As a working mum with three children, an old farmhouse that’s in a constant state of renovation, a Scout group leader and a gardener, I face a constant battle with time management. Life can be a rollercoaster and trying to keep a balance a struggle at times – whether it’s washing, cleaning, cooking, typing, sewing, homework or helping whichever family or group member is shouting out the loudest.
Needless to say our house isn’t spick and span, the kids watch more TV than I’m comfortable with, the kitchen door remains unpainted after four years of adding filler to it, I regularly serve up omelets and oven chips, my filing hasn’t been sorted and put away for months and the weeds are growing in my veg beds.
So it’s with a massive sense of delight and relief when I finally tick off one of the jobs that’s been taking up head space…. and this weekend it was the polytunnel.
Our tunnel had remained in the shed, still packaged in its cardboard box, for over a year before we finally erected it with the help of a few friends, on a still, warm day in May in 2009.
My in-laws had bought it as an anniversary present from Highbank Organic Farm in Cuffesgrange, Co Kilkenny and so I was pleased as punch that I’d started off several seedlings in a friend’s tunnel during the springtime so that I could immediately plant up the beds once the cover was on.
That first season we grew lovely crops of tomatoes, coriander, radishes, cucumbers, carrots, chilli’s, sweet peppers, flat leaf parsley, melons, aubergines and basil.
We made parsley wine and repaired a hole in the roof of the plastic after our youngest daughter had decided to climb barefoot to the top. We also got our share of pests and diseases – the dreaded tomato blight and red spider mite.
On a wet, cold day in November I drove over to Scariff in Co Clare and attended an informative full day workshop at Irish Seed Savers about using a polytunnel throughout the year.
I came back inspired and enthusiastically cleared the tunnel of anything dead or decaying and replanted it (yes in November) with carrots (Amsterdam Forcing), Overwintering Lettuce, Broad Beans (Bunyards Express) and Peas (Onward I think, seed packets got a bit muddled!). I left the parsley, chives, radish and carrots already growing to do their own thing.
Everything remained dormant for the worst of the cold winter but then as the light levels increased and the air became warmer, they started to grow and we were eating fresh peas in May.
After we harvested everything (it all grew) we planted shallots, onions, garlic, basil, more carrots, baby tomatoes, cooking tomatoes, lots of cucumbers, courgettes, french beans and sweetcorn.
The onions and garlic didn’t do as well inside (their bulbs weren’t very big) and we only picked about four chilli’s (they were in a draught), but when clearing the tunnel yesterday I harvested 10 more sweet peppers.
Crop rotation can be tricky in a polytunnel or glasshouse. Many of the fruit and vegetables we tend to plant in them, plants that require warmer temperatures to fully mature, are of the same family, for instance tomatoes and aubergines (Solanaceae) , cucumbers and squashes (Cucurbitaceae).
Most folk I’ve spoken to just seem to move the plants around the best they can each year. Some remove the soil and add new soil the following season (a bit too labour intensive in my mind). Some grow tomatoes in containers as they’re more prone to disease (eelworm). Some take their chances and grow them in the same space each year.
Whatever you chose to do it’s important to keep adding as much organic matter as possible to the soil. It will help with drainage and subsequently moisture levels amongst other things. I appreciate it makes financial sense to keep a tunnel planted up year in, year out…. the plastic has to be replaced every five to ten years, so get the most from your money and sow as much as you can. Any of the vegetables that don’t require Mediterranean temperatures and light levels can be grown in a tunnel over the winter months, and at this time of year anything that says ‘early’ on the packet should grow for you.
There are massive temperature fluctuations in polytunnels that you have to be aware of…. at lunchtime today I opened the door and the temperature had reached 23ºC in the bright sunshine, despite falling to just 1oºC overnight.
(If you have a tunnel it’s worth investing in a good thermometer that records highs and lows.) It will guide you as to whether you should put some horticultural fleece or newspaper onto crops to give them some added protection, or whether to water more in the summer months.
However, this winter I’ve chosen to give the soil a good rest. For the past 18 months the tunnel’s been fully productive. I’m aware there are lots of vegetables we could be growing and sowing (see the fabulous Joy Larkcom book for all her oriental veg ideas for starters), but for the next three months we wont be sowing anything inside.
Outside we still have leeks, celery, parsnips, swedes and curly kale. We have potatoes, beans, onions and garlic in storage and bags of strawberries in the freezer.
At this date in time there isn’t a food crisis in Ireland (just an enormous financial one!) – I don’t need to keep the tunnel endlessly productive.
So, we’ve cleared the beds, watered the dry earth and covered the soil with lovely, well-rotted cow manure that’s full of big, fat worms. Now we’ll watch while nature does her job, replenishing and nourishing the soil.
In the spring time, when I’ve caught up with a few more jobs, I’ll dig out the seed packets and trays and start growing again.
I’ll also be keeping a look out in the library for Charles Dowding’s new book How to Grow Winter Vegetables, that’s due out in May, and see if I can overwinter anything next year.
I wonder what other people will be doing with their tunnels and greenhouses this year?