Pondering High Tunnel Tomatoes

I’m still trying to figure out how to use our new high tunnel in next years growing plan.

We put up the high tunnel in late October, on ground from which we’d just recently harvested sweet potatoes. We’d had 5 inches of rain from Hurricane Matthew and there was no time to prepare the soil (red clay) properly. Unsure how to proceed, I laid out beds and worked them with a wheel hoe. Then I spread a little compost and, figuring I had nothing to lose but some seeds, sowed the beds with radishes, kale, turnips, spinach and lettuce.

I’ve been pleased that this happened:

IMG_2627.JPG

We’ve already been enjoying the kale thinnings, and it looks like we’ll be able to start harvesting radishes and lettuce very soon.

IMG_2450.JPG

Even with the advantages of the hoop house, things grow more slowly in the short days of December, so I’m having to learn to be patient. We offered lettuce to our customers this week and have a lot of orders for delivery on Tuesday. I may have to tell them I was wrong about when the lettuce would be ready. We’ll see.

Once these crops are done, my tentative plan is to plant tomatoes and green beans in the tunnel. Unsure of when to plant, I think I’ll put them out a month earlier than my normal plantings–early April instead of early May.

I think most people plant early determinate tomatoes in hoop houses. But I don’t really want to do that. For those who don’t know, determinate tomatoes set their fruit all at once (more or less). That makes them good for commercial farming and for homesteaders who want to can a lot of tomatoes all at once. Indeterminate tomatoes continue to fruit until they’re killed by frost or blight. They produce more tomatoes but take a much longer time to do it. The tastiest tomatoes, in my opinion, are the big old heirloom indeterminates.

We used to grow several varieties of tomato every year. But our favorites, and our best sellers at the market, are always German Johnson and Romas.

IMG_0898.JPG

Romas

IMG_0848.JPG

German Johnson

So last year the plan was to cut down to just those two varieties. At the last minute though I planted Marglobes as well, still hoping to have success with a determinate tomato that didn’t have to be staked or caged. Once again though the experiment was not successful. When I was growing up we planted Marglobes and never staked them. But each time I’ve tried it we’ve lost most of the fruit. Aside from that, few people want them at the market these days. They’re just not as popular as they once were. So for now, no more Marglobes.

Back to the hoop house issue. I’m tempted to plant our German Johnsons as usual–except inside the hoop house. My understanding is that folks tend to shy away from the big prolific indeterminates inside high tunnels, because in that environment the plants just get too big and crowded. And because they can grow 20 feet tall or more, a lot of pruning and heavy duty trellising is necessary. Notwithstanding these concerns, my tentative plan is to put in German Johnsons and trellis them with the Florida Weave method. I’ll take out the tops if necessary.

As I said, it’s all new to me. I’m thinking of it as an experiment. If it turns out that German Johnsons are not well-suited for the high tunnel, then I’ll continue planting them outside and use the high tunnel for other things, but probably not early determinate tomatoes.

Of course all this is predicated on our staying in the vegetable business. If we decide not to continue with that, I’ll just use the high tunnel for our personal garden, which I expect would be fun and easy.

In the meantime, any thoughts on tomatoes and high tunnels would be appreciated.

Advertisements

40 comments on “Pondering High Tunnel Tomatoes

  1. shoreacres says:

    Good grief. I read your title as “High tunnel tornadoes.” Then, I read all the way through the post waiting for the tornado to show up, until I got to the last line and realized my mistake. No wonder communication can be so hard. I wonder how often we hear or read what we expect, rather than what is?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      That does happen often. I seem to recall reading about studies proving it.

      As I seem to be incapable of publishing a blog post that doesn’t have typos, it wouldn’t be surprising for me to type “tornadoes” instead of “tomatoes.”

