Kyle Feeds, growing under cover in Sutherland

In a remote part of the Highlands, the Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust (KoSDT) is tackling food insecurity and growing resilience and local connections through community food growing  Bev, the Project manager, and Lucy, the Project gardener, share their Tunnel Tale.  

KoSDT serves six villages, encompassing up to 1700 residents. Bev recounts how when she first took up a post as a physical activities worker in 2015, she was struck by the lack of access to fresh, affordable food locally. “The nearest supermarket for villages in the area is a 24-mile round trip. With an ageing population and many young people of working age moving away, residents lacked regular access to fresh food and social connections.” In 2016, with funding from the Scottish Government the Trust set up a community café in Ardgay, other government funding streams have subsequently supported the development of a community larder and small tunnel in Ardgay (2022) and a kitchen garden and tunnel in Bonar Bridg  (2024. Under the banner ‘Kyle Feeds’, food growing and supply have since become a focus for collective endeavour,  

The tunnels and kitchen garden supply the local community larder and cafe, ensuring fresh, nutritious food is accessible to community residents. 

The Project’s growing initiatives  have proven to be really popular with volunteers working in the tunnel and the newly established garden. “The garden is right next to the post office and bus stop and attracts a lot of attention, with locals passing by, joining in, and really wanting to support us and get growing. Also, the area, which was previously derelict, provides an attractive focus to the village.”

 Other food-related projects delivered by 2 part-time gardeners include offering practical growing support and plants to grow at home to 40 village families over two years, with children under 18, supplying three local primary schools (2 with their own tunnels) with plants for growing in their school grounds, and delivering grow-your-own workshops for local residents, including children.  

Tunnels are not uncommon in this landscape, with this type of growing infrastructure becoming more commonplace in residents’ gardens; what provides extra motivation, reflects Lucy, is the knowledge sharing and learning together. “I am not a horticulturist, but I have a keen interest in growing food, and I’m learning all the time. There is so much local growing knowledge shared in our garden sessions, which is then shared with the younger generations through our school work. Additionally, there are lots of supporting networks such as Planet Sutherland and the Highland Good Food Partnership, which really gives us energy for our activity because we can see good things happening all around us, and we know we are not working in isolation.”    

 Lucy reflects that growing under plastic this far north gains an extra month at each end of the growing seaso   This spring has been a bit of a struggle taking longer to get warmer, but KoSDT has developed a routine of using a low-wattage electric propagator to get seeds to germinate before growing seedlings on in their warm sunny office . Finally, young plants are moved into tunnels with additional protection until they are big enough and able to withstand cooler temperatures. 

If you would like to know more about KoSDT’s work, you can read it here: https://kosdt.com/, or consider a visit through the Community Learning Exchange.  

Lucy’s springtime tunnel tips 

  • You don’t need to spend lots of money on expensive growing equipment, a simple electric propagator or heat matt can help . Use the heat to germinate the seeds and then move them on to grow somewhere else sunny and warm. 
  • Once young plants have grown, you can protect them further in the tunnel (March—mid-May). Place young plants in clear plastic boxes or a plastic mini greenhouse inside the tunnel. Old milk crate trolleys wrapped up at night can also work well. 

Kyle Tunnel Tale

A group of residents from Cumbernauld have been growing on YMCA land just off Kyle Road. This small fenced-off area of land in a residential area has proven to be amazingly productive. The catalyst for growing food together is 18x8ft  polytunnel.  At the time of writing, there are some proposed changes to the area, reducing the outside growing area, which will concentrate all the group efforts on maximising their produce from the tunnel for the near future. Pauline, a knowledgeable gardener and nature lover, recounts the Kyle Tunnel Tale, highlighting what’s possible when we grow under a small bit of plastic!

“It started by accident, a happy accident when someone offered us a free tunnel at a YMCA climate emergency talk in 2019, and we took things from there. A couple of friends and I started growing food together during the pandemic, up until then, we had been involved in litter picking in our local area. I mainly did the gardening on my own with some input from Community council members as many of the original volunteers were shielding from Covid. 

Last year I managed to network with other groups thanks to contacts via Carbrain Community Council and Craigieburn Community Garden. Kildrum Community Council has been instrumental in getting financial support for the garden and held an open day last year and helped get more volunteers.

