A polytunnel can form an essential part of a community farm or garden. If you can provide the space and cash to build one, it quickly becomes the focus for the place’s community spirit. After all, where else can volunteers read the week’s worksheet, do a spot of weeding, shelter from the rain and have a cup of coffee?
In growing terms, the most important role of the community polytunnel is usually in providing a protected area for the germination and propagation of young plants, since this provides a substantial saving against buying stock commercially; some projects even manage to make a small profit from selling surplus flower and vegetable seedlings to local gardeners and allotmenteers.
The real value of a community polytunnel, though, isn’t directly to do with plants. Any community-managed project relies heavily (and sometimes wholly) on volunteer labour, and how reliable this labour is determines how well the scheme will work – or whether it will work at all. For the marginally-motivated volunteer waking up on a cold or wet morning, the possibility of a cup of tea and a chat out of the rain can make the difference between being a fair-weather weeder and being a hard-working core member. The key factor here is human energy, a variable which is often overlooked when community schemes are planned and set up. It encompasses motivation and burn-out, but there are things that you can do to tip things in the project’s favour.
- A short while spent looking around, or just chatting in the tunnel at the start of a ‘shift’ isn’t a sign of a lazy participant, but one who is reconnecting with the community effort and their place within it. Definite break times when people are encouraged to meet for a coffee in the tunnel can also help foster this community spirit. Moreover, work studies have repeatedly shown that people are most productive when they take regular breaks. Meals aside, a fifteen to thirty minute break after every two hours worked seems to be a successful strategy.
- A selection of old boots, tools and waterproofs in the tunnel will save a lot of time when volunteers forget their own, and helps to build a sense of shared ownership.
- The tunnel crop bars are a good place to hang a few clipboards containing things like this year’s plot plan (with future crops marked), a duty rota, and a list of ‘free jobs’ – tasks for anyone with the time to do them. This helps people see how their own efforts fit into the larger scheme of things – vital for keeping them enthused. A timetable for local bus routes is also handy.
- During wet periods of the year, most of the gardening tasks in the tunnel itself are suitable for the ‘free jobs’ list. When it rains, people will fight over them.
Allotment tunnels are a slightly rarer idea, but one which has been shown to work extremely well. Welbeck Road Allotments Trust in Sandiacre, Derbyshire, erected a 7m x 22m (24′ x 72′) tunnel using a grant from the Shell Better Britain Campaign. The tunnel is divided into twelve tenanted plots to conform with allotment law, and rents set at a level calculated to allow replacement of the cover every five years. During the first year alone crops included figs, melons, aubergines, peppers, cucumbers, climbing french beans, mushrooms and winter salad, and one plot was rented out to a local primary school.
If you are involved in a community farm project and are considering adding a polytunnel, feel free to contact us for advice: we’re always happy to help.