For all-year abundance it's best to have tunnel vision
URBAN FARMER:Organic grower Nicky Kyle’s polytunnel is a productive place even in winter, writes Fionnuala FallonBEING A nosy sort of gardener, I’ve always been interested in other people’s polytunnels. Call it a kind of horticultural voyeurism, or the green-fingered equivalent of a rummage through someone else’s bookshelves – except that, instead of examining book titles, the enjoyment lies in looking at other people’s plants, peering at their smudged plant labels and scrutinising their faded seed packets.
And just as there’s something uniquely personal about the contents of someone’s bookshelves, I’ve discovered the same is true of polytunnels. You’ll find sagging, sun-faded old armchairs, carefully-thumbed catalogues and other, stranger things amongst the forests of tomatoes and French beans and the neat lines of lettuce. In one seaside tunnel, I saw a fishing net knackily suspended from the bars to make a kind of makeshift storage; in another tunnel, I almost tripped over a box accordion; and the last time I was in Ballymaloe, their polytunnels and glasshouses were being patrolled by a very friendly and slug-hungry duck by the name of Tommy.
But even as a veteran visitor of these plastic greenhouses, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a polytunnel quite as beautiful as Nicky Kyle’s (nickykylegardening.com). Walking into it earlier this week was a bit like walking into the wardrobe of CS Lewis – not quite Narnia, perhaps, but definitely a very different universe from the cold, frost-bitten one outdoors.
“I call it my potager polytunnel,” says Nicky, a founder member of IOFGA (Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association, iofga.org) and one of Ireland’s very first commercial organic growers until she gave it up in 1995 to concentrate on her work as a portrait sculptor.
“It’s a wonderful place for me to just sit and relax, particularly if I’ve been concentrating hard on a piece of sculpture all day. I don’t have to worry about what the weather’s doing outside, and I’ve got a light fitted, so that I can even come and work here in the evenings. Some people think it’s huge (it’s 45ft long, 22ft wide and about 15-18ft at its tallest point) but I remind them of what I like to call ‘the law of handbags’– that there’s no such thing as a handbag, a freezer or a polytunnel being too big. You’ll always fill them up.”
Even now, in mid-November, Nicky’s polytunnel is packed with plants, including eight types of lettuce, oriental salad leaves, claytonia, chard, watercress, landcress, beet, perilla, corn salad, herbs and still-productive courgette plants (a compact, productive, yellow-fruiting variety called Atena) – all of which grow in neat and colourful lines in the timber-edged raised beds alongside lemon and flame-
coloured marigolds and scented nicotiana. “The flowers are lovely to look at, of course, but they also attract plenty of pollinators into the tunnel,” explains Nicky.
As if all that wasn’t impressive enough, I even spy quite a few ripe strawberries (an everbearing variety called Everest) which are ready for picking, while this Rolls-Royce of a polytunnel in north Co Dublin is also a permanent home to a fig tree (productive), two peach trees (bought in Lidl for a fiver apiece and very productive), several lemon trees (also productive) and 18 different types of grapes, the last of which (Muscat d’Alexandre), Nicky’s only recently finished harvesting. “Same for the tomatoes – I grow about 25 different kinds and was picking them up until the end of October. My current favourites are the cherry tomato Rosada, the beefsteak Black Krim and the most reliable variety of them all, Pantano Romanesco.”
Inquiring, determined and experimental by nature, Nicky also tries out many unusual crops in the tunnel. One of these is the saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, valued not just for its lilac-blue flowers but also for its fiery-red stigmas, which Nicky’s carefully handpicking and drying beneath thin layers of tissue in her kitchen. Another tasty curiosity is Orychophragmus violaceus, otherwise known as the February orchid, a plant with dainty purple flowers in spring and leaves that add a delicate but distinctive flavour to a salad. The seed was given to Nicky by her old friend, Joy Larkcom, as was that of the curious-looking, wrap-hearted Chinese cabbage which grows nearby. There are also tender young pea-shoots (Kelvedon Wonder) ready for picking, which Nicky will use in a stir-fry or a salad. “I’ll nip them off several times over the next few months before letting them grow on properly in springtime,” she explains.
Most of these plants were sown back in August or early September, either direct or into modules, gradually taking over any ground left empty by earlier crops. “There’s always something either being planted or lifted in the polytunnel, which is why I practise very strict crop rotation and keep a careful record of everything grown, to prevent a build-up of disease,” explains Nicky.
“I see it as good housekeeping, in the same way that I make a point of daily removing any damaged or diseased leaves and of keeping the tunnel well-ventilated, although that’s much less of a problem with large polytunnels like this one. If Im using fleece, I suspend it on wire hoops above the plants and lift it off every morning. Likewise, I’m very careful to wet just the roots and not the foliage of plants when I water the tunnel, which is something I always try to do first thing in the morning. I also experiment endlessly with new varieties, to find the ones that are most disease-resistant or productive. “
Nicky gardens entirely organically, using mulches and green manures while avoiding the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides both in the tunnel and in the garden outdoors. “I got interested in organic growing many years ago, when my daughter, who was just a baby, got terribly sick with a thing called pyloric stenosis. I was lucky enough to talk to an enlightened doctor, who explained to me the connection between allergies and the fact that most of us live in a world that’s chemically overloaded, which puts our bodies under so much stress. So I started growing my own vegetables, because I wanted to be sure they were chemical-free.
At first it was in a tiny greenhouse, just 6ft by 8ft, far too small. But it just took off from there and I discovered that polytunnels are incredibly useful and productive spaces all year round, particularly if they’re used well. When I’m not gardening in mine, I’m using it to just chill out, listen to the birds and get my daily dose of natural daylight, even in the middle of winter. If you have the space, I couldn’t recommend them enough.”
** Nicky Kyle’s portrait sculpture can be viewed on her website, nicholakylesculpture.com while her portrait of the late Charles Haughey will be for sale at the upcoming Adams sale (adams.ie) on December 7th.
** The OPW’s Victorian walled kitchen garden is in the grounds of the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, beside the Phoenix Park Café and Ashtown Castle. The gardens are open daily from 10am to 4pm
** Next week Urban Farmer in Property will cover planting and pruning soft fruit
** Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer
WHAT TO: sow, plant and do now
Sow: (Outdoors) broad beans (under cover, with heat), some CCA leaves
Plant: (Outdoors) Garlic, autumn onion and shallot sets, rhubarb sets.
Do: Continue harvesting storing; clear, weed and manure beds; order fruit trees.