Whether you’re a professional farmer looking to extend your growing season and improve your annual output, or simply a backyard gardener looking to take your veggies to the next level, a protected growing space can really make a difference - but when it comes to making the right choice, you’ve got options.
Generally, today’s farmers interested in choosing from the wide variety of protected growing spaces available have three main options to choose from: high tunnels, greenhouses, and hoop houses. Choosing the right one for your farm or garden, however, may require a bit more of an in-depth understanding of where they differ, and how each can bring its own unique benefits.
Here’s a closer look at all three of these popular covered growing spaces, as well as a few pointers on how to select the option that works best for your budget, your needs, and your desired results.
High Tunnels: Unmatched Flexibility for Season Extension
While often confused for a traditional greenhouse, high tunnels actually represent a relatively new development in the world of protected farming and gardening—complete with unique benefits and limitations that should be taken into account before getting yours up and running.
Although similar to a standard greenhouse, high tunnels are uniquely designed to be lighter, more mobile, more flexible, and more versatile than their larger, more permanent cousins. This gives high tunnel growers unique advantages when it comes to building a growing area ideal for vegetables and leafy greens, among other crops.
There’s A Reason They’re Called “High Tunnels”
While it may seem obvious, the main difference between a “high tunnel” and a traditional greenhouse is really right there in the name—high tunnels are often taller, with higher ground posts than a standard greenhouse.
Originally, this change was made to accommodate one specific need: the ability to bring tractors, tillers, and other tall farm machinery directly into the growing space itself. Because many of the standard sizes of traditional greenhouses are not tall enough to drive a tractor directly inside, high tunnels were developed to give growers that much extra headspace to fit in the big machines.
Early high tunnels really functioned primarily as spaces where large machines were required. However, it did not take long for farmers and gardeners around the world to recognize that this new design provided other, significant benefits that standard greenhouses had thus far been lacking.
With only a single layer of covering, high tunnels offered the perfect option for growers looking to combine outdoor and indoor growing throughout the season. With crops planted directly in the ground under the high tunnel (as opposed to in raised beds, as in a greenhouse), farmers have the option to simply remove the poly covering and give crops in a high tunnel full exposure to the outdoors. Then, when the weather starts to change, the covering can be replaced for nearly full protection.
This flexibility offers the perfect growing environment for season extension, protecting crops from the worst of the early spring frost and the late fall chill without the burden of a fully-equipped greenhouse system.
Designed For Easy Installation
High tunnels are specifically designed to minimize installation time, often “sacrificing” the durability and overall strength of a standard greenhouse for the immediate benefits of this simpler design.
Typically utilizing just a single layer of poly covering (rather than the multi-layer poly used on a traditional greenhouse), roll-up side curtains, and often no electricity or environmental controls, high tunnels maximize efficiency without needing to leave room for extensive additions or specializations.
And, because they do not require a traditional foundation, high tunnels can be installed significantly faster and easier than a standard greenhouse.
Movable and Adjustable for Superior Control
Thanks to a lightweight design and a minimalist, “unplugged” setup, the average high tunnel also provides one major benefit that traditional greenhouses struggle to match: moveability.
Our Rolling Thunder movable high tunnel system, for instance, combines all the unique benefits of a high tunnel with nearly unmatched mobility. By mounting a relatively lightweight high tunnel system on top of a wheel/ground post rail system, Rolling Thunder allows growers to transfer their high tunnel coverage across a long stretch of terrain. This allows for more precise control over the growing process.
Plenty of Options to Expand & Excel
Even though a high tunnel is specifically designed to be flexible, that does not mean it can’t fulfill the duties a farmer or gardener might expect from the average greenhouse system.
Although designed to function as a simple covered growing space with the option to remove the poly covering for full outdoor exposure, high tunnels can still be outfitted with environmental controls, ventilation, and even electricity. While not standard to the high tunnel design, these additions can turn even a simple high tunnel into a powerful growing tool for farmers and gardeners of all sizes.
Greenhouses: Superior Strength & Durability for Year-Round Growing
Tough, durable, and able to withstand even the worst of what the winter can throw at it, a true traditional greenhouse is a grow space designed for full-year operation—providing protection that often exceeds that offered by a high tunnel or hoop house.
Built To Withstand The Worst of Summer & Winter Weather
Greenhouses typically include a more robust system of coverings, more durable ground posts, and stronger support systems to keep the growing area protected beyond what is possible in a high tunnel.
Together, these improvements boost a greenhouse’s ability to extend the growing season, pushing beyond simply extending the spring and fall growing seasons to actually supporting full, year-round farming. Free from insects and removed from troublesome soil diseases, greenhouse growing can represent a significant “insurance policy” against many of the common problems experienced by outdoor farmers and gardeners.
Additionally, by growing crops within a durable, protected greenhouse - bolstered by wind load and snow protection—farmers can proceed through all four seasons confidently knowing that the protected grow space can handle the coldest colds and hottest hots, from the depths of a winter blizzard to the middle of a crushing summer heatwave.
Easy to Add Environmental Controls
Often utilizing environmental control systems like heating, ventilation, humidity control, and supplemental lighting, greenhouses are the ideal choice for farmers, growers, and gardeners looking to maintain productivity from season to season without interruption.
As with any fully-enclosed indoor growing space, factors like heat, humidity, and light can quickly become problematic—sometimes even inviting common diseases into the greenhouse, which can spread within the controlled environment extremely quickly.
This is why many greenhouse systems are designed to seamlessly incorporate environmental controls to prevent the worst of these issues, helping to keep the climate within your greenhouse at the ideal spot for your crops without losing the protective benefits of the covered growing space.
Hoop Houses: A Smaller, More Nimble High Tunnel
Often associated with backyard gardens and small-scale farms, hoop houses are actually simply a smaller sized high tunnel designed to maximize simplicity while preserving so many of the benefits offered by a high tunnel or greenhouse.
Small Enough To Fit Just About Anywhere
Utilizing simple, curved purlins with poly covering stretched over the top, hoop houses do not require durable foundations, extensive environmental controls, or complicated arrangements.
Ideal for constructing by yourself or with a small team, hoop houses can be installed quickly over an existing crop bed or above a planned crop area to provide season-extending protection within a growing space no larger than a backyard garden plot.
By adding a few hoop houses together, a farmer or gardener can create a specialized covered growing area ideal for protecting leafy greens and other crops from early spring or late autumn frosts.
Ideal for Protected Growing Outdoors
Because a hoop house offers semi-permanent protection over a regular outdoor grow area, they can be the perfect solution for small- to medium-size operations looking for basic protection from wind, sun, rain, and snow. And because the simple poly covering can help prevent the worst of what the wind can bring, your crops can stay protected from summer storms and autumn gusts well beyond what would be achievable on an uncovered plot of land.
Protect Your Crops Under The Choice That’s Right For You
Whether you opt for the durable protection of a traditional greenhouse, the flexibility of a high tunnel, or the simple but effective covering of a hoop house, these covered growing options can make a great addition to any farm or garden focused on extending the growing season.
If you’re ready to get started on your next greenhouse, high tunnel, or hoop house—or if you need further assistance in deciding which is right for you—we’re here to help. Get in touch with our expert greenhouse sales team and we can help get you set up with the option best suited for year-round success.
Together, we grow!