Polytunnel Perennials

I blame Martin Crawford! I’ve got over excited again planning new plants for next year already. I know it’s too early, but I recieved an e-mail from the Agroforestry Research Trust saying that they are open for plant orders. I need to try and remember whether I’ve got some plants reserved. I think I wanted Toona sinensis (a tree that grows onion flavoured leaves) but they had run out last year. I know that I fancied some Stachys palustris – marsh woundwort. Since there was an article in agroforestry news about it, I expect I won’t be alone.
What I’m really getting excited about at the moment is the idea of growing more perennial plants in the polytunnel. I’ve got on quite well with the fruiting vines. I have a kiwi (Jenny SF) and a bramble (unknown) which came with the kiwi. I was growing the kiwi in Solihull and it was one of the few plants I brought with us. When planted in the tunnel the bramble grew too. I tried digging it out several times, but it kept growing back, so the third year I left it, trained it along some overhead wires and was astounded by the fruit it produced. They are lush and sweet-tart, just like blackberries should be, but are also of a good size. The vine is not thornless unfortunately, which makes for an anti-social plant in a confined space. The roots I dug out, have fruited outside in a good summer. They may do better with a bit more shelter as well, since the local brambles have so far been pretty similar in timing for me (but much smaller). I also have a grapevine – boskoops glory, which I grew from a cutting of the vine I had on the veranda in Solihull. I don’t think it would crop to any extent outside here, unlike in Solihull, but is doing pretty well in the tunnel. I have a white grape vine also, which has yet to fruit for me. It seems to be growing well this year, so maybe next year I might get some fruit. I have also planted a couple of pineapple guava: Feijoa Sellowiana. As well as the reputed delicious fruit, which need a hot summer to ripen hence the polytunnel positioning, they also have edible flowers. I’ve not been able to try them yet, but they seem to be establishing OK near the lower doors in the tunnel.

inside polytunnel Jul08
looking downhill (east) July 2008
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looking downhill (east) July 2017

In the polytunnel when we moved in was a globe artichoke, which has produced some lovely flowers/buds. It hasn’t done so well this year. I did divide it this spring, so it may be that it is suffering from the damage and will take a while to recover, although being eaten by several hungry caterpillars probably isn’t helping! The offsets I planted outside in the fruit garden and at least two of them seem to be growing away quite well so far – we’ll see whether they survive overwinter. Also in the tunnel was an olive tree in a tub. I neglected it and thought it had died of drought, but when moved outside, it sprouted again from the base. I thought it was a privet seedling at first, and only realised the olive was alive when I tried to dig it out of the tub. Anyway, although planted in the tunnel soil this spring, I think that the tree is finally dead now. There are also a couple of marjoram plants as well, which I cut for leaves every now and then and seem to tolerate my neglect remarkably well. An aloe vera which had been on the window sill in the house, gradually getting taller and taller, is now also in the tunnel – not sure whether it will survive the winter however.
This year I planted my new apricot, which is doing well so far, and some kind of citrus, which was given to me as a rather spindly plant needing a good home. It has been grown from seed, and we are not sure what kind of citrus it is – will have to wait til it flowers!

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New growth on unknown citrus in spring
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Beautiful apricot leaves still growing at end of July!

I quite enjoy this kind of structure in the polytunnel, and outside come to that. I am very keen on plants that provide me with food year after year with only a little attention. Annual plants are far too liable to succumb to juvenile death due to overcrowding, slugs or lack of germination. So having been started off by Martin Crawford, I have been going through my various lists, books and getting distracted on the internet to try and come up with more perennials that will benefit from the shelter of the tunnel, and yet survive the winter and create a food forest. So far I’ve deselected again tree tomato / tamarillo: solanum betacea, pepino: solanum muricatum, Taro: colocasia esculenta var. esculenta and Eddoe: c. Esculenta var. antiquorum as being just too tender, although they all sound fascinating. I don’t (at the moment anyway) want something that will need moving indoors during the winter, and although we don’t generally get hard frosts we do get frosts that would penetrate the polytunnel’s protection.
So on my list of perennials to grow in the polytunnel are (in no particular order):

