The Polytunnel Potager in January - 2020

January main contents:  It's NEVER been more important to either grow some organic food, or support organic farming!... Clean air, water and living soil are precious....There's always lots of healthy food in a well-planted polytunnel....  Growing anything well is about care and attention to detail.....  One of the commonest complaints I hear is "my children won't eat vegetables"!.....Time to plant some 'extra early ' potatoes in pots in mid January.....Use it or lose it! Making use of every inch of soil is what Nature does!.....Rotational thinking.....Don't have empty, uncovered ground now either outside or in the tunnel.....Get your worms working for you! 
 
 The selection of winter salads available on New Year's Day is a cheerful sight
The selection of winter salads available on New Year's Day is a cheerful sight
 
It's NEVER been more important to either grow some organic food, or support organic farming!
 
 
First I want to wish you all a very happy new growing year, I know that many of my readers have found my blog through social media, and it's a way to spread positive information on organic gardening and farming which I believe, and many experts say, is the only way forward for a healthy planet.  Social media has many good aspects but also has its downsides. Recently I've been subjected to a lot of Twitter attacks for my steadfast belief that organic gardening and farming are the only truly sustainable ways to grow food.  This is because it doesn't use any fossil fuel-derived fertilisers and pesticides - which don't just harm our health, but also destroy soil and biodiversity, and accelerate climate change by harming the soil microbes which help to draw down carbon from the atmosphere, and fix it in the soil, thereby mitigating climate change. Synthetic chemicals are hugely damaging, not just to the entire environment and to our health generally - but most importantly, they are devastating to the vital biodiversity, both above and below ground, which we depend on to produce healthy plants and therefore healthy food, and also to regulate our climate.  I dislike arguments and find the constant bullying attacks unpleasant and extremely stressful, but I won't back down on defending organic farming and growing, and standing up for Nature, because if we don't support organic farming - it will gradually be undermined under the strength of these assaults. There is an ongoing disinformation campaigns about chemicals being used on organic food (rubbish), and lobbying of global governments by the hugely powerful global agro-chemical giants who want to control our entire food system, even the seeds from which we grow our food.  They're not philanthropists!  Their aim is not to feed the world - which they declare is their objective.  It's money and power that drives them. During my 40 years of promoting organic farming as the only sustainable and planet-friendly way to grow, experience has taught me that the more the vested interests of the global agriculture and food giants feel threatened, the more they step up their attacks. 
 
 
These attacks even reached the ridiculous point recently where one scientist who supports the growing of genetically-engineered crops and chemical agriculture even attacked me on the basis that I grow vegetables in polytunnels, saying that I could hardly claim it was a natural way to grow!  I think most of my readers would have fallen about laughing at that daft accusation - just as I did!  Especially those who have seen my polytunnels, which look more like a wild nature reserve than a garden, and are full of birds, insects, bees, frogs etc. just as wild places should be.  Surely giving a wide variety range of annual and perennial plants shelter, protecting precious soil, and providing habitat for the broad range of associated biodiversity, all living in such an ecologically balanced growing area as my polytunnel, is natural?  Or did I miss something?  After all - it's precisely what Nature does in any natural habitat.  
 
 
I don't grow in rows with sanitised barren soil in between - everything is mixed up and to some conventional 'control-freak' gardener's eyes - a complete mess!  But mixing things up in that integrated way has a purpose - Nature designed everything to work together like that - with each plant finding a niche wherever suits it best. Truly everything is connected, and the further away farming and growing become from the way that Nature designed things to grow, the more unhealthy not just our food - but also everything else on our planet is becoming. Would the (un-)learned professor prefer that instead of growing in polytunnels or greenhouses, we increase transportation emissions by importing chemically-grown produce that grows better outside in hotter countries like Kenya?  Transportation either by air or sea, is one of the major problems with the global food system which at the moment is contributing hugely to global warming. It's not just agri-chemicals like pesticides and nitrogen fertiliser which are accelerating climate change, but also transportation, and also the huge amount of food wasted after production, in storage and even in people's homes - which the UN estimates to be almost 40% of all food currently produced globally. Most of this then goes into landfill and produces methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
 
 
It doesn't matter what aspect of Nature you examine - air, water or soil - fossil fuel-derived chemical use for growing vast monocrops is increasingly damaging all of those things.  Since the process of making nitrogen was invented in the early 20th century, chemical farming has been progressively destroying soil - which is the second biggest carbon sink on the planet after the oceans.  A good example of that was the American 'Dustbowl' of the 1930s - where soil literally just blew away, and it's still happening!  Soil erosion is now a huge problem globally, with some estimates suggesting we have only 60 years of usable soil left. Mined mineral phosphorus used for fertiliser, and also for making pesticides, is increasingly running off fields which are degraded of water-retaining soil carbon due to continual use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, and is now polluting water courses like lakes and rivers and then eventually the sea, creating algal blooms which kill all the life in them. 
 
 
Clean air, water and living soil are precious, because we and every other organism on the planet, from the smallest microbe to the largest animal or plant, totally depend on them for life. Damaging any aspect of the Nature  which we are part of, means that we are being damaged too.  But the good news is that we can all do something about it.  Organic regenerative farming, which restores carbon back to soils where it should be, could reverse all these problems.  Even if we don't have a garden we could still support organic, seasonal and local, peat-free gardening and farming, and by doing that we would be helping to reduce the impact of our food system on all life on this planet. It doesn't matter how small you think the reduction of your impact may be - when they're all added together our accumulated actions could all add up to a far better future for our children and for Nature. Whether we have a farm, just a garden or none - we can still make a difference if we farm, garden, olr purchase food grown in a way that encourages and supports nature - rather than destroying it.
 
 
This year will mark the 10th anniversary of my blog
 
The last ten years have flown! I want to thank those of you who have been with me from the beginning and also to welcome new readers. I hope you will all find some useful information here to help you to grow some healthy food for yourself and for nature. Some of you may have noticed that I write this blog in a different way to most bloggers. I write four blog posts for each month, for each section of the garden, repeating some of my advice from year to year, updating it as and when necessary, adding new material from both my own experiments and also from any useful science, but not constantly writing completely new articles, so that you have to search through years of archive stuff to find the information you need for that month.  I like to do it in this different way to most people, because years ago I found that was the most useful way for me to access relevant and useful information for any particular month.  I used to collect the monthly 'to-do' pages from Amateur Gardening and Popular Gardening - which were the most poplular gardening mags then - although they weren't organic. I used to be horrified at some of the chemicals that they suggested we use!  The other reason I write my blog like this is that there's no point in re-writing the same advice over and over again just in a different way - because the basic tenets of truly sustainable, chemical-free organic gardening, organic growing on a larger scale, or even organic farming, have never really changed in all of the thousands of years that man has been growing food! 
 
 
 
Whatever the weather - there's always lots of healthy food in a well-planted polytunnel - especially winter salads!   
 
 
It's so good to be looking forward to another spring - now only just a couple of months away. The more the days lengthen - the more quickly things will start to grow now - especially the salads. My New Year salads pictured above with just one example of each ingredient which I can pick right now - shows just how much you can grow even in winter in a polytunnel.  Despite the really cold weather over the last few weeks - we're able to pick plenty of salad veg from the polytunnel every day - and oddly enough I seem to crave healthy salads even more in winter!  They do say we should listen to our gut feeling - and mine is telling me that I need salads, especially watercress, every day! We need all the protective antioxidant phytochemicals in raw salad leaves even more at this time of year - so I'll be starting more early sowings of more salad leaves in the next week or so (see 'What to Sow Now - Jan.) 
 
  
I look forward to picking a different salad for lunch every day no matter what the time of year. The content varies depending on what I happen feel like - I go out into the tunnel or garden and just sort of 'dowse' instinctively. Watercress is always one of my favourites. It's so versatile and hardy, grows like mad even in winter and takes only two minutes to pick a few of the abundant tender shoot tips for all manner of fast and delicious dishes. Picking the shoot tips along with the first 2 or 3 leaf joints and leaves is the secret of keeping it producing well for months. This prevents it from flowering and keeps it making succulent new side shoots, as long as you keep the soil it's growing in fairly damp too. It gets a really good 'haircut' every so often all around the edges of the bed as it starts to grow out very enthusiastically into the paths. It makes a delicious soup if you have plenty - especially accompanied by some home-made crusty wholemeal spelt bread. (Soup recipe in that section of blog). It's great tossed into just cooked pasta along with blue cheese or anything else you fancy, in my low-carb wraps (again in the recipe section) or just as it is in all sorts of salads. It also freezes very well - so you can have it for sauces and soups all year round. It's so expensive to buy in shops if you can get it packaged alone - and even when you can find it - it's often 3 days old and already going slimy! It's as easy as falling off a log to grow from seed, or cuttings, and is happy all year round in a damp shady spot in the tunnel, or outside under cloches even in winter. That's a spot where very few crops will grow well.
 
 

There's just nothing like those juicy, fresh green shoots of the watercress and all the other salads, urgently pushing up towards the light, to rekindle that eternal gardener's optimism at this time of year. There's also nothing like them to keep winter colds at bay either! Just now I'm looking forward to yet another lunch of the Organic Blue cheese, pear and watercress salad that I did for one of our Tunnel to Table programmes - I just can't get enough of it at the moment and eat it almost every day as it's so delicious and nutritious! The peppery nutrient-rich leaves of watercress combine so well with anything though - and my walnut, avocado oil, cider vinegar and honey dressing is the perfect complement drizzled over it!  Watercress is so easy, yummy and chock-full of healthy, cancer-fighting phytochemicals!  Watercress is a truly perennial herb. In the summer when the polytunnel would be too hot for it - I pull up a few roots to grow outside in a shady damp spot - then in the autumn I just take cuttings of those to plant again in a new spot in the polytunnel. Remember if you grow it though - that it's a member of the brassica family and must go in that section of your rotation, wherever you grow it. The only pest that attacks it is the cabbage white butterfly - whose eggs are hard to spot on watercress and one often doesn't notice them until the entire plant has been defoliated and only stems are left! So keeping it covered with fine netting in summer will prevent this and also give it a bit more of the shade it appreciates.

 
 
Growing anything well is about care and attention to detail
 
 
Whether you're growing livestock or plants it's no different in that respect.  My Polytunnel Potager often grows meat, eggs and more than two veg - undercover mixed micro-farming if you like!  Last winter 2018/19,  I decided to raise some of my own chickens and laying hens from day old chicks once again - a bit earlier than normal though, as I usually would do that in the middle of March if I need replacement laying hens, as I mentioned last month - where I also explained the reason why I was rearing both laying hens and chickens for meat together, which is unusual with hybrid hens reared for commercial flocks, but which I decided to try doing for ethical reasons.  Normally if one keeps backyard poultry, the chicks are often raised by a mother hen probably from her own fertilised eggs, and would all grow up together naturally. But I can no longer keep poultry unprotected in the yard here due to a problem with foxes - encouraged by rubbish dumped in our roadside ditches from local takeaways!  The other problem is that pure breed hens don't lay enough eggs for us all year round either - so hence I decided to rear my own. The supersize duplex dog crates which provided their temporary nursery in the polytunnel, were pretty well-insulated with all the bubble wrap and cardboard which I never throw away as it's so useful - but there was still a very small amount of residual heat on top, which kept that area just frost-free, so I decided to "kill two birds with one stone" (sorry!) - so to speak and sow some veg a month earlier than usual on the 12th of December to be exact.They did really well and although a stretching for light or 'etiolated' a little more than usual due to the lowest midwinter light - they grew on really well and none 'damped off' with disease despite being multi-sown so early in modules. I put that down to the wonderful Klassman organic peat-free seed compost which is perfect for seedlings - providing a far more natural growing environment than any peat compost with added chemicals ever possibly could!  Providing a dry surrounding atmosphere for seedlings also helps to avoid damping off, something that people often forget when raising them in very humid propagators.
 
 
Growing anything well is all about care and attention to detail - and rearing chickens for eating and hens for laying requires even more than plants - but they are so worth it. They need checking every couple of hours through the day for the first few weeks, especially in the first few days when they are little more than tiny scraps of fluff! If well looked-after though they grow astonishingly fast. This lot really seemed to grow even faster than usual and clearly enjoyed the shelter in the polytunnel with all the green food they were fed from day 2.  When they outgrew their nursery run area on one of the raised beds where they learned to forage, finding their first worms and beetles,  they were then ready to go outside for even more adventures!  They grew into wonderful laying hens, and also very tasty chickens - the last of which is still n the freezer, awaiting my daughter's next visit! They really taste so different to normal, even organic chickens - more like game really.  Leaner with longer legs and narrower bodies, but the flavour was indescribable!
 
 
Although at times a self-sufficient life can be time-consuming - it is very rewarding and something I've always done. I could never get food more local, seasonal or organic than what I grow in my own back yard! That's what a real 'potager' is all about - it's not a purely ornamental garden like a parterre which looks perfectly-groomed all year round, it's really a French name for a decorative, but all mixed up cottage or artisan-type garden that produces food and flowers for the household all year round.
 
 
1. North West beds 2. North East
3. South West 4. South East
 
Above is a New Year's Day picture of my main beds showing the wide range of winter crops available. 
 
 
My polytunnel potager isn't a show garden - it is never 'prepared' to be photographed specially for the website or for a magazine. I like people to see that it's a genuinely REAL garden, weeds  warts and all - gardened by a person who lives a very busy REAL life!  It can often even look quite scruffy - but I really think it can put people off gardening if they think everything always has to be pristine and perfect. Nature doesn't do tidy and pristine - although for me it's always perfect! Apart from growing most of my own food - I'm also a writer and recipe developer - always experimenting and inventing new ways of cooking the real foods which I grow (which my family certainly seem to appreciate!). I'm an occasional portrait sculptor too when I have time - if I'm asked to do an interesting commission.  (That's probably just another slightly different way of getting my hands dirty while working with clay really - something that I've always loved ever since childhood, having been brought up in a garden on heavy clay, where making small pots is one of my earliest memories of working with soil!)  Anyway - as a result of leading a very busy life - one of the best things about having a polytunnel for me is that it allows me to work whenever I have the time.  I'm not restricted by the weather, because the soil is always in exactly the condition that I want it to be and as I also have an electricity supply there - so I could even work in the dark if I really wanted to - but rarely do anything other than dash out to cover something with fleece after dark, if the late weather forecast suddenly changes and predicts frost!! 
 
  
I try to make my polytunnel as near as possible a microcosm of the things that you would naturally find in an outside garden - just undercover - with the same diversity and balanced ecology that you would find in any organic garden.  I have as wide variety as possible of healthy, chemical-free food and flowers not just for us but also for the vital diversity of wildlife like bees, butterflies, birds, frogs etc that help to do Nature's work all year round. As a result - it produces plenty of organic, peat-free, seasonal REAL food in every month of the year - not just in summer - without using any chemical pesticides whatsoever - even any of the natural ones that may be allowed under some organic certification. Over the last 40 years or so I've always found that observing how Nature grows things and trying to mimic those conditions as far as possible, is the best way to grow food that is healthier for us and the environment. I've never needed to use any sprays at all - even the garlic ones I see so often advised by some gardeners. Nature doesn't spray things with garlic!! It doesn't add anything to soil but plant remains - with occasional accidental fertilisation from animals. Obviously if we take crops from soil we have to replace any nutrients we take away by using compost - but it seems to me that often the hardest thing for so many people who are starting to learn about organic gardening is just accepting that Nature actually knows best - not man! People have been so completely brainwashed into thinking that a spray or a quick fix is needed for everything immediately they see it - that they often don't have the patience to just wait and trust that Nature will deal with pest problems - given a healthy soil and the right conditions for her predatory army! 
 
