Extending the seasons - how to make a poly or shade tunnel

5 November 2013
All of us who grow food, keep chickens or bees, milk a house cow or a goat, or keep pigs have to know a thing or two about the seasons. Here in the sub-tropics, although we recognise four seasons exist, we usually have two real seasons - hot and cold. I can't tell you how much I usually complain about the hot season. I am a cool woman, what can I say. But I've decided to enjoy every day from now on. All the sweaty days, all the clinking icy drinks, all the bugs, as well as the silent stillness of the early morning and that feeling of calm just before a tropical storm hits, I'm embracing it all. I realised that no amount of complaining will change any of what I'm complaining about and it just highlights it for myself and anyone within ear shot. Enough. I'm over it. Hot weather is the reason I notice cold weather. If it were cold all the time, I'd complain even more about that. No, from now on, I'm embracing the seasons - all two of them. Okay, I got that off my chest. :- )

If you're a gardener, you might already know that you can extend your seasons by creating microclimates. It's the backyard equivalent of dressing in a cool summer dress or pulling on a jumper and boots.

If you're in a cool climate, you can extend your season by trying to create warmth where you're trying to grow vegetables. There are a few strategies you can try. Some of them might not work but if you can get one to work, you might get an extra crop of tomatoes that might never have been. 
Some of these methods include:
  • Often growing up against a brick or stone wall will help a lot. The wall will absorb the warmth during the day and provide some protection against the cold overnight as the warmth is being released. 
  • Mulching the ground with a couple of inches of straw, hay or sugar cane will help regulate the temperature of the ground, and keep the roots warm and the soil temperature constant. 
  • If you're in a frosty area, think about growing a small hedge around the outside of your garden to stop frost rolling in. 
  • Several stakes and some hessian or heavy black plastic will provide wind protection for plants. 
  • Poly tunnels are easy to make and they'll extend your seasons like nothing else. I've drawn a diagram below that will suit shade cloth or plastic tunnels. If you're trying to keep your vegetables going, these tunnels are very portable, they can be put away at the end of the season and can be made using recycled materials. If you're using the plastic tunnel in cold weather, get extra pieces of plastic so you can cover the ends as well. 

In a warm climate, it's not heat you're wanting, it's shade and the cool air it provides.
  • If you're growing taller plants such as tomatoes, beans or cucumbers on a trellis, they love full sun, but if you look at where the shade falls on the other side of the trellis, that is where you can plant things like lettuce, spinach, Asian greens, in the shade provided by the trellis.
  • Look for afternoon shade. Many plants love it. You might find a tree or fence provides afternoon shade.
  • Make sure you mulch well - you'll need a thick layer to keep the moisture in and the soil temperature constant. It's a good idea in the hotter climates to lay wet newspaper down on the soil before adding your mulch.
  • Water your plants thoroughly and deeply, depending on how hot it is, two or three times a week.
  • If you've got good mulch down, water in the morning because the moisture will be protected and retained by the mulch. If you don't have mulch down, water in the late afternoon or evening. This will give the water a good chance to soak down to the roots and hydrate the plants overnight.
  • Plants will slowly acclimatise to heat but if your plants suffer from an unexpected very hot day, give them a good drink in the late afternoon and follow it up with a watering of seaweed tea. That will help your vegetables get over the heat shock.
  • If you're in an area that gets torrential downpours, wind and hail, a tunnel will help protect the foliage and the vegetables in your garden.
  • Tunnels to protect your plants can play an important part in your garden and extend your growing season. In a warm climate, you'll use shade cloth instead of plastic and even though it might not seem like much, the plants grow well when they're not sitting in the full sun all day.


