How to Build a Garden Low Tunnel (for Free)

low tunnel complete
Low tunnel ready to protect plants from endless winter.

Like many Minnesota gardeners, I’m getting itchy to put some plants in the soil. I have lettuces and greens under lights in the basement and some tomato seeds planted, but not yet germinated, in a warmer spot upstairs, but that’s not the same. It’s still pretty cold here and as I write this post on Friday afternoon it is snowing. Ugh.

Given the rather gloomy forecast, I decided to take things into my own hands and build a low tunnel where I could plant out greens and keep some of the seedlings as they get growing. I’ve been reading a lot about season extenders in the past year or so. We had a great article by Colleen Vanderlinden on them in the September/October issue of Northern Gardener and I recently read with enthusiasm Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman’s new book The Four Season Garden Cookbook, which includes lots of practical tips on using cold frames, movable greenhouses and low and high tunnels to grow food in colder climates.

One of the designs involved using welded wire fencing and plastic. I had both on hand and knew I could fashion something serviceable pretty easily.

plastic ties
To make a longer tunnel frame, I joined two sections of fencing with plastic zip ties.

Here’s what I did: I took a length of 4-foot tall welded wire fencing and cut it in two equal pieces using a bolt cutter, making the cut in the middle of a square so that each end had a little tail on it. (Careful, these are sharp.) The raised bed I have the tunnel over is about 3 feet wide by 8 feet long, and the two welded wire pieces were about 4 1/2 feet across — just enough to create a bend for the greenhouse effect. I joined the two pieces to form one long one using plastic zip ties.

Next, I laid a painting drop cloth on the floor of the garage and put the wire tunnel on top of it. (If you have a heavier grade of plastic sheeting, use that.) I pulled the sides up and attached the cloth by poking the wire tails through the plastic. I left as much plastic as I could on each end of the tunnel and on the sides. I plopped it on the bed.

tunnel in plastic
Sheathed in plastic, the tunnel is ready to go to the garden.

Now came the tricky part. We live in an area that is really, really windy, and I knew I would have a flying low tunnel if it was not secured. I ended up doing two things. On each end of the tunnel I placed a piece of 2-by-10 lumber about 3 feet long. (I happened to have these on hand from another project.) Then, I took some rope and lashed the plastic down in three places, tying the ends of the rope to some winter-sowing jugs. Any fairly heavy plastic jug with a handle to tie the rope to would work. Voila!

The tunnel stood up to a fairly stiff breeze last night with no problems. I’ll start planting seeds and putting out seedlings on Sunday, when the weather is predicted to be a bit warmer.

It’s rare that I have all the equipment on hand for a project like this but this time I did.  There are many videos on youtube about hoophouses and tunnels. While the production quality isn’t great, this one has good step-by-step information on how to put together a low tunnel using PVC pipe and plastic.


My Raspberry Picking Apparatus

Raspberry picker
Ready to pick with my box necklace, plus hat and dark glasses for sun protection.

It’s that time of year! The fall-bearing raspberries in our backyard are getting ripe and soon I will be picking everyday. Picking can get tedious, but a tip I learned from one of my fellow University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners in Rice County may make this year’s picking much easier.

I am sure this is not a new idea as the gardener told me it’s what her mother did (and probably her grandmother and great-grandmother, too) but it’s a new idea to me and will make picking much more convenient.

The master gardener recommended getting an old coffee can and poking holes in two sides of it. Then, run a string or ribbon through the holes to create a coffee-can necklace. With this apparatus, the picker has both hands free and a nearby place to put the berries.

I didn’t have a coffee can at home, but I did have this hard-sided box in the basement. I cleaned it out, drilled holes in each side, and ran a thick string through them. Viola! I’m ready to pick.

What’s your favorite piece of equipment for harvesting fruits and vegetables?

Winter Garden Decor — The Fun Variety

Mannequins in corner garden, dressed for winter. They look like they are waiting for the bus.

I was driving back from taking photos of some winter containers for an upcoming article, when I noticed these garden denizens along West 46th Street in south Minneapolis. What a cute idea — though the gardeners may have been overdressed for yesterday’s sunny February afternoon. Today, they are just right as the wind has picked up and temps have dropped.

Judging from the plants left standing, this looks like it would be a beautiful garden at all seasons of the year. What are your favorite garden decor ideas for winter?

Metal in Garden Art (and a Coupon)

I’ve been a fan of Jennifer Wolcott’s metal garden art since she designed the Book Heads Dancing located near the main entry of the Northfield Public Library back in 2008. I love the whimsy of her sculptures and the way the natural, hard metal contrasts with the flowing shapes. Her garden balls made of straps of metal always make me smile and they look wonderful in a perennial bed.

Last winter, I talked with Jennifer about designing a stand-alone trellis for a climbing rose. I did not want to have to attach the trellis to my house. And, of course, my request was for something “tasteful, not too expensive.” She liked the idea and designed several of these tall, triangular shaped trellis/obelisk garden pieces. I got first pick and have one placed right near the corner of my front yard bed. The rose and some stray morning glories are covering it now. (That’s a detail of it at right.)

But now the big offer! This weekend is Defeat of Jesse James Days in my hometown, Northfield, Minn. It’s gorgeous weather, so drive down and check out the art fair near the river downtown. It runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and tomorrow. Jennifer will be displaying her garden orbs, trellises and other sculptures there. Print out the coupon with this post (click on the image to make it big and printable) and you’ll get 10 percent off any purchases.

Seed Starting, Inside and Out

It’s still a bit early for starting seeds indoors in the North, but I’ve been getting ready for it and setting out several winter-sowing containers. You’ll find a new how-to page on indoor seed starting on the header above, which gives the basics and a few tips based on good experiences (and bad ones) that I’ve had.

Winter sowing containers

A couple of years ago, Northern Gardener ran an article by Michelle Mero Riedel on a seed starting technique called “winter sowing.” It was probably the most popular article we have run in the past five years. Basically, winter sowing is a way to start seeds outdoors.

Don't forget to mark the containers!

Here’s how you do it: Collect a bunch of clear plastic containers. Michelle often uses clear 1 gallon milk jugs, but they don’t carry those in my stores, so I like the larger plastic containers that salad greens come in. You clean the containers, poke holes in the bottom and top, and fill them with 2-4 inches of very moist seed-starting mixture. Then plant your seeds and put the containers outdoors. Tip: Be sure to write what you have planted in the container in a permanent marker inside the container. That’s all you do until spring.

Come spring, you’ll start to see little seedlings in the containers. At that point, you’ll want to poke more holes or open the containers up a bit during the day to keep the plants from over-heating.  When the temperatures are warm enough, you just plant the seedlings in your garden or containers as you would any other plant starts.

Winter sowing works best for hardy perennials, I think, but some people use this method to start tomatoes and other plants. Since I have a meadow area that I plant out, I use winter sowing for additional plants for the meadow. This year, I started two kinds of lupines, a native coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) and tall rudbeckia (Rudbeckia hirta). These all do really well in winter sowing containers.

For a demonstration on how to set up your winter sowing containers, check out Terry Yockey’s video. There’s an organization for winter sowers, as well, at this web site.