 
 
The polytunnel helps us to be self-sufficient in a wide variety of not just winter salads but also other crops - such as chards, chicory, calabrese, watercress, kales, spinach and herbs like parsley which can be picked daily, despite the cold temperatures. This is the time of year when a polytunnel really proves it's worth - quite apart from the fabulous summer crops it obviously grows. Looking around the shops at the moment - they are almost completely empty of any decent organic vegetables apart from root crops - not just because it's the New Year but also because of the dreadful weather throughout Europe and further afield, where increasingly, many of the imported organic crops that supermarkets sell are now grown. Although many of the winter crops I grow could in theory be produced outside in our vegetable garden - they are much more reliable in a polytunnel and consistently produce far bigger crops, due to the protection from the elements like storms and very heavy rain. Unfortunately these weather conditions are an increasing problem due to the unpredictable weather patterns that are happening more frequently due to climate change. Why do I insist on growing peat-free compost is something people often ask? Apart from the fact that none of the major vegetable crops we eat actually evolved to grow in peat - using peat destroys peat bogs which are vitally important carbon sinks and host valuable biodiversity. Extracting peat from them releases millions of years of stored carbon - which rapidly accelerates climate change! The rise in peat use originally coincided with the rise in container-grown plants being sold in garden centres and online nurseries etc. because it's much lighter than soil. As it's easier to handle than soil based composts - it facilitates the horticulture industry, who are reluctant to stop using it - despite the huge amount of scientific evidence that doing so is incredible damaging for the environment, causing not just carbon release but also pollution and flooding. The only crops that humans ea, which evolved to grow in the naturally acid conditions of peat bogs, are some fruits like blueberries and cranberries, that like a low soil pH. Being an unnatural medium for most crops - the sterile peat needs chemical fertilisers added to feed the plants. This then of course means that plants are unhealthy, because peat composts don't provide the additional natural soil diversity that plants need in order to produce the compounds which protect them from pests and diseases. This has the predictable result that the nonsensical and biodiversity-damaging chemical merry-go-round continues....with gardeners then using chemical sprays to get rid of the pests and diseases that the poor plants couldn't deal with! 
 
 
Apart from all those very good reasons why I love my organic, very biodiverse polytunnel - it's really also my personal Narnia.  It's a natural space where in winter, when things are a bit more slow and relaxed, I can enjoy just sitting or pottering, observing nature and getting my hands dirty!  Somewhere where I can plug into the soil no matter what the weather and where I'm actually earthing myself - which again science is beginning to prove is so important for our mental health - especially if the soil is full of a healthy diversity of microbes and mycorrhizal fungi (did we really need scientists to tell us that?). It's also often a place where I'm also just peacefully thinking - and so often germinating and planting ideas is something that is just as important as sowing or planting plants!
 
  
One of the commonest complaints I hear is "my children won't eat vegetables"
 
 
Well in my experience children tend to follow by example - so they will generally eat whatever you eat!  That's why it's really important that they see their parents enjoying a wide variety of vegetables every day, as mine did. Our meals have always consisted of at least three quarters vegetables and I never had a problem with my kids eating any veg. My daughter had a lot of allergies from birth, so from experience was rightly cautious, if not sometimes downright suspicious, of almost anything new.  If I produced anything she hadn't encountered before - the reaction would most often be an automatic and emphatic "NO".  So I discovered that a bit of reverse psychology worked well there!  To the suspicious "What's THAT?" from her - I would just offhandedly reply - "Oh - that's not for children it's only for the grown-ups!" whereupon she would demand whatever it was immediately or threaten a tantrum!!  One of my oldest friends still recounts with huge amusement the tale of an occasion when she invited my small children to have tea with hers. As she worked full-time, she had gone to enormous trouble to provide some scrumptious goodies from a well known, very upmarket and expensive local French bakery. As usual - my children had been reminded to remember their manners during their visit. When offered a cake - my daughter replied very politely and cautiously - "Oh - no thank you, we don't eat 'bought' cakes"!  Bless her - that still makes us all chuckle - aren't children wonderful!! Getting them involved in growing veg is great too - particularly if they're things like peas and strawberries which they really enjoy and can easily grow for themselves.
 
 
Calabrese broccoli 'Green Magic' - central head ready for cutting Calabrese broccoli 'Green Magic' making nice side shoots after central head cut
Calabrese 'Green Magic' - main head ready for cutting.  'Green Magic' making juicy side shoots after central head cut
 
 
The calabrese 'Green Magic' (Unwins) that I grow is always a big favourite with children - luckily as it's one of the healthiest things they could eat! It's grown really well again in the tunnel as it does every year - the main heads are late this year as it's been a bit colder. They're ready to cut now though. It will come on very well again after cutting as the light improves and will produce lots of small, but very tasty tender shoots for a couple of months before warmer spring weather makes it run to up to flower. I do an autumn sowing every year, and find this variety very reliable. I always cover it at night with a double layer of fleece to protect it from frost and it will go on for ages producing small shoots after the main crop. I really like the flavour of this very productive variety - and I think that the best way to eat it at this time of year is raw with some hummus or an avocado dip which maximises all it's nutrients. It's so crunchy, sweet and delicious when really fresh - far better for you than 'rubbery', several days old, stuff available in shops. Tired because of travelling from Spain or God knows where! Children really love it's sweet flavour. 
 
 
It's important not to overfeed any winter crops with too much rich manure or other feed when planting them in the autumn. In winter there's not enough light for the plants to photosynthesise well enough to turn all the available nitrates into sugars for growth - with the result that they then taste bitter and are also more disease prone. I'm convinced that's why so many people really hate Brussels sprouts and other winter brassicas - especially as too much fertiliser use can be a particular problem with chemically-grown crops. Thirty-five years ago when my children were small, their friends would eat my cabbages and spinach etc. quite happily.  Their parents were always totally astonished - as they wouldn't eat the chemically grown, shop-bought vegetables which hey were offered at home!  In fact that's what got me started on growing organic vegetables commercially. So many of them asked if they could buy my organic produce - which was extremely rare then. I'm convinced that very small children have naturally more discriminating taste buds - perhaps an ancient throwback to when tasting and perhaps spitting out nasty-tasting, potentially poisonous food might have been vital to survival.
 
 
 

Time to plant some 'extra early ' potatoes in pots in mid January

 
 
We really enjoyed the 'Purple Majesty' and 'Violetta' potatoes which I planted in 10lt. pots in early September with our Christmas and New Year meals. They added a lot of colour, phytonutrients and wonderful flavour. Their siblings, along with several other varieties that I saved for planting this Jan and spring are already raring to go - with lovely sprouts on. Several people have told me Purple Majesty seems to be quite difficult to get as seed tubers at the moment.Luckily I always save the most perfect potatoes from my own crops as my own seed for planting the following year. I've been saving them for several years now, originally from potatoes I bought in a supermarket. It's quite legal to do this as long as you don't sell the seed, and it's a great way to pick up new varieties! This avoids possibly bring in diseases and there's also apparently some evidence that they may acclimatise to your particular garden after a couple of years. You should only ever save the very cleanest, most blemish-free seed tubers from the healthiest plants for doing this. I'll be planting some of these and several other earlier cropping varieties in the middle of this month in 2lt. pots, for planting out later in the tunnel. This ensures that I always have some delicious 'extra early potatoes for Easter - whenever that comes in the calendar!
 
 
 
Endives 'Riccia Pancallieri' & 'White Curled' (sown early Sept.)Endives 'Riccia Pancallieri' & 'White Curled' (sown early Sept.)

 

The terrific thing about a tunnel or greenhouse is that it allows you to experiment with many crops that would never do well outside in our climate - and there are also plenty of crops normally grown outdoors here in winter that are so much more productive under cover. Swiss chard and kale are very good examples - and also crops that are never much good outside in average summers here. Melons for example will revel in the tunnel's humid summer warmth and can be really productive. There are far more varieties available now than there were a few years ago. There seem to be a lot more varieties of lettuce suitable for winter growing too - I'm going to trial a few more this year - mostly loose leaf 'picking' varieties as these are the most valuable - giving such a long period of cropping. Although they're as tough as old boots and can recover completely from being frozen to a crisp - endives really enjoy the indoor life too. They're more disease-resistant than most winter lettuce and the slugs don't seem to like them quite as much either - which is useful. I discovered a nice pale leaved one a few years ago called 'White Curled'. It isn't as bitter as the normal types which I normally blanch for a week or so before picking. I pick individual leaves of 'White Curled' all winter long - they're very decorative in a mixed salad - making a nice contrast with their pretty, finely cut leaves of pale lemony-green. I originally got it from Simpson's seeds but as it's what's known as an 'open-pollinated variety - not an 'F1' hybrid - I save my own seed now every couple of years which saves money too. I mark the best plant for later on, then in spring I'll let it flower. The bees absolutely adore it so they pollinate it for me and then it sets seed. That keeps both the bees and me happy - a double whammy! 

 

 Use it or lose it! Making use of every inch of soil is what Nature does!

 

'Inter-cropping' - or growing fast-growing crops to cover the ground between slower maturing crops is something I've always done since I first started gardening in a tiny space 40 years ago. It's the way to make best possible use of every inch of any space. To me it's always seemed common sense that here's no point in leaving ground bare between rows of slower growing things and just hoeing or weeding, if some useful and edible could be growing there!  If there isn't room for something to grow, or it doesn't fit into your rotation - which is very important - then an organic mulch of some kind - either compost or grass clippings - is always a good idea. Soil should never be left bare. If you observe nature you'll see that it always populates ground with something - often with what us gardeners tend to think of as weeds!. Bare soil is only natural at times in a desert - but even that isn't really bare - it's full of indigenous plant seeds just waiting for some precious rain so that they can spring to life again. Soil should be covered with something all the time, to prevent erosion, loss of carbon, minerals and nutrients. Covering soil with an organic mulch also feeds soil life like worms and protects the microbial life which makes humus. So my gut feeling was right! 

 
 
Someone who has been reading my blog for a while did a Twitter survey a while ago to see how many people covered their soil in winter. I was astonished to see how many still cling to the old way of leaving soil completely bare over the winter, so that the surface is broken up to a fine tilth (to use the old expression) by frost. Before the advent of soil-damaging chemical fertilisers in the early 20th century - you could get away with doing do this as soil was then still full of humus which literally 'glues' the soil particles together - and which had built up millennia - first by the actions of Nature and later by gardeners adding manure and composts to soils in order to fertilise crops. With climate change bringing more extremes of weather - it's now neither sensible nor environmentally acceptable to do this. Soil MUST be protected - it is a valuable resource, and if it's left open to the weather in winter can literally just wash away carrying most of it's nutrients. Failing a green manure or existing over-wintering crops to protect it's surface and retain nutrients - a good organic mulch even covered with old cardboard, carpet or polythene is better than nothing and will stop rain washing through it! But NEVER leave compost, or manure-covered ground open to the weather either - that's worse than covering it with nothing. It doesn't just lose valuable nutrients but it causes serious pollution of groundwater too! As I'm always saying - it doesn't matter that the ground may later produce very good crops. That is a selfish point of view and is only proof that far too much was probably put on the ground in the first place - since much of the nutrients would have been completely washed away! Here endeth another manure rant!
 
 
In my garden I often tend to go one step even further than 'inter-cropping' by doing what I call 'continuous layered cropping'. This means constantly overlapping crops - which can get pretty hectic at times!  Maybe it should be called 'extreme inter-cropping' instead! Some people have now named this type of gardening 'polyculture'. A very neat new name for an old practice which many of the old self-sufficient cottage gardeners always did!  I started doing this when I only had a tiny garden over 40 years ago  - but even though I now have plenty of space, I still do it because plants seem much happier growing that way, as long as they have enough air circulation to avoid diseases - and to me it has always just seemed a far more natural way to grow. After all - Nature does it all the time. You need to plan well in advance for this type of cropping though. You also to know roughly how long each crop takes to grow and importantly - how much room it will need as it grows. Whether it needs full sun or won't mind a bit of shade. You have to be extremely careful with watering and ventilation with close cropping too, in order to avoid disease, particularly under cover in a polytunnel or cold frame where there's less air circulation. You also need to keep an eye out for any slugs which may be lurking around with all the extra shelter!  If you're not careful with this kind of snug-fit gardening - you can end up with the green 'mess' similar to many 'so-called' permaculture gardens I've seen. Nature loves messy gardens which is good I'll grant you - but they don't produce much in the way of crops and surely that's the point? 
 
 
It's fun sometimes pushing the limits a bit - it's something I've always liked to do with my gardening. You learn a lot by trying different things and every garden is different. I'm constantly experimenting - it's fun. As I've mentioned - planning well really is of the essence. That's why sitting in your polytunnel, having a good look around and making notes can be really valuable at this time of year, when there's not too much urgent work to do. When growth really starts to take off again and you're busy sowing seeds etc - you don't want to waste time wondering exactly where you were going to plant things - or perhaps waste plants because you've got no room to plant them!  Although I must say there's always a queue of grateful recipients for any of my spare plants! There really is no excuse not to have a good range of winter salads in your tunnel or greenhouse, or even under large cloches if you plan well and grow the right things. There's more choice than ever in the catalogues now.
   

 

Landcress growing between celery and McGregor's Favourite beet, a decorative old Victorian variety I grow for it's phytonutrient-rich leaves in saladsLandcress growing between celery and McGregor's Favourite beet
 
 
A tunnel allows you to extend the seasons at both ends if you plan really well - and I'll be sowing some sugar pea 'Delikett' next week.  We'll be eating them at the end of April with our extra-early new potatoes - in what people still call the 'Hungry Gap'. There's never hungry gap here though thanks to polytunnels! In the next couple of weeks I'll also be sowing lettuce, carrots, beetroot, turnips and spinach in modules as well as planting some of those 'extra earlies' in pots. The 2nd early/early maincrops Violetta and Purple Emperor did really well early in the tunnel again last year - so I shall definitely be planting some of those too. All the seeds I sow will be germinated in the house in the warm (at room temp.- around 60degF/16degC-ish) - then put out onto the roll-out heated mat on the tunnel staging, which gives a low bottom warmth - just enough to keep them frost-free and growing. The potatoes will also be started off in the house and then go out into the tunnel when they appear above the compost, as they'll need light then too - but if very cold weather is forecast they'll all be covered with at least a double layer of fleece for extra protection. 
 
 
When it comes to extending the autumn season it obviously works in reverse - things that would normally stop growing in early October outside will go on for weeks or even months longer during a mild winter under cover. A good example is the late crop of self-blanching celery I always sow in May. Planted out between the early sweetcorn - it crops well through most winters - crisp, juicy and delicious. When the sweet corn is finished it's cut down to the base - rather than pulling it up and disturbing the celery - which would make it run up to seed.  Then land cress is planted between the celery. The middle row of celery is cut first - by Christmas - which allows the land cress more light. When it perks up it gives a useful crop from otherwise empty space before the entire bed is cleared.  I sowed some home-saved seed of 'Crimson Flowered' broad bean last night - 3 to a recycled 500ml yogurt pot - and as soon as they're up they'll go out into the tunnel - again covering with fleece if a hard frost is forecast. I don't bother sowing broad beans outside in November any more as I find that those sown now will crop just as soon - and often far better. I've been saving my own seed of this beautiful and tasty variety for over 30 years now, always selecting the tallest, heaviest-cropping plants to save from, as originally it was quite short. Mine reach about 5 feet high now!. I got it originally from the Heritage Seed Library of the HDRA (now Garden Organic). Following on again from those will be brassicas (cabbage) family next autumn/winter - probably late calabrese (Italian broccoli) and kales. They make use of the 'free' atmospheric nitrogen the legumes will have fixed while growing. An example of Nature's wonderfully designed symbiosis at work!
 
 
 
As I've so often said - everything is connected - that's how Nature designed it, but we humans so often arrogantly assume that we know better! Current scientific studies - initiated by worries about the decreasing resilience of soils due to the extreme weather effects of climate change - are proving that the more diverse the crops you grow together - then the more diverse the rooting habits of plants are. This in turn also encourages a more diverse soil ecology and so naturally the health of our crops will be better. Chemical farming feeds the soil on 'junk food' - and that makes it just as unhealthy as a diet of junk food does us humans! An organically-fed, carbon and microbially-rich living soil is far healthier and more resilient. It physically insulates and 'cushions' the plant roots against both flooding and drought - and also gives the plants all the things they need to produce the compounds they need to protect themselves against pests and diseases. All successful ancient civilisations knew this, and really understood the value of a healthy soil without the advantages of microscopy that we have now!
 
 
 
Rotational thinking
 
 
Taking that into consideration then - another thing that you need to plan really well is rotations. You may not think so - but a well-planned rotation is just as important undercover as outside - perhaps even more so. If you don't plan proper rotations - soil-borne diseases or pests like eelworm, harmful nematodes and depletion of certain nutrients can very quickly build up. I know it's difficult to stick to a four-course rotation in a polytunnel or greenhouse - but I find it easier by dividing up my large tunnel up so that I grow the 4 main plant families in 8 beds. These are raised by using 7in/18cm.planks which save my back too! 
 
