In 2021 Gardener Doug built a caterpillar at the Gardens to grow tomatoes for the Food Pantry. Commonly known as a hoop house or high tunnel, researchers and commercial produce farmers use the hoop house to control the growth envirornment. The West Madison Agricultural Research Station on Mineral Point Road on Madison's west side uses hoop houses for their research projects.
The caterpillar was 50 ft. long and made from UV resistant or coated plastic sheeting and 2 inch pvc pipe. Rope was criss-crossed across the plastic to hold it down making it look like a big white caterpillar. Doug planted a total of 48 tomato plants primarily two varieties called Estiva and Firecracker in two alternating rows down the center of the tunnel. He set up a drip irrigation system to water the plants. The tomatoes were trellised to a rope running the length of the tunnel at the top.
A disadvantages of the caterpillar was someone had to be watching the weather. If it was too hot the plastic had to be hoisted higher to let the air flow more easily. If a storm was imminent, the plastic had to be dropped so that the wind didn't tear it. On most days the plastic could be rolled up and not touched until the weather forecast indicated that action was needed.
The catepillar was quite a point of interest. Gardeners had questions about it's use. Doug explained the purpose and construction of the caterpillar to the RVHS Conservation Science classes when they visited the Gardens in June. The Busy Bees Garden Club found the "big white plastic thing" interesting and had fun picking tomatoes to take home for lunch.
Following are Doug's comments on his experiment: "I thought for the first time, it worked quite well. I think we officially weighed around 150 pounds of tomatoes for the food pantry and the Meadows Assisted Living Center. I am sure we took more than that out unofficially because between food pantry deliveries Gardeners were able to help themselves and those harvests were never weighed. Also some of the tomatoes were placed in the Free Veggies Kiosk on Westmor Str.
The Firecracker variety had a lot of growth cracking on the stem end which might be due in part to uneven watering. On the other hand, the Estiva variety did quite well.
Naturally, I think we can do much better next year. More regularity with water and fertilizer along with fabric mulch will, I hope, make a difference"
Stop by during the 2022 gardening season and check out the Caterpillar. Doug will be putting it back up as soon as the weather permits this spring.