Hoop houses promote a culture of sustainable farming that is good for you, and good for Cape Cod
Farming, in many ways, is an art form—one that is heavily dependent on the environment around us. If winter comes too early, the crops a farmer has been hard at work on may go to waste. If spring is particularly dry, the gorgeous flowers a landowner has been cultivating may never come to fruition. To combat tricky weather conditions, growers came up with an invention, unique in its simplicity, that essentially puts control of the seasons in the hands of the farmer.
Hoop houses are domed structures that protect crops from the outside world while providing many benefits to the environment and the people around them. As a bonus, they’re so simple to create that just about any homeowner can have a hoop house in their own backyard.
“The Cape has challenging growing conditions, with soil that varies from sand, to clay and sometimes fierce climatic weather caused by our coastal location,” explains Susan Dewey, who is responsible for an organic produce hoop house operated by Dewey Gardens in Centerville, a landscape design and maintenance company owned by her son, Dan Dewey. “With a hoop house, you can control all these variables and provide your family with delicious fresh vegetables all year round, as well as enjoy the delights of your own healthy, fragrant green oasis, even when winter storms batter Cape Cod’s fragile spit of land.”
Maine’s Eliot Coleman, renowned organic farmer, author and television personality, was a source of inspiration for the Dewey Gardens hoop house. His passion for organic, sustainable practices is one that Dewey has fully embraced. “It’s about teaching reverence for the earth and teaching the next generation the value of taking care of the planet,” says Dewey, who loves gardening with her curious grandsons. “I think what we’re doing shows the larger community what is possible.”
Dan and his crew put together the 20-by-50-foot hoop house over just several days with the help of D.J. Griffith of Hyannis Country Garden. “Hoop houses can be small, low to the ground tunnels just a few feet high or larger houses like ours,” explains Dewey.
The Dewey Gardens hoop house is constructed with steel hoops covered by UV-resistant plastic, partnered with rigid plastic doors and baseboards along the side. Heated by solar power, the plastic can be rolled up on the sides for ventilation in the warmer months. The maintenance is easy enough, although Dewey explains that good soil enriched yearly with organic compost is crucial for healthy vegetables with unparalleled taste. As an added bonus, “If you’re out in your hoop house digging and lugging around bags of manure, you don’t have to go to the gym,” she says with a laugh.
Hoop houses protect crops from challenging environmental conditions during extended growing seasons, and when maintained organically, they also protect the surrounding environment from harsh, synthetic chemicals.
“Cape Cod is a very fragile marine location with extremely limited resources,” says Dewey, noting that the Cape and Islands rely on groundwater. Therefore, keeping farming and gardening practices as chemical-free as possible is important, now more than ever. “Sustainability is a movement whose time has come,” she says.
At Dewey Gardens, a hoop house is used to protect a range of fresh, organic vegetables, most notably spinach, but at Sabatia Flower Farm, with locations in West Barnstable and Marstons Mills, the focus is on growing beautiful flowers.
“I enjoy having the ability to grow things that aren’t available through other sources,” says owner Rebecca Perry. “I grow perennials and also some amazing varieties of cut flowers and begonias that you can’t normally find locally. To be able to provide access to things my customers couldn’t get elsewhere is really rewarding.”
Sabatia grows cut flowers in hoop houses for wholesale as well as farmers markets and their own personal retail and flower stand. They also grow annuals and perennials. “We have a greenhouse that we run year round growing oriental lilies,” explains Perry. Sabatia also has a high tunnel that is unheated for those tricky plants that like to stay cool but also need to be protected from harsh weather and frost.
On Cape Cod specifically, “Being able to control the environment is crucial,” says Perry. “One of the benefits of growing our own bedding plants is that we’re not limited by what the local garden centers sell. We’re able to grow more obscure things.” Thanks to the hoop houses, Sabatia is able to bring color to the Cape all year long and make sure that the variety of fabulous flowers available to the community doesn’t suffer because of unsuitable weather or growing conditions.
“Horticulture is just a great industry,” says Perry. “I have always really appreciated being able to start from scratch and produce a product that gives a lot of people enjoyment. Starting the cut flower business was a way for me to transition into locally grown products.”
Perry explains that running a hoop house doesn’t necessarily mean you cut down on your carbon footprint, but there are certainly ways to cultivate this kind of passion while being environmentally conscious. At the end of the day, projects like the ones being run at Sabatia and at Dewey Gardens support the local community in areas ranging from health to economics.
The increased availability of in-demand crops during their normal off-seasons not only means more variety in food and flowers year round but also lower prices. “Growing my own bedding plants means that I shop in my own greenhouse every morning,” Perry explains. Cheaper prices for both farmers and consumers means that a stimulated economy can be added to the list of reasons hoop houses are valuable to the Cape and Islands.
The benefits associated with hoop houses are enormous, for both your own health and enjoyment as well as that of the surrounding environment, but jumping into the world of sustainable farming might seem like a daunting task best left to the professionals. Luckily enough, creating your own hoop house is easily within reach for any homeowner, and the women of Dewey Gardens and Sabatia Flower Farm are blazing a path and offering some advice to eager Cape Cod farmers.
“With a little bit of room, you can produce an incredible amount of food,” says Dewey. “Still, it’s trial and error. There’s this whole mystique about having a green thumb, but it’s more about learning what works for you and what thrives best in your particular landscape.”
The conditions on the Cape can be challenging, so “It’s crucial that you have the right location,” explains Perry. “Cape Cod is very wooded, so you need to have an appropriate location with full sun and a source of water.”
Perry also advises researching the best hoop house structure to suit your needs, as there are many options. “At Sabatia, we have two different kinds of structures,” she says. “Some of our greenhouses have just a plastic cover that gets replaced every five to seven years, and some of the greenhouses have a polycarbonate covering, which is a hard, plastic double layer that’s more permanent and has better insulation.”
Choosing the right structure and location depends on what you plan to grow and what your long-term goals are. It’s about finding what’s right for you and what will help you be the most successful with your hoop house.
“If you’re interested in growing your own food and controlling the content and health of that food inexpensively, you can do that on your own time and on your own land,” says Dewey. “And if you want to do what you can to make the planet a healthier place, that’s the reason you should build a hoop house.”
For dedicated farmers like Dewey and Perry, taking care of their crops is a task that never gets old. Dewey shares a sublime quote that captures the passion these women bring to their practice. “It’s just like Thomas Jefferson says,” she quotes: “Though I am an old man, I am but a young gardener.”