 
A big problem in tunnels is that there are so many of the Solanaceae (tomato family) that we all want to grow. Aubergines, tomatoes, peppers, chillies and potatoes are all the same family - far too many to grow in just the two designated Solanaceae beds in my tunnel in any one year. One of the ways I get round this is to grow quite a few of that family in large containers like 10 litre recycled mayo or coleslaw buckets - as I've mentioned before. The deli counter at your local shop will have loads which they will be only too happy to give you - as they have to find space to store them until they can be taken off for recycling. They will literally last for years if you store them away from light when you're not using them for growing in - otherwise they become brittle quickly. They will save you a fortune - and really extend the range of things you can grow successfully!  Peppers and aubergines in particular are perfectly happy in these, also some of the smaller bush varieties of tomatoes like 'Maskota' are much better behaved in large pots (and also well away from marauding slugs on the ground). Although the bigger cordon varieties will produce quite a good crop in containers and did very well in the last few years when I have grown a lot more tomatoes for the Tomato Festival. In pots they are actually earlier cropping than those in the ground. They generally prefer a bigger root run though, so they need plenty of TLC and careful watering in pots. Larger pots can also be bought at many farm supply shops who sell commercial horticultural needs - these are always  far cheaper than in any DIY multiples!
 
 
This year I'll be growing my usual 'Rosada F1', 'John Baer', 'Sungold F1', Maskotka and Pantano Romanesco. I shall also be growing the best of the new ones I've discovered in the last couple of years - like Blush and Moonglow. I won't be growing so many (46+) varieties again for a very long time though - it was a bit too much work - even for a tomatoholic like me!  I did discover some very useful and tasty new varieties though - which I talk about in my 'Tomato Report 2017'  elsewhere. (which by the way I didn't update in 2018 as I had nothing useful to add! - The one tomato, Cupido from Simpsons, which was even approaching the wonderful Rosada is not available either this year - so it would have been pretty pointless!)  As every year is different - varieties can vary quite a bit from year to year in performance - but if they don't have a really good flavour, or seem much more prone to disease than everything else - then they don't even get a second chance! One thing is for sure though - and that is that our summers are becoming far less predictable. The tomatoes pictured below are certainly two that I would never be without, and are definitely still my yardstick for flavour.
 
 
Tomato 'Rosada' 3.8.11

Tomato 'Rosada'

Tomato 'Sungold'  3.8.11.

Tomato 'Sungold'

 
Talking of growing in pots reminds me that it's time to bring in the early strawberries in pots now. Last year I potted runners into 2 litre pots as usual and they've spent the winter outside for a good chill. The variety I grow - 'Christine' - is the best flavoured early for forcing in pots and always fruits by my birthday in mid-May or even earlier which is a real treat (of course I'm a food-loving Taurean - surely you could tell - Taurus is an Earth sign!) Christine is really the most reliable early variety - it's also incredibly vigorous and make loads of runners to give to friends, which are always welcome. I also grew the 'ever-bearing' or remontant variety 'Albion' for the first time in large 10 litre pots a few years ago and it fruited for months, enjoying a feed of my usual 'Osmo' organic tomato feed every couple of weeks. It also has a really terrific flavour and even freezes well without completely collapsing on defrosting.  
 
 

Don't have empty, uncovered ground now either outside or in the tunnel

 
 
A thick carpet of green manure mustard 'Caliente'

A thick carpet of green manure mustard 'Caliente' 

 
 
If you have empty ground where you've just cleared a crop, then you can get ahead with lightly raking in some nice well-rotted compost so that you have that ground ready for early plantings. You could possibly even sow some quick growing salad or oriental salad mixes in situ if they fit into your rotation.  Or you could sow now into modules which would be even quicker- a small pinch into each - and plant them out in a few weeks. That would give you some early salads. If you live in a milder part of the country or we have a mild spell you could be eating baby leaves in as little as 6 - 8 weeks! As the weather warms up they will start to flower and go to seed - March days can be surprisingly warm in a tunnel when the sun is full out - but then you can leave a few to flower for early bees and dig the rest in as a green manure! The worms will love you as they'll just be really waking up then and very hungry!  By the way - if you also leave some of the fast-growing oriental salad mixes to flower - they will attract in grateful early, nectar seeking, beneficial insects like hoverflies and bees.
 
 
 
It might even be worth sowing a quick growing green manure crop like mustard if it fits into your rotation - it will germinate at around 45deg.F/.7deg.C. In late autumn or early March. I usually sow the green manure mustard 'Caliente' in one of the beds where I will be growing tomatoes the following summer. It makes a good bulk to chop up and fork in for the worms to work on before planting the tomatoes in early May. 'Caliente' is a new breed of mustard that acts as a 'biofumugant' - releasing phytochemical gases which clean up any problems in the soil and also encourages good bacteria and beneficial nematodes to multiply. You do need to fork it into the soil as soon as possible after chopping up though - to get the full benefit of it's bio-fumigant properties - or they may evaporate and be lost into the air. Covering the area temporarily with polythene also helps the process by capturing the gases too so that they condense and fall back and also has the effect of warming the soil. Last year it certainly encouraged centipedes - I've never seen so many scampering away when I lifted the cover off the bed to see how things were going - and the worms loved it too!  In my old tunnel down at the far end of the garden the soil had become quite 'tomato sick' after many years of tomato crops, despite careful 4 year rotations - the only option until now was to remove all the old soil and replace it with fresh - which the old kitchen gardeners would do. This year I shall sow some 'Caliente' there in early spring and then not grow any tomato family there for a few years - hoping it will recover. I don't much fancy changing the soil in a large tunnel to a depth of 1/2 a metre - the only other alternative to growing in containers - since I can't move the tunnel! I may rear a few broiler chickens in there after that - as I did years ago. They really love it in the dry and warm environment of a tunnel and enjoy scratching around in there - as long as I can keep out foxes! 
 
 
 
Get your worms working for you! 
 
 
If you're clever and look after them well - worms will do most of the work for you by breaking down and processing green manures and compost after you add them to your soil, enriching it with their worm casts at the same time! Worm casts are actually many times more nutritious than normal garden compost - they can be up to 10 times higher in potash, phosphorus and other nutrients, so it's worth having a worm bin as well as a normal compost heap or bin. In fact, I would almost go so far as to say it's more useful than a large compost bin - particularly in small gardens where space is at a premium. Worm compost is the most fantastic tonic - it's like rocket fuel for plants! I have huge respect for worms - many people don't realise just how vital they are - and how hard they're always working 24/7 behind the scenes in our gardens even at night!  
 
 
Contrary to what most people think - worms like green food to eat - not just rotted compost. One evening this was amply demonstrated to me when I was out at dusk in a nearly dark tunnel picking a salad for supper by torchlight. Just as I was bending down to pick some leaves a movement in the furthest corner of my eye caught my attention. For a split second I wondered what it was - then I moved the torch just in time to see a worm disappearing backwards fast down into it's burrow, firmly grasping a piece of partially decayed claytonia leaf, which it pulled underground in record time!  Absolute magic! I've never actually seen that happen in front of my eyes before! One of the wonders of Nature only seen by the very observant few like Darwin - or the very lucky like me!  Even more reason to feel sorry when I cut one in half with the spade - I always apologise!  Funny how doing the same to slugs really doesn't bother me one little bit!
 
 
It's been so grey and damp on many days for the last few weeks that said slugs have cheekily been out quite shamelessly in broad daylight - if you could call it that!  I've been patrolling the tunnel with the scissors whenever I feel like a break from being inside at the computer because I don't want them building up - which they certainly will if left to carry on undisturbed. It's very therapeutic!  As there's also quite a bit of botrytis, or grey mould starting to happen now with all the cold damp weather - diligent housekeeping is vitally necessary. Remove any mouldy or dying leaves immediately, before it spreads further! 
 
 
The polytunnel is the only place in the garden in which to be comfortable right now, so I try to spend some time in there every day just tidying, sorting pots etc. Putting time into odd jobs in the tunnel now while we can before things get busy again also pays off hugely later! Sometimes I just sit in there to get my daily dose of light. Yesterday as I sat in there quietly for a while I watched the sparrows, wrens and robins hunting insects in there and a thrush and a whole 'charm' of godfinches were singing beautifully up in the hedge just north of the polytunnel. It was absolute bliss! I wouldn't be without my tunnels for anything! January is such a hopeful time of year. Lots of plans to make and new things to look forward to!  I'm so grateful for my polytunnels! In the future they may well be the only way to grow food crops in many parts of the world with increasingly wet conditions cause by climate change.
 
 
Just a reminder - Keep the tunnel tape handy at all times in this wild weather! If you have it - then chances are you probably won't need it. But without it - one small bit of damage to your tunnel can turn into no tunnel in seconds in the sort of gales we're experiencing now! (See my article on 'How To Mend Polytunnels')
 
 
Severe storms have been a huge problem several times over the autumn and winter so far, with me often having to shut the doors after only a couple of hour's ventilation in the mornings. Winds gusting around unpredictably can make life difficult here on top of our hill, as we're quite high up - and as the crow flies only about 5 miles from the sea. A few days ago I went up to close the tunnel doors as it was getting too gusty to be safe, only to discover that an enterprising pheasant had somehow neatly slipped through a gap in the netting at the top end and was just starting to investigate! Caught just in the nick of time!! He naturally panicked as soon as he saw me and started to fly at the sides of the tunnel like a bomb exploding - I was terrified that he would go through the polythene. Luckily, I managed to pin up the net at the top end - I walked around the outside down to the bottom end, going in through that door, so he then ran out of the top end door without any damage. - Major sigh of relief!!  I have to say that I am grateful to him though - because as I replaced the net again - more securely this time - my eye was caught by lots of little holes in the polythene in the arch over the top of the door where insects always tend to get trapped in the summer. Almost as if someone had stubbed cigarettes out in a row - making a perforated line all along the polythene beside the end hoop. Having watched sparrows last summer in the other tunnel launching themselves from the top of the sliding door in order to catch insects, I realised immediately what caused the holes! The little dears! I'm now sitting here praying that the wind does no damage and that I can recruit some less accident-prone help to put some tunnel tape all along the hoops at both ends where they have pecked the holes. Going up a ladder with only one half good arm would not be a good idea for me! Sadly there are now times when even I have to admit that there are some things that I can't do without help!  Particularly since breaking my right shoulder badly two years ago. I think I should be called the one-armed gardener now! The last thing I need is a pheasant gobbling up everything - the tunnel unzipping itself - or me having another accident like the one I had 4 years ago when tripping over a bramble on the way up to feed my hens!! My name should really be Calamity Jane!
 
 
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 - January 2020

 
1. Recycled loo roll middles make great 'modules' packed together in a recycled mushroom box for early sowing of root crops 2. Carrot seeds sown into the top of loo roll 'modules', covered with a pinch of Vermiculite, then with a polythene bag to keep moisture in

 

 

First I would like to wish you all a Very Happy, Healthy and Productive New Growing Year! 

 

It's amazing how even just the smallest amount of increasing light makes me want to 'earth myself' by getting plugged into the soil again!  It's only a few days since the winter solstice but already there's a noticeable stretch on the brighter days. It may be my imagination but the birds seem to be singing a bit more loudly and the plants in the polytunnel also seem just a little bit perkier too! Or is it wishful thinking? It's not too long now until the mad spring rush of sowing and planting is here again. For now though - things move at a more leisurely pace - but there are still some things you can sow and do this month if your gardening fingers are itching to get back into compost, like mine are and you want to get ahead just a little bit! It's surprising how many things there are that you can sow now.

 

General advice for seed sowing:

 

There are quite a few things you could sow now or towards the end of January in pots or modules for planting out later in a tunnel, greenhouse or sheltered cold frame. You won't gain a huge amount by sowing too soon though. By leaving it for another couple of weeks the light will be increasing, so seedlings will be sturdier, will get a better start and you'll use less energy. Most seeds will germinate at normal house temperature - and as things take a week or so to appear anyway - you can sow some things inside the house and then put them out into good light in a greenhouse or frame as soon as the seedlings are up. Seedlings like lettuce, spinach and hardier salad plants will be fine then, with just some protection from frost with a couple of layers of fleece. Light governs their development to a great extent - so you can save money and energy by not wasting any heat needed for another couple of weeks yet - no matter how keen you are. Don't forget you can also do your seed sowing inside in comfort on the kitchen table - there's really no need to go outside in the freezing cold unless you're a masochist! 

 

In my over 40 years experience I've found that using a good organic peat-free seed compost is by far the best and most reliable choice for sowing everything - not just from a plant health point of view, but also for environmental reasonsAny extra expense is well worth it in terms of valuable seeds and seedlings not lost. After sowing - put your seed trays or modules somewhere in your house at average room temperature - and most seedlings will be up within a few days or a week. I find seeds like lettuce take about 3 days at normal cool room temperature - they don't need a lot of warmth. Make sure to put them somewhere where you will remember to check on them twice a day, as seedlings like lettuce can become leggy very quickly if not given good light immediately they have germinated.  Once they have appeared, probably in a week or so for most things at this time of year, they will then need the very best light you can give them - which means either a tunnel, greenhouse or perhaps a cold frame against a south facing wall. They also need very good air circulation - so sowing in modules either individually or in 2's or 3's to thin later is the best option - as this avoids handling vulnerable seedlings while 'pricking out', which may result in damage and possible 'damping-off'.

 

It's too wet, windy and cold for tiny seedlings to be outside completely unprotected at this time of year, but if sheltered from the weather most are fine as long as no frost is forecast. If it is - then bring them into the house again on very frosty nights and put them out again first thing in the morning. This may seem a bit of a faff but it's worth it. Sowing too early on windowsills often means unhealthy, leggy and drawn seedlings due to lack of light. If you don't have a greenhouse, polytunnel or frame outside, I would wait another couple of weeks yet - even if like me you can't wait to get started! Although some more tender heat lovers like tomatoes etc would need a warm propagator, I don't waste heat by sowing tomatoes in a propagator yet, because even those sown in another month will catch up and probably be much healthier than any sown now!  Having said that though - I may just chance sowing a few Maskotka bush tomatoes indoors, as it's always my earliest, most good-natured and and hardiest tomato. Luckily, it's also one of the tastiest - and I'd love to see if I can get it to ripen even earlier than the first week in June, when it's normally reliably ripe!

 

Remember - the suggestions below are for things which you could sow now if you want to - NOT things you HAVE to!!

 

For tunnel planting later: - in a temp. of around 50 deg.F/10 deg.C:

 

You could sow - early carrots in long modules like loo roll middles as I'm doing in the picture above. Sit the modules on 1/2 inch compost in something deep like a recycled plastic mushroom box to keep them upright, (approx. 32 loo roll tubes fit into a mushroom box) - fill them - and the gaps between them - with seed compost - then sow a tiny pinch of seed into each covering with vermiculite. 

 

Make sure the cardboard rolls don't stick up out of the compost or they will act like wicks - drawing out moisture and drying out too much - which means they could then shrivel and kill tiny roots. These will be ready for planting out in the tunnel in clumps - each about 30cm apart - probably at the end of next month when they have 2 'true' leaves. Also early broccoli (I grow 'Green Magic' a productive early variety), 'Ragged Jack' & 'Cavolo Nero' kales for baby leaves, spring onions, lettuces, broad beans, early and mangetout/sugar peas, green and red 'frills' mustards, mizuna, oriental mixed greens, beetroot, Swiss chards, salad leaves, radishes, and rocket. 

 

At the end of the month you could sow cordon tomatoes if you want an extra early crop - but bear in mind that they will need not just potting on at least once but will also keeping warm for several weeks before eventual planting out. They must also be in very good light - or they will also become drawn and 'leggy' - and therefore more vulnerable to disease. (*Tip - a well known correspondent with the Irish Times told me that he raises his early ones in the warm under a Velux window in his house which provides excellent top light - a genius tip - wish I had one!) I always grow the bush variety 'Maskotka' (tasty bush cherry type) which is always my earliest ripening tomato - sown in mid-late February it's first ripe fruits are reliably ready to pick on 1st June without fail. The variety 'John Baer' (delicious, very early large fruited) - is also an excellent variety for sowing at the end of this month. You could also sow early aubergines - 'Bonica' is without question the best ever variety for home gardeners to grow from seed - I've grown it for many years now and it's totally reliable. It came out tops in the RHS trials over 15 yrs. ago as being the best for UK and in my experience it's the best variety for Irish conditions too. Remember though that both tomatoes and aubergines need a minimum temp. of about 70deg.F/21degC. for germination, reducing the heat afterwards to approx. 55 deg.F/15 deg.C, or just below, and maintaining that level until final planting out in tunnel beds or in pots eventually. You can achieve this bottom warmth quite economically with a roll-out heated mat. 

 

For bees & beneficial insects - you could sow some single-flowered, nectar producing hardy annuals in modules now. Flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), calendulas etc. will come into flower early this way and then they'll attract early hoverflies and ladybirds which help to control aphids. Early flowers also attract bumblebees and early honey bees to help pollinate early polytunnel crops like broad beans. Keep beneficial insects supplied with nectar and pollen then they'll be happy and stay with you all year. If there's no flowers for them to feed on - then they'll go somewhere else!  An ecologically balanced organic garden is not just about growing vegetables!
 
