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Tunnel vision

PUBLISHED: 08:11 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:42 28 March 2014

The Rookies - Andy Richards and Adam Willcox - have just set up their first polytunnel at their smallholding in Snowdonia National Park. They describe the process

The Rookies - Andy Richards and Adam Willcox - have just set up their first polytunnel at their smallholding in Snowdonia National Park. They describe the process


Man cannot live by pork alone, so after last years fruit and veg growing disaster, we decided to invest in a polytunnel and spent the last eight months setting aside the funds to get one.

Bigger is better

Using Twitter and Facebook, we asked other smallholders for advice on getting a tunnel. Absolutely everyone said ‘decide on the size you think you want and then go bigger!’ We don’t have a lot of space here, so we chose an unused, overgrown corner of the smallholding to tuck the polytunnel as snugly into as we could – right next to a barbed wire fence.

It was crucial that we made a good investment when buying the tunnel, as we are hoping to use more than half of it to produce crops to sell. From numerous recommendations, we discovered First Tunnels. The Lancashire based company has a fantastic website and, if you’ve already got a tunnel, you should still check it out for its growing tips and news on everything that’s going on in the world of polytunnels. The staff were incredibly friendly and talked us through everything we needed to know – they even have step-by-step online videos on how to put up the tunnel - much easier than reading instructions!

The big day(s)

Putting up a polytunnel is like the biggest piece of flat pack furniture you could imagine. We started out full of excitement thinking that in a couple of days we’d have the whole thing done. It was just over a month later when we were ready to put the cover on!
With the hoops in place we waited for a warm, windless day (quite a rarity in the hills of Wales!) When the day finally came we roped in some friends and got to it. It was as we unrolled the cover over the hoops that the gentle breeze became a strong gust. Controlling a 35ft piece of polythene in the wind is quite a challenge and resulted in lots of laughing, shouting and running around. It was at this point we realised tucking the tunnel in a corner surrounded by a barbwire fence wasn’t the cleverest idea we’ve had. But with about 10% thought and 90% luck we got the cover over the hoops and secured in place without a puncture! (Special thanks to Mike, Predz, Fin and Jane who arrived in the nick of time – and more importantly brought the beers!)

Time to grow
Putting our first few plants in the tunnel has been a joy. It’s a real sanctuary and a place we’ve already been spending loads of time. But before filling it with food, we sought advice from two Country Smallholding experts…


Tackling the hungry gap
Q. Now the polytunnel is up we'd love some advice on using it efficiently. We've read a lot on the subject and now our main concern is how to approach our first 'hungry gap'.

A. CS expert Joanne Madhur said: You are quite right to think about next year’s hungry gap now. Polytunnels offer miraculous salad crops from early in the New Year through to May. Overwintered crops go dormant, only to spring back to life as the days lengthen. You can sow these crops in small pots or module trays in your polytunnel, and plant them out once established.
That way you can continue to crop tomatoes until the last minute in your precious polytunnel beds. Be careful to water only a very little over the winter, then more as the plants grow faster in the spring.

Some suggested sowings:
* Wild rocket towards the end of September. You won’t need a lot as it is strong!
* Spinach (we use the variety called Sharan) in mid-September. Sow plenty as it is a useful winter staple.
* Hardy lettuce such as Grenoble Red, sown in first two weeks of September, may be used as cut and come again leaves in the spring.
* Winter Gem lettuces may be sown in a propagator throughout the winter until January for planting out in your polytunnel. Use as heading lettuces.
* Succession sow seed trays of mizuna, mustard ‘red frills’ and tat soi from February for welcome spring salad crops. They go to seed quickly, so sow small quantities regularly.
* Succession sow radishes (we use the variety Cherry Belle) direct into the soil from February.

A knotty problem
Q. We have encountered an area of Japanese knotweed at the far end of the small holding. We've heard horror stories about how easily it can spread and how hard it is to get rid of. The land is bordered by our neighbours and we're keen to make sure we don't spread it whilst trying to get rid of it. What's the best way to tackle the problem?

A. CS expert Brian Callaghan said: Japanese knotweed was imported to the UK more than 200 years ago, prized for its ornamental qualities and the mat-forming roots useful when stabilising steep banks of soil. This invasive root system and the ability to propagate freely are the reasons for its notoriety.

First, cut the shoots to soil level to block the source of energy to the roots. Do this four times a season, beginning with the early shoots and making the final cut in early autumn. Collect every piece of plant material and allow it to dry or burn it on site. Legally, the green prunings are classed as `controlled waste` and cannot be disposed of with general green waste. Tiny fragments have the potential to form new plants and can remain dormant for 20 years.

To control lateral spread, dig a trench and install a barrier membrane between the weed and clean ground. Dedicated membranes are available although DPC membrane is easier to obtain and reasonably effective.

Glyphosate will provide a degree of control, but many applications will be needed. The other recommended herbicide is the preserve of professional contractors and was used on the vegetation which Agent Orange failed to kill during the Vietnam War!

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