It was exactly a year ago, in the first week of lockdown, that we committed to buying a polytunnel. That same week I placed a very late seed order primarily for tomatoes, but some chillis, aubergines and cucumbers came too and we started them off indoors at the end of March. This late start was further compounded by the delayed arrival of the polytunnel itself, so that the seedlings intended for it had to be held back by hardening them off in a makeshift structure of seed trays and pieces of glass, since the cold frames were full. Although they got a little leggy and had to be watched carefully to ensure their 9cm pots did not dry out, they escaped the very late frost we had on May 12th and were finally planted into their grow bags in the first week of June.
This year I sowed the tender veg a full month earlier in late February, starting them off on the airing rack above the kitchen range before moving them to a warm windowsill as soon as they started to germinate. We are always keen to try new varieties and this year, alongside our old favourites ‘Gardener’s Delight’ and ‘Sungold’, I made a selection from Real Seeds based on productivity and hardiness, and also a range from very earlies to lates to see if we can stretch the season and push the tomato harvest into early winter. ‘Amish Paste’ is a heavy-cropping, extra-large preserving tomato, which I am trying instead of ‘San Marzano’, ‘Feo di Rio Gordo’, a deeply ribbed Spanish beefsteak variety that is reputedly very early for its size, while two Ukrainian varieties, ‘Purple Ukraine’ and the peach-fleshed ‘Lotos’, have late seasons, the latter with a reputation as one of the latest-cropping tomatoes, with fruit still pickable in late December.
Last year’s aubergines suffered from not being planted out soon enough and failed in the frames so, determined to have a crop this year, we have three varieties on trial; ‘Black Beauty’, which has a reputation as the most reliable cropper in the UK climate, which it seemed to prove by being the first and most profligate to germinate and with the largest, heartiest seedlings. Germination of the other two varieties – ‘Tsakoniki’, a Greek heirloom variety and ‘Rotonda Bianca Sfumata di Rosa’, both from Thomas Etty – was a little patchier, but we have enough seedlings to have three plants of each and still have some left to give away to friends and neighbours.
As well as new chillis ‘Basque’ and ‘Chilhuacle Negro’ I have succeeded in germinating the seed of some tiny superheat red chilli bought at Kos market two summers ago and I’m trying sweet peppers for the first time (‘Kaibi Round No. 2’ and ‘Amanda Sweet Wax Pepper’, also from Real Seeds) as well as two varieties of melon (‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ and ‘Charentais’), which I’m hoping will get enough light and heat to provide us with something truly exotic in the fruit department this year. All of the above were sown in the last week of February and they are all, bar the melons, ready to be pricked out into larger pots this weekend.
The delay in planting out last year had a continuing knock-on effect, and the last of the tomatoes were harvested in late October so that we could remove the grow bags (which were were last year’s quick fix) to build four raised beds. These allowed us to build up the level and enrich the soil of the unimproved pasture on which the polytunnel is sited with well rotted manure. We intend to practice no dig with these beds and so the retaining edge will help to keep things tidy.
Although I had sown a variety of oriental greens, winter salads, chard, kale and soft herbs from the beginning of September and into October and November it soon became apparent that this was also too late since, by the time the raised beds were finished in early November, the days had shortened to the point that none of the seedlings would make no further growth before the end of the year. These plug plants sat rather reproachfully in the cold polytunnel until late January, when I finally planted them out as the days slowly started to lengthen. However, they have now been providing us with salad and greens for two weeks or more and have more parsley, coriander and dill than we know what to do with.
Despite the late start what has become immediately apparent is that, with well-timed sowing and transplanting, the polytunnel will allow us to close the ‘hungry gap’ of late winter and early spring. In addition to salad and oriental greens there has been a seamless handover from the waning kale and turnip greens in the kitchen garden to those that were sown in plugs in late November and have now taken up the baton. With this knowledge I am now planning two late summer sowings of winter greens and salads, turnips and beets for late July and late August to take us through the season. I started my first salad, beetroot and kohl rabi sowings off in the tunnel this year and they have responded well to the warmth and even light, but we are also planning to build a hotbed in the polytunnel this winter so that we can get even further ahead with early sowings and keep our most tender seedlings warm at night.
Alongside planning for future winter crops this is now the time to get moving outside. The broad beans that I sowed in modules in early March in the polytunnel have been hardened off for a couple of days this week, ready to be planted outside. And it is potato and onion weekend. The potatoes have been chitting in egg trays in the tool shed for the past three weeks or so and will be going into newly dug ground that we have enclosed around the polytunnel. This will free up more space in the kitchen garden to get a better successional rotation going, as well as allowing us to extend the range of vegetables we can grow, like Jerusalem artichokes which are very space hungry and freezer harvest crops like the ‘Cupidon’ beans of which we can eat any amount.
And I will also be pricking out the tomatoes, which is where this all started. Holding them carefully by their first cotyledons I will extricate their roots from one another, acutely aware of the time, energy and care that has got them this far. I will move slowly and carefully so that none are wasted. I will lower them into the soil of their own pots, give them a drink and then leave them to get on with it until it is their time to take the stage again.
Words & photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 27 March 2021