Veg without limits -- container growing

Lush, fast-growing mixed Oriental salads in a large potMy 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds

Salads in a large pot will start to crop in 6-8 weeks if sown now - and my stepladder salad garden and recycled skip-bag raised beds will fit onto a path
 

Veg Without Limits - Container Growing

First - sincere apologies to anyone who was listening to my radio feature yesterday on growing in containers - it was cut a bit short unexpectedly due to the pressure of so many fast-evolving, incoming news items about Covid-19.  I was taken a bit by surprise myself, as we normally do a much longer feature, but with everyone at LMFM Radio working from home, it must be incredibly difficult to co-ordinate everything, and well done to all of them for coping so well right now. Anyway here is what we were going to talk about - some of which I did get time to mention on the show - but all of it now in much more depth than would have been possible on air, even in the time we normally have. If you're growing something for the first time, I hope you will find this blog post useful.  If it seems a bit disjointed or there are repetitions in some places further on - apologies again, because the second part of it was sort of 'stitched together' in a hurry, not just from my programme notes for yesterday, and also from several older blog posts.

 
I think that the Corona-virus pandemic will undoubtedly have an effect on the mental health of all of us - to a greater or lesser degree.  Gardening can be extremely therapeutic, and in these stressful times, growing even a small amount of our own healthy food feels such a positive thing to do. It's not just that for a while it distracts us, while we concentrate mindfully on what we're doing. If we're also gardening outside in the fresh air, using an organic compost or some healthy living soil, then additionally it means that we are breathing in the naturally beneficial soil microbe Mycobacterium vaccae - which has been scientifically proven to help lift our mood, and make us feel more positive, by stimulating our brains to release Serotonin - the 'feel-good' hormone. If gardening can help to alleviate the stress which we're all experiencing right now even slightly - then it's surely got to be a positive thing. Enjoying our first homegrown produce is also an experience like nothing else - but that thrill of achievement and satisfaction never goes away, no matter how long one does it. I hope for some that this blog post may be the start of an absorbing and satisfying habit that could last a lifetime. For other, more experienced gardeners, I hope this may give you some more ideas for getting that little bit more out of your space - and space is something us gardeners never seem to have enough of for everything that we want to grow!  


This year I'm unable to grow as much outside in the garden as usual, with my ankle surgery having been postponed due to hospitals having cancelled all elective surgery in order to make more space for patients with Covid-19.  As a result, I'm prioritising container-growing of certain veg which either I know I wouldn't be able to buy in shops, or those which are eaten fresh and uncooked, like salads. This is not just because homegrown is much fresher, but also to avoid any contamination with the virus, as far as is humanly possible.  I generally prioritise salad growing, as they are all so much better for us when eaten as fresh as possible, and picked just prior to eating - which you can only really do if you grow them yourself. 

 

A couple of weeks ago, while doing extensive research trying to discover how long it was estimated the virus might last on fresh produce, I found a very concerning study which was carried out in 2013, on the SARS and MERS Corona Viruses, which are both related to but slightly less virulent than Covid-19, and which also included the influenza virus. The study showed that they can all survive for up to 10 days on fresh, uncooked produce such as lettuce or strawberries - those fresh foods which we are encouraged to eat the most of for health reasons! The virus can only be killed either by cooking or washing thoroughly, with soap or disinfectant - neither of which you can obviously do with soft produce like lettuce or strawberries, but which you could possibly do with harder produce like apples or peppers. As a result - I feel that erring on the side of caution, and treating any fresh produce you haven't grown yourself as if it may potentially be contaminated, is the most sensible option. It's better to be safe than sorry - especially when so much of the veg in shops is either imported from abroad, or even grown and packed in our own country by people who may not yet be unwell, but who could perhaps be carrying the illness in a mild form as someone as some are, or may be developing it - when it can be spread to others before one is aware that one may even be ill. It is for that reason that I think growing your own fresh salads which you will eat raw has never been more important

 

It's most important to stress here that as far as we know and I can ascertain from extensive research - NONE of these viruses can survive in properly cooked food. But while I don't want to panic anyone - no one currently seems to be highlighting the possible surface contamination of fresh produce as a potential source of infection, as far as I've seen. Evidence also shows that it can be passed on through contaminated faecal matter - so once again it's absolutely vital to stress the importance of repeated and effective hand-washing.   If you're preparing food that will be eaten uncooked, or even after you've prepared any fresh produce that will be cooked - wash your hands thoroughly before you do touch ANYTHING else!  I know we're already probably thoroughly sick of hearing it - but it can't be repeated often enough, if it may save lives.

 

Here is a link to the study I've mentioned:  https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12560-013-9114-4 - "Survival of Respiratory Viruses on Fresh Produce"

 

So What can you grow in Containers - if you don't have a Garden? 

This is something which I'm asked about a lot and the answer, perhaps surprisingly, is - quite a lot!  Anything that you can grow in a polytunnel, or outside in the garden - you can grow in containers - but obviously just on a smaller scale.  You won't be self-sufficient in fresh vegetables and fruit by growing it all in containers - but you'd be surprised at just how much you CAN grow! If you're short of space and think you can't grow your own veg - then think again!  You'll be amazed at what will grow even in quite small containers. I know that not everyone is lucky enough to have a polytunnel or sometimes even a garden - but many people have a path outside their house - and if they have - then perhaps there's space for a tub or two?  Some people live in a flat which may have a balcony - and that can be a very useful space. So often I hear people saying "I don't have an allotment - so I can't grow anything".  Many people have tiny gardens now - especially in new housing schemes where space is expensive. Even if you don't have a garden at all - perhaps only a windowsill or  balcony - there's still no excuse not to grow at least something which will be far fresher than anything you could buy, a lot healthier and save you some money for very little effort. And I don't mean just an unhappy-looking pot of herbs on your kitchen windowsill!  If you've got a path with room to walk on - then the good news is that you've got room to grow at least some healthy salad veg in containers. 
 
So What Type of Containers are Suitable?
 
Basically you can use anything which will hold enough depth of soil and has a few holes for drainage.  Plants like lettuce, spinach and many other salads are quite happy with about 6 ins/15cm of compost or soil, because they make a very fine mass of fine roots which spread out - rather than a long single 'tap' root. But the deeper it is the better - then you won't have to water and feed plants as often. I grew my whole veg garden in containers 40 years ago, before we moved here, because I had a severely allergic child who needed chemical-free, organic food. In those days organic veg wasn't available in shops anywhere - so I had no choice!  In the second year as I got better at container gardening - I grew French and runner beans in strong carrier bags and froze 40 pounds of them! Granted I spent a lot of my time feeding and watering - but we were pretty much self sufficient in veg. As I was at home with two toddlers then and not working - I had plenty of time then compared to now.  It's amazing what spaces you can find to grow things in if you're determined - and it's great fun experimenting! Even though I have a large garden now - I still love to find new ways of growing things!
 
For instance, there's my stepladder/mushroom box garden which I invented a few years ago (much copied since!). This will fit into anyone's front porch or on a balcony. It takes up less than a half a square metre and you'd be absolutely amazed just how much produce I got from it last year!  I picked up the used mushroom boxes, which are nice and deep, in the veg department of my local supermarket and they happened to be an ideal size to fit onto each step, but still not too heavy to move - even with a soil/compost mix in them. 
 
I've tried growing almost everything in the mushroom boxes and some veg do better than others. Most things are happy in them as long as they get enough food and water - even small, stump-rooted varieties of carrots - but veg with long roots that go deep, like parsnips, large cabbages and leeks don't like them, they need deeper containers like old dustbins or skip bags to grow happily. It would cost far too much to fill these up with just compost, but you can fill up to 2/3rds of larger containers with any garden or kitchen waste which you would normally put into a compost heap. Things like twiggy prunings, annual weeds, veg peelings, newspapers and cardboard are suitable, and also grass clippings - as long as they are from a lawn which hasn't been treated with weedkillers. The bonus is - that in a few month's time, all that stuff will have mostly broken down into perfect compost, which you can either add material and then another top layer of potting compost to grow more plants in - or you can tip it all out to use somewhere else in the garden or sieve and use in another container as the top layer.
 
I grew lettuce, herbs, chilies, Maskotka bush tomatoes, radishes, celery leaves, rocket, spinach etc. in those boxes on the steps 2 years ago.  I also put a couple of large 10 litre buckets either side of the stepladder, each fitted half-way underneath, one was planted with a Sungold tomato and the other with a watermelon Sugar Baby. I got terrific crops from both by training them up either side of the stepladder, tying them up to it as they grew!  Next to it in the picture here there's also some recycled skip-bag raised beds which are equally space-saving. The two bags fitted onto a large 'grow-bag' tray, but grew far more than you would ever be able to grow in a normal sized grow bag -and of course they were organic. I grew a fantastic crop of early potatoes, broad beans, Swiss chard, spinach, mangetout peas and then sweet potatoes in those last year - multi-planting so that there were two or three things growing in the bags all at the same time, apart from the very early potatoes in one bag which were on their own - as they were obviously going to be dug up, which would have disturbed the roots of anything else with them. I got several crops of fast growing radishes by 'catch-cropping' between slower growing things before they grew too big and shaded them. The sweet potatoes were the last crop of the autumn and they really appreciated the depth of soil in the bags - producing an incredible crop in November.
 

My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds - late March. Shows what you can do in a very small space. Lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs.My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds in late March shows what you can do in a very small space, with lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs. Large attractive pots, if you can afford them, are very nice to look at - but if you're trying to save money, then 10 litre recycled mayo or coleslaw buckets from the local supermarket deli are good too, and they always have those at every deli counter. Ask nicely and you'll be amazed at what they have. Once you start on the "What can I fit some soil into?"  route - then frankly the only limit is your imagination - and of course any desire for tidiness! That's not something that bothers me greatly, I have to say, if I'm getting wonderful veg - and you can always hide the bucket by growing something trailing in it! In fact you can grow in anything that you can fit soil or compost into! If containers are large you don't have to fill the whole thing up with good compost. You can fill up the bottom with any kind of garden rubbish that you would normally put on the compost heap, to bring up the level. Things like soft prunings, old pot plants (only organic ones as others may contain nasty chemicals), last year's container soil/compost etc. perhaps mixed up with cardboard and newspapers - and if you mix in some garden soil as well this will all compost down nicely at the same time!
 
 
As long as you have about 30 cm or a 1 ft or so of depth of a nice soil/organic compost mix as the top layer, then anything will be delighted to grow in that. If containers are tall I find it useful for the sake of stability to also mix the lower layer with garden soil which is heavier. This is particularly important if the containers are in a windy spot or you're going to grow tall crops like runner beans or tall peas. The advantage of tall containers like skip bags is that not only do deeper rooting crops like chard etc have more room - but also dwarf mangetout peas or trailing courgettes can also drape attractively down the sides, making them more attractive - maybe mixed with a few trailing nasturtiums to attract bees and beneficial insects. The sky's the limit as my article on stepladder gardening here in the link below shows! 
 
 
 
Many years ago, I did a lot of experiments with growing in all sorts of containers, even using dustbins, old sinks and recycled carrier bags! The reason mainly was because we were in the process of moving to where we live now, but I still wanted to continue growing organic veg as I couldn't buy any then. Over the course of 2 years I grew an entire vegetable garden in various containers of one sort or another. Some were a bit 'Heath-Robinson' - but it all worked and I got great crops! I even filled the freezer with 40 lbs of French beans! You can grow in pretty much anything as long as there's enough room for the roots and some drainage holes. Be inventive! Of course they do need a little more watering, looking after and feeding occasionally - but picking your daily salad should remind you to water them anyway! Containers tend to be a bit warmer too - particularly if they're sited in the sun, so crops are often earlier, meaning that you'll get more out of them over the course of a spring and summer, although they can freeze in the winter if you're in a very cold area. I've even protected containers in winter by wrapping them up with old duvets - but that's going a bit far for some people and can tend to look a bit untidy! 
 
 
You don't need a polytunnel for container growing - but if you want to grow more tender veg like tomatoes, aubergines or cucumbers, you can now get small, cheap mini-tunnel/greenhouses in most garden/DIY stores and in the discount supermarkets very cheaply. They can really increase the range of things you can grow over the year and allow you to grow more tender crops like tomatoes and aubergines. Or you could even make your own - as I did years ago out of 2 x 1 inch wooden laths and recycled polythene, begged off a mattress from a furniture store!  They often have loads stashed in skips around the back if you ask nicely - the ones off the double beds are best and last for years if you're careful! Anything you can grow in a large polytunnel, you can grow in one of these, allowing for the head space needed. They do need anchoring down well though in any wind but apart from that they're very effective. The really big plus with containers for most people is that slugs and snails are usually are far less of a problem - you may get the odd adventurous one - but there are plenty of organic ways and means of dealing with them! 

If you don't have much space - there's really no point growing things like carrots and potatoes which you will still be able to buy in shops. 

So What Varieties are Good for Growing in Containers?

Lettuce - loose-leaf types like oakleaf and Lollos will give you the longest harvest by picking individual leaves rather than the whole head. Cheap lettuce mixes usually contain these and other varieties.
 
Summer spinach - very fast-growing and can crop in 4 weeks as baby leaves at this time of year.
 
Radishes everyone knows - but not many people know they can be sauteed in butter when they're delicious!
 
Perpetual spinach beet and Swiss chard are some of the most productive and nutritious veg. They need a shady spot and a deep container, but will go on cropping for months if well watered and fed.
 
Courgettes - can be sown now for growing inside or in late April for outside. They like plenty of root room, so a skip bag or dustbin is best for them.
 
Tomatoes - bush varieties Maskotka and Tumbler both have terrific flavour and are easy. There's still just time to sow those for a good crop this summer here. But you could also beg a cutting of a side shoot of any tomato variety from a friend, root it in a jar of water in a few days and grow it on in a large container even in a sunny porch.
 
Broccoli - grows well in bucket-sized containers. Green Magic is a great variety,continually producing sweet side shoots after the main head is harvested, if you keep feeding and watering it.
 
Kales - also grow well this way, are fast-growing and can be harvested as baby leaves.
 
Oriental seed mixes containing veg like mustard, Mizuna, Pak Choi etc are very fast-growing and productive.
 
All herbs are happy in containers and if you don't want to grow them from seed - you can buy herb plants in supermarkets - where they are generally cheaper than in garden centres. You can also split pots of basil and coriander to give yo several plants from one potful. Don't split parsley though - as this can make it bolt or run up to seed.
 
Potatoes and Jerusalem Artichokes also grow well in large containers.
 
Watercress - easy to root from the shoots found in salad bags - just pop into water for a few days - they'll sprout roots fast which can be planted into a container. Keep well-watered after that and it will produce harvests literally forever - as it is a perennial plant that can be constantly reproduced from cuttings.
 
There's just a few ideas for you!
 
A word here about sowing seeds generally. It's worth taking a little bit of time and trouble to be really careful with sowing seeds, so as not to waste them. They're as precious as gold dust right now - some small suppliers have already sold out, or can't keep up with the demand for sorting and posting them. Some garden centres or nurseries may still have seed or even small plants of vegetables like tomatoes or lettuces - but some have already closed here in Ireland.  Even if you're growing in containers, to avoid wasting seed it's worth starting them off in modules of a good quality, preferably peat-free, seed compost. For best results, don't use a multi-purpose one which says you can sow seeds in it but which will often give disappointing results, or may possibly even kill some sensitive seeds due to too much artificial nutrient, or even high levels of nitrogen in an organic compost. When potting on or planting in your containers - you can use a compost which says it's specifically a 'potting' compost. This will contain more nutrients which will sustain plants for longer, before they will need further feeding. 
 

Just a warning - I've seen some people online recommending the use of mushroom compost for preparing vegetable beds and planting vegetables. If you are trying to avoid toxic chemicals and grow organically DON'T use it! It will contain very nasty chemicals which are used in the compost to kill fungus flies - the most common pest of mushroom growing. Not only that - but the 'substrate' or growing medium will have been made using non-organic straw which has already been treated many times with seriously toxic pesticides including Glyphosate. While this may not show up as damage to your produce, the various combinations of most of these many chemicals have never been tested to determine their effects on our bodies when we consume them, the only tests which have been done show that just Glyphosate, combined with the adjuvant always used in commercial formulations to make them more effective, makes the Glyphosate itself at least 1,000 times more toxic! Although it may be tempting - long and sometimes bitter experience has taught me that it's false economy to use cheap, DIY chain composts containing peat and artificial fertilisers as they are not a natural medium for plants.  I won't talk about the environmental reasons for not using peat composts here, as I do that elsewhere on this blog.

When you've been growing in any compost for a few weeks, as plants get bigger they will need some extra feeding as the compost in small containers will quickly become exhausted. especially when plants start to crop. I make a very nutrient-rich worm compost which is excellent for that purpose, but if you don't have room - there are several good organic liquid feeds which are suitable. Osmo is the one I always recommend, as I have had great results with it when growing in containers - especially when I grew 48 different varieties of tomatoes for the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival which I founded in 2012 - but there are others. Osmo also make an excellent and very convenient granular organic fertiliser, but it comes in very large bags - although you could share these with another gardening friend. I buy my organic peat-free seed compost and potting compost from White's Agri in Lusk, who are also the main Irish distributors for Osmo products. I called them a few days ago to ensure that they are still open to gardeners. They also have a website which takes online orders for delivery. 

 

 

The propagating bench is where all the action is currently!On the bench pictured here I have two cheap Lidl cold frames sitting on a roll-out heated mat - which is a bit like an electric blanket - (from Fruit  Hill Farm). It keeps things at a 'just warm enough' 50/55 degF or 10 degC. The mat sits on a recycled door supported by trestles. To cover then at night I roll out double fleece and a large piece of recycled bubble wrap. So as you can see - it's not very hi-tech but it's actually very effective!  This is a great set-up for growing large amounts of seedlings - but you won't need anything like this for growing in containers.

 The advice below is repeated from earlier blogs I've written - so although I've amended it in places - you may find some repetition, but it remains exactly the same and can't be repeated often enough if you want good results!  In a normal year, from March until about June, most garden centres will have module-raised lettuce and other veg plants, so if you're a beginner you can get used to growing the veg plants first, without the hassle of raising stuff from seed - also good news for any of us who are late starters in the vegetable growing season.  But this year, as I've already said - both plants and seeds are selling out fast because people naturally want to ensure some food security due to the worries generated by the Covid-19 situation - so buy any plants or seeds and get sowing asap! 

My General advice for Sowing all Seeds:

You can raise most plants on windowsills, but contrary to what many people think - sunny windowsills are not the best - as most seeds are quite happy to germinate at a temperature of around 60 degF or 15 deg Celcius.  If you put seed trays on a sunny windowsill, on a warm day even in March the temperature can shoot up dangerously high very quickly and literally cook seeds! Young seedlings are also far better off on a cooler windowsill - perhaps with a backing of tin foil behind them to reflect light so that they don't become too tall, leggy and weak. As soon as the weather is not freezing - everything but tomatoes and other tender seedlings will be fine outside 

 
If you're impatient to get an early start, you can steal a march on spring and sow a few early seeds now if you have a warm light enough windowsill indoors, or much better still a heated propagator in a greenhouse or polytunnel where the light will be better. You can sow your seeds now in pots or modules for planting outside later on - there's a list on the "What you can sow" page. Even if the 'gardening itch' hasn't got to you yet this year and you don't want to start quite this early - then it's a good idea to have everything ready to go when you do. I love sowing seeds - it's such a hopeful and positive thing to do - it's an investment in the future, short or long term, that pays off in abundance. A great many of the things that need to be sown in the next few weeks we'll be eating this time next year.
 
 
This is the start of the most important time of year for seed sowing - and the same advice applies whether you only have a cold frame or just a warm windowsill. At the moment the soil is saturated everywhere outside - far too cold and wet to attempt to sow anything outdoors - and even by the end of the month I doubt if it will be much better unless the weather improves a lot.  So there's no point wasting expensive seed by sowing it into cold wet ground. It's not really until early March that any sun is strong enough to even begin to warm the soil at all for sowing - and when it is you'll begin to see weed seeds germinating, which is always the best guide. If the soil's warm enough for them - then it's plenty warm enough for some of the the hardier crops to germinate. I sow nearly all my crops in modules now though - as that allows me to get ahead whatever the weather, which means I can plan better, and it helps to make the most of valuable growing space. Obviously the most important thing to do is always adapt any guidelines to suit your own local climate and soil. That can vary hugely depending on exactly where in the country you live - and often even in individual gardens in the same area. For instance - early spring can arrive in the very north of Ireland up to three weeks later than in the warmer south - and the same goes for the UK. Even within a few miles it can vary surprisingly. Where I live now - 400 feet above sea level on a south west facing slope in the teeth of the prevailing SW wind - the season is at least ten days later than where I lived 35 years ago - down near the sea only 9 miles away.
 
 
I sow most things in modules all year round now - as it wastes far less seed and I know I can be more sure of the results! The only exception to this would be root crops like parsnips or carrots - which are really much easier to sow direct in the ground, if you can protect them from hungry slugs!. I only sow these into my recycled 'loo roll middle'  modules if I want to make a really early start - or if their allotted space isn't free yet. As I mention later - doing this really makes the best use of your space, as the minute you have a crop cleared - you have another ready and waiting to be planted. By sowing in modules you're not spending time waiting for seed to germinate in ground which early in the year may be far too wet and cold. Carrots and parsnips like quite a warm seedbed and can be very slow and even rot if the ground is too cold. They can also take up to three weeks to appear and with carrots - the tiny early seed leaves are so fine that they're quite difficult to see - so often slugs will have eaten them before you've even noticed they were actually germinating! 
 
 
If you're planning to sow any crops early outside perhaps in March, and their planned space is free at the moment - then it's a good idea to cover it with some black polythene or something else waterproof now (it should be covered anyway if you've been following my advice!) Then you can uncover it every so often and clear up any slugs which are lurking around just underneath and get ahead of them too! You'll be amazed how many you'll find hiding under there - they won't bother going underground if they can hide in the dark somewhere damp and snug and they think they're out of sight! 
 
 
If you leave soil uncovered, as some people advocate - the slugs also just hide underground or around edges of beds. They've evolved to hide from hungry birds and hedgehogs - not hungry gardeners!  So be clever and outsmart them - it's always a good idea to trap and dispose of as many slugs as possible before you actually start the growing season - that gets you well ahead ahead of the game! Please don't be lazy and thoughtlessly use slug pellets - they kill all slug-eating wildlife too and traces of the poisonous metaldehyde they contain are increasingly being found in our drinking water as well! If you have ducks they're the very best slug hunters of the lot - they seem to have slug radar in the tips of their beaks - and they'll even eat the really big Spanish ones like rubber tyres which hens won't eat. But beware - as ducks are also extremely fond of anything edible, luscious and green - so don't let them near any lettuces etc. Also be careful if your soil is a heavy clay as they'll pack it down with their webbed feet - causing compaction, 'souring' and acidification - so don't leave them on any patch of ground for too long. After you've sown crops - a strip of black polythene, or a piece of slate at various points along the bed will give any remaining slugs a place to hide - so that you can then go along every so often, scoop them off and dispose of them - or cut them up with sharp scissors and leave them for wildlife to enjoy! When you've got rid of most of the slugs, then you can put some clear polythene on to the bed. This will allow the soil underneath to warm up so that it's all ready. If you see any weed seeds germinating at this point - a flame weeder can be very useful for burning off any tiny seedlings to make what's known as a 'stale seedbed' - which is perfectly clean on the surface and ideal for carrots and other small seeds.(If you're of a nasty frame of mind - a flame weeder's also great for barbecueing slugs!) Remember - weedkillers aren't just toxic - they don't actually kill weed seeds, so they're pointless poisoning!
 

Seed Sowing in Modules 

(This applies to all vegetables, herbs and flowers, whether they're for planting outside later, or for under cover - whatever the time of year.)
 
 It may seem a bit fiddly sowing things into modules like plug trays, pots, or seed trays, but it's what I call my 'guaranteed one-step method to perfect plants'! This method of sowing means you don't have to handle them again until you actually plant them out. Seed germination is far more reliable in the better conditions. I do most of my sowing into modules all year round now. It means I'm not waiting for a patch to be free before I can sow seeds - and I can have something ready to go straight into the ground the minute any crop is cleared - that way I get loads more veg. out of my space. In essence what I'm doing is continuously overlapping crops. By not taking up ground just waiting for seeds to germinate - over the course of a year I gain several extra weeks of growing time out of my ground space and I can fit in another quick growing crop. I've been doing this for years since I first started off in a small garden and it's an even more valuable way to grow things if you only have a small space. 
 
 
Module sowing also involves far less handling of the seedlings and avoids the risks of 'pricking out' seedlings from large seed trays - the less you handle them, the less chance there is of wasting seed through possible damage, which can cause setbacks, fungal diseases or even death. The only time when I would sow a few seeds into pots or small seed trays might be when seeds need a much higher temperature for germination - things like aubergines or tomatoes. I otherwise wouldn't have enough space for everything in the small heated propagator - because I grow so many. The other really great thing about module sowing is that I can do all my seed sowing inside on the kitchen table - in the warm! I keep all the 'doings' neatly on a grow bag tray under the table - then whenever I have five minutes - I just pull it out and sow something! For me, this also means that things are far more likely to get sown at the right time. I don't have to plan to set aside a whole day to do it all at once - making it much easier to fit into a very busy life! Remember - you can catch up on everything else - but if you don't sow the seeds at the right time - there's no catching up on that. Time waits for no man! (or woman!)
 
 
Carrots sown in loo roll middles - early Feb.Planting out modules when they're ready also means that the plants are already growing strongly, are bigger and as a result better able to withstand the occasional nibble from any slugs or other pests without being completely destroyed. And there's always one or two that escape my early scissor forays!  I often get questions from people who think they bought bad seed and it didn't germinate - but usually the reason seeds don't appear is because either the soil was too cold and wet in early spring so they rotted, or they dried out in summer, or slugs ate them as they came up! Sowing into modules avoids all those problems. Bad seed that doesn't germinate at all is thankfully extremely rare. Whatever pot or module you choose to sow in is up to you, there are masses of things which can be recycled for this purpose, and as usual the choice is only limited by one's imagination!  The important thing is to make sure they're clean, have good drainage holes in the bottom and that the young plants will come out quite easily, without disturbing the root ball if you gently push them up from the bottom - otherwise you lose the whole point of modules - which is to avoid any disturbance which causes setbacks! 
 
  
Just a word on using loo roll middles as pictured above.  I find these brilliant for long rooted things like very early carrots and parsnips because they can be planted out intact as they are - completely avoiding root disturbance - but I don't find them quite as good for other things like lettuce or other leafy crops which have a fine root ball - I think this is because the cardboard rolls are so high in carbon - which needs nitrogen to break down naturally - so it tends to rob this from the surrounding soil or compost as it does so - and also possibly any young plant that is growing in them. 
 
 
The other thing to remember about using cardboard tubes like loo roll middles is that they MUST be planted with the cardboard of the loo roll BELOW soil level - if exposed to the air they will act like a wick, drying out and shrinking - evaporating moisture from around the young plants ans fine roots with possibly disastrous results! The same goes for using paper pots. I get a lot of questions about this from people who have tried i and had disappointing results - but I've never seen anyone mentioning the danger of this happening. I know it does take a little extra compost sowing this way, but sowing into modules also means I don't waste expensive seed - which more than balances out the small cost of the extra compost used. It also means I have larger plants ready to go without losses to slugs. That again also means that I can plan the use of space much better - planting out neat, attractive-looking rows, instead of perhaps having unsightly gaps!  I really love that kind of instant potager gardeningIt's very satisfying to stand back and look at the results!
 

The importance of using a good peat-free seed compost 

It makes sense to use a good proprietary organic peat-free seed compost - NOT a multipurpose compost containing peat! A good peat-free seed compost will have been specially formulated to be suitable for tiny seedlings for their first few weeks when their tiny hair-like roots are very sensitive - and is worth it's weight in gold!  Many seedlings dislike a high nutrient content in composts - so using one specifically for seed sowing is really important - otherwise too high a nutrient content in the compost could inhibit germination, giving disappointing results. I never found those 'seed & potting' multi-purpose peat composts good for that particular reason when I had no choice but to use them many years ago. They also tend to attract root-eating soil pests too - because all composts containing peat do that!  I haven't used them for many years as I only use an organic peat-free compost now.
 
 
Peat is only a natural medium for plants which grow in bogs - and it should stay in the bogs where it belongs!  Using it is a very selfish choice! It supports enormous biodiversity and also acts a very effective carbon sink.  It should not be be dug up for the convenience of thoughtless gardeners who are just looking for the cheapest option - especially when growing your own food actually saves so much money anyway!  In terms of damage to the planet and accelerating climate change - using peat certainly isn't the cheap option eventually!  Any short term financial gain from using cheap, easily available peat is wiped out many times by the loss of important habitat for biodiversity, and also the inevitable flooding caused by reducing the land's water-holding capacity. Bogs act like enormous sponges - capturing rainfall and slowing up huge volumes of water that would otherwise immediately run off the land surface, overwhelming natural drainage systems and flooding not just farmland but also peoples houses and gardens.,
 
 
As I've mentioned previously - I use a really good, peat free, certified organic compost. This is available in Ireland from Fruit Hill Farm - (call them for local stockists - getting one bag by post is expensive!). It's also available from White's Agri, at Ballough, Lusk. The compost is produced by Klassman in Germany, from composted organic green waste. It's utterly brilliant and is the very best compost of any sort that I've found in over 40 years of growing. It's also available in the UK, and it's worth investigating if you live there. There are a quite a few other peat-free organic composts available there now too - but I haven't tried them, so can't recommend them. I would always prefer an organic compost - as those containing artificial fertilisers don't produce the most healthy plants in my experience. They are far more likely to attract aphids and other pests as the plant's immune defence systems aren't as healthy. Once you've used the Klassman - I promise you won't ever use anything else! (I wish I had shares in it!) .It's the best compost of any sort that I've ever used. Whether you're organic or not - believe me - this compost is worth every cent! Plants really thrive in it - I think possibly because it contains a good range of beneficial bacteria, having been made with organically grown green waste, composted specifically for this purpose. But whichever brand you choose, don't use a potting compost for sowing seeds - it will be far too high in nutrients that inhibit germination and burn the roots of the tiny seedlings as soon as they emerge. They may then be sickly, or possibly even keel over and die!  I grow a lot of rare plants - many of which are fussy and the seed expensive. I can't afford to risk wasting seed. These days no one can - so always go for a reliable, good quality seed compost - and choose peat free preferably - if you care about the environment. 
 
 
In addition - make sure that any compost is this year's freshly-delivered batch of compost too! Not old, saturated compost that's been sitting around outside in the garden centre all winter since the previous year!  That would be stale, will have lost many of it's nutrients and may well harbour moulds and diseases. I always make sure that I have a couple of spare bags put by in a dry place so that I have plenty for early sowings the following year. Also don't use garden soil for sowing in pots - it's false economy - especially if you're a beginner gardener.  It will contain weed seeds and perhaps pests too, and the texture is unlikely to be suitable for sowing small seeds in pots or modules. I know good compost isn't cheap - but actually most bags these days cost no more than two or three packets of seeds and you won't need a huge amount. If you're careful a little will go a very long way, and you'll get far better results. You'll avoid wasting expensive seed and precious time too. 
 
 
Another point I'd like to mention here is that although some gardeners in the UK don't like using British produced peat composts - some of them don't seem have a problem using Irish extracted peat. I just don't understand that 'NIMBY' attitude, because it's every bit as damaging to the environment and to biodiversity, and releases just as much climate-changing carbon which affects the whole planet. So please have a re-think if that applies to you! I think it's a bit like thoughtlessly throwing away your rubbish out of the car window and ensuring that it becomes someone else's problem!
 
 
Remember the piece of advice "Whatever else you don't get time for - always sow the seed - you can catch up on everything else except that". - One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given - well worth remembering - and another good reason for sowing in modules so that you're not delayed by the weather or by waiting for another crop to be finished. This is often something that's really hard to remember in the middle of summer, when you're enjoying an abundance of glorious vegetables! If you don't sow many things in June, July and August - you'll have very little to eat in the winter!  Don't spend ages waiting around to get ground perfectly ready either, particularly in a wet year, or you may find it's then too late to sow the seed. Sow the seed first, in modules if necessary, and then catch up with all the other jobs later while your seedlings are growing on nicely somewhere else, until they're big enough for planting.
 

Seed sowing - the basics

It's stating the obvious to repeat that most seed these days is expensive - a little care will make your seed go a lot further and therefore your money too! My apologies to all you 'old timers' out there like me who know all this stuff - but maybe you may actually do it differently - and there's no harm in reassessing the way we do things occasionally is there? Gardening is an occupation where you never stop learning, that's what makes it so interesting.
 
 
1. First fill your modules, pots or whatever with good seed compost, firming it gently but not ramming it down too hard. Then make suitably sized small depressions in the top of each one with the end of a old pencil, pen, or whatever's handy. Seed differs in the depth it prefers to be sown, so consult your seed packet on this one, there isn't enough room here! Generally I find a depression of about 1/2-1 cm is suitable for module sowing of most things depending on the size of the seed. A very rough rule of thumb though is to sow at about twice the depth of the seed. As some really fine seed like celery or Nicotiana prefers to be sown on the surface and not covered at all - If you're going to sow very fine small seed it's a good idea to water the containers before sowing, to avoid washing tiny seed either too deeply into the compost, or alternatively washing it completely out of the compost! Some brands of seed composts can be quite difficult to wet if they've become exceptionally dry - so when sowing anything it's probably a idea good to moisten all composts a bit first - and letting any excess drain away.
 
 
2. Next, after you've prepared your modules, before you even handle the seed packet make sure your hands are absolutely clean and dry!  Don't attempt to open the packet with dirty wet hands from preparing your compost, soil or whatever! Unless you're going to sow all the seed at once, which is unlikely, you need to take care that the atmosphere around the remaining seed in the packet is as dry and clean as possible. Most people with average-sized gardens won't need to sow a whole packet of seed at once - despite what the packet tells you! (obviously they're trying to sell seed!) When you've taken all the seed you need, squeeze as much air out as possible, seal with sellotape, write on the date it was opened, and store somewhere really cool and dry. Most seed except carrot and parsnip will last well for at least a couple of years this way. People always say "but the experts say store them in the fridge" - all I can say is those 'experts' must have nothing else in their fridges - or have dedicated seed fridges!  Since when were most household fridges absolutely bone dry? But then perhaps yours is a bit tidier than mine! Frankly - I'd sooner tidy my polytunnel any day than my fridge!
 
 
3. When you're opening the packet of seed, make sure that all the seed is shaken down to the bottom first. Then slit it open with a sharp knife or with scissors rather than just tearing off the top - this makes it much easier to do up neatly again afterwards. The seed may also be in a 'stay-fresh' foil packet inside the paper packet, so open that carefully too, then when you've finished, re-seal afterwards in the way described. It always says on the packet "Do not re-seal" - pay no attention whatsoever to that!  Seeds will just absorb atmospheric moisture far more easily if you don't re-seal them properly - then you'll have to buy more seed because it won't germinate nearly as well!
 
 
Lettuce - sown 2 per module - now ready for thinning. 21st. Feb.
Lettuce - sown 2 per module - now ready for thinning. 21st. Feb.
4. Tip a very small amount of seed - slightly less than you think you'll need - into the dry palm of your hand or onto a saucer and carefully sow the amount you want into each module. Never put seed back in if you've tipped out too much into your hand, unless your hand is very clean and dry! I sow lettuce, brassicas etc. in two's or three's thinning to the strongest one when the seed leaves (cotyledons) are fully expanded and there's one 'true' leaf just showing, then you can judge which is the strongest, or if any are 'blind'(which can sometimes happen with cabbage family/brassicas in particular) - then pull the others out very gently and carefully. Beetroot or chards can be sown singly - they are multi-seeded - producing several seedlings in a clump from just one lumpy seed, which you don't have to thin too much unless you want to - I never do - I normally leave three chards in a clump! They grow perfectly well as normal - and I'm greedy! Some modern F1 varieties of beetroot are 'mono-seeded' - these are useful if you just want one seed per station and bigger roots eventually - but the seed is usually much more expensive and I don't want massive roots. I prefer medium sized or baby beets to pickle or roast - so I use normal varieties and I leave them in clumps of 3 or 5. They will push each other apart quite happily as they grow and find their own growing space.
  
  
Peas and beans sown in a variety of recycled containers - mid. Feb.
I sow my onions in 3's, 5's or 7's according to what size I want them to grow to. The more you sow into the module, and the closer you grow them on, the smaller the onions will obviously be. Three seeds to a module sown in early to mid March will generally give me onions of around 4-5oz - a medium size which I generally find are the most useful for the kitchen. Red Baron onions I sow in 5's as I like smaller whole red onions for roasting. They're planted out later about 20-30cm apart in late March or early April. They will then push each other apart quite happily as they grow, giving you a much bigger, more reliable crop. Early carrots (a small pinch) and parsnips (in 3's) can be sown into loo roll or 1/2 kitchen roll middles and easily planted out carefully using a long trowel later. Peas and beans can be sown in large yogurt pots - as shown on the polytunnel page and here - also 1/2 milk cartons, fruit punnets etc - all with good drainage holes made in them. You can see how I sow mine in the polytunnel diary as well.  Some people sow into old half drainpipes but I find they're too shallow, they don't have much root room, then if planting out is delayed by bad weather, as it often is at this time of year, plants may get a setback and won't crop as well as they should later on. The roots can often go along instead of down.The RHS recommends shallow drainpipes with holes drilled into them - but again delays can be a problem and the roots may start coming through the drainage holes - making it harder to slide them out easily and possibly tearing roots off when you try to slide them out. The peas and beans pictured above here are growing in a variety of recycled containers in mid-February
 
 
 
5. Cover the smaller vegetable seeds with vermiculite, which is available in all good garden centres now in small packs (if it's too much, split it with a friend - it lasts years as it's sterile and you don't need that much). This promotes really good drainage and air circulation around seedlings which is vital and usually avoids nasty 'damping off' diseases, which can otherwise be a big problem with early seedlings in particular (but never in peat-free composts). Sit the seed tray, pots or modules in a tray of water for a few seconds (new cat litter trays are a good size for standard seed trays, and much cheaper than something similar sold in garden centres!) but don't let the modules or trays get saturated. If by mistake they do - then a good tip is to sit them on a folded up newspaper with a bit of kitchen paper on top, which acts like blotting paper to draw out excess moisture - newspaper on it's own doesn't work quite so well. Don't forget that if things are too wet - even if they're warm - they're far more likely to rot. Bigger seeds like peas and beans can be covered with compost and then watered from above initially. I put my early peas and beans onto damp kitchen paper on a covered plate or tray somewhere warm to germinate them first. Usually the back of my range cooker where I can keep an eye on them. This is particularly good for French beans later on in spring - which can be very prone to rotting if sitting in wet compost for too long. I then put the sprouted seeds into a pot in the usual way and cover them with seed compost. I then water them lightly at first, again making sure I don't saturate!
 
 
6. Cover the seed tray or modules after sowing by putting in a clear polythene bag, under a sheet of clingfilm or glass to keep them moist and stop them drying out, and put them in a suitably warm place. Check the optimum germination temperature on the seed packet - as not everything likes to be too warm. This particularly applies to lettuces and spinach. Then check every day for germination, and as soon as they appear, uncover them immediately and put them into good light - but not strong sunlight as this could burn them and kill them very quickly. If they're in the house on a windowsill, turn them round a bit every day so all the seedlings get equal light to prevent them getting etiolated (or drawn up and spindly), which weakens them and makes them much more prone to disease. You could also make a light reflector of tin foil fixed to a couple of barbecue skewers at the back of the pot as I used to years ago! At night then bring them into the room before you close the curtains otherwise they could be frost damaged. If they're in a cold frame, greenhouse or tunnel outside, shade them lightly from very bright midday sun - which can be surprisingly strong through glass, even at this time of year. Again, do make sure they're protected from frost at night with fleece suspended over them - not resting on them - or newspaper. Wire hoops are useful for this, also recycled old freezer baskets, a propagator lid or cloches etc.
 
 
7. Always water trays of young growing seedlings from underneath when necessary - sitting them in a tray as described above, using clean, ambient temperature water if possible. Watering them from above with a watering can again encourage damping off diseases. I keep clean rainwater in a barrel in the tunnel for watering, which is usually not too cold. Seedlings don't enjoy sitting in a freezing cold bath any more than you do!  And they enjoy rainwater best of all. Like all plants, they didn't evolve to appreciate chlorine, or anything else that may be in tap water!
 
 
8. After germination, grow on seedlings of tender veg. like tomatoes etc. at a slightly lower temperature but still in a warm light place- where they won't get chilled if it's cold at night. A roll-out heat mat which you can put on a greenhouse bench is convenient for this - or if you're good at DIY - you could make a cheaper large area of gentle bottom warmth by using soil warming cables buried in sand.  Be careful that propagators don't overheat, get them set up and going for a few hours before you start sowing your seeds, because just as too little warmth can damage seedlings - so can overheating. It can can seriously damage their cropping potential.  From March onwards all small seedlings will need some shade at midday under glass or in a tunnel - fleece also makes a good temporary sun shield. A small max-min thermometer is well worth buying, they're far more useful in the garden than a soil thermometer, and cheaper. As I've already said - you don't need a soil thermometer out in the garden to tell you when the soil outside is warm enough for sowing - all the weed seeds germinating will reliably tell you that!
 

Sowing early seeds in modules

To make sure I have something to plant as soon as the winter crops are finished both in the tunnel and outside, I always start sowing a few early crops in mid-January. Details of what you can sow now are in the 'What to Sow' sections for each month, so I won't repeat them here. Things like onions, leeks, beetroot etc. can be multi-sown in the modules - in 3's or 5's - depending on how many you want in a clump - or how big you want your onions (less in a clump for bigger onions) and they're planted out later without thinning. These will push each other apart as they grow and develop quite normally. You can do the same with summer spinach, chards and 'baby leaf' or salad mixes. Rather than use an expensive propagator at this time of year I germinate everything near the back of my range cooker - which keep things at a steady 65-70 deg F/16-20 deg C. As soon as the first seedlings are showing they need good light, so then I put them out in the polytunnel, on a roll-out heated mat which provides very gentle bottom heat of about 50 degF/10 deg C - or just above during the day - and is very economical to run. This is all most things need to grow on nicely without forcing. In another 2 weeks in the warmer propagator I shall sow my aubergines Bonica F1, (the very best and most reliable one) these develop quite slowly at first and need a long growing season. I'll also be sowing my earliest tomatoes - Maskotka, Latah and John Baer. These are always ripe in the first week or so of June. I can't wait for ripe tomatoes again! Talking of which - there may be some very exciting news soon on the tomato front - but can't reveal it yet!!
 
