Pikeville Elementary’s “Low Tunnel” Garden Survives Unheated and Undaunted

by Mark W. Kiddpikeville elementary collage

As snow from the latest winter storm began to melt away from the Pikeville Elementary grounds and classes resumed, students involved in the school’s garden program already had an idea what conditions they would find at their project. As part of the Student Technology Leadership Program curriculum this year, students had installed an automated reporting system that tweets the low temperature forecast at the garden every day.

The news for returning students was good. Despite temperatures as low as -20 degrees and a 15-inch load of snow and ice that damaged roofs in some areas, the kale garden and “salad bar” garden survived intact within unheated low tunnels.


Low tunnels are built with curved lengths of inexpensive PVC conduit — usually available in the electrical section of hardware stores — that serve as hoops. These hoops are then covered with plastic sheeting in order to protect and insulate the garden beds underneath.

Pikeville Elementary’s low tunnels provide opportunities for hundreds of students to help grow and eat fresh foods including kale, turnips, and pak choi throughout the school year. Testing and improving low-cost winter garden techniques has provided an opportunity to introduce students, faculty, and staff throughout the school to the kinds of produce that can be grown outdoors in winter.

Traci Tackett, the teacher whose classes have taken responsibility for the garden, noted one immediate benefit: ”Our cafeteria staff has found that the salads that we grow in the school garden are always more popular than salads made with produce that is trucked in.”


The school garden is creating a demand for vegetables that many students had not ever encountered in fresh form before. Sarah Belcher, a 6h grade student who has been working with the garden for the last 2 years, explains how this works:

“If you want students to eat vegetables, give them the chance to help grow the food.” 

“Turnips have become the most popular here. I wouldn’t have tried many of these vegetables if it wasn’t for being able to plant them. This is something I’ll be able to remember my whole life.”


The fact that low tunnel garden beds have survived through record cold temperatures is more evidence of how useful this simple approach to gardening can be for integrating food and agriculture with the curriculum during the academic year. The students and faculty at Pikeville Elementary hope that other schools and individual families will also be able to build their own low tunnels and begin growing winter gardens.

“A lot of people imagine that it is difficult to grow produce outdoors during the winter in the mountains,” says Cathy Rehmeyer, a gardener and professor at the Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine who has been working with the school to establish the program. “The truth is that my home in Pikeville is at a lower elevation than Lexington, and because we are in the mountains we are sheltered from the worst of the cold winter winds that affect flatter areas of the state.” She added that another benefit to winter gardens is that they require very little weeding compared to gardening in the warm months.


Because they believe in the value of low tunnel gardening in the coalfields, Pikeville Elementary students are helping lead a free workshop on April 30th to help other schools and community members learn what it takes to build and maintain low tunnels.

Breaking Beans: The Appalachian Food Story Project is an initiative of Community Farm Alliance to tell the story of how local food and farming in Eastern Kentucky can contribute to a bright future in the mountains.

Mountain Talk>> Listen to the full story with WMMT Mountain Talk on Making Connections: Growing at School.

>> More information on how to register for the workshop is available on the Pikeville Elementary website.

>> Instructions for building and maintaining low tunnel gardens: Rehmeyer’s Mother of a Hubbard blog.