 
 

For planting in polytunnel or outside later:

You could sow alpine strawberries. 'Reugen' is a very productive, large-fruited variety which fruits April to Nov. and will produce fruits this autumn if sown early enough. Also bulb onions, shallots, very early leeks, early spring/summer & non-hearting leafy type cabbages (collards), summer cauliflowers and autumn red cabbage.

 
I now grow all my main-crop onions from seed sown in modules in early March - this avoids the possibility of onion white rot, which can be introduced on onion sets. The varieties I like are 'Red Baron' and 'Golden Bear'  - which is supposed to have some resistance to onion white rot. Onion white rot is also encouraged by low soil temperatures and wet weather - so sowing seeds in modules means they're warmer, have better growing conditions and can then be planted out to make a nice even bed or row with no gaps. Sowing direct in the open ground can waste a lot of expensive seed and small seedlings are far more vulnerable to attacks by slugs, and losses due to poor weather etc.  
 
 
Make sure that any seedlings germinated indoors or in a propagator are protected with fleece on cold nights after putting out into the tunnel - and if very cold weather is forecast also make sure to protect heated propagators with extra bubble wrap or fleece over the top at nights to preserve heat and save energy. I save every scrap of Christmas bubble wrap for this and also for tucking into odd small corners in the propagator to save heat loss! Also make sure that the compost is never too wet - if you think it may be- then draw some of it out by standing the modules on kitchen paper and newspaper for a while. Over-watering seedlings at this time of year will kill them faster than anything!
 
 
An alternative way to provide heat for early sowing for anyone aiming for micro self-sufficiency! 
 
 
If you have enough room you could use my trick of rearing some day-old chicks under an infra-red heat lamp beneath the greenhouse or polytunnel staging!  This is something I used to do every year when rearing organic broiler chickens and laying hens commercially!  Chicks for egg or meat production need about 6 weeks of warmth gradually decreasing until they have enough feathers to go outside on free range, so that they are weather-proof! The small amount of residual rising heat keeps the greenhouse bench just warm enough to keep out frost if arranged properly - which means you don't need a heated propagator. Killing two birds with one stone in a manner of speaking .....or rather not ..... but raising them!! 
 
 
Don't try this unless you're already fairly experienced with poultry though, because you can lose small chicks very quickly if they get either too hot or too cold. You also need to keep rats away - they're as bad as foxes! I find that if I get day-old chicks in mid-March - then they will reliably come into lay around the beginning of August and will then lay continuously throughout the following winter without needing any additional light. I used to rear hundreds of chicks for laying and also broiler chickens for eating this way when I was a commercial organic poultry producer - and it works very well.
 
 
 
There's still plenty of time to plant garlic cloves outside for a crop of big bulbs this year
 
Most autumn planting varieties need cold weather for good root development - so in my experience at this time of year, it's really best to plant those varieties suitable for spring planting - as the seasons can be so unreliable now We may get an extra mild spell in Jan. which would stop the autumn/winter planting varieties from developing their roots properly. 
 
If the ground is too wet and sticky - you can plant them in small pots or modules of peat-free potting compost and plant them out in a few weeks time. The only garlic I've ever grown really successfully from a spring planting is 'Christo' - which I've always found very reliable. Choose firm, plump and healthy outside cloves from last year's crop, or buy certified virus-free ones from garden centres. 
 
 
Do not plant cloves from supermarket-bought garlic bulbs! These will most likely be unsuitable for our climate and can bring in serious diseases like onion white rot. This can survive in the soil for up to 20 years and also be spread around the garden on your boots! For the same reason I never use onion or shallot sets in the garden. If you want some extra early onions - then grow some sets in pots or containers - starting them off under cover in their containers and then putting them outside later. This way they'll be even earlier than they would be if grown in the ground because their roots are much warmer - and if you're unlucky enough to bring in any diseases with them - you can just throw the compost away into the food/green waste recycling bin rather than spreading it round the garden - which you otherwise would if you put the used compost onto your compost heap!  
 
 
Remember - organic growing is all about understanding your plant's needs and providing the very best growing conditions for them in order to minimise the risk of pest or disease attack as far as possible. This is exactly the same whether they are vegetables or ornamental plants.
 
 
On the kitchen windowsill you can sprout seeds and also sow 'microgreen' salads:
 
 
Things like like mustard and cress, radish, broccoli, kale etc. are easy to grow in jars or trays.  Sprouting seeds are highly nutritious and can be a valuable addition to winter salads - young seedlings are actually higher in health promoting phytonutrients than older plants. Broccoli sprouts are particularly rich in these. Make sure you rinse them well and very regularly though if they're in jars - at least 2/3 times a day, with filtered water, to avoid bacteria or disease building up. I actually prefer growing them in trays on kitchen paper or compost, much in the same way all school children grow mustard and cress. They will often need watering twice a day even at this time of year in a warm kitchen, particularly as they get a bit bigger. 
 
It's very important to use organic seeds for doing this - as these will not have been treated with potentially harmful pre-emergence fungicides (these seed treatments are forbidden under organic standards).
 
 
As I've already said - there really isn't a great deal to be gained from sowing things too early - there's also a greater risk of losses from disease etc.  It's far better to wait until the end of the month when the light is a lot better and as a result any seedlings will be far sturdier.  Unless you're in a desperate hurry to get ahead if you're busy, anything sown in another 3 or 4 weeks will definitely catch up and often actually overtake any seeds sown now. In the meantime - it's really better to get your compost and seed sowing kit all ready to go and also do some of the other jobs mentioned in the Veg. garden and Polytunnel sections of the diary - many of these will save you time later on in the spring when you will be busy preparing ground etc.(What a lovely thought - I can't wait!)
 
 
It's time to get on the starting blocks!  Spring is only just round the corner! So if you haven't done seed orders yet here's another reminder - ORDER THOSE SEEDS NOW!

1. Recycled loo roll middles make great 'modules' packed together in a recycled mushroom box for early sowing of root crops 2. Carrot seeds sown into the top of loo roll 'modules', covered with a pinch of Vermiculite, then with a polythene bag to keep moisture in

 

 

First I would like to wish you all a Very Happy, Healthy and Productive New Growing Year! 

 

It's amazing how even just the smallest amount of increasing light makes me want to 'earth myself' by getting plugged into the soil again!  It's only a few days since the winter solstice but already there's a noticeable stretch on the brighter days. It may be my imagination but the birds seem to be singing a bit more loudly and the plants in the polytunnel also seem just a little bit perkier too! Or is it wishful thinking? It's not too long now until the mad spring rush of sowing and planting is here again. For now though - things move at a more leisurely pace - but there are still some things you can sow and do this month if your gardening fingers are itching to get back into compost, like mine are and you want to get ahead just a little bit! It's surprising how many things there are that you can sow now.

 

General advice for seed sowing:

 

There are quite a few things you could sow now or towards the end of January in pots or modules for planting out later in a tunnel, greenhouse or sheltered cold frame. You won't gain a huge amount by sowing too soon though. By leaving it for another couple of weeks the light will be increasing, so seedlings will be sturdier, will get a better start and you'll use less energy. Most seeds will germinate at normal house temperature - and as things take a week or so to appear anyway - you can sow some things inside the house and then put them out into good light in a greenhouse or frame as soon as the seedlings are up. Seedlings like lettuce, spinach and hardier salad plants will be fine then, with just some protection from frost with a couple of layers of fleece. Light governs their development to a great extent - so you can save money and energy by not wasting any heat needed for another couple of weeks yet - no matter how keen you are. Don't forget you can also do your seed sowing inside in comfort on the kitchen table - there's really no need to go outside in the freezing cold unless you're a masochist! 

 

In my over 40 years experience I've found that using a good organic peat-free seed compost is by far the best and most reliable choice for sowing everything - not just from a plant health point of view, but also for environmental reasonsAny extra expense is well worth it in terms of valuable seeds and seedlings not lost. After sowing - put your seed trays or modules somewhere in your house at average room temperature - and most seedlings will be up within a few days or a week. I find seeds like lettuce take about 3 days at normal cool room temperature - they don't need a lot of warmth. Make sure to put them somewhere where you will remember to check on them twice a day, as seedlings like lettuce can become leggy very quickly if not given good light immediately they have germinated.  Once they have appeared, probably in a week or so for most things at this time of year, they will then need the very best light you can give them - which means either a tunnel, greenhouse or perhaps a cold frame against a south facing wall. They also need very good air circulation - so sowing in modules either individually or in 2's or 3's to thin later is the best option - as this avoids handling vulnerable seedlings while 'pricking out', which may result in damage and possible 'damping-off'.

 

It's too wet, windy and cold for tiny seedlings to be outside completely unprotected at this time of year, but if sheltered from the weather most are fine as long as no frost is forecast. If it is - then bring them into the house again on very frosty nights and put them out again first thing in the morning. This may seem a bit of a faff but it's worth it. Sowing too early on windowsills often means unhealthy, leggy and drawn seedlings due to lack of light. If you don't have a greenhouse, polytunnel or frame outside, I would wait another couple of weeks yet - even if like me you can't wait to get started! Although some more tender heat lovers like tomatoes etc would need a warm propagator, I don't waste heat by sowing tomatoes in a propagator yet, because even those sown in another month will catch up and probably be much healthier than any sown now!  Having said that though - I may just chance sowing a few Maskotka bush tomatoes indoors, as it's always my earliest, most good-natured and and hardiest tomato. Luckily, it's also one of the tastiest - and I'd love to see if I can get it to ripen even earlier than the first week in June, when it's normally reliably ripe!

 

Remember - the suggestions below are for things which you could sow now if you want to - NOT things you HAVE to!!

 

For tunnel planting later: - in a temp. of around 50 deg.F/10 deg.C:

 

You could sow - early carrots in long modules like loo roll middles as I'm doing in the picture above. Sit the modules on 1/2 inch compost in something deep like a recycled plastic mushroom box to keep them upright, (approx. 32 loo roll tubes fit into a mushroom box) - fill them - and the gaps between them - with seed compost - then sow a tiny pinch of seed into each covering with vermiculite. 

 

Make sure the cardboard rolls don't stick up out of the compost or they will act like wicks - drawing out moisture and drying out too much - which means they could then shrivel and kill tiny roots. These will be ready for planting out in the tunnel in clumps - each about 30cm apart - probably at the end of next month when they have 2 'true' leaves. Also early broccoli (I grow 'Green Magic' a productive early variety), 'Ragged Jack' & 'Cavolo Nero' kales for baby leaves, spring onions, lettuces, broad beans, early and mangetout/sugar peas, green and red 'frills' mustards, mizuna, oriental mixed greens, beetroot, Swiss chards, salad leaves, radishes, and rocket. 

 

At the end of the month you could sow cordon tomatoes if you want an extra early crop - but bear in mind that they will need not just potting on at least once but will also keeping warm for several weeks before eventual planting out. They must also be in very good light - or they will also become drawn and 'leggy' - and therefore more vulnerable to disease. (*Tip - a well known correspondent with the Irish Times told me that he raises his early ones in the warm under a Velux window in his house which provides excellent top light - a genius tip - wish I had one!) I always grow the bush variety 'Maskotka' (tasty bush cherry type) which is always my earliest ripening tomato - sown in mid-late February it's first ripe fruits are reliably ready to pick on 1st June without fail. The variety 'John Baer' (delicious, very early large fruited) - is also an excellent variety for sowing at the end of this month. You could also sow early aubergines - 'Bonica' is without question the best ever variety for home gardeners to grow from seed - I've grown it for many years now and it's totally reliable. It came out tops in the RHS trials over 15 yrs. ago as being the best for UK and in my experience it's the best variety for Irish conditions too. Remember though that both tomatoes and aubergines need a minimum temp. of about 70deg.F/21degC. for germination, reducing the heat afterwards to approx. 55 deg.F/15 deg.C, or just below, and maintaining that level until final planting out in tunnel beds or in pots eventually. You can achieve this bottom warmth quite economically with a roll-out heated mat. 

 

For bees & beneficial insects - you could sow some single-flowered, nectar producing hardy annuals in modules now. Flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), calendulas etc. will come into flower early this way and then they'll attract early hoverflies and ladybirds which help to control aphids. Early flowers also attract bumblebees and early honey bees to help pollinate early polytunnel crops like broad beans. Keep beneficial insects supplied with nectar and pollen then they'll be happy and stay with you all year. If there's no flowers for them to feed on - then they'll go somewhere else!  An ecologically balanced organic garden is not just about growing vegetables!
 
 
 

For planting in polytunnel or outside later:

You could sow alpine strawberries. 'Reugen' is a very productive, large-fruited variety which fruits April to Nov. and will produce fruits this autumn if sown early enough. Also bulb onions, shallots, very early leeks, early spring/summer & non-hearting leafy type cabbages (collards), summer cauliflowers and autumn red cabbage.

 
I now grow all my main-crop onions from seed sown in modules in early March - this avoids the possibility of onion white rot, which can be introduced on onion sets. The varieties I like are 'Red Baron' and 'Golden Bear'  - which is supposed to have some resistance to onion white rot. Onion white rot is also encouraged by low soil temperatures and wet weather - so sowing seeds in modules means they're warmer, have better growing conditions and can then be planted out to make a nice even bed or row with no gaps. Sowing direct in the open ground can waste a lot of expensive seed and small seedlings are far more vulnerable to attacks by slugs, and losses due to poor weather etc.  
 
 
Make sure that any seedlings germinated indoors or in a propagator are protected with fleece on cold nights after putting out into the tunnel - and if very cold weather is forecast also make sure to protect heated propagators with extra bubble wrap or fleece over the top at nights to preserve heat and save energy. I save every scrap of Christmas bubble wrap for this and also for tucking into odd small corners in the propagator to save heat loss! Also make sure that the compost is never too wet - if you think it may be- then draw some of it out by standing the modules on kitchen paper and newspaper for a while. Over-watering seedlings at this time of year will kill them faster than anything!
 
 
An alternative way to provide heat for early sowing for anyone aiming for micro self-sufficiency! 
 
 
If you have enough room you could use my trick of rearing some day-old chicks under an infra-red heat lamp beneath the greenhouse or polytunnel staging!  This is something I used to do every year when rearing organic broiler chickens and laying hens commercially!  Chicks for egg or meat production need about 6 weeks of warmth gradually decreasing until they have enough feathers to go outside on free range, so that they are weather-proof! The small amount of residual rising heat keeps the greenhouse bench just warm enough to keep out frost if arranged properly - which means you don't need a heated propagator. Killing two birds with one stone in a manner of speaking .....or rather not ..... but raising them!! 
 
 
Don't try this unless you're already fairly experienced with poultry though, because you can lose small chicks very quickly if they get either too hot or too cold. You also need to keep rats away - they're as bad as foxes! I find that if I get day-old chicks in mid-March - then they will reliably come into lay around the beginning of August and will then lay continuously throughout the following winter without needing any additional light. I used to rear hundreds of chicks for laying and also broiler chickens for eating this way when I was a commercial organic poultry producer - and it works very well.
 
 
 
There's still plenty of time to plant garlic cloves outside for a crop of big bulbs this year
 
Most autumn planting varieties need cold weather for good root development - so in my experience at this time of year, it's really best to plant those varieties suitable for spring planting - as the seasons can be so unreliable now We may get an extra mild spell in Jan. which would stop the autumn/winter planting varieties from developing their roots properly. 
 
If the ground is too wet and sticky - you can plant them in small pots or modules of peat-free potting compost and plant them out in a few weeks time. The only garlic I've ever grown really successfully from a spring planting is 'Christo' - which I've always found very reliable. Choose firm, plump and healthy outside cloves from last year's crop, or buy certified virus-free ones from garden centres. 
 
 
Do not plant cloves from supermarket-bought garlic bulbs! These will most likely be unsuitable for our climate and can bring in serious diseases like onion white rot. This can survive in the soil for up to 20 years and also be spread around the garden on your boots! For the same reason I never use onion or shallot sets in the garden. If you want some extra early onions - then grow some sets in pots or containers - starting them off under cover in their containers and then putting them outside later. This way they'll be even earlier than they would be if grown in the ground because their roots are much warmer - and if you're unlucky enough to bring in any diseases with them - you can just throw the compost away into the food/green waste recycling bin rather than spreading it round the garden - which you otherwise would if you put the used compost onto your compost heap!  
 
