VSU high tunnels make exotic gardens grow

CHESTERFIELD, VA (WWBT) - Right now, your backyard garden is likely producing cucumbers, with tomatoes on the way. But there's a way to bring your crops in earlier and even grow some things you wouldn't think possible.

When one walks into one of the structures at Virginia State University's Randolph Farm, it's like going on a tropical vacation. You start to sweat right away, and you then you notice the trees and plants that you've never seen before. Like a tree bursting with papayas.

The nutrient rich super food tastes great, like sweet, creamy cantaloupe mixed with pineapple and mango. Outstanding and amazing, considering tropical plants like this can't survive our Virginia winters.

"It can't be grown in Virginia under normal conditions," said Dr. Reza Rafie of Virginia State University.

And the tree is on season three of producing fruit. They cut it down each year, so it doesn't get too tall, and it sends out a new shoot. It's Dr. Rafie's pride and joy, and Virginia's first.

"We are hoping to be able to share the result with some growers who are creative and entrepreneurial -- looking for something new and unusual," he said.

And it wouldn't be possible without a structure called a high tunnel. It's plastic sheeting over a metal frame. And it extends the growing season from April to November. In summer, you open the sides for ventilation and cooling, and in winter, you add an extra layer of plastic to keep the temperature above freezing.

With no rain touching the leaves, disease is kept at a minimum. "Relying on heat of the day to keep it warm enough at night and during the day, we're putting down the side curtains to cool and ventilate the structure," said Chris Mullins of VSU.

Plants grow fast and healthy in the tunnels but it takes work. Irrigation is a must since rain can't come in and you have to watch the plants every day.

"Once you get insects in there, the population can explode quite rapidly," Mullins said.

These tunnels are in use now by commercial vegetable and berry growers.  But the research here is trying to extend their use to figs, guava, ginger, mango, lychee, dragonfruit, even Asian long beans.

All those plants are growing in the high tunnels at VSU and hopefully catching on with Virginia farmers. Just imagine a farmer's market stand with Chesterfield papayas right next to Hanover tomatoes.

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