The decision to buy a polytunnel has been made and this is obviously the way that we are going to look at going (with regards to the best product for our particular area). To be honest there is really no question, as due to the size of the polytunnel that we need, the costs of a greenhouse are so much more and there is not that much benefit in buying a greenhouse (other than the fact that they are fantastic structures and they would look brilliant). However, as the lottery ticket did not come up this weekend, the way that we are going to go is with the polytunnel plastic roof route.
There are a few questions as to options now (after choosing the polytunnel) to look at to consider how we get the most out of the polytunnel itself and make sure that when we do buy the structure, it is right and appropriate and will best serve us for years to come. We have a polytunnel at the moment which is old and re-covered from many years ago. There are various limitations with this so we want to make sure that what we do get is absolutely right and fulfils the growing needs of the garden for, at least, another 10 years.
What do we want the polytunnel for?
The polytunnel is going to be used for a variety of plant growing. At the beginning of the year it will be used to nurture on seeds and seedlings into plants for the garden, as well as some cuttings.
From March onwards, this will be used for growing certain vegetables (normally courgettes inside, along with aubergines and also tomatoes and the like), so nothing particularly out of the ordinary.
Following which, it obviously goes back to some salad crop for the late Autumn/Winter months through to overwintering of cuttings and some seedlings. As there is no absolute defined requirement for the siting of the polytunnel to maximise some sort of growing medium to benefit a particular type of plant for certain months of the year (because let’s face it – with the British climate that it is turning out to be – in effect that would be fairly pointless!).
Like most of us who are lucky enough to have a polytunnel or greenhouse, we just want to grow normal things and pot-on normal things in it. In fact, the most important thing is to make sure that the polytunnel is right for you to walk around and make sure it is nice and easy to work in. If you are intent on spending several hours a day in there, you might as well make it a nice place to be.
It is always worthwhile considering putting in some raised beds inside the polytunnel itself, as this will aid with the old creaking bones, as well as making the inside a better working environment. The siting of the polytunnel itself should also be covered in some sort of plant material – but make sure that if you are going to surround the polytunnel with plant life that this does not need harsh trimming back, as the use of a blade or any form of cutting equipment next to a polytunnel’s polythene (regardless of the type of polythene involved) will end up with:
Polytunnel – 0 Knife or sharp implement – 1
Irrigation is also going to be important inside the polytunnel, so we are thinking about rain catching through guttering on the side, so we will probably need some straight sides to allow for the rain gutters and then this will go into water butts which will feed the irrigation system.
To be honest, with the structure itself, the cost is not so much of an issue. This is because the main costs issue throughout was in fact over whether to have a greenhouse or not. Now that a polytunnel has been decided upon, the additional funds to add irrigation systems or better polytunnel tubing is relatively inexpensive.
I do appreciate that many people are on a tight budget, and in this case, you will need closer inspection regarding the various add-ons, or whether you have time or the inclination to build your own systems rather than paying out £60 to £70 for manufactured pre-set products. However, we are quite busy and we want to make sure that the structure and the internal workings of the polytunnel fulfil the needs of what we want to achieve, and not so much regardless of the cost – but we are appreciative that it will cost money. In doing so, we have made sure that this is offset by what we can produce from the polytunnel itself to make it pay over the next few years with healthy eating and the growing of plants from our own garden, which of course will have the knock on effect of saving money from the purchase of plants from garden centres.
The Polytunnel Layout
This is one area which I am still a little undecided upon as there are a number of different ways that we can look at laying out the inside of the polytunnel. With straight sides, this gives us more flexibility to have two growing areas down the left and right hand sides, but also (as long as there is sufficient pathway to run a wheelbarrow) have a middle bed. This middle bed does provide a bit of flexibility for growing plants which need some sort of vertical support, as of course it is about 2.5 metres to the roof and this does give excellent growing conditions.
I am thinking of having stone chippings with some sort of hard chippings between the beds as there is a lot of damp from underneath clay-based soil. Therefore, any form of bark (certainly on a terram or weed spread material) can become quite boggy and slippery. The last thing you want to happen is for legs and arms to go flying up in the air when you have beds, and other sharp items in there that can cause you some damage.
One of the areas I am most excited about is the irrigation setup, as this will be extremely useful and will take the polytunnel itself to another level. Unfortunately, I am not brave enough to do my own. I am sure however that some clever sparks out there can make their own from an old hose, bucket and of course gravity.
I think that on the polytunnel edges, I will make actual raised beds, so that the facing wood against the polytunnel itself does in fact have wood as well (and not earth piled up against the polytunnel liner on the inside) as this will cause it to stretch and become damaged. So therefore, there will be raised beds throughout the polytunnel itself – which will be quite nice, I think, to aid with some sort of crop rotation and to create partitions.
