31 March 2012

Polytunnels & Greenhouses - Is cheap better than nothing at all?

This tunnel was donated to a group - it had been previously abandoned
That was the question I posed to the Community Garden Network Group this week.

I'm often asked by the groups I work with for advice on buying a polytunnel or greenhouse and have always replied "the best that you can afford - you want it to last" but as funding for the gardens is getting harder to find, and communities are having to fundraise for everything from tools and seeds, equipment and education, a tunnel can be a huge initial expense.
Image via www.funkyjunkinteriors.blogspot.com

My question has received some great responses which I'd like to share with you in case you're not on Facebook where the Group currently reside and you're considering buying a polytunnel.

Andrew Jordan an alternative to buying a polytunnel is to build one with plastic water pipe and scaffolding bars.. another way is to build a geodesic dome with coppiced hazel/ash and water pipe for hubs.. i can describe the technique if ur interested

Larry Masterson Dee experience over the years with Community Gardens in the North West informs me that the real value of a polytunnel nevertheless isn’t directly to do with plants! Literature enlightens this topic more . . . any community-managed project relies heavily (and sometimes wholly) on volunteer labour, and how reliable this labour is determines how well the garden project 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 projects 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 . . . 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! As Hans in the Organic Centre would say “Do not buy a flimsy, itsi wizzy polytunnel, buy as big and good quality as you can get with the best ventilation possible”

Lily de Sylva Hi Dee, I'd agree with Andrew Jordan about building your own, a wooden frame with plastic works well too. However, for the real macoy I do find Polydome very good, and it is woth checking out this guy too (in Clonmel www.gardenpolytunnels.ie)

Matthew Wilson Andrew Jordan That deserves its own post.
I might nick it and post it in Natural Building Ireland.

Fearghus Thesoundfarmer O'Murchu lots of ways to build a tunnel frame.i have made a few with salvaged/upcycled material.i suggest not skimping on the actual plastic,buy the best cover you can afford then look for heavy duty plastic pipe or andrews idea of coppiced poles

Gillespie Polytunnels 
Trying not to have a biased opinion as we actually make polytunnels, but it's worthwhile for a community group to look at getting a tunnel to suit their needs, we made one last year for a community group in Derry where there are a large number using it, we made it considerably higher than normal and a few of the guys made shelving and used the crop bars to hang shelves, they were able to put potting benches in the centre too, so everyone had plenty of space for their seed trays eyc. there is pictures on John mc menamins Facebook page of the actual tunnel itself( he is on our friend list)
We have a few tunnels going up for community groups at the moment, some of which are customised to their requirements.
One thing we always hear from customers coming back is that they should have went for a larger tunnel, be weary of the very cheap polytunnels- first storm and a lot of them are gone, nothing cheap about them when you have to replace them!
Better to wait until your budget can afford for a good quality decent sized tunnel even if it means waiting another season !!

Additionally the post was shared and the replies included:

Paul Martin Polydome in birr might do a deal if its for community garden

Patrick Kelly There is a Dublin in ballycallan Laois,not far from strabaly,they are made from red tubing,used in the building trade for electricity

Hans Wieland Hi Dee, cheaper is not always better, I can only repeat, what I recommend at my polytunnel courses: 1. Do not buy a flimsy, itsi wizzy polytunnel. 2. Buy as big and good quality as you can get (typically 12-15 m long), 3. get the best ventilation possible going, by having the widest doors ever possible, 4. Do not buy a flimsy, itsi wizzy polytunnel.5. TALK TO HANS at hans@theorganiccentre.ie

Hans Wieland we have worked with community gardens etc for over 8 years and saving money on a polytunnel is not a good option, my advice get a few quotes from suppliers (the market is very competitive) and ask for the best deal

Patrick Kelly There is a lot of used windows out there,I know guys who repar double glaze windows and are left with the old window. You could make an glass house of sorts

Josephine Mcgee We managed to get a 18 f 28 f 8foot high second hand but be prepared to put the work in to go and pick it up and take it apart yourself then put it together yourself on site and with everyone helping many hands makes it easier and cheaper. You could have raised beds until you have the money together.

Done Deal advertise polytunnels too. One resembling this was used by a group Garath Austin worked with in Northern Ireland. He commented that "it worked well year 1, very successful" though has recently been dismantled. He also recommended Morris Polytunnels   in Omagh where you could pick one up for a similar price but for quality highly recommends Gillespie Polytunnels

I always recommend Highbank as they're local, extremely well made, helpful and friendly. Building your own is an option and if you have the manpower and little funds go for it. The tunnel in the top picture was a donation from a farmer who had the frame sitting unused and unloved in a field - the group just needed to buy the polythene.

Greenhouse made entirely from recycled windows & plastic
The example below was made by a gardener on the Irishgardeners.com forum site and a neighbour of mine has successfully built a similar one - here the metal frame was previously an old trampoline base cut in half. Being made from galvanised steel, it's the frame that usually costs the bulk of the money spent on a new polytunnel - that expense has immediately been spared, and why dump an old trampoline when you can upcycle it!

Picture from irishgardeners.com
Our local school is building a small greenhouse built from plastic drink bottles, but that perhaps is more suitable for schools and smaller gardens than those where 10 to 20 people might be congregating.

If you'd like to see some ideas how others have made their own greenhouses, I have a Pinterest board you can find here with examples.

So there you have it - lots of choices to help you with your decision making. I hope that's given you a few ideas to be getting on with.

The more I've looked at the lovely recycled images in Pinterest, the more I'm inclined to think that if you can build a greenhouse or polytunnel for next to nothing then why not do so and in the meantime start saving all your cash so that you can invest in something better for a longer term solution.

I'd love to hear how you get on or if you have any other ideas for saving money on a polytunnel or greenhouse in your garden.


  1. Hi Dee, I've been waiting possibly 5 years now for the old windows of the house to be recycled into a greenhouse! So last year we invested in a polytunnel - got it from the guy in Clonmel that Lily mentions above and erected it ourselves.

    1. I agree Margaret, that is the danger of "one day I'll make" as maybe that day will just never come! We have lots of those jobs lined up too .... :)

  2. We bit the bullet four years ago and got a 'good one' from PolyTunnelsIreland.ie
    Best money ever spent. And yes....you should always get a bigger one than you think you need or want!

    1. Completely agree Mona. I haven't looked back since mine was installed. It's transformed the way and amount of food we can grow in our garden.

  3. I saved windows for years. Finally gave them to the Scrap Man and we bought a cheap import greenhouse. My suggestion is that if you are handy with tools, innovative and willing, a cheap greenhouse is a good start. A terrible hailstorm destroyed most of the polycarb panels last year after they'd become brittle. Replacement panels were reasonable and it is as good as new. Better even, because we've added a fogger and vent fan.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It's such a tough decision when you're strapped for cash. I love the innovate use of recycled materials people have come up with for greenhouses.

  4. We made our greenhouse last year out of my father inlaws old hardwood windows. It worked out very well for us. We picked the last of our tomatoes in November last year. Our local school made one out of plastic bottles and it is now ready for planting. An ideal project for schools!

    1. That sounds lovely Mary - and November,luck you! Our school have just started collecting bottles to do the same. Am looking forward to seeing it - our children are very excited by the project.

  5. It is a good idea to have a plan to build this kind of place because it is a nice place that your plants are surely safe. They are biodiversity place where the plants and flowers can breathe freely.


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