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Crawl-Through Tunnel

Kids love tunnels. It's always an adventure! Even older kids love to crawl and chase each other through a tunnel of vining plants.

Constructing a tunnel support for gourds, squash or mini-pumpkins is a great way to get those goodies up off the ground and away from the bugs that love to suck on 'em, but prefer a dirt condo to a high-rise.

Making a garden tunnel is similar to making a teepee, except that you wind up with a semicircular tunnel shape instead of a conical teepee shape. For slightly older kids, it's a good idea to make your tunnel a little bit longer, and have a slight curve so that they can't see the end from the beginning and vice versa.

You can build a sturdy structure tall enough to crawl through if you want it to be more permanent, using nails and screws, and pieces of lumber that are at least 2-by-2-inches thick and at least 4 feet long. To add stability, nail or screw cross supports along the length of each side of the tunnel. Weave sturdy twine across the top and sides in a net pattern.

Two other options: a piece of 5' x 10' concrete reinforcing wire bent into a three foot wide arch, with tent stakes hammered into the ground as supports, or PVC pipe supports covered with chicken wire.

If you have the space, you can link together three of them in an "S" pattern, and fill in the open corners with chicken wire or bird netting, so that the tunnel makes gentle curves and is plenty long.

You can also use 8' flexible stakes that you bend into semicircular shape, and wrap them with bird netting to provide a support system for gourd tendrils and so forth. Space the two ends of the stakes about four feet apart, and drive them into the ground about one foot on either side so that they're well "rooted" in the ground.

After your tunnel structure is completed, if temperatures are consistently above 70 degrees, you can plant your tunnel cover crop!

The gardeners can dig a trench about a foot deep along both sides, dump some well-rotted manure, and plant seeds in a shallow hole about every four inches, or according to the seed packet instructions. It's best if they are soaked for up to 24 hours in water to speed germination. You will want to plant two long rows just outside the structure. They can mark each seed with a wooden craft stick and water that spot 'til the vine plant is up. Best to water daily 'til the plants are up, and then at least check daily for a couple of weeks.

If you used fresh, quality seed, you should have close to 100% germination, so after the seedlings are about 6" up, you will want to pull out every other one. That's right, it hurts: but it's better to let each plant have space, air and water, instead of being too crowded. You over-plant seeds just to make sure you'll have enough, but you also don't want to have too much.

After the plants have several leaves, fertilize weekly with fish emulsion and liquid kelp; sprinkle plain water around each plant first so that the fertilizer doesn't burn the roots.

If you're growing gourds on the tunnels, note that it's best to snip the growing tip back once it has reached the top of the tunnel arch, to encourage side sprouts. It's the side branches that will produce the female flowers that will give you gourds.

Take care around gourds and squash, including pumpkins, as they have shallow roots.

When it's getting close to fall, reduce watering or quit altogether, to encourage the gourds and squash to harden off for harvest.

Other plants that can cover these frameworks well include red runner beans, silver lace vine, and morning glories.

You might like keeping the center of the tunnel weed-free and comfortable to crawl through with a mulch of black plastic topped with straw.

If you plant a crop that is fairly heavy, such as birdhouse gourds, you might start saving the plastic netting that oranges and apples come in. As the gourds begin to grow, make a "sling" out of the netting for each one, and attach both ends to the tunnel structure, so that the heavy fruit doesn't break off as kids play in the tunnel.

By Susan Darst • Projects 08 © 2011

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