised beds inside.

When a person walks into Audibert’s high tunnel on a cold March morning, the temperature and humidity inside is short-sleeve weather.  The hoop house retains enough heat that the structure acts as if you are planting your garden a few hundred miles south of your actual location.

Audibert estimates she is essentially gardening two zones south of her location on the Maine side of the U.S./Canadian border. For folks in Aroostook County, that means more vegetables and a wider variety of crop choices.

A hoop house is so versatile and uses such common materials, a person who is moderately handy can build small ones over individual rows for a couple of hundred dollars. Larger high tunnels, such as Audubert’s 21- by 36-foot design can cost a few thousand dollars.

Yet because the high tunnel is more open to the surrounding environment, it can be a refuge to local wildlife looking for a snack or a warm place to hunker down.  Audibert recalls walking into her hoop house one evening. “I see two beady eyes watching me, and it starts waddling towards me. It was a skunk.”

Most people can learn to build the basic structure of a hoop house. The internet has many resources with additional information, including detailed instructions for making a hoop house.

Check out the following links:

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