 

What are 'Blind seedlings' that don't develop?

 
Occasionally there are seedlings that develop they're first seed leaves or cotyledons as they are known - but after that they don't grow any more new leaves.  These are known as blind seedlings. In cases where you may only want one plant per space - like lettuces or hybrid calabrese - it's normal to thin seedlings to one per module, but only do this after they have clearly developed their first 'true' leaves - not the seedling/cotyledon leaves - as 'blind seedlings they will never develop 'true' leaves and grow on. This is quite common with brassicas and if it happens you could waste space on a seedling which will never develop any further - so don't thin them too early! With calabrese seed in particular - which can be expensive - it also wastes seed and money!  I've never seen any of the 'so-called' experts telling you this - they always tell you to thin as soon as you can handle the seedlings! Over 40 years of experience (OMG can't believe it!) does actually teach one a few useful things!
 

Sowing early peas and broad beans in pots

Sprouted broad beans being sown in  500g  yogurt pots -  12.1.12
 Sprouted broad beans sown in 500g yogurt pots              
Sprouted 'Oregon Sugar Pod' mangetout being sown for pea shoots and later pods - 31.1.12
Sprouted mangetouts sown for pea shoots and pods
 

At this time of year - I always soak my broad beans and peas for a couple of hours before then sprouting them on damp kitchen paper on a plate covered with cling film and put in a warmish place. I always get the best germination this way. It saves the seed sitting in cold wet compost for too long and possibly rotting. They sprout in about 2-3 days and then as soon as the 'radicle' or main tap root  appears - I then sow them in large pots as you can see above (I use recycled 500 ml yogurt pots - they're the perfect size!). 3 broad beans to a pot or a small handful of peas (don't count them) per pot. I don't thin the beans or the peas as it's totally unnecessary - I've tried doing it over the years but the plants produce just the same crop per plant - so obviously crop more per sq.ft/m if on a deep, raised bed. Thinning them after germination is not only totally unnecessary, but is also time-consuming and wastes valuable seed. These potfuls will be planted out about 30cm/1ft. apart when big enough. 

I am always amazed at just how much better the germination is with home-saved seed. I got 100% germination of the yummy Crimson Flowered Broad Bean as per usual (good job as we've just finished the last from the freezer!). Beans and peas are the only things I cover with organic peat-free seed compost after sowing - everything else is covered with vermiculite - which promotes good air circulation and drainage around the seedling stem, virtually guaranteeing no 'damping off' disease - as long as you are careful with your watering. After sowing anything - only ever water again from underneath. This is easy to do by sitting the tray or module in a tray of water for a few seconds. And as I've often said before - if you do happen to overdo it by mistake - and we all do it occasionally - don't despair and leave them to rot in cold wet compost!  It's very simple - just sit the tray of seedlings on a newspaper for 1/2 hour or so which acts like a wick to draw out the excess. All seeds need is a good seed compost, a little thought and plenty of TLC to grow - it's not rocket science!

Despite all the years I've been gardening - I never cease to be surprised, thrilled and full of wonder at Nature's miracle of a tiny seed and it's determination to grow. That perfect little pre-programmed parcel of DNA - full of history and priceless, unique and irreplaceable genes. And - best of all - packed with a delicious promise of healthy food!  

This is how I sow my Tomatoes - and other tender crops

 Just inside my main tunnel door, on the left, I have a propagating bench. It's a very busy place at this time of year - so much happening and changing every day. So many reliable old friends appearing once again, kick starting another gardening year, and a few exciting new ones too!  At the moment in the warmest propagator there are sweet peppers, chillies, aubergines, celeriac, tomatoes, etc. physalis (also called golden, Inca or Pichu berry),  These are all just starting to appear above the compost. As soon as they do I immediately remove their individual polythene bag covers which have kept them nice and moist up until then. Having each pot in an individual bag means that they stay nice and moist until the seeds have germinated, which helps the seeds to ease their way up out of the compost. It also stops too much moisture collecting around seedlings that are already up, when they need less moisture but still need to be nice and warm. This stops diseases developing. 
 
 
After germination, they spend a few days in the propagator, moving gradually nearer to the front where the lid is propped open a bit for more air circulation, and then as soon they look ready - they get moved out into the frame on the heated mat, which is at a much lower temperature, only supplying a bottom heat of around 50 deg. F. Things get too 'soft' if they're left in the propagator for too long. The heated mat is a roll-out heated foil mat a bit like an electric blanket. It uses far less electricity than the small warmer propagator. It's just warm enough to keep things moving gently along, and they get covered at night with one or two layers of fleece to keep any possible frost off the tops of the plants. It's a good 'halfway house' for plants raised in heat to progress eventually to the main beds in the tunnel for tunnel hardening off. About 20 yrs or so ago, it was discovered that 'brushing' tomato plants a couple of times a day stimulated a growth hormone call Jasmonic acid, which is supposed to have the effect of making them a bit sturdier. A lot of nurseries had a 'boom' which passed over plants to do this a few times a day. I tried it with a very soft, long wallpaper pasting brush - but frankly, I'm not sure it made that much difference to mine. Not pushing them with too much heat and giving them plenty of light and space will produce nice sturdy plants - and you won't risk possibly causing disease by being a bit 'heavy -handed' and bruising tiny seedlings!
 
 
Tomato seedlings in the propagator - packed tightly together in square pots to be energy efficient  
Tomato seedlings in the propagator - packed tightly together in square pots to be energy efficient  
I'll be sowing the last of my tomatoes this week - I sowed some earlier on to check the germination on home saved seed. It's always good though - so have quite a lot of Pantano Romanesco beefsteaks and various other babies already potted on!  I'm hoping to have some Pantano earlier than ever this year - I can't wait to taste that meltingly delicious Mediterranean flavour again! People who don't eat seasonally miss so much. Nothing imported can ever give that same anticipation of enjoyment. The next week or so is about the right time to sow tomatoes in most average years - because you don't want your plants to get too big, too early - or you won't be able to keep them warm if it's a very cold spring. On the other hand - if you sow very much later than the middle of March - you'll be half way through the summer before you get any ripe tomatoes at all! 
 
 
 
I like to eat my first ripe tomatoes - always the dependable bush variety Maskotka - in the first week of June. Maskotka is already potted on and has four 'true' leaves. It should fruit really early if we have a decent spring. Sown in a warm propagator now - most tomatoes should be just about the right size for planting out in early to mid-May. I sow mine in 85 cm (or 3&1/2 in) square pots of Klassman certified organic peat-free seed compost - but any size pot will do fine as long as you make sure they're clean and you're sowing into a good reliable seed compost. 
 
 
I like to use square pots because they fill up the propagator space nicely, with no gaps for heat to escape.  What small gaps there are I fill up with scraps bubble wrap to ensure absolutely no heat is wasted and that the propagator doesn't overheat. I fill the pot with compost and firm down gently, make a hole with the end of a pencil or biro about 1/2cm deep in 4 or 5 places - one at each corner and one in the middle - put a seed in each hole - cover them with vermiculite, gently water the pot - letting any excess drain away, label them (important) and then cover them with a plastic bag. Most tomatoes take about 4-5 days to germinate and most modern F1 varieties will pretty much all germinate at the same time. Often the non-F1 or old Heritage varieties may stagger their germination over as long as 2-3 weeks. That's a fascinating way that nature ensures their survival, so that some will usually be successful and will keep the species going. So don't give up after a week or so - they can often take longer depending on the variety - anything up to 3 weeks I've found. Tomatoes, like people, are all different! They'll be able to stay in those pots until the roots are almost filling the pots - then you can gently split them up and pot them on singly. If you don't have a heated propagator, you could germinate them in any warm place like an airing cupboard, or the back of your range cooker if you have one, but then bring them immediately out into the light as soon as they are up above the surface of the compost. Then a really light windowsill is OK for them if you don't have any heated space in a greenhouse - but be sure to bring them inside the room at night before you close the curtains, so they don't get chilled - and if the windowsill is south facing you will also need to shade them from strong midday sunshine, or put them on a different windowsill if it's very sunny because they will fry! It is surprising how strong the sun can be at midday in March - and last week I sat in the polytunnel at lunchtime and for the first time I felt the sun actually burning my face. It was a good feeling - but not good for too long! 
 

Use Peat-free seed Composts

I can't stress enough just how important it is to use a really reliable, organic, peat-free SEED compost. Don't use a 'multi-purpose' compost as they may contain far too much fertiliser which may burn the young roots. Many seeds are very sensitive to a high nutrient level in the compost - and seed is expensive so you can't afford to waste it!  Added to that it's especially important that they are peat-free - and if you're a regular reader you will already be familiar with the many environmental reasons why NONE of us should be using peat in ANY form in the garden! I talk about it so often I won't repeat them again here.
 
 
I always try to share my money saving tips here in my blog - but compost is one example where trying to save money is false economy. In my experience - you get what you pay for!  There are a few peat-free composts available now from DIY multiples, but I've tried most of them and they were all dreadful! They weren't organic either! I personally prefer organic as artificial fertilisers discourage soil life - something that organic gardeners always try to encourage.Several garden centres here are now stocking my favourite organic peat-free composts  - made by Klassman, botht the seed and the potting composts. They are by a very long way the very best composts of any sort that I've ever used!  In Ireland, Klassman composts are available by mail order from Fruit Hill Farm -  https://www.fruithillfarm.com/  (the Irish importers) but the postage is quite expensive and will cost you as much as just one bag of the compost!  If your local garden centre doesn't stock it then ask them to! If you're anywhere near north Dublin,  White's Agri at Ballough, Lusk, Co Dublin (on the old main Dublin-Belfast road) also stock it now too - http://www.whitesagri.ie/Products/GardenAllot.aspx
 
 
Organic peat-free compost is a bit more expensive than some of the others I'll grant you - but as I've so often said - believe me it's worth every single cent. I wouldn't sow valuable seed into anything else. Seed is so expensive now that you only have to lose a couple of packets and that would have paid for a bag of decent compost!  Being peat-free you can also feel good about not destroying peat bogs and preserving biodiversity too! And before you say that making it miles away in Germany isn't very environmentally friendly - making it in bulk, from organically grown plant material, is actually a carbon-friendly activity - and shipping it in bulk to the UK and Ireland is many times less destructive, less carbon-emitting and so much better than digging up our precious, biodiversity-rich peat bogs!
 
 
I don't need as much of the seed compost as I do the potting compost, generally only getting through 2-3 bags a year even with a big garden and growing all our own food. If you only have a small garden and the bag of seed compost is more than you think you'll use in a year then you can always split it with a friend. Although if kept undercover I find it doesn't go 'off' like other composts, and will last for quite a long time - at least 2 years - as long as you keep it dry and cool.  I've even used 3 year old compost and it gave perfect results. Make sure that wherever you buy the compost, they have also kept it dry and cool. Never ever buy saturated composts that have been sitting out in winter weather without being covered! If the compost hasn't been stored properly - the natural ingredients in it will have changed and plants may either be starved or get diseased. White's Agri are also the Irish agents for my favourite organic plant foods - the 'Osmo' range. The liquid tomato feed is brilliant and thoroughly reliable, as are the other products. 
 

Potting on tomato seedlings 

My warm propagation area - where a heated mat sits on top of an insulated bench -  (a recycled door actually!)
My warm propagation area - where a heated mat sits on top of an insulated bench -  (a recycled door actually!)
I always move my tomato seedlings out of the warmest propagator (18degC./65deg.F+) and put them onto the more gently heated mat (about 10degC./50degF+) as soon as they have their first 'true' leaves showing - otherwise they can quickly become very 'leggy', (or etiolated) from too much warmth without enough light. After a few days - I separate all the seedlings out of the small square pots they were germinated in as soon as they are big enough to handle, potting them on individually into quite small pots like white plastic cups - which conveniently and vitally can be written on with permanent marker so I know what variety they are. These have a slit for drainage cut into either side across the cup bottom with scissors. I always pot on twice before planting as potting straight into a large volume of compost can lead to rotting, if the roots get too wet. It also means that the smaller pots take up far less valuable space on the heated mat. Warm space is always at a premium at this time of year and I don't like to waste energy. The plastic cup potting is an interim measure before their final potting on into recycled milk cartons - as these are far too big for very small seedlings. I find that milk cartons are deep enough to give them really good root room until planting later on and again are handy as you can write their name on each carton - rather than using a label which could get lost. Growing so many different varieties of tomatoes - in some Tomato Festival years as many as 48 - this is very important for me or they're easily mixed up!  I start saving milk cartons now - the family know that from the beginning of March milk cartons are not to be put in the recycling bin or I scream! While they may not be the most attractive greenhouse feature in the world - they're very effective! 
 
 
I'm constantly shifting things around the heated space at this time of year - a bit like playing musical plants!  I know it seems a lot of bother - but it's very little trouble actually - and a pleasant job that's well worth doing to be able to eat really ripe tomatoes on 1st June!  No plastic-wrapped, carbon-intensive, imported imposter of a tomato can ever possibly compare with the flavour of a sun-warmed, home grown one, picked and eaten straight off the plant! The aubergines will be potted on in the same way. They'll all spend a few weeks inside the light plastic cold frame on the heated mat. This prevents possible cold draughts from the open tunnel doors. I have the top of the frame open - with bubble wrap pegged to canes higher up around the side for the first week or so. Then I remove that - and finally they'll all go out onto the other mat without the frame to make way for the cucumbers and peppers - which appreciate a bit more early warmth. 
 
 
Any bubble wrap you can salvage is really useful - always save it - even tiny amounts. It makes extra insulation for propagators tops at night - and even the smallest bits can be used to tuck in between pots to fill in any spaces between pots inside the propagator or on heated mats to stop heat escaping, thereby saving energy and also stopping it overheating through working too hard to replace any heat lost from gaps. It's amazing how many pictures I see on social media of propagators with a few pots sitting in the middle and with no insulation around them - this means that the propagator is losing heat the whole time. Filling up empty spaces with bubble wrap or some other insulation like fleece will save energy and saves money!
  
 
By the way - if you're using a heated propagator - it's important to wipe the moisture off the inside of the propagator lid every day - where it tends to condense. If you don't do that - it can drop down onto seedlings and possibly cause fungal diseases in the warm, moist atmosphere. Attention to detail is always the key to successful propagation, or in fact at any stage of growth. 
 

Protecting seedlings while providing good air circulation is key

 
Good air circulation is really important in a polytunnel at any time of year, but particularly from now on. Trays and pots of all sorts of other seedlings are already jostling for space in the propagator and on the heated mat. From now on - the hardier ones, like broad beans, peas, lettuces, cabbages, calabrese and cauliflowers have to take their chance just under fleece in the main part of the tunnel at night, without artificial heat, as there are so many others, like celery, tomatoes and onions, and tender bedding plants like nicotiana and french marigolds that still need that extra bit of warmth just to germinate. I stand the trays and pots of the more hardy types of veg. on black polythene on a spare tunnel bed. The black polythene absorbs the rays of the sun during the day (if there are any!), heating up the ground underneath, and this amazingly keeps them about 4 deg C warmer under their double fleece 'duvet', than the ambient temperature in the rest of the tunnel. So far this year - doing this has saved my extra-early potatoes - finger's crossed. During the day I uncover them, normally when the sun gets high enough to start warming the tunnel up a bit.(around 9 or 10 am-ish). If you don't do this, stagnant moist air gets trapped under the fleece, encouraging disease.. Later on, depending on the amount of sun, I open one or both of the doors at either end for more ventilation, as long as it's not too windy. In the evening, around 4.30 or 5pm I then re-cover those crops that are 'fleeced' at night, and close the doors. In the next few days more frosts are forecast - so make sure anything vulnerable is covered at night!  Frost does an awful lot more damage once plants are starting to grow more quickly again - as they are now. 
 

Shading small seedlings is important from now on

Any sunlight is getting much stronger from now on, so I keep some fleece suspended well above the small seedlings on the propagating bench in the tunnel - in order to shade them at midday if the sun suddenly comes out. In the greenhouse it's a lot easier, you can just shade the glass by painting on 'Coolglass' paint - a powder which you mix with water and paint onto the glass. Mix it up in an old measuring jug or similar, put into an old baking tin or paint tray and use a paint roller or soft household sweeping brush to brush it all over the roof and about half way down the sides. Do this in dry weather, then once dried, it won't wash off again in rain. It just cleverly turns clear again when wet - letting more light in. Heavily abrasive hail may damage it, but you can re-apply it, and then in the autumn you can remove it by just brushing it off again on a dry day. Unfortunately the tunnel is too big and difficult to paint unless you have a helicopter! So fleece or shade netting is the only answer there. 
 
 
While on the subject of fleece - another of my money saving tips.  It's a lot cheaper by far to buy a big roll of it from your local agricultural supplies shop. You'll get one for around 20 euros or so, and then you can then split it up with friends. A small packet of fleece from a garden centre or DIY store will cost you almost the same - though in some you can buy it by the metre from a large roll.
 

The Vegetable Garden in March - 2020

March contents:  Growing our own health has never been MORE important!.... Our garden friends are waking up..... 'Seat of the pants' gardening!..... How to get ahead with your veg gardening even if it's too wet outside.....Time to sow leeks......My unconventional method of sowing onions and leeks to cheat the weather!.....Dealing with slugs and snails - some organic suggestions......Make sure there's no hiding place for slugs.....How to make an protected propagating area outside if you don't have a greenhouse or polytunnel.....My easy, slug-proof 'Moat Method' to keep slugs out of propagating areas!.....Improving difficult Soil.....Soil Matters!.....My peculiar method of planting potatoes in pots to transplant for outdoor cropping!
  
My immune-boosting chicken, shiitake mushroom and vegetable stew, with wholegrain barley - packed with polyphenol phytonutrients
My immune-boosting chicken, shiitake mushroom and vegetable stew, with wholegrain barley - packed with polyphenol phytonutrients
 
Growing our own health, by growing some of our own fresh food, has never been MORE important!  And the good news is that even if you've never done it before - it's easy and something you CAN do! It isn't just good for our physical health - but for our mental health too!
 
I'm what I call a 'doer' - I always find it so much more helpful to do something positive and proactive to help to relieve my feelings whatever the situation, rather than just passively watching endless soap re-runs, TV game shows or old Nature documentaries.  Even when I was unable to walk for several months many years ago after a bad fall, after which I contracted viral meningitis with almost 2 years of M.E. or chronic fatigue syndrome afterwards, and again a couple of years later after I had spinal surgery, I spent a lot of that time reading (no internet in the early 1980's!) and researching disabled gardening in raised beds, the best fruit trees to grow in our climate which would pollinate each other, how to encourage Nature, and planning my eventual garden here in minute detail. It's amazing how hopeful and positive it can make one feel, and just how much time it can pass.  And as I've always said - dreams are free - but they can nevertheless be priceless for one's mental health!  I've always found that doing nothing positive and simply reacting to situations makes me feel ten times worse.  These days if I'm really worried about anything - and if it's something I can't do anything about - then I always make soup or do some weeding! This amuses the family who always recognise the symptoms without fail!  But both occupations are incredibly therapeutic, have benefits for our physical and mental health, and seem to empty the mind of worries - even if only temporarily.  I made the soup (or stew) above last night - it was packed with tons of healthy polyphenol antioxidants from all of the vegetables and the wholegrain barley it contained, and.anti-viral compounds from the long-simmered chicken bones and pieces leftover from the Sunday roast. .....Even if some might say that 'Jewish chicken soup' isn't proven to be anti-viral - it's still one of the most comforting things on the planet to eat - and it's what I always crave when I feel I need an immune boost. And you know what they say about listening to your gut!
 
 
Apart from the benefits of growing our own food - lots of people now will possibly be wary of buying fresh salads now because of the possibility of them carrying COVID19 or 'Corona Virus'.  I would also be personally, as I did some research into this and a 2013 study showed that SARS could survive for 10 days on fresh produce, and that appears to be a less serious form of Corona Virus than the current new virus COVID 19 -
 
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12560-013-9114-4    -   'Survival of Respiratory Viruses on Fresh Produce' - here's an extract from that study.....  "Nevertheless, these respiratory viruses were able to survive for at least several days on produce. There is therefore the potential for transfer to the hands and subsequently to the mucosa via rubbing the eyes or nose. In addition, some respiratory coronaviruses (e.g., severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus) and adenoviruses are also capable of replication in the gut and there is thus some potential for acquisition through the consumption of contaminated produce"
 
Although it may be possible to scrub many vegetables with mildly soapy water if they're not going to be cooked (soap is proven to destroy the protective surface of the virus) - you can't do that with tender salad veg like lettuce, spinach, rocket or mustards!  Some people may also be self-isolating at the moment, or even afraid to go out too much in case they or their family may catch it.  in that case you could be a really good friend and drop them some fast-growing salad seeds and a small bag of organic peat-free compost at their door, if they don't already have some. 
 
I saw a scientist saying recently on Twitter that all of a sudden everyone had become a 'health expert' and that they should keep their opinions and dangerous 'quack cures' to themselves!  I certainly agree about the 'dangerous quack cures'!  I don't profess to be a health expert but my opinion for what it's worth, as a mother of healthy, grown-up children who have both faced serious immune challenges and accidents - is that eating a nutritious organic diet and looking after our gut health are vitally important for our overall health and immune system - but that loading up on specific vitamins or so-called individual 'superfoods' won't prevent or cure Corona Virus. There is some evidence that extra vitamin C and zinc can possibly help to prevent or shorten the duration of a virus, alongside eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and not eating loads of processed junk, however deliciously tempting it may be! - But added to fresh produce - fresh air, exercise and managing stress can also help us stay healthy, and may prevent a virus from becoming more severe. Not surprising that growing our own organic food provides all those in abundance.  After all  - it's the food that Nature has been providing for all life on earth for 3.5 billion years, including us!  That's something that many highly qualified, so-called 'health experts' appear to have forgotten!

What if you don't have a polytunnel - or even a garden - can you grow anything? 

This is something which I'm asked a lot and the answer, perhaps surprisingly, is YES - quite a lot!  Anything that you can grow in a polytunnel, or outside, you can grow in containers - but obviously just on a smaller scale.  You may not become self-sufficient in fresh vegetables and fruit by growing in containers - but you'd be surprised at just how much you CAN grow! If you're short of space and think you can't grow your own veg - then think again!  You'll be amazed at what will grow even in quite small containers. I know that not everyone is lucky enough to have a polytunnel or sometimes even a garden - but many people have a path outside their house - and if they have - then perhaps there's space for a tub or two?  So often I hear people saying "I don't have an allotment - so I can't grow anything".  Many people have tiny gardens now - especially in new housing schemes where space is expensive. Even if you don't have a garden at all - perhaps only a windowsill or  balcony - there's still no excuse not to grow at least something which will be far fresher than anything you could buy, a lot healthier and save you some money for very little effort. And I don't mean just an unhappy pot of herbs on your kitchen windowsill! 
 
 
If you've got a path with room to walk on it, then the good news is that you've got room for at least some veg in containers. For instance, there's my stepladder/mushroom box garden which I invented a few years ago (much copied since!). This will fit into anyone's front porch or on a balcony. It takes up less than a half a square metre and you'd be absolutely amazed just how much produce I got from it last year!  I picked up the used mushroom boxes, which are nice and deep, in the veg department of my local supermarket and they happened to be an ideal size to fit on each step, but still not too heavy to move - even with a soil/compost mix in them. 
 
 
The other good news is that from March until about June - most garden centres will have module-raised lettuce and other veg plants, so if you're a beginner you can get used to growing veg plants first, without the hassle of raising stuff from seed. It's also good news for any of us who are late starters in the vegetable growing season - for whatever reason!
 
 
I grew lettuce, herbs, chilies, Maskotka bush tomatoes, radishes, celery leaves, rocket, spinach etc. in those boxes on the steps 2 years ago.  I also put a couple of large 10 litre buckets either side of the stepladder, each fitted half-way underneath, one was planted with a Sungold tomato and the other with a watermelon Sugar Baby. I got terrific crops from both by training them up either side of the stepladder, tying them up to it as they grew!  Next to it in the picture here there's also some recycled skip-bag raised beds which are equally space-saving. The two bags fitted onto a large 'grow-bag' tray, but grew far more than you would ever be able to grow in a normal sized grow bag -and of course they were organic. I grew a fantastic crop of early potatoes, broad beans, Swiss chard, spinach, mangetout peas and then sweet potatoes in those last year - multi-planting so that there were two or three things growing in the bags all at the same time, apart from the very early potatoes in one bag which were on their own - as they were obviously going to be dug up, which would have disturbed the roots of anything else with them. I got several crops of fast growing radishes by 'catch-cropping' between slower growing things before they grew too big and shaded them. The sweet potatoes were the last crop of the autumn and they really appreciated the depth of soil in the bags - producing an incredible crop in November.
 

My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds - late March. Shows what you can do in a very small space. Lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs.My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds in late March shows what you can do in a very small space, with lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs. Large attractive pots, if you can afford them, are very nice to look at - but if you're trying to save money, then 10 litre recycled mayo or coleslaw buckets from the local supermarket deli are good too, and they always have those at every deli counter. Ask nicely and you'll be amazed at what they have. Once you start on the "What can I fit some soil into?"  route - then frankly the only limit is your imagination - and of course any desire for tidiness! That's not something that bothers me greatly, I have to say, if I'm getting wonderful veg - and you can always hide the bucket by growing something trailing in it! In fact you can grow in anything that you can fit soil or compost into! If containers are large you don't have to fill the whole thing up with good compost. You can fill up the bottom with any kind of garden rubbish that you would normally put on the compost heap, to bring up the level. Things like soft prunings, old pot plants (only organic ones as others may contain nasty chemicals), last year's container soil/compost etc. perhaps mixed up with cardboard and newspapers - and if you mix in some garden soil as well this will all compost down nicely at the same time!
 
 
As long as you have about 30 cm or a 1 ft or so of depth of a nice soil/organic compost mix as the top layer, then anything will be delighted to grow in that. If containers are tall I find it useful for the sake of stability to also mix the lower layer with garden soil which is heavier. This is particularly important if the containers are in a windy spot or you're going to grow tall crops like runner beans or tall peas. The advantage of tall containers like skip bags is that not only do deeper rooting crops like chard etc have more room - but also dwarf mangetout peas or trailing courgettes can also drape attractively down the sides, making them more attractive - maybe mixed with a few trailing nasturtiums to attract bees and beneficial insects. The sky's the limit as my article on stepladder gardening here in the link below shows! 
 
 
 
Many years ago, I did a lot of experiments with growing in all sorts of containers, even using dustbins, old sinks and recycled carrier bags! The reason mainly was because we were in the process of moving to where we live now, but I still wanted to continue growing organic veg as I couldn't buy any then. Over the course of 2 years I grew an entire vegetable garden in various containers of one sort or another. Some were a bit 'Heath-Robinson' - but it all worked and I got great crops! I even filled the freezer with 40 lbs of French beans! You can grow in pretty much anything as long as there's enough room for the roots and some drainage holes. Be inventive! Of course they do need a little more watering, looking after and feeding occasionally - but picking your daily salad should remind you to water them anyway! Containers tend to be a bit warmer too - particularly if they're sited in the sun, so crops are often earlier, meaning that you'll get more out of them over the course of a spring and summer, although they can freeze in the winter if you're in a very cold area. I've even protected containers in winter by wrapping them up with old duvets - but that's going a bit far for some people and can tend to look a bit untidy! 
 
 
You don't need a tunnel for container growing - but you can now get small, cheap mini-tunnel/greenhouses in most garden/DIY stores and in the discount supermarkets for upwards of £20 or €25. They can really increase the range of things you can grow over the year and allow you to grow more tender crops like tomatoes and aubergines. Or you could make your own - as I did years ago out of 2 x 1 inch wooden laths and recycled polythene, begged off a mattress from a furniture store!  They often have loads stashed in skips around the back if you ask nicely - the ones off the double beds are best and last for years if you're careful! Anything you can grow in a large polytunnel, you can grow in one of these, allowing for the head space needed. They do need anchoring down well though in any wind but apart from that they're very effective. The really big plus with containers for most people is that slugs and snails are usually are far less of a problem - you may get the odd adventurous one - but there are plenty of organic ways and means of dealing with them! 

Our Garden Friends are Waking up - and They're Such a Welcome Sight

 
Three days ago, while tidying up in the polytunnel, I saw my very first hoverflies and ladybirds of 2020, joining the bumblebees which have already been leaving their nests to forage in there whenever there was a mild day over the last few weeks, despite the wet weather. They are always such a welcome sight and sound - especially now that we are aware that insects are declining so much throughout the world due to pesticide use.  We simply can't produce food without them - and as they also provide food for other creatures like birds higher up the food chain - the rest of biodiversity can't survive without them either. They are vitally important - not just to us but to all of that biodiversity which we are only one small part of. Everything is connected - a fact some seem to forget!  
 
 
All of the what us gardeners call 'beneficial insects' were no doubt venturing out into the relatively warm midday sun to see if there might be any early aphids for a spring brunch or some nectar from all the tunnel flowers. Their appearance reminded me that there are still many more of the organic gardeners' good friends hiding from the weather and from hungry birds among the dry leaves - so it's a mistake to try to tidy up too much just yet. I stopped my housekeeping immediately and left them alone, because tidying too much and disturbing them exposes them to the wrens and robins that are always busily foraging around the tunnel all year round. There is already a robin nesting under the staging which comes out to take a few organic hen food pellets from my hand whenever I'm in there - so I keep a tiny pill bottle of hen food in my coat pocket just for feeding it. It always makes me feel so incredibly privileged to be trusted by such a tiny and vulnerable scrap of nature. The scent of wallflowers, narcissi and primroses wafting up from underneath the blossoming  peach trees, the grapevines swelling their buds and birds sweetly singing, lifts the spirits and gladdens the heart - and it begins to feel like spring has finally arrived at last. But the gales raging outside reminding us to bide our time for a while yet!  But there is plenty we can get on with inside to be ready for when the ground is in a more suitable condition outside
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'Seat of the Pants' Gardening!

 
The last couple of weeks storms seem to have continued "February fill-dyke" in March!  That old saying shows us how mostly much more predictable the weather was decades ago. Sadly the wetter and increasingly erratic weather we're now experiencing is one of the symptoms of climate change that we're clearly going to have to become accustomed to - my scientist son says it's something to do with the jet stream moving.  But whatever it is - it's becoming increasingly obvious that we can no longer rely on the weather progressing as it has done in spring for many centuries. Erratic will become the norm - and February record high temperatures may often be followed by freezing weather and snow in March as we had in 2018! That means that flexiblity, or what I call my - 'seat of the pants gardening' - will have to be the norm from now on if we want to get good food crops. Those gardeners who still go by rules that I see so often repeated from old gardening books will be caught out time and again now by the unpredictable weather. The key thing from now on will be to be flexible, experiment and to see what works best for you in your particular micro-climate. That's what I've been doing all the time for over the last 305 years since I first really began to notice climate change happening.
 
 
One of the things that is an absolute no no, is leaving ANY soil uncovered now in this weather - and yet I'm still seeing so many gardeners on social media proudly displaying their pristinely bare, weed-free plots - even if they don't use weedkillers!  Bare soil is absolute anathema to Nature, it's bad for soil life and is one of the things contributing to climate change. Some may think that their small garden or allotment plot can't make that much difference - but think about it. All of those small plots add up to a huge expanse countrywide - especially when combined with the ugly, yellow, Roundup/glyphosate-treated farmland I see everywhere throughout the country!  A large, bare expanse that is not just polluting groundwater, but also emitting nitrous-oxide from the bare soil - especially where manure or compost is piled onto the soil to prevent weeds germinating and create a nice 'tilth' as it's called - or crumbly soft surface. We should NOT be doing that any more!  If you want to get ahead by getting compost or manure out onto beds - then for heaven's sake cover it afterwards!  We should be doing ALL we possibly can to minimise greenhouse gas emissions like Nitric Oxide, and ground water pollution from excess compost and fertilisers (even if organic), and to preserve precious soil life - as I've been saying for years! Every bit we can do does make a difference, when it's all added up. 
 
 
Anyway - there's nothing that can be done outside yet, and even walking on wet paths damages drainage. The soil here is still so saturated that in many well-trodden places, I'm squelching around in gloupy mud up to my ankles! The route that I use up to feed the hens and collect eggs every day is really treacherous at the moment with all the mud!  It's currently impossible to do anything useful in the kitchen garden even in the raised beds as they are just islands surrounded by water. As a result - all my efforts for the next week or so will be concentrated on sowing more seeds into modules, so that I have nice, big slug-proof plants hardened off and ready to go when things dry up enough to finally start planting. 
 
 
Although, like you,  I'm keen to get out and feel my fingers in the soil, it's still very early days yet, and anything in modules that needs planting will now be potted on before being planted outside. There's no point planting anything just to have it blown out of the ground by gales - it will be safer potted on and growing on quietly in the polytunnel or a cold frame.  Not only is the soil far too wet to do anything - but the soil temperature is colder than normal. It would be a complete waste of both time and seed trying to sow anything into it even in the raised beds! A couple of weeks of being covered with clear polythene now will work wonders though in the places where I need to do any early sowings of carrots etc. so I'm not panicking.  Over the years I've learnt that it's always a mistake to sow too early - as it often results in seeds just sitting miserably there doing nothing and even perhaps rotting. Any gardening - here at least - will have to be restricted to the polytunnels at the moment - but there's plenty to do in there! After the winter storms over the UK and Ireland - I suspect it's the same for most people!
 
 
I already have 4 dozen pots of potatoes planted out in the polytunnel which are growing nicely, and as I always do now - I shall be starting all my potatoes for outside in pots too - which I talk about below. Planting them on the traditional day of St Patrick's Day here would mean them sitting in the now icy-cold, saturated ground for quite a long time before they even venture to put their snouts above the ground! I always try to 'think like a plant' when growing anything - and frankly if I was a tender plant like a potato I think I'd sulk for ages planted like that after all the snow we've had!  Anyway - mine will be ready at least a month ahead of any tubers direct planted. OK it's a bit more trouble - but I believe it's well worth the small amount of trouble to do this, as it means I reliably get good crops earlier and without ever spraying for blight.
 

My peculiar method of planting potatoes in pots to transplant for outdoor cropping!

You could plant well chitted early varieties of potatoes in well-drained soil later this month (is there any after this winter?)!! That's if you've had covers on the soil to warm it up. Remember - even the early ones will take at least 10-12 weeks from planting to cropping but you may have to cover with fleece once they're above ground, if frost is forecast.

I now grow all my outdoor potatoes by starting them off in pots, as it guarantees that I will miss early blight and it's really useful if the ground is still too wet and cold. It's well worth it, as we've had early blight here at the end of May once or twice over the last few years. Some of the potatoes I grow are extremely rare and hard to replace varieties, so doing this guarantees that I won't lose them.  OK - so it may be a bit of a 'faff' starting them off in pots and then planting them out - but no more so than planting out bedding plants - and few people have a problem with that! It just requires a change of mindset that's all! They may occasionally have to be covered with fleece if frost is forecast - but doing this it means that I never have to spray with anything - not even copper based organic fungicides.  My soil is heavy clay and copper can build up in soil creating imbalances and causing other problems. 

I also live in an area which grows a lot of horticultural crops including potatoes - and these are often left in the ground and sometimes not even lifted if it's not financially worth it - with the result that there is more and more early blight around here now. There are also more aggressive new 'super-strains' of potato blight emerging due precisely to this bad practice I believe, which are more resistant to chemical fungicides (as always happens eventually with most chemicals) - so planting early before the weather warms up enough for blight is the only way to avoid it, and absolutely guarantees a crop. As regular readers may know - I'm not keen of the 'Sarpo' varieties, as in my experience here in my local climate, they're really not much more blight-resistant than many of the other varieties I grow. I also happen to think that the Sarpo's are not that tasty either really - so really what's the point? We don't eat tons of potatoes every day as they're very high in carbs -we probably only eat them about twice a week. So despite being able to lower their carb content by about 50% by retrogradation - I would still sooner go to the extra trouble of just starting off my favourite potato varieties in pots just a bit earlier.  I grow about 20 different varieties of great-flavoured potatoes each year, some very rare - especially the purple ones.  I'll be starting all of them off in pots over the next week or so.

People often think that the difference between the earlies, second earlies and maincrops is the time that you plant them - it isn't. The name is what tells you how long it will take them to crop. Early and second early potatoes are the fastest growing and need the shortest time to produce a useful crop, but most will keep just as well as the maincrop varieties. Many become floury and mash well too - particularly Red Duke of York. I also start my maincrops off now too - because they take longer to produce a decent harvest. 

The old traditional way of planting potatoes straight into cold ground on St. Patrick's day no longer works unless you are prepared to use toxic, expensive and often completely useless sprays against potato blight. That method may have worked many years ago - but our climate and weather have changed and become unpredictable -  and so have the fast-evolving new strains of blight. Also if ground is saturated it means planting isn't delayed because you're waiting for it to dry out. Using my method - it's unnecessary to use any sprays, organic or otherwise, so it's much cheaper and healthier too! 

So whatever the weather - there is plenty we can do though, to prepare for when the weather changes. March is the serious start of major production in the garden - up to now anything sown indoors has just been the rehearsal!  Anything we can do to get ahead now, despite the weather, will save a lot of time and hassle later - and lay the foundations for good crops. Otherwise work starts to pile up - and if it does gardening can become a bit of a stressful chore, if you're trying to grow all your own food like we try to do here. It's meant to be enjoyable as well as productive!  The birds are already gearing up for the breeding season though. The sparrows are all chasing each other round and arguing over nesting sites as usual and it's almost impossible to concentrate on any writing, because the starlings are performing their noisy morning ablutions in the gutter just above the back door, accompanied by much splashing, cat calling and 'wolf-whistles'! I can see them from my kitchen table 'desk' beside the kitchen window and they are so entertaining! 

 
How to get ahead with your veg gardening even if it's too wet outside
 
If you're impatient to start sowing seeds - then do it in modules inside and wait another couple of weeks or so before risking any expensive seed outside. The ground is still far too wet even in the raised beds, which drain far better that vegetable beds on the flat. In the meantime if you haven't got ground covered, then cover it immediately with clear polythene - this will warm the ground up and start it drying out.  If you've had ground covered for a few weeks with clear polythene or cloches to warm it up and you live in a warm area - you could start to sow some of the hardier veg. like peas and broad beans outside in a week so - but only if the weather gets milder. Seeds will germinate far more reliably, you'll lose far less and they'll crop much earlier if you sow them in pots or modules indoors now, then you'll be able to plant them out in a few weeks. That way you won't waste any expensive seed and you'll actually fit more crops into the growing year because you're not wasting 'ground time' waiting for something to warm up enough to grow. 
 
 
At this time of year you can often be waiting 3 weeks for something to germinate outside in cold wet soil and all the while they're sitting there in the ground, they're vulnerable to slugs and rotting because of the wet conditions.  Sowing them in modules on a warm windowsill indoors,or in a sunny cold frame, greenhouse or tunnel now means you can get a head start. They'll germinate quickly, be far healthier and be way ahead of anything sown outside. I actually find it much easier and more reliable to sow most of my veg. in modules now anyway, it saves so much on expensive seed, avoids unnecessary waste from thinning between plants, ensures that plants don't get a check when transplanting and that I don't have any gaps caused by slug damage. In the meantime your plants will be growing away beautifully - in a snug, slug-free environment!  The plants will be big enough to withstand the odd slug nibble without being totally wiped out if they're bigger when they're planted. Then when soil conditions allow, you'll be able to plant up beautifully organised, gap-free rows in your veg beds! I love this kind of instant planting - it's so satisfying. 
 
 
Module seed sowing is a also a great method for beginner gardeners. Firstly, one of the great things about planting things out you've raised in modules is that you don't have to spend hours of back-breaking work trying to get the perfect seedbed that some gardening magazines and books recommend! After which either heavy rain can often compact and 'cap'  the soil, or more heartbreaking - slugs may eat them overnight before you even noticed they'd germinated! Another reason module sowing is a great method for beginners, is that you can learn to easily recognise clearly each type of seedling. This is much more difficult to do in the open ground - when you've got lots of other weeds etc. germinating. It's also easier to get the right sowing depth, often critical for good germination. And best of all - there's no slugs!! More on that topic later!
 

Time to Sow Leeks 

Leeks sown in modules of peat-free compost last yearLeeks sown in modules of peat-free compost 
 
I'm going to sow my favourite leek Bandit later on today - just as I'm using some of the last of them in the delicious smelling chicken stock (or bone broth as some now call it) that's bubbling away aromatically on the range right now.  I was a bit too late sowing them last year - I didn't sow them until the beginning of April and they weren't quite as large as usual. It's surprising the difference three or four weeks makes even this early in the year. Above Bandit is pictured growing in one of the raised beds a couple of years ago, with sugar loaf chicory in background. In the foreground the bed is covered with clear polythene to dry it out and warm it up, as I mentioned earlier. Seed of Bandit is available from several suppliers now. It is a wonderful late variety that's very healthy and disease-resistant, very reliable and great for organic growing. It's also one of the best tasting leeks in my opinion and a really valuable late vegetable when supplies are starting to run short. I usually multi sow it 3-4 seeds per module and then plant them out later, just as they are, if only 3 germinate. At roughly 1ft/30cm spacing - they make a good bunch of 3 which I find a really convenient size to dig up for most meals. If four come up then I carefully detach one and plant them singly for even bigger leeks. I sow them in exactly the same way as I sow my onions - in module trays of peat-free compost - as I describe in the polytunnel section of this month's diary.
 