Now between 4 and 8 of us meet regularly on a Sunday afternoon to plant and maintain our garden, support wildlife and catch up over a cup of tea which is also made possible as we can shelter under the plastic on rainy days! During the pandemic, one enthusiastic volunteer sowed 200 tomato seeds, which all germinated and had to be given away across Cumbernauld! In the tunnel, we have grown tomatoes, chillis, cucumbers, peppers, and herbs for pollinators. Last year was our best year for local engagement, with volunteers from other local garden projects joining forces. The garden began to feel really good and we entered the It’s Your Neighbourhood Award.

It’s been a learning process adjusting to changes in weather and crop requirements. Courgettes didn’t like the heat last year even though we vented the back door, sides, and double sliding doors. Air circulation is vital on hot sunny days. Shade is crucial too, or crops will be burned.

To have the polytunnel is a bonus it means we have a little bit of control over our growing environment, because Cumbernauld is quite high the winds can be harsh. Last year, we ran a solar-powered fountain in the tunnel to give us some humidity and stop that dry burning heat on hot sunny days. We collect water in troughs and water butts and top up our water supply from a hose in the adjacent YMCA child playzone.

Polytunnel gardening has been a learning process with the changes in climate. It reached 40 degrees easily and required more frequent watering and attention.

Outside, we have grown onions, garlic, cabbage, beans, peas, broccoli, herbs—parsley, chives, marjoram—and a space for salads and radishes. We make our compost and have a wildlife corner for bees and a hedgehog house that is as yet uninhabited. We always try to please the wildlife. Working with nature and our climate needs to be fun. We use no pesticides on the site and make our own fertiliser from nettles, comfrey and compost juice.

The tunnel has meant we can start growing earlier in the year and finish growing later- last year’s chillies cropped for ages. We also grew pak choi and winter greens and overwintered herbs under cover in the winter months. We dried marjoram and sage and shared bags with people who wanted them both in the group and at the Carbrain hub pantry.

Food and plants grown in the garden are shared with volunteers, the YMCA and the community hub/pantry. We have been known to barter produce for manure! The garden’s fruit crop is popular with the kids and local neighbours, any surplus is made into jam to generate funds for charity. With the family-run fruit and veg stall in Cumbernauld now closed, the community’s only other access to fresh food is through the Hub-run pantry or one of the big supermarkets. The wee market has been a huge loss to the community, making the growth of small initiatives like ours even more critical.

Pauline’s advice to others:

  • Think through what you want to grow and what’s possible with the size of your tunnel and don’t forget to grow vertically too for more space.
  • Go out visit others, network and see what’s possible.
  • Read about indoor growing as it’s so different to outdoor growing in Scotland. Our tunnel has been great for starting off plants and overwintering things.
  • Do think about security. Our site hasn’t been vandalised as it has a high fence but other sites sadly have.
  • Groups and individuals are growing in sites across Cumbernauld in collaboration with other groups to combine our efforts but ours is the only site protected with a fence which has protected the tunnel.
Blackhill pumpkin leaves_Landscape

Blackhill’s Growing Tunnel Tale

“Tunnel growing is a perfect way to expand the growing season, which extends our engagement for most of the year rather than half of it. The tunnels provide a fantastic resource for learning and extra dry space for youth clubs, school workshops and broader community engagement through food; we wouldn’t be without them.  We can grow so much more than just kale and tatties, under plastic we are growing exciting things to eat right here in North East Glasgow.”

Blackhill Community Garden in Provanmill, Glasgow is located on church land and is a core component of St Paul Youth Forum’s work with young people and the local community. The garden brings people together by growing, cooking and eating good food. This 0.5-acre site lies adjacent to the church and centre. It comprises outdoor raised beds, a woodfired pizza often, a seating area, a chicken run, bee hives and three 14x 30 foot tunnels providing essential infrastructure for the group’s work.  Joe Lowit- Project Coordinator, shared the Blackhill’s Growing tunnel tales…“We’ve had the tunnels since 2017, the garden idea originally grew out of our young people wanting to make some money to sell produce for youth trips, and it’s grown ever since then. We wanted to try growing food and having a dry working space as the weather here is often so poor.”

