Tomato growing system expands season

Tomato growing system expands season


Urbana—Tomato growers, both home and commercial growers, can now harvest field-grown, vine-ripened fruit a month earlier than normal by using a hybrid growing system developed, in part, by University of Illinois researchers at the U of I’s St. Charles Horticultural Center.

The system, called Hi-Tunnel, uses a mixture of greenhouse and field production techniques. Tomatoes are planted in a field. Then a structure is built over the plants and covered with greenhouse-grade plastic to hold in the heat of the day. Black plastic is placed on the ground to control weeds and hold in soil moisture and heat. A drip irrigation system is used to provide water to the plants, and this system seems to dramatically reduce diseases because the leaves of the plants do not get wet.

The sides of the structure can be rolled up about 30 inches. This provides ventilation for the plants at appropriate times and also allows the use of small machinery when necessary.

“The system offers an opportunity for growers to benefit from a longer growing season,” said Bill Shoemaker, senior research specialist in food crop production at the U of I. “The Hi-Tunnel produces tomatoes that are superior to most other tomatoes found in grocery stores and doubles the period in which growers can market tomatoes.”

In northern Illinois, field-grown tomatoes are usually not planted before May 15 and they are harvested after July 15. At St. Charles researchers harvested their first crop of tomatoes on June 21 after planting on April 11.

The Hi-Tunnel system also extends the season into autumn. Shoemaker has planted tomatoes in August for harvest as late as Thanksgiving.

“All of the high-cost inputs of a greenhouse are taken out of the system so it doesn’t require such a big, up-front investment. Often, the profit will pay for the system in the first season,” he said.

For commercial production, the structure is typically 15 feet by 100 feet, and it can be expanded simply by adding another building next to an existing one. Home gardeners can benefit from a smaller Hi-Tunnel of approximately 15 feet by 24 feet.

“This is definitely applicable to small growers,” Shoemaker said. “If a home gardener has the space, they can have tomatoes, leafy greens, onions and other fresh vegetables almost year round, allowing them to start a garden earlier and keep it going longer. The only dead time may be the middle of the summer when the heat is too intense.”

For more information call, Gary Beaumont, University of Illinois, College of ACES, 217-333-9440; 630-584-7254 or FAX: 217-333-2614; E-Mail: or

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!