Grape (got)
Bramble (got)
Kiwi (got – but might like a kiwi berry – one of the small hairless ones)
Marjoram (got)
Apios Americana (got – maybe if it survives the slugs this year)
Chinese yam: Dioscorea batatas (got – ditto re. slugs!)
Asparagus (got)
Globe artichoke (got – but might fancy a different variety)
Chilli (got – survived one year on windowsill)
Passionfruit (need to source)
Ground plum: astragalus crassicarpus (need to source)
Aloe vera (got)
Runner beans (got – growing some heritage seeds library ones. I guess a few different ones would be required to see which over winter the best)
Yacon (got)
Fuchsia (got – fuchsia berry from my mum currently in a pot in the tunnel looking for a home)
Apricot (got)
Chufa (got)
Five flavour berry: Schisandra chinensis (got – but only one of the three plants seems to have survived, and you need a male + female for berries)
Korean mint (got – seedlings from a neighbour)
Sage (need to source)
Rosemary (need to source)
Licorice (need to source)
Blue sausage fruit: Decaisnea fargesii (need to source)
Honey berry: Lonicera caerulea (need to source)

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Apricot training

This is not a timely post. I just thought I’d catch up with one of the new exciting plants I’ve got new this year. I’d fancied an Apricot for a long time. Although they probably would grow outside here if you had enough shelter, I’m still a long way away from that. However, I am growing more and more perennial plants in the polytunnel, so I thought I’d like to try it in there.
The plant was a present – a one year grafted whip of Early Moorpark Apricot on Torinel rootstock and was a good height, perhaps 4 feet tall. The first hard thing I had to do on planting it back in February was to cut it right down to about 1 foot tall! This is the exception to the general rule about pruning stone fruit only in summer to avoid silverleaf infection. According to the RHS “Apricots bear fruit on shoots made the previous summer and on short spurs from the older wood” and unless growing as a bush (which I thought would be impractical in the polytunnel) should be grown as fans. I rather fancied an espalier, but again that wouldn’t work for an Apricot. I found the RHS website very helpful in giving directions for training from scratch. So I planted, cut back and watered, and waited, hoping I hadn’t killed my lovely tree!

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Newly planted Apricot
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cut right back!

Sure enough, as promised, several new branches grew strongly from the trunk, which was a bit of a relief – I hadn’t killed it. The next step for me, was to put up some training wires. A little less straightforwards for a free standing fan, since I had no wall to come off. The arch of the polytunnel also meant that I couldn’t put in two vertical posts and string the wire between. I ended up using some random bits of wood we had lying around to create the framework. I had one nice vertical fence post by the centre path in the polytunnel, and one sloping bit as far to the side as I could manage. Since neither was in deep enough to take much strain, I have braced them with horizontal bits of wood before putting across the neccessary horizontal straining wires.
Then came another hard part. Again I had to cut back my lovely tree. This time the object is to select two branches to train in a 90 degree ‘V’ shape. I actually left two on the out board side since I couldn’t decide between them. Since then however, one has lost it’s leading point, so I think the decision has been made for me and I now need to prune that one out.

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Framework and nicely branched Apricot
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Newly trained tree

So far I am very happy with the health of my tree. It has grown well and has had no signs of any problems at all. Since it is undercover I need to keep an eye out for pests. Spidermite may become a problem. I have had this in the past on other plants in the tunnel and it really does stunt the growth. Also the soil I have is not very deep, generally less that two feet and usually less than that. I can’t do much about that. Since the polytunnel is slightly terraced (it slopes from end to end) I have put the Apricot in the downhill bed where the soil is slightly deeper, and I have been careful to water well but seldom, to encourage deep root formation if possible. Next year in the early spring, I will need to bite the bullet again and cut the leaders back again to encourage further branching to create more of the fan structure. I wonder whether I will get any blossom? Very exciting!