 
If you still have leeks in the garden but need to get on with preparing the space they're occupying for different crop - they are very good-natured about being gently lifted with roots as intact as possible and 'heeled-in' - to use the old-fashioned phrase - somewhere else. A shady spot is good as they will then last much longer before starting to produce flower buds later on - so you don't have to use them in too much of a hurry! Just dig a small trench not too deep and put all the leeks together in a short row. No need to space them out too much. Then back-fill the trench with some good soil, water them and they'll be happy there for ages. Be careful not to damage the tops too much when doing this - as they're actually the most nutritious part of the leek - with loads of vitamin A. I can never understand why people cut off the most nutritious and I think delicious bit! I suppose that because they see it done on the ones for sale in supermarkets and other shops - but that's because the tops get so easily damaged and would look very tatty if left on when they're being sold! I think it's really criminal to cut off half the leek and waste it though!
 

My unconventional method of multi-sowing onions and leeks to cheat the weather!

Onions from seed are always crop far more successfully than sets, particularly in a bad year - and of course they don't run the risk of bringing in onion white rot disease which sets may sometimes do. That can be even more likely in a wet year - and as it can survive for up to 20 years in the soil, destroying all your onion crops - you really don't want it!. The good news is - it's still not too late to sow them, if you get a move on and sow them now! I've been multi-sowing my onions and leeks for about 35 years now. It saves pricking out and gives me exactly the size onions I want for various different kitchen uses.
 
 
I have a neat trick up my sleeve for onions - and this one is really worth trying if you are ever delayed when anything sensitive needs planting out from modules. After sowing them in module trays, as soon as the roots start to show through the bottom of the modules - I then sit the module tray into a larger tray of peat-free potting compost. This means that instead of wrapping around and around inside the modules - the roots will immediately start to explore a bit further. I find that despite this involving lifting them gently later in order to plant - I get far fewer 'bolters' this way. I also grow on my leek seedlings leeks this way too.
 
  Onion seedlings in a module tray, sitting in a larger tray of peat-free compostOnion seedlings in a module tray, sitting in a larger tray of peat-free compost
 
 
I first thought of this particular trick when I was behind with my work in the garden for some reason (weather, or back problems probably!) so that I couldn't plant out my onions and leeks at the right time. This meant they were in serious danger of becoming starved and root bound - which they hate and is far more likely to cause bolting. What I do is to sit the module tray on top of roughly an inch of fairly loose compost in a large plant tray. I put something like a sheet of newspaper on the bottom first - just to stop the compost falling through, then I put in 2-3cm of organic peat free potting compost - which I water well - and then just sit the module tray on top. This completely avoids the fiddly and time consuming job of having to pot on over 100 modules just for the sake of a couple of weeks or so - and means that the onions, leeks or whatever get absolutely no check at all to their growth. They keep on growing - sending their roots out exploring downwards, happily completely unawares and not being the least bit bothered at all. When I'm finally ready to plant them into the ground - I give them a good watering, very gently ease the tray up out of the compost - take each plug of multi-sown plants out of the module tray and plant as normal. I may get only one or two 'bolters' out of 3-400 onions - so it obviously doesn't bother them in the least! They will usually have put on a couple of centimetres or so of root into the compost underneath in this time - but by easing them very gently out they never even know they've been moved and don't receive any check at all. This was a great success a few years ago, when the weather was so wet that many people's onions were a complete disaster. I had a terrific crop as usual as a result of this trick, most of which ripened well and kept all winter long. 
 
 
  
Experience is always the best teacher - and like many of the odd things I do, while it may not be not the most conventional way of doing things - it works!  Being 'conventional' has never bothered me very much though!  I've always felt that 'conventional' was there to be challenged - particularly if it didn't suit my hectic lifestyle, with so many other things to do! Given that we now also have to cope with unpredictable and erratic weather patterns brought on by climate change - it means that we can often be delayed and unable to do jobs when we would like to! The onion trick is something which I've learned works really well from experience. I would otherwise often have to go to a lot of bother and time potting on to avoid plants getting a check - using a lot more compost. Saving time is often as important as saving money for me! If you don't do this, or don't pot them on and just leave them sitting on a hard surface getting starved if their planting is delayed - then the roots will start going round and round inside the modules, becoming very congested. As a result - they will then be far less efficient, the plants will get a check and won't grow as well as they should when you plant them out and may be more likely to 'bolt'. If they're sitting on capillary matting - the effects can be even worse! This is because they will start to root into the matting - the roots then get broken off when you try to lift them up off the matting - and this can cause them to get such a severe shock that many of them will definitely 'bolt' - running straight up to flower instead of producing the nice firm, ripe, long-keeping bulbs that you want.  I actually do this every year now with my onions - I like to sow them early to get nice big plants so that I eventually get nice big well-ripened onions! I'm still using the last of last year's 'Golden Bear' and 'Red Baron' onions and they are as firm as ever! It's really worth keeping this trick in mind, when we can't always rely on the weather to behave in the predictable way it always did - and we are all so busy! 
 
 
Although leeks aren't quite as sensitive to being moved as onions - this is still a very useful trick that works really well for them too - especially if you have to go away at short notice or are held up in some other way. If you have time beforehand you could row them out in a small patch of a veg. bed if they are large enough instead of doing this and plant them out as usual later - but if they're still small that's risky as they're far more vulnerable to slugs!  This way success is guaranteed!
 
 
Following the same advice given in old gardening manuals just because that's how it was always done is rather outdated now. Our climate is definitely changing and we'd better learn to be adaptable and think laterally. That's why I call it 'seat of the pants' gardening!
 
 

Dealing with slugs and snails - some organic suggestions

If you've had a lot of slug problems in the past - then putting some black polythene cover, cardboard or anything else which blocks light on beds is a useful thing to do right now, if you haven't done that already. As the beds start to warm up a bit slugs will collect just under the surface rather than going deeper underground. The dark fools them into thinking they're safely out of sight and you can just peel back the polythene and dispose of them in whatever way you like - but just make sure they're truly dead! 
 
 
What you do after collecting slugs is up to you. My favourite way is to snip them in half with some long sharp scissors - or feed them to my hens who love them - although some people are squeamish about that. It really freaks them out - but don't forget slugs are food for many birds and other wildlife who are now absolutely desperate for food - so steel yourself and just think about them! 
 
 
Odd how people can be so squeamish about doing something which is a far kinder death and far less likely to kill something else than using poisonous slug pellets! Out of sight out of mind I suppose! If slugs and snails are just snipped in half without being poisoned - it means that hungry wildlife can still eat them with absolutely no danger of being poisoned.  And of course chopping them up makes a much more convenient mouthful for a hungry blackbird or thrush! I find it also helps to think about the crops you may lose if you don't do that! Then you'll find that using the scissors becomes much easier!
 
 
Birds don't seem to like the really huge slugs - they prefer them once I've cut them in half with my sharp scissors (dainty appetites obviously!) - and I don't mind obliging in the least!  Either that or I give them to the hens who have great fun with the really big ones - playing a sort of 'slug tag' - running around with a big one dangling  in their beaks while being chased by all the others before finally gulping it down! (more protein for the eggs!!) Cutting them up is not only probably kinder to them - a fast decapitation rather than a slow death from poisoning - but it's also much the most wildlife friendly and environmentally sound way of dealing with slugs.
 
 
I know some people area a bit squeamish about slug snipping - but believe me - it 's a lot easier after you've lost a few expensive rows of carrots or lettuces to the little blighters! They say committing murder is always easier after the first time! Please don't be tempted to use poisonous slug pellets - even organic ones can poison some creatures - especially some greedy pets. Slug pellets don't just potentially poison wildlife, they also pollute our groundwater - so I'm delighted to hear they will be banned soon outdoors!
 

Make sure there's no Hiding Place for slugs!

 
Hiding a lettuce leaf under a slate is a good way to trap unwary slugs!Hiding a lettuce leaf under a slate is a good way to trap unwary slugs!
 
I tend to use a combination of different approaches for dealing with slugs and it works well for me. As the garden warms up, the weeds start to grow,  and keeping them down in and around vegetable beds will prevent slugs from hiding there and coming out at night to wipe out your crops.
 
 
Keeping any grass paths next to veg beds mown really tight is key too, as it also allows birds to see slugs and snails more easily and pick them off and it stops the paths being a convenient hiding place! Occasionally I might use beer traps, but they don't always work. They can be useful if you have a big problem, which you will do if you allow your plot to become weedy and overgrown, or may have if you're starting on a new plot. I find if you get rid of slugs my way, there's generally very few left after that. Pieces of slate or well-anchored small bits of black polythene placed along rows and at the edges is very good too - especially along rows or in between vulnerable plants. Slugs will hide under the slates thinking they're safe! Not so! You can just have a quick look underneath and scrape them off into a container every so often. Ducks are very partial to slugs too. I used to keep a lot of Khaki Campbells and rare breed ducks like Silver Appleyards here many years ago, before the fox problem became too bad around here. Ducks hate being shut up and they used to patrol happily around the vegetable garden hunting for slugs - which wasn't a problem as long as juicy duck treats like lettuces were well covered! If you moved a bit of black polythene in the vegetable garden back in those days - you'd nearly be killed in the rush - with quacking ducks all piling in from all directions with great gusto, to be the first to grab them and greedily guzzle them up! They were such sociable, intelligent creatures and used to come if I called their names - I do miss them!
 
 

How to make a protected propagating area outside if you don't have a greenhouse or polytunnel

 
With ground far too wet to do anything in veg. beds - organising a small propagating area outside is a good job for a sunny day. Even if you have a tunnel or greenhouse - it's always useful when things get busy to have an extra area where you can stand things that are 'hardening off'. It needs to be in a well lit, sheltered but not shady area - where it won't be too sunny later on.  As a bench - you could use an old table or a even couple of planks resting on some blocks, so that your seed trays are off the ground. This prevents slugs from reaching them. If you don't have a greenhouse or tunnel this is a really good slug proof way to raise seedlings outside - which you can further improve by the addition of a cheap cold frame, cloche or home-made polythene frame to give seedlings a little extra warmth and also protection from heavy rain and wind. It's also a great place to 'harden off' safely any seedlings raised indoors in modules. 
 
 
Module sowing at home is also a great way to get your plants going if you have an allotment, which may not be near enough to pop down to every so often to check on slugs etc. It's obviously much easier to keep an eye on seedlings if they're just outside your back door - and a few modules or seed trays really don't really take up that much room. As I've said many times before - it's not just easier to protect them from slugs if your propagation area is raised - it also means that they're at a reasonable height to tend, which is great relief for a bad back! Then you'll have nice big plants ready to plant out that are big enough to withstand the odd nibble from a slug or two without losing them altogether.
 
 

My easy slug-proof 'Moat Method' to keep slugs out of propagation areas!

Over 40 years ago, before I had a tunnel or greenhouse,  I came up with a brilliant way to prevent slugs and snails from getting into my seedlings! I had a home-made cold frame placed on an old metal legged table and after much thought I invented what I called my 'Moat Method'! This involved putting each table leg sitting in a big metal can of water - that way, there was absolutely no way for the slugs to even be able to climb up there! If your table is wooden - then just cut off the bottoms of four plastic bottles and sit the table legs in those so that they stay dry while sitting in the water and won't rot! Simple! 
 
 
Slugs can do a lot things - but the one thing they can't do is swim!! (They do try bungee-jumping though! Occasionally dangerously suspending themselves on a long thread of mucous from the roof of the tunnel - not nice when you walk into them unsuspectingly!) Just make sure your table, seed trays pots etc. are completely slug-free to start with and then you won't have a problem! A favourite place for them to hide is between the inside of seed trays and the module inserts, or under pots. Keep an eye out for their 'give away' silver slime trails, even really tiny slugs can decimate a tray of precious seedlings like lettuce or carrots very quickly, so check under seed trays etc. from time to time. It's also a good idea to cover brassica or carrot seedlings with something like Enviromesh to keep cabbage root fly and carrot fly out from now on as the weather warms up, and old freezer baskets or chicken wire are useful for keeping sparrows and some other small birds out - who sometimes seem to enjoy scratching up tiny seedlings just for the sheer hell of it! If you have a pigeon or pheasant problem having netting over them prevents them getting into them too. Mouse traps are also essential here too - I lose more to mice than anything since I don't have an effective cat! They've all my broad beans this year even though they were already 2 inches high!
 
 
My 'moat method' works perfectly for vine weevils too if you have something really precious you don't want to lose like auriculas which are very prone to vine weevil damage. After ensuring that there are no vine weevil grubs in their compost - just sit their pots on something raised above a saucer of water. The female vine weevil bugs won't be able to crawl up into the plant pot as they usually would - because they can't swim either! Propagating in modules in this way means you can deal with any slug or pest problems in your vegetable beds at the same time as raising your plants elsewhere. This gives you the absolute peace of mind of knowing that you'll have really nice strong plants to plant out in a few weeks time with no losses to slugs, even if you haven't managed to get every last one by then! 
 
 
I sometimes feel the garden is under siege from all sides - but there's always a clever organic way of defeating everything with a little thought and effort - and it's so much more satisfying using your wit, rather than harmful chemicals!  I really love what I call 'instant gratification' of module raised plants too - there's nothing as satisfying as looking at really well-grown plants, planted neatly spaced out, in rows without gaps in a well prepared bed. That is except eating them - naturally!  Neatly ordered, well-grown veg. are every bit as beautiful as any herbaceous border!  I've already covered my particular method of sowing seeds into modules in February's veg. garden and polytunnel diaries - and you can find details of all the veg. that it's possible to sow now in my 'What to sow now' section for March.
 

Over the next week or so - whenever it's dry - I'll be uncovering the empty beds in my kitchen garden and, letting the air in to dry them out even more - if it's not raining! Doing that also lets the birds clear pests like millipedes, wood lice etc. They'll be grateful for anything they can find as food is very scarce right now. Cover the beds up again before any rain is forecast - and if the cover excludes light - like black polythene - this will also help to stop weeds seeds germinating. So no need to panic if the soil's too wet to work. If you can see plenty of weed seeds germinating, when the soil outside has dried up a bit - that will show the soil should be warm enough to sow the hardier things outside - no need for expensive soil thermometers - Nature shows you exactly when the soil's warmed up enough for growth.
 

Improving difficult soil 

I'm often asked what is the best way to improve soil - and I always say - grow things in it! I know that sounds a bit like a daft or clever reply - but no one starts off with the perfect soil (if there is such a thing - except from an individual plant's perspective). That is unless they've inherited an old garden that's been worked organically for countless years. I think you can turn even a 'builder-ruined' soil into something reasonable within about three years - I've done it! The proof of the pudding is good, healthy crops. Just keep adding compost, well rotted manure, mulching (which also excludes light between rows and keeps weeds down) and using green manures. You will be amazed how quickly you'll achieve a really good soil structure.  Calcified seaweed and seaweed meal also help too, as they really get the biological activity going in poor, very compacted soil - encouraging all the micro-life including worms, which also help to break it down and aerate it. This is the reason why 'double digging' is so bad for soil - because there's a vast army of little workers beavering away permanently just underneath the surface of the soil - and each one has it's own designated level. They don't want to be buried so deep that it takes them years to fight their way back to the surface where they can do the specific job Nature evolved them to do, in those particular top few centimetres!  It would be the human equivalent of a serious earthquake to us! These microorganisms have developed over billions of years to live together symbiotically and do their specific job just in the very top few centimetres of soil - so don't make life even harder for them. And remember - the better you make life for them, the more efficient they are, and the harder they'll work for you! Good organic gardening grows the soil - and the living population in the soil which is what really grows the plants!
 
 
 
There is hope after builders! Sitting on top of my soil now is the 'soil' I started off with 8 years ago in my new polytunnels!  It makes a good contrast with what the soil looks like now!Even if your soil is really rubbish and full of concrete-like clods - as it often is in the so-called 'garden' of a newly built house -  there is hope after builders! Pictured here on top of my soil now is a lump of the 'soil' I started off with 8 years ago in my new polytunnels! It makes a stark contrast with what the soil looks like now! If your soil looks like that - you can raise your plants in modules, then plant them out and they'll be fine. If it's seriously bad the first year, you may have to even make little pockets of compost in the soil to plant into as I mentioned last month - but after that the plants will grow on afterwards quite happily, the roots finding their own way around the clods or even breaking them up, as long as you keep the soil moist. Plants want to grow - as anyone who has ever left a forgotten few spuds at the back of an untidy veg cupboard will know!  I'm sure you probably tidy yours out more often than I do mine, so perhaps you haven't experienced that interesting phenomenon!!  I'm afraid once it gets to this time of year, any thoughts of 'spring cleaning' inside the house completely disappear off my agenda (if they were ever on it in the first place)! That's after I've cleared out any odd packets of nuts etc. that escaped my notice at the back of the cupboard and fed them to the hungry birds!!
 
 
 
Chemical additives or gimmicky 'quick fixes' may seem an attractive idea and possibly produce impressive results for a very short time - but they don't feed all the soil life that works together to ultimately produce the humus that builds a healthy, carbon-fixing soil. They may not produce healthy food with a properly balanced range of nutrients for us to eat either. There is a growing body of strong scientific evidence showing that by emphasizing one particular nutrient in soil - you can seriously unbalance others, and this can even mean that our bodies absorb the nutrients from that particular crop less well than Nature intended. It may be an unpopular thing to say - but Nature still knows best when it comes to growing food - and it is extremely arrogant of humans to assume anything else! There is still so much we don't know about how everything in the soil works symbiotically - and yet in many parts of the world we have already virtually destroyed it completely! 
 
  

The best way to improve any soil and encourage worms to help you too is to mulch, mulch and mulch again! You can't go wrong with that.  Mulching with whatever you have to exclude light also helps to keep weeds down and keeps moisture in - especially important if we get a long drought as we did in the summer of 2018. Grass clippings from untreated lawns are great between potato rows, and the potatoes also enjoy the acidifying effect, which discourages potato scab, often caused by excess lime, or chlorosis (mineral unavailability). This is something which can happen on high pH (limey) soils - especially encouraged by gardeners following the 'rule-books' and adding lime annually to soils!  In the past I used grass clippings on top of layers of damp newspaper, but the birds just loved scratching them all aside to find worms, and the garden started to resemble the local tip!  Now I just use the grass clippings on their own, keeping them a little away from the stems as the nitrogen in them when they're freshly cut can burn soft young growth. Watering any mulches immediately, as soon as you you've put them down prevents this happening. I also use comfrey leaves in the same way, as well as compost. If you're mulching with anything, always make sure that ground is damp first. Not usually a problem in our spring weather! Even a black polythene mulch is better than nothing, but tends to harbour slugs. Although then it's easier to lift it and pick them off from where they're hiding underneath! 

Soil Matters!

A few years ago - I was asked to give a talk for gardeners about how to restore soil, at the launch of the 'European People4Soil' initiative at our National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin. In it I showed some slides of my garden - explaining how it evolved from a totally degraded, virtual moonscape, to the vibrant and productive place which it is today.  I didn't know at the time that it was being filmed for showing on You Tube! Unfortunately I had a static microphone which didn't move when I did, so the odd word escaped here and there, and I was also rushing a bit due to the time alowed for my talk being cut slightly.  But if you haven't seen it before though - you may enjoy watching it! (Sorry about the squeaky door noises and the mobile phones!!) 

Here's the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjN30StFsf0&feature=youtu.be

 

For those of you who may be new readers - this blog isn't just about ways to garden organically. It's also about sharing with you many practical tips for making food healthier and also cheaper, which I've learnt over the 40 plus years that I've been growing for my family! I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......but if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you!

The Polytunnel Potager in March 2020

 

March contents: The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival is happening again!...  So why IS genetic diversity in tomatoes important?.... It's time to start sowing as it's officially Spring!...  How I sow my Tomatoes - and other tender crops....  Use Peat-free Seed Composts...... Potting on Tomato Seedlings....  Purple Potatoes... Other crops etc..........

The latest 'must have' accessory in any organic polytunnel potager - a Robin singing in your peach tree. A Star is born!

The latest 'must have' accessory in any organic polytunnel potager - a Robin singing in your peach tree. A Star is born!

 

A Star is Born! 

The latest 'must have accessory in a polytunnel potager is'..... a Robin!!  Little did I think last year when I  was clearing the rapidly developing jungle of brambles and weeds beside my polytunnel that the baby Robin who found all this activity of great interest would become a bit of a Twitter sensation!  The jungle had sprung up in a rather neglected bit where I'd put a lot of pot plants and cuttings for shelter over a while before they found a home - as you do - and I hadn't got round to tidying it.  Then I broke my ankle last March, couldn't do a thing for three months, and with the mostly mild wet winters of the last few of years, the brambles and general mess was growing at an exponential rate! I was utterly charmed by a dear baby Robin, who appeared as soon as I started on it, and got under my feet the entire time I was clearing it. He must have been hatched in a nest somewhere in the 'jungle' there, and he spent several days grabbing every woodlouse and beetle he could spot!  But the best thing was that HE had clearly spotted a very useful pet human, an alternative 'Mum' - who would not only provide him with regular easy meals, a sheltered spot to groom himself or to hunt for insects in wet and windy weather - but also somewhere safe to hide quickly from the Sparrowhawks and Buzzards which are constantly hunting over here due to all the biodiversity - the birds and small mammals - which our organic land attracts.  

 

Robin and I having a working lunch in the polytunnel Assistant Robin scrupulously checking for woodlice and other pests Robin posing in the afternoon sunshine and singing sweetly after work


Robin's antics since have proved without doubt (if there ever was any!) that polytunnels aren't just good for our physical and mental health, as I'm always saying, but they also provide constant entertainment as well - in the form of all the wonderful biodiversity (Robin included) which they can attract if we plant them as I do - with flowers and herbs as well as food for us!  Every day that Robin's antics make me smile or laugh - and he's clearly done that for many other people too.  I'm really thrilled that he has, because right now we all really need something to cheer us up - especially me, having lost a couple of dear friends recently.  There also seems to be so much depressing news almost every day about climate change, plastic pollution of our oceans, pesticides in food, or the dreaded Corona Virus - which is such a worryingly unknown quantity. Perhaps he's also helped to make many people appreciate, all the more, the wonderful biodiversity which we share this planet with - making them even more determined, as I am, to do everything we can to save it. That Robin may be only a tiny fragment of feather, bone and intelligence - but is a big Hero - especially to me! 

 

The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival will be happening again this year we hope - so get set sowing those tomatoes! 

 
  
I am delighted that 'The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' will be taking place at the National Botanic Gardens again this year! -  (Corona Virus allowing) Once again there will be talks and definitely the most fantastically diverse display of tomatoes that you will ever see anywhere in the world! 
It was wonderful to see them all displayed again so beautifully there on the upturned terracotta pots last year - as you can see in the pictures of both sides of the display in the Teak House. The joint effort established a new World Record of 256 varieties - mainly due to the hard work and generosity of The National Botanic Gardens and also of many great tomato enthusiasts. The news of this year's Festival is something else that we need to cheer us up in the miserably cold and wet un-spring-like weather that we're currently experiencing - and at this time of year it will surely re-energise even the most hardened of gardening enthusiasts!
 
 
Everyone is very welcome to take part - so start sowing those tomatoes now!  It would be lovely to get schools involved too - because children are the future growers and consumers of our food, and sadly they increasingly seem to be losing touch not just with where their food comes from and how to grow it - but also how to cook it - instead of opening a pizza packet! So if anyone's connected to any school gardens please get involved - I shall propose that if we could get enough schools interested in taking part, then I will personally present a prize to each one participating - perhaps a gift voucher for seeds - because I think it's so important. There'll be more news on competitions etc over the coming months here on my blog, on Twitter, Facebook Totally Terrific Tomato Festival page and on The National Botanic Gardens events page. Below is the wonderful array of tomatoes which were displayed in the Teak House at the gardens last year. I felt quite emotional leaving it for the last time at the end of the Tomato Festival - because for me it was the realisation of a long-held dream first initiated in the early 1990's - to demonstrate the importance of preserving genetic diversity to the general public, in an appealing and practical way. I couldn't possibly have chosen a better, more appropriate or more beautiful venue for it, and I am very hopeful for it's long term future now. I'm happy to say that Matthew Jebb tells me preparations are already well under way for this year's Festival, as the wonderful staff at the Gardens have been busy propagating over 200 varieties of tomatoes for this year's display - so we might even beat last year's record! To that end - I'd better get on with sowing the rest of mine this afternoon! 
 
 
 
Dr. Matthew Jebb & I, with the wonderful array of tomatoes he carefully transported from the 2017 Tomato Festival to display in the beautiful glasshouse at The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin

Dr. Matthew Jebb & I, with the 2017 display of tomatoes displayed in the beautiful glasshouse at The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. The 2018 and 2019 record-breaking displays were bigger and even better - taking up the whole Teak House as you can see at the beginning of this blog post.

 

So why IS genetic diversity in tomatoes important? - Whether we grow them or not, most of us eat them!

 
The importance of genetic diversity in food crops is something that I've been trying to make people more aware of for over 35 years now, by running various events - tomato, pumpkin and potato festivals - and also by giving talks at various venues like the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, the Dublin Food Co-op, various farm walks and open days etc.  I had great support in the 1980s and early '90s from the HDRA in this - now Garden Organic - and was given seed of many unusual varieties by their Heritage Seed Library to help in this effort. Potatoes, pumpkins and tomatoes are such colourful, attractive and easy subjects to grow for festivals. They're so well-known and almost everyone grows them. People can also easily understand how important they are to our diet - as everyone eats them. But genetic diversity is important in other food crops too and it's really vital to grow the old, so-called Heritage varieties, always being careful to keep them true to type. We don't know when we made need any of the qualities in them, like frost or heat resistance, what changes and challenges climate change may bring about in our weather patterns - and what new pests or diseases changing weather patterns may bring. Everything has evolved to grow somewhere - so there will always be some varieties of staple food crops that are suitable to grow somewhere, just as long as we make sure we preserve all their precious genes in case we may need them in the future. Not only that, they are part of our social history too. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all of the growers and gardeners down through the generations before us, who saved the seeds to pass them on down to us. We have an obligation to them to keep their precious legacy going and growing for our children and for future generations to come.
 
 
'Ebony and Ivory' - the contrasting colours of tomatoes Indigo Rose & White Queen'Ebony and Ivory' - the contrasting colours of tomatoes Indigo Rose & White Queen
 
 
The fact that we all eat some plant foods means that genetic diversity - not just in tomatoes but all food crops is a hugely important issue that potentially affects all of us. It's daily becoming even more vitally important - with climate change, soil loss, destruction of habitats with subsequent loss of wild crop relatives. It's a subject which I've always cared passionately about. Tomatoes are a wonderfully colourful and joyous celebration of nature's abundance - in fact they're a really 'Terrific' (!) way to illustrate genetic diversity in all it's surprising and eye-popping abundance, to a public who often only know the plastic-wrapped, plastic-tasting imposters that pass for tomatoes on today's supermarket shelves! 
 
 
 
To the best of my knowledge - the variety Indigo Rose, pictured here, was grown and also seen for the very first time in the British Isles at the 2012 Tomato Festival! I was browsing the internet looking for tomato seeds in early 2012 - as you do - and came across this stunning new variety. I had run a smaller version of the Tomato Festival at the National Botanic Gardens back in the early 1990's - it was called a Tomato Day which a few enthusiasts attended. But that was really just a tiny seed of the idea - which waited in the background and germinated instantly when I saw Indigo Rose. That sowed the idea of the newer version of the TomFest as a brilliant way to show the wider public the importance of genetic diversity! Indigo Rose was originally bred by Oregon State University, while seeking to breed tomatoes with naturally higher levels of health-promoting antioxidants and it was released in the US for the very first time in 2012.  It's not a Genetically Modified or engineered variety (or GMO) produced in a laboratory. It was naturally bred from a wild tomato growing in the Andes which had very high levels of the purple-coloured anthocyanin phytochemicals in it's leaves and fruit, and it is now the forerunner of many other black tomatoes that have been naturally bred since then. 
 
 
Anthocyanin antioxidants help to give plants protection against many diseases and also protect their skins from sun damage. They do exactly the same for us when we eat them! Anthocyanin phytonutrients are found in many purple vegetables and fruits - and as I often mention - these are scientifically proven to boost our circulation and our immune system. This is why it's so important to include plenty of them in our diets. They are clearly very effective because it's definitely one of the healthiest tomatoes I've ever grown - so I can forgive it's slightly 'less than fabulous'  flavour!  In all we had almost 100 varieties at that first Festival. People were amazed by the unusual look of the Indigo Rose tomatoes and even asked if they were giant blackcurrants! It looks stunning contrasted here with the beefsteak White Queen. Celebrity chefs eat your hearts out!  I must say I found it irresistible when I saw it - it was what gave me the initial idea for the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2012. I would be the first to admit that it's not the most tasty tomato - but what it lacks in flavour it more than makes up for in looks! It does improve on dehydrating though, which concentrates the flavour! But of course it's main attribute is that it is naturally so high in healthy anthocyanins.
 
 
It's always such fun showing people the amazing genetic diversity that there is to choose from - and watching the wonder on their faces when they realise that what they're looking at are actually tomatoes! It's also vital to convey how important it is for our future food security that we preserve the genetic heritage in all of our food crops. If we only grow the commercial varieties that we see in supermarkets - before very long we could be in serious trouble - if they were struck by some incurable disease. There are many genes in wild or naturally-bred tomatoes which could be vital for use in future natural breeding programmes. They could possibly even be the saviour of all tomatoes or other crops, if they were to be threatened in the future by some as yet unknown disease, possibly brought about by climate change.
 
 
Who could possibly imagine a future without tomatoes? Impossible isn't it? I simply couldn't imagine my summer without eating them fresh - or my winter without delicious and healthy tomato sauces or semi-dried tomatoes to use in all sorts of treats! Journalist Fionnuala Fallon asked me a few years ago to name my absolute favourite variety for an article that she was writing for the Irish Times magazine. But as I said to her - it's a bit like asking someone to name their favourite child - impossible, as they all have their different qualities and I love them all!  I definitely get an uncontrollable urge to hit all the 'buy' buttons whenever I look at websites selling unusual varieties I haven't tried! Anyway - someone did say once that my epitaph should be "She never did anything by halves"!  Hmm.... They may have a point there!  I think there could be a happy medium somewhere! I really am a hopeless case! But being a tomatoholic/tomatophile isn't really such a bad thing is it? Given that there's about 12,000 varieties of tomatoes out there - I'll definitely never run out of new ones to try!
 
 
Despite the flooding again and hard frosts - it's time to start sowing as it's officially spring!  
 
Some premature tomato babies for TTTomFest18 enjoying their first taste of sunshine! Looking bit stretched but they'll soon strengthen up.
Never have the benefits of polytunnels been shown more clearly than over the last week! Despite the cold and very wet weather, I've still been picking lots of salads and other veg like broccoli and chards from the polytunnel.  It's beautifully sunny this morning - but it still feels more like winter! We were without electricity to the polytunnels at one point during the recent storm, so after my horror at discovering they had unknown to me spent a night at 0 deg C - I had to hastily bring all my tiny newly emerged tomato seedlings into the house for a few days, until I sorted out an alternative source by running an extension from the outhouse where the freezers live!  As a result - they're looking a little bit stretched to say the least - but they'll soon straighten-up and grow stronger in a few days, now they're getting some proper light again. I still have lots more to sow - so I hope the weather will improve.
 

March is always such an exciting month in the polytunnel - it's my horticultural Narnia and a very 'alternative' world to the one prevailing outside!  In there it's a very different story, spring is already everywhere.
  Primulas, narcissi, violas, feverfew and wallflowers flowering at both ends, and in the little gardens planted around the foot of the grapevines halfway along the sides.There were even a couple of bumblebees in there over the last couple of weeks - anytime there was a rare mild day and the sun warmed the tunnel!  I'm so glad that as always, I'd planted some early flowers in there to attract them in - the scent of primulas and wallflowers is wonderful when I open the door. The peach buds are already swelling and In three or four weeks they will be in full flower. Encouraging bees to visit the tunnel to do some of the pollination by growing flowers for them will mean plenty of juicily delicious peaches again come July - although that seems a long way away right now! 
 
 
The soil temperature outside in the open garden is still very low, and it's so saturated now after all the rain, that there's very little you can usefully do outside at the moment - but to get ahead you can start lots of things off in modules and pots inside for planting out in the garden later. Even if you don't have a greenhouse or tunnel and are only dreaming about one at the moment - there's still a lot of things you could sow on your windowsill that could go out into a cold frame or in a protected propagating area outside, once they've germinated in a week or two. I describe how to organise one made from an old table in this month's Vegetable Garden Diary. That's how I used to do all my seed sowing before I had my first tiny polytunnel - a 6ft x 8ft. Yes - I've been there too - and it encourages you to use your space very efficiently and inventively - something I've never forgotten! I still don't waste an inch in my polytunnel. You can't afford to - they're not cheap items!  I worked out a few years ago that any polytunnel, if it's well organised and properly cultivated all year round, should easily pay for itself within 3 years! Even if you only saved yourself £20 or 25 euros a week on fruit and veg. - within a year you'd have saved enough for quite a decent tunnel. Think about that!
 
 

This is how I sow my Tomatoes - and other tender crops

 

 
Just inside my main tunnel door, on the left, I have a propagating bench. It's a very busy place at this time of year - so much happening and changing every day. So many reliable old friends appearing once again, kick starting another gardening year, and a few exciting new ones too!  At the moment in the warmest propagator there are sweet peppers, chillies, aubergines, celeriac, tomatoes, etc. physalis (also called golden, Inca or Pichu berry),  These are all just starting to appear above the compost. As soon as they do I immediately remove their individual polythene bag covers which have kept them nice and moist up until then. Having each pot in an individual bag means that they stay nice and moist until the seeds have germinated, which helps the seeds to ease their way up out of the compost. It also stops too much moisture collecting around seedlings that are already up, when they need less moisture but still need to be nice and warm. This stops diseases developing. 
 
 
After germination, they spend a few days in the propagator, moving gradually nearer to the front where the lid is propped open a bit for more air circulation, and then as soon they look ready - they get moved out into the frame on the heated mat, which is at a much lower temperature, only supplying a bottom heat of around 50 deg. F. Things get too 'soft' if they're left in the propagator for too long. The heated mat is a roll-out heated foil mat a bit like an electric blanket. It uses far less electricity than the small warmer propagator. It's just warm enough to keep things moving gently along, and they get covered at night with one or two layers of fleece to keep any possible frost off the tops of the plants. It's a good 'halfway house' for plants raised in heat to progress eventually to the main beds in the tunnel for tunnel hardening off. About 20 yrs or so ago, it was discovered that 'brushing' tomato plants a couple of times a day stimulated a growth hormone call Jasmonic acid, which is supposed to have the effect of making them a bit sturdier. A lot of nurseries had a 'boom' which passed over plants to do this a few times a day. I tried it with a very soft, long wallpaper pasting brush - but frankly, I'm not sure it made that much difference to mine. Not pushing them with too much heat and giving them plenty of light and space will produce nice sturdy plants - and you won't risk possibly causing disease by being a bit 'heavy -handed' and bruising tiny seedlings!
 
 
 Tomato seedlings in the propagator - packed tightly together in square pots to be energy efficientTomato seedlings in the propagator - packed tightly together in square pots to be energy efficient
 
 
I'll be sowing the last of my tomatoes this week - I sowed some earlier on to check the germination on home saved seed. It's always good though - so have quite a lot of Pantano Romanesco beefsteaks and various other babies already potted on!  I'm hoping to have some Pantano earlier than ever this year - I can't wait to taste that meltingly delicious Mediterranean flavour again! People who don't eat seasonally miss so much. Nothing imported can ever give that same anticipation of enjoyment. The next week or so is about the right time to sow tomatoes in most average years - because you don't want your plants to get too big, too early - or you won't be able to keep them warm if it's a very cold spring. On the other hand - if you sow very much later than the middle of March - you'll be half way through the summer before you get any ripe tomatoes at all! 
 
 
 
I like to eat my first ripe tomatoes - always the dependable bush variety Maskotka - in the first week of June. Maskotka is already potted on and has four 'true' leaves. It should fruit really early if we have a decent spring. Sown in a warm propagator now - most tomatoes should be just about the right size for planting out in early to mid-May. I sow mine in 85 cm (or 3&1/2 in) square pots of Klassman certified organic peat-free seed compost - but any size pot will do fine as long as you make sure they're clean and you're sowing into a good reliable seed compost. 
 
 
I like to use square pots because they fill up the propagator space nicely, with no gaps for heat to escape.  What small gaps there are I fill up with scraps bubble wrap to ensure absolutely no heat is wasted and that the propagator doesn't overheat. I fill the pot with compost and firm down gently, make a hole with the end of a pencil or biro about 1/2cm deep in 4 or 5 places - one at each corner and one in the middle - put a seed in each hole - cover them with vermiculite, gently water the pot - letting any excess drain away, label them (important) and then cover them with a plastic bag. Most tomatoes take about 4-5 days to germinate and most modern F1 varieties will pretty much all germinate at the same time. Often the non-F1 or old Heritage varieties may stagger their germination over as long as 2-3 weeks. That's a fascinating way that nature ensures their survival, so that some will usually be successful and will keep the species going. So don't give up after a week or so - they can often take longer depending on the variety - anything up to 3 weeks I've found. Tomatoes, like people, are all different! They'll be able to stay in those pots until the roots are almost filling the pots - then you can gently split them up and pot them on singly. If you don't have a heated propagator, you could germinate them in any warm place like an airing cupboard, or the back of your range cooker if you have one, but then bring them immediately out into the light as soon as they are up above the surface of the compost. Then a really light windowsill is OK for them if you don't have any heated space in a greenhouse - but be sure to bring them inside the room at night before you close the curtains, so they don't get chilled - and if the windowsill is south facing you will also need to shade them from strong midday sunshine, or put them on a different windowsill if it's very sunny because they will fry! It is surprising how strong the sun can be at midday in March - and last week I sat in the polytunnel at lunchtime and for the first time I felt the sun actually burning my face. It was a good feeling - but not good for too long! 
 

 

Use Peat-free seed Composts

 
I can't stress enough just how important it is to use a really reliable, organic, peat-free SEED compost. Don't use a 'multi-purpose' compost as they may contain far too much fertiliser which may burn the young roots. Many seeds are very sensitive to a high nutrient level in the compost - and seed is expensive so you can't afford to waste it!  Added to that it's especially important that they are peat-free - and if you're a regular reader you will already be familiar with the many environmental reasons why NONE of us should be using peat in ANY form in the garden! I talk about it so often I won't repeat them again here.
 
 
I always try to share my money saving tips here in my blog - but compost is one example where trying to save money is false economy. In my experience - you get what you pay for!  There are a few peat-free composts available now from DIY multiples, but I've tried most of them and they were all dreadful! They weren't organic either! I personally prefer organic as artificial fertilisers discourage soil life - something that organic gardeners always try to encourage.Several garden centres here are now stocking my favourite organic peat-free composts  - made by Klassman, botht the seed and the potting composts. They are by a very long way the very best composts of any sort that I've ever used!  In Ireland, Klassman composts are available by mail order from Fruit Hill Farm -  https://www.fruithillfarm.com/  (the Irish importers) but the postage is quite expensive and will cost you as much as just one bag of the compost!  If your local garden centre doesn't stock it then ask them to! If you're anywhere near north Dublin,  White's Agri at Ballough, Lusk, Co Dublin (on the old main Dublin-Belfast road) also stock it now too - http://www.whitesagri.ie/Products/GardenAllot.aspx
 
 
Organic peat-free compost is a bit more expensive than some of the others I'll grant you - but as I've so often said - believe me it's worth every single cent. I wouldn't sow valuable seed into anything else. Seed is so expensive now that you only have to lose a couple of packets and that would have paid for a bag of decent compost!  Being peat-free you can also feel good about not destroying peat bogs and preserving biodiversity too! And before you say that making it miles away in Germany isn't very environmentally friendly - making it in bulk, from organically grown plant material, is actually a carbon-friendly activity - and shipping it in bulk to the UK and Ireland is many times less destructive, less carbon-emitting and so much better than digging up our precious, biodiversity-rich peat bogs!
 
 
I don't need as much of the seed compost as I do the potting compost, generally only getting through 2-3 bags a year even with a big garden and growing all our own food. If you only have a small garden and the bag of seed compost is more than you think you'll use in a year then you can always split it with a friend. Although if kept undercover I find it doesn't go 'off' like other composts, and will last for quite a long time - at least 2 years - as long as you keep it dry and cool.  I've even used 3 year old compost and it gave perfect results. Make sure that wherever you buy the compost, they have also kept it dry and cool. Never ever buy saturated composts that have been sitting out in winter weather without being covered! If the compost hasn't been stored properly - the natural ingredients in it will have changed and plants may either be starved or get diseased. White's Agri are also the Irish agents for my favourite organic plant foods - the 'Osmo' range. The liquid tomato feed is brilliant and thoroughly reliable, as are the other products. 
 
 

Potting on tomato seedlings 

 
 My warm propagation area - where a heated mat sits on top of an insulated bench -  (a recycled door actually!)My warm propagation area - where a heated mat sits on top of an insulated bench -  (a recycled door actually!)
 
I always move my tomato seedlings out of the warmest propagator (18degC./65deg.F+) and put them onto the more gently heated mat (about 10degC./50degF+) as soon as they have their first 'true' leaves showing - otherwise they can quickly become very 'leggy', (or etiolated) from too much warmth without enough light. After a few days - I separate all the seedlings out of the small square pots they were germinated in as soon as they are big enough to handle, potting them on individually into quite small pots like white plastic cups - which conveniently and vitally can be written on with permanent marker so I know what variety they are. These have a slit for drainage cut into either side across the cup bottom with scissors. I always pot on twice before planting as potting straight into a large volume of compost can lead to rotting, if the roots get too wet. It also means that the smaller pots take up far less valuable space on the heated mat. Warm space is always at a premium at this time of year and I don't like to waste energy. The plastic cup potting is an interim measure before their final potting on into recycled milk cartons - as these are far too big for very small seedlings. I find that milk cartons are deep enough to give them really good root room until planting later on and again are handy as you can write their name on each carton - rather than using a label which could get lost. Growing so many different varieties of tomatoes - in some Tomato Festival years as many as 48 - this is very important for me or they're easily mixed up!  I start saving milk cartons now - the family know that from the beginning of March milk cartons are not to be put in the recycling bin or I scream! While they may not be the most attractive greenhouse feature in the world - they're very effective! 
 
