Holistic Water for Horticulture

Soft fruit polytunnel-based horticulture is an important economic activity in Kent but water resources are increasingly stressed and risks to the environment can occur where levels of resilience to flooding and soil erosion are low.

Holistic Water for Horticulture applies a ‘whole system’ approach, working with growers, Courtauld 2030 signatories and stakeholders in the Medway to develop measures for sustainable water management around polytunnel systems.

Holistic Water for Horticulture aims to:

Explore alternative sources of water for irrigation – to reduce abstraction pressure and dependency on mains water supply.

Mitigate local flood risk through nature-based excess water runoff management.

Improve business resilience by reducing operational costs.

Build on existing best-practise in commercial polytunnel horticulture in the Medway.

Create a more resilient supply chain for growers, retailers and customers.

What is polytunnel horticulture?

Polytunnels allow growers to grow high value soft fruit crops over an extended growing season that usually extends from March to October in the South East of the UK.

Polythene polytunnel covers protect soft fruit crops such as strawberries, raspberries and blackberries from adverse weather conditions. Fruit plants are grown in pots or bags of coir and get all of their nutrients and water from precision trickle irrigation systems.

Polytunnels on a farm

Partnership approach

Holistic Water for Horticulture is one of several projects in vital sourcing catchment areas across the UK supported by signatories of the Courtauld Commitment 2030 which supports collaborative action across the UK food chain to deliver measures to reduce water stress, food waste and greenhouse gas emissions, helping the UK food and drink sector meet key environmental goals.

The solution

Working with growers at demonstration sites, HWH is designing, testing and demonstrating combinations of nature-based water capture and retention features to inform and roll out to the rest of the sector. A tool box of measures enables the right combination of interventions to be selected that address the needs of individual polytunnel sites. Measures can include rain water harvesting and storage, and nature-based solutions to manage runoff and improve soil quality, such as floral plots, wetlands and tree planting. These measures provide multiple benefits that support biodiversity, improve water quality and sequester carbon.

Lessons learnt from this project will also inform supplementary planning guidance to ensure responsible water management during construction and operation of new polytunnels.

Find out more

Partnership working as part of Holistic Water for Horticulture © South East Rivers Trust

Mapping the problems

Climate change is real and already affecting the South East’s agriculture and horticulture sectors.

The drought of 2022 is a wakeup call to the patterns of 30% less summer rainfall and up to 20% more winter rainfall predicted for Kent within the next 20 years.

Increasing Risk Of Lower Rainfall
Increasing Risk Of Lower Rainfall, mapped out by our HWH project

Drought and extreme weather events will hit hard and more frequently and there is a need to think ahead in horticulture concerning water management by harvesting and storing water for irrigation during from winter rainfall and managing runoff through nature based solutions.

HWH is a Courtauld 2030 project, based upon the principles of the Courtauld 2030 Water Roadmap which aims to improve quality and availability of water in key sourcing areas.

Click on the link to our StoryMap to read about how HWH has brought together information on the Medway horticulture sector and maps of climate change scenarios for Kent’s surface waters to raise awareness and the need to plan ahead, with our support.

In spring 2023, we received a Business Innovation Voucher from Growing Kent and Medway. This will allow us to work with top scientists at the National Institute of Agriculture Botany, in Cambridge to develop mapping of how land is used by growers across the Medway. We will be able to use aerial mapping and artificial intelligence to give growers more targeted support on water issues.

Floral strips and herbal leys are just one of the Nature based Solutions that can help mitigate against climate change impacts on horticulture

Thanks to our supporters

The Rivers Trust
Coca-Cola Europacific Partners
M&S Food logo