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Exploring Organic Production in High Tunnels

Tomatoes in greenhouse


“High tunnels may be one of the very promising alternative low-cost technologies to use when facing global climate change,” says Dr. Youbin Zheng.

He is the leader of a group of researchers at the University of Guelph investigating using high tunnels to produce high-value organic vegetable and nutraceutical crops in Canadian climates.

Results from the project are highlighting several benefits of high tunnel production.

Increased Growing Degree Days

Tomatoes close upHigh tunnels can provide an early start in the spring for crops like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

The growing season can also be extended in the fall, by helping these plants avoid light frost.

Researchers in this project have been able to extend the growing season by roughly two months per year.

High Value Crop Production

“Unique, local and fresh produce can be marketed for a higher price,” notes Dr. Zheng.

He uses the example of bitter melon. “They are normally imported and are not that available in Canada. This is a high value crop that is able to provide minerals and vitamins, and has medicinal benefits for type II diabetic patients,” he notes.

Bitter melon, along with tonghao – an edible chrysanthemum, are two crops that love the heat and are being trialed as part of the project.

Crop in greenhouseAdditional Benefits

“High tunnel production can produce higher quality crops and reduce insects and pathogen damages,” says Dr. Zheng.

As part of the project, three of the six high tunnels have insect nets, and three without. He notes that, “in high tunnels, there is the opportunity to better control the growing environment. For a crop like strawberries, this can be very beneficial.”

The three-year project continues until 2017.

Dr. Youbin Zheng is an Associate Professor and the Environmental Horticulture Chair at the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Sciences.

Dr. Zheng presented on this topic at the 2017 Guelph Organic Conference.


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Permaculture Market Garden Q & A

Homestead Diagram by Zach Loeks

Zach Loeks in fieldIn this Question & Answer, Zach Loeks provides insight on how he uses the concepts of permaculture on his farm, located in Cobden, Ontario just over an hour north west of Ottawa.

How would you describe permaculture?

Permaculture is about better design of whole systems. It is about considering more than the narrow objective of immediate production.

It’s about broadening the farmer’s point of view to include numerous possibilities that can continue to compound into the future for truly sustainable production. 

I don’t believe there is any one definition of permaculture. I see permaculture as anything that is working to improve time, space and/or energy productivity while considering continuity into the future. 

What are some examples of how you have incorporated permaculture concepts into your farm? 

Garlic in boxes from Kula Garlic FarmOur farm is the sum of several enterprises.

  • Currently we operate a CSA, sell our garlic across Canada, offer various educational workshops and a children’s summer camp, as well as consult, speak and write.
  • As a whole, all of these micro-businesses integrate holistically and allow us to balance our production. This makes us more resilient and improves our quality of life.

We have integrated yearly tree planting into the farm rhythm. 

  • Each year we allocate a percentage of our expenses to improving soil.
  • This is a long-term investment for the farm to produce timber, firewood and fruits/nuts. But it also serves the farm more quickly as windbreaks, wildlife habitat, and soil improvement.

We have focused on building soil rather than putting our crops on a nutrient IV. 

  • We want the soil to be a powerful home for our plants to grow into and interact with. 
  • Healthy soil can improve crop yields through enhanced nutrient cycling, stabilizing soil against erosion and improving plant root penetration and anchoring.

What is a Permabed?

A Permabed is a Permanent Raised Agricultural Bed that is reformed and never destroyed. Each bed holds a permanent place in space. 

This is not your cedar board raised bed. Nor is it a bed formed by a tiller fluffing the soil while tires pack the path to give the impression of a raised bed. 

Permabeds have an undisturbed core of soil life conservation.  They allow growers to develop a unique relationship with each beds’ natural ecology, hydrology and pedology. Maintaining records of crop rotations is also easier.

Photo showing garden patterning by Zach LoeksWhat happened in your life to make you draw these connections between permaculture, farming and Permabeds?

I was tired of starting over every year from scratch.  Going out in the spring and looking out across an undifferentiated field of plowed and cover cropped land became daunting. 

Faced with the job of reforming a pattern each and every year, I thought maybe there is a way to build on the pattern instead. 

Maybe we could have a system of beds that allowed us to integrate perennial diversity using patterns that:

  • wouldn’t interfere with annual productivity
  • conserve soil without loss of market garden efficiency, and
  • layer ecosystem services for resilience

Cover crops on Zach Loeks farmHow important is it to integrate permaculture practices in agriculture?

All agriculture needs to move towards an ecosystem approach to farming – an efficient model that allows diverse production within each season and in each field. 

Organized and efficient management of diversity allows ecosystem services to:

  • help reduce cost and increase yields
  • enhance soil health and plant protection
  • build agro-ecological capital in the form of improved soil life functions
  • increase future yields of perennial crops
  • conserve water

We need to better map the Environmental Character of the land to discover better uses for its natural diversity

Overall, permaculture improves the profit resilience of the farm.

Can a backyard gardener benefit from using a Permabed concept?

Permabeds can be adopted on all scales. 

It is the principles that are important, soil life conservation cores, organizational land patterning, garden character mapping, etc.