 
 
I'm constantly shifting things around the heated space at this time of year - a bit like playing musical plants!  I know it seems a lot of bother - but it's very little trouble actually - and a pleasant job that's well worth doing to be able to eat really ripe tomatoes on 1st June!  No plastic-wrapped, carbon-intensive, imported imposter of a tomato can ever possibly compare with the flavour of a sun-warmed, home grown one, picked and eaten straight off the plant! The aubergines will be potted on in the same way. They'll all spend a few weeks inside the light plastic cold frame on the heated mat. This prevents possible cold draughts from the open tunnel doors. I have the top of the frame open - with bubble wrap pegged to canes higher up around the side for the first week or so. Then I remove that - and finally they'll all go out onto the other mat without the frame to make way for the cucumbers and peppers - which appreciate a bit more early warmth. 
 
 
Any bubble wrap you can salvage is really useful - always save it - even tiny amounts. It makes extra insulation for propagators tops at night - and even the smallest bits can be used to tuck in between pots to fill in any spaces between pots inside the propagator or on heated mats to stop heat escaping, thereby saving energy and also stopping it overheating through working too hard to replace any heat lost from gaps. It's amazing how many pictures I see on social media of propagators with a few pots sitting in the middle and with no insulation around them - this means that the propagator is losing heat the whole time. Filling up empty spaces with bubble wrap or some other insulation like fleece will save energy and saves money!
  
 
By the way - if you're using a heated propagator - it's important to wipe the moisture off the inside of the propagator lid every day - where it tends to condense. If you don't do that - it can drop down onto seedlings and possibly cause fungal diseases in the warm, moist atmosphere. Attention to detail is always the key to successful propagation, or in fact at any stage of growth. 
 
 

Protecting seedlings while providing good air circulation is key

 
 
Good air circulation is really important in a polytunnel at any time of year, but particularly from now on. Trays and pots of all sorts of other seedlings are already jostling for space in the propagator and on the heated mat. From now on - the hardier ones, like broad beans, peas, lettuces, cabbages, calabrese and cauliflowers have to take their chance just under fleece in the main part of the tunnel at night, without artificial heat, as there are so many others, like celery, tomatoes and onions, and tender bedding plants like nicotiana and french marigolds that still need that extra bit of warmth just to germinate. I stand the trays and pots of the more hardy types of veg. on black polythene on a spare tunnel bed. The black polythene absorbs the rays of the sun during the day (if there are any!), heating up the ground underneath, and this amazingly keeps them about 4 deg C warmer under their double fleece 'duvet', than the ambient temperature in the rest of the tunnel. So far this year - doing this has saved my extra-early potatoes - finger's crossed. During the day I uncover them, normally when the sun gets high enough to start warming the tunnel up a bit.(around 9 or 10 am-ish). If you don't do this, stagnant moist air gets trapped under the fleece, encouraging disease.. Later on, depending on the amount of sun, I open one or both of the doors at either end for more ventilation, as long as it's not too windy. In the evening, around 4.30 or 5pm I then re-cover those crops that are 'fleeced' at night, and close the doors. In the next few days more frosts are forecast - so make sure anything vulnerable is covered at night!  Frost does an awful lot more damage once plants are starting to grow more quickly again - as they are now. 
 
 

Shading small seedlings is important from now on

 
 
Any sunlight is getting much stronger from now on, so I keep some fleece suspended well above the small seedlings on the propagating bench in the tunnel - in order to shade them at midday if the sun suddenly comes out. In the greenhouse it's a lot easier, you can just shade the glass by painting on 'Coolglass' paint - a powder which you mix with water and paint onto the glass. Mix it up in an old measuring jug or similar, put into an old baking tin or paint tray and use a paint roller or soft household sweeping brush to brush it all over the roof and about half way down the sides. Do this in dry weather, then once dried, it won't wash off again in rain. It just cleverly turns clear again when wet - letting more light in. Heavily abrasive hail may damage it, but you can re-apply it, and then in the autumn you can remove it by just brushing it off again on a dry day. Unfortunately the tunnel is too big and difficult to paint unless you have a helicopter! So fleece or shade netting is the only answer there. 
 
 
While on the subject of fleece - another of my money saving tips.  It's a lot cheaper by far to buy a big roll of it from your local agricultural supplies shop. You'll get one for around 20 euros or so, and then you can then split it up with friends. A small packet of fleece from a garden centre or DIY store will cost you almost the same - though in some you can buy it by the metre from a large roll.
 
 
 

Keep a careful eye out for slugs or other pests in propagating areas

 
 
Slime trails were still visible where a slug got in and vandalised my 'Purple Sun' carrots last year!Slime trails were still visible where a slug got in and vandalised my 'Purple Sun' carrots last year! 
 
 
One other thing to look out for in propagation areas are those nasty little grey slugs which can sneak in, clinging to the bottom of seed trays or climb up the sides of the tunnel. I discovered one morning that one had snuck in and mown 1/3rd of my loo roll sown 'Purple Sun' carrot seedlings, which had all germinated beautifully. Good job you couldn't hear the fairly choice language ***** more appropriate for the stable I can tell you!! Probably my own fault for putting a potted plant on the heated mat to get it growing encouraged by the bottom heat. It was a plant of the beautiful silver foliage plant Plectranthus Argentatus. I was in a hurry the day I moved it and don't remember tipping it out of it's pot to check for any pests before putting it on the propagating mat. One learns far more by mistakes sadly!! Aren't I always saying that?
 
 
 
 
Purple Potatoes
 
I recently had a query about the purple potato Purple Majesty - someone asked me if the Sarpo Blue Danube potato also had purple flesh- because they couldn't get Purple Majesty. It doesn't - it has bright white flesh with a purple skin - so you definitely won't get electric blue mashed potatoes from that one! I grew it a few years ago when it first became available - it's one of the 'Sarpo' supposedly blight-resistant ones. Not only did it not have much flavour - but I didn't find it very blight resistant either!  In my opinion - there's no point in growing any potato unless it has a fantastic flavour - even if it has some blight resistance. This year I'm growing a new purple or blue variety - Blue Annaliese - from Fruit Hill Farm, which sounds very promising.
 
 
I've always grown for flavour rather than bulk because I like eating tasty spuds and we don't eat them more than a couple of times a week at the most because of their high carbohydrate content.  I always lower that though, by about 50%, by using a process known as 'retrogradation' - where I cook them all one day, chill them overnight in the fridge and reheat them for eating whenever I need them! This doesn't just save time and energy - but also turns the starch in them into something known as resistant starch - which our gut bacteria love - so doing this is great for our gut health too, as I mentioned on Gerry Kelly's Late Lunch Show lately! It's also a great time-saving tip if you're busy during the week!  I know some who may disagree with me - but taste can be a very subjective and personal thing - often perhaps linked to the perception that 'newer' is better. Not always the case in my experience! Something to do with plant breeders rights means that unfortunately you can't get Purple Majesty seed here in Ireland - so I've always saved my own seed tubers. It has a fantastic 'old baked potato' flavour - despite being a new introduction only a few years ago. It's much the best-flavoured purple fleshed potato too - and I've grown dozens of them over the years - having always been interested in the plant phytocyhemicals they contain.
 
 
There are other purple potatoes I like too. A very old variety - Truffe de Chine - is a salad type with a similar same shape to 'Pink Fir Apple'. It's almost black and has a lovely flavour. You can sometimes find it in upmarket veg shops. I found mine well over 30 years ago in Harrods food hall - always worth investigating for interesting things to grow if you're in London! It's amazing what you find in there. Vitelotte is another delicious purple-fleshed one which is more blight-resistant than many and good for organic growing - some say this is actually Truffe de Chine - but I've found them to be slightly different. 3 years ago I grew Violetta for the first time - another deep purple one. I wasn't that impressed with the flavour of some non-organically grown Violetta I tried from a well-known Dublin shop - but growing them without chemicals made a huge difference to the taste - I really loved the ones I grew here! Now a lot more people are growing the purple or blue varieties. Salad Blue is another tasty, easily available variety. A few years ago the renowned potato expert Dave Langford, who lives in Co Mayo, gave me a few lovely old varieties, including a variety he bred himself - called Dave's All Blue 2011, which makes a very tasty mash although it's a bit blight-prone. Since I invented my method of starting potatoes off early in pots though - I have all the potatoes I need all year round using my method, and I never need to spray, even with copper sulphate.
 
 
 Other Crops  

Calabrese broccoli 'Green Magic' making good side shoots after central head cut

  • Calabrese broccoli 'Green Magic' making good side shoots after central head cut 
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  •  
  • The overwintered calabrese 'Green Magic' (from Unwins) has yet again come up trumps (sorry!) and it's done really well despite a much colder winter than last year. On the very worst nights it was covered with a several layers of fleece. It's such a sweet variety and not just good for lightly steaming but also really good raw for dipping individual florets into hummus or any avocado dip. It's a terrific variety, thoroughly reliable and long- cropping all year round both in the tunnel and outside. It's the only one I b other to grow now in the tunnel. I sowed two dozen last month in the propagator - one dozen will be planted when big enough into the tunnel, and will crop by May. The other dozen will be hardened off and planted outside, which will make them crop about 3 weeks to a month later in a normal year. This is a good way to spread the cropping time of any crop.Endive 'Riccia Pancallieri' - (blanched on right)


    I like to be able to pick an interesting and varied salad every day all year round so I'm really grateful for luxury of a polytunnel.
     There are still plenty of lettuce, endives and other leaves of various sorts - mostly loose leaf varieties that have cropped really well all winter. 'Lattughino' is one of my favourites - with crispy bronze-tinged leaves. Jack Ice is another - rather like an Iceberg but a loose-leaf type that you can pick all winter and then allow to form quite a nice heart from March onwards. 'Veneziana' an unusual sword shape Cos type and delicious, 'Belize' is another good one - an oak leaf that will also form fat hearts now. Fristina is another excellent crispy loose-leaf type. Good old 'Lollo Rossa' is great for some reliable red colour - and also the Cos varieties 'Marshall' and 'Nymans' - one's really spoilt for choice these days with so many new lettuce varieties every year - but you don't have to go for expensive F1 hybrids - some of the 'value' mixes - like B&Q's are fantastically cheap - 60 cents for 1200 seeds!  Great if you're watching the pennies - costing almost nothing per lettuce! The value mixes mostly contain older varieties that are easy, colourful and reliable for all year round growing - either sown thickly for baby leaves or as individual whole lettuces. The endive pictured here - an old Italian variety 'Riccia Pancallieri' is very bitter when green - which I don't like - but if you blanch it by covering it for 2-3 weeks under a large pot as the old Victorian gardeners did - it is beautiful and really delicious in a late winter salad - with a nice fruity/sweet dressing like my walnut oil/cider vinegar/honey & orange dressing which goes with everything and is full of healthy omega 3 oils. The photo above of the blanched and un-blanched endive side by side really shows what a difference blanching makes!
 
 
Three years ago, on this weekend - after all the fuss about the lack of imported lettuces and other salad vegetables in shops due to the bad weather in Southern Europe, I decided to see exactly how many I could pick from my polytunnel.  Pictured below are 27 varieties which surprised even me - and when picking them to arrange this delicious display - I actually even forgot a couple like lamb's lettuce and Chinese chives! Here's the list which many people asked me for - in no particular order:
 
 
Watercress, Chinese cabbage Scarlette, Giant Italian flat leaf parsley, Cos lettuce Nymans, Red leaf radish, Sorrel, red oak leaf lettuce, ruby chard Vulcan, green Mizuna, frilly leaf mustard, rocket, red-veined sorrel, endive White Curled, red cos lettuce Rosedale, chicory Sugar Loaf, bronze stemmed chard, mustard Yellow Frills, spinach, mustard Giant Red, lettuces Lattughino, Little Gem & Jack Ice, red Mizuna, claytonia, kale Ragged Jack, mustard Red Frills, beetroot leaves McGregor's Favourite.
 
27 different kinds of salad leaves - all picked from the polytunnel - 23.2.17
 27 different kinds of salad leaves - all picked from the polytunnel - 23.2.17
 

This is one of the most difficult times of year for ventilating greenhouses and tunnels.

 
 
Temperatures can fluctuate wildly now. From freezing at night - to rising alarmingly during the day when the sun comes out, and quickly becoming dangerous for small tender seedlings, even 'cooking' them if one isn't careful!  But at the same time, a vicious March wind can get up seemingly from nowhere, often before a sudden shower, and things can then be a bit draughty to put it mildly!  One also has to be careful that small seedlings aren't sitting in a draught. I'm on a very windy site here, about 400ft above sea level, not far from the coast in one direction, with a lot of open flat land for miles in the other - and until the trees I planted originally grew big enough (including the dreaded Leylandii and eucalyptus) I lost greenhouses on three occasions and a polytunnel!  Without the Leylandii in particular, I wouldn't have a garden here at all. So I appreciate mine. (The starlings always roost in them too - another reason to like them - although my neighbour blames them for harbouring pigeons!) I don't know why some people are so snobby about them. I think it's because they're usually planted in a totally unsuitable place and 'tortured' into being a hedge. As an individual tree, they actually make a very nice specimen if allowed the room to develop properly. - And they need a lot - they are completely unsuitable for small gardens. 
 
 
But I digress........Always watch the weather forecasts and keep an eye on wind direction in particular - a sudden severe gust of wind can rip off tunnel doors - or burst out and scatter panes from greenhouses as if they were confetti. I know that from bitter experience!  Get to know your local weather and prevailing wind direction, always make sure tunnel doors are fastened securely - whether open or shut - and always keep plenty of tunnel mending tape handy!  Apropos of that - I was really sorry to hear that a few local allotment holders had lost tunnels over the winter. I know how heartbreaking that is. But speaking from experience - never, ever, try to re-use hoops from the lighter types of tunnels - they will collapse again far more easily if you do. Recycle them as fruit cages or perhaps to make lower large cloches over veg beds - and save up for a much stronger replacement. As I've said before, a good strong tunnel should pay for itself easily within 2-3 years - even if you save only 20-25 euros a week on fruit and veg! After that you're quids in! If I had to choose between a really good strong polytunnel and an annual holiday in the sun - the polytunnel would win every time. After all - you can sit in there and enjoy the sun all year round and save lots of money at the same time. What holiday does that?
 
 
 

Watering is one of those things you must take a bit of care with too

 
 
A little trouble can save a lot of heartache! I keep a big black barrel full of rain water in the tunnel, so that it's the same ambient temperature as inside the tunnel, rather than bringing in freezing cold water from outside or using the hose. This barrel water I use for watering plants in pots and also seedlings in trays - always watering from underneath. I have a large tray, about 4-5in. deep, and fill that with the water from the barreI, sitting the seed trays in there for a minute or two, until they've taken up just enough water. I prefer to all water seedlings in modules or seed trays from underneath, so that they don't become completely saturated, that way they stay slightly less damp around the stems, which is where 'damping off' disease can quickly attack in seedlings if they're too wet. That's another reason I use vermiculite for covering seed when sowing. Vermiculite is a completely sterile, open medium, which promotes really good air circulation around the stems. When I'm watering crops in the ground, I always water the ground between the plants, rather than directly onto their roots. They don't like a sudden cold shower any more than we do, when they're just beginning to be encouraged into growth by the spring sunshine. Even in the height of summer, I always water between plants - and if at all possible - early in the morning, so that any surface dampness has a chance to dry off before the evening when the tunnel is closed and the air isn't moving - doing this discourages fungal diseases and avoids plant losses.
 
 
Keep on top of weeds now, mulching, hoeing or carefully hand weeding if necessary between crops. Give overwintered leafy crops like chard, spinach and salads a light dressing of a fast-acting organic feed such as worm compost, or if you don't have any compost, Osmo Complete granules. Scatter around the base of the plants, not on the foliage and water it well in. There should still be quite a lot of cropping potential in many things before they finally run to seed, as long as you keep them well-watered as the tunnel warms up and they start to grow more and need more water. Be careful to water in the mornings if possible to allow the surface to dry off before night time though - you don't want a lot of condensation hanging around to create a damp atmosphere and possibly cause disease. Keep up the good housekeeping - removing any dead, diseased or damaged leaves, to avoid disease spreading. Keep slug hunting, it's amazing how much damage one tiny grey slug can do to a nice head of lettuce. They do eventually become less of a problem after a couple of years - however bad they are in a new tunnel at first. Look around when you're tidying dead leaves etc.- that's where they love to hide. Don't use slug pellets - you'll be killing helpful frogs, soil life and birds etc.!
 
 
Cut down and incorporate into the surface, or leave as a surface mulch any previously sown green manures. Worms are getting active in the tunnel now as the soil warms up, and will appreciate a nice hearty breakfast - they'll do a lot of your work for you if you feed them well. Green food is what they like best - not already rotted manure. If you have vacant ground, where you won't be planting until May it's still worth sowing a quick growing 'soft' green manure, like fenugreek, lupins, mustard, red clover, borage and phacelia. Or even early peas that you can use for some pea shoots and then dig in - a double whammy - nitrogen fixing too!  Make sure the varieties fit into your rotations though - and don't follow them with a member of the same family. 
 
 
Bring some pots of early single flowers into the tunnel now to attract early hoverflies, bees and ladybirds, and maybe even a pot of stinging nettles! Yes, you read it right, nettles in a pot! They are one of the most important plants in the garden for feeding early, just emerging ladybirds, which voraciously feed on nettle aphids. These aphids are actually specific to nettles, so don't be worried that they may migrate to other plants - they won't. A few years ago on 1st. April, I was giving a talk to our local Green Party - which I was one of the founders of over 30 years ago with our former Green Minister for Horticulture Trevor Sargent. I took a pot of nettles along  - and it was highly amusing for the first twenty minutes or so- there were some very puzzled faces - until I explained exactly how important they were. I think most of them thought that it was either an April 1st. joke - or I'd completely lost the plot (always a possibility!!)  Don't forget that old classic excuse too - that wildlife loves untidy gardens. That covers a multitude - including nettles - (beneficial companion plants naturally - if nosy neighbours ask!) I've seen masses of overwintering ladybirds in the tunnel so far this year - so I hope the robins and wrens that are currently busy hunting in there don't find them!
 
 

Don't forget that a polytunnel isn't just full of vegetables and seedlings for growing healthy food at this time of year though - it's also full of hope too. That priceless thing we all need plenty of right now!  

 
 
There's always something good to look forward to in a well-planned and well-tended polytunnel.  Most importantly of all - there's always something good to eat too - whatever the weather, as you can see from the salads pictured above. I really couldn't garden without such a valuable space now, particularly after injuring my right shoulder badly over 4 yrs ago. It's always possible to have the soil in perfect condition whatever the weather's doing outside - that makes it so much easier to sow or plant into it. I can even garden when it's dark if I want to - with a light on! The thing one must remember at all times though - is that YOU have complete control and also of course, you have total responsibility. If you really take the trouble to look after things properly though - you will get great results. 
 
I always say that a tunnel is like life - you only get out what you put inAnd like life - with just a little bit of thought and effort you will be more than handsomely repaid!
 
 
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......but if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you!)
 
 
 
 

What to sow in March - 2020

Bumblebee on French marigold flower Hoverflies also love single French marigolds Moth on a single marigold
 
       *While we're sowing some food for ourselves - it's more important than ever to sow food for pollinators too! 
 
 
What you can sow now In a heated propagator, for growing in the polytunnel or greenhouse
 
(for growing on later in the polytunnel or greenhouse) 
 
Aubergines - (as early as possible in the month to get the best crops). Bonica F1 is best - this top of RHS trials & AGM about 15 years ago - I don't bother to grow any other now as it's by far the most reliable, alpine strawberries (Reugen a large-fruited var.), globe artichokes, (if sown early in the month, they'll crop outside in autumn this year), dwarf French beans for cropping in pots or in tunnel beds later (choose a fast-growing, disease-resistant variety suitable for early sowing), asparagus, celery, celeriac (early in month) tomatoes, chilli and other peppers, physalis (Cape gooseberries). From mid-March onwards you can sow early courgettes for tunnel growing, and then later in the month melons and cucumbers for warm tunnel cropping. Don't forget melons and cucumbers need to be grown on in consistently warmer conditions than tomatoes to be really successful - they grow very fast and hate to be checked (this applies to pumpkins & squashes too - so wait until next month to sow them in pots if they're for growing outside). 
 
 
*Also sow some single-flowered tender annuals now like Tagetes, single French marigolds (Tall Citrus Mixed' is a good variety), etc.- lots of vital beneficial insects like bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths really love these. Remember that by growing single flowers organically you won't just be helping to preserve them - but they will also help you, by helping with your pest control and pollination
 
 
Note - It's vitally important that they are SINGLE flowered, as bees, hoverflies and other insects can't access the nectaries of double flowers in order to feed - so those flowers are completely useless to them! They then have to fly elsewhere to find food. When their energy supplies are low, wasting time trying to get nectar from useless flowers can make the difference between life and death for many small insects including bees!
 
 
In pots or modules in the polytunnel without heat, or direct in tunnel soil as soon as you feel it's warm enough:
 
(If weed seeds are germinating - then the soil is warm enough for most things that don't need very high temperatures for germination) 
 
 
Beetroot, broad beans and peas, spring and summer cabbage, calabrese, carrots, white turnips and radishes (in the soil for an early tunnel crop), onions, chives, Welsh (perennial salad) onions, scallions, leeks, lettuces and salad mixes early in the month, kales, rocket, spinach and coloured Swiss chards etc for baby leaves, fennel and 'soft herbs' like borage, parsley, dill, Greek oregano, salad burnet and coriander. 
 
 
Other single flowered annuals like limnanthes, convulvulus tricolour and calendula (pot marigold) can also be sown direct into the soil in polytunnel beds now. Keep an eye out for hungry mice - they love pea and bean seeds - it's a good idea to put down a trap - but cover to avoid trapping small birds like wrens and robins.
 
 
 
If you have space now in the tunnel or greenhouse where you'll be planting tomatoes in May - then you just have time to sow a green manure:
 
'Caliente' mustard (generally available now, or from Marshalls and Unwins seeds - one packet will easily sow a bed about 20ft x 4ft.) This mustard is a very useful green manure because it acts as a natural 'biofumigant' by releasing a plant phytochemical in the form of a gas - called isothiocyanate. This suppresses a range of soil-borne diseases and harmful nematodes - it also encourages beneficial bacteria and soil micro-organisms, adds nutrients and really encourages worm activity. It's particularly helpful where the soil has previously grown tomatoes. A couple of weeks before planting the tomatoes, cut it down - chopping it up as finely as possible in order to release all it's beneficial compounds - and then incorporate it into the soil surface immediately - before the resulting gases escape. Then cover it with black polythene to seal the gases in. (see this month's polytunnel section).  As it's a member of the brassica (or cabbage) family - make sure that it fits into your minimum 4-course rotation even though it will only be there for a short time.
 
Phacelia is another fast-growing 'soft' green manure well-worth sowing now if you have space - this can also be dug in after just one months growth, will break down quickly and it isn't rotation sensitive, so it can be used anywhere. Leaving one or two plants to produce their pretty scented blue flowers later on will also really attract in the beneficial insects too! 
 
Red clover is also useful, because being a leguminous plant, it fixes 'free' atmospheric nitrogen which it concentrates in nodules on it's roots, made by beneficial microbes. This is then released for the following crop (leave a few to flower for bees - they adore them!). Studies also show that growing a legume crop between tomato plants boosts their disease-resistance, bu encouraging beneficial bacteria..
 
Borage also makes a good very fast-growing green manure, with a long tap root which draws up valuable minerals such as magnesium from lower down in the soil profile. It breaks down easily when dug in and encourages good worm activity, as does claytonia (or winter purslane). Both Borage and Claytonia are useful in salads too.
 
 
What you can sow outside, if you have ground covered with cloches - or undercover now for planting outside later:
 
In modules under cover without heat, in a cold frame, or under cloches - or when the soil is dry enough and has warmed up later in the month - unprotected in the open (covering with fleece on frosty nights) you can sow: 
 
 
Beetroot, broad beans, carrots, mangetout and early peas, parsnips, late spring and summer cabbages, red cabbage, early Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers, calabrese and summer sprouting broccoli, onions (plant onion sets in pots for an early crop), leeks, spring onions, lettuces, kohl rabi, Ragged Jack and Cavolo Nero kales for baby leaves, radishes, Swiss chard, summer spinach, white turnips, American land cress, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes, 'soft' herbs like borage, parsley, dill, fennel, Greek oregano and coriander. There's a lot of nonsense talked about germinating parsley, but it just likes to be warm and usually takes about 3 weeks to germinate at anytime of year - it always finally appears just when you think it's not going to! 
 
 
It's also worth sowing some single, early flowering annuals in the open ground or in modules for planting out later - such as limnanthes (poached egg plant), calendula, cerinthe, convulvulus tricolor, borage, red clover and phacelia. They'll attract beneficial insects to help with pest control, encourage bees into the garden for pollination and also look beautiful - which is very important too.
 
  
There's still just time to plant garlic early in the month. Only plant varieties clearly labelled as 'suitable for spring planting'now - such as 'Christo' or Solent Wight. 
 
 
Plant Jerusalem artichokes, and also early potatoes in warm, well drained soils - protecting from frost with fleece later (see veg. garden section). These will crop early enough to completely avoid blight. Alternatively - if your ground conditions aren't suitable - you could start them off in pots now for an earlier crop which will avoid blight - I do this with all of mine now. You can also start off Yacon, Oca, Mashua and Ulluco tubers inside in pots of well-drained peat-free compost now for planting in the polytunnel or outside later - protect these carefully from frost when they start to produce shoots!
 
 
PS. Don't forget that these are just suggestions for what you could sow now - not what you must!  I found a checklist/reminder like this invaluable when I was just starting off many years ago - and I actually still do! With so much to do at this time of year it's easy to forget something and then it can be too late! Do you know, someone actually once complained that I gave far too much information!!  So I thought I'd make it quite clear that you don't have to sow everything on the list! ..........   You just can't please everyone - and all the information here is free!
 
 
AND REMEMBER MY ADVICE. - IF YOU'RE SHORT OF TIME - JUST GET YOUR SEEDS SOWN! YOU CAN CATCH UP WITH EVERYTHING ELSE LATER, BUT NOT THAT! ....... TIME WAITS FOR NO MAN! (Or woman!) 
 
Funny how we spend our time wishing away winter - then wishing everything would happen more slowly in spring.  Gardeners are never happy!
                                  
Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. - Thank you.

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in February - 2020

 

February contents: "Let food be thy medicine"....  Exciting new Beginning to another Fruit Growing Year.... Force Rhubarb.... What are the best 'Autumn Fruiting' Raspberry Varieties?.... Woodland Gardening - or Just Feeding Wildlife?.....Ever Thought of Growing a Grapevine?.....Don't Prune Grapevines Now!.... Pests on Grapes.....There's still time to plant grapevines.....Which Varieties are Best - Seedless or Seeded?.....Growing Physalis or Cape Gooseberry...... Other jobs for Feb...

A wide variety of fruit can be sown or planted now to fruit this autumn!                                                                                    A wide variety of fruit can be sown or planted now to fruit this autumn!

 
 
 "Let food be thy medicine"   
 
   
Hippocrates said - "Let food be thy medicine" and I've always believed that food is the very best sort of medicine - just as long as it's organic! Not only that - it's delicious! Surely Nature wouldn't have invented fruit if we weren't meant to eat it!  It's very helpful having a son who is both a zoologist and and archaeologist. He's currently Chairperson of the Institute of Irish Archaeologists (sorry - just had to mention that as a proud Mum!) - so he's an extremely useful source of information on both human evolution and early human diets - which he has a particular interest in - as indeed I do.  We evolved originally from tree-dwelling apes which ate a lot of fruit as part of their diet. There is also plenty of archaeological dental evidence that our ancestors also ate a lot of fruit. There are, however, two caveats with that ...... 
 
 
Caveat 1: Our distant ancestors didn't have juicers - so we were always meant to eat WHOLE fruits - not drink them as juices!  Drinking pure fruit juices, or high sugar, tropical fruit juices and smoothies has a massive effect on raising our level of blood sugars very quickly - before our bodies have a chance to metabolise them properly. In addition to that - juicing wastes a huge amount of the healthy nutrients, especially the many, as yet still unknown, immune-boosting phytonutrients, which are contained within the pulp and fibre of the fruit. Some of which are not available from vegetables or any other food sources. 
 
 
Caveat 2: The fruits our early ancestors ate were also local and mainly in season - although some fruits would have dried naturally in the sun, and there is evidence that they stored some fruits and also nuts. There is also evidence that Middle Eastern and Oriental cultures actively dried fruits in the sun as early as 12,000 BC. If fruit wasn't healthy for humans, then we wouldn't have evolved to eat it!.... BUT - the fruit that our ancestors ate and the season in which they ate it was mostly varied because of it's seasonality - and they didn't have the same fruits easily available all year round like we have nowadays. All recent studies confirm that eating a varied diet is the key to good health - not restricting whole classes of food which we actually evolved to eat. 
 
 
I believe that eating fruit is a vital part of any well-varied, healthy, wholefood diet and that we only overload our body's capacity to metabolise fructose and other carbohydrates when we are also eating a lot of artificially-made fructose from corn syrup - along with other processed, highly-refined carbohydrates in ultra-processed foods. If our ancestors didn't evolve to eat fruit as part of their natural wholefood diet - then we wouldn't have arrived in the 21st century!  Fruit provides a lot of valuable phytonutrients as well as vitamins, minerals and important fibre, which all help to fight disease. But many studies show that the population in general is not eating enough of the fibre which our gut microbes have evolved to process, and from which they consequently produce many health-promoting metabolites. What is causing the epidemic of Type 2 Diabetes and associated health problems is not eating whole, naturally-grown, organic fruit - but all the other junk which we didn't evolve to eat - including artificial sweeteners which are actually toxic to our gut bacteria, that we have increasingly been eating in the last 50 years or so! Surely that is a 'no-brainer'?      
 
 
I can't resist trying to grow and eat anything delicious and exciting in the fruit world, especially if recent science shows it has potential health benefits. Just as long as it's not imported from the other side of the planet - and if I can grow it myself - all the better!  I could quite happily be a 'frugivore' for much of the time. It's popular currently to dismiss fruit as just so much "unnecessary added sugar" - but I have to disagree! Those repeating that particular fashionable dogma all over social media know very little about growing plants, their constituents, or their physiology. While I believe that added sugar isn't strictly necessary, I certainly believe that including some fruit in our diet is - and it depends what you eat it with or how.  Here we invariably eat our fruit with something containing protein, such as cheese or nuts for example, which slows down digestion of the fruit - and we never drink fruit juices. If you're not a salad fan - it's amazing how good salads taste with fruit like apples, pears, grapes or pomegranates mixed in. 
 
 
Here's my Tunnel to Table recipe with Organic Cashel Blue cheese, pear, pomegranate and walnuts.  It's so delicious I would eat it every day if I could. You'd never dream that it contains so many beneficial, heart-healthy, cancer-fighting phytonutrients that it is positively medicinal - and I think that Hippocrates would definitely approve! -  http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/recipes

 

 

Exciting New Beginning to Another Fruit Growing Year!

 
 
I'm always so excited when new fruit trees arrive - like a child at Christmas!  I'm planting more trees into the new orchard again this year, to add to those initial plantings of 4 years ago. I decided to start planting a new orchard last year because the 35 year old orchard of 55 heritage varieties, which I planted just after we moved here, had almost completely stopped producing fruit because my neighbour ploughed up all the old pasture behind us and started growing grain crops every year. His spraying with hormone weedkillers in spring makes virtually all the flower buds drop off the apple and plum trees. Very little escapes depending on the timing of the spraying! So last year - fed up with no decent apples - I started planting a new orchard on the other side of the property, on the eastern side, as far away from danger as possible! The first dozen trees have established very well and I'm hoping that in time, with the shelter of the now tall garden trees, the strip of maturing woodland I planted 26 years ago and the house and outbuildings as well - that I may finally get enough fruit again. Sod's law though! 
 
 
The ground is saturated at the moment and far too wet to plant in without damaging it's structure permanently - so any new arrivals that are un-potted 'bare-root' trees are being 'heeled in' into tubs of old potting compost on arrival. Snug in the large tubs of recycled organic peat-free potting compost in the shed they're frost free - and will stay there to await drier weather - hopefully before they start shooting in March!  If they look like starting into growth before the ground dries out enough - I shall pot them up in a soil/organic potting compost mix, dusting the roots with mycorrhizal fungi like RootGrow - so that they can start to establish a healthy new root system quickly. If moved after the tops have started into growth - they can get a setback. 
 
  
Apple d'Arcy SpiceApple d'Arcy Spice
 
We've just finished the last of the wonderful crisp russet Ashmead's Kernal from my rather unconventional, re-purposed old freezer apple store. Every day from December to February every year I thank Dr. Ashmead - who bred this supreme, late-keeping eating apple in a village in Gloucestershire, way back in the 1700s. We've still got some of the even later-keeping apples, varieties like Kidd's Orange Red - an incredibly aromatic, almost pear-drop tasting, offspring of Cox's Orange Pippin - but happily much more healthy and disease resistant though, so has kept well. D'Arcy Spice is another delicious eating apple which is still crisp. We've also got plenty of the long-keeping cooking apple Bramley's Seedling stored too and also some Annie Elizabeth - a lovely tart cooking-apple that keeps well into April. This year I'm really looking forward to some new varieties, as last year I planted a few more heritage varieties which I haven't tasted before. That's a delicious treat to really look forward to! 
 
 
 
I find apples so addictive! In the home where I grew up, we had lovely old orchards and a large kitchen garden full of every kind of fruit - I really miss the huge variety we had. My father was a keen pomologist, and an expert on apples and pears in particular. As far as apples go in shops these days, most are grown for ease of harvesting, ability to travel without bruising and packing - not for flavour or seasonal variety! It's very difficult to get anything more than Gala (tasteless), Pink Lady (too sweet) or Braeburn (picked unripe) which are grown organically - either in shops or farmer's markets - and organically-grown Bramley's are totally non-existent. I've never seen any on sale anywhere!
 
 
 
Ashmead's Kernal in my very effective apple store - a re-purposed old broken freezer! A deliciously crunchy & aromatic  Ashmead's Kernal for an after lunch treat - 22.2.17
Ashmead's Kernal in my very effective apple store - a re-purposed old freezer!                                  Deliciously crunchy & aromatic Ashmead's Kernal
 
 
All the new apple trees I buy from nurseries are on the root stocks M26 or MM106 which are the best ones for early fruiting in less than ideal conditions - like my very heavy clay soil. These grow to mostly about 15 ft/ 3 metres high and wide, they're productive and are fairly easily controlled by pruning. I'm planting some of the trees, along with other fruit bushes like Jostaberries and gooseberries, around the perimeter of the hen runs as the hens really appreciate shelter from the wind and a bit of shade in summer. Trees around their runs provide the ideal habitat for them, as hens are jungle fowl originally, love scratching about among leaf litter under trees and shrubs and don't like to be out in the open too much. This is called 'Agroforestry' now - rather than just integrated self-sufficiency as I've always called it. This is what I've always done as it seemed more natural to me, and it's how we always kept the poultry on the small farm where I grew up. Nature grows everything together - flowers, wild plants and animals all co-existing and complementing each other - not isolated in orchards!  
 
 
Force Rhubarb clumps
 
 
In February I always put an old broken dustbin stuffed with straw upside down over the larger clumps of rhubarb to force them into growth a bit earlier. Not nearly as beautiful as those lovely terracotta rhubarb forcers - but actually I think they're more effective at attracting any late winter sun and warming up more. 
 
 
Baby 'Livingstone' I presume - promisingly pink!Baby 'Livingstone' - promisingly pink!
 
In autumn 2012 I bought a new variety of rhubarb - 'Livingstone' (new to me anyway but an old Victorian variety I believe) which produces lots of really red stalks in the autumn - unlike other varieties which are only producing green ones by then. It forces well in a large tub in the polytunnel and has a really good flavour. 
 
 
Traditionally in the old kitchen and cottage gardens, rhubarb was never pulled after English Derby day - which in the UK is in early June. This wasn't just because the plants needed a rest - but it was also because when the stalks are mostly green they are full of oxalic acid which is very bitter and could give you kidneys stones if you are susceptible!  You should never eat green rhubarb for this reason. I'm amazed that shops still sell it in summer and autumn - even when it's bright green - and unsuspecting people buy it! It probably needs about half a ton of sugar to make it at all palatable! But then - thinking about it - since when did shops ever worry about people's health?! The health of their balance sheets is all that really concerns them! 
 
  
Oxalic acid from rhubarb's green stalks and leaves can actually be made into a very effective pesticide - so that should surely tell us something? (although don't tell the EU - because it's actually illegal to make your own)! Odd that isn't it - when shops can actually sell it to us as a food?!  Mind you - they also sell us food laced with other legal pesticides, many of which are so old that they've never even been properly tested for safety!  Anyway, as the ground was already far too wet to plant my new rhubarb - I planted it into one of those 10lt. recycled buckets I've used for growing tomatoes in for the last couple of years and put it in the tunnel. Pictured here in Feb 2013 looking quite perky and with some juicy looking red stalks on it - but I resisted temptation and kept my hands off it - putting it outside for the rest of the year - to give it a chance to build up a nice crown. It's now residing in a very large tub and I brought it into the tunnel 2 weeks ago putting a large pot over the crown to encourage it.  I'm not sure how long it will be happyeven in a large tub - but it should be fine in a shady corner if kept well watered. Anything that makes use of difficult corners in a tunnel is very valuable - and it will hopefully stretch the fruit season at either end just that little bit further.
 
 
If you're just starting off a new fruit garden - there's still just time to plant bare root fruit trees and bushes into the ground, if soil conditions aren't too wet. Or heel them into pots as I mention in my apple piece above. Never attempt to plant anything - particularly fruit trees - into a wet sticky soil! Instead you could pot them up for now in a soil/compost mix. Make sure the pot is a lot larger than the roots to give them room to spread out instead of winding round. If you've read my blog before you'll know that I use large plastic carrier or bin bags for this - making drainage holes in the bottom. Don't use a pure peat compost - apart from destroying bogs by using peat (and you know my opinion on that!) the roots of large trees often never move out into the surrounding soil properly if they've been potted into peat composts - something you may not discover for a few years until they're carrying a heavy crop and the wind blows so hard it causes them to keel over! 
 
 

What are the Best 'Autumn-Fruiting' Raspberry Varieties?

 

 
Some fruit like autumn raspberries will even give you a good crop this year - if planted in really well prepared, fertile ground in a sunny spot or even in pots now. If your soil is still too wet to plant for the next few weeks - then you can pot them up for now and plant them later when conditions are better and they will still fruit well.  'Allgold', 'Brice' and 'Joan J' all have a fabulous flavour, and will fruit twice a year if you leave about half of the previous year's canes on the plants when you are doing your spring pruning. Those older canes left will crop again in June, then you cut them right down. After that you will then have a longer autumn cropping period from August to November, on all the new canes grown in the current year. Although vigorous - they are reasonably well-behaved varieties. This year I got a new variety of autumn fruiting raspberry called Erika 2 years ago from Ken Muir's Nursery and it's delicious. I have always found them to be a thoroughly reliable source of mail order fruit of all kinds, but I'm not sure if we can order from them any more now after Brexit - I must investigate!. Ken Muir's are the only nursery who I have never had anything from that wasn't the variety it was supposed to be. Several others have sent wrong varieties and one recently even had the gall to tell me I didn't know what I was talking about when I said that the variety they has sent me was not Ashmead's Kernal! The names of  apple varieties were taught to me by my father - a very keen and knowledgeable apple grower s I've mentioned - when I was only about as high as the basket he was picking them into - they were practically the first words I learnt! Those names are etched into my brain and bring back so many wonderful memories!
 
 
The newer 'primocane' varieties like 'Joan J' seem to concentrate their energies a bit more into the fruit - unlike two of the older type of autumn varieties which I planted years ago - 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss'. Those two have much smaller fruit which doesn't have nearly such a good flavour. They also have serious territorial ambitions and seem to enjoy trying to run all over the garden, popping up in all sorts of unexpected places and becoming an absolute nuisance. I wouldn't dream of giving them away to friends though - knowing how much of a pest they can become! As I hate wasting anything I dig them up and plant them down in my small patch of woodland for the wildlife. There they can revert back to their original woodland roots - running around and doing exactly what they really like - and while doing it they provide natural cover and food for the birds - who really enjoy them!  Sadly though - it was a vain hope that if the birds have their very own fruit patch they'd leave mine alone!  Dream on me! - Instead they just bring all their friends along to the party as well!!
 
 

Woodland Gardening - or Just Feeding wildlife? 

 
For many years now I've been planting all sorts of stray seedlings of fruit bushes and trees in my little patch of woodland here. I'm always finding blackcurrant or other seedlings when I'm weeding - particularly where the birds have been sitting on branches and digesting their breakfast!  I hate wasting them! Perhaps one day I may even be rewarded by finding a new hybrid variety - that's if I ever get to see any of the fruit before the birds eat it all. "Forest Gardening" is a new term for this habit of mine which has been coined by a man who recently claimed to have invented it - well he invented the name - but not the practice. But apparently it's the very latest fashion!  Anyone into wildlife gardening or permaculture like me has been doing it for years - but we just didn't call it a fancy name!  Anyway - I actually plant them for the birds - in the vain hope that they'll leave mine alone, as I've said!
 
 
It's always amusing how very different many of these romantic-sounding ideas are in practice! I have to say I often wonder if those who invented the term have ever actually even done it? Unless fruit is covered with netting, the birds eat it all!  Well - they do here - because I have so many - instead of leaving my fruit alone they just invite their pals to dinner as well!  Once again - it's an extremely attractive sounding idea that doesn't really work in practice - not if you actually want a crop!  It's a sort of  'fuzzy and warm' idea in a very 'Country Living- ish' kind of way!  It's hard enough to keep the birds off the fruit in the garden - apple trees are far too big to net and my blackbirds go for them the second they can see a bit of colour on the fruit!  The little dears!  Nature, by the way, has been doing it for millennia - the birds drop all sorts of interesting varieties of berrying shrubs in the garden when they're having an after dinner snooze on any handy branch. A few years ago I found a very pretty scented berberis with edible berries later - which I'd never planted! The nearest bush that could possibly have come from was at least a mile away!! And a few years ago, I discovered a new blackberry/bramble hybrid growing in the field here which every one was sampling eagerly and asking for cuttings of. Obviously it is a wild bramble/Himalayan Giant cross from the flavour, the obvious similarities and very vigorous habit. It's been given away to several grateful gardeners (including my 'Tunnel to Table' co-presenter Gerry Kelly) with a severe health warning!
 
