How to Get the Best Soil in Your High Tunnel

It’s not only the crop but it’s the soil
also which matters. Soil inside the high tunnels have to be taken care of because
soil provides nutrients to our plants. Soil provides aeration. Soil harbors
beneficial microbes and microorganisms that break down the complex organic
matter in the soil and make it available to your plant. So the philosophy is to
take care of your soil and feed your soil which in turn will feed your plants.
How can we take care of the soil inside the high tunnel? There are a number of
approaches. Certainly the number one approach is to add organic matter.
Organic matter can be added using compost or manure. If you’re using manure,
please make sure that you apply the manure in the fall and not the year
where you are growing your vegetable. Because manure can harbor harmful
pathogens like e.coli and listeria. Generally we tend to use compost in high
tunnels or strictly compost when we are growing vegetables. So we try to stay
away from manure. Adding compost adds organic matter, feeds the microbes, it
helps the aggregate stability of the soil and in general it helps the plant.
Other ways to add, you know biology to your soil is to use cover crops. Cover
crops are crops that are planted after or before your cash crop. So for example
you’re growing tomatoes at the end of the growing season in the fall. After you
take your plants out you can see the cover crop in in the situation the
high tunnel situation in the fall. You can see cedar rye you can see in hairy
witch you can see some brassica crops too and if you are trying to use a cover
crop just before you plant your cash crop in the spring you need to focus on
short duration cover crops. For example cow pea which is a legume which will fix
atmospheric nitrogen and make it available to your plant. You can use
buckwheat, you can use oilseed radish or yellow mustard. These are all short
duration cover crops and when I say short duration they are anywhere from
forty to fifty days. So in this tunnel behind me you can see that we have
seeded cow pea. Cow pea is a legume cover crop.
It adds nitrogen and also it helps the biology of the soil adds organic matter.
So many our compost cover crops and some other approaches would be to minimize
tillage. I know it’s hard to envision that and because we till our soil to
make sure that the soil is fine for planting and for the roots to grow in so
tillage is kind of a necessary evil. What I would suggest is till only when it is
necessary. Don’t over till because you don’t want to break the complex organic
matter and breaks the organic matter because that will affect the biology of
the soil. Another important factor which you have to consider when you’re growing
your crops inside high tunnels is crop rotation. You don’t want to grow crop
from the same family again and again and again in the high tunnel because when
you do that there is a tendency for diseases and pests that are a more
attractive to those families to stay in the high tunnel for a long amount of
time. We suggest rotating our crops every
three to four years in outside in the field. I know it’s difficult in a high
tunnel because growers tend to grow tomatoes and peppers which are the
premium crops. But try to rotate it try to add a leafy green to the mix try to
add a cover crop of the mix so that helps with crop rotation. Taking care of
the soil is important. We want the soil to be well aerated, we do not want the
soil to be too compact. We want the soil to have a high cation exchange capacity,
high water holding capacity an ideal pH which is anywhere from five point eight
to six point eight and low salt concentration. When we use fertilizers
inside high tunnels year after year gradually there is a salt buildup in the
soil. Now a high tunnel is a covered space, there is no rain that falls in the soil
which is inside the high tunnel so you need to take care of the excess salt
buildup and one way to do that is to leach those salts. So at the end of the
growing season or in the beginning of the growing season you can set up some
sprinklers that can leach the salt down and let them run for about 3-4
hours so you are kind of simulating rain inside the high tunnel.
And with that amount of water when that water moves through the soil profile it
takes the salt with it and that’s a good way to reduce the amount of excess salts
in your soil. And that way the salts do not interfere when the plants are
growing because if the salt concentration of the soil is too high it
can affect the establishment and the growth of your tomato or any other cash
crop. All of this will help you to produce an excellent crop. So here are
the top five common mistakes which we see that growers make. Number one is a
site selection. Before even you put a high tunnel
make sure you scout the site and make sure the site has good drainage and doesn’t
puddle up.

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