8 Grow Tips From a Cold Climate, Hydroponic, Greenhouse Tomato Grower


While every greenhouse operation has its struggles, northern regions are burdened with environmental elements that could make or break a business, in one season. Read how Matt Fox, owner and founder of Fox Greenhouses located on a Century Farm in Dallas Center, Iowa, combats the weather and turns a nice profit in a shorter growing season for part one, of a four-part series.
1. Like a well-oiled machine, keep your greenhouse fine-tuned.
When I asked Matt what kind of maintenance was involved with operating a greenhouse, he quickly took me back to my childhood. When we would tediously wrap our windows with plastic, running our fingers along the trim, frantically searching for the hole that let the cold in, and the heat out. A yearly affair.

Maintenance. The word itself sounds tedious.

A groaning task, easily left til the last minute, when in reality, should be done first. Much like we evaluate our house before winter, Matt suggests the same for your greenhouse. Look for drafts and caulk them, service your heater regularly, and insulate your water pipes if needed. You know as well as I do, no one wants to call the repairman when your seedlings have just sprouted.

2. Acknowledge your love/hate relationship with snow.
Most people yearn for a white Christmas, but I can imagine how one would feel angst towards the season. I’m sure you’ve heard the horror stories of greenhouses collapsing from heavy loads of snow. It’s not a pretty sight, and in some instances, a blizzard can ruin a business. Before you make the big purchase, make sure a greenhouse can support the most extreme snow load for your region. Consider adding more arches than specified. And ensure your heater is equipped for the size of greenhouse, preferably over-sized.

In worst-case scenarios, Matt has to physically remove snow and/or ice to maintain his greenhouse’s integrity, but generally he will turn the heat up for a brief period of time to jump-start the melting process. For additional information, read Greenhouse Grower’s article on the top 10 snow-related causes of greenhouse failures.

3. Minimize your heating costs.
One can get pretty clever in finding ways to lower the utility bill. Take for instance how Growing Power, located in Milwaukee, uses piles of compost to heat its greenhouses. In previous years, Matt has used his corn stove. However with the rise in corn prices, it’s more efficient to use propane, even though he’s also a farmer.

A few tricks Matt shares: Use a thermal curtain during periods when the sun isn’t shining to minimize some of the heat loss. And if your plants are mature enough to handle the fluctuation, lower the night-time temperature five degrees.

4. Be waterwise.
Fox Greenhouses is located in rural Iowa, run on rural, sometimes spotty, always expensive, water. Regularly Matt has to test the water to measure its chemical balance and temperature. During the colder months, fluctuations in water temperature are not tolerated if your plants are immature. It’s important to have water heaters ready to go to protect your crops. Soon, Matt will drill his own well for a primary water source, leaving the rural water hookup for backup.

5. Run the numbers on supplemental lighting.
If you’re interested in extending your growing season and making your harvest more consistent, consider supplemental lighting. Occasionally at Fox Greenhouses, the sun doesn’t show up to work. What do you do with that?  Matt sometimes has to tell his customers the harvest wasn’t so — bountiful. Fox Greenhouses growing hydroponic tomatoes in Iowa
With supplemental lighting, Matt estimates he can start growing at least a month earlier and possibly continue all year round. Before he makes the decision to add lighting, Matt contemplates not only the costs of the lights, but adding outlets and the additional electrical costs. When will he break even? And when will the lights turn a profit?

6. Get creative: Start your seeds indoors.
At first I thought Matt’s method of starting seeds indoors was ludicrous. You’ve got a greenhouse! For growing! So naturally, I asked him why. And of course, he had a logical explanation. While the seeds are sprouting in the basement of his (gorgeous) Century Farmhouse, the greenhouse gets its yearly cleansing.

Also, he’s able to put off heating the greenhouse for a wee bit longer.

7. Keep your toes warm — and your produce.
Transferring freshly harvested tomatoes can prove to be quite tricky when fall comes earlier than anticipated. When temperatures dip below 30 degrees, Matt takes extra measures to protect his bounty. Minimizing their exposure to the elements is an absolute must. Ensure you have direct access to your greenhouse door, from your delivery vehicle to help the process.

8. Own. Your. Fears.
Purposely, I left one question for last: “What scares you the most about growing in Iowa?” I feel it’s important to own your fears. Recognize where your weaknesses are and prepare for the day they might become reality.

In a true, tell-it-like-it-is form that makes me love Iowa even more, Matt figuratively replies: “Getting caught with my pants down.” He shared how one year, winter came a bit early, and on delivery day. (eek!) I could easily imagine Matt, frantically thinking: Are the burners working in the greenhouse? How can we protect today’s harvest from the elements? 

Matt tries to plan a day or two in advance of a blizzard, but if any of you know Iowa’s weather, it can change in an afternoon.
Fox Greenhouses is located in Dallas Center, Iowa. Founder, Matt Fox has been growing pesticide-free, vine-ripened tomatoes hydroponically since 2000. Connect with them on Facebook. Subscribe to our blog in the column to read the next post in this month’s case study on Fox Greenhouses.