The garden is open year-round for youth work, school visits, and community volunteers. Sharing and cooking food is a regular activity either through workshops or community meals. Any surplus fruit and veg is given away at either the veg barra stall, which has Blackhill’s Grown produce available for free (with option to donate) alongside wholesale cost price fruit and veg staples, or at the community larder, which provides free weekly emergency food.

Local support for the garden is strong, and the garden regularly hosts pick-your-own days in the summer months for the local community to come in and pick their own fresh, locally-grown produce. Vandalism has never been a problem, but the tunnel plastic has occasionally suffered accidental damage through use that has to be patched up. 

Unsurprisingly, soft fruit is always popular with local families, but large pumpkin leaves have also been warmly welcomed- an essential ingredient in West African and Bangladeshi cuisine not otherwise readily available in this area of Glasgow. “New Scots really love the tunnel growing as we are growing food stuffs they are perhaps more used to. We had no idea pumpkin leaves were such a delicacy or could be so delicious over the years, we’ve grown lots of exotic and exciting produce in our wee corner of Glasgow, from figs, cucamelons, and tomatillos to Japanese pumpkins, sweetcorn and aubergines. However, this year is the first time we’ve managed to grow our own melon and it was delicious!  

Much like any community space, the best ideas are often the craziest, and the group decided to try growing seedless white grapes, anticipating a limited crop, but now, in the late summer months, they harvest kilos! With a red wine grape, they’ve also made wine; combining this with their educational partnership with ‘Scotland the Bread’, they have grown their very own communion bread and wine to be shared with the church. 

The gardens focus is always on what the community wants, and soft fruit is always popular. Polytunnels prolong the soft fruit season, and through growing different varieties outside and under plastic, they can harvest homegrown strawberries from May to September. From a community garden perspective, it’s a game changer. Similarly, tomatoes can be extended over a couple of months. However, Joe is quick to point out that experimentation with different plant varieties is more about bringing excitement to the garden than producing commercial quantities of fresh, local food. That’s the next venture! Blackhill’s Growing has recently started work on developing a market garden on a new larger site nearby,  where the plan is to use polytunnels to grow fruit and veg on a commercial scale for the local community.

Recommnedations to others;

Our water comes from the mains, and we run a drip line to the plants, which is much more efficient for water usage and cuts down on the weeding.  

Learn by doing; you learn from your mistakes!


Getting started

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.

Land tenure 

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! 

Tunnel type 

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.  

Green Infrastructure 

Under development 


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. 

Leaf green planning

Planning need to knows

As of February 2024, tunnel structures and associated infrastructure in a community-growing setting will still most likely have to apply for planning permission, this includes sheds, shipping containers, and other structures. If food is being grown in a market garden setting or as part of a community-supported agriculture scheme, it may be possible to erect structures under permitted development rights. But, strictly speaking, this will only be the case if food is grown on agricultural land of 0.4 ha or more and is done so in the course of a trade or a business, with it also being necessary to go through a prior notification process before carrying out any works. Your planning status may also vary depending on whether you are growing in an existing site or just starting out on a new site.  

This mini-guide will help you know what you need to know to make an informed decision about your next steps. If you would like further advice with any of the steps outlined below or have experience that you want to share, please don’t hesitate to get in contact. 

Taking a step-by-step approach: 

Once you have an idea of the infrastructure you think you require, it can be beneficial to seek pre application advice from your local authority planning department. If you can get support in a reasonable timeframe, this can often save time and money. However, feedback from groups on the ground is that response times vary widely across different local authorities, as do costs and the level of service provided. In all cases, though, it is worth checking what your local authority offers and considering this as an option. 

If proceeding with a planning application, every local authority should publish Validation Guidelines (sometimes referred to as Standards) containing a checklist of the information and the scale and technical detail they require – look for guidelines for non-householder local developments. Or, if there are no local authority-specific guidelines, reference should be made to Heads of Planning Scotland’s guidance note on national standards.   

Here is a common list of requirements expected with an application submission: 

  • A location plan (which should make it easy to identify where the site is located relative to surrounding land, with the site outlined in red on this) 
  • Existing and proposed site layout plans (with the site again outlined in red and with the proposed site plan showing all new infrastructure proposed, including any ancillary elements such as fencing or solar panels);  
  • Try emapsite for a basic location plan and layout plan to the scale you want for a small fee. 
  • Maps and drawings submitted in the scale published in your local authority Validation Guidelines. 
  • Scaled drawings of the tunnel or other structure for which you seek planning permission, including floor plans and elevations. In the case of tunnels, the tunnel manufacturer can often provide these. 
  • Details of any existing site drainage and your plans for how water run-off will be dealt with (in many cases, requirements in this respect can be addressed through the use of rainwater harvesting). If the site has not been used for community growing previously, you may also need to provide details of the nature of the proposed use (i.e. the activities that would be undertaken, the expected number of visitors to the site, and proposed access arrangements,etc).  

