Tunnel gardening arrives in Hand County

Posted September 1, 2011 at 5:00 am


While gardening is not new to Melvin and Jan Gimbel, of rural Ree Heights, the concept of tunnel gardening as a method of raising produce is new. “Our whole family enjoys gardening, said Jan Gimbel, “so when we heard about the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) program promoting tunnel gardening, we were interested.”

When the Gimbels first considered applying for a grant a couple of years ago, they found there were quite a few restrictions and limitations. Last year, some of those restrictions were lifted and Kent Baumberger, District Conservationist, at the Hand County NRCS office, encouraged the Gimbels to apply for the grant.

Earlier this year, they received the grant, which provided some financial assistance for them to erect a seasonal high tunnel on their ranch north of Ree Heights. “A seasonal high tunnel,” explained Gimbel, “is a polyethylene covered structure applied to cropland to create more favorable growing conditions for vegetables and other specialty crops. Crops are grown in the soil or on permanently raised beds.”

Research indicates there are potential conservation benefits, which is one of the reasons the Gimbels chose tunnel gardening. Potential natural resource benefits from using tunnel structure include improved plant quality, improved soil quality, and improved water quality

through methods such as reduced nutrient and pesticide transport.

Due to the wet conditions this spring, the Gimbels got a late start in planting the lettuce, spinach, kale, beets, onions, radishes, peas, green beans, carrots, asparagus, cucumbers, tomatoes and strawberries, that are now in various stages of production. They hired a carpenter to assist them in erecting the 30 ft. x 48 ft. tunnel in June.

Gimbel, who teaches Family and Consumer Sciences to junior and senior high students at Miller High School, views her gardening as her summer job. This year she plans to sell her excess at local farmers’ markets. In the future she hopes to expand to other farmers’ markets and businesses in the area.

Tunnel gardening extends the growing season, allowing for planting of both spring and fall crops, thus increasing the availability of locally grown produce. “It goes back to the Victory Garden concept of growing your own vegetables or buying locally, that was popular after World War II,” said Gimbel. “Now we hear a great deal of talk about the First Lady’s organic garden and promotion of healthy eating, growing your own food, and farmers’ markets, so it’s a popular topic.”

This combination of the extended growing season and the increased efficiency of raising vegetables, as well as some fruits, makes tunnel gardening quite advantageous for this area. The tunnel structure modifies the climate to create more favorable growing conditions. “Vegetables tend to grow faster due to the humid environment provided by the tunnel and they are better protected from damaging wind and hail,” said Gimbel. “Based on information we received from Penn State University, yields should be higher, as well.”

The tunnel can be used from late February all the way into December. In cooler seasons of spring and fall, air can be blown between the layers of plastic to provide more insulation as needed. The concept is similar to a double-paned window.

When the weather is hot, ventilation is achieved by means of a combination of roll-up side vents and louver end vents.” We try to keep the air moving to keep it cooler and get a more even temperature,” explained Gimbel.

In December, Gimbel said they plan to let things freeze and then close the tunnel up tight to start warming in late January. They will have to keep snow off the roof to keep the structure from collapsing. “We plan to add trusses in the roof to support tomato and cucumber trellises, which will also strengthen the structure to prevent damage from winds and heavy snow,” said Gimbel. Their plan is to start planting in late February next year. That means they would begin harvesting as early as May.

Gimbel said they also plan to irrigate with rain water, use plastic mulching to cut down on weeds, and incorporate raised beds into the tunnel.

The Gimbels have never felt comfortable using a lot of petroleum based fertilizers or chemicals on their farm. “Our farming is similar to the way our fathers farmed in the 40’s and 50’s but with a technology twist,” said Gimbel. “We look more at the quality of the food we grow rather than the quantity. The demand is there across the United States and many other countries around the world. We are helping to meet the demand while protecting our environment for future generations.”

“Most people think gardening or raising your own food is just too much work, and they’re right–it is a lot of work,” said Gimbel. “But, it’s definitely worth the effort.” Family members agree, because they all have all pitched in to help. Gimbel’s son, Johannes, helped with erecting the tunnel and tillage. She did all the planting herself; she and her husband have done all the weeding.

Daughter, Lexy, assists with the harvesting and canning; everybody takes their turn at watering the large garden. “We use drip hoses to water,” said Gimbel. “Most tunnel gardeners use them because they work well under plastic mulching.” Another advantage to using drip hoses is that you can turn them off or on each row as needed.

The Gimbels tunnel garden and garden both use the organic protocol they use in their farming practices. “Research has shown repeatedly that when you use prevention practices like eating healthy food, your health care costs are much lower,” asserted Gimbel.

The Gimbels are very enthusiastic about their chosen lifestyle of producing or raising the majority of the food they consume, and encourage others to give it a try. “Gardening is different for everyone, but it is something everyone can do,” asserts Gimbel. “Whether you choose to grow everything you eat, or just grow one tomato plant in a container, you can garden.”

According to Gimbel, tunnel gardening is most certainly a learning process. “It’s a work in progress,” said Gimbel. “People who have a passion for this are willing to share information, so if you’re not sure what to do, you can always find out from someone.”

The Gimbels recommend people who want to know more about tunnel gardening or the NRCS grant contact Kent Baumberger at the Hand County NRCS office.