      Like

    • I”m glad someone else does this. I was on an unfamiliar road recently and drove past a sign that said something about entering a Blight Path. Myriad associations immediately flooded into my brain, everything from plots of dystopian novels to the musings of Thomas Merton. I realized, a moment later, that I was driving past a small airport. Oh, “Flight Path” I said aloud to the zero passengers traveling with me. Then those zero people and I had a good laugh at my expense.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. DM says:

    is that decision (not to stay in the vegetable business) something you are pondering as early as next season or are you thinking further down the road? If you would decide to get out of the vegetable business, would that be the end of your selling to the public, or would you still sell meat? If you did decide to stop, is it a financial issue mostly? If you stopped, what would you consider doing with your newly freed up time? I liked reading this post, as you shared the thinking behind what you are growing/ not growing, etc. I see the place where we live, totally as one large laboratory, where I get to experiment….my newest curiosity is turning our 1 acre piece of ground behind the barn into a permanent wild flower field, that will dovetail nicely into my other new idea of having some honey bees….

    Liked by 3 people

    • avwalters says:

      That’s an awesome idea–one that not many consider. When selecting your flowers, try to choose a range of bloom times–to provide bee forage throughout the season. All too often “bee mixes” don’t have anything for later in the season and the bees have to put in a lot of mileage to eat.

      Liked by 2 people

      • DM says:

        That’s a good tip to double check on.. (to check out the bloom time) I wanted them to bloom throughout the summer into the Fall, after our apple trees were done (we have about 75)

        Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      We do a thorough year end evaluation of the farm every year. One of the items on the agenda is always whether we continue or not. As usual it isn’t a foregone conclusion, but I suspect we’ll decide to keep going. If we factored in labor and depreciation, then I’m sure we wouldn’t. We’re fortunate not to have to worry about that. If we stop it will be because the operation is financially unsustainable. In that case we’ll just go back to homesteading, which was the original plan anyway. Should that happen, with any time that’s freed up I’d try to take better care of the place during the summer and I’d probably do some research and writing year round, rather than only in the winter.

      I enjoy experimenting too. This year we experimented with cutting way back on mowing, in part to give the bees more wildflowers. I have to admit it bugged me to see so many of what I’ve become accustomed to think of as “weeds.” To me things looked a lot better when I finally bush-hogged it all in November. I’m going to have to train myself to appreciate unmowed fields. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Check out the BHN 589 variety. I learned about it in a newsletter from Johnny’s last year. Really performed well in our high tunnel. Disease resistant, good flavor, nice size. Called a determinate, but ours kept growing and producing all season long. But not a long runner like an indeterminate either. Some I never got staked and they did just fine. I always have big planes to string and trellis to the high tunnel rafters but after all the Spring planting work I rarely get to it. . German Johnson is my favorite also but I found they do best outside. If I had a do over as a grower/farmer I would have done more with high tunnels.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Believe it or not, the very reason I posted this was because I was looking at the Johnny’s catalog this morning and wondering whether we should grow that tomato this year!

      I’m not sure we’d have a market for those tomatoes unless we timed them for very early or very late in the season. We’ve developed a good reputation and good customer base for our GJ’s, but even with them we’ve probably reached our full market potential. We could probably sell tomatoes wholesale, but that hasn’t seemed to be worth it for us. And without a certification we can’t get any premium for our chem-free practices.

      I’m really glad you commented, because now I’m going to reconsider. I’m still unsure how best to use the tunnel. I’ve seen plenty of recommendations to use it for high value crops and tomatoes seems to top the list. I’m going to have to figure it out soon, as the time for starting seeds is fast approaching.

      We’ve only had out tunnel for less than two months but I’m loving it so far.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Always a pleasure to read your posts.
    I think green beans would not go in the tunnel. They do fine outside. But I could learn something if you had an insight on green beans in the tunnel.
    My friend Clay, who plants tomatoes in tunnels, does it just to keep the rain off of the tomatoes.
    He opens the ends and rolls up the sides permanently in the summer.
    He plants a row of peppers in between the tomatoes to keep the air circulation there.
    I think air circulation is the issue in the hot summer. prune to one leader or two leaders, I am told.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      My thought on green beans was that I need something to plant in the two foot beds on the sides. The plan is to cut way back on our beans this year. We’ve been growing about 1,000 row feet of them and that’s just too much work and too hard on my aging back. The edges of the tunnel seemed like a logical place to grow a couple of rows for us.

