It's Tomato Time: Powell Gardens' High Tunnel Project Yields Bountiful Supply

Although it’s not quite July, local shoppers already can enjoy one of the quintessential flavors of summer—locally grown tomatoes fresh off the vine. Powell Gardens’ newest growing venture has produced an early and abundant crop of organic tomatoes distributed through select Cosentino’s Price Chopper markets and on the menu at some of the area’s most popular restaurants.

Powell Gardens, the Kansas City region’s botanical garden, started growing organic tomatoes in a high tunnel operation last year. High tunnels are Quonset-style greenhouses heated and cooled naturally without heaters or fans. The seven tunnels at Powell Gardens are each 200 feet long, 16 feet tall and 31 feet wide with 5-foot-tall side walls. Together, they cover 1 acre of ground.

Planting for the 2015 season began in March, with the first harvest of the Bush Early Girl variety in early June. Three additional varieties of “slicers” are in the mix: Red Deuce, BHN 1021 and BHN 589. The BHN varieties were both developed specifically for high tunnels and produce high yields with delicious flavor. The 2015 crop also includes one tunnel each of the heirloom varieties Persimmon, Red Brandywine and Cherokee Purple.  

A not-for-profit public charity, Powell Gardens since 2009 has grown more than 2,000 types of edible plants in its Heartland Harvest Garden, which is the nation’s largest edible landscape and a place to help tell the story of food.

“Telling the story of food—how it starts, what it looks like and how it tastes—has been an important part of the educational mission of the Heartland Harvest Garden,” said Eric Tschanz, president and executive director. “Our high tunnel tomato project lets us really focus on the dimension of taste. But it also accomplishes four goals that tie back to our mission: It provides fresh, local produce to the community; it gives us the opportunity to experiment and teach other professional growers; it promotes our brand in the commercial market; and it increases earned income to keep our botanical gardens growing.”

Experimentation and sharing what is learned is part of the process, Tschanz said. Most of the plants were grafted onto superior root stock to improve growth and reduce disease, especially in heirloom varieties. Growing in tunnels protects from frost and cold and allows control of moisture through drip irrigation. The Powell Gardens team, led by Mark Gawron, is using all organic techniques, including one tractor trailer load of Missouri Organic compost per tunnel. All together, the crop includes 3,878 plants with an anticipated yield of 15 pounds per plant.

Powell Gardens is selling the tomatoes primarily through Cosentino’s Price Chopper stores (currently including locations in Brookside and Lee’s Summit (Woods Chapel and Raintree locations). Several restaurants, including Jasper’s Restaurant, Port Fonda and Lidia’s, also have featured the tomatoes on menus this summer with more to follow, including Rye, Room 39, Chaz on the Plaza, Café Sebastienne and Eden Alley.

“Our goal is to work with KC Healthy Kids and its Farm to School program and help get great produce into our local schools,” Tschanz said. “We hope Kansas City area shoppers and diners will seek out Powell Gardens tomatoes and enjoy them, knowing every purchase helps support their local botanical garden.”