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Taking the high tunnel

February 25, 2010
By Stephanie Bethke-DeJaeghere

High Tunnel Production in Minnesota has been the new gardening concept this year. I have been fielding a few questions about this unique way to grow vegetables and fruits.

High tunnels look like greenhouses in appearance but that is about where the similarities end. They do not use electricity or artificial heat, use only one sheet of plastic and do not use electric fans for ventilation. Plants are watered using drip irrigation.

As do many other things, high tunnels have their advantages and disadvantages in the home garden. The U of M has been working on research using high tunnels since 2002 at the Grand Rapids, Minnesota Outreach center. The advantages are many, and of which, the most beneficial to the home owner or grower is extending the growing season as long as possible at either end of the season (i.e. starting sooner in the spring and going further into the fall). They do require more labor, proper variety selection, pollination management, water management and pruning/staking of crops.

As we all know, April and May are unpredictable and planting much outside during this time is a roll of the dice whether or not frost will damage the plants or not.

High tunnels offer a way for gardeners to get going on their growing season and after a winter like we are having this year, we all might run out and try at least one this year.

The high tunnels that have been used have shown that while the outside temperature was around 50 degrees, the power of the sun warms up the inside of the high tunnel to around 80 degrees. The longer season will allow us to grow some varieties of plants that we normally would not choose because of our shorter growing season.

Reduction of insect problems was also another advantage of growing in high tunnels. And especially for those who experience problems with septoria or early blight symptoms on their tomatoes, using the high tunnel system seems to have alleviated the problem.

In the research conducted by the U of M, tomatoes were found to be the most successful crop grown irregardless of how you decided to raise them in the tunnels. This means that whether you staked them or let them run on the ground, they did well and had much earlier tomatoes for the table or for sale.

If you are choosing to sell much of your produce or if you are choosing to use high tunnels for your home garden only, you will find that you can grow just about any type of vegetable or fruit within the space provided. Green beans, beets, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, peas, radish, and onions did the best. The plants that did not fare well were strawberries which died the second year since they did not have mulch on them through the winter months even though they were still inside the high tunnels, broccoli which simply did not perform well and eggplants which had chronic problems with white fly.

If you are interested in trying this out, more reading about the subject can be found by Googling Minnesota High Tunnel Production Manual for Commercial Growers. For supplies for high tunnels, you can check out which is put together by several extension groups.

For more information on gardening, you can reach me at



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