      For tomatoes my plan was just to plant a row down the center of each of the four foot beds, with 2 foot spacing between plants. I figured that should leave provide plenty of air circulation as long as we don’t let it turn into a jungle in there.

      But as I told Steven, I’m rethinking it all now. I don’t like pruning tomatoes that much. I experimented this year and found no difference between pruned plants and unpruned plants. When in doubt I usually do what Pam Dawling does, and she doesn’t prune hers. I have a friend who grows tomatoes in his tunnel and he prunes to a single leader and ties them from above. I might do that, or I might just plant our GJ’s outside as usual and come up with a different hoop house plan. Like your friend, my idea was just to keep them out of the rain, not to try to win a race to the market. Lots to consider. It’s all new to us. If you have any suggestions I’d be happy to have them!

      Like

  5. Though I know I’d benefit from a high tunnel in my extremely short (and cold!) summer, I have never liked tomatoes grown under cover. I think there is something about rainwater that makes them taste so much different.
    But I’d sure love to have a hoop house for salad fixings. Oh, the thought of fresh spinach in December makes me salivate.
    Have fun with the experimenting. I think that’s a great part of gardening–trying things.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      I’ll have to experiment this year and see if the rainwater affects taste. I’ve never heard that before. The problem with rainwater is that it spreads blight by splashing.

      We’ve been enjoying some great salads from the hoop house and we haven’t even started harvesting the spinach yet. I usually have trouble getting spinach to germinate but in the hoop house it seems like every seed I sowed turned into a spinach plant. I’ve been thinning like crazy and have lots more to do!

      Like

      • We grew tomatoes at the farm for the first time this year – you may recall we used recycled lumber wrap plastic and drip lines as we are there only on the weekends. Anyhow, no blight issues. As it is not our intention to continue using plastic mulch when we are there full-time,
        I’ve thought about using some other types of mulch – either growing a green mulch like clover under the tomatoes or using wood chips, etc… – to keep the “backsplash” effect under control.
        In a perfect world we will get a rolling high tunnel (like Elliot Coleman) so we can start our tomatoes under cover, roll it to the next crop to let the tomatoes grow in the sun, and then maybe roll it back in the fall to squeeze out a little more production. Here in PNW growing tomatoes is a challenge.

        Like

      • Bill says:

        My understanding is that the disease can only enter the leaves if they’re wet. This year I tried to be more diligent about keeping the bottom leaves pruned, but we still ended up with blight. We lose our tomatoes to blight here every year. Everybody does–even if they use fungicides. But we get a lot of production before we lose the plants, so it isn’t as if we don’t get tomatoes. I’ve heard that tomatoes grown in a high tunnel don’t get blight, because you can control the water.

        One method I’ve read about (but never tried) is to plant a thick cover crop that winter-kills, then plant tomatoes directly into the next year. It’s like planting directly into mulch and might also help.

        Like

  6. avwalters says:

    I always plant a mix of determinate and indeterminates. Every year I say I’ll cut back on tomato varieties–but then I fall victim to the copy on the seed packages. And then, there are the seeds we’ve saved of our favorites…. and so every year we enjoy 8-10 types of tomatoes. I never put tomatoes in the same place–a garden plot reprieve of at least three years before a particular plot will see another nightshade. I don’t know how you’d work that rotation into a high tunnel. And this year, as I convert to covered, raised beds, I’m not sure how to to contain my own tomato habit.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Our rotation pattern for nightshades has been ever longer than that. One of the reasons I delayed trying hoop house growing was that I couldn’t figure out how to handle crop rotation. We’ll use succession planting of course, but we won’t be able to rotate the way we’re used to doing it. I’ve read that with composting it’s possible to grow tomatoes in the same spot year after year. Many do it evidently. I have my doubts. Not sure how we’ll handle that.

      Like

  7. valbjerke says:

    Wow if I had that much space under cover I’d be standing there like a deer caught in the headlights 😄. I used to grow my tomatos in our small greenhouse – and still have to wrap most in newspaper to ripen. My only thought on your high tunnel – if something grows well outside – leave it outside. My kale does very well even with snow on it. Maybe focus on things that you would like an extended season for, or use a portion of the space to experiment with smaller amounts of different varieties you haven’t tried before. I also know of one fellow who uses his high tunnel to do a booming business selling micro greens to local restaurants when fresh greens are hard to come by in the off season. The possibilities are endless. 😊

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Our market here is very limited. We just don’t have high end restaurants that would pay big bucks for micro greens.

