Polytunnels and greenhouses
KIM STODDART explains the many benefits
This is such an exciting time of year for most people with spring now so tantalisingly close. For us smallholders and gardeners it is especially so as March brings with it the promise of warmer months and bountiful vegetable and fruit harvests to come.
Of course, if you have a polytunnel or greenhouse, then the so-called hungry gap about now (when conventionally there are less crops available) isn’t so much of a bind. This is because growing under some form of cover enables you to extend the growing season rather considerably in a myriad of exciting and indeed very useful ways.
Living in the wild, wild west of Wales which is a very beautiful but also rather wet part of the country, I wouldn’t be able to grow half the produce I do without a polytunnel. I’ve experimented over the years and, even in the best summers, the likes of tomato, aubergine, grapes, cucumber, strawberries and peppers just don’t flourish well at all on the outside. If you live in the south of England and have a sheltered south-facing plot, then the chances of success are of course higher, but
even then, with our increasingly changing climate, having some form of protection against the weather is a very wise choice.
It really is no surprise to hear that polytunnel growing is on the rise. These structures are relatively cheap to buy and easy to construct and, if taken care of, can last a considerably long time. I have two polytunnels; one that is about seven years old and still going strong, while the older one (about nine years old) is still structurally sound and just needs a new plastic covering to enhance its effectiveness for the growing season ahead. They really do take your fruit and veg growing onto a whole new level, widening the range of what you can grow successfully in the first place and providing you with a haven on the worst days weather wise outside.
If you’re feeling tempted, spring is arguably the best time to construct one. You’ll need to think carefully about where to position it; a sunny spot on a level area with some protection from wind is preferable. As long as it isn’t more than 3m tall and doesn’t take up more than 50% of your garden, or cause an issue for your neighbours, planning permission is not normally required. If in doubt, though, do check with your local planning department first.
WHY A POLYTUNNEL? Year-round salads
A polytunnel opens up a world of yearround salad opportunities that you’d be hard-pushed to experience otherwise. More delicate lettuces and leaves will be better quality and keep going that bit longer, while hardier kales, chard, mustards, cresses, chicories, spinach, parsley and mizuna will keep you in exciting leaves even in the darkest and indeed dreariest months of the year. TIP
To give seedlings an extra helping hand at this time of year, I put a makeshift propagator (old glass and windows balanced on wooden frames) on a polytunnel bench. It’s essentially a polytunnel within a polytunnel and provides fuss free extra warmth and protection when seedlings need it most.
With a polytunnel, the so-called hungry gap in spring isn’t as noticeable, as many crops will still be going strong, and the likes of new potatoes, spring cabbage, asparagus, peas, salad and beans can be ready that valuable bit sooner. TIP
Place a fleece cover over polytunnel beds a few weeks before planting to raise the temperature and give plants a head start in the race till spring.
Sanctuary from the weather
No matter how dire the weather, you can garden or just sit and relax in your polytunnel. After the appalling weather last winter I’ve added a deckchair and little seating area in mine now – it really is a little sanctuary.
TIP The easiest way to create pathways or a seating area is to lay a weed suppressant layer covered with gravel over your chosen spot. You can also use woodchip, although it will biodegrade over time.
Best for strawberries
I’ve never had a great deal of luck with strawberries grown outside. As soon as they near ripeness, birds, slugs and insects descend to munch on the majority of the crop before I can get stuck in. Inside is a completely different matter, with a bumper harvest each time. In good years we sometimes get a bonus second batch of strawberries from our plants later in the season, too.
TIP Now is a good time to get runners established; do so by carefully placing the new plants in pots with fresh multipurpose compost still attached to the parent plant.
As well as planting earlier, you can also sow a bit later than you would do normally, as the growing season is extended on
Relaxing in the polytunnel on a wet and windy day
Baby carrots in January
Picking grapes in the polytunnel
Premier Polytunnels’ 21ft model
Keder Polytunnels also have protected growing space inside an outrigger