Homesteaders who are trying to earn a portion of their income by selling produce must find a way to increase the amount of growing time their Hardiness Zone gives them. If your growing season is twenty weeks, making the bulk of your income from your garden is going to be difficult. If there was a way to add at least ten weeks to your growing season, gardening for profit would be much easier. Fortunately, that is exactly what a high tunnel does.
A high tunnel, also called a hoop house or hoop tunnel, is a semi-permanent structure that extends the growing season, making it possible to start spring planting at least four weeks earlier and extend it into the fall at least six weeks later. If you cover your soil with plastic you can start planting even earlier. On a sunny day, the daytime temperatures inside a high tunnel are 30-50 degrees warmer than the outside temperature. This warmth rapidly increases seed germination and plant growth. It also allows you to harvest cold-hardy vegetables throughout winter, making year-round gardening possible.
High tunnels are available online as a kit and are occasionally offered in the form of farm grants at your local extension office. You can also recruit a few friends or family members, download plans off the internet and build one yourself. Choose a level site to place the high tunnel and position the structure so that the prevailing winds will blow through the roll-up sides, otherwise your plants will not receive adequate ventilation.
There are several styles of high tunnels to choose from but a tall-sided tunnel will give you more room to work and will ensure proper ventilation. If you live in an area that receives a lot of snow, choose a tunnel with a peak to help avoid collapse during a heavy snowfall.
It’s best to choose a high tunnel with sides that can easily be rolled up during warm days to prevent your plants from overheating and steaming. If your area experiences extreme cold for extended periods, consider adding small, portable heaters that can be turned on during the coldest weather.
One of the most important things to consider when deciding on a high tunnel is how you will deliver water to your plants. They will not receive any rainfall, so you will need to decide on an irrigation system. The ideal situation is to capture any rainfall that runs off the high tunnel and use that for irrigation. Research is still being done on how to do this efficiently, so it is not available in most kits. Drip irrigation is the system that is recommended and it has several advantages. First, there is less water waste as the water is delivered directly to the root zone. Second, because a drip irrigation system sends water directly to the roots, the probability of certain fungal diseases and water damage to crops is lessened. Third, a drip system allows you to apply fertilizer to your crops by injecting it directly into the system on an as-needed basis.
The most obvious benefit of gardening in a high tunnel is the season extension, but that is not the only benefit to consider. High tunnels offer protection from extreme weather events such as strong winds, heavy rain, snow, and drought. They also protect young and tender plants from excessive heat and sun-scald.
High tunnels also offer protection from pests, diseases, and weeds. You can use row covers for additional pest protection or, for even more pest protection, install insect screens along the sidewalls and doorways. The best control for disease prevention is always good sanitation, along with other good gardening practices such as monitoring crops and crop rotation. Weeds can be combated by placing a thick layer of straw between the rows and around individual plants.
The protection high tunnels offer can present a dilemma when it comes to pollinating your plants. Some plants are self-fertile, but even they will yield more produce if they are exposed to pollinators. Pollinators will be able to enter the high tunnel when the sidewalls are rolled up if you have not installed an insect screen. To attract pollinators, plant a flowering cover crop around the structure. If so inclined, you can also incorporate beehives around the structure.
As with any homestead project, it is important to do everything you can to make the most of your high tunnel. An important consideration is how you are going to optimize the space inside and around the high tunnel. It will be impossible to maintain continuous production without maximizing your space through succession planting and intercropping.
There are three ways to practice succession planting. Productivity will explode simply by practicing these techniques. The first succession planting technique is the most basic. Immediately plant a different crop after a crop is harvested. This is most often done after you harvest a cool-season crop and follow it with a warm-season crop. Second, plant the same crop at times intervals so they mature at different times. This is very successful with quick crops such as radishes, carrots, and greens. Finally, plant varieties of the same crop with different maturity dates at the same time to extend the harvest. For example, plant early, mid- and late maturing tomatoes to harvest from early June to late September.
Intercropping is simply planting smaller crops under larger ones. Root crops can be planted around mid-sized crops such as kale and Swiss chard. Leafy greens, dwarf pepper plants, and herbs can be planted around larger crops such as broccoli and tomatoes. Not only will this increase the variety and yield from your garden, but also taller plants offer smaller plants heat protection and it is a great way to practice companion planting.
Another way to maximize the growth potential of your high tunnel is to incorporate vertical gardening. If you are only using the ground level, you are missing out on a lot of space. Again, you can buy vertical gardening kits that you can add to the tunnel, or save some money and build your own. Vertical gardening is becoming increasingly popular and there are plenty of resources you can draw from.
If you choose not to add a vertical aspect to your high tunnel, consider adding an area for seed germination. The warmer temperature inside the high tunnel makes the germination process quicker and if you are practicing succession planting, you always need to have plants ready to put in the ground.
Although installing a high tunnel may seem like a great deal of work and expense, the benefits are immeasurable to the homesteader who is counting on the income from their garden. With the longer growing season, faster growth and higher productivity, gardening in a high tunnel leads to a better product and a higher yield. The ability to be first to the market with farm-fresh produce makes a good impression on customers and keeps them coming back. Out of season produce commands a premium price and allows customers to have the produce they want from a local grower.
Just because you can grow almost anything in a high tunnel, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Pay attention to what is being offered at your local farmers’ market. Ask customers what they would like. Visit local restaurants and introduce yourself to the chef. Interest in local food is high and the majority of people want to support you. It’s a tricky line to offer what customers want while differentiating yourself. Yes, tomatoes and crookneck squash are popular, but if twenty vendors are selling tomatoes and squash, how is a customer supposed to support every vendor? Offer different varieties of popular choices and include two or three unusual vegetables. Let nothing go to waste. If something is not selling, create a value-added product such as a relish, pickle or chutney, and don’t plant it next year. If you keep good production and market records, the decision about what to plant each year becomes easier.
If you are ready to start a CSA project on your homestead, a high tunnel is the way to go. Operating a CSA takes a lot of the financial stress out of farming, as the crops are pre-sold and there are no market variables. You know exactly how much of what you need to plant and when you need to harvest it. Because of the protection offered by a high tunnel and your ability to control the water and ventilation, a CSA operated out of a high tunnel is much less risky than accepting money for crops you’re growing out in a field, especially for the small farmer. Always plant more than you pre-sell, and plant one or two surprising items that are added into the boxes for interest. Start small, five or ten shares, if this is the first CSA you have participated in.
High tunnel gardening is an effective way to grow a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and flowers throughout the entire year. Whether you are selling your produce as a main source of income or wanting to feed your friends and family food you feel good about, a high tunnel is a worthwhile investment.