High Tunnel Confusion



My aunt’s garden, with high tunnel

I visited a very serious vegetable gardener this weekend, my Aunt Marl, who owns a 380-cow dairy operation in Lowville, NY with her son Bernie.  She mostly likes to argue politics when I visit, and she’s both very smart and very far right, so I frequently found myself getting so heated I’d have to take off my sweater.

The one piece of political wisdom I came away with is the fact that it’s crazy to do vegetables in upstate New York without a greenhouse.

My aunt’s greenhouse is a very simple high tunnel or hoop house–nothing but a metal frame with a plastic covering that cost $700.  No heat, no fancy automatic openers.  Just plastic film and dirt.  The greenhouse in the picture is new, and my aunt complains that it’s too big.


Riot of tomatoes in my aunt’s greenhouse

I would like a high tunnel.  I’d like to actually harvest watermelons off the vines I plant some time.  I’d like to eat tomatoes before mid-August.  I’d like to try that Eliot Coleman Four-Season Harvest trick of covering tough greens in a high tunnel with a second layer of protection–and eat a fresh salad in January.

I’d be willing to find $700 for one.  At the height of the growing season, my grocery bill declines by more than $100 a week, so clearly, it would pay for itself, and fast. 

The people at Grower’s Supply are smart enough to have sniffed me out as a potential customer and send me a catalog regularly.  There are a few problems, however.

  1. Too many choices for the uninitiated.  The harder I study the catalog, the more uncertain I get.
  2. I am not mechanically inclined and am completely intimidated by the idea of putting one of these together.
  3. What to do about the ends of the tunnel is puzzling.  I noticed that my aunt’s ends were simply covered in plastic  and a simple door is just inserted in the middle.

There’s really a marketing opportunity here–the beginner high tunnel.  If somebody would just tell me what to buy, I’d do it.


  1. How very funny.

    I just GOT a high tunnel from Grower’s Supply. It’s in pieces (as this is the designated weekend of Greenhouse Erection). Do yourself a favor and just call the guy. Really. I had questions too and he was very helpful.

    My only complaint with the instructions? They’ve been copied so much they’re hard to read. But in all honesty, you don’t need to be an architect to put this thing together.

  2. “But in all honesty, you don’t need to be an architect to put this thing together”

    Its tempting fate somewhat to type this before its actually standing up on its own isn’t it El? Good luck!

  3. Your grocery bill declines by $100 aweek?! Wow. I am impresed. What is your normal grocery bill? Your family must eat way more vetggies than mine does. Spouse loves to make requests for things for me to plant , but doesn’t want brocoll or green beans or whatever more than once a week. I tell him it doen’t work that way.

  4. Tibs, I’ve got a family of five, we invite people for dinner fairly regularly, and I try to buy organic food, so we spend a fortune on groceries.

    I’ve noticed that since the price of oil has risen, the prices of organic produce in the supermarket–if I don’t make it to the farmer’s market–are just obscene.

    My husband laughs at the idea that the vegetable garden is a net plus–but I really think it is, if I discount the initial investment in making it.

    Re, your husband–maybe try cooking the vegetables in interesting ways? I’m a huge fan of late of Mahdur Jaffrey’s Indian recipes.

  5. Hi Michele
    I like your site, just came accross it for the first time today and I love the tone and humour.
    We put up a high polytunnel 15ft wide x 50ft long last summer and it has been brilliant – it was like walking into a living larder during the winter. I think ours is as basic, if not more so than your aunt’s. We simply dug the sides of the plastic into trenches and covered them with soil & stones to weight them down. It does have doors but no handles as yet – just stones to hold them shut – but it does the job.
    I posted a page on putting it up and there are regular updates of what is growing, sowing or harvesting in it during the year on our website.http://www.masdudiable.com just do a search on polytunnel on our site and you should get most relevant pages.
    There is also a very good UK company called First Tunnels that provide excellent instructions & info online which may be of use. http://www.firsttunnels.co.uk/

  6. I made my first from plans at http://www.hightunnel.org and it cost much less than $700. It has roll up sides, screens under the roll ups to keep bugs out. It ventilates well in summer. We can eat our own fresh from March to January.

  7. I just ordered a 26 by 26 high tunnel from Grower’s Supply. Like the other commenter, I suffered from being overwhelmed by the options on the Web site. So I called and was lucky to be directed to Kathleen Osgood. She was AMAZINGLY helpful – had answers to all my questions. My shipment comes in May 14 and I will document everything on video. I am fortunate to live down the road from the MSU student organic farm – this link takes you to a video that features Dr. John Biernbaum who teaches year-round unheated high-tunnel growing http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=EqNBeSp1MRw

  8. I got a cold frame, which is like what you have from GrowersSupply.com. They do sell many things, but that gave me good choices to select what I needed for my veggies. Someone said something about the manual. Actually, I downloaded all the manuals to the models I was interested in. They are in PDF, so I don’t think manuals are any problems. Being able to see the manual before I got the delivery was nice too.

    Michele, a hoop house and high tunnel are different names. Hoop houses can also be used for caring for livestock, and might be more generic name. ie the structure is made from a bunch of hoops with some kind of cover. Poly cover or greenhouse film. You can see some hoop buildings at http://www.farmtek.com/farm/supplies/cat1;ft1_tension_fabric_buildings;ft1_hoop_buildings.html and some high tunnels at http://www.farmtek.com/farm/supplies/cat1a;ft1_coldframes_hightunnels.html


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