Low tunnels for winter gardening

Here at Etc. Farms, we flip the seasons and grow most of our market produce during the cooler months.  L’Homme realized long ago that fall-winter-spring gardening is so much easier than fighting the bugs and drought of the summer months.  Plus, the markets are flooded with produce in the summer months, but it’s hard to find locally grown produce when it’s cold outside.

Winter veggies (beets) snug inside their warm low tunnel

Though a lot of vegetables grow easily in Georgia in the cold, the plants still need some protection–frost on leaves is more dangerous than the cold air, so we have to keep it from settling on the plants.  Thus we use low tunnels.  And here’s how we make them:

The basic design involves little arches covered with row cover.  We use concrete reinforcing wire to make the arches:

Arches made from concrete reinforcing wire

We space out the arches over a garden bed, then cover them with row cover.  Row cover is a translucent, water-permeable fabric that acts like a blanket over the beds.  Our preferred brand is Agri-Bon, but there are various brands carried by any serious garden supply catalog. (We get Agri-Bon from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.)

We also use short lengths of old garden hose to cover the edges of the wire arches, because we found that the rough metal snagged and ripped the row cover.  We just split the hose lengthwise and snug it onto the cut edges.

Once the beds are covered with the arches and “blankets,” we tuck the sides and ends of the long, low tunnel into the ground to provide a warm, snug little hut for the plants.  The finished tunnel looks like a gigantic white caterpillar resting in your garden; this is why the French call them “chenilles” the French word for caterpillar.  If you’re architecturally minded, the tunnels might remind you of Quonset huts.

Low tunnels or en francais, chenilles

You must do something to hold the sides and ends of the row cover down on the ground–many gardeners just pile up soil to weigh down the fabric at ground level.  We like to use some handy little pins that L’Homme cut from concrete reinforcing wire:

Pin for the row cover

They are bent at one end so they look like a 7 with a steep angle.  These little beauties hook over the edge of the row cover and easily push into the soil to keep the fabric tightly pinned to the ground.

Pins hold the sides of the row cover fabric nice and snug

We prefer using the pins, because it’s much easier to pull out a few and peek in at the vegetables inside the tunnel.  Peeking in on your little babies is very important — you don’t need to remove the covers to water and, of course, sunlight gets through, but just as the plants love the warm and cozy environment you created, so do bugs and weeds.  You need to check in periodically to be sure nobody is running rampant on your vegetables.  It might also be necessary to vent the ends of the tunnel on warm days.

Open the ends to peek at the little darlings and let them breathe on warm days.


Happy winter gardening!