There’s a lot to think through when taking on a protected growing space. These tips, ideas and reflections are gleaned from community growers across Scotland in a range of settings to help you navigate the ‘unknowns. There will be more to share, so if you are growing in a tunnel, send us your tips.
We know that tunnels of any size can seem like an expensive investment to any community group, and some certainty in your land tenure will likely be required; this might require a formal land agreement or documented Memorandum of Understanding. Contact us if you need a helping hand to review your land agreement.
Where to site and the orientation of your tunnel depends on a number of considerations: prevailing wind direction being a big one for Scotland! Other factors include other houses or fences nearby, your tunnel’s visible impact on the surrounding area, ease of access to the site for materials and your tunnel’s construction, and yes, water!
Intention for the space
It can be helpful for groups to think through their intention for their tunnel from the outset. Growing food being the primary function for most. However, some groups choose to dedicate considerable space to social space or indoor working and choose a bigger tunnel to do so. This varies depending on other infrastructure you may have on-site. However, it can be a determining factor in your tunnel size. Also worth consideration is accessibility, if people with physical accessibilities can access your wider site how can you accommodate wheelchair or buggy access in your protected space.
The size of your site is a key determining factor in deciding the size of your tunnel; however, tunnels come in a range of different widths and lengths, all with implications for the layout of your growing space. The best way to think through size is to get out and see other tunnels and how groups have set up the tunnel and are using the space. Even if you have the space, big tunnels can be daunting in terms of fundraising, maintenance, water requirements and more volunteer and or staff time allocated, so it really is worth spending time considering your options and getting the right size for your activity and setting. To date we’ve never met a group that felt their tunnel was too big, probably because they got the biggest, they were comfortable to manage, there are some, that would like more space!
There is a range of tunnels available, from traditional polytunnels to Keder Houses and Polycrubs, and they all have different pros, cons, and price tags. It is worth really thinking through your growing situation and needs and the associated cost to getting the right infrastructure for your setting. Talk to the suppliers about their products and your growing situation. What is increasingly worthy of consideration is extremes in weather, wind, rain and sun and how different growing structures can adapt to these.
The obvious essential is that if you really plan to install a medium to large tunnel, you will need to think through your water supply.
Mains water can be costly and time-consuming to install and will most likely be metered, so whilst you have peace of mind of continuous supply in times of drought, it’s always worth installing a water catchment system as well. Groups operating as registered charities may be entitled to a discount through the Scottish Water Charitable Exemption Scheme.
Water catchment systems needn’t be costly to install but do require some ‘light engineering’ and maintenance. However, this is a great way to grow using our unpredictable but relatively abundant water supply. They can and do dry up in prolonged dry periods and should be used in conjunction, where possible, with drip-feed irrigation systems to reduce waste usage. This is also a key part of demonstrating your low-impact self-reliance narrative.
Some groups have also used water containers inside their tunnel to help regulate temperature fluctuations in their tunnel.
Airflow is becoming more critical with an increase in summer temperatures. Some structures have roll-up sides; some have roof vents. Do bear in mind that larger tunnels (over 36ft) will work best with some form of ventilation, but in the spring months, with big differences in day and nighttime temperatures, these will need to be opened and closed manually twice a day. Small to medium tunnels can be adapted for increased airflow by using mesh over the doors instead of plastic.
The more you move away from the basic tunnel structure, the higher the cost, BUT feedback from a couple of groups is that some features are just worth raising more money for! Sliding doors over hinged doors as they are sturdier and can make access easier. Crop bars make an all-round sturdier structure and provide extra support to grow climbing plants up.
If you are running a growing site and inviting people to it, you will have insurance, including public liability. You will need to check with your insurer that it covers the polytunnel you are planning and may need an upgrade to get cover for it.
When erecting a medium to large tunnel we’d always recommend installation by someone with previous experience and ideally raising the additional monies to pay the suppliers to install your tunnel. This can make tunnels seem very costly; however, in the long run, it ensures your tunnel plastic lasts longer, is a lot less stressful and may better meet insurance requirements in the event of a claim. N.B there can be a long lead in time for this service.
There are various ways groups grow collectively, some groups take on the whole space as a collective effort, others ‘hire’, for a small fee, space in the tunnel to individuals; in some instances, groups do a bit of both. Do bear in mind that in the spring and summer months doors will need to be open and closed and this can require a effective communication between growers, and a job to add to the volunteer, or staff list.
Purchase, ‘permissions’ and other necessary infrastructure will require some capital finance. Contact us we are more than happy to help you think through your approach.
Learning from others
It can feel that there is a lot to think about and plan; however, there is a strong network of communities growing collectively across Scotland in all settings and sizes, from rural to urban, who can and do help other groups on their journey, providing inspiration, invaluable guidance and top tips. The Community Learning Exchange can help your group cover the costs of seeing and learning first-hand from others, and if you are starting from scratch, we’d highly recommend you visit a couple of groups. Contact us for more information.