Planning fees: 

Local authorities publish guidelines on planning fees; do note: you can half the cost of your planning application if your local community council submits this on your behalf. See  Friends of Forres Land Story

Get help: 

  • For more detailed technical planning guidance, please see the Planning Matters section of the Growing in the Community- Scotland Land Guide.  
  • You can access specialist planning advice and guidance through the Community Land Advisory Service. Contact us for more information. 




Leaf Green photo

Leaf Green Tunnel Tale

“We really enjoy going up to go up to the growing area; a year ago, we were putting cardboard down on the field to stop the weeds, and since then, we’ve had our first growing season, lots of produce and lots of ideas to grow more food in the village. For everyone that comes up, it’s such a good experience; we have a brilliant view and a very social space.”

Nestled on the upper banks of the Ale Water Valley with the Eildon Hills in the distance, this exposed but picturesque spot became a village-growing space with beds and a polytunnel less than a year ago. Susan from the growing group reflects on their first village growing season and shares plans for growing in Lilliesleaf in the future.  

Liliesleaf is a 3 street village in the Scottish borders with circa 250 residents; the primary school catchment extends to the nearby villages of Ashkirk and Midlem. In 2018, residents formed Lilliesleaf Community Development Ltd, raised funds to buy the green unused land in the centre of the village and began to shape their village with the vision to create Leaf Green, a positive focal point and facility within the centre of the community for the future.

In 2021, residents got planning permission for a change of use from an agricultural field to ‘form an outdoor recreation and communal space/garden. Inspiration for the tunnel and garden area came from conversations between villagers who wanted to grow food locally and in an environmentally friendly way. “I’ve always been able to grow a few tatties in my small garden, but I wanted to grow enough for the year.” says Susan.

Consultation with everyone in this small community was essential. Various methods were employed to consult with everyone through word of mouth, leaflets through every door and at the Leaf Green AGM. Support from the villagers quickly led to a site visit and conversation between 16 village members and the Borders Greenspace Programme officer. The group received a £6.7k  (Community Led Local Development) grant in late November 2022 towards garden infrastructure to take the project forward. Working to a tight funding schedule and a clear action plan, the growing group got to work installing rabbit-proof fencing with the help of the local unpaid work team, forming ‘no dig’ outdoor growing beds in the overgrown field, and researching the best growing structure for their exposed windy site. Linking in with local groups such as Greener Melrose and Abundant Borders, the group was able to contrast and compare different types of growing structures and their internal layouts and sizes. They settled for a 3mx8m ecopolytunnels in polycarbonate material and were advised on professional installation by the suppliers, funded with support from the community council. The tunnel has three ventilation hatches, which help regulate the temperature and airflow on hotter days whilst the garden group coordinates closing and opening the doors via a WhatsApp group. Water is supplied by two 1000-litre IBC (industrial bulk containers). Tile edging that collects water falling onto the tunnel and drains into the containers has been much more effective and cheaper than traditional guttering. 

A local architect supported the group with the necessary drawings of the shed and tunnel for their planning application. They contacted the Borders planning team early on to confirm exactly what was required with their submission. 

The growing group, with a core team of circa 8 communicate regularly through Whatsapp, and hold regular Sat workdays in the garden. Anyone unable to make group times can access the monthly garden task list in the tunnel. The group decided to keep growing simple in the first season and, in the tunnel, successfully grew tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, pumpkins and winter lettuce. One group member led on upskilling the gardeners in tomato growing, and another member from Virgina ensured donated pumpkin seedlings were a huge success, much to the delight of the school children. In their first growing season the group managed to grow enough fresh vegetables for themselves and surplus to share in the village, (for a donation), through a monthly brunch and fortnightly coffee morning. From this, they have developed an understanding of what people liked to eat and what they could grow. To date, leeks, early potatoes and tomato plants have been popular. They have plans to expand and be more proactive around surplus produce this year, so they plan to engage with villagers further on the best way to do this. “It is early days in our development and, as with the produce we are growing, we are developing in an organic way!”   

