Why Grow in a Greenhouse?
Each year as the autumnal equinox passes us by, daylength dwindles to an increasingly noticeable degree. By the winter solstice, it becomes too cold and dark in many regions for much of anything to grow in the field. But greenhouse growers are gearing up to start tomato, lettuce, eggplant and pepper seeds, or other carefully chosen vegetables, herbs, and flowers. The seedlings may be started or transplanted into a heated or unheated greenhouse or hoop house, with or without supplemental lighting, depending on the latitude, crop, and a host of additional variables unique to the greenhouse grower’s operation.
If working in the greenhouse sounds to you like a way to banish the midwinter blues — as well as generate year-round income — then read on to learn more about how you might fit greenhouse production into your business plan.
The Greenhouse Advantage: Extended Season; Higher Quality; Higher Yield
The obvious reason to grow greenhouse vegetables, flowers, and herbs is to have crops at a time of year when they can’t be grown outdoors. Out-of-season tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, lettuce, basil, and other vegetables command high prices in some markets.
It’s important to note, though, that the cost of winter production of warm-weather crops like tomatoes is very high; prepare to jump into it only once you ascertain you have a market and a price point that will provide a return on your investment. Heating will be your biggest cost, followed by labor. And if you intend to remain in production through the very coldest, shortest winter months, you may also need to provide supplemental lighting — particularly during a long spell of overcast weather.
Greenhouse craft food
If you have never attempted to grow greenhouse food vegetables in winter, you should do a great deal of preliminary research to determine whether it can be profitable for you, given your climate, greenhouse structure, and projected fuel costs. Fortunately, there are many freely available resources to help you calculate costs and potential returns. A search online for greenhouse tomatoes enterprise budget, for example, will return a lengthy list of references to inform your research. Look for those published by your regional universities and cooperative extension agencies.
For predicting heating costs, a tool called the Virtuagreenhouse craft foodl Grower is available through the USDA. It prompts the user to enter information such as nearest weather station, (from which it calculates average weather conditions), type of greenhouse food, condition of the structure, type of heating system, and price of fuel. (Although the Virtual Grower is dated, it still holds utility; we hope this free software will soon be redeveloped.)
As for timing, the broad rule of thumb for a beginning grower in the northern half of the US or Canada is to plant into a greenhouse until February 15, because the low light conditions earlier than that make the crop a riskier venture. More experienced growers and southern growers, however, can often produce all winter. By mid February, many crops can be grown with only minimal heat, and still provide a month or more of earliness compared to field crops.