Improving growth and productivity of early season high tunnel tomatoes with targeted temperature additions

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In northern climates where the growing season is shortened by cool spring conditions, high tunnels make it possible to plant and produce tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum L.) at least 1 month earlier than in the field. However, limited high-tunnel research has been performed in arid high-elevation regions that experience extreme diurnal temperature fluctuations. High tunnels are designed to be passively heated; therefore, additional protection from frost may be warranted if growers wish to plant significantly earlier than normal. Low tunnels built within a high tunnel reduce the energy requirement by concentrating heat around the plants, particularly when a heat source is placed inside the low tunnel. ‘Sunbrite’ tomatoes were transplanted through black plastic mulch in four high tunnels in North Logan, UT (lat. 41.73° N, long. 111.83° W, 1382 m elevation) on 17 Mar., 30 Mar., and 7 Apr. in 2009 and on 19 Mar., 30 Mar., and 9 Apr. in 2010. Low tunnels were constructed over each row, and three supplemental heat treatments (unheated, soil-warming cables, and soil-warming cables plus 40-W incandescent lights) were tested to improve plant performance. The highest total marketable yield was achieved for earliest planting dates in both 2009 and 2010. In 2009, early-season yield was significantly greater when both the soil + air were heated, but only for the earliest planting date. In 2010, soil heat alone and in conjunction with air heat significantly improved early-season yield. Information gathered in this study on planting dates, yield, and energy costs provides valuable production and economic information to growers in arid high-elevation climates who desire the benefits of growing early-season tomatoes in high tunnels.

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