I am keenly aware that everything is relative, but personally, it has been a wretched twelve months. Gardens and gardening have always been a refuge for me in bleak times, and this year I owe my sanity to six metal hoops and a 12m length of polythene:
Putting up a polytunnel is not particularly difficult, but it took much longer than we imagined. As we laboured, the fee quoted by the excellent Northern Polytunnels to both supply and erect it seemed increasingly reasonable – and by the end of the job, a positive bargain. For me, supply only was the chosen option, not only due to an outraged and spluttering misplaced sense of thrift, but because I had a detailed plan for raised beds inside the tunnel, and they would be much easier to build and fill before the polythene cover was on.
Conventional wisdom and all the best advice (I can wholeheartedly recommend The Polytunnel Handbook and subsequent How to Grow Food in Your Polytunnel, both by Andy McKee & Mark Gatter) dictate that you get the cover on in early spring, in order to make the most of the polythene’s first summer when it lets the most light through: the material degrades over its roughly five-year lifespan, slightly diminishing the light transmission. We began the groundworks at the start of May, and finally got the cover up on 11 July, by which time any hope of a conventional polytunnel growing season was long past.
It took us so long because we had to snatch the odd weekend or evening to do the work, and my plans for the staggered raised beds needed much contemplation and calculation – and endless cups of tea. My aim was to maximise the growing area while ensuring that I had comfortable access to every part of every bed; and could get a wheelbarrow from one end of the tunnel to the other without bashing into sprawling plants and damaging them. I also wanted an area for a potting bench where I could sow and prick out seedlings, and space for a folding chair.
The actual layout was pretty much as I drew it on the plan, allowing for an 80cm central path, minor access paths between the beds of 45cm wide (one can carefully squeeze in between the overhanging plants if it’s just to weed or harvest), and no bed wider than 1.2m so I could get at the middle from either side with ease.
Responding to the broadly E/W orientation of the tunnel and trying to avoid the plants in one bed shading out another, I varied the heights of the raised beds. I had a single plank-high bed running along the entire south edge (although I dug a trench down the spine of it to allow for greater rooting depth) and successively taller beds on the north side (two, three and four planks-tall respectively).
My garden is infested with horsetail, that perennial, prehistoric and invincible weed, so I covered the whole interior of the tunnel with a layer of geotextile membrane, and then lined every bed with more membrane, using a staple gun to fix it to the sides. The dratted stuff still comes through, but weakened and in manageable amounts that I can easily pull by hand. While I occasionally use chemicals to suppress weeds in the wider garden, I choose not to whenever possible, and never in the kitchen garden. The horsetail problem meant I had to import all the topsoil for the raised beds, along with organic matter (spent mushroom compost, in this instance).
At this point it did occur to me to wonder how many tonnes of tomatoes etc would I have to grow over the years to even approach breaking even financially, but I picked up my stack of seed catalogues and put the thought firmly from my mind.
After months of planning, and months of building, on 11th July 2016 the cover went on and the first plants went straight into the beds. This rather motley collection of tomatoes were a gift, back in May, from a gardening friend who had spares. The unhappy plants had languished in small pots and with uneven watering for two months, but I reasoned it was too late to grow any of my own from seed and the garden centres had long since sold out of plants: I had nothing to lose by trying.
Racing the Scottish summer, I sowed a lot of seed that first week: courgettes; baby cucumbers; broad beans; french beans; lots of different salads; radishes; florence fennel; herbs; beetroot; broccoli; peas; sugar snaps; spinach; spinach beet; and many more. Normally, one would not need to plant all these in a polytunnel, especially during the summer. However, because of the dreaded horsetail, there is little point my sowing any veg outside until I can build similarly constructed raised beds in the area I have designated as the kitchen garden (a project I hope to start this winter).
Still, after a fortnight, most seeds had germinated and I was on my way. By the end of August, only six weeks from sowing, the harvest was a heart-lifting delight, with pak choi and courgettes and radishes and fennel thinnings. I made it a mission to use all the thinnings in the kitchen, throwing none away, and discovered how deliciously intense their flavours can be, once one lets go of the idea that there is only one shape, size and stage at which one should eat a vegetable.
The tomatoes far exceeded my expectations. They cropped from late September to the start of November, when I chopped all the plants down and brought the green ones inside to ripen. It has been a joy, over the summer, to do tomato taste tests with my 10 year old, and I have watched his openness to trying new vegetables expand. Fennel still remains beyond the pale, but then it does for his father too: I eat my lemon-braised fennel by myself, or with girlfriends, and I don’t care a jot. I am currently planning next year’s crop with greedy anticipation.
This year has seen so much death so close to me: in our immediate and extended family; our friends; our pets; our colleagues. I have been bruised by chronic injury; absurd planning applications; and by seemingly never ending vicious political divides. I have felt very low. I worry that it will sound trite, but working in my polytunnel, cocooned in quiet contemplation of seeds, of life, tending my growing plants and growing boy, feeling wordlessly connected to those I love and this planet: all this has helped me heal. I think it now feels right to move forwards, and count my blessings, and truly they are many.
As a horticultural student I glibly referenced studies demonstrating the beneficial effect of gardens on hospital patients and those with depression, but never have the therapeutic benefits of gardening been brought home to me quite so powerfully as in the past twelve months.