 

Ever Thought of Growing a Grapevine?

 
  Grape 'Perlette' - (a seedless variety)Grape 'Perlette' - (a seedless variety)
 
All fruit is expensive these days - particularly if organically-grown. A bunch of grapes can cost at least 2 or 3 euros - whether organic or not - and they're very easy to grow considering they're such a luxury!  In just it's second year after planting a well-grown vine should actually pay for itself in fruit. You don't necessarily need a greenhouse or tunnel, or even have to grow them in the ground either. You can grow them quite easily in a good well drained, soil based compost in tubs or pots as standards. A standard grapevine is like a small tree, on a single stem, with branches arranged a bit like the spokes of an umbrella) - that way they take up very little space and it means you can bring them into a glass porch, a sunny window or a conservatory - for a bit of TLC when they're flowering - and again later when they're ripening their fruit. 
 
 
Dry weather is important at flowering time for grape pollination - and also when they're fruiting - the later varieties also really appreciate the extra warmth to ripen their fruits. Being able to bring them inside when they're fruiting also means more protection from pests. Growing vines in pots also means that you can grow a lot more varieties too. You don't always want 200 bunches of grapes ready at the same time - and the family tend to go on strike when faced with juicing them! Juicing is something I don't do any more anyway - because juice is pretty much pure sugar and you only get all the nutrients in grapes, including the valuable heart-healthy Resveratrol, if you eat the whole grape including the skins and pips. Blending them in a Nutri-bullet blender is far better for you.
 
 

Don't Prune Indoor Grapevines Now!

 
If you already have a grapevine and didn't get round to pruning it - for heaven's sake don't panic and prune it now - it's too late. It's been so mild in the last couple of weeks that buds on many fruit trees are already moving about 2 weeks earlier than usual. In milder areas or in warmer greenhouses and tunnels - vines are already beginning to wake up and the sap's rising. If you prune them now after the sap starts to rise you could severely weaken or even kill them!  They can quite literally bleed to death if the sap is rising fast, particularly indoors in pots where they start into growth a bit earlier. I once pruned a vine too late many years ago and it's very scary believe me - it's just like turning on a tap!  It's something you never, ever, make the mistake of doing again!!  Wait until the shoots start to grow later on, and 'rub out' or 'pinch out' those you don't want to grow. They may not look as organised and tidy if you do that - but they won't bleed. The buds on my earliest varieties of grapes in the tunnel are already fattening and beginning to swell, despite the cold weather recenlty.
 
 
The other thing that needs to be done now - if you haven't already - is that the main stem or rod of grapevines needs to be lowered by untying it from its support and laying down as horizontally as possible so that the sap is distributed evenly along it's length. Otherwise the sap will just shoot straight up to the tip - if you leave it upright. Vines in tubs can be laid on their side if being trained as a single stem or in a spiral as I do with some - or you can leave them upright if they're grown as standards with several buds all breaking from the same level. If you don't do this - when the vine starts to grow it will send all it's energy into the buds at the very tip - leading to uneven growth along the stem with some fruiting spurs not developing as well as others, or possibly not even growing at all.
 
 

Pests on grapes. 

 
The main pests I find a nuisance are wasps, birds and mice when the fruit is ripening - but otherwise I find grapes have very few problems. Protecting the fruit with netting or using traps is the only way to deal with those. Pests you may occasionally see are either scale insect or woolly aphids - these often come in on new plants bought from garden centres. These are easily dealt with by using an organic fatty acid spray once or twice or by painting them with melted coconut oil. This coats the insect's skin pores which it breathes through and as a result stops it breathing. These methods are very effective - so there's no need to use the highly toxic sprays usually advised in many books or articles on grape growing. Contrary to what many people think, grapes are actually very hardy when growing in pots. Even in the very low temperatures of 2010/2011 winter - mine all stood outside with the pots protected so that they didn't get frozen solid. Growing in pots also means you can grow several different varieties, to give you a longer season of fruit. If you have a south facing wall many varieties will grow well there. The wall acts as a kind of storage heater - keeping the frost off in early spring and then helping to ripen the fruit in the autumn. They make a very attractive ornamental feature on a patio too - bringing a real touch of the Mediterranean into the garden, particularly when they're fruiting. A few scarlet geraniums in terracotta pots, a bit of sunshine and you'll almost think you're in Italy or the South of France!  All you need then is the deckchairs and a bottle of wine - which you might even make from your own grapes if you have enough!!
 
 

There's Still Time to Plant Grapes 

 
Even bare root vines can be planted in the next week or so - and potted vines can naturally be planted anytime. I actually prefer to plant mine inside the tunnel if I'm growing them in the ground - because that way I'm much more in control of the watering.  When the fruit has 'set' it's skin and is ripening - there is nothing more heartbreaking than to have a sudden deluge of rain - which can cause the fruit to split and to start going bad. That's far less likely to happen if they're planted inside and kept evenly moist. Many garden centres and shops seem to have potted grapevines this year - but make sure they are strong plants with a decent firm root system - not a wobbly, weak root system which may either indicate vine weevil infestation, or that the plant may have been sitting in water all winter and be half rotten - like some I've seen for sale!  Vines never recover from this treatment as they're very fussy about good drainage at their roots. As I've said before - given the right conditions and pruned properly they can be extremely productive - and well worth growing - particularly in a greenhouse or tunnel. If you don't have a tunnel and you're going to try growing them outside in this part of the world - you really need to choose the earliest varieties or they won't have time to ripen - particularly here in Ireland with our often damper autumns. With climate change our weather is becoming less predictable too - so I think giving them a prime spot on a south facing wall is well worth it. In the south of England though where there's a slightly drier climate - there are many vineyards now on the more free-draining chalky soils. There are many award winning wines grown there. In London too - with it's even warmer micro climate - a lot of people now grow vines as a very productive ornamental feature on pergolas - but they don't tend to do very well here grown like that - the leaves look lovely - but they never produce much worthwhile fruit!  Sadly it's just not warm enough most years.

 

Which Varieties are Best - Seedless or Seeded?

 
It depends what you like best - although there is some evidence that black grapes contain more healthy nutrients.  I have a lot of different varieties here - over 20 I think (I've stopped counting now!) They're one of my favourite fruits - but I'm mostly planting new seedless varieties these days. I think if you're eating them fresh as dessert grapes, or dehydrating them for sultanas - it's much nicer not to have seeds in them. Unless you have endless time to thin grapes (life is definitely too short!) or have a full time gardener (I wish!) then seeded grapes can be very small, 'pippy' and fiddly if not thinned, although they're fine for smoothies etc. An exception to this is the wonderful seeded variety 'Muscat Bleu' - which I think is the absolute 'caviar' of grapes - with it's rich, deep, muscat flavour - just like the very best muscatel raisins. It's actually self-thinning in a very convenient way - producing long, well-spaced bunches of huge blue-black grapes with the most heavenly muscat flavour!  Like all black grapes - it's also very high in phytochemicals like Resveratrol - which are beneficial for our cardiovascular health in particular. 
 
 
Good white seedless varieties are - 'Lakemont Seedless' - early, very disease-resistant and the best for making sultanas by dehydrating (unbelievably scrumptious and irresistible, 'Perlette', 'White Dream' and 'Himrod'. Good reds or black seedless are 'Flame', 'Vanessa',  'Blue Dream' and 'Rose Dream'. I grow all three of these - 'Rose Dream' is the earliest and produces the best crops in a bad summer. It's very sweet but doesn't have quite as good a flavour as 'Flame' which is much later but has large, delicious berries with a bit more acid to balance the sweetness. You often see 'Flame' in supermarkets - but you'll never see chemical-free organic ones on sale anywhere here. Vine leaves are useful too and also high in nutrients. You can blanch and freeze them for cooking 'stuffed vine leaves '. Vine leaves are the only thing I ever blanch as this makes them pliable so that they don't shatter when frozen.
 
 
There are many varieties of seeded grapes available -  'Boskoop Glory' is a good disease resistant, very productive and reliable black, so is 'Black Hamburgh' but a bit later. 'Bianca' an early, very sweet pale green/yellow and 'Chasselas Dore de Fontainebleau' is a hugely productive, very sweet golden grape that ripens in early September. My son has never forgotten the time he had to juice well over 200 bunches of that variety years ago - when I was away - bless him. I think he's only just forgiven me!!  'Muscat of Alexandria' I've seen being sold everywhere with a label that says it will grow outside - it it will grow - but only leaves! It's so late fruiting that it only reliably produces ripe fruit in a tunnel or greenhouse unless you live near the Mediterranean - where I think a lot of the potted nursery stock is actually grown these days!  I've done a 'trawl' on the web - and only Ken Muir in the UK have 'Muscat Hamburgh' which I think is the best-tasting black. It's also the main one that those gorgeous Muscatel raisins are made from. They also have another very good black called 'Regent' - my 5 year old vine had a fantastic crop on here last year - it was literally dripping with grapes! It's a seeded variety which also tastes very sweet and 'raisiney'. The dark brown-fruited 'Brandt' is another good-flavoured variety that will grow well outside and also has beautiful autumn colour. If you want to buy mail order grapes - it's advisable to get them as soon as possible as the young shoots can easily get knocked off in the post if they're delayed for any reason and start to grow. Ken Muir's Nursery in UK have a great selection of figs and grapes. 
  
 

There's a huge variation in the price of fruit trees

 
 
I like to visit garden centres to compare value - (strictly in the interests of research you understand - although I have been known to purchase the odd little thing occasionally!!)  It's amazing how much prices can differ for exactly the same plants - and the quality too. These days value for money is all important - and one of the things I have always tried to do here is to let you know about anything I think is good value! It's surprising the amount of savings you can make if you shop around.......The discount supermarkets Aldi and Lidl often have great value on fruit trees and bushes at this time of year - so cheap you really could plant them just for the birds if you were feeling generous! They're all good, reliable varieties well worth planting in your fruit garden - and a fraction of the price you will find them elsewhere!  So keep your eyes open in the next couple of weeks!  As I've said before - their peach trees are exceptionally good value and I had a huge crop on the now 12 year old trees last summer in the tunnel (well over 200 fruits on both trees!!) That's why I invested in my dehydrator - I adore dried peaches and there are only so many you can eat fresh - even though they do ripen over a couple of weeks! In the summer, time is always at a premium, bottling takes ages of 'faffing around' when you have least time - and freezer space is never plentiful enough here!
 
 
The peach Aldi had last year - was  'Red Haven' - which is hardy, disease resistant variety and very productive. If you don't have tunnel you can grow them as a fan against a south or west-facing wall and cover with a polythene frame in late winter/early spring to keep away peach leaf curl, and they will produce loads of fruit!  The ALDI price last year (bare root so you have to pot up or plant) - was just €4.99.  For comparison - in Homebase for exactly the same variety - a similar sized but potted tree - the price was €11.98, and in a well known garden centre - same again - €55!! They'll probably be even more this year as everything seems to have gone up in price! - Funny how things never seem to go the other way isn't it?? Anyway - If you see them in Aldi or Lidl - do buy them as soon as possible or they'll start to shoot in the warm shops - unpack them as soon as you get them home and pot up or plant immediately as they start into growth early - mine are already swelling their buds now. 
 
 
Make sure you immediately prune the branches back by at least two thirds after planting - so that the tree will start to form a good shaped branch system - don't be tempted to leave the branches alone and try to let it fruit this year as one friend of mine did a few years ago - despite my warnings.  If you do that it may well flower on the growth it made last year and you may think it's going to fruit - but in a couple of months it will drop any flowers that have 'set' as it simply doesn't have enough established roots to support any fruit. By doing that you've lost your early chance to force a good shape onto the tree and you may well permanently weaken and damage the tree. Pruning it back in it's first year will give it a chance to develop a good root system before it's asked to bear fruit or too many branches, so that next year you should get a good crop. Peaches always fruit on the new 'green' growth made the previous year - so you have to cut some of the fruited branches back every year to encourage new growth.(See last month's fruit diary)
 
 

Growing Physalis Peruviana - (aka Chinese Gooseberry/ Inca Berry/ Golden Berry) 

 Cape gooseberry - a comparison with €1 coinCape gooseberry - a comparison with €1 coin 
 
This is a fruit that must be sown now in a warm propagator if they're to fruit early enough to give a decent crop this autumn. I grow some from seed every year. They're dead easy and grow like weeds from seed. Someone said recently that they're difficult to germinate - they're not - just slow! They take about 3 weeks to come up and then do it all at once!  I was also reading somewhere recently that apparently they are the very latest Peruvian so-called 'super fruit'!  I've been growing them for at least 30 years! You're not going to believe this - but we're still eating those I picked last November - stored in the fridge! They're being strictly rationed now though!  They're a waste of time outside as they won't fruit early enough to bother with. I grow them in tubs in the tunnel, as this restricts root growth a bit which makes them fruit even earlier. Each year I overwinter some of the previous year's plants in the tunnel under fleece as they're actually half-hardy perennials. They fruit much earlier than those sown in February, and in that way I get a longer crop of these delicious, 'sherbetty'/'pineappley' tasting fruits. They're very high in Vitamin C and the phytochemical lutein (good for eyesight & which we can only obtain from plants) among many other good things - they grow like weeds, are really delicious and fruit generously for months. 
 
 
 
Although they're quite soft and sappy they are hardier than their tomato cousins and each year I leave a few in their tubs, overwintering them in the dry in a tunnel so that they fruit earlier the following year. They start to produce new shoots from the base around now, so I cut back the protecting, now defunct, older shoots and they'll start to fruit in July, instead of September, when the ones sown this year do. A good tomato feed like Osmo* when they show signs of growth and away they go - but after their second autumn I compost the two year old plants, as they tend to go downhill with age!  Although the leaves are reputed to be a folk remedy for diabetes in Africa - like other members of the Solanaceae (tomato) family - all parts of the plant, apart from the fruits, are highly toxic and dangerous if consumed! 
 
 
I read a very amusing article a few years ago by the food writer Susan Jane White - who likened the fruits to Victoria Beckham: "bright orange and deluded" (her words!). She may just possibly have been confusing their looks with the ornamental (inedible) type, as these are shown when you 'Google' them. At the same time, if you don't grow them yourself - they are very definitely extremely expensive and highly fashionable! The similarity ends there however, as they're really easy, good-natured, generous and not the least bit sulky, difficult or 'Prima Donna-ish'! They are one of the most productive annual fruits you can grow, and when you grow them yourself, not only are the fruits chemical free - but are usually larger than those you'll find as a garnish on your plate in fancy restaurants, as you can see from the picture here. 
 
  
NOTE - DO NOT CONFUSE THESE WITH THE ORNAMENTAL CHINESE LANTERNS WHICH ARE A VERY PRETTY DEEP ORANGE, and fruit in the autumn - harvest festival flower arrangements are all these are good for!  If you grow them yourself from seed, rather than buying them in a garden centre where the assistants sometimes don't know one plant from another, you will be sure that you're getting the edible one! The leaves are very similar - but when the edible ones are ripe - the outer husk is a pale straw colour and the fruit inside is the ONLY thing that's bright orange.
 
 

Finish winter pruning of apples etc. now if you can walk on the ground 

 
 
The sap is starting to rise, and although things like apple trees don't bleed like grapes - you don't want to waste the plant's energy by letting it make shoots you will cut off later - concentrate it into the ones you want to grow. Don't prune any stone fruits like plums and damsons now - wait until late spring to do this - before then they are very susceptible to silver leaf infection. Keep any twiggy prunings somewhere dry until you can burn them later in the year - they are rich in valuable, very highly-soluble potash and can be used for feeding all fruit and veg. The same goes for the ash from wood burning stoves, although ash from bigger logs is not as high in potash as twiggy prunings but it's still valuable.  Bear in mind that all wood ash will raise the soil  'pH' slightly, so acid lovers won't like too much - use seaweed meal for them. The best way to use it is to mix it through the material you are putting onto the compost heap - I keep the ash from my stove in a bin to keep it dry and then sprinkle it one as I'm adding stuff to the heap. I get my properly seasoned 2 yr.old ash logs - cut to whatever size I specify - delivered in handy reusable skip bags from Peter Barry at www.logonfirewood.ie - much easier than having them dumped and having to stack them - saves a lot of time and backache!  It also means they arrive totally dry and ready to go - and they don't mess up your stove or chimney. Buying them in bulk means they're a lot cheaper than in small bags bought a few at a time - which are usually not dry, are unsuitable wood and not properly seasoned either - messing up your stove. The skip bags are then great for re-using to make leaf mould, compost, or even better as extra large grow bags/raised beds.
 
 
Look for scale insect now on the leaves of citrus or bay trees
 
 
Black sooty mould is a good sign that there may well be someIf you do find any - spraying them with an organic insecticidal soap or again painting them with coconut oil works like a treat. These are approved organic remedies which are perfectly safe for any food plants. They work by covering the insect's pores with fatty acids so that they suffocate.  Do it now. Don't spray it on lemons or other citrus when they're making the very tender little new pink shoots in a few weeks time - doing that can burn them - particularly in strong sunshine. If you don't do it now - then wait until the new shoots firm up a bit - although by then you may have a real infestation which may have weakened the plant!  It's much better done now. Don't ask advice at your local garden centre - in my experience they know nothing about citrus trees and also they'll just recommend some very nasty organo-phosphorus insecticide for use on house plants which will actually make your lemons poisonous. I think that anyone selling pesticides to people should first have to pass an exam to prove they actually know something about what they're selling, other than just from the instructions on the back of the bottle!
 
 
I simply could not believe my ears last year to hear someone who was supposed to be a gardening 'expert' (here I go again - but really!!) on the radio a few years ago. He recommended that for scale insect on bay trees people should either use a systemic insecticide (scream!) - or that if they 'were organic' (weird in so many words) then they could use methylated spirits! OMG!!  Not only is that not remotely organic - but does he not know that people actually eat bay leaves??  I wouldn't fancy meths. in my stew thank you!  So called 'experts' who don't know anything about organic growing shouldn't pretend to - someone could be made seriously ill!  They should be honest and admit that they don't actually know if that's the case!  But so few of these 'experts' do. There's an old saying isn't there........?......"It's a wise man who knows what he doesn't know"!
 
 
Pot grown lemons beside climbing French beans and calabrese in springPot grown lemons beside climbing French beans and calabrese in spring
 
Don't feed citrus trees yet - unless they're in a heated conservatory in which case they may be making new growthI like to use a good high nitrogen fertiliser for citrus which also very slightly lowers the pH - just what they like. A couple of years ago I discovered the Osmo range of certified organic fertilisers*, I use them all the time for my citrus trees now, they are really good, and I use rain water (no shortage of that!) to make them up. Citrus plants are actually acid loving plants like rhododendrons - so never water them with tap water either. Always use rainwater. If they're looking sickly and yellow - it's something called 'chlorosis' - which they get if given tap water. If that's a problem - wait until they're starting to grow again and give them a dose of sequestered iron, mixed into rain water. That fixes the problem miraculously - greening them up again in no time. You'll find a product called 'Sequestrene' being sold in sachets in good garden centres. Fig 'Violetta' - a tasty variety

 

  Fig 'Violetta' - a tasty variety

 
I'll be giving my lemons in the tunnel a very light watering of rainwater this week - not saturating them - as just like grapes they really hate sitting in wet soil. In another month or so they'll really start to growth - then I'll start to feed and water them a bit more. They won't go outside until at least the end of May though - the young shoots and flowers are vulnerable to frosts.

 

Give fig trees in pots an early spring feed now - they'll be starting into growth soon too. The top buds on mine are already showing signs of moving. Scratch off a bit of the top soil in the pot - feed them with a balanced organic feed or seaweed meal, top up again with a little good compost, and water it in. Wait until next month to feed those outside as they'll start growing later and the food will just wash away, be wasted and pollute groundwater. Take off any overwintered fruitlets that are larger than pea size if you haven't already done so, these won't develop and will either drop off or rot on the stem - possibly causing disease.

 
 
Clean up established strawberry beds, cutting off all the old leaves carefully without damaging the crowns. Feed them with seaweed meal which supplies slow release potash for good fruit development. Pot up some of last year's runners and bring them inside for an early crop. 'Christine' is the earliest variety for doing this - I always have strawberries in mid May. Sow some alpine strawberries now, and they will fruit all summer long until the first frosts. I grow the delicious and aromatic 'Reugen' (Chiltern seeds) which is a very good variety - huge fruit for an alpine, or 'Baron Solemacher' the next best. There's a white fruited variety you can grow from seed which totally fools the birds and looks attractive in a fruit bowl. There's even a very pretty golden leaved one too - Golden Alexandria (Suttons Seeds I think) - lovely for an edging in an ornamental potager. This year I'm going to try to spread the season of the unkown old white strawberry (poss Chiloensis) I have by growing some in pots in the tunnel again and then some outside as well. It's the only summer-fruiting type I grow now as I find the 'Albion' perpetual fruiting one produces so well from May to November that the others an unnecessary use of space that can be better used by other fruits.
 
  
When it dries up enough to walk on the ground without sinking in at all - feed and mulch all established fruit trees and bushes with a light dressing of very well rotted manure or home made compost, a proprietary compound organic fertiliser, or seaweed meal plus a good mulch. If you had problems with 'bitter pit' in apples (small round black spots on fruits - caused by poor calcium uptake in wet soils) top dress the soil around them with calcified seaweed - which provides lime, trace minerals and encourages biological activity in the soil. 
 
 
Prune older shoots out of blackcurrants. Blackcurrants really appreciate nitrogen, as they fruit mostly on young wood made the previous year, so you want to encourage plenty of new growth each year. I often put my chickens in the fruit cage in winter, they supply nitrogen and pick up pests at the same time!
 
 
*Osmo certified organic fertilisers and liquid feeds are available in many garden centres now. They are also available in Whites Agri at Ballough, Lusk, Co. Dublin. Whites are the Irish importers for Osmo and have a good range of really reliable products that work well. Whites also now stock the Klasmann peat-free seed compost and potting compost which I recommend. You don't have to buy in agricultural amounts - they are more than happy to just sell you a bag. They are brilliant composts, the best I've ever used, and worth every single cent. Once you've tried them you'll never go back to using habitat/biodiversity destroying and disease-encouraging peat composts I promise you!
 
 
Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. 
 

The Vegetable Garden in February - 2020

 February Contents:  Food Resilience in uncertain times.... The propagating bench is where all the gardening action is currently....  Seed Sowing details....  Seed Sowing in Modules....The importance of using a good peat-free seed compost....  Improving Soil for Planting - especially in New Gardens..... General February advice.....My 'Ad-Free' Blog Policy 

 

Lush, fast-growing mixed Oriental salads in a large potMy 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds

Salads in a large pot -  easily grown in 8 weeks if sown now. -  My 'stepladder salad garden' and recycled skip bag 'raised beds' fit on a path or in any small area
 

Food resilience is important in uncertain times 

 
Earlier this week I had a phone chat on LMFM Radio with Gerry Kelly about what we could start off now to help us get ahead for spring - you'll find it here:   https://soundcloud.com/nickykylegardening/making-an-early-start-growing-veg-a-february-chat-with-gerry-kelly-on-the-late-lunch-show
 
 
I know some people say it's too early - but being a very busy person, I don't like having to have what I call an 'early March panic' - when I try to sow everything at once!  It makes my life a lot easier if I can do my seed-sowing in stages, whenever I have time.  If the weather gets too cold to plant some things out - I can always pot them on to avoid checks, then I have bigger, more resilient plants, and I usually get crops earlier than most people without the stress of everything piling up! Further on I talk about how I sow in modules.
 
 
Most of the fresh organic produce in supermarkets from January until May or June is now imported from southern Europe, but we could actually grow a lot of it quite easily here, either in polytunnels and greenhouses or under cloches outside for the earliest crops. Produce like polytunnel-grown lettuce, calabrese/broccoli and spinach come from Spain, Portugal and Italy but we can sow all of those now, in only gentle warmth or just frost-free conditions after germination.  With the lengthening days of spring they'll come on in leaps and bounds in the next few weeks - and anything we can grow, particularly salads, is going to be far fresher, more nutritious and much cheaper than buying 3-4 day old supermarket bagged salads. 
 
 
As I also mentioned to Gerry in our radio chat - at this time of year and even later now with such unpredictable weather conditions - sticking to tried and tested older varieties is often more sensible than going for the new 'supposed to be the best ever' ones which are often disappointing!  Older varieties often tend not to run to seed as quickly, or to be as sensitive to fluctuating weather conditions like temperature or watering problems, as some new F1 hybrids.  They also tend to crop over a longer period as they are not bred to be uniform and all mature at once - and also have the bonus that we can save our own seeds, and that's far better than buying packets of seed often now costing at least €3-4! It's really growing our own food security and health, and saving on our household budget at the same time! What could be better?
 
 
The Irish seed suppliers which I mentioned in our Late Lunch Show chat were - Brown Envelope Seeds, Irish Seed Savers, and Fruit Hill Farm - (who also sell seed potatoes and many other useful items like gardening tools, propagation equipment, and tools for food preserving). They all have a good basic range of 'open-pollinated' vegetable varieties which you will be able to save seed from, and also some more unusual and hard to get vegetables.
 
 
My main concern - like many of you I'm sure - is to be able to continue to feed my family the organic food which we've eaten for over 40 years - no matter what happens in the wider world. We try to be as self-sufficient as possible here in many things, but due to degenerative disc disease - I'm no longer able to do some of the tougher jobs, like handling weighty sheep, which I did years ago. As many of you will know, I now just concentrate on rearing poultry, which are lighter and far are easier to manage. If necessary - we could survive on chicken without buying any other meats, as we would also have our own eggs. We only eat meat or fish perhaps 2-3 times a week here anyway, eating vegan or vegetarian the rest of the time.  But we do like to eat some red meat - perhaps once every week or so. All the meat we eat here is organic, higher welfare - and is enjoyed as the very special treat which it is - just as it was when I was growing up. Chicken then was always a home-reared cockerel - which had spent a wonderful life foraging in our orchards before eventually being a very special and thoroughly appreciated Sunday dinner. 
 
 
Most chicken consumed nowadays is the cheapest, filthiest, most intensively-reared meat possible, and that is why so much of it is probably wasted! Last year I reared my own cockerels again, from male chicks of the laying hybrids I bought, and they made superb eating, with dense, nutrient-rich, 'gamey'-tasting meat.  Their texture was more like a cross between duck and fillet steak - rather than soft, flabby, pasty-fleshed, intensively raised supermarket chickens, and yet they were succulent and tender. Literally nothing compares with them. It was a bit frantic raising them in spring though with so much work to do - especially as I broke my ankle in March, so they weren't dispatched in one batch and were still around when they had started to crow - something my son particularly did not appreciate as his room is on the side of the house closest to the chicken runs, and they were crowing at 3 am!  So this year I shall get some more male chicks from the hatchery. but I will do so in early autumn, so that the days will be getting shorter as they mature, work in the garden will be winding down and they won't wake up too early!  That may be my last batch for some time though, as when 'Brexit' happens I may no longer be able to go up to the North of Ireland to buy day-old chicks!  'Brexit' is still such an unknown quantity, and with the erratic way in which the British government is behaving, I think it's far better to err on the side of caution and plan for a 'No-deal Brexit' - which frankly, I have always thought is the most likely possibility due to many vested interests
 
Any other meat which I now no longer rear myself - like pork, beef or lamb - we buy from an organic butcher, Coolanowle Farm Meats in County Carlow - who deliver to farmer's markets in Dublin regularly and also do mail order. Organic grass-fed meats generally shouldn't be affected by Brexit - except possibly in those supermarkets buying meat from the UK. When it comes to buying-in poultry or other animals from Northern Ireland for rearing however - new regulations may well apply after Brexit - so it might be a good idea to inquire about those fairly soon if you're thinking of doing so
 
 
I learned years ago the hard way to always be prepared for any emergencies, as we were snowed in for 3 weeks during our first winter after we moved here 38 years ago. Luckily a very kind neighbour drove through the snow on his tractor to fetch milk from the nearest small town 7 miles away, or we would have had none at all for at least a couple of weeks. Now although we have shops 8 miles away selling organic milk, I always make sure that we have enough milk frozen to be able to survive without a trip to the shop for at least 2 weeks.  I think most people not living in the country would find that quite strange, in the age of a convenience store on every corner and in almost every petrol station - but we don't have those out in the country here. Even our local village store, which doesn't sell any organic products, is 2 miles away. Anyway I try to keep our carbon footprint and any shopping trips to a minimum, so we only go about once every 10-14 days to buy organic milk and always have some frozen just in case of emergencies!
  
 
I'm always aware of how lucky we are compared to those who are totally dependent on shops for all their daily food needs - but at the same time, it has taken a lot of hard work to become relatively self-sufficient in some foods over the years.  I'm always so grateful for the hard work of those who produce what we can't - especially if those organic farmers are also trying to support biodiversity and farm in a climate-friendly way.  So many people seem so far removed from the reality of where their food comes from now - that I think many would find it impossible to understand the necessity of always being prepared for any contingency. However, having been brought up on a small farm in the UK, by parents who went through World War Two and who experienced rationing, I was probably made aware from an early age of just how valuable food resilience is. It was really brought home to me again recently listening to the extremely worried Guy Watson from Riverford - the UK-wide organic veg box scheme, who had recently bought a farm in France specifically to supply his customers during the so-called 'Hungry-Gap' from late winter to spring, when little fresh produce is available in the UK. His business could well go under because of Brexit and the delays in establishing equivalent organic certification etc. which will undoubtedly be the result. I could perfectly understand when he said in a BBC Food Programme that he was I quote: "Almost too angry to speak - to be told by people who have NO idea how their food is produced that this is Project Fear makes me incandescent with rage"!  Then I was too - after hearing another comment from a British food writer living in Portugal, saying that "if farmers went out of business - then it was a good thing, and their own fault!"... Simply unbelievable ignorance from someone who is, as far as I'm concerned, little better that a parasite living off our food system!  Perhaps some people may have to face the reality of just how precarious food security really will be after Brexit?  If so - then it might be no harm - and perhaps might make them appreciate hard-working farmers just a little more, instead of taking for granted the freely available produce which shoppers are always able to 'harvest' so easily from off supermarket shelves? 
 
 
Imported store cupboard staples which we don't grow ourselves - such as organic flour - may well also be in short supply here in Ireland after Brexit, as there are only three flour mills in the entire island of Ireland - and two of them are actually in Northern Ireland!  I make bread roughly 3 times a week as a matter of course, so I always need to know that I have enough flour and dried yeast in the cool larder to see me through for at least the next four months. At certain times of year here - spelt flour in particular can be in short supply, especially when it gets close to harvest time in summer, when supplies of the flour milled from the previous year's crop may begin to run short. Only you will know what your staple pantry foods are though - so it's up to you what you wish to store or stockpile just in case of shortages. While I don't think there's really any need to panic buy - all I would say is that it might be sensible to at least have a couple of months supply of things which you feel you can't do without, can't make or can't grow yourself, such as dried pulses, nuts and seeds etc. cereals like wholegrain rice, oats and barley, dried fruit, sea salt and perhaps sauces such as organic soy sauce etc, cider vinegar, herbs and spices imported from the UK and any other such things. Keep all those things dry and cool and as long as they have a decent use by date on them they will be fine. Most things will in fact keep far longer if kept sealed and cool - only perhaps losing a few nutrients at worst, but otherwise perfect.
 
 

As far as fresh veg and fruit goes - having the polytunnels is an absolute boon, because they mean that we always have some sort of seasonal veg available here especially salads, even in winter, and also plenty of fruit and veg like peas and French beans grown the previous year and stored in the freezer. For anyone who eats a lot of fruit and veg which may possibly be in short supply - then perhaps this is might be a good time to try your hand at growing a few salads in containers for the first time? Even if it transpires that salads aren't in short supply, they will still be jolly useful and will save you a lot of money! Being a practical person - I personally ind that doing anything rather than just waiting and worrying about a problem, is always the best course of action, and far better than doing nothing. It works for me - and usually pays off!  That being so, I thought it might be a good idea to make a list of some really easy, fast growing salads and other veg, which anyone could grow - as those will be the first things to be hit, if supplies from Europe are either delayed or non-existent. 

 
  
All of the suggestions in my February 'What to Sow now' list can be grown in greenhouses or polytunnels, and if you don't have one of those - they can also be grown on patios, balconies or on paths in tubs or other containers, or even in window boxes - if they're protected with fleece, if frost threatens. All of my suggestions can be sown inside the house now - and grown on as seedlings either on a windowsill, outside in a polytunnel, or against a south-facing wall in a cold frame again with frost protection - then planting out when they are large enough. You don't have to spend a fortune on containers - anything will do if it has drainage and can hold enough soil or compost - all you need for most veg, especially salads is a depth of about 15 cm or 6 inches of compost for really good growth. Below there's a description of exactly how I sow my seeds and why, which I hope you'll find helpful.

 

 

The propagating bench is where all the gardening action is happening currently!

 
 

The propagating bench is where all the action is currently!At the moment, soil is still saturated outside in most places - either having been snow covered or flooded that it's impossible to touch any vegetable beds, whether raised or not, without ruining the soil structure, apart from the other reasons below. Nothing likes growing in a compacted soil except the odd weed!  As a consequence - all the gardening action here is taking place on the propagating bench pictured above in the polytunnel - where there's lots of things which were germinated on the back of the range in the kitchen and are now growing on in the frame on the heated mat at about 50degF/10degC, ready to be planted outside or in the tunnel later.  

On the bench pictured here I have two cheap Lidl cold frames sitting on a roll-out heated mat - which is a bit like an electric blanket - (from Fruit  Hill Farm). It keeps things at a 'just warm enough' 50/55 degF or 10 degC. The mat sits on a recycled door supported by trestles. To cover then at night I roll out double fleece and a large piece of recycled bubble wrap. So as you can see - it's not very hi-tech but it's actually very effective!  

 

General advice on Seed Sowing (more details in Polytunnel diary) 

 
If you're impatient to get an early start, you can steal a march on spring and sow a few early seeds now if you have a warm light enough windowsill indoors, or much better still a heated propagator in a greenhouse or polytunnel where the light will be better. You can sow your seeds now in pots or modules for planting outside later on - there's a list on the "What you can sow" page. Even if the 'gardening itch' hasn't got to you yet this year and you don't want to start quite this early - then it's a good idea to have everything ready to go when you do. I love sowing seeds - it's such a hopeful and positive thing to do - it's an investment in the future, short or long term, that pays off in abundance. A great many of the things that need to be sown in the next few weeks we'll be eating this time next year.
 
 
This is the start of the most important time of year for seed sowing - and the same advice applies whether you only have a cold frame or just a warm windowsill. At the moment the soil is saturated everywhere - far too cold and wet to attempt to sow anything outdoors - and even by the end of the month I doubt if it will be much better unless the weather improves a lot. There's no point wasting expensive seed by sowing it into cold wet ground. It's not really until early March that any sun is strong enough to even begin to warm the soil at all for sowing - and when it is you'll begin to see weed seeds germinating, which is always the best guide. If the soil's warm enough for them - then it's plenty warm enough for some of the the hardier crops to germinate. I sow nearly all my crops in modules now though - as that allows me to get ahead whatever the weather, which means I can plan better, and it helps to make the most of valuable growing space. Obviously the most important thing to do is always adapt any guidelines to suit your own local climate and soil. That can vary hugely depending on exactly where in the country you live - and often even in individual gardens in the same area. For instance - early spring can arrive in the very north of Ireland up to three weeks later than in the warmer south - and the same goes for the UK. Even within a few miles it can vary surprisingly. Where I live now - 400 feet above sea level on a south west facing slope in the teeth of the prevailing SW wind - the season is at least ten days later than where I lived 35 years ago - down near the sea only 9 miles away.
 
 
Sowing most things in modules all year round wastes far less seed and I know I can be more sure of the results! The only exception to this would be root crops like parsnips or carrots - which are really much easier to sow direct in the ground, if you can protect them from hungry slugs!. I only sow these into my recycled 'loo roll middle'  modules if I want to make a really early start - or if their allotted space isn't free yet. As I mention later - doing this really makes the best use of your space, as the minute you have a crop cleared - you have another ready and waiting to be planted. By sowing in modules you're not spending time waiting for seed to germinate in ground which early in the year may be far too wet and cold. Carrots and parsnips like quite a warm seedbed and can be very slow and even rot if the ground is too cold. They can also take up to three weeks to appear and with carrots - the tiny early seed leaves are so fine that they're quite difficult to see - so often slugs will have eaten them before you've even noticed they were actually germinating! 
 
 
If you're planning to sow any crops early outside perhaps in March, and their planned space is free at the moment - then it's a good idea to cover it with some black polythene or something else waterproof now (it should be covered anyway if you've been following my advice!) Then you can uncover it every so often and clear up any slugs which are lurking around just underneath and get ahead of them too! You'll be amazed how many you'll find hiding under there - they won't bother going underground if they can hide in the dark somewhere damp and snug and they think they're out of sight! 
 
 
If you leave soil uncovered, as some people advocate - the slugs also just hide underground or around edges of beds. They've evolved to hide from hungry birds and hedgehogs - not hungry gardeners!  So be clever and outsmart them - it's always a good idea to trap and dispose of as many slugs as possible before you actually start the growing season - that gets you well ahead ahead of the game! Please don't be lazy and thoughtlessly use slug pellets - they kill all slug-eating wildlife too and traces of the poisonous metaldehyde they contain are increasingly being found in our drinking water as well! If you have ducks they're the very best slug hunters of the lot - they seem to have slug radar in the tips of their beaks - and they'll even eat the really big Spanish ones like rubber tyres which hens won't eat. But beware - as ducks are also extremely fond of anything edible, luscious and green - so don't let them near any lettuces etc. Also be careful if your soil is a heavy clay as they'll pack it down with their webbed feet - causing compaction, 'souring' and acidification - so don't leave them on any patch of ground for too long. After you've sown crops - a strip of black polythene, or a piece of slate at various points along the bed will give any remaining slugs a place to hide - so that you can then go along every so often, scoop them off and dispose of them - or cut them up with sharp scissors and leave them for wildlife to enjoy! When you've got rid of most of the slugs, then you can put some clear polythene on to the bed. This will allow the soil underneath to warm up so that it's all ready. If you see any weed seeds germinating at this point - a flame weeder can be very useful for burning off any tiny seedlings to make what's known as a 'stale seedbed' - which is perfectly clean on the surface and ideal for carrots and other small seeds.(If you're of a nasty frame of mind - a flame weeder's also great for barbecueing slugs!) Remember - weedkillers aren't just toxic - they don't actually kill weed seeds, so they're pointless poisoning!
 
 

Seed Sowing in Modules

 
(This applies to all vegetables, herbs and flowers, whether they're for planting outside later, or for under cover - whatever the time of year.)
 
 It may seem a bit fiddly sowing things into modules like plug trays, pots, or seed trays, but it's what I call my 'guaranteed one-step method to perfect plants'! This method of sowing means you don't have to handle them again until you actually plant them out. Seed germination is far more reliable in the better conditions. I do most of my sowing into modules all year round now. It means I'm not waiting for a patch to be free before I can sow seeds - and I can have something ready to go straight into the ground the minute any crop is cleared - that way I get loads more veg. out of my space. In essence what I'm doing is continuously overlapping crops. By not taking up ground just waiting for seeds to germinate - over the course of a year I gain several extra weeks of growing time out of my ground space and I can fit in another quick growing crop. I've been doing this for years since I first started off in a small garden and it's an even more valuable way to grow things if you only have a small space. 
 
 
Module sowing also involves far less handling of the seedlings and avoids the risks of 'pricking out' seedlings from large seed trays - the less you handle them, the less chance there is of wasting seed through possible damage, which can cause setbacks, fungal diseases or even death. The only time when I would sow a few seeds into pots or small seed trays might be when seeds need a much higher temperature for germination - things like aubergines or tomatoes. I otherwise wouldn't have enough space for everything in the small heated propagator - because I grow so many. The other really great thing about module sowing is that I can do all my seed sowing inside on the kitchen table - in the warm! I keep all the 'doings' neatly on a grow bag tray under the table - then whenever I have five minutes - I just pull it out and sow something! For me, this also means that things are far more likely to get sown at the right time. I don't have to plan to set aside a whole day to do it all at once - making it much easier to fit into a very busy life! Remember - you can catch up on everything else - but if you don't sow the seeds at the right time - there's no catching up on that. Time waits for no man! (or woman!)
 
 
Carrots sown in loo roll middles - early Feb.
 
Planting out modules when they're ready also means that the plants are already growing strongly, are bigger and as a result better able to withstand the occasional nibble from any slugs or other pests without being completely destroyed. And there's always one or two that escape my early scissor forays!  I often get questions from people who think they bought bad seed and it didn't germinate - but usually the reason seeds don't appear is because either the soil was too cold and wet in early spring so they rotted, or they dried out in summer, or slugs ate them as they came up! Sowing into modules avoids all those problems. Bad seed that doesn't germinate at all is thankfully extremely rare. Whatever pot or module you choose to sow in is up to you, there are masses of things which can be recycled for this purpose, and as usual the choice is only limited by one's imagination!  The important thing is to make sure they're clean, have good drainage holes in the bottom and that the young plants will come out quite easily, without disturbing the root ball if you gently push them up from the bottom - otherwise you lose the whole point of modules - which is to avoid any disturbance which causes setbacks! 
 
  
Just a word on using loo roll middles as pictured above.  I find these brilliant for long rooted things like very early carrots and parsnips because they can be planted out intact as they are - completely avoiding root disturbance - but I don't find them quite as good for other things like lettuce or other leafy crops which have a fine root ball - I think this is because the cardboard rolls are so high in carbon - which needs nitrogen to break down naturally - so it tends to rob this from the surrounding soil or compost as it does so - and also possibly any young plant that is growing in them. 
 
