High Tunnel vs. Greenhouse - Pros and Cons of Each

High Tunnel vs. Greenhouse - Pros and Cons of Each

A protected growing space can make a difference, whether you're a professional farmer looking to extend your growing season and increase your annual output, or a backyard gardener looking to take your veggies to the next level.

Choosing the right system for your needs could make the difference between a bountiful crop and an ecosystem riddled with bugs and drought.

To make an educated decision, you need to know the benefits (and downsides) of each. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about high tunnel and greenhouse farming systems and how they could shape your gardening game.

Everything You Need to Know About High Tunnels

While high tunnels are often mistaken for classic greenhouses, they are a relatively new phenomenon in the realm of protected farming and gardening. Each has specific benefits and restrictions to consider before getting yours up and running.

High tunnels, while comparable to traditional greenhouses, are typically lighter, more movable, more flexible, and more versatile than their bigger, more permanent counterparts. This gives growers a handful of distinct benefits in building an environment that is ideal for vegetables, leafy greens, and other crops.

Why Were High Tunnels Invented?

While it may seem obvious, the fundamental difference between a "high tunnel" and a typical greenhouse is right there in the name—high tunnels are often taller than standard greenhouses, with higher ground posts.

This change originally came about because of a need to satisfy a specific need: the ability to move tractors, tillers, and other tall farm machinery straight into the growing room. Because many typical greenhouses aren't tall enough to let a tractor inside, high tunnels gave growers the extra headroom they needed to bring in the big machines.

Initially, high tunnels were mostly used as storage areas for heavy pieces of machinery. Farmers and gardeners all across the world quickly realized, however, that this novel design brought additional, important benefits that ordinary greenhouses had lacked till now.

High tunnels are also called hoop houses and polytunnels, purely based on where you are and the provider you're buying from.

Some High Tunnel Benefits

High tunnels, with only a single layer of covering, were the ideal choice for growers who wanted to alternate between outdoor and indoor cultivation throughout the season. With that single covering, farmers and growers can simply remove the sheet and give their crops complete exposure to the outdoors. This is especially true when crops are planted directly into the ground, rather than in raised beds, like in a greenhouse.

Let's take a quick look at some of the other pros:

  • Budget-friendly
  • Can offer more growing space
  • High tunnels are more flexible structures
  • Can be changed to accommodate various needs
  • Interior space can increase or decrease as needed

Disadvantages of High Tunnels

While a high tunnel system certainly comes with its own unique set of benefits, we must also acknowledge its limitations. They're not as sturdy as their more permanent counterparts and, if not installed with the right working knowledge, can lead to more damage than growth.

Other factors may include:

  • Strong winds can blow high tunnels away
  • They can be prone to damage from pets or birds
  • Covers need to be replaced every few years
  • If not installed properly, condensation build-up can harm plants.
  • Fewer options for installing other systems

Understanding Greenhouses

A traditional greenhouse is a grow space designed for year-round use, and the protection they provide exceeds that offered by a high tunnel or hoop house. They're tough, durable, and can withstand even the worst of what winter can throw at them.

To keep the growing area protected beyond what is possible in a high tunnel, greenhouses often incorporate a more robust system of coverings, more lasting ground covers, and better support systems.

Greenhouse farming, which is free of insects and soil illnesses, can provide a considerable "insurance policy" against many of the issues that outdoor farmers and gardeners face.

When growing in a greenhouse, farmers can work through all four seasons with confidence, knowing that the protected space can handle the coldest of colds and the hottest of hots.

Benefits of Greenhouses

It's clear enough to see that greenhouses differ significantly from high tunnels, but let's briefly explore some more of their benefits before we dive into some of their inherent downsides.

  • More visually appealing
  • While used mainly for florals, they can also be used to grow crops
  • Frames are made from powder-coated aluminum, which prevents oxidization
  • Better protection from pests
  • With special toughened glass, can withstand bad weather

Downsides to Greenhouses

Now that we've covered why greenhouses are good, and they certainly are excellent, we must address the inherent cons to working with a greenhouse for your growing needs.

  • Site preparation is challenging
  • Custom-made greenhouses can come with delivery delays
  • Must be professionally installed
  • Expensive and difficult to move
  • Replacing panels is not as simple once damaged
  • Location is important and limiting
  • Supply kits and other accessories can be expensive

Comparing the Difference Between a High Tunnel and Greenhouse

So we now know that both options can offer extended growing seasons, and in the case of a greenhouse, year-round growing. Both can help growers get started in early spring and grow longer, even into the cooler, darker days of autumn.

The fundamental difference is in how they each work, with a greenhouse engaging in more active measures and a high tunnel engaging in more passive methods. But what does this mean?

