Ending and Extending Your Growing Season

I’m not going to lie to you.  As much as I love being a grower of cut flowers, I REALLY like the off-season.  I’m one of those guys who beginning sometime in August can be found looking to north searching for signs of frost, drawing it in like a human-magnet.  I don’t sell wreaths, sticks, or dried cuts for the holidays, so when the frost comes, I’m done. The off-season is what keeps me sane, easing the mania of the regular-season, and restores me both physically and emotionally.
However, before the season ends for me, after the frost takes every last stem of zinnia, salvia, and dahlia, there is much to be done.  Besides being a field grower, I also grow in two hoophouses.  Technically, these aren’t high tunnels; they’re more like a cold frame, unheated, single layer of poly, growing directly in the ground.  Each structure measures 20’wide by 96’ long by 10’ high, or about 2,000 square feet.  (4,000 square feet is about 1/10th of an acre.)  Before my season is over these hoophouses need to be planted.
The point of me telling you this is, this is how I get started in the spring, how I get to market earlier than other growers, have a diverse lineup of flowers, and, it’s how I extend the season of my spring cuts.
For the spring, I grow tulips, ranunculus, anemone, sweet peas, poppies, larkspur, bupleurum, and sweet William, all in the hoophouse.  I grow these flowers in the field as well, but having them planted in the hoophouse, in central Virginia, Zone 7A, I have product to sell in late March.  And, when my first farmers’ market begins the first Saturday in April, I’m there with all of these straight through May!  That’s two months of spring cuts, a month earlier than most who grow exclusively in the field.  Hoophouses work, and they’re profitable.
A few years ago I read an article by Lynn Byczynski in Growing For Market about hoophouse growing.  It talked about the advantages of growing in hoophouses and the relative costs and revenue.  I later read Lynn’s book, The Hoophouse Handbook, which expanded on that piece in greater detail.  It may have been the most important reading I’ve done since becoming a cut flower grower.  What I learned later on from my own experience is that spring crops, hoophouse grown combined with field-grown, are my most profitable of the entire year.
A hoophouse isn’t just a one-hit wonder.  I double crop each house.  If I were more organized and ambitious I could be growing in them well after frost finished off my field crops.  After the spring crops are finished, I pull them out of the houses, till and amend the soil, and plant them with summer annuals that come in a good two to three weeks earlier than the field annuals.  I have zinnias, ageratum, sunflowers, and celosia just before other growers.  It gives me a clear market advantage, and one that generates much-needed cash flow throughout the early part of the growing season.
While it’s too late to build and plant a hoophouse at this time of year, I strongly suggest that you consider it for next year.  When planning to build your hoophouse, you’ll want to buy a structure that is appropriate for your particular area.  For example: I bought both of my hoophouses from Atlas Greenhouse in Georgia.  My hoophouses have hoop spacing of four feet for added strength in case of heavy snow.  While it isn’t likely that we’ll get the same heavy snow as growers in the north, there’s no threat of collapse in the event that we do get a good storm.  Also, buy a hoophouse from a distributor in your area to minimize shipping charges.  Talk to other growers who are growing in hoophouses as season extenders, and read Lynn Byczynski’s book, The Hoophouse Handbook.  If I can do this, anyone can.
I’m enjoying the off-season, but even more than that, I’m really looking forward to spring and the beginning of the new season.  My hoophouses, and the downtime of winter, bring much needed balance to the otherwise controlled chaos of a cut flower grower’s life.