 
Remember - organic growing is all about understanding your plant's needs and providing the very best growing conditions for them in order to minimise the risk of pest or disease attack as far as possible. This is exactly the same whether they are vegetables or ornamental plants.
 
 
On the kitchen windowsill you can sprout seeds and also sow 'microgreen' salads:
 
 
Things like like mustard and cress, radish, broccoli, kale etc. are easy to grow in jars or trays.  Sprouting seeds are highly nutritious and can be a valuable addition to winter salads - young seedlings are actually higher in health promoting phytonutrients than older plants. Broccoli sprouts are particularly rich in these. Make sure you rinse them well and very regularly though if they're in jars - at least 2/3 times a day, with filtered water, to avoid bacteria or disease building up. I actually prefer growing them in trays on kitchen paper or compost, much in the same way all school children grow mustard and cress. They will often need watering twice a day even at this time of year in a warm kitchen, particularly as they get a bit bigger. 
 
It's very important to use organic seeds for doing this - as these will not have been treated with potentially harmful pre-emergence fungicides (these seed treatments are forbidden under organic standards).
 
 
As I've already said - there really isn't a great deal to be gained from sowing things too early - there's also a greater risk of losses from disease etc.  It's far better to wait until the end of the month when the light is a lot better and as a result any seedlings will be far sturdier.  Unless you're in a desperate hurry to get ahead if you're busy, anything sown in another 3 or 4 weeks will definitely catch up and often actually overtake any seeds sown now. In the meantime - it's really better to get your compost and seed sowing kit all ready to go and also do some of the other jobs mentioned in the Veg. garden and Polytunnel sections of the diary - many of these will save you time later on in the spring when you will be busy preparing ground etc.(What a lovely thought - I can't wait!)
 
 
It's time to get on the starting blocks!  Spring is only just round the corner! So if you haven't done seed orders yet here's another reminder - ORDER THOSE SEEDS NOW!

1. Recycled loo roll middles make great 'modules' packed together in a recycled mushroom box for early sowing of root crops 2. Carrot seeds sown into the top of loo roll 'modules', covered with a pinch of Vermiculite, then with a polythene bag to keep moisture in

 

 

First I would like to wish you all a Very Happy, Healthy and Productive New Growing Year! 

 

It's amazing how even just the smallest amount of increasing light makes me want to 'earth myself' by getting plugged into the soil again!  It's only a few days since the winter solstice but already there's a noticeable stretch on the brighter days. It may be my imagination but the birds seem to be singing a bit more loudly and the plants in the polytunnel also seem just a little bit perkier too! Or is it wishful thinking? It's not too long now until the mad spring rush of sowing and planting is here again. For now though - things move at a more leisurely pace - but there are still some things you can sow and do this month if your gardening fingers are itching to get back into compost, like mine are and you want to get ahead just a little bit! It's surprising how many things there are that you can sow now.

 

General advice for seed sowing:

 

There are quite a few things you could sow now or towards the end of January in pots or modules for planting out later in a tunnel, greenhouse or sheltered cold frame. You won't gain a huge amount by sowing too soon though. By leaving it for another couple of weeks the light will be increasing, so seedlings will be sturdier, will get a better start and you'll use less energy. Most seeds will germinate at normal house temperature - and as things take a week or so to appear anyway - you can sow some things inside the house and then put them out into good light in a greenhouse or frame as soon as the seedlings are up. Seedlings like lettuce, spinach and hardier salad plants will be fine then, with just some protection from frost with a couple of layers of fleece. Light governs their development to a great extent - so you can save money and energy by not wasting any heat needed for another couple of weeks yet - no matter how keen you are. Don't forget you can also do your seed sowing inside in comfort on the kitchen table - there's really no need to go outside in the freezing cold unless you're a masochist! 

 

In my over 40 years experience I've found that using a good organic peat-free seed compost is by far the best and most reliable choice for sowing everything - not just from a plant health point of view, but also for environmental reasonsAny extra expense is well worth it in terms of valuable seeds and seedlings not lost. After sowing - put your seed trays or modules somewhere in your house at average room temperature - and most seedlings will be up within a few days or a week. I find seeds like lettuce take about 3 days at normal cool room temperature - they don't need a lot of warmth. Make sure to put them somewhere where you will remember to check on them twice a day, as seedlings like lettuce can become leggy very quickly if not given good light immediately they have germinated.  Once they have appeared, probably in a week or so for most things at this time of year, they will then need the very best light you can give them - which means either a tunnel, greenhouse or perhaps a cold frame against a south facing wall. They also need very good air circulation - so sowing in modules either individually or in 2's or 3's to thin later is the best option - as this avoids handling vulnerable seedlings while 'pricking out', which may result in damage and possible 'damping-off'.

 

It's too wet, windy and cold for tiny seedlings to be outside completely unprotected at this time of year, but if sheltered from the weather most are fine as long as no frost is forecast. If it is - then bring them into the house again on very frosty nights and put them out again first thing in the morning. This may seem a bit of a faff but it's worth it. Sowing too early on windowsills often means unhealthy, leggy and drawn seedlings due to lack of light. If you don't have a greenhouse, polytunnel or frame outside, I would wait another couple of weeks yet - even if like me you can't wait to get started! Although some more tender heat lovers like tomatoes etc would need a warm propagator, I don't waste heat by sowing tomatoes in a propagator yet, because even those sown in another month will catch up and probably be much healthier than any sown now!  Having said that though - I may just chance sowing a few Maskotka bush tomatoes indoors, as it's always my earliest, most good-natured and and hardiest tomato. Luckily, it's also one of the tastiest - and I'd love to see if I can get it to ripen even earlier than the first week in June, when it's normally reliably ripe!

 

Remember - the suggestions below are for things which you could sow now if you want to - NOT things you HAVE to!!

 

For tunnel planting later: - in a temp. of around 50 deg.F/10 deg.C:

 

You could sow - early carrots in long modules like loo roll middles as I'm doing in the picture above. Sit the modules on 1/2 inch compost in something deep like a recycled plastic mushroom box to keep them upright, (approx. 32 loo roll tubes fit into a mushroom box) - fill them - and the gaps between them - with seed compost - then sow a tiny pinch of seed into each covering with vermiculite. 

 

Make sure the cardboard rolls don't stick up out of the compost or they will act like wicks - drawing out moisture and drying out too much - which means they could then shrivel and kill tiny roots. These will be ready for planting out in the tunnel in clumps - each about 30cm apart - probably at the end of next month when they have 2 'true' leaves. Also early broccoli (I grow 'Green Magic' a productive early variety), 'Ragged Jack' & 'Cavolo Nero' kales for baby leaves, spring onions, lettuces, broad beans, early and mangetout/sugar peas, green and red 'frills' mustards, mizuna, oriental mixed greens, beetroot, Swiss chards, salad leaves, radishes, and rocket. 

 

At the end of the month you could sow cordon tomatoes if you want an extra early crop - but bear in mind that they will need not just potting on at least once but will also keeping warm for several weeks before eventual planting out. They must also be in very good light - or they will also become drawn and 'leggy' - and therefore more vulnerable to disease. (*Tip - a well known correspondent with the Irish Times told me that he raises his early ones in the warm under a Velux window in his house which provides excellent top light - a genius tip - wish I had one!) I always grow the bush variety 'Maskotka' (tasty bush cherry type) which is always my earliest ripening tomato - sown in mid-late February it's first ripe fruits are reliably ready to pick on 1st June without fail. The variety 'John Baer' (delicious, very early large fruited) - is also an excellent variety for sowing at the end of this month. You could also sow early aubergines - 'Bonica' is without question the best ever variety for home gardeners to grow from seed - I've grown it for many years now and it's totally reliable. It came out tops in the RHS trials over 15 yrs. ago as being the best for UK and in my experience it's the best variety for Irish conditions too. Remember though that both tomatoes and aubergines need a minimum temp. of about 70deg.F/21degC. for germination, reducing the heat afterwards to approx. 55 deg.F/15 deg.C, or just below, and maintaining that level until final planting out in tunnel beds or in pots eventually. You can achieve this bottom warmth quite economically with a roll-out heated mat. 

 

For bees & beneficial insects - you could sow some single-flowered, nectar producing hardy annuals in modules now. Flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), calendulas etc. will come into flower early this way and then they'll attract early hoverflies and ladybirds which help to control aphids. Early flowers also attract bumblebees and early honey bees to help pollinate early polytunnel crops like broad beans. Keep beneficial insects supplied with nectar and pollen then they'll be happy and stay with you all year. If there's no flowers for them to feed on - then they'll go somewhere else!  An ecologically balanced organic garden is not just about growing vegetables!
 
 
 

For planting in polytunnel or outside later:

You could sow alpine strawberries. 'Reugen' is a very productive, large-fruited variety which fruits April to Nov. and will produce fruits this autumn if sown early enough. Also bulb onions, shallots, very early leeks, early spring/summer & non-hearting leafy type cabbages (collards), summer cauliflowers and autumn red cabbage.

 
I now grow all my main-crop onions from seed sown in modules in early March - this avoids the possibility of onion white rot, which can be introduced on onion sets. The varieties I like are 'Red Baron' and 'Golden Bear'  - which is supposed to have some resistance to onion white rot. Onion white rot is also encouraged by low soil temperatures and wet weather - so sowing seeds in modules means they're warmer, have better growing conditions and can then be planted out to make a nice even bed or row with no gaps. Sowing direct in the open ground can waste a lot of expensive seed and small seedlings are far more vulnerable to attacks by slugs, and losses due to poor weather etc.  
 
 
Make sure that any seedlings germinated indoors or in a propagator are protected with fleece on cold nights after putting out into the tunnel - and if very cold weather is forecast also make sure to protect heated propagators with extra bubble wrap or fleece over the top at nights to preserve heat and save energy. I save every scrap of Christmas bubble wrap for this and also for tucking into odd small corners in the propagator to save heat loss! Also make sure that the compost is never too wet - if you think it may be- then draw some of it out by standing the modules on kitchen paper and newspaper for a while. Over-watering seedlings at this time of year will kill them faster than anything!
 
 
An alternative way to provide heat for early sowing for anyone aiming for micro self-sufficiency! 
 
 
If you have enough room you could use my trick of rearing some day-old chicks under an infra-red heat lamp beneath the greenhouse or polytunnel staging!  This is something I used to do every year when rearing organic broiler chickens and laying hens commercially!  Chicks for egg or meat production need about 6 weeks of warmth gradually decreasing until they have enough feathers to go outside on free range, so that they are weather-proof! The small amount of residual rising heat keeps the greenhouse bench just warm enough to keep out frost if arranged properly - which means you don't need a heated propagator. Killing two birds with one stone in a manner of speaking .....or rather not ..... but raising them!! 
 
 
Don't try this unless you're already fairly experienced with poultry though, because you can lose small chicks very quickly if they get either too hot or too cold. You also need to keep rats away - they're as bad as foxes! I find that if I get day-old chicks in mid-March - then they will reliably come into lay around the beginning of August and will then lay continuously throughout the following winter without needing any additional light. I used to rear hundreds of chicks for laying and also broiler chickens for eating this way when I was a commercial organic poultry producer - and it works very well.
 
 
 
There's still plenty of time to plant garlic cloves outside for a crop of big bulbs this year
 
Most autumn planting varieties need cold weather for good root development - so in my experience at this time of year, it's really best to plant those varieties suitable for spring planting - as the seasons can be so unreliable now We may get an extra mild spell in Jan. which would stop the autumn/winter planting varieties from developing their roots properly. 
 
If the ground is too wet and sticky - you can plant them in small pots or modules of peat-free potting compost and plant them out in a few weeks time. The only garlic I've ever grown really successfully from a spring planting is 'Christo' - which I've always found very reliable. Choose firm, plump and healthy outside cloves from last year's crop, or buy certified virus-free ones from garden centres. 
 
 
Do not plant cloves from supermarket-bought garlic bulbs! These will most likely be unsuitable for our climate and can bring in serious diseases like onion white rot. This can survive in the soil for up to 20 years and also be spread around the garden on your boots! For the same reason I never use onion or shallot sets in the garden. If you want some extra early onions - then grow some sets in pots or containers - starting them off under cover in their containers and then putting them outside later. This way they'll be even earlier than they would be if grown in the ground because their roots are much warmer - and if you're unlucky enough to bring in any diseases with them - you can just throw the compost away into the food/green waste recycling bin rather than spreading it round the garden - which you otherwise would if you put the used compost onto your compost heap!  
 
 
Remember - organic growing is all about understanding your plant's needs and providing the very best growing conditions for them in order to minimise the risk of pest or disease attack as far as possible. This is exactly the same whether they are vegetables or ornamental plants.
 
 
On the kitchen windowsill you can sprout seeds and also sow 'microgreen' salads:
 
 
Things like like mustard and cress, radish, broccoli, kale etc. are easy to grow in jars or trays.  Sprouting seeds are highly nutritious and can be a valuable addition to winter salads - young seedlings are actually higher in health promoting phytonutrients than older plants. Broccoli sprouts are particularly rich in these. Make sure you rinse them well and very regularly though if they're in jars - at least 2/3 times a day, with filtered water, to avoid bacteria or disease building up. I actually prefer growing them in trays on kitchen paper or compost, much in the same way all school children grow mustard and cress. They will often need watering twice a day even at this time of year in a warm kitchen, particularly as they get a bit bigger. 
 
It's very important to use organic seeds for doing this - as these will not have been treated with potentially harmful pre-emergence fungicides (these seed treatments are forbidden under organic standards).
 
 
As I've already said - there really isn't a great deal to be gained from sowing things too early - there's also a greater risk of losses from disease etc.  It's far better to wait until the end of the month when the light is a lot better and as a result any seedlings will be far sturdier.  Unless you're in a desperate hurry to get ahead if you're busy, anything sown in another 3 or 4 weeks will definitely catch up and often actually overtake any seeds sown now. In the meantime - it's really better to get your compost and seed sowing kit all ready to go and also do some of the other jobs mentioned in the Veg. garden and Polytunnel sections of the diary - many of these will save you time later on in the spring when you will be busy preparing ground etc.(What a lovely thought - I can't wait!)
 
 
It's time to get on the starting blocks!  Spring is only just round the corner! So if you haven't done seed orders yet here's another reminder - ORDER THOSE SEEDS NOW!

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in December - 2019

 

December contents: The Joy of Seasonal Treasures.... Whole fruit IS good for you! And if fruit is organic - there's no chance you'll be eating toxic chemicals!....  What Fresh Fruit is Available to Pick Now?.... Urgent work that needs doing now... Finish Winter Pruning - a very quick guide.... Grow your own lemons!....  And The best Christmas Present for a Fruit Gardener is?.....
 
 
The Joy of Seasonal Treasures 
 
 
One of the greatest benefits of growing your own fruit, especially apples, is being able to grow varieties that are impossible to find in supermarkets.  The only apples you will find there are the same three, or perhaps if you're lucky four varieties such as Gala, Pink Lady, Golden Delicious (not!) or other modern varieties which are equally tasteless. It's not just because they're bred for long shelf life, uniformity and ease of growth, with all the apples being able to be mechanically harvested at the same time. It's also because they're mostly grown on the other side of the world, picked long before they're ripe and stored in atmospherically-controlled conditions, so that they are basically in suspended animation!  Then they are exported from New Zealand or wherever, travelling in the same temperature-controlled conditions to our supermarkets. Even if they were tasty varieties to start with - which they aren't -  when treated like that, they can never have the same flavour, or health benefits as homegrown organic apples picked in their proper season, from local orchards. .  
 
 
The two apples pictured below are both varieties which you will never find in supermarkets or shops - but they are two of the very best-tasting, long-keeping apples which I am enjoying now.  If you grow and store your own fruit - then apples which store well, staying crisp and delicious well into the following year are extremely valuable. If you're thinking of planting long keeping apples, you need to do your research. Most of them will need a good pollinator variety nearby to pollinate them, and many of those are earlier apples in the same flowering group, like Grenadier (early cooker) or Discovery (early Sept dessert) - both of which are excellent pollinators for many other varieties in groups 2 or 3, the main glowering groups, but neither will keep at their best for more than a couple of weeks. There's no point in having too many early apples unless you plan to have time to do a lot of work preserving them during September, which is normally one of the busiest times of the growing year. 
 