 
The other thing to remember about using cardboard tubes like loo roll middles is that they MUST be planted with the cardboard of the loo roll BELOW soil level - if exposed to the air they will act like a wick, drying out and shrinking - evaporating moisture from around the young plants ans fine roots with possibly disastrous results! The same goes for using paper pots. I get a lot of questions about this from people who have tried i and had disappointing results - but I've never seen anyone mentioning the danger of this happening. I know it does take a little extra compost sowing this way, but sowing into modules also means I don't waste expensive seed - which more than balances out the small cost of the extra compost used. It also means I have larger plants ready to go without losses to slugs. That again also means that I can plan the use of space much better - planting out neat, attractive-looking rows, instead of perhaps having unsightly gaps!  I really love that kind of instant potager gardeningIt's very satisfying to stand back and look at the results!
 
 

The importance of using a good peat-free seed compost 

 
It makes sense to use a good proprietary organic peat-free seed compost - NOT a multipurpose compost containing peat! A good peat-free seed compost will have been specially formulated to be suitable for tiny seedlings for their first few weeks when their tiny hair-like roots are very sensitive - and is worth it's weight in gold!  Many seedlings dislike a high nutrient content in composts - so using one specifically for seed sowing is really important - otherwise too high a nutrient content in the compost could inhibit germination, giving disappointing results. I never found those 'seed & potting' multi-purpose peat composts good for that particular reason when I had no choice but to use them many years ago. They also tend to attract root-eating soil pests too - because all composts containing peat do that!  I haven't used them for many years as I only use an organic peat-free compost now.
 
 
Peat is only a natural medium for plants which grow in bogs - and it should stay in the bogs where it belongs!  Using it is a very selfish choice! It supports enormous biodiversity and also acts a very effective carbon sink.  It should not be be dug up for the convenience of thoughtless gardeners who are just looking for the cheapest option - especially when growing your own food actually saves so much money anyway!  In terms of damage to the planet and accelerating climate change - using peat certainly isn't the cheap option eventually!  Any short term financial gain from using cheap, easily available peat is wiped out many times by the loss of important habitat for biodiversity, and also the inevitable flooding caused by reducing the land's water-holding capacity. Bogs act like enormous sponges - capturing rainfall and slowing up huge volumes of water that would otherwise immediately run off the land surface, overwhelming natural drainage systems and flooding not just farmland but also peoples houses and gardens.,
 
 
As I've mentioned previously - I use a really good, peat free, certified organic compost. This is available in Ireland from Fruit Hill Farm - (call them for local stockists - getting one bag by post is expensive!). It's also available from White's Agri, at Ballough, Lusk. The compost is produced by Klassman in Germany, from composted organic green waste. It's utterly brilliant and is the very best compost of any sort that I've found in over 40 years of growing. It's also available in the UK, and it's worth investigating if you live there. There are a quite a few other peat-free organic composts available there now too - but I haven't tried them, so can't recommend them. I would always prefer an organic compost - as those containing artificial fertilisers don't produce the most healthy plants in my experience. They are far more likely to attract aphids and other pests as the plant's immune defence systems aren't as healthy. Once you've used the Klassman - I promise you won't ever use anything else! (I wish I had shares in it!) .It's the best compost of any sort that I've ever used. Whether you're organic or not - believe me - this compost is worth every cent! Plants really thrive in it - I think possibly because it contains a good range of beneficial bacteria, having been made with organically grown green waste, composted specifically for this purpose. But whichever brand you choose, don't use a potting compost for sowing seeds - it will be far too high in nutrients that inhibit germination and burn the roots of the tiny seedlings as soon as they emerge. They may then be sickly, or possibly even keel over and die!  I grow a lot of rare plants - many of which are fussy and the seed expensive. I can't afford to risk wasting seed. These days no one can - so always go for a reliable, good quality seed compost - and choose peat free preferably - if you care about the environment. 
 
 
In addition - make sure that any compost is this year's freshly-delivered batch of compost too! Not old, saturated compost that's been sitting around outside in the garden centre all winter since the previous year!  That would be stale, will have lost many of it's nutrients and may well harbour moulds and diseases. I always make sure that I have a couple of spare bags put by in a dry place so that I have plenty for early sowings the following year. Also don't use garden soil for sowing in pots - it's false economy - especially if you're a beginner gardener.  It will contain weed seeds and perhaps pests too, and the texture is unlikely to be suitable for sowing small seeds in pots or modules. I know good compost isn't cheap - but actually most bags these days cost no more than two or three packets of seeds and you won't need a huge amount. If you're careful a little will go a very long way, and you'll get far better results. You'll avoid wasting expensive seed and precious time too. 
 
 
Another point I'd like to mention here is that although some gardeners in the UK don't like using British produced peat composts - some of them don't seem have a problem using Irish extracted peat. I just don't understand that 'NIMBY' attitude, because it's every bit as damaging to the environment and to biodiversity, and releases just as much climate-changing carbon which affects the whole planet. So please have a re-think if that applies to you! I think it's a bit like thoughtlessly throwing away your rubbish out of the car window and ensuring that it becomes someone else's problem!
 
 
Remember the piece of advice "Whatever else you don't get time for - always sow the seed - you can catch up on everything else except that". - One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given - well worth remembering - and another good reason for sowing in modules so that you're not delayed by the weather or by waiting for another crop to be finished. This is often something that's really hard to remember in the middle of summer, when you're enjoying an abundance of glorious vegetables! If you don't sow many things in June, July and August - you'll have very little to eat in the winter!  Don't spend ages waiting around to get ground perfectly ready either, particularly in a wet year, or you may find it's then too late to sow the seed. Sow the seed first, in modules if necessary, and then catch up with all the other jobs later while your seedlings are growing on nicely somewhere else, until they're big enough for planting.
 
 

Seed sowing - the details

 
It's stating the obvious to repeat that most seed these days is expensive - a little care will make your seed go a lot further and therefore your money too! My apologies to all you 'old timers' out there like me who know all this stuff - but maybe you may actually do it differently - and there's no harm in reassessing the way we do things occasionally is there? Gardening is an occupation where you never stop learning, that's what makes it so interesting.
 
 
1. First fill your modules, pots or whatever with good seed compost, firming it gently but not ramming it down too hard. Then make suitably sized small depressions in the top of each one with the end of a old pencil, pen, or whatever's handy. Seed differs in the depth it prefers to be sown, so consult your seed packet on this one, there isn't enough room here! Generally I find a depression of about 1/2-1 cm is suitable for module sowing of most things depending on the size of the seed. A very rough rule of thumb though is to sow at about twice the depth of the seed. As some really fine seed like celery or Nicotiana prefers to be sown on the surface and not covered at all - If you're going to sow very fine small seed it's a good idea to water the containers before sowing, to avoid washing tiny seed either too deeply into the compost, or alternatively washing it completely out of the compost! Some brands of seed composts can be quite difficult to wet if they've become exceptionally dry - so when sowing anything it's probably a idea good to moisten all composts a bit first - and letting any excess drain away.
 
 
2. Next, after you've prepared your modules, before you even handle the seed packet make sure your hands are absolutely clean and dry!  Don't attempt to open the packet with dirty wet hands from preparing your compost, soil or whatever! Unless you're going to sow all the seed at once, which is unlikely, you need to take care that the atmosphere around the remaining seed in the packet is as dry and clean as possible. Most people with average-sized gardens won't need to sow a whole packet of seed at once - despite what the packet tells you! (obviously they're trying to sell seed!) When you've taken all the seed you need, squeeze as much air out as possible, seal with sellotape, write on the date it was opened, and store somewhere really cool and dry. Most seed except carrot and parsnip will last well for at least a couple of years this way. People always say "but the experts say store them in the fridge" - all I can say is those 'experts' must have nothing else in their fridges - or have dedicated seed fridges!  Since when were most household fridges absolutely bone dry? But then perhaps yours is a bit tidier than mine! Frankly - I'd sooner tidy my polytunnel any day than my fridge!
 
 
3. When you're opening the packet of seed, make sure that all the seed is shaken down to the bottom first. Then slit it open with a sharp knife or with scissors rather than just tearing off the top - this makes it much easier to do up neatly again afterwards. The seed may also be in a 'stay-fresh' foil packet inside the paper packet, so open that carefully too, then when you've finished, re-seal afterwards in the way described. It always says on the packet "Do not re-seal" - pay no attention whatsoever to that!  Seeds will just absorb atmospheric moisture far more easily if you don't re-seal them properly - then you'll have to buy more seed because it won't germinate nearly as well!
 
Lettuce - sown 2 per module - ready for thinning. 21st. Feb.Lettuce - sown 2 per module - ready for thinning. 21st. Feb.
 
4. Tip a very small amount of seed - slightly less than you think you'll need - into the dry palm of your hand or onto a saucer and carefully sow the amount you want into each module. Never put seed back in if you've tipped out too much into your hand, unless your hand is very clean and dry! I sow lettuce, brassicas etc. in two's or three's thinning to the strongest one when the seed leaves (cotyledons) are fully expanded and there's one 'true' leaf just showing, then you can judge which is the strongest, or if any are 'blind'(which can sometimes happen with cabbage family/brassicas in particular) - then pull the others out very gently and carefully. Beetroot or chards can be sown singly - they are multi-seeded - producing several seedlings in a clump from just one lumpy seed, which you don't have to thin too much unless you want to - I never do - I normally leave three chards in a clump! They grow perfectly well as normal - and I'm greedy! Some modern F1 varieties of beetroot are 'mono-seeded' - these are useful if you just want one seed per station and bigger roots eventually - but the seed is usually much more expensive and I don't want massive roots. I prefer medium sized or baby beets to pickle or roast - so I use normal varieties and I leave them in clumps of 3 or 5. They will push each other apart quite happily as they grow and find their own growing space.
  
  
Peas and beans sown in a variety of recycled containers - mid. Feb.
I sow my onions in 3's, 5's or 7's according to what size I want them to grow to. The more you sow into the module, and the closer you grow them on, the smaller the onions will obviously be. Three seeds to a module sown in early to mid March will generally give me onions of around 4-5oz - a medium size which I generally find are the most useful for the kitchen. Red Baron onions I sow in 5's as I like smaller whole red onions for roasting. They're planted out later about 20-30cm apart in late March or early April. They will then push each other apart quite happily as they grow, giving you a much bigger, more reliable crop. Early carrots (a small pinch) and parsnips (in 3's) can be sown into loo roll or 1/2 kitchen roll middles and easily planted out carefully using a long trowel later. Peas and beans can be sown in large yogurt pots - as shown on the polytunnel page and here - also 1/2 milk cartons, fruit punnets etc - all with good drainage holes made in them. You can see how I sow mine in the polytunnel diary as well.  Some people sow into old half drainpipes but I find they're too shallow, they don't have much root room, then if planting out is delayed by bad weather, as it often is at this time of year, plants may get a setback and won't crop as well as they should later on. The roots can often go along instead of down.The RHS recommends shallow drainpipes with holes drilled into them - but again delays can be a problem and the roots may start coming through the drainage holes - making it harder to slide them out easily and possibly tearing roots off when you try to slide them out. The peas and beans pictured above here are growing in a variety of recycled containers in mid-February
 
 
 
5. Cover the smaller vegetable seeds with vermiculite, which is available in all good garden centres now in small packs (if it's too much, split it with a friend - it lasts years as it's sterile and you don't need that much). This promotes really good drainage and air circulation around seedlings which is vital and usually avoids nasty 'damping off' diseases, which can otherwise be a big problem with early seedlings in particular (but never in peat-free composts). Sit the seed tray, pots or modules in a tray of water for a few seconds (new cat litter trays are a good size for standard seed trays, and much cheaper than something similar sold in garden centres!) but don't let the modules or trays get saturated. If by mistake they do - then a good tip is to sit them on a folded up newspaper with a bit of kitchen paper on top, which acts like blotting paper to draw out excess moisture - newspaper on it's own doesn't work quite so well. Don't forget that if things are too wet - even if they're warm - they're far more likely to rot. Bigger seeds like peas and beans can be covered with compost and then watered from above initially. I put my early peas and beans onto damp kitchen paper on a covered plate or tray somewhere warm to germinate them first. Usually the back of my range cooker where I can keep an eye on them. This is particularly good for French beans later on in spring - which can be very prone to rotting if sitting in wet compost for too long. I then put the sprouted seeds into a pot in the usual way and cover them with seed compost. I then water them lightly at first, again making sure I don't saturate!
 
 
6. Cover the seed tray or modules after sowing by putting in a clear polythene bag, under a sheet of clingfilm or glass to keep them moist and stop them drying out, and put them in a suitably warm place. Check the optimum germination temperature on the seed packet - as not everything likes to be too warm. This particularly applies to lettuces and spinach. Then check every day for germination, and as soon as they appear, uncover them immediately and put them into good light - but not strong sunlight as this could burn them and kill them very quickly. If they're in the house on a windowsill, turn them round a bit every day so all the seedlings get equal light to prevent them getting etiolated (or drawn up and spindly), which weakens them and makes them much more prone to disease. You could also make a light reflector of tin foil fixed to a couple of barbecue skewers at the back of the pot as I used to years ago! At night then bring them into the room before you close the curtains otherwise they could be frost damaged. If they're in a cold frame, greenhouse or tunnel outside, shade them lightly from very bright midday sun - which can be surprisingly strong through glass, even at this time of year. Again, do make sure they're protected from frost at night with fleece suspended over them - not resting on them - or newspaper. Wire hoops are useful for this, also recycled old freezer baskets, a propagator lid or cloches etc.
 
 
7. Always water trays of young growing seedlings from underneath when necessary - sitting them in a tray as described above, using clean, ambient temperature water if possible. Watering them from above with a watering can again encourage damping off diseases. I keep clean rainwater in a barrel in the tunnel for watering, which is usually not too cold. Seedlings don't enjoy sitting in a freezing cold bath any more than you do!  And they enjoy rainwater best of all. Like all plants, they didn't evolve to appreciate chlorine, or anything else that may be in tap water!
 
 
8. After germination, grow on seedlings of tender veg. like tomatoes etc. at a slightly lower temperature but still in a warm light place- where they won't get chilled if it's cold at night. A roll-out heat mat which you can put on a greenhouse bench is convenient for this - or if you're good at DIY - you could make a cheaper large area of gentle bottom warmth by using soil warming cables buried in sand.  Be careful that propagators don't overheat, get them set up and going for a few hours before you start sowing your seeds, because just as too little warmth can damage seedlings - so can overheating. It can can seriously damage their cropping potential.  From March onwards all small seedlings will need some shade at midday under glass or in a tunnel - fleece also makes a good temporary sun shield. A small max-min thermometer is well worth buying, they're far more useful in the garden than a soil thermometer, and cheaper. As I've already said - you don't need a soil thermometer out in the garden to tell you when the soil outside is warm enough for sowing - all the weed seeds germinating will reliably tell you that!
 
 

Improving Soil for Planting - especially in New Gardens

 
I find the two things people get most screwed-up about are making compost perfectly and having perfect soil. Perfection is actually required in neither! If you're starting off on a new patch like many people I've spoken to recently - you'll obviously need something to plant your modules into!  Be realistic!  Soil doesn't need to be a perfect seedbed for just planting into. Also remember that plants want to grow! Given a decent start, they'll often surprise you and grow really well in even the most difficult ground. If you're in despair because your soil is badly compacted and lumpy - perhaps in it's first year or so after builders have left it in a state - then just break it up a bit, and make some 'planting pockets' in it. Put a little potting or garden compost into a planting hole to plant in - just like planting into a pot - but in the ground instead! This makes your compost go much further too! When you've done that, then use organic mulches like grass clippings in between the rows which will gradually break down and be pulled in by worms. Green manures are also useful - they improve soil and keep weeds down as well - killing two birds with one stone. You don't have to pile on tons of manure. It's unnecessary, may be far too high in nitrogen leading to unhealthy growth, can be wasteful of nutrients and could cause pollution, particularly with our current rainfall!  Manure will also emit nitrous-oxide - a climate-damaging greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than CO2!  Anyway - in the real world - most back gardeners find well-rotted organic manure hard to obtain. Non-organic manure can contain all sorts of nasty things like animal worm treatments (not good for soil life), weedkillers and also straw-shortening chemicals. Non-organic mushroom compost will usually contain the same! These toxic agricultural chemicals can damage your soil, your plants and your health. 
 
 
Something I'm always asked when giving talks is what is the very best way to improve soil? My answer to that always is to grow things in it! I know this sounds a bit clever or like a bit of a daft contradiction - but as long as you've just broken the soil up a bit and it will drain reasonably well - you'll be amazed just how quickly even virtual subsoil will respond to some TLC!  I've proved it!  Seaweed meal (ground laminaria seaweed - not calcified seaweed) is really helpful on damaged soil and it works astonishingly fast. You'll find it far more cheaply in agricultural feed merchants than garden centres - 25 euros for a 25 kg. bag. Garden centres charge at least double for it!  It's brilliant for encouraging all the microbial life in the soil to multiply quickly. and also encouraging heavy, sticky clay soil to 'flocculate' (or in other words stick together to you and me)! That helps it to drain better. Seaweed meal is even used now on the sides of new motorways to get soil ready for being planted - and I must say I've seen plenty of new gardens that looked like motorways after the builders have left!!  Where my new polytunnels are looked like that a few years ago!

 
To improve really badly damaged or compacted soil I would use a combination of organic mulches and seaweed meal. Then I would grow potatoes in 1/4 of it, maybe peas and beans which aren't too fussy in another 1/4 - planted in pockets as I've said - and then perhaps cover the rest for now or again plant in pockets - perhaps growing something large like courgettes or pumpkins through black polythene with a nice organic mulch underneath, later in the summer, to encourage the worms to help you!. There you have the beginnings of your four-course rotation! And the soil microbial life and the worms will just gradually do the rest!  Very deep cultivation isn't good for any soil life either - it really doesn't appreciate being turned upside down every year just as it's warmed up and got used to a nice bit of fresh air and sunshine, any more than we would! Leave it near the surface - where it all evolved to be. Each kind of microbe or fungi prefers it's own level - but most live in the top few inches or so. A little bit of light 'scratching around with a fork' doesn't hurt it too much - any more than birds scratching it do - in fact introducing the extra oxygen can rev all the microbial life up a bit in spring because it does actually need some air. But all that macho, nightmare double-digging stuff just buries it so far down that it takes ages to recover and fight it's way back to the surface again! It also destroys worm burrows which help drainage, and the fungal hyphae (or mycelium threads) which break down and recycle carbon, releasing nutrients and helping plants to grow. If you keep doing that every year like some people I know do as a matter of course - your soil will never be truly healthy because you're giving all the soil life a very hard time! Obviously you may need to break up new, possibly compacted soil initially by cultivating the surface or to loosen any possible compaction of the subsoil by sticking a long fork in and just gently lifting a little to help improve drainage - but don't bring subsoil to the surface by double digging. It's something I've never done in the 38 years we've been here - apart from being best for soil - it's far too much hard work!
 
 
After that - minimum work for maximum output has always been my preferred method. I like to make life as easy as possible - but I don't call it 'no dig' because it isn't - In reality there is actually no such thing!  It's just an attractive idea that sounds good! Minimal dig is how nature does it - with the occasional scratching or rooting around by birds or large foraging animals - like us - or pigs! 
 
 
You don't need to worry about expensive soil tests for micro-nutrients! In a new garden or allotment though - just do a soil pH test first. That's really all you need to do - there's no need to over-complicate things.  If the pH is right - then plants can help themselves to whatever they need, aided and abetted by their symbiotic microbial friends in the soil!  You can buy a small, easy to use test kit complete with instructions from most garden centres or DIY stores now. A soil pH of 6.5-7 is what most vegetables prefer. If you need to raise the pH of your soil, you can adjust  if necessary by adding either calcified seaweed - which contains calcium as well as valuable trace elements, ground limestone, or Dolomitic limestone - which contains magnesium. All of these have a much gentler action on the soil than hydrated lime. Lime is best added in the autumn to vacant beds after legumes (peas & beans) - where next years brassica (cabbage family) crops are to grow.
 
 
Never add lime to potato beds before planting - it can cause potato scab. Potatoes prefer a slightly acidic soil. Never add lime at the same time as manure either - as that can cause a reaction which 'locks up' nutrients so that they become unavailable to plants - this shows in a yellowing of the leaves called 'chlorosis'. This can often be a problem in old gardens, which may have been limed routinely every year without doing a pH test to see if it was actually needed. Calcified seaweed is the only kind of pH-raising agent that I would ever use if necessary just before planting a crop. Tomatoes seem to particularly appreciate it. Whatever type of garden you're starting off with - it's always good to get a rough idea of the soil pH anyway. Once that's right - plants will be able to help themselves to the food they need - helped by the worms and all the other vitally important microbial life in the soil which breaks down nutrients into a form that plants can absorb. Worms and vital soil bacteria don't like acid soils - so getting the pH right is also very important for them too. Out of interest - acidity is why spaghnum moss from peat bogs was often used as an antibacterial would dressing during the First World War!

 
Worms and other soil life are also encouraged by growing green manures, by adding organic matter like compost, and by using organic mulches. Don't be tempted in a new garden to use a glyphosate the so-called 'total' weedkiller to get rid of weeds before you start - there is a huge body of evidence that shows glyphosate actually kills aquatic life like frogs and harms vital soil microbial life. So if you use it you would be killing off the things that actually help you, by making nutrients available to plants!  It has also been shown to persist in soil and to be taken up by plants growing there afterwards - despite the makers disingenuous claims to the contrary! Quite apart from that - even if you don't care about the environment, or poisoning yourself, your pets, soil and local water supply - glyphosate doesn't actually kill weed seeds! They'll germinate as soon as you cultivate the soil at all!  So not only is it a very dangerous chemical - but it's also a hideous and expensive waste of money! If you've got too much ground to cope with then just cultivate a small bit first - and either mow the rest, keep some chickens or other livestock on it, or cover it with some grass clippings, compost or well-rotted manure and then a light-excluding waterproof mulch. That will get the worms working furiously - which hugely improves the condition of the soil and also prevents and kills weeds by excluding light. When you uncover it in a few months or a year - you will be astonished at the transformation! Roundup (glyphosate) won't do that for you - you'll just end up with a dead, lifeless soil - incapable of growing genuinely healthy plants!  As I'm always saying - let Nature do the work - it's free - and only too willing to help if you encourage it a bit!
 
 

Don't be tempted to use non-organic mushroom compost anywhere you're growing food - it may seem like a nice easy option but it will almost certainly contain very nasty and extremely persistent pesticide residues which I've already mentioned - which can last for many years in the soilIt also has a very high pH - so it can be really bad for low pH plants like Rhododendrons or blueberries causing 'chlorosis', 'locking up' of vital nutrients and stunted yellowing growth.  Use mulches of grass clippings or leaf mould instead. And while on the subject of soil - something else I'm always going on about - but it's worth repeating because I see people doing it all the time - in fact I've seen many pictures of people proudly displaying their so-called 'clean' soil on twitter! It hurts me to see them! Leaving bare soil uncovered may well give you a nice surface 'tilth' to sow into and it may look lovely and organised - but it's incredibly thoughtless and also selfish!

I will repeat this again!  - PLEASE - Do not leave bare soil uncovered at this time of year!  Whatever some may say to the contrary - doing so causes pollution, loss soil and of valuable nutrients and also emission of climate-changing greenhouse gases! 

 

General February advice

 
If you buy things like rhubarb, asparagus or Seakale roots in those plastic packs in garden centres - pot them up in a nice free draining compost immediately you get them home as they're expensive and may well rot in the packets if you wait until outside conditions are suitable. Then you can plant them out in a few weeks when the soil is warmer.
 
 
Pot grown potatoes 'Mayan Gold' & 'Lady Christl' - mid Feb. in tunnel - almost ready for planting.
'Chit' seed potatoes in a cool, frost free, light place if they're for planting directly outside in March - or if you want to plant them earlier inn the tunnel or in pots - put them in a warm place in a darkened box and they'll have sprouts or 'chits' within a week!  'Chitting' means getting them to start sprouting shoots. Some varieties like 'Pink Fir Apple' may be reluctant to do this, so again, if you find it a problem, you can fool them and get round this by putting them in a slightly warmer place, like under the kitchen table, and covering them so that they're in the dark. They'll start to sprout very quickly this way. Then put them back into a light, cool place again so that the shoots don't get too long and brittle for planting outside. Short stubby shoots will be stronger than long spindly ones - and less vulnerable to damage when you're planting out later straight into soil as opposed to compost. I start off all mine in pots now so the length of shoots doesn't matter, and then I plant them out like herbaceous plants a bit later in spring. This way they start into growth far quicker and I get bigger crops before any blight strikes - which these days with climate change is getting earlier. This also means I can grow for the very best flavour - I don't like the taste of any of the so-called blight-resistant ones. We don't eat potatoes every day here, so quality rather than quantity is what I aim for.  In the picture are pot-grown potatoes 'Mayan Gold' & 'Lady Christl', started off in the warm and photographed in mid-February a few years ago in polytunnel - they are almost ready for planting. 
 
 
You can plant Jerusalem artichoke tubers outside now if the soil's not too sticky - or again alternatively into pots to plant out later. They're a really useful winter vegetable that are dead easy to grow anywhere, so they're great for breaking up rough ground like you might have on a new allotment. They're also very nutritious - and extremely good for the immune system as they contain something called Inulin - a prebiotic fibre that can really rev up the good bacteria in the gut - with occasionally somewhat anti-social results! As they're tall they also make a very good windbreak - ironic that!  In a mild autumn they also have very pretty yellow flowers, which are good for picking, being a member of the sunflower family. 'Fuseau' is a good, less knobbly variety, very widely available now. They're delicious as a Dauphinoise, raw in a salad, oven roasted, used almost raw, like water chestnuts in a Chinese stir fry, or made into soup. They're also almost impossible to lose - so be careful where you plant them, you'll have them there forever, unless you have a few pigs to root them up! They love them! 
 
  
(As an aside I couldn't believe it a couple of years ago when I saw a gardening writer described as 'organic' actually recommending the use of glyphosate to get rid of Jerusalem artichokes! And another very well-known 'organic expert' who had Unwins 'GrowSure' seed which is pre-treated with fungicide among his seed packets - his seed box was pictured in a gardening magazine! I wouldn't dream of using those! No wonder people are confused about what is allowed in organic growing!)
 
As I mentioned in the sowing details - you can also still plant 'spring planting' varieties of garlic too. Or if the soil is too wet - just pop them into some modules to root or pot them up into small pots for future planting.
 
 

My 'Ad-Free' Blog Policy


This isn't a money-making site, I don't have any product to sell and all the information in it is freely given, in the hope that it will be useful to readers.  It's the sort of advice that I would have very much liked to have been able to find, when I was just beginning my gardening over 40 years ago. 

 

Also please note - that I don't have/or want any ads. or so-called 'editorial pieces' (just basically ads in another form!) from other sources on my website.  I have been asked many times to take them in return for a fee - even from companies whose ethos I might generally approve of - but I always refuse. This is not meant in any way as a criticism of those people who do accept them. That is their choice and we all have to make a living - but I prefer to have the freedom to speak my mind frankly and to voice my own opinions without the possibility of being influenced by what an advertiser or potential sponsor may think. 

As a result my blog may look a little old-fashioned compared to some - but fancy websites with bells and whistles cost money. Many people have told me that they actually prefer it this way though, and that it comes as a nice change! The only concession I have made to modernity was to join Twitter a couple of years ago, which a lot of people had asked me to do over the last few years - so I finally relented! I have to say it's fascinating - though it can be time-consuming!

If you're a new reader you may have noticed that I can be pretty outspoken at times too - but I do my research!  If I recommend any product then you can be assured that it's always something that I've found useful myself - usually over several years. I don't accept 'freebies' or discounts of any sort in order to promote other people's products either - so please don't send me any - or you'll be disappointed!

Another reason I don't accept ads. is that I personally find them intensely annoying popping up all over the place, often totally unrelated to the content of the site. I also hate to read something that may look interesting and then find out halfway through that actually it's actually promoting a product!  It's impossible to know then whether what you're reading is actually an honest and impartial opinion, so I'm afraid I tend to be a little cynical about that and usually leave those sites immediately!  Perhaps I'm a little old-fashioned - but to me, my integrity is worth far more than money.

I think that useful information garnered from long experience, and truly objective, honest opinion are important. That is what I try to give readers of my blog and I hope you will continue to enjoy it. I want to say a big thank you to all the people who have emailed or tweeted on Twitter to thank me for my advice!  I'm sorry if I don't always have the time to answer you all individually - but it does makes all the work really worthwhile. Your gratitude is so very much appreciated - and is great motivation to do even better! Thank you for paying me the great compliment of reading it!

 

(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. Thank you.)

The Polytunnel Potager in February - 2020

 

February Contents:  Stand up for Organic now if you want a Healthy Future for our children and the Planet.... Pesticides or Pollinators? - It's OUR choice!..... The 'Darling Buds' of February..... Early February marks the mid-point of winter.... Fruit trees suitable for polytunnel growing..... Reminder to order seeds now if you want a tunnel full of healthy veg next winter!...  How to afford the 'luxury' of protected polytunnel cropping?.... Will you have 'Extra early potatoes' for Easter?.... Winter watering.... Waking up our soil friends after winter.....Start sowing early seeds in modules.....What are 'Blind seedlings' which don't develop?.....Sowing early peas and broad beans in pots..... Early spring has already arrived in the tunnel - and I wouldn't garden without one now!

 This Robin signifies everything that I will stand up for until my last breath

This Robin signifies everything that I will stand up for until my last breath

 

Stand up for Organic, Peat-Free, Real Food now if you want a Healthy Future for our children and the Planet.

I've recently had many private messages from people asking me to stand up for them in often very bitter arguments on social media, where they are attacked and bullied simply for pointing out that organic is best way to produce food for us, for biodiversity and also for the planet.  It's very noticeable that many on Twitter are then afraid to tweet about organic, in case they are targeted again. While I understand their upset and discomfort - and would support them all if I only I had the time - such is the level of attacks from all sides now, both from conventional chemical farmers and the Big Ag bullies, that it would mean me having to spend my entire time on social media, and I would simply never get time to do anything else done, including writing and updating this blog - let alone growing my own food!  

 

The fact is that the powerful global agrochemical/seed/biotech companies such as Monsanto/Bayer, and Vilmorin & Cie - (who many are unaware own Suttons, Dobies,The Organic Catalogue etc for gardeners: - https://www.vilmorincie.com/en/strategy/external-growth/ ) feel threatened by people becoming more aware that they are trying to control our food system, and have no compunction in destroying the planet for profit. The more threatened they feel - then the more their supporters on social media will try to undermine all those of us who know without question that organic and peat-free is the only way forward if we want a healthy future for all life on the planet, and are brave enough to say it!  After I tweeted about this 3 years ago, I received a veiled threat by DM (direct message) from one particular bully, insinuating that he would sue me. Needless to say I immediately unfollowed him so that he couldn't contact me secretly again!  Someone else very recently told me that she had also been threatened - and yet some people still don't seem to realise who these people are, and what's really going on! 

 

It's vital that we continue to be brave and stand up to bullies wherever they are - whether it's about organic farming or anything else happening in society. I've been supporting organics in particular for over 40 years now - and like many of you I suspect, I often get tired and wish that those who are destroying Nature would just go away, and that things could go back to the way they were, before the massive rise in toxic agrochemicals over the last 70 years destroyed so much.  But we must not be afraid, give up and go away as the bullies hope we will - so that they can continue to destroy more of Nature for short-term profit!  Science is so close to proving that organic is the only way forward to protect the future for our children, their children and indeed all of Nature.  It is far too important to give up now.

 

I have a much-treasured collection of the old Soil Association magazines 'Mother Earth', on the front of which are some wonderful quotes. They often make me wonder if we have learnt nothing during the more than 70 years that Nature has been gradually disappearing, along with the massive rise in antibiotic resistance and diseases such as cancer, type 2 diabetes and other NCDs or non-communicable diseases. This quote from the summer 1950 magazine, by Sir Albert Howard, is so relevant right now - if only people would listen:

 

"The crucial test of real scientific achievement is whether it recognises and respects the supremacy of Mother Earth, or ignorantly attempts to substitute the false for the true."

 

 

  Bee pollinating peach 2 PTP

 

 

Pesticides and Pollinators? - It's OUR choice!

The early buds of fruit trees are now starting to swell in gardens everywhere. Soon all gardeners will be hoping for plenty of bees and other pollinating insects to pollinate our crops, so that we will have plenty of healthy food to eat later on. This is something which we have been lucky enough to be able to take for granted since the beginning of human life on earth - but now we cannot take it for granted any longer!  Intensification of agriculture, with it's use of vast amounts of fossil fuel-derived pesticides and fertilisers is destroying insects, habitats and all the vital, inter-connected biodiversity which depends on them. Those chemicals are also increasingly destroying soil health and soil carbon - with the result that soils globally are releasing massive amounts of CO2. 

 
 
THIS is happening while so much of those crops produced by industrial agriculture go to waste! The pro-chemical people constantly promote the idea that organic farming couldn't possibly feed the world's growing population. The reality is that because organic farming both protects and improves soils, and also biodiversity, it is actually far more sustainable in every way. Instead of saying that we can't feed the world without intensive agriculture and pesticides - why don't scientists come up with solutions for preventing the almost 40% of all food produced globally which is wasted throughout the food chain every year? Then tell us that we can't feed the world organically - as Nature has done for billions of years! 
 
 
Some interesting recent research said that if we cut out all food waste - then we could feed another billion people tomorrow. But even if we stopped all food waste now - if we continue to destroy our soils and pollinating insects with pesticides, there will be mass starvation anyway!  Firstly there would be be no soil left to grow crops in, and in addition, many of the valuable crops like fruits, nuts and seeds etc. would have no insects like bees to pollinate them. Healthy crops also depend on a microbially-healthy, humus-rich soil in which to grow - otherwise all plants are more susceptible to pests, diseases and the increasing fluctuations of the weather. Few people seem to be warning that plant growth will also naturally be affected by climate change. This is something I have been warning about for well over 30 years - as I could see those climate fluctuations happening before my very eyes, even then!  It was obvious that was what was causing the weather to swing wildly from unseasonably mild, almost spring like weather too early in late winter, back to sudden, seriously damaging weather with violent storms or bitter, unexpected frosts. One didn't have to be a scientist to see what was happening - but many concerned scientists were warning back then that global warming wasn't going to be the lovely Mediterranean-like weather that some were hoping - but the wild and unpredictable weather patterns now happening worldwide. 
 
We are now faced with a choice.... And it's up to us to make the right choice - if we want life on earth as we know it to continue, and our children and grandchildren to have a future. That's not being melodramatic - it is the stark, absolute truth which we now face! We can no longer ignore it. Politicians must step up to the plate quite literally, end the age of fossil-fuelled chemical farming, and put organic food back on global plates. To do otherwise is not simply irresponsible and selfish - but will, quite simply, eventually destroy all life on Earth as we know it!
 
Peach buds about to burst in the polytunne in late February (1)
Apricot buds just bursting into flower in late February Peach buds about to burst in the polytunnel in late February
 
 

The 'Darling Buds' of February - Attracting bees and other beneficial insects to help pollinate them

 
 
Rant over - back to more cheerful matters! Spring is fast approaching to cheer us all up - isn't it exciting? I can already see all of Nature responding to the lengthening days as weed seeds are germinating in the tunnel soil and the buds on the apricots and peaches in the polytunnel are swelling fast as you can see above.  No matter what the problems in the world are - plants still want to grow and seeds want to sprout!  Buds are beginning to move everywhere. Every day more of the early spring bulbs are beginning to peep out of the chilly wet ground and the Robin's loud singing starts at least ten minutes earlier each week. But winter isn't done with us quite yet - so take care - and don't be fooled into thinking that Spring's arrived just yet!  Don't be too impatient to start planting stuff outside though, however tempting it may be on the milder days. There's a lot we can get on with indoors - enjoying the anticipation before the main work becomes too urgent! 
 
 
One thing which really helps to ensure indoor fruit pollination is to grow single flowers as early food for insects!  As I mentioned last month - flowers are vital for attracting bees into your garden - as well as many other beneficial insects which help with both pollination and pest control. I've often talked about the little permanent ,mini gardens, which I grow at the end of the tunnels - in the corners either side of the doors - where space is so often wasted or taken up with tools or junk. I also have flowers planted in the middle at the sides too - and anywhere else I can tuck them in. These little 'mini gardens' have flowers all year round to attract bees etc. and mini pond habitat to attract frogs. They also have piles of large stones - little mini cairns - for ground beetles and other insects to hide in. Ground beetles are voracious predators of slugs.These little mini-ecosystems are vital in helping to achieve a natural ecological balance within the tunnels which ensures that I never have any pest problems. I also allow clumps of nettles to grow here and there - these play host to an early appearing aphid - specific just to nettles - which are the favourite prey of ladybirds that are just waking up in spring. Growing row upon row of green juicy vegetables - without a flower in sight either inside or outside - is not a natural environment. They make your crops an easy target for every hungry pest in sight!
 
 
Why would any self-respecting pollinating bee or pest controlling hoverfly visit your vegetable garden if there are none of their favourite flowers and food plants there to attract them? They have to go wherever they can find nectar and pollen or they may die. It's only common sense that if you're starving hungry and have to find food for energy within a few hours or die - you'll head for somewhere there's plenty of food on offer won't you?  If you don't have anything flowering in your tunnel - you can bring some in in pots of flowers - hellebores, perennial wallflowers (like 'Bowles' mauve'), miniature narcissus, crocus, primroses, perennial Iberis or candytuft, etc are all good insect attractants. Feverfew and Hesperis (dames violet) are also flowering now. In fact anything that flowers now is useful - the only requirement is that they must be single flowered -  It's impossible for bees and hoverflies etc. to reach the nectaries and pollen in double-flowered plants and at this time of year in particular - they may waste precious energy trying to find food, and then may die if they can't. 
 
Orange tip butterfly on Orychophragma in early springOrange tip butterfly on Orychophragma in early spring a few years ago
 
Despite the cold nights things are already starting to put on a surprising amount of growth. Joy Larkcom's beautiful Chinese brassica, Orychophragmus Violaceus (bit of a mouthful!), which the Chinese call the 'February Orchid' (much nicer), is living up to it's name and opening it's first flowers. Seeing it in Joy's County Cork greenhouse a few years ago completely stopped me in my tracks - it was absolutely stunning in early March! I just had to have it - and she was kind enough to give me some seed. It has quite large flowers for a brassica, which are that lovely soft lilac-pink colour of sweet rocket. Sadly no scent though - but nevertheless the bees love it and it's a firm favourite with endangered orange tip butterflies, as this photograph from spring 2011 shows. So it deserves a place in any garden just for that reason. It would certainly be worthy of a place in any flower border.  I've picked lots of leaves over the winter, and they're pleasant tasting in a salad, with a slightly 'cucumber/cress' flavour - not very strong - with quite an interesting texture. The flowers are really pretty in a salad too, again they have a slightly 'cress-ish' taste but they look so lovely it's almost a shame to eat them. I'll be saving seed again this year as it's very hard to obtain and I find it germinates best from fresh seed - but I know that sometimes Brown Envelope Seeds in Cork have them.  
 
 

The beginning of February marks the mid-point of winter - half-way between the shortest day and the spring equinox

 

It's also the time when the ancient Celtic calendar marked the Festival of Imbolc - or the 'Feast of Lights' - which celebrated the returning of light to the earth and the beginning of the end of winter.  An important day, this pagan celebration of light - which was seen as being both healing and life-giving. In Celtic times people rejoiced to see the sun returning just as we do today - but they understood how dependent they were on nature - an awareness that many of us seem to have lost now. They knew how vital the sun was to their lives and just how much they depended on those primitive seeds they had harvested so painstakingly the previous autumn and guarded so carefully all winter. They were totally in tune with the rhythm of the seasons and the forces of nature. Those of us today who are gardeners or nature lovers still feel the rise of that age-old visceral thrill of anticipation, and experience the same sense of celebration at the anticipation of longer days and delights to come.  It truly connects us to our roots, both physically and metaphorically. 

  
Our two late 'rescue' dogs - Flotsam and Jetsam - were real sun-worshippers!  Immediately even the weakest rays of sun showed they would rush outside and arrange themselves to maximum effect against a south facing wall. Just like eager tourists dashing for the sunbeds - in order to catch every available scrap of precious sunlight!  Our two new rescue dogs do just the same! They love to be outside all day if the weather's fine - occasionally tearing around playing and then flopping down onto their bale again! I hate to think of all the poor creatures that are left on their own all day, shut in up houses away from sunlight. All creatures have a desperate need for light and an innate sense of just how important the sun is. This particular animal (me!) makes a point of spending some time every day outside in the light, no matter how busy I am in the house. The sun feels surprisingly warm on one's face sitting in the polytunnel even at this time of year. The recent 'Trust Me I'm A Doctor'  BBC TV series researched the theory that spending more time out in Nature was beneficial for us. Unsurprisingly, (to us organic gardeners), it of course found that it was - and that spending 2 hours extra a week outside has massive benefits - reducing stress levels, lowering blood pressure etc.!
  
 
In the last week or so there's really been an amazing surge in the growth of some of the plants - despite the cold weather!  Plants know what time of year it is from the light just as all of Nature does - and they are ready and primed to start their yearly cycle once again. All the tunnel salads have really responded to even the small amount of increased light! The Oriental salads are positively burgeoning - the watercress in particular - growing at least six inches in a week! It's such a wonderfully reliable salad all year round, just needs regular watering - not running water - contrary to what some say. The only thing that makes it unhappy is being very short of water, which makes it flower. Then it becomes stringy, tough and very peppery - but bees really love the flowers though! If you only grow one salad - then do try growing it!  It grows like a weed, from just a bit of stem stuck in a jar of water, comes top of the list for healthy nutrients and is chock full of immune-boosting, cancer-fighting phytonutrients such as sulforaphane. My watercress, like my kefir, is something I rely on and have kept going for many years. I was so thrilled to be able to gather lots of it's luscious leaves yesterday for a lovely fresh-tasting salad. My hens also really enjoy disposing of any old salads lingering in the fridge. There's never any food waste here!
 
 

Fruit trees suitable for polytunnel growing. 

