If you are new to polytunnel gardening then one thing that you should definitely understand is that planning is crucial if you are to achieve the best results. If you plan properly, it is definitely possible to grow your own, in abundance, all year round and not just in the summer months. So, what can you grow in a polytunnel throughout the year?
What Can You Grow in a Polytunnel?
The answer to ‘what can you grow in a polytunnel’ is a varied one depending on your tastes! Polytunnels can be used to grow a huge range of different crops and other plants. Most of us, of course, will focus on food production. But it is important to remember that we can also grow many other resources for ourselves and our homes, in addition to at least some of the food that we eat.
When thinking about food production, too, we should remember that we do not necessarily have to grow the same things that others grow.
A polytunnel can be wonderful for growing a range of common annual and biennial crops. But it can also be interesting to branch out, and to think about the perennial trees and shrubs, vegetables, herbs and flowers that we might also grow.
Planning a Year of Polytunnel Growing
Planning a year of polytunnel gardening means thinking about water and composting, growing areas and pathways, planting plans and plant layout, timings of key gardening jobs, and sourcing the seeds and plants that you need.
There are plenty of things to think about and for some, it can feel a little overwhelming. If you feel a little overwhelmed, take things one step at a time. Slowly and surely, you can inch your way forward and as you progress, become a more confident gardener.
Getting the Basics in Place
Planning a year of polytunnel growing begins with getting the basics in place – that means thinking about how we will deliver water to the plants that we grow, and how we will maintain fertility in the polytunnel garden over time.
In short, to be able to think ahead properly, we need to have a good rainwater harvesting system and irrigation plans, and a good composting system in place. Ensuring that we have these basics in place before we begin definitely helps us to avoid a range of common garden pitfalls.
Planning, Layout and Planting Plans
Once we have thought about the fundamentals, and put systems in place for our polytunnel gardens to sustain them properly throughout the years, we can turn our attentions to our actual designs for the space.
That means thinking about and planning the overall layout of the space, thinking about how we can make the most of the space and time we have available.
It means thinking about companion planting and the creation of polycultures that will help to keep the garden stable and resilient over time, and increase our yields.
And it means knowing what we would like to grow, and where, within the space – not just as the growing season begins, but throughout each of the seasons of the year, and over the years to come,
Creating a Gardening Calendar for a Polytunnel Garden
Another important job before you start sowing is to create a gardening calendar for the polytunnel garden for the year.
Though you are likely to deviate from your plans here and there as the year progresses, it is very useful to have a schedule in place, so you know at the very least what you will be sowing and planting, and when.
I like to keep note of other key jobs too – especially harvesting for certain crops – and when these will be done.
When thinking about sowing and planting times, and the timings of other garden jobs, it is of course important to take into account where you live, and the conditions to be found there.
Selecting and Sourcing Seeds or Plants
Once you have the fundamentals in place and have made some good plans for the year, you can of course think about selecting and sourcing any seeds or plants that you will need to populate your polytunnel garden.
Understanding the Seasons in a Polytunnel
When you are planning a year of polytunnel growing, connecting with the seasons is hugely important. When growing undercover, we are of course somewhat insulated from the weather conditions outside.
But the seasons still dictate temperatures and conditions in a polytunnel garden, and understanding those seasons in a polytunnel is very important as we are planning a year of polytunnel growing.
Growing in a Polytunnel in Spring
What can you grow in a polytunnel in spring?
A polytunnel greenhouse in the spring is of course a busy place. It is at this time of the year that much sowing and planting is carried out. The seeds sown during this season and the crops planted out will often be harvested throughout the summer, autumn and perhaps even the winter months to come.
Many common annual crops will be sown at this time – some sown directly where they are to grow in the polytunnel, some sown indoors and later transplanted into the polytunnel.
However, while spring is a busy time, it is important to understand that not all sowing and planting in a polytunnel takes place during this season of the year.
For year round growing, we not only sow in spring but also throughout summer and autumn to make sure that we have crops to harvest near-continually throughout the year.
Understanding when to sow different crops in spring is very important. We need to think about the conditions where we live, and the weather conditions in a specific year. We need to remember that some springs can be much warmer than others, and think about this when deciding precisely when to sow and plant in our polytunnels.
Growing in a Polytunnel in Summer
What can you grow in a polytunnel in summer?
In summer, we will often largely have our attention taken up by the plants we sowed and planted in the spring. During the peak season of growth, we will often have a lot on our plates, both metaphorically and literally as we begin to reap the rewards of what we have sown.
But it is important that we continue to plan and look ahead to the colder months to come. Even during the summer months, there are plenty of crops that we might continue to succession sow, and other new crops that we might plant in a polytunnel to eat over the autumn and winter and into the traditional ‘hungry gap’ the following spring.
Whenever gaps appear in our summer gardens, or in our crop rotations, we should think about how we will fill those gaps and keep our gardens as healthy and productive as possible.
Growing in a Polytunnel in Autumn
What can you grow in a polytunnel in autumn?
As summer fades and autumn arrives, a polytunnel really begins to offer rewards to the conscientious gardener.
While, outside, the growing season is coming to an end, in a polytunnel plants can continue in active growth just that little bit longer, as the polytunnel holds off the first frosts. So we can continue to grow and harvest throughout this shoulder season.
We need to think carefully during this season about when we should make space in the polytunnel and potentially clear summer crops out in order to make way for those plants that will sustain us over the winter months to come.
Growing in a Polytunnel in Winter
What can you grow in a polytunnel in winter?
Outside in a garden in winter, there may appear to be very little going on above the ground with the plants that we grow. Many plants of course enter a period of dormancy during this time.
But in a polytunnel, some plants may remain in active growth, and those that do not may still stand happily and potentially provide a harvest even over the coldest part of the year.
Many plants will remain standing in the polytunnel over winter before returning to active growth in the spring and providing harvests at a traditionally challenging time of year, before any plants sown in the spring will be ready.
When we have a polytunnel to place our plants in, we can also start sowing indoors very early in the year. For example, we might sow tomatoes, peppers and aubergines indoors while winter is still very much in power, and before spring even begins to arrive.
Planning Further Ahead
Planning ‘what can you grow in a polytunnel’ for the year ahead should be a top priority for all food growers. But those with any experience at all will know that it can also be important to plan even further ahead – thinking even longer term.
For example, an important area to consider when growing annual crops is crop rotation. We should rotate certain crop families and this involves thinking and planning at least 3-4 years ahead.
Of course, this is just one examples of the ways in which thinking and planning even further ahead can be important in a polytunnel garden.
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.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.