 
As many of the later-keeping apples don't have to  be picked until middle or late October, they are much easier from a work point of view, as you are able to pick them when they are at their individual perfect stage for keeping. In fact although it was picked in late October, and makes a good cooker then, Ashmead's Kernal is only now becoming edible as a dessert apple. And what an apple! With a complex aromatic flavour almost reminiscent of pear drops, it is crisp, crunchy and keeps for months in a cold, frost-free storage like my old upright freezer apple store, which is well insulated and in which I can control the humidity by opening or closing the door slightly as necessary. I'm currently finishing off the very last of the Blenheim Orange - a wonderful October/November apple which is also 'dual-purpose', being suitable for both cooking and dessert, but which starts to go soft and lose it's crispness around now depending on the year. I'm so looking forward to the crisp and fragrant Ashmead's Kernal, which is wonderful with cheese, or just on it's own - when I can really savour it's amazing taste, which will hold until at least the end of March. As I always say - there is nothing like fruits and vegetables, eaten at their peak of perfection in their proper season. They are an absolute joy - with which nothing that has year-round availability can possibly compare!
 
 
Court Pendu Plat also perfect now but keeps until April or even May Russet apples Egremont Russet and Ashmead's Kernal are at their best now
Court Pendu Plat - perfect now but keeps until April or May                             Russet apple Ashmead's Kernal is at it's best from now until April
 
 
Whole fruit is good for you! And if it's organic - there's no chance you'll be eating toxic chemicals! 
 
 
Researchers have concluded that the 150 year old maxim - "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" and is able to match the results of one of the most widespread drugs now used in modern medicine - and is "likely to have fewer side effects". That is the understatement of the century!!  A study published a few years ago year in the British Medical Journal said that prescribing an apple a day to all adults aged 50 and over would prevent or delay around 8,500 deaths per year from heart attacks and strokes - in other words similar to giving statins to everyone over 50 who is not already taking them! The big pharmaceutical giants won't like that!  Statins are one of their most lucrative 'cash cows' ever!  They are still making fortunes out of them, despite plenty of evidence now coming to light of side-effects being either under-reported or not actually reported at all. Millions of people have been needlessly medicated with drugs that have serious known side-effects. Here's a link to that study:       https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131217210549.htm#.WFEaDZVCLBY.twitter
 
 
 
Nature packaged all fruits with plenty of healthy fibre and phytochemicals which have many proven health benefits for us - despite the fact that some people call them 'nature's poisons' - which is frankly total nonsense!  Phytochemicals - or phytonutrients as they are otherwise called - evolved to protect plants naturally from pests and diseases, or even sun damage, and they do exactly the same for us. Well-known examples of that are the antioxidant phytochemicals lycopenene and anthocyanin in tomato skins. On the other hand - the added 'free' sugars in many manufactured highly processed foods IS a huge problem for us. Products such as sweet pastries, biscuits, crisps etc are mostly high in added sugars and sugar is even added to 'ready meals', pasta sauces and curries for heaven's sake!  The kind of cheap, industrially processed sugar that is normally used for these is High Fructose CornSyrup - or HFCS - which is made from genetically modified maize and is a form of very refined fructose which is instantly available to the body. Just like drinking a high percentage alcohol, it has an immediate effect on the liver. Fruit juices can also be a problem - they raise blood sugar dramatically fast as they've had virtually all of their natural fibre removed, along with a lot of nutrients which counteract the effects of the fructose in the fruit. Nature designed fruit to be eaten whole for a reason! I know some people say that we shouldn't be eating fructose and because fruit contains fructose we shouldn't be eating it - but consuming it in whole, naturally grown fruit is an entirely different scenario!
 
 
I really think a little common sense and balance is needed in the current fruit debate. We evolved to eat natural, whole fruits with everything they contain - humans have been eating them for millions of years without harm - unlike ready meals, refined flour, HFCS and other more recent sugar-filled nasties! For millions of years fruit has been the perfectly-packaged, seasonal, convenient, 'ready meal' of choice for man and many other creatures too. I doubt that our closest relatives chimpanzees get type 2 diabetes - except perhaps those poor creatures confined in zoos with little natural exercise and given over-ripe bananas! Nobody ever became ill from eating whole fruits and vegetables grown naturally without chemicals, because it's almost impossible to over-eat whole foods that contain a lot of natural fibre - although believe me I've tried! The fibre is not just filling, but it has such a dramatic effect that you actually can't! There is no healthier food on the planet than whole organic fruit so don't let anyone make you feel guilty about eating it in moderation as a healthy treat. Mind you - it can be expensive if you have to buy it - so what better reason could you possibly have to grow your own organic fruit? And remember - you'll get plenty of healthy exercise and enormous satisfaction from growing it too!
 
 
 
What Fresh Fruit is Available to Pick Now?
 
You might think that there's no fresh fruit that you could pick at this time of year - and that you will have to rely on what you've got stored in your freezer or apple store - but if you have a polytunnel you'd be wrong! This year I once again grew Cape Gooseberries (Physalis Peruviana) in my recycled mayo. buckets. I've grown often them in the ground but they tend to take over to put it mildly as they're extremely vigorous! They're much better mannered in the 10 litre buckets - although still about 4ft/1.3m. high and wide! They're earlier too - possibly due to the root-restriction. They started ripening in late August and I'm still picking them - despite the recent low temperatures. I'm still picking plenty off the plants every week. They will also keep for several months in the salad drawer of the fridge if picked carefully, complete with their decorative little paper 'capes' which cover and protect the fruit. That's why they're called 'Cape' - not because they come from there! And they're not related to gooseberries either! They're actually a South American native - like so many of the Solanaceae/nightshade family - and are in fact related to potatoes! That's where the resemblance ends! They are absolutely delicious raw. When just ripe they have a mouthwatering, sherbetty/mangoey/pineappley flavour - after being kept in the fridge for a few weeks they tend to develop a slightly sweeter 'apricotty' flavour as well. You often see them on dessert plates in restaurants - but many people don't try them because they don't know what they are. 
 
 
Semi-dehydrated cape gooseberries Cape gooseberries - welcome fresh fruit in December
Semi-dehydrated cape gooseberries Cape gooseberries - welcome fresh fruit in December
 
Cape Gooseberries are extremely easy to grow from seed started early in March - and will even grow outside happily in summer - but they do much better in a greenhouse or polytunnel where they will fruit for far longer - then you can have the fresh fruit for Christmas. Unlike tomatoes you don't even have to remove side-shoots because they grow as bushes. Ripening obviously slows up as the weather gets colder - but I'm still picking a few every day now with plenty stored in a bowl in the fridge. They're tender herbaceous perennials, so if you can keep plants over the winter - cutting them back to the base in spring if they haven't completely died back - they will fruit much earlier the next year. I did that with some planted in the tunnel beds years ago and will try to overwinter a few in pots this year - just keeping them barely 'ticking over' with the compost almost dry. They will fruit much earlier next year then. The bees love the flowers too. They freeze really well and dehydrate well too. When dried and concentrated, their flavour is sharply mouth-watering and delicious scattered over winter salads.
 
 
 
Cape gooseberry compared with 1 euro coinCape gooseberry compared with 1 euro coin
 
Cape gooseberries are very high in the phytonutrient Beta-Cryptoxanthin - which is a pro vit. A carotenoid and a very potent anti-cancer and anti-aging antioxidant,  which also effective against arthritis, age-related macular degeneration or ARMD (protecting eyesight), hepatitis, asthma and rheumatism. It has no known side-effects in medicine. Although I do know of a slight one - if you're greedy and eat more than a dozen or so fruit a day - they are far more effective at motivating the gut even than syrup of figs!! - Be warned as they're quite addictive! They're also used in Chinese medicine for treating abscesses, coughs, fevers and sore throats. 
 
 
 
They are absolutely divine on a Pavlova - particularly with a couple of passion fruit squeezed over them - it makes my mouth water just to think of it!  And as they are very high in pectin - they also make jam easily - but I think that's a crying shame unless you've got acres of them. They're so much nicer fresh, and at this time of year any fresh fruit is so welcome. Supermarket prices for any fresh 'exotic' fruit are horrendous at this time of year - and these are actually far easier to grow than tomatoes! They are also delicious dipped in melted dark chocolate - but then - aren't most things!?
 
 

Urgent work that needs doing now!

 
 
Prune grapevines, indoors and outside NOW or as soon as possible. This is urgent as doing them now gives them a chance to heal their wounds properlyYesterday I actually thought I saw some grape buds that were slightly swelling - or maybe that was my imagination! Whatever - if we have a mild spell after Christmas or in early January they can start into growth early - and with the sap rising fast could bleed to death, or be severely weakened. Grapes in containers are the first priority - they always seem to start growing just that little bit earlier than those planted in the ground. Although the upside of that is that you could give them their winter rest against a north facing wall - one of the many tricks that kitchen gardeners of centuries ago used to either bring forward, or hold back plants. 
 
 
I've never found most grapes to be really successful outside here in this part of Ireland - we're much too cold and wetIn parts of the UK where it's drier, there could be some newer varieties of seedless grapes now that might be worth trying - but whether they are seedless or seeded varieties - you need to get an early fruiting variety and grow them on a warm, south-facing wall. I've seen Muscat of Alexandria for sale everywhere here in Ireland - and it's not at all suitable for outside here because it ripens far too late, even if you have an extremely warm spot outside for it. The same goes for Flame - a red seedless grape. They will ripen properly, but still pretty late, in a polytunnel or greenhouse. Outside grapes are always smaller-fruited too unless you thin them. The main problem outside would be any damp weather at the flowering stage hindering pollination - and also when fruiting as damp weather can cause rotting of bunches. Also of course there's the perennial problem of birds and wasps! I grow quite a few varieties in large pots and move them out of the tunnel in the winter as they're actually very hardy - but at flowering time up until fruiting time I bring them back inside - unless I want to delay ripening a particular variety, as I've mentioned before. 
 
 
The grape variety 'Brandt' is delicious and decorative
 
 
One variety of grape that I planted outside years ago - more for just decorative effect - is a small fruited one called 'Brandt'.  It is one of the most reliable outdoor grapes available anywhere in the British Isles and does produce bunches of very small, deep red-brown, very sweet grapes prolifically in two out of three years here, trained over a garden arch - not even a south facing wall. If you just want one for throwing complete with pips into a smoothie - that would be one well worth trying. I took cuttings of it a couple of years ago as I'd read somewhere that it's high in phytochemicals like heart-healthy Resveratrol. I'd never actually tried it inside until last year - and even a young potted vine did well. It has the most stunning autumn colour too - so is worth growing just for it's decorative qualities! I think it may need some serious taming inside though - so it's well-suited to more restricted pot growing! It's fairly widely available online. I have a late couple of bunches of 'Flame' seedless grape which I'm hoping will keep until Christmas and as it's so close now, I think they might manage to make it! Next year with a couple of the later varieties I want to try the old fashioned method of cutting a bunch complete with a bit of stem - and putting the stem in a bottle of water in a darkened room in order to keep the grapes until Christmas -as the incredibly skilled and knowledgeable gardeners in the old walled gardens of great houses used to do.

 
 
 
 
 
As I mentioned last month - you can also take cuttings of grapes now - they're very easy.  When you're pruning you should be able to find plenty of propagating material. Take a length of this year's stem growth - preferably ripened and brown - with three buds, cutting it off just below the bottom one. Then rub off the top and bottom buds - leaving the one in the middle. Pot the cutting up in a gritty, free draining compost with the remaining bud just at soil level - and put it somewhere shady and sheltered where it won't get frozen, making sure it doesn't dry out - until spring, when it should start to sprout roots and grow. You should have a 90% success rate with this - as long as the cutting doesn't dry out. Layering is another way I've tried with 100% success - but as this takes almost a year - it obviously takes longer to produce a separate plant but is the most reliable method. You literally just bend a long stem down to the ground, cover it with soil and put a large cobble or large heavy stone about the size of a brick on top of that. Just keep it moist over the summer - don't let it dry out and it's virtually guaranteed to root. You can then just cut it off from the parent shoot and pot the rooted bit up. Another thing the old gardeners used to do, which I keep meaning to try, is training a stem of a late ripening variety of grape up through a hole in the bottom of a clay pot. They then used to cut off the rooted stem below the pot it had rooted into - complete with attached bunches of grapes - and use the potted plant as a centrepiece for a table flower arrangement at dinner. That would be a rather fun way of propagating another plant to bring inside in the autumn - although I think one might need a pretty large dining table! 
 
 
 
Finish Winter Pruning - a very quick guide
 
 
BlackcurrantsCut out most of the old fruited dark wood, leaving nicely spaced young (lighter wood) growth from this year. I usually do this in summer, combining my pruning with picking by cutting off fruiting branches, bringing them inside and picking off the fruit in comfort on the kitchen table. That takes care of two jobs at the same time and saves the backache! I would definitely recommend this method. Years ago we were told not to cut all of the branches off - just a third - but friends of mine in Herefordshire, who grow blackcurrants for a well-known cordial, use mechanical harvesting now to save labour costs and cut off all the branches off every year - with no ill effects - the bushes do need to be well fed though - and as this is done in the summer at harvesting time - the bushes have time to make new growth that year on which to fruit in the following year. Blackcurrants in particular love plenty of nitrogen - so if you have hens, putting them in the fruit cage under the blackcurrants in winter is a good idea - not for too long though or they will sour the ground. The hens will also pick up any gooseberry sawfly eggs which may be around - these can decimate your bushes in the spring and summer by stripping off all the leaves and just leaving the skeletons! It's often on any new bushes you might buy - but the hen trick works a treat! Nature's natural pest controllers!
 
 
Red and White currants, Gooseberries. Shorten new (paler wood) leader growths to 15cm/6" and fruiting laterals to about 5cm/2" - Both red and white currants fruit on small fruiting spurs (side shoots) growing off a permanent framework of branches - so in the early days you need to prune to build up that framework - only pruning whole branches out when the bush gets older if it becomes too congested. Recently on TV I saw a so-called 'expert' telling people to cut redcurrants down to the ground each year - I think they'd be a bit disappointed with their crops!! Cuttings of all these should still work if you want to try some of the prunings - just stick them in the ground somewhere out of the way! Layering also works well for them too - but stick a large brick or stone onto the bit of stem you want to root or otherwise they may spring up again out of the soil when half rooted next year!
 
  
Autumn fruiting raspberry 'Joan J'
Raspberries -  summer fruiting varieties only - you should have cut back all the old (brown and woody) canes which fruited in the summer straight after fruiting to allow the new (green and sappy) ones room to develop. 
 
 
Autumn-fruiting varieties need different pruning though - all the old canes which fruited this autumn would actually carry another crop next June - slightly lower down the stems - even the older varieties like 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss' will do this - although theirs would be much smaller and hardly worth having. Those two varieties are also extremely rampant and can become seriously troublesome weeds! They also don't have too much flavour. The newer 'primocane' varieties like 'Joan J' and  'Brice' however, will have delicious fruit in early summer which are just as big as their autumn crop - so leaving at least some of their canes to fruit again is really well worth it. 
 
 
Contrary to conventional advice (just like so many things I do!) - I cut down only about half of the fruited canes of autumn-fruiting varieties each winter, leaving some of those which fruited in the autumn, as they'll carry another crop early the next summer. After that they'll be cut right down too, making new growth then which will also fruit in autumn, but slightly later. Doing this staggers the crop really well, but don't leave all of the old canes un-pruned, as you may exhaust the plants and restrict air circulation to young growth coming up. If you're tight for space - I wouldn't bother growing only the summer fruiting varieties at all. The newer primocane autumn-fruiting varieties will give you a crop lower down on the previous year's canes in June and then again from August onwards on the new canes formed in the spring until the first frosts - so you get double the crop from those canes - and they also seem less prone to problems. These newer varieties are far more worth the space they permanently occupy. I haven't seen either 'Joan J' or 'Brice' available here anywhere - so you will have to get them mail order if you want those varieties. 'Joan J' has been a huge success grown in large pots in the west tunnel this year too - I only picked the last at the end of last week.Unfortunately although there are some green ones still developing on the canes - this damp weather has made them more vulnerable to botrytis (grey mould) so they probably won't ripen fully. I'll split the plants in half and re-pot them all after Christmas. That will be a lovely job for a cold damp day with the prospect of even more delicious fruit next year!
 
 
Blackberries and Loganberries/Tayberries - cut out all of the old fruited canes/branches from last summer. Tie in young growths which will fruit next year, to stop them getting damaged by whipping around in our strong winter winds!
 
 
Don't prune any outside stone fruits like plums peaches and cherries - at this time of year! Doing this could cause silver leaf disease. You should prune them in the spring when the sap is rising and they are actively starting to grow. If you have peaches or nectarines standing outside in pots bring them into the tunnel now if you have room - this avoids peach leaf curl, which is caused by rain washing the disease spores down into the buds as they emerge in spring. This is never a problem on peaches grown permanently in the ground in tunnels.

