High tunnels take chill off of winter

With daytime high temperatures hovering around the freezing mark, gardeners are biding their time, patiently pursuing the garden catalogs and thinking about those first warm sunny days of April and May when they can resume their gardening activities.

Are there ways to renew our gardening even earlier than those first warm days of spring? The answer is a resounding yes.

More experienced gardeners will share their experience with cold frames, hot beds, cloches, mulches, floating row covers and even low tunnels. However, there are only a very few who have begun to put the concepts of high-tunnel season extension to practice either in the backyard or in a commercial farm application.

A high tunnel is a very low-cost and lightly constructed production environment that allows the passive trapping of the sun’s energy through the day to warm the soil and then radiate that warmth back to plants during the chill of the evening.

In a sense, a high tunnel is a lot like a low-end temporary greenhouse with none (or very few) of the “frills” of automation and fossil fuels.

With the aid of high tunnels, growers are able to harvest fresh greens through most or all of the winter months. They can start warm season crops like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers a month or more earlier than their neighbors and carry those crops later into the fall.

The good news is that these production systems allow the gardener or farmer the opportunity to put some of those otherwise idle winter months to good use and begin their gardening chores at a slower, more measured pace in a warm and sunny environment as early as February or March.

We are just beginning to learn the opportunities that high-tunnel systems can provide. Some growers are going beyond vegetables to now look at producing apricots, cherries, figs and the sensitive berry crop.

The possibilities really are limited only by the imagination.

If you are interesting in learning more about the possibilities of season extension as a tool to advance a hobby or a food-related enterprise, the upcoming free series will be of value to you.

Growers (gardeners or farmers) are invited to learn to navigate the ins and outs of high-tunnel production through a series of six webinars offered in February and March.

The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment’s Center for Crop Diversification is sponsoring the series and has allowed the Purdue Hancock County Extension office to serve as an Indiana receive site for this Web-based series.

Through the series, producers will gain information about crop considerations, market opportunities, construction tips and ideas, including pest pressure and control.

The webinars are all from 6:30-7:45 p.m. All sessions will be live or recorded. Offerings are as follows:

•Feb. 19: Season Extension Opportunities + EQIP Funding: An overview of season extension and the pros and cons of using season-extension technology.

•Feb. 24: Structure Options, Construction, and Ventilation and Temperature Control: An introduction to structure options and layouts for high tunnels, stationary or moveable high tunnels, as well as construction tips and ideas. Other topics include ventilation and temperature control within a high tunnel throughout the year.

•March 3: Organic Production and Certification in High Tunnels, Economic and Marketing Considerations in High Tunnels: Adam Watson, organic marketing representative, will introduce organic certification and how it relates to high-tunnel production. Other topics will include economics and marketing of high-tunnel crops throughout the year.

•March 10: Crop and Equipment Options and Nutrient and Irrigation Management in High Tunnels: Covers what and when to plant and crop options for continued high-tunnel production in Kentucky climates. Other topics include types of equipment for high-tunnel production and nutrient and irrigation management in high-tunnel production systems.

•March 17: Insect, Weed and Disease Control in High Tunnels: High tunnels can protect crops from some insect, weed or disease pressures, but they can sometimes harbor and magnify pest problems. During this webinar, specialists will teach how to manage pest pressures.

•March 31: Producer Views and Series Wrap-up: High-tunnel producers will share their successes and challenges along the way.

Those who would like to see an introductory video about high tunnels as they consider attending the series may visit youtu.be/oZj35CFZV1c.

Those who would like to attend one or more sessions of this educational series should preregister at no cost by calling 317-642-6566 or by emailing rballard@purdue.edu.

Roy Ballard is an agriculture and natural resources educator with the Hancock County office of Purdue Extension (www.extension.purdue.edu/hancock). Contact him at 317-462-1113 or rballard@purdue.edu.