I've looked through my photos to find the shade tunnels Hanno built here but I lost a few years of my photos and I think they may have been in that batch. I know I have a couple of photos of our tunnels on the blog somewhere, but I don't know exactly where they are. Anyhow, I've drawn a diagram (no laughing) to show what I mean. They're simple, easy and cheap to make. You'll need:
  • star peg or steel pickets - 6 for each tunnel, or 8 if they're longer.
  • three pieces of bendable poly pipe that will fit snuggly over the pegs/pickets.
  • a long piece of shade cloth or heavy duty clear plastic that covers the area you want covered.
  • enough zip ties to attach the covering to the pipe.
To make the tunnel:
  1. Attach both ends of the covering to the poly pipe using plastic zip ties. If you're using a middle bracing section, attach that with zip ties too.
  2. Lay the shade cloth out on the ground and mark where your peg will need to go in.
  3. Hammer the star pegs into the ground.
  4. Fit the ends of the plastic pipes over the pegs/pickets.
  5. Straighten it all up and if you have a flap at one end, secure it down with a couple of stones or bricks.
Make sure you make it tall enough to move around in. Getting taller star pegs should give you the right height.  Don't forget to plant what you harvest frequently near the opening, and the trellised plants along the walls.

Most of the information online if for buying tunnel kits, this is a DIY poly tunnel and here is a DIY shade tunnel, both very much like the tunnels we use here.

At the end of the season, dismantle and store the tunnels until next season. I think you'll find they make a difference to the number of months you are able to produce food.


  1. I know you are headed into your hot days - while here in Austria we are headed into our cold days! We started a fire today because it has been gray for a few days (the sun usually heats the flat wonderfully). I am interested in seaweed tea! In the summer I live on a small island in Canada - they sell rockweed for $35 a ton - I think it is usually used for fertilizer - truck after truck leaves the island loaded down with rockweed. I am thinking I could buy some to make seaweed tea with! We also have dulse, but that is $10 a pound, dried. It is eaten like potato chips or ground down into flakes for cooking, so not something you would probably want to use on your plants! Always fun to read your posts! Cheers! Evelyn

  2. I love the idea of building a poly tunnel! Sadly we're running out of room in our backyard though. Definitely going to look more into it though!

  3. Some wonderful ideas there, Rhonda. We're currently experiencing some late frosts. I cover all of the sensitive seedlings (basil,tomatoes etc..) with old plastic pots and buckets overnight. On the other hand, we've been having temperatures in the high 20's some days, which is unusual in Spring. Your mention of growing a hedge around the veggies to protect against frost made me wonder if that's why the French traditionally grew box around the potager - I had always thought it was just to make the garden more beautiful.

    Have a wonderful day,Madeleine.X

  4. Having lived in Florida for over 20 years with about 8 months of hot and only 2 seasons I know what you are talking about. I find it very hard not complain about the heat even with the 4 seasons we have in South Carolina. But...I hate to be cold too. We have had great weather this year with weeks at a time of perfect not too hot or cold temps. I hope Hanno is doing better today.

  5. Loved your positivity (yes I made a new word) in the first paragraph and I'm going to take it on board and make the pledge too.
    Great suggestions in the cold climate region section and they are all very valid and useful. Every year Craig and I have a very serious debate about brick wall space, he and his chilies and I and my citrus and cape gooseberries.

  6. Hi Rhonda, You are so right about the shade cloth for our Queensland summer.I had trouble convincing my husband to use shade cloth to begin with as the books all say that you need so many hours of direct sunlight each day, but I don't think most of them are written with our climate in mind. I used it last summer for the first time, coupled with wicking beds (garden beds, in this case raised ones with a catchment area under them to hold water) and the plants not only survived, but flourished. The wicking beds themselves worked well to keep the water up to the plants for days at a time, but coupled with the shade cloth it really reduced the amount of watering and kept the harsh sun off. Another positive is that it protects my gardens from the branches that drop from the overhanging gum trees. Our construction isn't as simply elegant as yours, it's still made from plastic piping, but the rigid type, and is rectangular in shape and sits on the garden bed top as we can't risk damaging the waterproof lining in the beds with stakes. It took a couple of versions before we got it right and it is limiting as the whole structure doesn't just fold away, but I've used that to advantage by stringing wire across the uprights to allow for beans, peas etc to climb. The garden beds have all been made to the same size, so this structure can just rotate around depending on which bed needs it most, but your post reminds me how much I'd like to make an extra one for the garden this summer.

  7. As usual, reading your blog brought happiness to my day. I've never had polytunnels in my garden before, but we are building a new home and planning our new garden space, and they will certainly be given a place there!