This morning I noticed a tiny hint of movement in the buds on the peach trees planted in the ground in the polytunnel - despite the low temperatures we've had recently. I'm so looking forward to their luscious fruits again and meanwhile carefully eking out the last of the frozen and dehydrated ones. Peaches, along with grapes, strawberries and of course figs are very easy to grow in polytunnels if you have enough space. My two 11 year old peach trees provide masses of fruit every summer now. I love peaches and it's well nigh impossible to get organically-grown ones. I always cut up the excess and freeze or dehydrate them for smoothies, sorbets or other treats. I think that peaches are the very best fruit tree to plant in a tunnel if you have space for only one tree - they're usually self-fertile and are easily kept within bounds by correct pruning. If you forget for a year, you can hack the hell out of them and they'll still come back for more - but if you aren't brave enough and don't prune them - they'll quickly outgrow any polytunnel or greenhouse and seriously threaten the roof!  
 
 
The really great thing about growing peaches in a tunnel is they don't get peach leaf curl - so don't have to be sprayed with any nasty fungicides. One of the other great things about peaches is that because of the way they are pruned - you can keep them to what ever height and width you want. So as long as you have roughly 15ft or 3m of width - you've got room for a productive peach tree. It's vital to prune them properly though - and remember that they mostly fruit on the previous year's new green growth, as I described in this January's Fruit Garden Diary. Soon both Lidl and Aldi will have bare root fruit trees on sale again. At around a fiver each - they're fantastic value and in my experience are very good quality. Bare-root planting is always best with any fruit tree and I talked about that last month too. They always establish far better than anything bought in a container. The vital thing to remember is to always leave a minimum of 4 in. or 10 cm between the bulge of the graft union on the stem, and the top of the soil. if you don't do that you will lose the dwarfing properties of the root stock.
 
 
Other trees, particularly cherries, can be an absolute disaster, unless  you have a lot of time to fuss over them - particularly in the usually damp-ish atmosphere of the average tunnel here in Ireland. They really only work well grown on very dwarfing root stocks in the specialist fruit tunnels which I've seen in Herefordshire/Welsh border - where my family comes from and where many still live. Even then they need a lot of regular pruning to keep them under control. Specialised fruit tunnels have sides which can slide up, and tops that open up too - so that you get maximum air circulation and also good pollination when you need it. I'd love a specialist fruit tunnel - but sadly the finances won't stretch that far - so like most people I try to do as much as I can in one! It's so windy here that one might not be successful anyway! Over the last 35 years, I've tried all the latest dwarfing root-stocks for sweet cherries, even the 'minarette' ones, and none of them really work unless you are constantly pruning, snipping and fussing to keep them within bounds - something I really don't have time for. It's also difficult as you can only prune cherries at certain times of year - and this also happens to be the busiest time elsewhere in the garden. So take your eye off the ball at all and you'll find the cherry has lifted the roof off your polytunnel. Believe me - I've tried!. I would never recommend planting one in a tunnel. They seem quite innocuous for a year or so - and you might think - what's she talking about? But believe me - when they think you've taken your eye off them - they can take off like rockets! I've tried them in tubs too - and they're not that happy in those either for very long. On the other hand - Morello cherries, which are pruned in a similar way to peaches - can work fairly well in pots for a few years - but you'll never get huge crops from cherries in pots - and huge crops are what I always aim for! I'm a greedy fruit fanatic and the dark, sour or Morello cherries are also one of the best fruits for anthocyanins which are proven to lower inflammation and ease arthritis.
 
 

A reminder to order seeds now - if you want a tunnel full of healthy veg next winter!

 
 
A neighbour came to look at my tunnel the other day, and was surprised to see how great a variety of things there were to eat at this time of year. He has a small tunnel - and wanted to know how he could do the same next winter. It's really only a matter of remembering to sow seeds at the right time. Late June or July is the best time to sow many of the chicories, chards, oriental veg. etc. otherwise they don't have enough time to grow before the days really begin to shorten - when growth of many things slows dramatically. Summer is not always the most popular time to be anticipating winter though, much nicer to enjoy sunbathing instead! But gardeners must think well ahead if they want to produce food to be as self-sufficient as possible all year round food. So do remember to order seeds now of things like claytonia, chicories, endives, Swiss chards, leaf beets, sugar loaf chicory, Chinese cabbages, lambs lettuce, pak choi, winter radishes, winter lettuces, watercress and landcress (you'll find a delicious soup recipe for these last two on the recipe page). Stupidly - many garden centres tend to take their seeds off sale once summer gets under way. They think that gardeners won't want seeds then - but REAL gardeners, growing real food do! So make sure you have them.
 
 
I am constantly amazed at the number of people who only get round to clearing up the remains of last year's mouldy and disease-ridden old tomato and cucumber stems or other crops now! They could have been eating delicious home-produced salads and other veg all winter......not only are they completely wasting precious and expensive cropping space for at least one third of the year - but they then wonder why their lovely summer crops almost immediately get hit by pests and diseases as soon as they plant out this year's crops.This is because the spores of fungal diseases like botrytis etc will be flying around the minute they go to clear up the mess! Any protected cropping space is so valuable - and often so hugely expensive to put up initially - that every inch of it it should be earning it's keep all year round!
 
 

How to afford what some call the 'luxury' of protected polytunnel cropping?

 
 
Several people have said to me in the past - "It's all right for you - I don't have a tunnel - I can't afford one - so I don't bother reading the bit about greenhouses and tunnels, because I can't do it!".  - Well do you know what? For a start - you could actually grow many of the lower growing crops in a large polythene cold frame - that's what I did - long before I had my first small polytunnel. If you work out how much you spend all year round on vegetables and fruit - particularly now with food prices rising - and then compare that against the price of a small tunnel - where you could grow a huge amount of it yourself - I think you would be surprised at just how quickly it would pay for itself!  Not to mention the convenience and added health benefits of absolute freshness, or being able to garden in any weather - even at night after work to de-stress!!  Some of the DIY stores sell plastic-covered greenhouse frames very cheaply now - for less than €100. But if you really don't have the space for a greenhouse or polytunnel, or can't afford one, you may have a large glass porch, or you could make a polythene frame easily and very cheaply, sit it on a concrete path and grow in containers if you don't have any soil to grow in - so there's really no reason why you can't grow even a few winter salads at the very least!  In something that size you could also grow bush tomatoes, peppers or aubergines in the summer. I did that very successfully when I first started gardening years ago, making up my own frame from recycled timber and polythene, and I promise you that if I can do it - then anyone can!  DIY is most definitely not my thing!  I grew my best peppers and aubergines ever in that rickety old recycled frame! It lasted several years too - I was very proud of myself! So please don't use the "I can't" excuse - that is, unless you don't even have so much as a path to your front door!  
 
 
Winter salad beds in the tunnel - Endives, land cress, ragged Jack Kale, lettuce etc.Winter salad beds in the tunnel - Endives, land cress, ragged Jack Kale, lettuce etc.
 
 
One thing I can absolutely guarantee, is that when it comes to polytunnels or greenhouses - what I call my 'law of handbags'applies. That is - no matter how big your handbag, greenhouse, or freezer - it will NEVER be big enough for everything you want to put in it, once you've experienced it's delights!! 
 
 
 
 
So always buy the biggest one you can possibly afford - you will bless every inch of it I promise you! I'll be making a new 'grow frame' this year, for hardening-off veg seedlings to be planted outside later. More protected cropping space is always useful here because it's so windy - and in late spring, when the tunnel is literally bursting at the seams, a grow frame or cold frame is a great halfway-house for hardening off plants to grow completely unprotected outside later on.
   
 

Will you have 'Extra early potatoes' for Easter?

 
Your extra early potatoes could already be up about an inch or so if you planted them as I described last month in pots. Make sure they're covered every night with fleece - even if you're not expecting frost - just in case. In the middle of this month, they may be about 10cm/4-5in. high, then you can plant them out carefully, keeping the root ball together, into a tunnel bed, covering with a double or even treble layer of fleece if severely cold nights are forecast. Or you can leave them in their pots. You'll be eating these in mid-late April!  You can also plant well sprouted seed potatoes directly into a tunnel bed any time now, again covering if necessary. These should be ready to eat in May, roughly in about 10-12 weeks, depending on the variety. As mentioned in previous diaries -  I've always found 'Lady Christl' to be the very best for really earlies in the tunnel, good flavoured, it's by far the quickest to 'bulk up' - one can often find usable potatoes underneath it after just 8 weeks - if you're impatient like me and do a gentle, exploratory 'finger-dig', leaving the rest to grow on undisturbed!  'Duke of York' or 'Red Duke of York' is next best for earliness (and also the best flavour of the lot), 'Mayan Gold' is only a few days after them - planted at the same time - and of course has an unsurpassed flavour - 'Apache' is a delicious early too and then 'Sharpe's Express' - 'Annabelle' is also not bad. I've tried all of the other earlies - including 'Rocket',Swift and 'Premiere' and quite frankly they were utterly tasteless compared to any of the ones I grow. Flavour is a very subjective thing however - and let's face it - given enough butter almost anything tastes good!! 'Mayan Gold' seems to be generally available now in Ireland (I smuggled mine in via my daughter's backpack years ago)! Try it and I can guarantee you will be as rapturous in singing it's praises as I am!! Never boil it or it falls apart because it's so floury - steam or roast it instead. Mayan Gold is also energy saving as it actually cooks far more quickly than normal varieties - in about half the time!
 
 

Winter watering

 

Water only if absolutely necessary in the tunnel at the moment. Doing it in the morning is best if you can - as this allows any surface moisture to dry off before evening. If you're covering crops with fleece it also helps if the soil surface dries off a bit during the day or fleece tends to absorb more. I watered 3 days ago - for the first time in 3 months! Plants were wilting in the sunshine - which is getting a bit stronger now. Also ventilate as much as you can whenever possible, to keep the air moving and avoid the atmosphere becoming too damp - which encourages fungal diseases. Keep an eye on weather forecasts for very strong winds though - you don't want your polytunnel taking off into the next parish - (a story there - tell you sometime - I'll never forget losing a polytunnel in hurricane 'Charlie' in the mid 80's!). Growth of all plants will suddenly start to increase in the next week or so - thanks to the light - so you can increase watering accordingly when you need to. 

Also it's important now to continue scrupulous housekeeping! Tidy up any yellowing, rotting or diseased leaves etc. and also the remains of finished crops. Don't leave anything hanging around that could cause disease!

 
  

Waking up our soil friends after the winter 

 
 
If there's not much worm activity in your soil generally - then do a pH test. Worms like a pH of about 6.5 - 7 and if your soil Ph is right and worms have plenty of green food to eat - then they should be lively and bright pink - not sluggish and pale. If you find your soil is a bit too acid then add some calcified seaweed to gently raise the pH. You can't go wrong with this, as it's very gentle and also contains lots of other valuable micro-nutrients and trace elements. Then lightly scratch over the ground, add some nice well-rotted compost and perhaps a few handfuls of seaweed meal which worms also love. If you don't have compost then a handful per square yard of a general organic fertiliser like 'Osmo' will add more nutrients but if you've got time before the next crop planned for a particular space - maybe 6 weeks - then sowing a fast growing green manure is a really good idea. Not only does it help all the biological activity in your soil but it also adds humus which makes soils more resilient and helps them to hold onto moisture like a sponge. Even claytonia - not usually used as a green manure, is brilliant. The worms go mad for it - it's like crack cocaine for them! This will help to kick start all the biological activity in the soil as it warms up - giving the worms, microbes, fungi and soil bacteria some TLC and a welcome gourmet breakfast, just when they're starting to wake up. Interesting fact - did you know that there are more billions of microbes, soil bacteria, fungi etc. in just one teaspoon of soil - than the total number of people who have ever lived on this earth? If it wasn't for them - we wouldn't even exist!! So learn to love your microbes! 
 
 
Organic growing feeds the soil and all the vital microbial life it contains with compost and animal wastes just as nature does. It doesn't directly feed the plants with synthetic chemicals. That's the most important thing to remember - because if you by-pass all the microbes and funghi that evolved to interact with plant roots symbiotically and produce their by-products which keep plants healthy, you will  ultimately produce unhealthy plants. A healthy, vibrant, living soil grows healthy, vibrant, nutritious plants. Healthy plants make healthy food for people. This is particularly important to remember in a polytunnel, where things tend to be magnified, happen a lot faster, and we are totally responsible for the growing environment.  
 
 

Time to start sowing early seeds in modules

 
To make sure I have something to plant as soon as the winter crops are finished both in the tunnel and outside, I started sowing a few early crops in mid-January. Details of what you can sow now are in the 'What to sow in Feb.' section, so I won't repeat them here. Things like onions, leeks, beetroot etc. can be multi sown in the modules - in 3's or 5's - depending on how many you want in a clump - or how big you want your onions (less in a clump for bigger onions) and they're planted out later without thinning. These will push each other apart as they grow and develop quite normally. You can do the same with summer spinach, chards and 'baby leaf' or salad mixes. Rather than use an expensive propagator at this time of year I germinate everything near the back of my range cooker - which keep things at a steady 65-70 deg F/16-20 deg C. As soon as the first seedlings are showing they need good light, so then I put them out in the polytunnel, on a roll-out heated mat which provides very gentle bottom heat of about 50 degF/10 deg C - or just above during the day - and is very economical to run. This is all most things need to grow on nicely without forcing. In another 2 weeks in the warmer propagator I shall sow my aubergines Bonica F1, (the very best and most reliable one) these develop quite slowly at first and need a long growing season. I'll also be sowing my earliest tomatoes - Maskotka, Latah and John Baer. These are always ripe in the first week or so of June. I can't wait for ripe tomatoes again! Talking of which - there may be some very exciting news soon on the tomato front - but can't reveal it yet!!
 
 

What are 'Blind seedlings' that don't develop?

 
Occasionally there are seedlings that develop they're first seed leaves or cotyledons as they are known - but after that they don't grow any more new leaves.  These are known as blind seedlings. In cases where you may only want one plant per space - like lettuces or hybrid calabrese - it's normal to thin seedlings to one per module, but only do this after they have clearly developed their first 'true' leaves - not the seedling/cotyledon leaves - as 'blind seedlings they will never develop 'true' leaves and grow on. This is quite common with brassicas and if it happens you could waste space on a seedling which will never develop any further - so don't thin them too early! With calabrese seed in particular - which can be expensive - it also wastes seed and money!  I've never seen any of the 'so-called' experts telling you this - they always tell you to thin as soon as you can handle the seedlings! Over 40 years of experience (OMG can't believe it!) does actually teach one a few useful things!
 
 

Sowing early peas and broad beans in pots

 
 
Sprouted broad beans being sown in  500g  yogurt pots -  12.1.12
 Sprouted broad beans sown in 500g yogurt pots              
Sprouted 'Oregon Sugar Pod' mangetout being sown for pea shoots and later pods - 31.1.12
Sprouted mangetouts sown for pea shoots and pods
 

At this time of year - I always soak my broad beans and peas for a couple of hours before then sprouting them on damp kitchen paper on a plate covered with cling film and put in a warmish place. I always get the best germination this way. It saves the seed sitting in cold wet compost for too long and possibly rotting. They sprout in about 2-3 days and then as soon as the 'radicle' or main tap root  appears - I then sow them in large pots as you can see above (I use recycled 500 ml yogurt pots - they're the perfect size!). 3 broad beans to a pot or a small handful of peas (don't count them) per pot. I don't thin the beans or the peas as it's totally unnecessary - I've tried doing it over the years but the plants produce just the same crop per plant - so obviously crop more per sq.ft/m if on a deep, raised bed. Thinning them after germination is not only totally unnecessary, but is also time-consuming and wastes valuable seed. These potfuls will be planted out about 30cm/1ft. apart when big enough.

 

I am always amazed at just how much better the germination is with home-saved seed. I got 100% germination of the yummy Crimson Flowered Broad Bean as per usual (good job as we've just finished the last from the freezer!). Beans and peas are the only things I cover with organic peat-free seed compost after sowing - everything else is covered with vermiculite - which promotes good air circulation and drainage around the seedling stem, virtually guaranteeing no 'damping off' disease - as long as you are careful with your watering. After sowing anything - only ever water again from underneath. This is easy to do by sitting the tray or module in a tray of water for a few seconds. And as I've often said before - if you do happen to overdo it by mistake - and we all do it occasionally - don't despair and leave them to rot in cold wet compost!  It's very simple - just sit the tray of seedlings on a newspaper for 1/2 hour or so which acts like a wick to draw out the excess. All seeds need is a good seed compost, a little thought and plenty of TLC to grow - it's not rocket science!

 

Despite all the years I've been gardening - I never cease to be surprised, thrilled and full of wonder at Nature's miracle of a tiny seed and it's determination to grow. That perfect little pre-programmed parcel of DNA - full of history and priceless, unique and irreplaceable genes. And - best of all - packed with a delicious promise of healthy food!  

 

Do you know someone actually complained to me a few years ago that there's too much information in my blog?  I suppose these days everything is presented in small bites - which often leaves one with not enough information to do things properly - so then you think it's your fault when it doesn't work! Luckily many others disagree and really appreciate it - so for it's for those nice, appreciative people that I write it!  I try to put on new, improved and relevant stuff each year - depending on the latest research. Although there's no substitute for experience - and you never stop learning in gardening - every year is different. I hope you find my experience useful.
 
 
I can remember only too well what it was like many years ago - trying to find out how to grow chemical-free food for my very sick child!  You couldn't even buy organic vegetables and fruits then!  Although there is much more availability of organic produce now - it's not only much cheaper, more satisfying and far fresher if you can grow it yourself even if it's only salads - but you can also have a far wider choice of produce and nutrients by growing your own food. If you want to grow a lot of things then you need all the information to be successful. Very often gardening advice in magazines seems to have been written by people who either haven't actually done what they're talking about - or are complete novices and are just repeating stuff from old gardening books almost verbatim! That won't do any more - our climate is changing, soil science is moving on and we are better informed than ever. Despite that though - we should never assume as some arrogant scientists do that we know it all - because Nature doesn't give up her secrets easily! True science is humble - it continues to learn and evolve to meet new challenges.
 
 
Early spring has already arrived in the tunnel - and I couldn't possibly garden without one now!
 
 
As I've been saying ever since I got my very first tiny one - about 38 years ago now - 'If I only had a small garden - I would cover the entire space with a polytunnel' I definitely think there should be government grants for back-gardeners to put them up! Just think of how much they'd save the health service with all that gentle exercise, fresh air, light and healthy chemical-free food! It's just what the doctor ordered!  It's truly wonderful to be able to walk into the tunnel and feel the gentle background warmth and dryness when the sun shines at this time of year - it's so full of hope. Every time I open the door and walk into that other world, I thank the Garden Gods once again for the blessing of such a snug and richly-productive space to grow things in.
 
 
As Fionnuala Fallon so beautifully put it in her Irish Times article about my polytunnel in November 2010 - "....it was a bit like walking into the wardrobe of C S Lewis - not quite Narnia perhaps, but definitely a very different universe....." - Indeed it is! There's a link to her article below: 
 
 
 
 
(Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. Thank you.)

What to Sow Now - February 2020

Seeds of hope.  Home-saved non-F1 hybrid Heritage seeds that will provide plenty of food for us, bees & other vital beneficial insects all year                  
                   Seeds of hope. Home-saved non-F1 hybrid Heritage seeds that will provide plenty of food for us, bees, other vital beneficial insects and biodiversity
 
 
Sowing seeds has been mankind's sign of hope and belief in Nature for millennia.  At a time when many of us are fearful for the future of food, farming, the environment, biodiversity and our children - something which we can all do is to keep faith with Nature.  If we care for Nature - it will provide us with the sustenance and solace which we need.
 
 
This month - in a heated propagator - you could sow*:
 
 
For tunnel/greenhouse growing later - Early tomatoes, aubergines, sweet and chilli peppers, calabrese/broccoli, celery, celeriac, physalis (Chinese gooseberries) and dwarf French beans (for very early cropping in pots). Also half-hardy annual flowers like Nicotiana, which need a long growing season. 
 
 
Early sowing in warmth will gain you a couple of weeks in most cases - but bear in mind that all of these will need warmth for quite some time yet though - After the initial higher temperature germination in a heated propagator, they will then need growing on with a minimum bottom heat of around 50deg.F/10deg.C - in a draught-free space, perhaps on a hotbed or a roll-out heated mat, protecting with fleece if frost is forecast and potting on when necessary to avoid any setbacks, then gradually hardening off and finally planting out in the tunnel as soon as the late winter/early spring crops are cleared from late April/early May onwards. 
 
 
In more gentle warmth (*Bearing in mind that most propagators on the market are set to approx. 20 deg.C - or slightly warmer, unless they have adjustable thermostats:
 
At approx 10 deg.C - either on a roll out heated mat with adjustable thermostat or possibly in your house, putting out into greenhouse or cold frame after germination when good light will be needed. 
 
For planting out in the tunnel - or outdoors under cloches later:
 
You can sow brassicas such as early summer cauliflowers, summer cabbages, red cabbage, early Brussels sprouts and the new varieties of 'summer purple sprouting' broccoli, lettuces, perennial veg. like Welsh onions, globe artichokes and seakale, spinach, spring onions(scallions), early leeks and bulb onions, shallots, early peas, broad beans, kohl rabi, white turnips, land cress, rocket, salad mixes, watercress. 
 
 
Now is also a good time to sow bee-friendly, fast-growing hardy annuals like limnanthes, calendulas, convulvulus tricolour, borage etc. - these provide early flowers for attracting beneficial insects like hoverflies into the tunnel to help with pest control. Early flowers will also provide a welcome early meal for bees - which are vital for pollination of early flowering polytunnel fruit trees like peaches. Provide the food they need and they'll keep coming back, as bees quickly learn where reliable sources of food are and communicate this knowledge to the rest of their fellow bees, clever things - a mutually beneficial relationship for them and us!
 
 
 
Directly into soil pre-warmed with cloches, or in pots/modules in the tunnel without heat (covering on very cold nights with fleece):
 
 You can sow more hardy crops like broad beans, carrots, kale 'Ragged Jack', Black Tuscan and other kales for baby leaves, Ruby chard and 'Bull's Blood' or McGregor's favourite beetroot for high anthocyanin beet leaves, pre-sprouted mangetout and early peas, for both pea shoots and podded peas -(pre-sprouting in warmth ensures faster germination which means seeds are less prone to rotting and mouse damage), lettuces, herbs, (not basil yet - it's too cold) mixed leaf salads, oriental mustards and salad mixes, rocket, summer spinach etc. These will all crop before June in a polytunnel or greenhouse - preventing the 'Hungry Gap'! 
 
 
Planting half of the module-sown plants inside, and the other half outside under cloches is a good way to spread cropping times. Other hardy crops like beetroot, kales and chards can also be sown in modules now for planting outside under cloches later.
 
Remember - even most hardy seeds won't germinate below a soil temperature of about 45degF or 7degC. 
 
 
Another tip - lettuce and spinach seeds prefer to be fairly cool for the first 24-48 hours, as higher temperature can trigger dormancy- so don't sow these in too much heat. I always sow them in my kitchen at normal house temperature, there I can also keep an eye on them and uncover as soon as they start to germinate. I then transfer them out to the polytunnel so that they have really good light, protecting them at night if frost is forecast. 
 
 
Small seedlings will need protecting from frost with fleece if it's very cold. If you can provide these conditions then almost everything but the most tender crops can be sown in suitable modules in mid-late February for planting out under cloches later - but don't grow them on with too much warmth or they will be too soft and 'leggy' as light levels are still relatively low.
 
 
Keep an eye out for mice which are very partial to pea and bean seeds and will even dig up and eat the seeds when the plants are already a couple of inches high, as I know to my cost!
 
 
All of these things could be germinated anywhere warm and then grown on in very good light on a windowsill if you have room - but do bring them inside the room at night if you close the curtains, or they may get chilled on cold nights. And remember that a south-facing window may be too hot even at this time of year. One well known journalist in the west of Ireland told me he puts his tomatoes under his Velux office window in good light after germinating them in the warm - what a great idea! I couldn't work out how he'd got them so early when he wrote complaining that my advice on side-shooting tomatoes was far too late for his plants -  his Pantano Romanesco had already gone completely bonkers by May!! That particular beefsteak variety needs even more severe discipline than most - but the exceptional flavour makes it more than well worth the extra trouble!
 
 
It's much too early yet to sow most melons and cucumbers. These are very fast growing - taking only about 12 weeks from sowing to harvest. The only exception is watermelons - the larger types of which really need starting off in mid-late Feb., as they need a long growing season to be successful. The small 'Sugar Baby' will still crop well in a warm polytunnel if sown in March. Watermelons are also very tender, susceptible to even the slightest frost and are actually damaged below 50deg.F/10degC. - so unless you have a heated greenhouse, (and who has in these carbon-conscious days?) they'll be far too big before it's warm enough to plant them out in the tunnel or before their allotted tunnel space is vacant. Potting them on into larger pots and placing on a 'roll out' heated mat to provide bottom warmth is a much more energy efficient option. I find it's best to wait until at least mid March for sowing most of the cucurbitaceae family - they can then grow on quickly without any check. Five years ago I tried sowing the delicious yellow courgette 'Atena' very early as an experiment - sown on 23rd Feb. and grown on in gentle warmth, it was planted into large pots in the west tunnel in early April and was given extra protection with fleece on cold nights. It gave a really early crop in early-mid May. I now do this every year - it's definitely well worth doing to get some delicious super-early courgettes!
 
 
As soon as the ground is in reasonable condition you can plant Jerusalem Artichokes. If it's still too wet you can plant them in 2 litre pots for planting out in a few weeks. 
 
 
You can also plant shallots, onion sets and garlic either in the ground or again in pots if it's too wet - but you must choose varieties of garlic which are labelled as suitable for spring planting - such as 'Christo'. If you plant 'autumn planting' varieties now they will just produce one single bulb rather that splitting into individual cloves which is what you want. 
 
 
If you have well sprouted seed of any variety of potato you can plant some in large pots or directly into the tunnel soil now. These will need protecting from frost at all times. First early varieties are obviously best as these will bulk up quickly - giving a crop in about 10-12 weeks in late April or early May depending on variety - those grown on in pots from planting to harvest will also be slightly earlier than those planted out in the tunnel borders.
 
 
Don't attempt to sow anything outside into cold wet ground yet! If you haven't done so already - get cloches or a polythene cover out onto vegetable beds outside now to dry them out and start them warming it up. If your ground hasn't been covered all winter either with a crop, green manure or mulch as it should be - it could take weeks to dry out after all the wet weather we've had. Another reason why ground should always be covered in winter - apart from the soil-loss, damage and possible pollution aspect!
 
 
I always use a good, well drained, organic peat-free seed compost for all my seed sowing - it's by far the most successful and natural medium for plants. If you're not using organic peat-free then make sure you use a seed compost - rather than an multi-purpose compost. These may contain far too much chemical fertiliser if not organic, which can either inhibit germination of seedlings, or even burn and kill emerging roots! 
 
 
*JUST ONE MORE THING - Always open seed packets with clean dry hands - not 'garden muddy' hands! Most seed will last for ages if kept really dry and cool at all times. I find that a dry cool room is usually far better than most domestic refrigerators which can be far too damp. (the exception to this is celery, carrots and parsnips, which tend to have reduced germination when more than 1 year old) Sow seed little and often - preferably in modules if you have room - it's far more time and cost-effective than sowing in rows and transplanting.  It also avoids wasting seeds as it avoids root disturbance and possible damage or setback when 'pricking out' from seed trays - or from slugs eating vulnerable tiny seedlings.
 
 P.S. WHEN SOWING SEED - IGNORE THE SEED PACKET'S ADVICE WHICH TELL YOU TO SOW THE SEEDS ALL AT ONCE IN A ROW OR IN A SEED TRAY as this can waste seed - REMEMBER - THEY WANT YOU TO BUY MORE!
 
And one last thing to remember if you're short of time.... Always sow the seeds - you can catch up on everything else when you have time - but if you miss sowing seeds at the right time - then you can't catch up on that! 
 
Happy gardening everyone!  May all your seeds be good ones and your crops successful!
 
 
Here's a little something which I wrote last year and you may find useful
 
 
How to Brexit-proof your veg supply! Easy, fast-growing veg to start now - which guarantee you a Brexit-proof harvest in just 8 weeks!
 
(Here are some of the fastest - there are many other ideas in the general 'What to Sow Now' list for February above, which can be started now to crop later - such as baby carrots, chards, beets and perpetual spinach beet)
 
Loose-leaf lettuce, salad mixes and lettuce mixes. These are widely available in many seed ranges, but are very cheap (often less than half the price) from DIY chains). Good sources of organic loose leaf lettuce seeds are Brown Envelope Seeds here in Ireland, and Real Seeds UK.
Endive and chicories for baby leaves
Broccoli Raab - small broccoli-like flower buds 
Oriental veg or salad mixes - usually available as either spicy or sweet mixes.
Mizuna, Mustards, Tatsoi and Texsel Greens
Kales for baby leaves
Radishes can be sown in modules inside now and planted in pots or sown direct in pots.
Rocket
Peas for pea shoots
Turnips
Spinach 
Scallions or spring onions 
Collards or loose-leaf cabbages
 
Watercress can be grown very easily by rooting some shoots in water from supermarket salad bags. Just remove the lower leaves, put in a jar of water for a few days an they will grow new roots from the stems. Then pot them up in some organic peat-free compost, keep frost-free anywhere in reasonable light and they'll be producing plenty of lovely new shoots for salads etc. by the middle of March. 
 
(For baby leaf lettuce or cut and come again use - DON'T cut the whole head with scissors as usually recommended. Doing this slows up growth a lot at this time of year as the plant needs it's leaves to photosynthesize - just pick one or two leaves from each plant, as this won't affect growth too much and the plant will repay you by providing a harvest for longer.)
 
 
Other ideas:
 
You could sow all sorts of seeds as microgreens - just as we used to sow mustard and cress as children on damp kitchen towel in small containers - these will be ready to harvest about a week to ten days after sowing. Any veg or herb seeds can be used for growing microgreens and they are often far higher in nutrients than their full-grown counterparts.
 
You can also sprout seeds like sunflower, amaranth, peas, mung beans, alfalfa, fenugreek, mustard, kales etc. - these can be ready from 2-3 days. Soak for a few hours or overnight in jars, cover with muslin held onto the jar with rubber band to avoid losing them down sink when draining, and be sure to rinse and drain them well regularly - twice a day or more, to prevent possible mould or disease.
 
It goes without saying that using organic seed for either sprouting or microgreens is best, as apart from being far more healthy and vigorous - non-organic seed may be pre-treated with pesticides!
 
Buy potted herbs in supermarkets, split them up and grow on in pots (see my How to grow Basil article.
 
Some supermarkets sell growing lettuce in compost cubes in their veg departments. These aren't organic, but if you plant them in organic peatfree compost and cut off the tops immediately - then the leaves that grow afterwards will be as good as organic!
 
An excellent, fast-growing, salad potato is Lady Christl, and is the fastest potato to bulk up. Seed tubers can be started now in pots and you could be harvesting new potatoes from these in as little as 8 weeks! 
 
Apples should store for at least 6-8 weeks in a cold place or the salad drawer of your fridge. Granny Smith are the best for this, sweeter apples like Gala or Pink Lady don't store as well.
 
 
(Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. Thank you.)

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in January - 2020

anuary contents: A peat-free plea!.... A good time to finish winter pruning..... Bare-root benefits.....There's still just time to order bare-root fruit trees, bushes and canes for mail order delivery before March.... Which apple varieties are good in a small garden?.... The importance of choosing the right root-stock.... Other fruit jobs to do now.....  There's always some kind of fruit suitable for growing somewhere in any garden!
 
  
185gm peach, variety unknown 22nd July   A good crop of peaches in late July
185 g peach in July - I can't wait for summer to taste these luscious beauties again! 

  A good crop of peaches in late July
 
Pruning pays off if you want productive peaches!
 
I thought that showing you a picture of some juicy peaches might encourage you to try growing some this year! Happily avoiding the unpredictable weather - I'm hoping to find time to finish pruning my polytunnel peaches in the next week before the fruit buds start to swell - it's so easy to knock them off then and lose fruit as a consequence. I won't be pruning any other stone fruit like plums or cherries outside yet though, even if the weather is dry - as that risks encouraging 'silver leaf' disease. Most stone fruits should always be pruned only if absolutely necessary, if a branch has broken, or for shaping the branch system in their early years - and then only when the sap is rising and growth has started in the spring. But most fruit trees undercover can be pruned at pretty much any time of year in my experience - although peaches and apricots flower early so it's best to do this before the buds start to swell. As the pruning methods in most fruit books apply to greenhouses with lovely walls or to traditional bush shaped trees - I had to invent my own method for growing peaches in a polytunnel! 
 
 
Peach pruned as a rough fan shape, reducing height and leaving productive young growth lower down  - 18.1.14
Like many of the things I do - my method of peach pruning is just a little unorthodox but it works very well for me and I get huge crops! The peach pictured here is pruned as a rough fan/bush shape - which reduces the height, leaving some productive younger green shoots lower down that will fruit this year. It's not a traditional way to prune peaches - but I find it easier and it's not too time-consuming. The shoots don't need 'tying in' to supports as they would if it was strictly wall trained - and in fact it's far more productive than a wall trained tree would be! Being planted about 60 cm out from the tunnel wall means there's space for the slightly bushier form while still retaining fairly good air circulation. If your tree hasn't been pruned for a few years and has become a mess of old wood, then you may have to take a lot off now to encourage young shoots to form lower down the tree. Peaches will do this quite readily and will often produce lovely young shoots even from the trunk. If you don't take off most of the older wood the tree will put all it's energy into the topmost branches and this just makes the problem even worse - so you have to be brave and harden your heart!
 
  
Nectarines and peaches are pruned slightly differently to plums and cherries. As they always fruit most prolifically on the previous year's (green) wood, they need a certain amount of the older wood pruned out each year to stop them getting too big, particularly in the tunnel, not just to avoid them bursting out of the polythene at the top but also to promote younger fruiting growth, leaving enough well-spaced young growth on which they will fruit this year. You also need to be able to reach to thin and pick them! If you don't do this they soon become an unmanageable, crowded and unproductive mess. It's sometimes difficult to take out enough wood in summer though, so I often need to take out more at this time of year, particularly on the older trees. Then I can see exactly what I'm doing because the trees are naked, with no leaves and the young, greener growth formed last summer is much easier to see.
 
 
They start into growth much sooner inside and already the fatter and rounder fruit buds are easily distinguishable from the growth buds which are slimmer and more pointed. Trees can quite easily put on over a metre of growth during the summer - so controlling them is vital. Pruning the top growth also naturally reduces further root growth correspondingly, which is a good thing as otherwise they can rob nutrients and water from crops growing in the raised beds near to their root area. The roots of any healthy tree will always extend over an area of at least roughly three times the height of the tree.  After looking at them carefully, take out some of the older branches back to a point just above where some new green growth which the tree made last summer appeared - bearing in mind the height you want. Later on in the summer, just after fruiting, prune out some of this year's longer new growths in order to keep them a manageable size and promote good air circulation. 
 
 
My trees are never a pretty sight after pruning - but you have to be both brave and even what seems a little brutal sometimes! The trees look so pretty in early spring, when they're adorned with their pink blossoms, that it's tempting to leave the flowering branches and not cut them off.  But I know if I that if I don't prune properly now, then the fruit in the summer will be far smaller, too crowded and not nearly as good.  Sometimes the fruit may even drop off because the tree simply can't cope with developing so many.  So one has to harden one's heart. And don't be tempted either to leave long branches on young trees that you've only just planted - as this forces the poor tree to try to support that growth before it has properly developed it's roots - and this may well kill it. A friend of mine did this a few years ago despite my warnings - as she thought she might get fruit quicker. She didn't - it killed the tree!  Prune trees right back after planting, to just two or three lower buds on each branch, pointing in the direction you want them to grow. New green growth will come from those in it's first year, and this will help the tree to develop a nice low branching system from which to select the branches you want to keep for fruiting the following year.  It will fruit on those next year and you will reap the benefits of having a little patience!  Each year after fruiting - cut them back again to establish a nice young branch system in whatever shape you like. Then go over them again in winter and just tidy up. Last year, yet again each of my fan/bush trees at the north end of my tunnel produced well over two hundred perfect large peaches each, and we've been enjoying the frozen fruit as sorbets, smoothies etc. all winter, and the dehydrated fruit as Nature's sweeties! There really is nothing like sinking your teeth into that first luscious, aromatic home grown peach!

 

For the last few years, both Aldi and Lidl have had bare-root trees available really cheaply,  sometime over the next couple of months. That's where I originally got mine - for only a fiver each - one of the best investments I've ever made! Although one was labelled 'Peach' and the other 'Nectarine' - they both turned out to be un-named varieties of peaches.  But happily for me - serendipity was at work!  One is an early variety and the other is a later, even more delicious one - so they spread the crop very nicely and we have fresh peaches for around two and a half months in summer, with masses to freeze!  Named peaches are generally available in garden centres - but they are much more expensive as they will be container grown - often in peat compost, which I hate. Peat is not a natural growing medium for peaches! 

 

If you have the room for a peach they're far easier to grow under cover in a tunnel or greenhouse as not only can you always keep them pruned to the size you want, but they don't get peach leaf curl disease under cover. Peach leaf curl is a fungal disease which is caused by rain washing the disease spores down into the buds before they start to grow in early spring, if they're growing outside. My peaches are planted at the north end of my larger tunnel, where they also don't shade anything. They are roughly fan-trained over an area of 15 ft/4 metres overall, with a height of about the same, or slightly less. At their feet in a narrow bed about 3ft/1 metre depth, I have planted perennial herbs like various thymes, alpine strawberries, oregano, a few early bulbs and lots of scented single flowers to attract beneficial insects and pollinators. This works well for me.

 

It's a good time to finish winter pruning both in the polytunnel and outside if ground is dry enough to walk on.

  
Having said that - if your ground is wet then you'd be better staying off the ground around any fruit trees, or indeed anywhere else, until it dries up a bit!  If you don't you will compact the soil and cause permanent damage, which then leads to drainage problems. Poor drainage can also then have a 'knock' on' effect' on nutrient uptake - leading to a condition called 'bitter pit' - which is a symptom of poor calcium uptake in apples and other disease problems. All fruit really hates bad drainage. If the weather turns drier over the next couple of weeks and the soil dries up a bit I'll do the pruning of the apples in the new orchard. If you have polytunnel fruit though - this is a great time to prune it as growth will be starting again soon and if trees are pruned properly you can look forward to a summer of luscious fruit!
 

 Bare-root benefits

I usually prefer to plant bare-root trees, whatever I'm planting, if I can get the varieties I want with bare roots - I feel that they establish and adjust to your soil far better. Container-grown trees in peat composts can take much longer to establish as their roots as the can be reluctant to explore the world outside their pot - even if you loosen some of the outer roots a little! Peaches aren't that fussy about soil but they do like it well drained, with a pH of about 6.5 to 7. Scatter a couple of handfuls of bonemeal and calcified seaweed over the planting area of about 2 sq. metres, these will supply phosphate, slow release calcium and other trace elements. If your soil is poor and lacking in humus and organic matter, and possibly compacted - that will mean it's also low in biological activity, so it could benefit from adding one of the beneficial micorrhizal granules available in sachets now from garden centres. These form a fungal network which help roots to establish a symbiotic uptake of nutrients quickly, and this will increase over the years. Fork all of these in really well and evenly when preparing the soil and scatter some of the granules over the actual roots as well. 

 

A Peat-free Plea!

Before planting, I also fork in a light dressing of good, well rotted, but not too rich, crumbly compost - not tons of nitrogen-rich manure which would promote too much soft, sappy growth.  If you don't have some  crumbly old home made compost, a bucket of a good quality organic peat- free potting compost will do just the same job. Please don't use peat!  It's not necessary or in fact suitable for the plants or trees you're planting!  I know that some people may feel that using peat-free compost my seem a bit extravagant when planting - but if you just think how much even non-organic peaches cost each - and then you'll see it's worth every penny!  Not only that - using peat, whether in potting composts or just for soil conditioning is quite literally costing us the earth - as every crumb of peat extracted is accelerating climate change! Just a few peaches will repay the cost of any peat-free compost at the price they were last year!  Last year, organic peaches - if you could get them - were over a euro each!  Only 12 peaches pays for a whole bag of the best, top quality organic peat-free compost!  (I use the peat-free certified organic potting compost from Klasmann which is excellent).  A peat compost or plain peat will not do the same job either - as it completely sterile, containing no vital microbial life, and eventually clogs the soil too.  Peat moss is so sterile that it was used to make sterile wound dressings for soldiers during the first world war!

 

The addition of organic compost opens up the structure of the soil, makes it more 'root friendly' and introduces important microbial life, which will adapt itself gradually to the type of tree which is grown there. All types of plants have specific kinds of microbes that like to live symbiotically with the roots of that particular plant - and if you start them off at the correct soil pH, with some compost to feed on at first, they will soon multiply and form a huge living community around the root structure - supplying the plant with the vital nutrients it needs from the soil.  A symbiotic relationship is a bit like a 'middle man'/or a sort of 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours' kind of thing! The plant makes root exudates - sugars which feed the microbes - and then in return all the microbes make the nutrients in the soil available to the plant's roots - in a form that they can absorb. Basically it is pretty much the same way as our digestion works - so the soil acts a bit like the plant's stomach if you like - as I've explained before. Every year after planting, a light scattering of compost and a couple of handfuls of seaweed meal (for potash and trace elements) will keep them happy and busy, but will not make the tree not too vigorous. 

 

There's still just time to order bare-root fruit trees, bushes and canes for mail order delivery before March

  

The enormous delicious fruits of autumn raspberry Joan J

The sooner you do this the better if you're planning on getting any - you don't want to be right at the back of the queue just getting the dregs of what's left at the end of the planting season. If you're looking for a new raspberry - then I can thoroughly recommend the autumn variety Joan J - pictured here. It's definitely the best tasting variety yet.  I grew it in pots in the polytunnel last year and it fruited from June until almost Christmas. "An autumn raspberry fruiting in June" I hear you say? Yes - if you prune them MY way! Many people recommend pruning them right back after they've finished fruiting in late winter - but I always leave about half of the canes that formed and fruited in the previous autumn un-pruned. These then fruit early the following year - after which I prune them right down to the ground. Those will then form new canes which will fruit slightly later in the autumn than the new canes which grew up from those pruned in winter - thereby spreading their season even more and giving you a continuous crop for much of the summer and autumn. It doesn't harm the plants at all pruning this way, as autumn varieties are very vigorous anyway. I just feed, mulch and water them well. Like so many of the tricks I've learned over the years - I discovered this one literally quite by accident - by not getting round to pruning at the accepted 'right time' - due to an accident!  All autumn raspberries will do this if pruned this way - but if I only grew one raspberry variety - it would be Joan J. It has enormous fruits which aren't just delicious fresh but which also freeze incredibly well. 

