When you decide to purchase a polytunnel, one of the first things that you will have a think about is polytunnel layout ideas. Once you have decided where to place a polytunnel and what it will be used for, it is important to think about how best to lay out the elements within so they best fulfill their functions and meet your needs. There are plenty of different ways to lay out the polytunnel for food growing, recreation and for other purposes. But you don’t need to be boring when it comes to polytunnel layout!
In this article, we will take a look at some more usual options that you could consider to make the most of the space and use your polytunnel most effectively.
Paths & Polytunnel Layout
Most new polytunnel owners will think along the lines of a single path or double path layout. In smaller polytunnels, it is most common to have a single,straight path down the centre, with a bed each side. In wider polytunnels, it is common to have two paths, with a central bed and again, beds down each side. But while these can definitely be effective options, they are far from being the only choices.
The key thing when planning your growing areas is to make sure that it is possible for you to garden without stepping on the beds and compacting the soil. In a ‘no dig’ polytunnel, the key to successful,organic gardening lies in taking measures to protect the soil ecosystem as much as possible. But organic, flowing shapes and designs could allow you to ensure this just as effectively as paths in straight lines.
Circles, Spirals, Waves & Other Natural Forms
For example, you could have a meandering, winding central path, or, alternatively, one or more branching paths that mimic the pattern of the branches of a tree, or the flowing of rivers to the sea.
Another option for smaller polytunnels might be to do away with paths all together. Thinking outside the box could involve creating a low-maintenance polytunnel design with stepping stones rather than a solid path, for example. Incorporating a series of stepping stones could allow you to maximize planting while still allowing for access for the gardener to tend the space. Low-lying plants could be placed between flagstones or other platform areas that give access to the different parts of your polytunnel.
Using natural forms in your polytunnel could be one more way of mimicking nature and learning from the world around us to meet our own needs.
It is not only the paths that can be in organic forms. Thinking outside the box for your polytunnel layout could also mean incorporating, for example:
- Circular beds (with keyhole paths, or in a mandala garden design).
- Irregular shaped planting areas with wave-shaped edging that will maximise edge, the most productive and abundant part of an ecosystem.
- Herb spirals (or other spiral form planting areas). Herb spirals can help you create a wider range of habitats in a small area.
Vertical Gardening & Contouring the Ground – 3D Polytunnel Layout
Another think to consider when thinking about polytunnel layout is the fact that it is a mistake to think about your polytunnel layout in two dimensions. In addition to thinking about access and the ground layout within the structure, you should also be sure to think in three dimensions.
Does your layout make optimal use of the vertical space? Be sure to consider not only the growing beds you will have on the ground, but also how you can use the space towards the top of the tunnel to grow more food, and for other purposes. You will find plenty of ideas for vertical gardening in your polytunnel elsewhere on this site.
But in addition to creating vertical gardens, hanging gardens, and planning best use of any staging and crop bars, you can also think about contouring the ground in your polytunnel, and thinking about the paths and growing areas in three dimensions too.
For example, you could consider:
- Sinking paths to create a cold well between raised beds that can help to regulate the temperatures in your polytunnel and keep plants warm in winter.
- Creating raised beds with a range of different organic or reclaimed materials. (For example, with stone, brick or cob edging that will help retain heat and add thermal mass to the structure.)
- Utilising hügelkultur methods to create raised mounds of wood, organic matter and compost in which to plant your crops. Contouring the ground and creating mounds in your polytunnel can allow you to create a wide range of habitats for a greater variety of plants.
Taking the time to think about polytunnel layout in three dimensions can help to make sure that you get the very best design for your needs.
Using Water in a Polytunnel Layout
It can also be helpful to consider water when planning your polytunnel layout. Most designs focus on soil growing, and it is, of course, important to consider the soil. But it can also be a good idea to think about how you might use water to optimise your polytunnel design.
For example, some polytunnel owners have very successfully incorporated hydroponic or aquaponic systems into their layout design. Growing plants in the soil, in raised beds or in the ground, is not the only option available.
Hydroponic and aquaponic systems (growing plants in water, or incorporating water-grown plants with fish keeping) can be highly productive systems. They could help you maximise the yield from your polytunnel. These systems can be very simple, or highly complex, and there are plenty of different layout options to consider.
Hydroponic or aquaponic systems can be incorporated entirely within the polytunnel structure, or be located partially within and also outside the undercover growing area. You could consider having fish holding tanks, for example, either within the polytunnel, within an adjacent structure, or outside, depending on the species and methods you have chosen.
Interestingly, you can also incorporate water in your polytunnel for other reasons. As well as literally growing food in water, you can also consider adding water to your polytunnel to make watering easier, or to retain heat. (Water is an excellent heat sink, with good thermal mass. It can store the energy of the sun during the day and release heat to gently warm the structure when temperatures fall at night.)
Thinking outside the box, you could not only include a water tank to store water harvested from the polytunnel itself, or other garden structures, but could also incorporate a pond, pool, or even have an irrigation channel or canal running through your polytunnel. You might even consider a chinampa, or floating garden, in your polytunnel layout.
Seating Areas and Recreation Areas in a Polytunnel
Finally, even when we are trying to grow as much food in a polytunnel as possible, it is still worthwhile also thinking about how we can make space to enjoy the structure for relaxation and recreation.
In larger polytunnels, it can be a great idea to incorporate a small seating (potentially also dining) area in the space. Innovative seating ideas can allow you to create such an area without giving up too much growing space. For example, you might be able to:
- Create built-in seating that doubles as vertical garden space/ trellis/ structure for plants to climb.
- Incorporate innovative fold down/ fold out seating or tables, that can be stowed away when not in use.
- Create hammocks and hanging chairs above growing areas.
- Make living ‘dens’ for kids from living trees and plants.
- Create structure for seating/ tables from living, trained trees rather than just from cut timber.
These are just some of the many polytunnel layout ideas that could help you to think outside the box and come up with the perfect polytunnel design. Whatever you plan to use your polytunnel for, you can find ways to really make the most of the space, garden organically and sustainably and make sure that the interior is ideally suited to your own individual needs.
There are plenty of other articles and suggestions on this site to help you garden effectively and sustainably. You will find plenty of tips to help you make the most of your polytunnel. How does your polytunnel layout help you make the most of the space you have available? Share your comments, hints and suggestions in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.