      This year deer ate nearly all of our fall crops, including all of the kale we planned to overwinter, which is why I planted kale in it. One great thing about the hoop house is that the plants are safe from deer, until the deer figure out how to open the door.

      Cherie has been suggesting that we use the hoop house for a high value specialty crop, like ginger, raspberries or cut flowers. But we’d have to find a market for them and I really don’t feel like adding more to our plate. I’d rather just move some of our existing production into the house. But what to move??

      Liked by 1 person

      • valbjerke says:

        Oh right – I actually forgot about the deer. Ginger……there are ginger farms south of here…..but something is niggling at the back of my mind – seems to me once you plant ginger the soil cannot be used for other crops for a period of time? I’d have to look that up again.
        Regardless – I’m sure you’ll come up with a good plan 😊

        Like

  8. My neighbor does his tomatoes in a high tunnel and we enjoyed tomatoes from them until the last week of Nov. this year… enough to actually can some in mid Nov. I took some to work and shared too. I will be working with them next year so my garden will be expanding in unexpected ways 🙂

    Like

  9. Joanna says:

    We have to grow tomatoes in a greenhouse, otherwise we would not get any due to our short growing season. Having the option seems such a luxury 🙂 We have some prolific croppers that grow quite tall in the greenhouse and we grow these up string attached to wires that run the length of the greenhouse.

    We trim all the leaves off our tomatoes too later on in the season to increase air flow, as we can’t lift the sides and have a problem with blight.

    We also have our chickens over winter in the greenhouse and they help to condition the soil for the following year. We have the problem of too much soil in our greenhouse at times and I think we might have to ship some out of it sometime, the opposite of what most people do.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      That seems like a good plan, especially considering how far north you are. One of the reasons I resisted adding a hoop house for so long was that we already have long growing seasons here and I didn’t see any reason to extend them. But everyone I know who grew in the tunnels loved them and I’m learning that season extension is just one of the benefits. We’ll figure it out eventually…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. allisonmohr says:

    Very interesting post, I enjoy reading what you’re thinking about with the garden. We saw a lot of those tunnels around Monterey, CA. They were full of raspberries.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      The Arctic weather has been bizarre this year. Hope it doesn’t become the norm. I am NOT looking forward to this kind of weather. This story predicts the worst of it will be west of us, but I just checked our long range forecast and it calls for us to go down to 20 later in the week.

      Like

  11. Rob says:

    We grew German Pinks (similar to your GJ’s I think), Italian Heirlooms, Mortgage Lifters and another variety this past year and last year just Early GIrls in our hoop. I would recommend at least 3′ spacing using Florida weave. I pruned my GP’s and IH’s fairly aggresively until fruit started turning color, and I wished I had kept after it, since it makes harvesting easier. We also have used cages, but that is even harder to harvest. All indeterminates will outgrow whatever system you use (cages, or weave), that is why the commercial growers use the system they do in hoops/greehouses – with a vertrical string system that they can lower and shift to the side. Up here on the Illinois/Wisconsin border I would only grow tomatoes in hoop – it helps so much with disease pressure and the % of sellable fruit is much higher.

    We also put a iittle miscellaneous things to fill in space – beets, short row of green beans, strawberries, and onions. Best of luck!

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Thanks Rob. I appreciate the info and the benefit of your experience. I’ve spent a lot of today researching and continuing to think about this. There are certainly plenty of opinions out there on how best to grow tomatoes in a hoop house. I’m used to using the Florida weave and it seems that would still work inside a hoop house for determinates. With indeterminates we’ll probably have to go to the string trellising method. I’m intrigued by Steven’s recommendation of the Johnny’s variety BHN 589, which gets good reviews on taste and is designed for hoop house growing.

      I quit using cages for the reason you mention. I think they’re fine for a small garden but too much trouble once you grow beyond that.

