Caterpillar Tunnels are Springing up for Summer

Farming is in many ways about working with our natural climate and environment to grow food. To be successful farmers we must also make use of tools to extend growing seasons, keep pests away, and increase our crop yields.

One of the tools City Roots uses to benefit our farm is the caterpillar tunnel. Caterpillar tunnels get their name from their segmented structure that resembles a caterpillar. Recently our field team spent an afternoon putting up a caterpillar tunnel at our Tupelo farm site for a new planting of red and green peppers, and they will be building another in the coming weeks. Field Manager Andrew described the purpose of a caterpillar tunnel as a way to shade plants and to protect them from pests and inclement weather.

 Freshly transplanted pepper plants in our caterpillar tunnel at Tupelo

Freshly transplanted pepper plants in our caterpillar tunnel at Tupelo

 Field Manager Andrew (left) and Rigsby (right) cutting poles for our new caterpillar tunnel

Field Manager Andrew (left) and Rigsby (right) cutting poles for our new caterpillar tunnel

The new caterpillar tunnel our team built runs the length of our pepper bed, and is made up of a series of equidistant arches covered in semi-transparent plastic to create an internal environment similar to a greenhouse. The ease of assembly and disassembly make the caterpillar tunnel preferable for fields that we don’t want covered all year long. Simulating Summer weather in the caterpillar tunnel will help our pepper plants produce fruit more quickly because they enjoy warmer temperatures and higher humidity, but as the season progresses the caterpillar tunnel allows us to change these conditions in ways high tunnels and greenhouses would not allow.

 Caterpillar tunnel at Tupelo farm site

Caterpillar tunnel at Tupelo farm site

As temperatures outside rise the plastic on the caterpillar tunnel can be rolled up to allow more airflow or even be completely removed and replaced with shade cloth, which provides the plants some protection from the sun in the middle of Summer. The coverings provide our plants protection from wind, hail, and heavy rain as well. If we choose to extend our pepper production just a little bit longer into the fall months, our caterpillar tunnel can once again be used to create a warmer environment.

The caterpillar tunnel provides our field team with one of the simplest forms of pest reduction available: a barrier. By covering a large part of our pepper bed we are able to block insects (and larger animals like deer and rabbits who like to visit for a snack) from making their homes on these plants. This leads to happier and healthier plants because insects can spread plant diseases, and more tasty peppers for you and all of us at City Roots because no one wants a vegetable that someone already nibbled on!

 Cucumber plants in a high tunnel covered with shade cloth for sun protection

Cucumber plants in a high tunnel covered with shade cloth for sun protection

At City Roots you will see many permanent high tunnels in addition to the caterpillar tunnels, one of which has cucumbers that will be ready for harvest soon! Our Cut Flower Manager, Brinton, is using a high tunnel at the City Roots farm site. She has filled it with rows of celosia, stock, and basil (Basil makes an attractive and fragrant foliage addition to bouquets and produces small flowers as well.) that will be blooming all summer long. The permanent high tunnel Brinton is using serves many of the same purposes as the caterpillar tunnel over our peppers, but with some added benefits to cut flowers. Some flower varieties, like celosia, grow longer stems in tunnels, which is ideal for bouquets. Rain can damage the basil plants, so Brinton has planted them in the high tunnel to protect them, and stock flowers loved the warm temperatures the tunnel provided in the cool spring months of February and March.

 Stock flowers in a high tunnel at City Roots with the sides rolled up just a little for ventilation

Stock flowers in a high tunnel at City Roots with the sides rolled up just a little for ventilation

City Roots also has four microgreen greenhouses, which are fully enclosed and temperature regulated with fans, heaters, and a swamp cooler (a system that uses evaporative cooling). There is a fifth structure that looks like a normal greenhouse from the outside, but this is our microgreen germination chamber.

The caterpillar tunnel filled with our peppers is not at our main farm site, it’s at Tupelo, so you’ll have to enjoy these photos and the beautiful peppers we bring to market all Summer, but if you want to see one of these in person we currently have a vacant caterpillar tunnel at City Roots. Come take a self-guided tour of the farm to see all of our caterpillar tunnels, high tunnels, and greenhouses, or if you have children they will get to see this and many more farm features in one of our week long Summer camps which are open for registration now!