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Hoop houses extend urban farmers' growing season

Urban farmers can extend the growing season several months in fall and spring with hoop houses, a variation of greenhouses.

By DAVID RUNKAssociated Press writer / November 4, 2009

Flint, Mich.

On the vacant lot in Michigan where her childhood home once stood, Carolyn Meekins grows seedlings for Asian greens, red kale, and green beans in a plastic-covered greenhouse known as a hoop house.

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The structure warms and protects the tender, young plants, allowing Ms. Meekins to plant earlier in the year. She was the first in Flint to build one last year, but more urban farmers like her are using hoop houses to extend the growing season in northern US cities.

Hoop houses are relatively inexpensive to build and often are unheated — relying instead on the sun or heat thrown off by compost heaps. With frames made of metal, flexible PVC pipe, or wood, they work like greenhouses but are covered with plastic instead of glass. They can be small enough for a city backyard or 100 feet long.

With them, farmers can extend a five- or six-month outdoor growing season to the whole year, said Adam Montri, an outreach specialist with Michigan State University's Department of Horticulture.

And hoop houses don't need heaters or the costly high-intensity lights often used in commercial greenhouses.

"Northern cities are ... seeing the benefits of having them," Montri said. "As urban agriculture has grown, hoop houses have kind of grown simultaneously."

Urban farming is on the rise in Flint, Mich., where sparsely populated neighborhoods and thousands of empty lots provide space for growing.

Meekins began gardening in her neighborhood in 1995, and her Urban Community Youth Outreach farm now includes 11 lots, with rows of vegetables and a wheat field.

Plants started in late winter in the hoop house, Meekins said, will give her an early jump on spring crops for her farm. She also wants her hoop house to be a place where smaller community gardeners can get their starter plants.

"Our plan is to make this a hub of all transplants," Meekins said.

Commercial farmers in rural areas around the country also use hoop houses, but they make sense in cities, where lots are smaller and yard space is often limited, because crops can be grown close together — or even stacked in layers inside.

"It's very different than in the field," Montri said. "What it allows us to do is produce a large amount of food in a smaller space."

The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network uses a hoop house at its D-Town Farm to grow food that it sells in the city.

Former pro basketball player and urban farmer Will Allen's Growing Power Inc. uses hoop houses in Milwaukee to grow greens.