P1, 2 and 3 pupils have taken on a growing bed and have helped with the planting of fruit bushes around the boundary of the growing area. The group is keen to learn more about hotbox growing in tunnels to help start seedlings and young plants. 

They also intend to use the tunnel space in winter months to help overwinter some ornamental plants for village planters, extend the vegetable growing season and start seeds off early.  

Recommendations for others: 

Plan ahead for tasks, e.g. watering, opening/closing the polytunnel, what to grow and when. This helps us gauge what we can do and who will likely be available. We try to keep things relatively straightforward and expand gradually as we learn.   

Lots of communication is vital so that everyone has the chance to be involved in planning and decisions. Keep updating the village as the Leaf Green growing area is for all of us and everyone should feel able to get involved.  

To talk at an early stage to people who the tunnel may impact, we have houses near the growing area, so we talked to all the neighbours before we put the tunnel up and changed the position based on feedback.   

Screenshot 2023-09-13 120017

Fairlie growing tips


A growing plan is needed for winter planting. Think about what you would like to grow. Seeds need to be planted in August or early September at the latest. The daylight hours start to go down in September, and soil temperature starts to cool. Planting early allows for growth before the dormant period in winter. Polytunnels managed communally could be thinking about crop rotation when making a plan.

Light and some warmth returns in late winter and early spring, and growth starts again, giving you some very early crops.

Miners lettuce (winter purslane), or lambs’ lettuce are grown/harvested in winter, and the dormant main lettuce varieties react quickly to the early spring of polytunnels. We have early strawberries in hanging baskets in April or May at the latest. They make use of warmer air trapped higher in the tunnels.

We have had great success with perpetual spinach with autumnal seed sowing. It gives a great early harvest. Runner beans grown in spring/summer fare much better than those outside as they don’t like much wind. Garlic does very well but should be left in a bit longer, into late spring to get fatter. There has been some success with planting potatoes for Christmas in the tunnels, but the most success was had by planting potatoes in February and lifting them about the end of April. Thyme and most other herbs can be grown inside. Chards can survive in low temperatures. Peas may be grown early, but watch out for mice damage. Beetroots have also been very successful in our tunnels over winter, and some of us had great success with bulb fennel. Carrots favour the dry conditions in the tunnel for winter growing.

Plants will not need much water in winter, and it is important to control the moisture as the soil should not be too wet. Test the soil condition and moisture at a depth of 4 inches. Watering should be done by hand with tepid water. Too much watering could lead to fungal diseases. Keeping the beds moist in winter will help prevent slaters and ants from taking hold.


Fairlie tunnel tales

Fairlie Tunnel Tale

Nancy Maqueen from Fairlie Organic Growers makes the case for tunnel growing. 

Organic Growers of Fairlie (Ayrshire) started growing outdoor veg in raised beds on a coastal brownfield site in 2008 with less than 20 members. Membership quickly increased when we got our first makeshift polytunnel. There has always been a waiting list for our three large polytunnels, which house 134 raised beds, each 6ft x 2ft x 2 ft.

Benefits: A polytunnel of any size is an excellent complement and extension to outdoor growing. With careful planning and timely planting, you can harvest tomatoes, cucumbers, sweetcorn and peppers in summer, aubergines, chillies, even sweet potatoes in autumn, winter greens and spring onions through winter, crispy lettuce in March and early potatoes in April/May, before the growing cycle both outdoors and indoors begins again.

One raised bed grows an average of 4 tomato plants with smaller crops such as basil, herbs, or marigolds (for pest deterrent). The bed user harvests an average of 4 to 6 kilos of tomatoes per plant or around 15 kilos per bed. Some choose to grow cucumbers and beans as well.

The vegetables and fruit found in our tunnel include grapes, carrots, garlic, lettuce and oriental greens, perpetual spinach, chard, beetroot, spring onions, bulb fennel, and landcress.

Members are allocated one polytunnel bed per household where available. Membership usually includes one or more outside beds, although some choose only to have a polytunnel bed.

Some of our growers wait for spring, some grow through the winter, and others benefit from the extended growing season well into autumn.

