04/28/13 8:00am
04/28/2013 8:00 AM

COURTESY PHOTO | There’s no need for a big investment of space to grow fruits and vegetables out of season.

Forget just going green, now it’s all about staying green.

A hoop house, a smaller version of a greenhouse, allows gardeners to enjoy fresh, 100 percent organic produce even during the coldest months of the year. Twenty years after Peconic resident Renato Stafford began growing his own produce that way, others are following the trend and eating what they cultivate.

Using a 12-by-20-foot dugout-style hoop house, Mr. Stafford harvests homegrown spinach, tomatoes, garlic and lettuce fresh from his backyard.

“Anyone with any level of interest can do it,” he said. “The big trend is local and there is nothing more local than your own backyard.”

Greenhouses have long been used by farmers to jump-start summer seedlings in early spring. Hoop houses similarly allow the growing of fruits and vegetables off season.

COURTESY PHOTO | A hoop house shows the semipermanent nature of year-round cultivation, with a center trench that allows a gardener to cultivate without constantly bending over.

Dugout-style hoop houses are the most efficient way to grow year-round, Mr. Stafford said. This type of hoop house setup involves digging out a center trench to put planting beds at waist level, which eliminates the need to bend over to maintain crops.

Another option for year-round farming is a cold frame hoop house, which is similar to the dugout-style but lacks a trench. Cold frames require less work to install and provide similar protection from adverse weather. Both types of structure must be positioned in areas with plenty of sunlight and, if possible, relatively little wind, Mr. Stafford said.

The right approach varies depending on the gardener.

“There are many levels of making these things,” he said. “Some people might want a simple cold frame in their backyard or build an elaborate one. Some people want to put herbs in a pot. Just find what’s right for you and get growing.”

Regardless of the enclosure’s design, successful planting begins with the proper soil — and Mr. Stafford recommends using homemade compost. Compost can contain any organic material including leaves, manure, branches, even seaweed, fish or shellfish.

But compost can take anywhere from eight months to a year to form, so Mr. Stafford advises anyone who wants to get started immediately to purchase organic soil from a reputable company.

Contrary to popular belief, all-season gardening requires less maintenance than summer vegetable gardening, he said. Weeds are a common problem for all gardeners, of course, but using a hoop house, where seeds are planted in compact rows, mitigates the concern.

“When I plant in rows I know everything between is a weed and I can easily yank them out while they’re small,” he said.

Novices are encouraged to plant a variety of crops at first and to customize their garden.

“Focus on the food you want to eat,” Mr. Stafford said. “I have a big Italian family, so I grow two to three hundred pounds of garlic every year.”

The benefits of eating garden-fresh greens are many. From a health standpoint , homegrown produce has more minerals and contains no synthetic pesticides, he said.

“The benefit is you know what’s going into your food,” he said. “You can’t buy that anywhere, at any price.”

Other payoffs include a lower grocery bill and the satisfaction of a hard day’s work. “When you eat your own homegrown food it is so different from anything you can buy in the store,” he said.

Mr. Stafford founded his business, Homegrown, three years ago to share his longtime passion for growing organic foods. Rather then sell his produce, Mr. Stafford said his business focuses on education. For nearly a decade he has taught clients how to grow their own food and more recently began constructing customized hoop houses. For more information on year-round growing, visit homegrownorganic.net   or call 631-514-5315.

cmurray@timesreview.com