 

Which apple varieties are good in a small garden?

 

Someone asked me recently to suggest two apple varieties which would be suitable for a small garden, which would fruit reliably early in the season, are good freshly picked and would then make apple juice for freezing. 'Discovery' is an excellent and productive early season apple that ripens through September, it's crisp, sweet and has very pink-tinted flesh compared to many apples. The internal colour indicates that it's full of healthy antioxidants tooDepending on the season's weather and where it's planted - the apples that are in full sun always colour best. Crisply delicious when just picked, it doesn't keep for more than a couple of weeks or so once it's ripe, but it does make a delicious pale pink apple juice - particularly when combined with the early cooker 'Grenadier' which ripens at the same time -  in early/mid Sept. We don't make juice here any more as juicing discards the flesh of the fruit, wasting many healthy nutrients like antioxidant phytochemicals & vital gut- healthy fibre. This also means that juice is very high in quickly available sugars too - which are not good for us. Eating whole fruit is better for us - so we tend to make 'slushies here now - which are our half-frozen smoothies using whole fruits blitzed in the Nutriblender and diluted with a little spring water. These are delicious and thirst-quenching on a warm early autumn day!

 

Red Devil apple cut in half Jan 19th

As Discovery also flowers at the same time, being from the same pollination group, they make very good partners in a small garden. Grenadier is a terrific early cooking apple with plenty of sweet/acid flavour - good for all sorts of cooking uses in Sept. and Oct. If you store either of these apples after that they tend to lose their flavour and acidity though, becoming 'woolly', which affects their flavour, so the two are ideally matched. Both varieties are widely available and are good, reliable and disease-resistant. If you have room for three trees in your garden and would like a long keeping cooker - then they also make perfect partners for Bramley's Seedling. This apple is what is known as a 'triploid' - meaning that it has no good pollen of it's own, so therefore it needs two good pollination partners which reliably flower at the same time.Discovery and Grenadier partner it perfectly - so it's a productively fruiting 'menage a trois' if you like!

 

 

If you only have room for one apple, then an offspring of Discovery - a result of a cross with an apple called Kent which was bred more recently in 1975, is a really good apple called Red Devil - (pictured above cut in half).  It's disease resistant, incredibly productive and self-fertile, in flowering group 3, so doesn't need a pollinator partner nearby. If you do have other apple trees nearby though, it's also a very good pollinator, and will pollinate trees in flowering groups 2 and 4 - which overlap their flowering times with group 3 trees to a certain extent. A delicious apple, it stays lovely and crisp for 3 months in my apple store, and is very high in polyphenol antioxidants which have many health benefits. Unlike Discovery, it is picked a little later in early October depending on the season - but will keep until Christmas or beyond - which I find more useful in an apple as there are always plenty of September ripening apples around - too many at times - but they become more scarce after October. Last week I chose a couple from my apple store to grate into a smoothie - it was just slightly less crisp - but still juicy and delicious and full of colourful antioxidants as you can see here from the colour of the flesh of one I cut in half to remove the pips! 

 

Ashmead's Kernal in my recycled 'low-tech' apple store! 12.1.17

 

If you would prefer a long-keeping eating apple and have room for three trees - then I would recommend 'Ashmead's Kernal' pictured here in my 'low-tech' recycled dead freezer apple store in January.  It's a healthy, disease-resistant and very productive apple, which is at it's very best naturally stored from mid-December until April It's not an apple which many people know as it's almost never available to buy in garden centres or nurseries - but it's a very aromatic, crisply mouth-watering and nutty tasting apple, with a good sweet/acid balance which regularly beats the more famous Cox's Orange Pippin in taste tests and is considered to be one of the highest quality late dessert apples. It flowers in pollination group 4 - so it overlaps it's flowering time with Red Devil which provides good pollination for it most years. 

 

Ashmead's Kernal is a late-keeping, russet dessert apple bred 300 years ago by Dr. Ashmead near Gloucester. It's one of my favourite late apples. Although often selected in competitions as even better-tasting than Cox - it's far less well known and unlike Cox is scab-resistant and far more tolerant of damp climates like ours here in Ireland, which encourages scab. Also a triploid - the heavy-cropping Ashmead's also needs 2 other apple trees nearby which will pollinate it - but this isn't usually a problem in urban gardens. It crops really well on the M26 semi-dwarfing root stock, and picked in mid-October - it keeps really well until April in cold storage. Useful for cooking from October - later on in December it matures into a delicious dessert apple with a very distinctive and mouthwatering 'pear-drop' flavour.

 

We're currently eating the stored Ashmead's which we picked in late October last year, and every time I bite into one of them, I thank old Dr. Ashmead of Gloucester who raised it around 1700!  My rather unconventional apple store keeps these really well. It's an old broken freezer which I re-purposed and it has several drawers which I can pull out to inspect the apples daily for any that may be deteriorating. It also has perfect insulation, which keeps out either heat or severe cold, and I can vary the humidity by adjusting the door opening slightly. The apples are kept in a sort of natural suspended animation, so while still alive, they go on just quietly breathing and developing their flavour a lot more more slowly than they would otherwise have done if they'd been left on the tree. This means they will keep for several months, staying crisp and retaining all of their healthy nutrients.

 

I often wonder what dear old Dr. Ashmead would think of my apple store? Or if he could possibly have imagined that people in the 21st century might still be enjoying this wonderful apple and writing about how HE was the person who bred it?

My apple store is not just full of deliciously healthy, pure delights - it's also like having a treasure chest full of fascinating stories and rich social history! 

 

The importance of choosing the right root-stock

 
Whatever apples you plant though - make sure that they are on an M26 or MM106 semi-dwarfing root stock, which are by far the healthiest and best for a wide range of soils and climates but do particularly well here in Ireland.  I don't find the more dwarfing ones good here on my heavy clay soil. They need perfect conditions which few of us have - and in addition - with climate change and wetter weather, fruit trees need to be far more resilient to continue to crop well. That's the last thing I would call the dwarfing root stocks!  Also ensure that the graft union (the very swollen knobbly looking bit in the lower bit of the stem) is at least 4 ins or 10 cm above the surface of the compost they are growing in if they are in containers - otherwise the 'scion' (that's the variety of apple that's grafted onto the root stock) could possibly root past the joint and you will lose the dwarfing effect of the root stock.  I see so many trees on sale in garden centres that are badly potted through ignorance - far too deeply! Some garden centres and nurseries still have bare root trees at this time of year though - and they're worth seeking out. You may get one or two apples this year on container grown trees - but in the long run bare root trees planted now will establish much better and be far more productive over time. Make sure that you plant bare root trees with the graft union again roughly 4ins/10cm above the soil surface, and with rainfall increasing due to climate change, planting on a very slight mound with added pea gravel or grit is a good idea. The planting area will always settle and sink a bit as it does so - and you don't want to create a badly drained 'sump'! Remember - a fruit tree is a long term investment for the future - to get a return you need to plant it well!
 
 
When I was talking about fruit varieties a couple of months ago I forgot to mention a truly wonderful plum - 'Belle de Louvain'.  It's a fantastic variety - and is the one that's used to make those gorgeous big fat prunes in Belgium. It's available from a few nurseries - although it may not be on their general list and you may have to ask for it specifically. I got mine from the now sadly defunct Deacons about 25 years ago.  A 'dual purpose' plum - it's really delicious and juicy as a desert plum for eating fresh when perfectly ripe (despite what was said on one gardening website! - I wonder if they've actually grown it?) - and for cooking there's absolutely nothing to equal it!  It has a fantastic rich flavour and deep purple/black colour - which indicates how rich it must be in healthy antioxidant polyphenols. 
 
 
The other good thing about 'Belle de Louvain'  is that it's fairly self-pollinating and will set fruit even without another tree close by - but 'Victoria' would be a good partner if you have room to give it some company. It does well on less than ideal soils - hence it's grown very well on my heavy Meath clay. It also freezes incredibly well - just thrown into carrier bags without stoning and freeze them whole. I'm sure it would bottle well too - although I haven't tried - as the fruit stays quite firm when cooked. An absolute paragon of a plum!  The major problem here is the destructive bullfinches eating the flower buds in late winter - something they're particularly fond of doing! Beautiful but very destructive little vandals they are!  I haven't seen too many around this year yet - just one or two so far - I'm hoping they won't do their usual amount of damage. When the fruit is ripening - then badgers and foxes are the main problem!  Anything within  'labrador standing on it's hind legs height'  reach is progressively stolen over a couple of weeks as they gradually ripen!  Beautiful and increasingly rare vandals both - about which I naturally have very ambivalent feelings - plums are one of my favourite fruits - but I don't mind losing a few if I have plenty! This year I'm going to try drying some if I have enough - they'll make nice healthy guilt free snacks! 
 
Plum 'Belle de Louvain' - nicely defrosting!
 
I have some beautiful photos of 'Belle de Louvain' on the tree which I took a few years ago - but as my scanner's not working - I took some out of the freezer to show you instead. I'll gently stew them in very little water with a small amount of sugar and they'll be eaten when cold with a little creme fraiche or kefir soft 'cheese' - absolute heaven!  I'm looking forward to supper! 
 
 

 

Other fruit jobs to do now

 
 
This week I'll be covering some of my rhubarb crowns with straw and old dustbins - or very large pots - the first fresh fruit of the year is always at it's most delicious when forced and delicately pink. I would dearly love some of those gorgeous terracotta forcing pots but they are so expensive!  Perhaps if I ever win the lottery!  I'm also going to dry more of my seedless grapes this year - I haven't tried the black ones yet. We're still eating a few physalis (Cape gooseberries/golden berries) every day - picked in November and stored in the fridge, only one or two have gone off. They keep for ages in their little paper cases and are rich in Vit C and other nutrients like lutein which we all need at this time of year.

 
If you haven't done so already, then untie and lower all grape rods now to horizontal, in order to ensure that the sap rises evenly to supply each breaking fruit bud along the stem. If you don't do this the buds at the top will get the most sap and some nearer to the base may not develop at all. Grapes in pots or tubs can be laid on their sides for a few weeks for the same reason. And if you haven't pruned them yet - it's almost too late, as the sap will start to rise rapidly in the next week or so, if the weather is mild. If you prune them now - it will be just like turning on a tap!  The sap will just pour out of the cuts, weakening or possibly even killing the vine. Don't despair if you haven't pruned - you can rub out any buds you don't want when they start to grow later on without any damage to the plant at all - but it's much better to prune them at the right time, as soon as the leaves fall in Nov/Dec. - well before the beginning of Jan. I'm going to dehydrate even more of my seedless grapes this year - I haven't tried the black ones yet. I do wish that the squirrels, mice etc. didn't eat all my nuts - then I'd have even healthier, more balanced homegrown snacks! 
 
 
Strawberry plants in pots for forcing early need to come into the tunnel now. If you don't have any of last year's runners in pots ready for doing this - you can dig a couple of old plants up with a good root ball and pot them up, giving them a feed when they start to show some new growth. After doing this they will need to be thrown away though - as it will weaken them, but it will be nice to have a few early strawberries. Remember to pot up some fresh runners for doing this later on in the year. Or plant some of the wonderful variety Albion - an ever-bearing variety which fruits in my polytunnel from May until November.
 
  
One thing I must do is to source some more barrels or tubs for collecting rainwater. Fruit and veg are very thirsty - particularly soft fruit - and need plenty of water in the summer. I've been saving rainwater for years as all plants actually prefer it - not just the low pH lovers like blueberries and lemons. No plant evolved to drink chlorinated tap water!  Water is becoming more of a worry for all of us with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. It's always been a problem for us here in the summer anyway as we're on the end of the line coming from a small local reservoir - so we're always the first to go and the last to get our mains water back if there's a shortage. So I always need a back up - particularly for the tunnels. Water is very valuable - many people waste huge amounts because they take it so much for granted - so to be honest I wouldn't have any objection to our water being metered - as long as we're only paying for what we use rather than a flat charge - one size fits all - approach. It would encourage water conservation and far less waste. I don't want to pay for what's wasted by leaks or my neighbours washing cars and watering lawns in the height of summer - then forgetting to turn their taps off!  There's nothing more infuriating than seeing water actually running down the road from neighbours hosepipes when there's nothing coming out of our taps!!  Quite apart from any environmental considerations! 
 
 

There's always some kind of fruit suitable for growing somewhere in any garden!

 
Fresh fruit is always expensive to buy in the shops - particularly soft fruit - and it's really easy to grow yourself with very little trouble. Even in the smallest garden, or on a balcony,  there's room for some somewhere - you can train all sorts of fruit against walls or fences - no matter which way they face - as long as they've got good light. For instance an apple or pear espalier or fan could produce at least 10-12 kg of fruit a year once established and there are many varieties that will grow even on a north facing wall. Any good book or catalogue will tell you which ones are most suitable for difficult places. 
 
 
If you don't have a garden - many fruits will even grow in containers.  For the price of just a couple of punnets of fruit - you could buy plants that will produce delicious and ever increasing crops for years! I Two of the most productive would be perpetual strawberries (of which my favourite is Albion - from Ken Muir's Nursery, and also Cape Gooseberries which you can grow cheaply from seed yourself. Both are happy in containers, easy to grow and full of healthy nutrients. So often the things we're told are good for us are hard work or hugely expensive - but getting some of your five a day is temptingly easy if you can just go and pick it outside the back door! 
 
 
Instead of expensive and soil-fussy blueberries - blackberries are incredibly easy to grow - even in containers, not fussy about soil and are incredibly productive. They just don't have a massively funded 'Blackberry Council' to promote them like blueberries do! Although their antioxidant properties are almost as good - and you can afford to eat far more of them if you grow them yourself. We eat them every day here, they fill in all the air pockets in the freezer nicely in their large bags, thereby save energy too! How's that for super fast - super healthy, climate-friendly takeaway food? Wonderful that something so easy can be so good for us - and much fresher, far more nutritious and far cheaper when it's grown organically in your own garden. Unlike the chemically-grown, plastic wrapped and plastic tasting junk that's mostly available in shops - after travelling countless carbon-guzzling air miles across the globe at this time of year!

 
Why not make this the year you grow some of your own fruit. Or if you already do - then maybe try a new type of fruit you haven't grown before?  - Then you'll be able to look forward to harvesting your own super-fresh, properly ripe, juicy deliciousness - free from any pesticides and fungicides! Just the way that Nature meant us to eat them!
 
  
Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. Thank you.

The Vegetable Garden in January - 2020

 

January contents: Why organically-grown potatoes are better than conventionally-grown.... Seed orders are the main priority right now..... Why spend time NOW making a cropping plan?.... Why not try growing Oca this year?..... Another job for now is organising your seed sowing equipment.... Recycling saves money and avoids plastic waste.... A home made cold frame is useful if you don't have a greenhouse or polytunnel..... Grow some 'extra early' potatoes for Easter?.... 

 

On your marks - get set!.... To grow your own health, reduce your carbon footprint, truly help the planet AND save money at the same time by growing organic food.  What's not to like?   

 

Fleur Bleue potatoes at the top of the picture sprouting well. Non-organic not sprouting, due having been treated with chemicals
Fleur Bleue potatoes at the top of the picture sprouting well. Non-organic not sprouting, due having been treated with chemicals
 
 

 

Why organically-grown potatoes are better than conventionally-grown - whether you want to use them for seed tubers, or to eat them!

 

As most organic gardeners will know - there are many toxic chemicals such as artificial fertilisers, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides like Glyphosate used in the growing of conventional potatoes. You will also know if you are a regular reader of this blog that I have been studying the effects of such chemicals since my daughter was born with serous allergies over 40 years ago, when our unusually enlightened doctor for that time recommended a totally chemical-free, organic diet. The reason I am going into a little bit more technical detail than usual here, is because I was asked a question on Twitter last week by a doctor who was perhaps questioning my knowledge of such chemicals, as often happens on Twitter!

 

In addition to all those used during the growing and harvesting of potatoes, there is another which is used after harvest - a so-called 'sprout-suppressant' chemical which prolongs the storage-life of the tubers by preventing them from sprouting, as they would normally start to do in mid winter, once the natural dormant period of potatoes is over. Many people are completely unaware of the use of these toxic chemicals, which I believe everyone ought to know, given their toxicity. 

 

Potatoes for processing, commercial and table use often need to be stored for 6-9 months, and so some sort of sprout suppressant is required for this unnatural, long-term storage. Although there are several chemicals used -  the most wide-spread and most commonly used is one called CIPC or Isopropyl N-(3-chlorophenyl) carbamate or Chorapham.  It is a selective systemic herbicide - 'systemic' meaning that it is translocated and present throughout the plant tissue of the tuber. CIPC has been in use for more than 50 years, and has been the most commonly found residue in potatoes in all surveys since 1994. According to studies, it is among the pesticides which have been found in the highest concentration in the diet of the average American, and comprises 90% of the total synthetic chemical residue found in US potatoes. Studies have also reported that toxicological evaluation of CIPC, as tested and documented under lab conditions, is an underestimation.  Recently various important safety concerns have surfaced over its long-term and continuous use, due to the higher toxicity of it's metabolites (the degradation or breakdown products it produces in the potatoes after treatment) and the fact that the levels of these can increase with the multiple treatments carried out during the storage period, something which was unknown at the time the chemical was first used. 

 

CIPC belongs to a group of pesticides known as Carbamates.  It is applied by a process known as 'thermal fogging' in order to reach all the stored potatoes, and this step causes not only the thermal degradation of it, but also its breakdown into aniline-based derivatives which have a high toxicity profile. One such breakdown product of CIPC is  3-chloroaniline (3-CA ) and being an aniline-based derivative, it is considered more polluting and highly toxic that the parent compound itself and potentially carcinogenic to humans. According to the Extension Toxicology Network, chronic exposure of laboratory animals to CIPC has caused "retarded growth, increased liver, kidney and spleen weights, congestion of the spleen and death." In the UK, over 6 million tonnes of potatoes are produced annually, and more than half of this production is stored for the fresh market and for food processing. CIPC is currently used as the main sprout-suppressant in commercial potato stores.

 

Perhaps you might not find those non-organic baked potatoes or crisps quite so tempting now? - Sorry!........ And you'll also now understand why I recommend that you only use organic potatoes to get them sprouting for your' extra-early' potato crops which I talk about later on - otherwise you could be waiting a very long time!  This is obvious in the picture above, showing a comparison between the nicely sprouting organic potatoes in the top of the picture, and the same variety of non-organic ones at the bottom - which have clearly been treated with a sprout-suppressant chemical!

 

Overture and beginners - a few tips if you're only just starting to grow vegetables

 

Welcome to a new gardening year here on the blog and an especially big welcome if you're a first time reader!  The main advice I would give to any beginner just starting off, is don't be tempted to start off by trying to take on too much - because that can be a recipe for disaster. Start off growing your own food by doing it a little at a time,  then any disasters you may have will only be small ones - not so big that they make you feel utterly useless that you give up!  If you're only starting on a windowsill - or you've even taken on an allotment for the first time, do it a little at a time. Don't try to run before you can walk! 

 

If you have an allotment - PLEASE don't listen to the old timers on the site who will tell you to spray everything off with weedkillers like Roundup which contain Glyphosate!  Not only do ALL  weedkillers kill vitally important soil life that will otherwise help you to grow naturally healthy, more disease-resistant plants - but what the manufacturers don't tell you is that they're actually a complete waste of money, as they don't kill weed seeds.  So as soon as you touch the soil with even a hoe and uncover long-buried seeds, they will grow, because that's what Nature designed them to do!  Seeds will also blow in from other places, and you can't avoid that, but don't worry - there are plenty of non-toxic, nature-friendly ways to beat weeds! 

 

Instead of using a weedkiller - blocking out the light which encourages weed seeds to germinate is the best thing to do. You can do this by covering the whole site with some sort of mulch and then cardboard or thick wadges of newspaper with cardboard or recycled polythene on top.  Don't be tempted to buy in farmyard or stable manure which may well be contaminated with chemicals like weedkillers or worm-destroying veterinary 'worming' medicines. In the first year, you could either uncover just a small patch, or grow stuff in large boxes or containers on top of the weed-suppressing mulch - that's how I started in my first garden 43 years ago.  Start off with just a few lettuce plants if you can get them - they'll give you faster results and sopmething to pick quickly to spur you on.  But most garden centres won't have them until March - so buy some really cheap 'value' seed like lettuce mixes, or oriental salad mixes, Claytonia etc (see my what to sow list) (non-F1 hybrid seed is cheaper and often more reliable as they are older, more commonly grown varieties).

 

One thing I would never advise is trying to save money on compost - this is where your growing budget is best invested!  Buy the best quality organic peat-free seed compost you can get.  This will last well if you keep it in a dry place or you could also share a bag with a friend. Buy some organic peat-free potting compost at the same time. Why do you need that? Because it has more nutrients than seed compost and will either be suitable for growing plants to maturity, or for potting them on into larger pots until conditions are suitable for planting either outside or in a polytunnel.

 

Don't buy expensive seed trays and pots - save money, recycle and ask friends to save for you - soon you'll be inundated! Ask for mayonnaise or coleslaw tubs at supermarket or local shop deli counters - they always have them as they buy that stuff in and then just throw them into the plastic reycling bin when empty.  They'll save you loads of money, make great growing tubs after you put drainage holes in them, they're free and last years if you keep them out of the light when not using them, as light makes the plastic brittle. Some of mine have often lasted for over 30 years!

 

Start to grow your own nutrients. Make some worm compost - feed worms instead of feeding your council food and garden waste bin!  It's much less hard work as the worms do it for you - then all you have to do is put food waste in and magically get the best super-charged compost out!  Worms turn food waste into wonderful stuff, which doesn't smell, and which is high in nutrients and important beneficial enzymes and microbes.  Making one is a very easy project for cold days.  You could get a suitable bin in the Jan sales - or perhaps you may have something suitable already which you could re-purpose?  Here's a link to my 'How to make your own worm' bin article: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/537-how-to-easily-make-an-affordable-home-wormery

 

Grow some 'extra early' potatoes for Easter.

 
 
Well sprouted Annabelle being planted in a 2 litre pot for an extra early potato cropPlanting well-sprouted seed potatoes in pots 
 
 
A really easy project for first time gardeners and a really useful one for more experienced ones is to plant some sprouted seed potatoes in pot inside in the next week or so, for a super-early crop.  This is the time when I start off my 'extra earlies' as I call them. They won’t need heat or light yet, as they won’t be up for two or three weeks, so you can start them off anywhere that’s basically frost free - and mouse proof!  I usually do some under my large kitchen table, and in the past often in the spare bedroom!  They won't need light until the tops emerge, but when they do - then move them into your greenhouse or polytunnel and sit the pots on polythene or some other hard surface, not on soil or anything which they could root into, as the roots will come out of the bottom surprisingly quickly and root into whatever’s underneath - which will cause root disturbance later on when you lift the pots to plant them. They hate this and will sulk for ages if that happens! For the same reason use a good fibrous, peat-free organic potting compost to pot them in - not soil.  Compost will hold together much better when tipping out of the pot to plan out - whereas soil would probably fall apart. Just put one seed potato in the middle of each 2 litre pot of compost about two-thirds of the way down the pot - and cover it with compost up to the top. Do this before the end of this month and first-early varieties should be ready for Easter. They only need roughly 10 weeks growing time to have baby new potatoes ready to eat. Lady Christl is the very best variety for doing this as it's the earliest bulking variety and can produce usable sized potatoes after just 8 weeks! I always save my own seed tubers from the previous year - but Lady Christl is widely available now.
 
 
If you don't have any of your own early potato tubers saved from last year - then you could look around in veg shops or supermarkets for any suitable first or second early variety which would have stored from last year - but make sure they're organic - as I've already explained above! Take them out of the packs when you get them home or they'll sweat. Put them somewhere warm and dark (important as they'll start to sprout much quicker that way) like a box under the kitchen table for instance, and then in a week or so they will be well sprouted and you can plant them. Annabelle or Charlotte are very good salad potatoes which are quite happy to be grown this way,. I've seen them all in the shops just recently. When the tops have emerged from the compost, then put them somewhere in good light - like a polytunnel, or if you haven't got one - a cold frame - and cover with lots of fleece whenever it's very cold to prevent frost damage, uncovering if possible during the day if it's mild enough. In case you think this is a lot of faffing around - you'll be so glad you did it, when you proudly serve your very own new potatoes at Easter!  If you can keep frost from damaging them - you can get really great crops before blight hits in a polytunnel.
 
 
Extra Early potatoes 'Lady Christl' & 'Mayan Gold'. Harvested 30th April.Extra Early potatoes 'Lady Christl' & 'Mayan Gold'. Harvested late April.
 
This is usually the month when your stocks of stored main crop potatoes may begin to run low - unless you grew acres of them. If you need some inspiration, then just think of new potatoes, with lashings of butter, in mid-April - yum!  OK - so they're quite high in carbohydrates - but you can reduce their carbs and turn them into what's known as 'resistant starch' by cooking and then chilling them for at least 8 hours in the fridge, then reheating using whatever method you like. Doing this can reduce their carbohydrate content by up to 50% and make them more gut-healthy. But anyway - if you're not living on them all the time they can't do you any harm occasionally! They're also nutritious and the resistant starch encourages the good bacteria in your gut to multiply, which is good for your immune system too. If you're still worried about carbs, then just cut back on them in other areas of your diet so you can enjoy some new potatoes - they're one of life's great pleasures! I'd rather have them than sugar in my tea any day - and we rarely eat cakes or biscuits here, as healthy veg always come first!
 
 
Purple potatoes are one of my obsessions - I just love their deliciously nutty, 'baked potato' taste and the fact that they are higher in gut-healthy antioxidant polyphenol phytonutrients which have many health benefits, like lowering blood-pressure and even blood sugar.  There are more varieties of these great potatoes becoming available now to home gardeners, and different varieties can often be found in farmers markets too. They are an unusual and tasty alternative to the more ubiquitous white or yellow-fleshed varieties, and they're becoming increasingly popular with celebrity chefs for their stunning looks. I've grown many varieties of them since first discovering them 35 years ago.
 
 
They're grown in exactly the same way as any other potatoes, but one thing which is very important is to ensure that purple potatoes are well 'earthed-up'. This is to prevent any tuber 'greening' from light reaching the tubers and causing areas of the toxic and indigestible phytochemical solanin developing, as this is very difficult to see on a dark purple tuber. 
 
 
There are several good varieties available now - Violetta, Salad Blue and Purple Majesty are three of the best that I have grown and these are generally available online.  A new German variety, which I'm very excited about and can't wait to try, is listed this year by Fruit Hill Farm down in Bantry, Co. Cork and there's a link to the web page here:  https://www.fruithillfarm.com/seeds-and-propagation/organic-seed-potatoes/gourmet-potatoes/blaue-anneliese-organic-seed-potatoes.html

 

 

 

At the moment - there isn't very much that can usefully be done outside 

 

Now is the time to get on with inside jobs while you have the spare time - because there won't be too much of that come March!  If you try to do anything that involves walking on your garden soil - you will actually be doing more harm than good by compacting and squashing the air out of it. If you have heavy clay like mine - when it dries out it will turn into concrete! I've often been tempted to make bricks or a cobb house out of it - and I have in fact made small pots just to prove it!

 

The well-known rule with winter soil is - if it sticks to your boots or if you sink into it - then it's far too wet to work - so stay off it! Get on with some jobs you can do inside in the warm instead, like getting all your seed sowing kit ready, cleaning seed trays and pots, and ordering the last of your seeds if you haven't already done that - this will be a real help when the spring rush of jobs arrives! It's closer than you think - so it's really time to get on the starting blocks and be ready for action! So keep to the paths if you need to do things! If you're growing in the traditional way on the flat - and you have to step onto the soil to harvest things like brassicas (cabbage family) and leeks - then get a wide plank to walk on in order to spread your weight a bit. This will minimize damage to the soil as far as possible. If you grow in raised beds - as I do - they're great because you can always work from the path without compacting soil at all. This is far better for all the soil life that actually needs air too. Raised beds are also a lot easier on the back, which does make life easier at this time of year.

 

 

Why spend time NOW making a cropping plan?

 

A few months ago someone asked me - "if I could come up with a suggested rotation and cropping plan" for early in the New Year, but this is really something you just have to work out for yourself, other than the usual rule of not growing any one plant family in the same place more than once in 4 years. The main reason for that is to prevent pests and diseases or nutrient deficiencies building up. It's impossible for me to suggest cropping plans and rotations, as I don't know what you like to eat or what quantities you may need of any particular vegetable all year round. The basic four course rotation would be potatoes, peas and beans, brassicas, and then roots along with any others like cucurbits (marrows, courgettes and pumpkins) or onion family (leeks, scallions etc.). In practice it's almost always a longer rotation if you only have 4 beds - so 6 beds or more to accommodate the different plant families is probably more realistic. Growing lots of different varieties of veg is a good idea - 1. because it prevents you losing everything if a disease or pest strikes that particular crop.  2. because all the latest research shows that the more variety of plant foods we eat - the healthier our gut microbes are. 3. Obvious! It stops you getting bored and having massive gluts that you can't eat or process for preserving all at once!

 
 
Planning also helps to give you an idea of how much seed you may need - so it's another job worth spending an hour or two on now. A minimum four-course rotation in the vegetable garden is vital in order to avoid the build up of pests and diseases, depletion of nutrients and also to improve soil . If you do a 'scale' plan of your veg plot on graph paper - doing that will also give you a rough idea of how much seed you will need for the amount of any particular crop you want to grow. This may seem a bit 'OCD' to some people, but it's actually very useful. If you only do it once really well, then you'll never have to do it in this detailed way again, as you can just look at it each year and simply move your crops around within the same rotation. Most seed packets will give you a rough idea of how much seed you will need per so many feet or metres of row, although I find they usually tend to overestimate how much you'll need - naturally - as they want to sell seed!  And of course they also say "sow the seed into the ground......and then thin....." (thereby wasting seed!) Many beginners take this as gospel - sowing ALL the seed in a row - which often then gets wiped out by slugs before the gardener even got to see the seed leaves emerging!
 
 
As I sow most of my stuff in modules of peat-free compost now, I find I need far less seed of most things - particularly lettuces etc.  This is because I rarely lose anything to slugs or weather, as seedlings aren't planted out until they're big enough to be far more resistant to the odd nibble from any pests. The spacing for peas and beans do actually work out roughly the same as that mentioned on the packets. I love looking back over all the plans I've made over the years, and remembering particular crops I grew. I have most of my plans going back to the beginning of this garden here over 35 years ago now, along with a huge master plan of the entire garden. Dreams on paper! - Some happened - one or two others didn't. Trying to replicate the large garden where I grew up (as someone once said I was doing) was never really going to happen without extra help - but I've loved trying to nevertheless!  Many disasters happened when I was just learning - but many successes too. The successes always spurred me on each year to do better. Experience is the best teacher - and it's very true that you always learn far more from your mistakes!
 
 

Seed orders are the main priority right now

 
If you haven't already done your seed orders - before you order any, just take an hour or so to organise your existing stock. Then you will know exactly what you already have and what you need more of.  I’ve tried several methods over the years - but the one I find best is to put them into a sort of filing system - sorting them into groups: roots, brassicas, peas and beans, spinach, lettuces, salad mixes and oriental leaves, tomatoes and aubergines, squashes and pumpkins, herbs, lettuces, other miscellaneous etc. - in a similar way to how you would plan your rotations. I stand them up in large recycled fruit punnets or deep plastic meat containers, with a large cardboard label at the front of each punnet. This keeps them all together and makes each vegetable group or packet of seeds easy to find quickly.  
 
When you've organised your seeds - you can then get on with ordering those you need as quickly as possible - many of the new or popular varieties will sell out quickly. Definitely do it by the end of this month if you don't want to be disappointed. Many of the seed companies also give a discounts for ordering early. Having my seeds organised in the way I've described is something I've found really useful over the years as it means I can keep checking my stock of seeds as I'm ordering. This stops me either duplicating or ordering too much. If you're anything like me, the seed catalogues all end up dog eared and marked everywhere with all the things I'd like to try. I then go through what I've already got - and after a major reality check (I don't have three gardeners - only me!) I then probably only order half or less of what I've actually marked in the catalogue. If I don't do this - and order online instead - I end up ordering far too much! Do compare prices too - it's amazing the huge variations for exactly the seeds in different catalogues. It's definitely well worth making the effort in these cost conscious days - and this month you have time to shop around!  Order your seed potatoes too - then you can get them well-sprouted which gives them more of a head start when planting.   
 
 
 
Colourful Oca tubersWhy not try growing Oca this year? 
 
Colourful oca tubers like the ones pictured here are available from Real Seeds now - but as they're always in short supply - order as soon as possible. They're a deliciously different member of the sorrel family - sort of 'lemony/artichokey' flavoured - and a good occasional potato alternative with fish and no problems other than rather ambitious territorial tendencies. They make a nice clump of the large tubers you can see pictured here. They also form masses of small tubers wherever the stems touch the ground - so just like Jerusalem artichokes - once you have them, believe me you'll always have them! I can't understand why they're apparently so rare, I have to weed them out in my veg garden now! I grew them a few years ago as a 'break crop' in the tunnel rotations and they really enjoyed it in there. I'm now weeding them out all the time in there too - but I can usually dig them up and give them away to grateful recipients!  As they don't really tend to bulk up their tubers in late autumn though - it's best to grow them where they can be easily protected from frost. They're not too fond of containers either - they're much happier in the ground like most things. Although having said that - last year I tried planting them at the bottom of a container and then earthing them up as they grew. As they seem to form their tubers along subsequent stems - this worked well. 
 
 
Oca leaves are pretty in salads but use sparingly
 

One thing I haven't seen mentioned in any magazine articles or books though, is the fact that being a member of the sorrel family, they are actually quite high in oxalic acid - which accounts for the sharp lemony flavour of both the tubers and the pretty clover shaped leaves pictured here, which can also be used sparingly in salads. So rather than eating them daily, it's best to have them as an occasional treat, or you might end up with kidney stones if you're susceptible! There is some research currently being done into low oxalic acid varieties - but at the moment I definitely wouldn't think of them as a suitable everyday alternative to potatoes! We don't need to eat potatoes everyday either. There are plenty of lower carbohydrate alternatives that are equally as delicious - Jerusalem artichokes for one - which are incredibly healthy for your gut - being full of prebiotic Inulin which feeds your gut microbes and encourages them to multiply.

 

 

Another job to do now is to organise your seed sowing equipment. 

 

Doing this while you have plenty of time is really useful and will pay off in terms of both time and money saved later.  As you're filling your recycling bin - have a look to see what could possibly be used as seed trays, pots, seed labels etc. - you'll be amazed at how much money you can save. There are very few things normally regarded as 'waste' that can't be made use of for another job. It's far better than continually buying everything new which uses carbon intensive and increasingly scarce resources. I always have huge bags full of various plastic containers like yogurt or cream cartons - particularly those large 500g sized yogurt pots which are great for sowing peas and beans in. They save a lot of money as you don't have to buy expensive pots from garden or DIY shops. If you're careful and keep them in the dark when not in use so they don't degrade in the light - you can use them for years. I've still got some from a brand of yogurt my late mother used to like - and she passed away 17 years ago!  If you need module trays, you can buy large amounts  of different sizes in farm or horticultural growers supply shops in most areas. They will often split them and tape together lots of a dozen or so too, as they know that home gardeners are a growing market. The most useful size I think is the small tray of 12 x 1in/2-3cm modules. I sow most leafy things direct into these and they stay in those until planting-out time. I bought a huge box of 200 years ago, as that's the only way I could buy them at the time! They've actually made great presents for gardening friends - perhaps along with some precious, home-saved seed of a rare variety of something. Loo rolls of course make great long modules for things like sweet peas and even carrots or parsnips. I start off my early ones in these every year, as the soil is never warm enough for their germination at the end of January or early February, and you can plant out nice neat rows when the time comes - which is very satisfying..
 
 

Recycling saves money, and avoids plastic waste. 

 
And that means more money to spend on seeds! I have to make a confession here! - I AM that odd person who sidles up to strangers in garden centres and DIY shops just as they're looking at things like expensive biodegradable peat pots - suggesting that they don't waste their money on something that will only be of use once and encourages the destruction of our priceless, carbon-capturing bogs!  I have to say the reaction is always good - I've never been told to mind my own business, but there will no doubt be a first time one of these days!!  After all - who is averse to saving a bit of money - particularly at this time of year?  I've actually made one or two really good friends that way too - gardeners are usually very friendly folk and naturally have a lot in common to chat about.
 
 
A useful thing that you can buy from The Organic Gardening Catalogue UK (Garden Organic) and use for years is a small wooden paper 'pot former' in two sizes. These enable you to make your own biodegradable pots from old newspapers. It's quite fiddly and time consuming though - a bit like the gardener's equivalent of Origami - fun but not strictly necessary if like me - you've already got lots of recycled containers. Kids enjoy doing it though - and it's a good way to get them into gardening - which is never a bad thing!  I also recycle any plastic containers which could be useful for growing things - they can last for years if you store them away from light when not in use.  I'm still actually using recycled yogurt pots of a brand that my late Mother used to buy regularly, who passed away almost 17 years ago now. I have also been recycling many other plastic pots for over 30 years. The trick to getting them to last a long time is to keep them clean and out of the light when not in use. If occasionally one splits then it doesn't get thrown out - it's used as a sleeve inside another split one - making one strong, usable pot and avoiding more plastic waste. I still have some of the standard 2 and 3 litre pots which I got from a garden designer friend over 30 years ago!  I raise my early potatoes in them every year as well as many other things, they're such a useful size.
 
 

A home made cold frame is useful if you don't have a greenhouse or polytunnel

 
 
Plan of my home made grow frameSpeaking of recycling reminded me of this. If you don't a cold frame - you can easily make one using 2"x 4" rough timber and clear polythene sheeting obtainable pretty cheaply from builders merchants or DIY shops, or even from skips if you're like me!  A home-made cold-frame can be made a lot higher than those normally available and then it allows you to grow taller summer crops which need protection too - like bush tomatoes and peppers etc. It's amazing the perfectly good stuff you see being chucked out when people are doing up their houses - my car is trained to automatically slow up on sighting a skip! They even wastefully throw away perfectly good windows and patio doors - ideal for sitting on bricks to make extra growing space!  A friend of mine has made a whole greenhouse using old shower doors from people re-vamping apartments in Dublin. As she has a back problem ,ike me - she's also made some raised beds from old bathtubs from the same source. It does help that she has a son who works in the building trade though - and not everyone has that advantage! If you ask nicely and don't cause a mess - most people are often only too happy to give stuff away as it makes more room in the skip! And a nice pot plant or a few veg later in the year doesn't go amiss either!
 
 
I made my very first large 'grow frame' - as I called it - by recycling some timber laths I'd found dumped. It lasted for 5 years until we moved and my 'other half' flatly refused to bring it with us, as I had accumulated so much other 'plant stuff'!!  (I suppose it was falling apart a bit - it was made from recycled timber after all - and believe me I'm no carpenter!) And I suppose after moving about three lorry loads of plants - as opposed to only one of furniture - it was probably just about understandable, although I really hate waste!! That scruffy old cold frame made from 'skip-found' bits and pieces allowed me to grow my very first tomatoes, peppers and aubergines (the best ever) against a south-facing wall in my first garden - and I learnt such a lot from growing in it!  Sadly I don't have any photos from those days - I was far too busy raising very lively toddlers to think about such things in the pre-digital age - but I hope the diagram gives you an idea of how it was made! Even with polytunnels now - I still find a cold frame or two a very useful 'halfway-house', for hardening-off plants before they are planted out in the open garden.
  
 

Firm in and stake Brassica plants

 
 
Another thing to check after all the wind we've had is brassica crops. Firm in - and stake if necessary - any which may have suffered from wind rock in the wet soil - and also keep them well protected from birds with some netting suspended above plants. The pheasants and pigeons here are getting very hungry and were using the netting like a trampoline before Christmas in order to weigh it down and peck at the Brussels sprouts through the top. I think it's definitely time for a few roast pheasant dinners! The remaining Brussels sprouts would complement them nicely and I'd really enjoy them - given the damage they do if given half a chance!
 
 

Keep veg beds covered if they don't currently have a crop in them

 
For over 40 years now, I've practised what I call  'min-dig' - or minimum cultivation gardening, in raised beds. I don't call it 'no-dig' - because actually no type of gardening is truly that - you still have to plant things and dig potatoes or other root crops - as I've been saying for 10 years on this blog!  Anyway of necessity, now that my back is deteriorating even more - I do as little work possible to get maximum returns - while at the same time protecting the soil's structure and it's whole ecosystem as far as possible. My useful co-workers are worms - and they do most of the work, and make it easy!  Cultivating soil in this way encourages a healthy, nutrient-rich and vitally alive soil which is the basis of all good organic growing.  
 

I just want to remind you once again that if you leave freshly dug ground uncovered and open to the elements, as some thoughtless people do, our increasingly high winter rainfall will wash out and waste valuable nutrients, causing pollution of ground water, carbon loss and loss of soil biodiversity. It's best to protect the soil and keep it covered either with a growing crop, a weather proof mulch that can't leach nutrients in heavy rain, like wood chips, or a waterproof cover. This is essential at all times in winter when the weather's very wet!  It's important to keep compost heaps covered too - for the same reason. The climate is changing, becoming much more unpredictable and definitely far wetter at certain times. We need to recognise this, be flexible and move with the times - not stick to outdated and old-fashioned modes of thinking from the last century! 

 
Double digging - as recommended in all the old gardening books is also definitely out! I never did it anyway because I've always grown in raised or deep beds, created originally by just piling soil from paths onto beds, and then over the years adding more mulches which protect the soil and add more carbon-fixing humus.  The latest soil science shows that digging breaks up important fungal threads, disturbs and buries all the vital microbial soil life much too deeply - almost like suffocating or drowning them - so it can take years to recover.  Soil life needs light and air too - and it's vital for growing healthy crops as it makes the nutrients in the soil available to plants. If you need better drainage - then just make raised beds like me - you'll find they're much less work too!  
 
 

As I always say, look after Nature - and Nature will look after you!

 
Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. Thank you.

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