BY EMMETT SNEAD
FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
SOME FARMERS call them “tall tunnels.” Others call them “hoop houses.” The name may vary but I have been using high tunnels since the 1990s.
They let me extend the growing season on the front end and the back end for four to six weeks. Tall tunnels first caught my eye because dollar-wise they are very inexpensive compared to a greenhouse. However, they do require a lot of labor and management.
To cool a tall tunnel, you raise up the sides and open up the ends. Conversely, to warm the structure, you do the opposite. A tall tunnel is not heated or cooled from within like a greenhouse. Therefore, you cannot grow summer crops in the dead of winter. But you can grow greens and spinach.
In the past, no one has recommended that home gardeners should use tall tunnels. I believe that full-time dedicated home gardeners could get a cheap thrill from growing crops in a tall tunnel. Especially since the main investment would be your time. It’s thrilling to watch tomatoes take on a tropical-like growth.
My tall tunnels are 17 feet by 96 feet. Many other farmers’ tall tunnels are much larger. It’s easier to ventilate a narrower structure than a wider structure. The only thing I would change on mine would be to make them a foot and a half taller to allow for even more ventilation. You can build your own or order them pre-built and put them up yourself as I did.
They come in 4-foot sections. I would recommend starting with a 17- by 20-foot structure, give or take, depending on your level of commitment. It’s better to start off too small than too big. All it really takes is a backyard and a strong desire. That’s the beauty of gardening. The exercise and better-than-summertime tasting tomatoes are just the icing on the cake.
Because you control the weather within a tall tunnel, it can be more conducive to organic farming. The plants are watered with a trickle tube in the row, instead of being watered overhead by either rain, willy–nilly, or irrigation. Rain and nightly dews that promote disease in tomato plants, along with rot and splits in the fruit, are avoided.
It’s easier to keep beneficial insects (including bees) inside a tall tunnel and the undesirable, “bane of your existence” (as a gardener) insects out. The water spigot on the outside of your house should be sufficient to supply a small tall tunnel with water.
A tall tunnel has to be baby-sat to be successful. If you go off and leave it, you will end up with fried green tomatoes. But the benefits of a tall tunnel far outweigh the investment in management over a regular outdoor garden:
–Very inexpensive compared to a greenhouse.
–Backup heat for cold snaps can be used to extend the growing season even longer.
–A big space saver for small backyards.
–Protects the Chesapeake Bay from fertilizer and pesticide runoff.
–Makes organic farming relatively easier.
Bumblebees for tall tunnels can be purchased from Koppert—810/632-8750. These bees are not aggressive unless you kick their hive. On days the tall tunnel is open the bees will pollinate all the flowers on your block as well as the plants in the tall tunnel.
Prebuilt high tunnels, in sections of 4 feet, can be ordered from Ledgewood Farm—603/476-8829. The owner, Ed Person, was helpful with advice when I first started out.
To view an existing tall tunnel with a lush-growing tomato crop, you may visit my farm. We’re open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays noon to 5 p.m.—unless I’m sold out of produce.
Emmett Snead operates Snead’s Farm along Tidewater Trail in Caroline County.