In fact, thinking about it, I could take this a stage or two further and make actual rotational beds inside the polytunnels itself. However, this is all part of the fun and games of setting up the polytunnel itself and, once erected, I can decide (particularly with the doorways that I intend to buy) what works best, and what provides the best flexibility and working and growing environment for our use.
How to set up the Polytunnel
The polytunnel itself is relatively straightforward to erect. It is quite big so therefore two people to set up all the posts and bars will always help, particularly in siting them and making sure they are well sunk in, as although the plastic itself will not be buried in, the various poles will be sunk in with anchor plates to provide stability. The area that the polytunnel itself is being sited in is not too exposed – but I do like to make sure that everything is as secure as possible.
The most important aspect of any polytunnel is always the cover of course. This is surprisingly heavy and cumbersome, and you will spend most of the time trying not to rip it against anything in the garden around the site where you are erecting your polytunnel. So therefore, make sure that there are no nasty sharp implements that are going to cause tears before you even start.
With a tunnel, over 20 foot, it is ideal to have at least three people. One each for both ends, and one for the middle. This is because with the larger tunnels, particularly those which are over 12-foot-wide, they can get quite tall in the middle and the extra person in the middle does help with the sliding of the cover over the polytunnel itself. However, I have found that if you do actually add spot tape to all of the tubes – this does provide a really good way of allowing the plastic to slide over.
WARNING – Do not install your polytunnel cover in windy weather! I need not go any further on this.
The main things you need to watch out for are sharp parts to any of the surrounding area of the polytunnel, and also the tunnel stretcher itself. It is surprising how polythene can catch on the silliest of things, such as screw heads and even slightly burred pieces of aluminium, so therefore it is worthwhile spending a bit of time going around the framework and making sure that there are no nasty surprises!
When we undertake the erecting of the polytunnel itself and adding the cover, we will be doing so with a ground level bar attachment for the plastic. Therefore, we will not be digging it in. I have never used this, and I hope that it is going to be useful and user-friendly for us to do. I will let you know nearer the time.
The doorways themselves are also going to be purpose-built, as normally on the previous two polytunnels that I have had, we have used wooden door frames which, to be honest, are fairly poor. So this time we will be using specific sliding doors which will be made of aluminium. This is again going to be lighter and should provide some professional finishing to the polytunnel itself.
Making the best use of the polytunnel
It is easy to make the best use of the polytunnel – just buy something you are happy with, make sure it is built correctly and then just go and have some fun. Who cares (to be perfectly honest) if you are not producing £5,000 worth of tomatoes and gooseberries each year from the polytunnel itself, or if one crop fails. The polytunnel itself is there to enhance the garden and enhance your lifestyle. In gardening you should be used to one thing. If you are not used to this one thing, then get out of gardening. That one thing is of course – failure.
I am absolutely appalling at growing tomatoes and cannot do it to save my life. Every time I get them, they rot or do not actually bloom at all. I have tried seedlings, plants, different varieties of disease resistance, but all of which are absolutely rubbish. I have a neighbour however, who has a small little greenhouse which produces fantastic tomatoes. I however have a large polytunnel and have had a greenhouse before, and guess what – not a sausage! In fairness, if I tried to grow sausages, I would probably do a better job, but do you know what, quite frankly, I do not really care. I enjoy trying, and moaning about it as it is part of the gardening side of things.
However, to go with that one failure – there are so many successes. For instance, around three years ago, we had a glut of courgettes in our small polytunnel, to the extent that when we were selling our house, we were taking bags of them to the estate agent. Let’s face it, if we are giving stuff away to an estate agent, that shows how much of a glut we must have had!
We have also grown vast numbers of cuttings and seedlings from every one of our polytunnels that we have had. Therefore, if you have the odd failure every now and again – quite frankly it does not make any difference. You try to learn from it, but I have found out from gardening that sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders and realise that one thing is not going to grow for you. There are however plenty of other things that will grow, plenty of other things you will get enjoyment from – so do not worry about it. A polytunnel should be there and be built for you to enjoy. If you can grow a few bits and pieces in it and enjoy your time in it, then that is the most important thing.
This is one area where I want to concentrate on to make sure that the polytunnel itself is the most enjoyable part and we can spend more time in there, rather than treat it as some sort of growing behemoth. So therefore, I want to make sure that the layout inside is right. The straight sides of course will help and I think the introduction to raised beds will also help, as I am thinking the raised beds will be one raised scaffolding board high, and this will introduce additional soil that will help with the growth of plants.
I am also thinking that the raised beds themselves will be sectioned so that this does provide some sort of crop rotation and there will also be a mechanism that can be used so that cuttings and seeds can be stored to grow in there. I am thinking some sort of cover for the raised beds, or a table that can straddle various beds during the Winter/Spring. However, I will go into this when I know a bit more.