 
Apples and pearsPrune out dead, diseased, crossing and overcrowded branches first. On a young tree - aiming for an open cup shape so you get good air circulation is extremely important in our often damp climate here. Get a good book on fruit pruning if you're interested in training trees into espaliers etc, or even better send for a really good fruit catalogue, they usually have pruning guides in them, and are free! It would take far too long to explain the various intricacies here! Alan Titchmarsh's pruning book is excellent if you want to buy one.

 
Order fruit trees for planting when soil conditions are suitableMail order is the only way to get many heritage varieties. There's not much choice in most of the garden centres, they tend to sell Golden Delicious and Granny Smith (only suitable for continental climates!) or Cox's Orange Pippin (only suitable for the dry climate of Kent! Queen Cox or Holstein Cox is better) The garden centres tell me that's because most people only know those names and so they ask for them as they're the ones they see in supermarkets, but they're really not suitable for growing in Ireland, unless you're in a particularly warm dry spot that I haven't yet discovered!  Why don't garden centres tell people that - they don't seem to care if people are disappointed as long as they buy them then! Rather short-sighted as the customer won't come back! Wherever you get them - make sure they've got a really good list - which has plenty of information on root stocks and the flowering, fruiting and ripening/eating times of particular varieties. It's amazing how little information some websites give! There are some good nurseries, but always ask what varieties they have - and on which root stocks. Don't tell them what you want first - before they tell you what they have! Some are like horse dealers - they'll tell you whatever you want to hear!! 35 years ago, when I knew an awful lot less, I was sold a few 'pups'! You learn by experience! But sadly with fruit trees it can take a few years to see what you've got - by which time you've probably got an ailing unproductive tree, have lost 5-6 years and it's often too late!

 
As I grew up on the edge of the Vale of Evesham,(one of the main fruit growing areas of the UK) and we had a 6 acre orchard of lovely old trees - when I planted my orchard here, I wanted to have a good range of varieties. So I planted both historic and new cookers and eaters, to ensure that I could have a good variety of apples all year round, straight from the tree, as well as some that will store through the winter. I planted over 50 trees, and I've planted many more since. I've grown many varieties on various root stocks and believe that the only really suitable root stock for most Irish soils is the M26 or failing that MM106, these give a healthy, not too vigorous tree roughly 15 feet high (can be kept smaller) which fruits well. I've tried M9's which I find weak and very prone to disease in our wet climate on my heavy County Meath clay and a few years ago as a trial, I planted some on the newish 'Coronet' dwarfing rootstock in the raised beds. Sadly I think this will probably be similar and only really suitable for well-drained, perfect conditions in tubs and pots as well. I don't think so far that they will ever give a worthwhile crop if you're trying to self-sufficient in your own fruit like us, rather than just having a decorative bit of fun! It will also be a few years before I can truly judge just how disease resistant they are - an important consideration in our often damp climate - particularly growing organically. I would never use any pesticide or fungicide sprays. They don't look too promising though. They're expensive too - about four times the price of any variety on M26 - which will go on producing increasingly abundant and healthy crops for many years!

 
One variety really worth trying, if you like 'Cox's Orange Pippin' - is 'Holstein' (or 'Queen Cox'). It tastes exactly the same as Cox's, is crisp, delicious and four or five times the size!  Picked at the end of Oct., it keeps crisp until Christmas.(stored in an old freezer in carrier bags - far better but naturally not as decorative as those lovely wooden apple shelves with trays) Holstein is also very disease resistant, but needs two other pollinator apples nearby, as it's a triploid variety - meaning that it has no good pollen of it's own. It's also better grown as a bush tree, rather than trained, as triploid varieties are more vigorous (another beginner mistake I made! It keeps trying valiantly to escape and having left it un-pruned for a couple of years because of my broken shoulder - I no have a major job of pruning to do!!  Bramley and Ashmead's Kernal are also triploid varieties and behave the same way. In suburban back gardens there are usually apples of some sort growing nearby which can serve as pollinators. Otherwise James Grieve (early mid-season cooker/eater) and Grenadier (early cooker) are both excellent pollinators for it. Or look for something else which flowers at the same time - any good catalogue will tell you the exact pollination groups of trees. I don't like those 'family trees', they're a nice idea and a novelty but they don't give worthwhile crops, and can be very complicated to prune, even for the experienced fruit grower, who can usually recognise which branch is which!  And if you don't prune, they will quickly degenerate into a disease-ridden, unproductive muddle! They can't just be left to their own devices - so if you want just one tree - then find a good self-pollinating variety with fruit that keeps for a little while.

 

Grow your own lemons! 

 
Lemons beside young plants of climbing French beans and calabrese in springLemons beside young plants of climbing French beans and calabrese in spring
 
If you're looking for something extremely decorative, incredibly perfumed, delicious and great for impressing your gardening friends, there's nothing better!  Imagine home grown lemon sorbet at Christmas - or a home grown slice of lemon in your guests' G&T!  I've always been fascinated by them, and because it was impossible to get organic lemons anywhere 30 years ago, I've been growing them ever since - even though organically grown lemons are available most of the year now. They're much the best of the citrus family for beginners, and do produce a worthwhile crop most years.(They're actually worth growing just for the wonderfully scented flowers alone!) They just need a little understanding and TLC, then they're not difficult if you can bring them inside in the winter, away from hard frost. They're fine outside all summer, sheltered from the wind. They are actually acid loving plants, which means you treat them like Rhododendrons and water with rainwater. ONLY water them when they dry out - nothing will kill them quicker than their roots sitting in water!  You can get a citrus feed (chemical) or I top dress in spring with 'Osmo' organic all purpose granules and feed with Osmo liquid feed, or nettle liquid feed later, as they like a high nitrogen feed, but they hate potash, so don't use tomato feed as I saw one article recommending. Mind you - that 'expert' even got his phosphates and potash mixed up!! 
 
 
 
The main pest of all citrus trees is scale insect, which seems to just appear from nowhere sometimes, but it's easily dealt with using an organic insecticidal fatty acid soap spray. Don't use it when the young very tender shoots are developing in spring - or you'll burn them. And never spray in strong sunshine - it has the same effect. I've had some success with Navel oranges, but not much with grapefruit, which really need more warmth. The easiest lemon varieties are Four Seasons, Ponderosa and Meyer's (an easy to grow, delicious, sherbetty-tasting, old hybrid). Aldi have really good lemon trees in the spring every year, around 20 euros, about half the price of most garden centres. They're quite hardy, but a very hard frost will kill some of the small overwintering fruit and some of the young growth even if they are in the tunnel, although a cover of fleece will usually prevent this. It won't kill the trees though if you keep the compost pretty dry in the very coldest weather - and only start to water again when you see a little new growth starting in spring - often from the trunk. Limequats - a cross between a lime and a kumquat are hardy, easy and delicious too.  I was in Johnstown Garden Centre near Naas in Co. Kildare recently - and they have a good variety of really nice citrus plants for sale - they would make a super luxury Christmas present for a keen gardener.
 
 
 
I've never been able to resist trying to sow anything from seed, particularly if it's free!  A fun thing to try with any pips from your Christmas clementines and satsumas is to sow them individually in small yogurt pots, in a free draining seed compost. Choose the very fattest pips. They must be sown in separate pots because there is a fairly good chance that a few of the fattest pips may produce more than one seedling! These 'twins' or 'triplets' are then known as 'poly-embryonic' seedlings, meaning that only one will be a true seedling - and any additional plantlets resulting from the pip will be exactly the same as if you had taken a cutting from the parent plant!  When these are an inch or so high, in spring, separate them very gently (they carefully pull apart quite easily if in a sandy, well drained compost like the Klassman organic seed compost) and grow them on in an acid well drained compost.
 
 
These 'poly-embryonic' seedlings will eventually grow on and fruit, perhaps in as little as three or four years. You won't know which are the 'true' (like a cutting) or 'mongrel' seedlings until that happens, but the mongrels are often the most vigorous. It's easy, fascinating and fun if you have the time and patience!  In the meantime, they make handsome small evergreen trees for a greenhouse or conservatory. I've had great success with them over the years. I also grew dozens of Kiwi fruit from seed over 25 years ago - very easy, and some of them have now taken over my 'jungle' area in the garden, with their beautiful huge jungly-looking red and green plush leaves just like velvet. Most exotic looking!  They are extremely vigorous though - so need a lot of space! Avocados are worth trying too - they make great indoor foliage plants. Try some of these and you might have some home grown Christmas presents to give away next year - so much nicer than bought ones!
 
 

And The best Christmas Present for a Fruit Gardener is?......

 
Semi Dehydrated peachesSemi-dehydrated peaches
 
 
Without doubt, a really terrific Christmas present for any keen fruit grower is a dehydrator.  I bless the day when I bought mine - I absolutely love it and I use it for so many things!!  You can see some of the delicious results above in the Cape Gooseberry picture - and here are some semi-dehydrated frozen peach pieces which I took a photo of earlier this week. They have the most intensely delicious, peachy flavour that you could possibly imagine, just like chewy peach sweeties. I prefer them only semi-dehydrated to just a pleasantly chewy leather-hardness, when they retain far more of their flavour and also nutrients. Again they are absolutely delicious on salads - but also utterly irresistible whenever I go to the freezer for something - so they don't tend to last too long!! I semi-dry Lakemont Seedless grapes in it too - to make the most heavenly sultanas. I don't like anything dried until it's crisp unless I'm actually making veg crisps - another naughty but very delicious use for the dehydrator! Dehydrating is a great way to use any damaged fruit which might go off before you could use them - so they prevent food waste too. Actually - a good dehydrator is a blessing and it's something that people rarely buy for themselves. That is - unless they're a very greedy fruit geek like me!!
 
 

 I Hope You Have a Very Happy Fruity Christmas Everyone & A very Healthy and Fruit-full New Year! :))

 
 
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 it, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. Thank you.
 
 
 
 
 

The Vegetable Garden in December - 2019

December contents: A soiled planet?....There is something positive each of us can do right now to restore soil .....  Making compost isn't rocket science!.... Is there much to do outside now? ..... Don't walk on wet soil - or dig it!..... Make a good cropping plan now .....Don't forget to have tunnel-tape at the ready! Winter Poultry Tips.
 
 
 As the famous Green quote says - "We do not inherit the earth - we borrow it from our children" ..... I say "We borrowed the soil from our children - we were profligate with it's riches and have squandered their inheritance!" - But we can rebuild soils and restore that inheritance by using organic, carbon-regenerative methods.  
 
 
In the picture above taken over 30 years ago, I'm explaining to a group how to re-build soil fertility using organic methods. They were some of my organic box scheme customers from the early 1980s and also members of our local Fingal Green Party - who included our future Green Minister for Horticulture Trevor Sargent - a keen organic gardener with whom I was honoured to have been co-founder of the Fingal Greens.  A day full of hope!
 

 

A 'soiled' planet?

 
I hope you'll forgive that pun but our forbears had far more respect for the soil than we have today.  Researching methods of restoring soil to fertility has naturally always been one of my pet subjects as I started here 38 years ago on the most appallingly degraded and lifeless soil, polluted by agrichemicals.  Many people take soil for granted and think of it as just so much 'dirt' - something which simply anchors crops while we pour on the chemicals! But the more chemicals we pollute soil with the less it works as Nature designed it to, and it's now increasingly unable to regulate the climate properly, by absorbing and storing atmospheric carbon - which is one of the jobs it evolved to do. Evolved - some might say? Yes - evolved - because soil is actually a living, breathing community of organisms all working together as they have done since life began. It's not just do much lifeless mineral dust under our feet! Some scientists decided back in the mid 20th century that chemicals were a better and more profitable (for them!) way of growing our food than the way Nature has evolved to over countless millennia! How wrong they were when you look at the amount of ill-health, destruction of biodiversity and climate change which those carbon-releasing farming methods have caused. You can't grow healthy food for humans, farm animals or biodiversity if you don't have a healthy living soil to start with - as I said at the beginning of this month's polytunnel diary. 
 
 
As I'd been invited to talk about soil at the launch of the European 'People4Soil' campaign at our National Botanic Gardens 3 years ago - I was looking back through my treasured collection of old Soil Association mags which I was given by some very kind friends many years ago, whose parents had been among the earliest members of the Soil Association. I was looking for some fresh inspiration in order to motivate people to value soil more highly. The collection starts from the very first ones back in the 1930's. Even then, so many people all around the world were warning even then of the dire consequences of using synthetic pesticides and other man-made chemicals - but their warnings weren't heeded. 
 
 
Of course, there is far more money to be made out of patenting chemicals than there is out of encouraging Nature - but the fact that we ignore it at our peril is now becoming abundantly clear!  Multinationals can't make massive profits from that! So farmers and gardeners trust in Nature was deliberately undermined and they were encouraged to believe that it wasn't possible to grow crops without chemicals! 
 
 
The health of the planet's soils has declined just as sharply as the profits of the multinationals have risen - the health of our crops has also declined and there is now the biggest epidemic of NCDs - or non-communicable - or 'lifestyle-disease' diseases (as diabetes, cancer, dementia are known) - in human history. The consequences of this greed and blind ignorance are now coming back to haunt us in the shape of antibiotic resistance, an exponential rise in the incidence so called 'modern lifestyle diseases' and also in the global destruction of soils to the point where a great deal of land is no longer capable of growing vital crops, and soils are devoid of any humus and carbon to hold them together, are washing away into rivers and creating 'dead zones' in the seas - where the nutrients running off from farmland eventually make their way to the coast killing off marine life. In some parts of the world, it would take nature many hundreds of years to restore soils to proper fertility again. All this in a world with a rapidly increasing population! Even on our country roads here in Ireland we can see soil pouring out of gateways onto roads after heavy rains - and flooding in winter is now a regular occurrence. There's no humus or carbon left in that soil to hold it together any more or give it any resilience against extremes of climate - and this is something which will be happening more in the future with climate change. That's because over the last 40 or 50 years in particular, farmers have been literally mining all of the carbon and humus that has built up over millennia - pouring chemicals onto it and putting nothing back in the form of composts and manures to hold the soil together. 
 
 
The great Sir David Attenborough said "Anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet is either mad or an economist!" - Or both perhaps?
 
  
People who think that peak oil is the major problem facing us are so wrong. Peak soil is our real problem! We could do without oil - but we can't survive without the soil, despite what some proponents of hydroponics would have you believe. - and neither can the planet!  A healthy, living soil doesn't just grow things - it traps and sequesters huge quantities of carbon - more than anything else on the planet. An unhealthy, dying soil that has been destroyed by chemicals does exactly the opposite, releasing carbon rapidly into the atmosphere as it degrades - adding massively to climate change. Most people don't appreciate the complex biological processes that are going on right under their feet! 
 
 
The health of the soil that feeds us is vital to our own health, as well as the health of the planet. Hydroponics can't grow healthy crops - feeding plants with the chemicals or even organic nutrients that WE think they need can never produce the same healthy plants that nature does. There's an awful lot going on in soil that despite all our modern technology - we still haven't actually discovered yet. We are only just beginning to understand that there is a hugely complex web of billions of organisms in a healthy soil which are all dependent on each other in able to be able to do their job. The plants then in turn depend on this web of life to produce the compounds to keep them healthy - the soil is quite literally their immune system. We need to understand this interdependent food web better fast - if we are to to restore resilience to our soils!  
 
 

There is something positive each of us can do right now to restore soil 


We can each make a change to our own small little corner of the planet - indeed we each have a responsibility to do so - every one of us.  It's vital to do it now - not in 10 or 20 years time when it affects each one of us personally in richer countries - because by then it will be far too late
Our little bit may not seem much in the greater scheme of things - but it can make a difference if we all do something. One of he ways we can do this is by growing as much of our own food as possible - in a low carbon, non-polluting, peat-free and organic way that enhances - not destroys nature! If we can't grow food ourselves - then we should try to support regenerative organic agriculture as much as we can by buying organic if possible. Organic is the only truly sustainable agriculture - the way that Nature does it!  The soil gave us life - and if we destroy it we no know that there is no hope of our children and their descendants living on a planet which can support life as we now know it - it's that serious!  Climate change is like a snowball rolling downhill - the more energy it gathers the faster it goes. The outcome of the recent talks were almost a one day wonder on social media - then the general focus moved back again to Brexit! I really despair sometimes. Despite the warnings of such respected commentators as Dir David Attenborough, so many people are still not taking it seriously!  Surely anyone who has children must think about their future and worry about the mess we're leaving for them to clear up - unless they're entirely selfish?  


