Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts



My under-cover empire is expanding. At the end of the garden I have the rickety greenhouse bought from a neighbour for £100. On my deck just outside the back door I have my beautiful and not even vaguely rickety Hartley Botanic mini greenhouse. And soon, within the next few weeks (energy and enthusiasm willing) I will have my very own allotment polytunnel. For Christmas I received the polytunnel that has been down the side of my mum and step-dad’s house, and which they now need to move. A second-hand present but a hugely generous and welcome one, and I went and stood in it on Christmas day and imagined the summer to come. I am relieved, incidentally, that they didn’t physically give it to us in time for Christmas, as positioned at the top of our windy allotment hill it would almost certainly have blown away or got ripped to pieces in all of the holiday storms. It stayed in its cosy place between house and garden wall and is none the worse off.

So currently we have a vaguely bare patch of allotment which at some point will be covered by a polytunnel. The steps it will take to turn bare patch to tunnel are numerous and exhausting to even contemplate: Clearing the ground of all perennial weeds; moving the roses at one end; moving the Jerusalem artichokes so they don’t come up year after year in the middle of the polytunnel; dismantling the tunnel at the house; getting the tunnel into our van; putting the tunnel up at the allotment; recovering the tunnel; building paths and raised beds in the tunnel. I can’t quite imagine it is all going to happen so I am taking a mental leap over and beyond all of this and sowing my chilli seeds in anticipation of the day when I have somewhere hot and sunny to plant them. I’m sure it will happen, somehow.

I had just about given up on chillis. The greenhouse at the end of the garden is under a tree, and while it is bright and sunny in spring, as soon as the leaves come in it is fairly well shaded. On the plus side I never have to faff about with shade paint. On the minus side I never get any chillis, no great crop of tomatoes, and certainly no aubergines. But this year is going to be different, and I have decided to plant my chillis early to get them off to a start befitting plants that will spend all summer in the most perfect imaginable conditions.

Chillis are slow growers, and if you have the equipment it is a great idea to start them really early, like now. They are the seeds to itch your early sowing scratch with. They will take weeks and weeks to germinate at room temperature, so invest in a heated propagator or put them in the airing cupboard. I have brought my heated propagator up into my office, which is about as snug and cosy a bit of gardening as I can imagine on a bleak, rainy, January day, and I have sown chillis ‘Poblano’, ‘Bulgarian Carrot’ and ‘Apricot’ alongside sweet pepper ‘Marconi Rossa’, two seeds to a big module. Should both germinate in each I will just pull out the smaller, and will save myself a little trouble in potting on later. This is lazy, but chillies like room to grow and you can make them grow larger by potting them on frequently. I hope I get big, beautiful plants, and that I – one of these days – have a big, beautiful polytunnel in which to put them.