For air exchange and cooling, a high tunnel uses passive ventilation, whereas a greenhouse normally contains electricity and automated heating and ventilation systems. This means high tunnels, hoop houses, and polytunnels are passive and greenhouses are active.

However, looking at a high tunnel vs. greenhouse argument has to go simply beyond one being active and the other passive because technological advances and pure hands-on work change the parameters of that argument.

Site Prep and Construction

Polytunnels can be built in a day, even on a slightly uneven area. Greenhouses require more time to construct. They also need to be built on a precise level and smooth surface.

Preparing the Ground for a Greenhouse

When preparing the surface beneath your greenhouse, you're going to want to consider one of three things:

  • Paving slab bases
  • Compacted soil bases
  • Compacted soil and paving slabs

Paving slabs allow you to plant crops and flowers only into pots but offer more structure and stability. Compacted soil means you can plant your crops directly into the ground, but it's entirely plausible for you to choose a combination of both.

Paving slabs are widely regarded as the ideal greenhouse foundation. It helps to avoid moisture build-up, fungal problems, and infections that might develop in unprotected soil. To avoid harsh, direct sunlight, both types of constructions should face north-south.

Ventilation

If there is a big temperature change, most of your plants will dry out. Temperature changes are a rippling effect of ventilation.

High tunnels provide far more control over air movement. The tunnel has large openings on both ends that allow enough air to circulate through it. Greenhouses have an opening on the roof, a door, and side vents for ventilation. To achieve effective ventilation, keep all doors and vents open on sunny days.

Durability

There isn't much of a difference between greenhouses and high tunnels in terms of longevity. Both types can last an equally long time, depending on the quality and care that goes into them. The actual structure of a high tunnel can last anywhere from 15 to 20 years, though the covers will need to be replaced every few years.

To ensure more longevity for your high tunnel, put it in a spot that will be safe from severe winds and clean fallen leaves on the covers regularly. Finally, ensure there is no risk of nearby foliage damaging your covers.

With a bit of maintenance, most greenhouses will last a lifetime. We have a few suggestions for how to keep your greenhouse in tip-top shape.

  • Scrub the windows to allow more light to come in
  • Regularly check and maintain the heating system components
  • Regularly clean the floors and tables
  • To keep pests at bay, let ladybugs and spiders in

Design

Greenhouses, especially those with elaborate designs, can be the focal point of any garden. You can choose from a variety of forms and models. The most popular types of greenhouses you'll see in people's gardens would be Orangeries, Victorian Style, or Dwarf Wall greenhouses.

In the case of hoop house vs. greenhouse designs, the hoop house is more practical, though does have less overall aesthetic appeal. They do come in a variety of shapes and sizes, which can be especially useful for different garden shapes, and each has its advantages.

Semi-circular arc-shaped tunnels, for example, allow rain to simply drain off the surface. High-tent tunnels allow taller plants like tomatoes to grow to their full height, making them ideal for high tunnel gardening.

Heat Retention and Shading

Both structures aim to shield crops from bad weather and store heat and moisture, ultimately resulting in a pleasant growing environment. In a high tunnel system, heat retention is directly affected by the type of plastic sheeting is used to cover the tunnel.

Greenhouse poly covers, for example, do not allow enough light to pass through the tunnel. As a result, transparent coverings are a much better choice if you're trying to build up heat.

Greenhouses are ideal for retaining heat and allowing more light to pass through. However, they are susceptible to overheating, which is why plants require more shade. We can accomplish this in a variety of ways.

Some people choose to paint some of their glass panels to minimize the amount of light streaming in. You can also achieve a similar cooling effect by partially covering parts of your greenhouse with external curtains. Both options efficiently block the passage of light through the glass.

Understanding the Internal Microclimate

Ultimately, you aim to create a growing climate that is somehow different from what you already have on hand. This means changing the temperature, the humidity, and even how much light and water your plants get.

These are all controlled by specialized technology. In plenty of polytunnels and greenhouses, drought is a common problem. To prevent this, we’d want to put systems in place to regulate the environment and tend to the needs of our plants. Naturally, because a greenhouse is a more fixed structure, it's often easier to install the necessary technologies.

That's not to say it isn't possible at all in a hoop house, but you might need to get a bit more creative. If you can't install a heater into your hoop house, for example, you may need to consider an added layer of bubble insulation when the weather turns cold.

Set Up Up Your Growing Space With Us

As someone interested in greenhouse gardening, whether through the use of physical greenhouses or a hoop house design, you aim to beat back the elements. You need a system that is going to work for you, and one that you understand, like the back of your hand. Above all else, you want results.

To get excellent results, you need an excellent product.

Our high tunnel and greenhouse kits have a simple design, excellent utility, and are easy to assemble. Farm Plastic Supply has Greenhouse Kits for all skill levels, whether you are a seasoned gardener or just getting started.

Check out what we have on offer today!