Summer High Tunnels Present New Opportunity

4/27/2013 7:00 AM
By Robin Follette Maine Correspondent

Planning the layout for the high tunnels is different from year to year because of crop rotation and changes in what you grow. I’m still making the mental transition from market farmer to backyard gardener. Smaller isn’t necessarily simpler.

Without a need for hundreds of tomato plants, I don’t need to fill a 1,000-square-foot high tunnel with tomatoes. I’m planting less than a hundred plants in the tunnel this year.

Thirty-eight are paste tomatoes that will provide enough for me and two friends to can. There will be only two Juliet grape tomatoes, two beef steak-type but only one plant of each variety, and a few Jet Star slicing tomatoes among the regulars.

I’m growing three varieties for a seed company that will send seedlings next month. I’ll plant one grafted and one ungrafted plant of each of three varieties. And that’s all. This is only two rows worth of plants for a five-row tunnel. That leaves three rows empty.

My pickling and slicing cucumbers will be grown in the tunnels. I favor vertical growing for cucumbers. It eliminates a vine jungle, making them easier to find since they’re out in plain sight. It’s also easier on the back.

The tunnels run east to west. It sounds contradictory, but these sun-loving warm crops are going to be planted on the north wall. Tomatoes and cucumbers are the tall crops. They’ll have plenty of sunshine and warmth, and on the north wall, won’t shade other crops. The only exception I can think of is planting heat-tolerant lettuce varieties in a row on the north wall, and providing shade for them with the taller plants. Even heat-tolerant plants can have too much heat.

Peppers will be planted in the center row. Some of the plants will reach between 3 and 4 feet tall. They won’t shade or be shaded by other plants.

The two rows on the south side are for beets, basil, sage, early broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage and kohlrabi.

The weather is still a controlling factor in getting the planting done. Those tomatoes and pepper seedlings I talked about earlier are still in the house, still growing. The days are warmer, sometimes into the mid 50s, but it was 20 degrees Sunday and Monday mornings.

There’s one high tunnel planned out. I’m trying something new in the second. I need to use both tunnels. We spent the money and put in the time and effort building them. I can’t let them sit idle without feeling guilty.

Selling one involves pulling the pipes out of the ground that were driven in 18 inches with a sledgehammer. For now, I’ll put it to use. I’m going to grow gourds and smaller pumpkins in there. Most of the seeds will be planted directly into the soil when I’m sure the nights are going to stay above freezing. I’m trying a large gourd that needs 135 days to maturity, so I’ll start those seeds in the house today and transplant in a few weeks.

Not all of the smaller pumpkins will be grown in the tunnel. The head start they get in there means they will mature earlier than normal and might not last through Halloween and Thanksgiving decorating. I don’t want to bake pumpkins in August to prep them for the freezer. That’s a job better suited for chilly early fall mornings when the house could use a little extra warmth.

The pumpkins and gourds will be planted in small piles of aged cow manure. I’ll use tomato twine and clips on these plants in the same way I do the tomatoes and cucumbers. I’m eager to see gourds hanging from the vines.

There’s another idea I can’t seem to let go. With extra space in the tunnels, maybe I’ll plant a couple of dwarf fruit trees that are hardy to zone six. I’m in zone five. It would be nice to have more varieties to choose from.

Now where’s that tree catalog

Robin Follette and her husband, Steve, operate Seasons Eatings Farm in Talmadge, Maine.

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