When you own a polytunnel you are owning a high speed-to-life living environment. Therefore, you have to make sure you have some sort of daily routine when looking after it. Of course, during the slow Winter/early Spring months – not an awful lot goes on and so it is just a case of good housekeeping. However, when plants are starting to grow, they must be tended and watered. Irrigation and drainage must all be looked after. This will encourage healthy plant growth and also avoid the additional nasty “heebie-jeebies” that are associated with a hot and damp climate, such as that within a polytunnel.
I always look at having a door either end of the polytunnel itself to create a free flow of air and this does help with the maintenance, particularly avoiding too much unwanted detritus.
It is useful to get into some sort of habit when looking after the polytunnel itself and the plants, but also most of it will be catered for because the reason why you have a polytunnel is so that you can spend time in it. Therefore, you tend to find your own routine that may be daily, but is more likely to be every two or three days during busy periods.
Spring and Summer jobs
The Spring and Summer months will ultimately be the busiest time for any polytunnel, or in fact garden owner. Lots of produce will be growing, and later fruiting and becoming productive. During these times, I will spend most of the waking hours making sure that everything is growing correctly and, once this is complete, make sure that whilst everything is growing – it does so without the added difficulties of plants getting to the detriment of their companions, or any plants dying off and becoming rotten, which will need to be disposed of fairly quickly to avoid the spread of disease.
Next to the size of the polytunnel itself, we are looking at chickens and ducks as these will be quite useful to keep an eye on those nasty molluscs that tend to invade the environment that we have created.
Autumn and Winter jobs
The Autumn/Winter months are always a major period for large overhauls where you get rid of plant life and clean everything down. However, with the polytunnel it is fairly straightforward and you can spend as much, or as little time as possible, doing what you like. I like to make sure that everything is fairly well cleaned down in order to avoid the spread of disease, and of course to kid myself that if I do that, then the tomatoes next year will possibly be anything other than savagely disappointing.
I like to add the compost to the beds to rejuvenate them, because everything does eat whatever nutrients are in the soil readily – so therefore it is always worth doing. Adding a few chemicals does not necessarily do any harm. Before everyone goes mad at the environmental issues there (what I mean by chemicals is of course the natural chemicals and fertilisers). I tend to only use these in the garden.
Hopefully the polytunnel is in good shape and will remain in good shape for years to come. However, if there are any cuts and grazes suffered in the polytunnel cover itself (and they are only small) then the polytunnel tape is more than enough to cope with this and can certainly deal with rips and tears of up to a foot or even two foot in length.
However, if you are a few years down the line and you want to replace your cover, now is the time to do it. Although I would never suggest actually erecting a polytunnel cover in the wind – there are of course plenty of days during the Autumn and Winter months which, if you do have the polytunnel cover at hand, you can look at replacing on a calm day.
The lovely extras
So you have got your polytunnel cover, you have got your polytunnel itself – so what little lovelies do you need inside?
Well, as I have already previously said, I am looking at dealing with raised beds and also an irrigation system. Whilst we do not need it in the location the polytunnel is sited on, I am also having strengthening bars put across the polytunnel itself – as these do provide excellent ways of supporting tall plants, as well as hanging baskets and also the irrigation system. There is something quite useful about having bars across a polythene structure as there is always something that can be left dangling, as you do not have anywhere to put screw holes to keep any tools.
As I do not know the layout of the internal part of the polytunnel itself, I am not sure about potting tables, but I would like to think that I could introduce a potting table (and of course the rudimentary stool to sit on to enjoy a nice cuppa) whilst picking out the endless seedlings that for some reason we order thinking that the garden could do with 1500 foxgloves from one packet of seeds.
I am sure there are other little aspects that we can introduce to the polytunnel itself, such as side staging, but once again I am going to wait and see what the polytunnel itself looks like when it is up with the doorways and how everything sits inside it, creating a design from the ground up, to make sure that everything is nice and comfortable.
Get your head in the right place!
Like life, polytunnels are a learning curve. Everything to do with polytunnels, life, and certainly a garden, needs to be thought about and specifically tailored to what you want. Unless you are building an enormous structure, it does not make any difference whether you have the greatest polytunnel cover or the thickest tubes or the sturdiest supports.
What matters in polytunnels, is that the majority of us have not necessarily maximised every ounce of growing ability from it, but to make sure that we enjoy it. There will be mistakes, but these mistakes are important – because without them, we will not learn.
It is worthwhile keeping a record of how things go (but quite frankly) I can rarely be bothered, as like most people in the garden, my hands are too dirty and by the time I come in from the gardening, the last thing I want to do is write down copious notes. This is probably the reason why I dictate an awful lot and am doing these brief notes. It helps me to remember and it helps me remember what I want to do!
Ultimately, the best thing about a polytunnel is getting one, owning one, building one and growing in one. As soon as you have got that sorted out – everything else falls into place.