The tunnel is a great place to grow unusual vegetables and fruit. We have a member from the Philippines who grows fantastic 2ft long beans and a strange-looking cucumber-like fruit. Romanian members also grow a long yellow Romanian bean, and an Indian member grows special beans along with a prolific grapevine. It is a great place to experiment.

The tunnel has a good social aspect with a shared interest in growing. Seeds are shared, and gardening experiences and new friendships are made. It is a place to shelter from the rain and to meet in the winter when there is always work in the tunnels to do and plan for spring.

It is a pleasure to have young children and schools visit the polytunnels and learn how their food is grown. High school-age and older students have worked in the tunnels and have achieved many certificates and awards, such as The Grow and Learn Award.

Practicalities: Our beds are lined with recycled black polythene to help retain moisture and extend the life reducing the contact between the wood and soil. We plan and save to reskin our tunnels circa every ten years. We have set aside a reserve for funding and repair in our accounts. Skinning tunnels need to be undertaken in warm weather when the plastic has give in it. We’d recommend specialist contractors for large tunnels.

Our tunnels all have a clear light-diffusing Visqueen anti-mist polythene (lumisol). The ground is covered with black weed-suppressing matting with stones on top; any weeds coming through need to be dealt with quickly as they can grow fast in tunnels.

We have raised beds in two rows on either side of the tunnel. The beds have attached frames and a rack on top for bringing seeds in trays. The rack also provides support for plants. 

There is a 2 ft space for wheelbarrows between each bed and a 3ft path in the middle of the tunnel. There are double doors on each end of the tunnel, and we also have an overhead watering (mist) system as air temperatures can be up to 40C on very hot days.

A high bed at the front near the door and space for another enables wheelchair access. The tunnel is beside a concrete path for disabled/wheelchair access.

In summer, three hundred litres of water are used daily in the tunnel or about 10 litres per raised bed. We harvest rainwater from our shed, and there are three 200L barrels in the tunnel for members to hand water their beds. The stored water and thermal mass of the raised beds absorb heat during the day and gradually cools at night, keeping the tunnel warmer for longer.

We have 2 Hot Bins for compost making and providing nutrient-liquid feed. This is in addition to outdoor barrels of comfrey/nettle mix feed.

Each raised bed has a mixture of local topsoil, peat free and our own organic compost and organic alpaca dung (which we can access). It also contains kelp and some rock dust. We have had local deliveries of compost when required. Good soil maintenance is essential in raised beds to keep the soil healthy and productive all year round.

A tunnel should be opened in the mornings in the summer and closed if possible, an hour before sunset to maintain the day’s warmth. Ventilation prevents moulds and fungi and lets plants cool themselves.

In winter, it can be opened in the morning to let cold/damp air out. Drafts in winter can be minimised by a cloth/draft excluder placed at the bottom of one door of a two-door tunnel.

Challenges: All types of weeds grow faster and bigger in polytunnels! Regular weeding in and around beds is essential.

Algae and slime accumulate on the polytunnel skin when plants are too close. This must be removed to let light in by hand cleaning with a sponge or spraying with a hose.

If beds are not watered and kept moist, slaters will thrive, eating the roots of young cucumbers and other plants. If cucumbers are planted when larger, it is less of a problem. We use a chemical-free powder called Desi Dust to deter slaters and ants.

We have had red spider mites in the tunnel, and plants had to be removed, but seldom are whitefly or greenfly present.

There has been a lot of mildew on courgettes, and leaves had to be removed, but ultimately, the whole plant will need removal. Courgette leaves can encroach into shared spaces if left as they grow larger in tunnels.

Our garden members tend to be older due to the easier option of growing in raised beds. Sometimes, beds are not tended to due to health issues, and volunteers kindly help. As 134 members use three polytunnels, there is a big difference in bed care, commitment and expertise. Tomatoes are not an easy crop to grow, and with so many choosing them, there are often broken branches due to improper pruning and support. There can be splitting tomatoes and other problems due to inconsistent watering—fruit unpicked when ready falls to the ground. Casual neglect in the tunnel is serious without the effects of weather, such as rainfall and the natural replenishing of soil by worms. We have our best results in the tunnel environment without the damage pigeons cause in the garden. Birds in the tunnels eat a few strawberries, and mice will eat peas if they are unprotected.