    It was good to read about another hot-weather-grump for two reasons: 1) to know I'm not alone (our summers here in northeastern Oregon State are very hot and dry, and I don't like it--I can get hot an sweaty in the dead of winter's cold in about 5 minutes of activity); and 2) to remind me that I, too, am benefiting no one when I whine about it!

    And may I say, I think your diagram is excellent! Perspective and everything--well done!


  8. Like Madeleine we are still having frosts - crazy!
    I am also covering my plants with pots but now my tomatoes are getting too big so am going to look for bags or something, however hopefully we might have the last frost tonight. (Have been saying that for weeks!!)
    Hope Hanno is improving and have a good day.

  9. Tony will enjoy this post Rhonda, thank you, he's sure to pick up ideas from it. I'm going to try hard not to complain next winter when I won't do the cold well, you're absolutely right it just highlights what we are complaining about.

  10. Hi Rhonda! I had to laugh reading about the heat and you complaining, you and I could have been sisters in that regard and I too have made a decision to get over it. My husband and i moved out to western sydney so we could afford to buy a house with a decent backyard at a reasonable price, and i never realised how hot it gets away from the coast. But since i decided to embrace it, i love so many things about it. When that cool change comes most nights, i go around opening windows and doors and being thankful for the breeze, and we also enjoy lots of homemade iceblocks and cool drinks. I love letting my girls run around under the sprinkler and when we first moved here and were saving for a new airconditioner, we camped out in the backyard in a tent on really hot nights :)
    Here's to enjoying summer!
    Lauren H

  11. Hi, Can you believe we have had frosts down here in Victoria, this is unusual and upsetting. That poly tunnel would have been a great idea over the past couple of weeks. Thankyou for the plan and directions. Best wishes Wendy

  12. Because I have Fibromyalgia I much prefer the heat! Cold - or even cool and damp - weather causes muscle spasm and cramping that can make it hard to accomplish much of anything! Luckily here in NE Colorado we have all 4 seasons - although Spring and Autumn are only about 5 days each :-)

    I have used grow tunnels and think they are wonderful - one year I set out tomatoes in early April and had fresh tomatoes in June - people had to see it to believe it!

    Hope Hanno is doing well - have had gout and it's miserable to live with!

  13. Your veggies look so tasty! I love the deep red leaves against the green. I put up a little shade cloth and grow wet season plants. Covering the fallow areas with cardboard to keep down the weeds. I too hate the humidity, but always keep in mind how pleasant our dry season is and that keeps me going. I do love having a pool as well - in the summer I have quite a few dips during the day.

  14. Well, Rhonda.. You are one smart lady.. Really..
    I am thinking that while you are going through the hot weather we will be having snow and ice.. smile..
    I would love to drop by and have tea with you one day, too..

  15. Hi Rhonda! I am opposite of you. Hubby and I usually complain about the cold temperatures and snow! Hubby has framed a greenhouse for me, but now it waits til spring. We have been discussing ways to start our garden season sooner, and how to extend it later. Our first frost in the fall is August/September. We are hoping by having a greenhouse off of the garage (which is heated) will help with that plan. I very much like the idea of grow tunnels. Definitely sharing this with hubby. Thank you for sharing.

  16. Rhonda, I had a laugh at your first paragraph when I check your blog on my phone before work this morning. Our summers are usually a bit milder than yours nearer the coast and we don't get the humidity thankfully. I think that I could live in a place that had temps that didn't get any hotter than 26 degrees or colder than 10 degrees.:-) Is there such a place?

    Thanks for the info about the poly-tunnels. I will check that out later on.

  17. I have recently discovered your blog and I think it is fabulous. I just love it :)

  18. What a good idea. Weather wise, I know we have nothing like the heat you do but when we do get hot days, they are often very hot (to us) and I tend to grumble. I think it is to do with the fact that if you are hot and the surrounding air is hot, it is difficult to cool down. On the other hand, if you and the climate are cold, you can get warm!

  19. We will be adding a poly tunnel to the vegetable garden this year. We've been reading up on it over the winter and think it will really help us get red peppers and more vine-ripened tomatoes and we live so very northern that it can be hard to get anything but green peppers and we usually bring in boxes and boxes of green tomatoes to ripen indoors on account of the colder weather coming on. I cannot wait to try it and see. It seems like such a simple solution.



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