Sunday, 6 December 2015

The final polytunnel harvest (almost)

Cayenne chillis
Ideally I would grow crops in my polytunnel year round, but realistically the space is best used for the classic covered crops - tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and chillis. I do use it for a few early potatoes, which works well as they occupy the soil before anything else goes in. I also grow carrots in the polytunnel as it's the only way I have any success with them.
A few other more exotic crops have made it in too - melons, watermelon, tomatillos. They do okay but not amazingly. I've never had much luck with aubergines either.
The last of the tomatoes

One crop which does earn its place in the polytunnel, though it does its best to take over the whole place, is butternut squash. They produce well and love the conditions in there. I grow Butternut Waltham.

The last few butternut squashes

I have also been growing some climbing beans in the polytunnel, but have decided that on the whole they do just as well outside. The only exception to this are yardlong beans which need to be undercover.

However, my polytunnel honeymoon period is over now. Pests have found their way in, particularly red spider mite, which is living proof that if lots of individuals achieve a little then the sum of their actions achieves great things. Unfortunately, their efforts go into sucking the life out of my plants! They always take a hold on the beans first and for this reason I am going to give the polytunnel a break from beans. I think it's because the beans grow up above where the sprinklers reach and afford the mites a safe haven, for they like warm, dry conditions.

I did a pretty thorough job of cleaning the polytunnel last winter, but it obviously wasn't enough to prevent a few mites from overwintering. This year, if they come back, I'll have to use biological controls. I have no objections to using these, but they are expensive.

Jalapeno chillis and Paprika

Anyway, getting back to the point, the tunnel is more straightforward to manage if it goes through a period of being pretty much empty. This makes it far easier to conduct basic cleaning and maintenance during the winter. The only crops which will continue in there are celery and a little Swiss Chard. Protected, these crops will last long into the winter and even when they die down, they just sit dormant and spring back into growth in the spring, offering a very early crop before they go to seed in their second year.

The classic polytunnel crops have completely run out of energy come late November. A few cold nights, dull days and moisture in the air cause everything to suddenly die down. So last week I took one final harvest - the chillis, any peppers left on the plants and a few tomatoes still clinging on.

Red, yellow, green and purple peppers

The tomatoes especially were on their way out, so I roasted them up before passing them through the mouli to make passata, which I then freeze to use in my winter dishes.

Passata in the making
The last job before the big clear out was to collect some fruits for next year's seed. This is not always as easy as just collecting a fruit and taking out the seeds, since many will cross-pollinate all too easily. For this reason, earlier in the year I had tried to isolate some of the chillis and peppers by tying a nylon bag over the flowers after they had set. This wasn't entirely successful - most of them dropped off the plant after about a week. But I did end up with a couple of 'pure' fruits from which to take seeds. 
Next year's seeds
The polytunnel is now pretty much cleared out. I'm careful to remove all old foliage and dying vegetation so that pests, fungi and viruses aren;t harboured in the tunnel.
This winter I'll be reorganising the beds again to make better use of the middle of the tunnel and to make the beds down the side easier to reach. It won't be too long until I'm setting up mini greenhouses ready to raise next year's seedlings in there.

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