On a Chalk Hillside January 2022

Published: January 7, 2022

Posted on 07.01.2022 |
Added in Sheila May's Blog

On a Chalk Hillside – Developing our garden.
One thing leads to another 

Happy New Year to you all.  The photos in this article are all from New Year's Day 2021, when it was VERY VERY frosty (unlike this year when it was very mild and very wet!).  Here is a shot from under the acers of the black grass Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens'

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Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens'
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Cardoon seed head in frost –

When we first moved here in 2004 our first aim was to erect a polytunnel – I told you all about it in an article in March 2017.  As I said at the time, we'd only seen commercial ones at that point, and chose a design that was 12 feet wide by 20 feet long.  It had doors at each end – a narrower one at the back where the water pipe was positioned against the fence, and a slightly wider one at the other end so I could get a wheelbarrow into it if I wanted.  The plastic (guaranteed for 5 years of life but expected to last 7 by the manufacturers) covered the metal hoops and went into trenches in the ground all round which were backfilled with chalk/soil to hold the plastic taut.  To help us maintain the plastic we were provided with “hotspot” tape – which looks like very wide sellotape – to tape any gaps/holes/splits that appeared.  We taped up holes on both sides of the hole, and the plastic was washed once a year with water with a weak solution of washing up liquid in it only.  The plastic lasted many many years longer than predicted.  It began to make a bigger split along a fold line (horizontally, thankfully) after 10 years, and even with patching, this did get bigger.  There is only so big a split that you can keep thinking of as added ventilation rather than disintegration.  From 2016 onwards I was urgently suggesting we needed to replace the plastic.  Each year we patched it and carried on.  But eventually, by winter 2017/2018 it was getting holes in other places too (tiny ones, but there were more and more, as if it was beginning to lose its integrity.)  

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Frosted seedhead of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy' – Hylotelephium (Herbstfreude Group) ‘Herbstfreude'

Over the years of use we had learned several things about our poly-tunnel and what we would like to improve or change when we replaced the plastic.  We also saw polytunnels in other peoples' nursery's and learned of newer features you could now have in your polytunnel.  The first thing we learned with our polytunnel – which is something all greenhouse owners know – is that there is NEVER enough ventilation.  Just having two doors of the size of household doors at each end, even if they were left open all summer, did not stop the polytunnel getting very very hot – easily into the 40 degrees, even though it was sited under the Silver Birches which provided dappled shade during the day.  The other problem with the doors, which opened inwards, was they took up not only a turning arc of space in the tunnel, but when open made it very difficult to get to the space to grow produce behind the doors at each end.  It also cut down how near to the ends of the tunnel you could have produce in the middle of the tunnel because you had to manoeuvre around them inside.  

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Frosted seed head of Solidago – Golden Rod
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Catkins on frosted Harry Lauder's Walking Stick Tree – Corylus avellana ‘Contorta'

When we were first looking into poly-tunnels we had seen some covered in mesh and some covered in plastic, but more recently we began to see poly-tunnels covered in part plastic and part mesh – the top of the hoops covered in plastic, and then from a point specified by you it had a “skirt” of mesh – this would give ventilation all the way along the tunnel, and in the case of our garden, allow air to come in from the direction of the prevailing wind (west) which the current tunnel couldn't do as the doors were oriented north/south.   I wanted this arrangement.  We also saw sliding doors.  OMG, sliding doors.  What a brilliant idea – I wanted these too.  

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 leaves rimmed with frost

Himself looked into all of this.   The “problem” was that in order to have a polytunnel which was partly clothed in plastic and then mesh at the bottom, we needed a mechanism to attach all the way round the tunnel into which the plastic fitted and was tensioned, and from which the mesh came down and was also tensioned both top and bottom.  If we wanted sliding doors we obviously needed two completely new door mechanisms and door structures.  What had just been an issue of determining how much replacement outer coverings we needed and ordering them from the supplier suddenly became more and more complicated.  And expensive.  Eventually the manufacturers said it would be easier from a construction point of view, and only a couple of hundred pounds more, to buy a whole new polytunnel!

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Red in frost

And here, dear reader, is where one thing led to another.    A whole new poly-tunnel meant that it didn't need to be sited where the old one was – adjacent to the original vegetable garden.  We could put the new one in the current vegetable garden we created when we were allowed to use the bottom of next door's garden for our vegetable growing.  AND we could reuse the old structure to cage our soft fruit!  Since we had bought the piece of land off next door several years back, we could now put more permanent things on it.  We already had a net tunnel on there – you may recall we had to “cage” our winter greens as the pigeons had decimated all the kales over the course of one cold weekend one winter.  This was a set of hoops and a door structure we bought from our neighbour which we had set up on one of the four vegetable beds we created originally, over which we draped bird-proof netting.   Obviously this had put a bit of a crimp in our four bed rotation patterns for our vegetables, meaning that the brassicas were always in there, but it was better than the birds having them.  The beds were all 18-20 feet long by 12 feet wide, so the old 15 ft x 12 ft tunnel had fitted on one bed quite nicely.      Facing these beds against our fence we had also built a set of three compost bins out of pallets right at the bottom of the garden, and a leaf mould bin.   
So why did one thing lead to another?  Well, when we measured, the polytunnel which was 20ft long would not fit with the net tunnel, and the compost bins along the bottom, unless you couldn't get into or out of either of the tunnels with a wheelbarrow – no good at all.  The new polytunnel had to be at the bottom as it was the “flattest” part of our slope (not flat, you understand, but not quite as precipitous as further up).  The net tunnel needed to be moved so there wasn't a build-up of pests growing the same crops in the same soil every year.  After a lot of measuring we determined the following:-
1) Empty, demolish and rebuild the compost bins elsewhere to give width;
2) Move the greens tunnel to the other side of the veg garden and eventually replace the netting with butterflyproof netting;
3) Redesign the entire vegetable garden, cutting new beds;
4) Put the old poly-tunnel in the newlook veg garden as a soft fruit tunnel with netting on it;
5) Erect new Polytunnel in new site at bottom of garden.  (This led to several other actions relating to flattening the ground, and terracing the earth above the flattened area, which you could see as part of redesigning the veg garden….)

This was a multi-year plan, in that the first two actions would be done in May/June 2018, but the remainder would be done later in the winter of 18, or spring of 19.  In fact, the detail of the redesign hadn't yet been buttoned down, so at that stage we could not have known just how long this would indeed take.   

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Frosty seedheads 1 January 2021
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Heuchera ‘Marmalade' leaves rimmed in frost

Next month, starting to implement the plan.

Sheila May

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