      So you aren’t growing any tomatoes outside now? I’ve been wondering if I should leave the GJ’s outside, just to avoid all the pruning and trellising. Right now I use 6 and 7 foot t-posts and just let them flop over the top. Not ideal but I get a lot of tomatoes. Of course they always end up being killed by blight, which shouldn’t happen in the hoop house.

      Like

  12. Craig says:

    This past growing season was my first year to grow in a high tunnel during the summer months. I had much better success with my tomatoes than I’ve had in years. This could be from simply planting in a new place, much fewer issues with blight. I grew German Pink, Big Beef, Bonny Best, and Sun Gold Cherry tomatoes. I used the hard pruning method and planted them 18″ apart. One of the things I liked best about growing in a high tunnel was being able to control the amount of water the tomatoes got. I used Matron’s way of cutting off the water supply several weeks before the last harvest to concentrate the flavors. It truly does make a difference.

    What did best in the high tunnel though were my peppers, both sweet and hot. They grew twice as fast as the ones planted outside. I live in East Tennessee and the heat from the high tunnel early in the growing season really made a huge difference.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I’m glad to see that you had success with the high tunnel. By “hard pruning method” do you mean you pruned to a single or double leader and used string trellising? That seems to be the preferred way to go. If I do that this old dog is going to have to learn a new trick! I’m still not sure exactly what we’re going to do but all the research I’ve been doing today has me anxious to get started.

      I’ve seen a lot of recommendations to plant peppers in the tunnel. As is, we always end up with more peppers than we can get rid of. But if I moved them into the tunnel then I suppose I could grow half as many and still get a similar yield. Something else to consider..

      Like

  13. Scott says:

    My uncle grew “hothouse tomatoes” they called them, Southeast of Birmingham, AL. He had a used-oil fired furnace to heat it in the winter. He pruned hard, (single leader, no suckers allowed) and string trellised. As the plants grew, you could add more string available and clip up the new growth, moving it sideways along the trellis. Then the bottoms (trunks?) of the plants would be on the ground, allowed to root. He planted in 5gal buckets, maybe because of all the spilled oil (I’ve still got stains on the knees of my overalls). I worked a lot in there, pruning and pollinating with this battery-powered vibrating stick, but I don’t ever remember the tomatoes… Funny that. His method seemed like a lot of work for not too much.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      That’s similar to how it’s often done in hoop houses. Hoop houses are passive solar, so they’re unheated. Tomatoes aren’t grown over the winter, but they can be started sooner and kept going longer. I’ve read that the rule of thumb is that the tunnel adds one growing zone, so inside it we’re zone 8 instead of zone 7. The sides roll up so pollinators can enter.

      I watched a youtube video from an extension agent in Rhode Island, showing how they raise tomatoes in hoop houses (much like the way your uncle did it). Evidently it’s a good way to produce a good amount of revenue from a small area, but it is quite labor intensive.

      Like

  14. Ed says:

    I guess by dumb luck, I’ve always planted indeterminates. I didn’t know there was anything else. I have a feeling that I can learn a lot from reading your blog. Continue on!

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I prefer the big ugly heirlooms, and they’re indeterminates. We grow Romas for sauce.

      I hope you’ll find some worthwhile things on the blog, but you’re more likely to learn useful things from the comments than from my posts! 🙂

      Like

  15. I am always fascinated to follow your though process as you decide what to grow or not grow, Bill, and how you are constantly experimenting, and what role the market plays in your decision making. The tunnel has certainly opened up new opportunities. Around here, most of the farmers have now put in marijuana. 🙂 –Curt

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Interesting. My understanding is that most marijuana is now grown inside under high intensity lights. Growing was originally moved indoors to prevent detection, but now growers have developed new highly productive varieties that are specially designed to grow under artificial lights. I’m glad to see the farmers having the opportunity to add another crop, and to bring it back into the sunlight. 🙂

      Like

      • Most of it here is under sunlight Bill. I believe that Jackson County is the number one producer of marijuana in Oregon and our neck of the woods happens to be where the majority of it is grown. There are several large farms along the road we take into Medford. The state does require them to be behind high fences, which I find a bit silly. –Curt

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s