Using compost, green manures, cover crops, mulching, not digging deeply which disturbs fragile fungal systems, and never leaving bare soil uncovered and open to the elements, are all ways we can rebuild soil.  By using compost I don't mean dumping tons of manure or compost and leaving it open to the weather either - that just runs off, pollutes groundwater and emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as I mentioned last month. Biochar is an interesting and increasingly popular way to restore carbon to soil and hold on to fertility too. Biochar is basically charcoal that has been made by burning wood by a method known as pyrolysis - or in other words in the absence of oxygen, just as the woodsmen charcoal makers still do. This was used by some Amazonian Indian civilisations in the past to make their soil more fertile and help it to hold onto nutrients. I've always used shredded woody prunings and wood chips to introduce more carbon and humus into my compost heap ever since I've been gardening, and it's always worked extremely well. Next year I'm going to have a shot at making my own biochar too - from the biomass willows which I planted 25 years ago in the 'wet woodland' habitat at the bottom of the wildlife meadow. I also have some Miscanthus or elephant grass which I'm planting around the hen runs to use up the nitrogen in their nitrogen-rich droppings. It's another of the plants which is recommended for making biochar - but basically any woody prunings will do.
 
   

Making compost isn't rocket science!

 
When I'm giving talks, compost is the one thing people seem to get really hung up about - and it's really easy - nature does it without any help from us quite naturally! But just as with everything else - Nature does it more slowly. It's only when us impatient humans intervene and want instant results that problems always seem to happen!  Tidy up any dead or diseased plant material and bury it well in the compost heap. The exception to this is potatoesNever put any 'blighty' potatoes or foliage in there as I saw recommended recently - unless your heap is huge and gets hot enough to fry eggs! The other no-no which I don't put into my compost heap is any peelings from shop-bought onions which could possibly carry onion white rot if you're unlucky. That's a disease  you don't want to import into your garden as it can last for 20 years and spread everywhere on tools and boots!  As always when making compost - just make sure there's a good mix of soft and fibrous material, cover it to prevent the rain getting in or heat and nitrous oxide vapours escaping (a potent greenhouse gas), and you'll be OK..  It's mostly common sense, so if you're new to doing it, don't get in a state and think it has to be perfect - just do it!  And cover it! Nature will do the rest. If you just throw any plant remains in a heap somewhere eventually they would rot down, but if you organise it a bit better, by putting it in a bin or a neat heap and covering it to keep the weather out - it will happen a lot more quickly and you won't lose all the nutrients out of it. It's a bit like making a cake really - and the results smell almost as delicious! At the Botanic Gardens last year got a lot of laughs when I admitted to being a serial compost sniffer! Seriously though - there are microorganisms in healthy soils and good compost that can actually relieve stress when inhaled - that's one of the reasons why gardening and being in nature are so relaxing. So go ahead and try it - happy sniffing!!
 
  
 
Making a new compost bin is a great job for a cold day in winter.  
Making a new compost bin is a great job for a cold day in winter.  
If you've got enough room, pallets secured with posts at each corner are just the job to make a heap about 1m square, or even bigger if possible, which is a good size to get it to heat up really well in order to kill weed seeds etc. It also keeps it relatively tidy too and being made from recycled materials, is a lot cheaper than buying a compost bin, and usually bigger too. The bigger the heap, the better it heats - but you do need to get quite a lot of material together to start it. You'll need two or preferably three compartments, one for adding new material to as you have it, which you then turn upside down into the next one to mix in air and continue rotting, and one for made compost which has been turned in there as it is ready for use. In practice though, you can get away with two, taking out the best from the second heap as you turn it. That keeps everything neat and tidy. I grow comfrey plants beside my compost heaps, they take up any nutrients which may leach out into the surrounding soil, I also compost all the dog poo in a separate heap of it's own, away from that area, which is then used to fertilise the comfrey. The comfrey I grow is  Bocking 14, (a high-potash, non-seeding strain developed by the late great Lawrence Hills decades ago) it's used to make a high potash liquid feed, as a weed smothering mulch, minced up as a treat for the worm bin or just put on the compost heap. Nettles also grow there, without any help, as they do!  They are mixed with the comfrey for the liquid feed or cut before they flower to put on the heaps as a great activator, as they are high in nitrogen too. Absolutely nothing should be wasted!  If you only have a tiny garden and a very small amount of vegetable and kitchen waste - a worm bin is very useful - here's a link to my article on making your own worm-composting bin, very reasonably compared again to a bought one - which can cost upwards of €100 - and frankly aren't as good or as big!:  http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/537-how-to-easily-make-an-affordable-home-wormery
 
 
A very funny incident, when I happened to be spending a few days working in the HDRA (now re-branded 'Garden Organic') advisory department, 30 years ago, picking out slides for lectures and an organic roadshow which I was setting up at the time. A chap rang up the advisers to ask if he should put his tea leaves on the compost heap. He was extremely worried as he'd heard that they possibly contained traces of aluminium!....The reply was "well you're drinking it aren't you.....?!"!!  After he'd rung off the whole place collapsed into general mirth!!  A little common sense never goes astray!!  They were such a great bunch at the HDRA  always helpful, fun, cheerful and encouraging and extremely supportive of our efforts to promote organics here in Ireland in the early days. The late Lawrence Hills came over here in the early 1980's, and made a terrific impression on me and all who met him. He was such a powerhouse of energy, enthusiasm and ideas you could almost have run the National Grid off him!  Alan and Jackie Gear were also both tremendously helpful and supportive too - and are greatly missed now on the organic scene since their retirement. In some ways I feel the organic gardening scene has run out of steam just a little lately - although there are a great many people trying to do good work.  
 
 

Is there much to do outside now?

 
Although December is a quiet time in terms of sowing and planting there's still plenty of things you can be getting on with which will give you a real head start next yearIf you want to warm up and work off some of that Christmas pud. (or other excesses!) turning the compost heap and mixing the contents is great calorie-burning activity!  If it's not very well broken down, you can add in some fresh poultry manure or other high nitrogen additions (certain ones spring to mind when thinking of Christmas excesses that I won't mention here!) this really gets it heating up again, which is just what you want. Make sure compost heaps are securely covered with something waterproof to stop possible leaching and nutrient loss, and adding another insulating layer to help keep any warmth in is also a good idea. When the heaps have started to cool a bit, the worms will begin working slowly in them if they're not too cold.
 
 
Just as in November, DON'T dig ground and leave it uncovered because of possible nutrient leaching and carbon loss. I'm astonished at the number of  'experts' who still tell you to smother all vacant ground with manure or compost, or dig it in and just leave it open to the elements for the winter!  It appears to me that a lot of their advice is just taken straight out of old fashioned, out of date books!  Never leave empty ground uncovered all winter. A cover crop or green manure cover is best - but if I need a patch early in spring then on my heavy clay I find covering securely with black plastic or something else waterproof and light-excluding to stop weed seeds germinating and stop nutrients leaching works well. Then I just uncover it occasionally on fine days to let the birds deal with any pests, slug eggs etc. they can find. The robins in the garden will follow me and watch - flying down the minute I uncover anything, to be first to grab the goodies!  If the bed is for early carrots or other fine seed, then in mid January I replace the cover with a clear plastic cover (usually cut from left over tunnel polythene) this warms up the soil and encourages any lurking weed seeds near the surface to germinate. I then uncover just before sowing in late Feb. or March and pass over it lightly with the flame weeder, this kills off any weed seedlings on the surface and creates a clean, so called 'stale' seedbed to sow the carrots into. That gives them a head start without competition and weedy hiding places for slugs!  It also barbecues slugs nicely - nasty person!
 
 
Make a good cropping plan 
 
 
If you haven't done so already (see Nov.) - it helps so much when you're ordering seeds - especially if like me, you tend to get carried away and order far too much!  The catalogues all look so tempting. And as I advised in the 'What to Sow now' section - do get your seeds ordered before the good varieties run out. Stick to varieties you know will do well in your garden, trying one or two new ones each year. If you're new to gardening - ask an experienced gardening neighbour - this is where local GIY or other gardening groups are useful. They may have meetings once a month in many areas where you can meet other local gardeners. This is really helpful as climates and soils differ so much all over Ireland and the UK. When I'm ordering seeds, I like to try one a few new varieties each year, because a lot of research is being carried out into disease resistance etc., which is all good news for organic growing. The one thing many proponents of only growing so-called 'Heritage' varieties seem to forget is - that our climate is changing and we need plant breeding to continue producing suitable varieties for the future - as well as retaining the best from the past - if we want to be self-sufficient in food in the future.

 
Order your seed potatoes as soon as you can if you haven't already. At the end of the month or during January you could plant a few 'extra-earlies' in pots to be ready at Easter if you've got your own sprouted seed saved from your earlies this year.  You can also still plant garlic in pots, if the soil is wet, to plant out later.


If you're thinking of making raised beds, and you have somewhere dry to work like a garage or shed, then you could be painting the planks for the sides with a good organic wood stain/preservative, to give it time really soak in. I made my beds from 7"x 2" new rough timber, and put on 3 coats of 'Donnos' wood stain/preservative as recommended by Manfred Wandel of Fruit Hill Farm - it looks good and also seems quite water resistant. I used metal brackets on the end corners of the beds. The sides are secured with several 2ft lengths of  1/2" approx steel 'rebars', from my local builders suppliers, driven into the ground until the top is just below the top of the planks to avoid them catching on things. These won't rot and are neater than wood. The total cost worked out at roughly 1 euro per foot, which I think is pretty good. Recycled timber is fine as long as it hasn't been treated with anything nasty, but will still need a few coats of preservative. (Pressure treated decking planks, which I saw one 'expert' recommending recently, are full of toxic chemicals which can leach out into the soil when wet! Nice!!)
 

I then needed a lot of topsoil, which was a major problem. I am gradually replacing all the raised beds in the kitchen garden with a new higher edging, they were originally minimum-dig 'deep beds' 30 years ago, but now need to be a lot higher as my back needs to bend a lot less! I priced topsoil on the internet a few years ago - at anything between 99-150 euros a ton it would have cost around 6,500 euros, added to which, it would most definitely not be organic (although they'd probably tell you anything - a bit like horse dealers!) Then I had a brainwave! I could get my own topsoil by digging out the large wildlife pond I had always wanted, in the wet spot at the bottom of the field which was full of brambles and scrub. In June 2010 - my local builder, who loves to do anything a bit different, came along with his digger and I stood waving a flag (no this way...that way) and feeling very powerful! I then lined it with old polytunnel covers I had been hoarding for years, waiting for an opportunity to recycle them. The whole thing cost roughly 1/6th of what the topsoil alone would have cost, gave me a very neat solution to three different problems - and endless joy!  I've since spent many happy hours watching dragonflies and bats hunting over the pond, and even watched as a female dragonfly laid her eggs on the edge. They moved in incredibly quickly, within 3 days of it filling with rainwater, probably because I have a smaller pond elsewhere in the garden and it seemed a much better and  bigger 'des-res.'!  It's such a peaceful place to sit on a summer evening - listening to the breeze gently rustling the surrounding birch and willow trees.
 

But most importantly - don't forget you can grow in almost anything - as long as it will hold soil or compost deep enough for roots and has some drainage. Don't wait until you have the perfect garden - start in a container or two now. Even a broken bucket could grow a patch of salad leaves - and they're far less likely to be eaten by slugs when up out of their reach a bit. So just do it - and worry about any cosmetic issues later! Picking some of your own fresh and healthy food is the important thing - however small your plot or pot!  A friend of mine is now partially disabled, and her son, who works in the building trade, has collected some old baths that were being thrown out of buildings that were being re-furbished and they make fantastic raised beds in her small garden. Next year she is planning to put low fencing around them and grow flowers in front to hide them!  - Where there's a will there's a way as the old saying goes!
 
 

Don't walk on wet soil - or dig it!

 
 
The ground outside in the vegetable garden is so wet now - that the very short days just don't give it any chance to dry up at all. There's nothing you can usefully do so you're better staying off soil to avoid damaging it's structure.  You can keep busy just tidying up, building compost heaps, sorting pots and maintaining tools. Don't worry - there will be more that enough proper gardening to be done again soon! For now we can read seed catalogues, good books and just dream. I always think that gardening is a lot about looking forward and dreaming of the next year's plans too - and that's so important! Whether it's vegetables, flowers, trees or neatly clipped box you most dream about - they're all beautiful dreams! It's the winter solstice very soon - all around me I can already see early spring flowers like hellebores and primroses in bud and gearing up for next year too! Even the early daffodils are poking their noses above ground. Spring is only just around the corner! Nature's eternal optimism never fails to lift the gardener's spirits.
 
 
It's really exciting when the seed catalogues start dropping through the letterbox again too, with lots of tempting new varieties, and often these days a few more good old ones that are being re-introduced after years of not being available.  There's nothing like a bit of 'HRT' to cheer up a cold day! - Horticultural Retail Therapy that is!  Much more entertaining than watching endless recycled stupid Christmas films!  
 
 
Seeds are terrific value!  Where else in life can you buy so much hope for the future, a real sense of achievement, good health, pure enjoyment and countless delicious meals for less than the price of a Lottery ticket - with far more reliable returns?! No matter how cold it is - when I'm looking at all those colourful seed catalogues - spring seems only just around the corner, the eternal gardener's optimism returns and everything is possible! Despite the awful weather right now - it's hard to keep a gardener's optimism down!
 
 
We gardeners are always hopeful and optimistic folk - how can we be anything else! We know that the summer will come - we hope for some sun and that the gentle rain will fall. We know that despite the many "slings and arrows" of climate change, we will all still enjoy at least some delicious harvests again next year - an age old certainty. "Blow, blow, thou winter wind...." Shakespeare wrote - he must have been a gardener - as he deeply appreciated and wrote so eloquently about all the seasons. Back in those days people really understood the true meaning of living by the seasons - they had no choice!  And they at least could be sure that the seasons would follow their same predictable pattern every year. These days sadly we can no longer rely on that age old assumption. They also had far more respect for Nature than many in our modern, 'so called' more 'enlightened'(?) society. Man has been disrespectful of Nature - ungrateful and wasteful of her riches so abundantly provided. We have abused Nature to the point where we can no longer rely on her generosity. In our stupidity and arrogance we've destroyed so much of incalculable value. Albert Einstein said that "only two things are infinite - the universe and human stupidity".......I so hope that he was wrong and that people will learn to value soil before it is too late..   
 

Don't forget to have tunnel-tape at the ready!

 
This is something I forgot to put at the end of the polytunnel diary for this month. If you have polytunnels - make sure you have a roll of tunnel tape ready for mending it if the worst happens! I'm always worried about flying branches with polytunnels - and whenever there's a storm - which seems to be happening more frequently now, I almost hold my breath until the wind stops!  I've had a lot of sleepless nights over the last couple of months - listening for that unmistakable sound of flapping and ripping polythene - which once you've heard you never forget!  It is possible to mend them if they're not too bad but the best thing to do if your tunnel starts to get badly ripped - unless the weather suddenly calms and you get a chance to fix it - is to just take a knife, cut it all the way round and just let it go. That way you may save the frame - and that's the expensive bit.  It takes courage - but I know from experience that if you don't get the chance to do that - then the frame can become so badly distorted that it's beyond repair! Given the wild extremes of weather that we seem to be experiencing more and more with climate change - in the future self-sufficient food production may depend on polytunnels and raised beds in many locations. I certainly couldn't grow crops on the flat here any more, and we live on a hill!.  
 
If the worst happens and your tunnel does get damaged - here's a link to a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago on how to fix it if it's not irretrievable! : http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/531-how-to-mend-damaged-polytunnels
 
 

Winter Poultry tips 

 
If you have any hens - then make sure you keep them as warm and dry as possible at this time of year. Remember - happy hens are healthy hens - and happy, healthy hens lay more eggs - even through the winter!  Take out any droppings every day so that they don't get any respiratory problems which can happen quickly if they're breathing in stale, ammonia-filled air. Also make sure they have fresh shavings or hay in their nest boxes. Don't forget they're in their house for longer when the days are shorter, so any muck biulds up more quickly. My system of 'spokes of a wheel' pattern runs which I change around frequently works well despite the wet weather. I love to see the girls rush out in the mornings to investigate a new patch! They'll tend to slow up a bit on the egg production now for a few weeks - but in mid Jan. they'll start to get back to normal as long as you've looked after them really well. I grow a couple of rows of chard and sugar loaf chicory specifically for them every winter in the tunnel where it's very productive. I give them a bunch of leaves every day as well as any other bits of waste from the garden like outside cabbage leaves etc.- they adore them and clear up every scrap. I think it makes a huge difference to their health - and you can certainly notice it in their eggs too - they have really rich orange yolks. 
 
 
If you have a little space in your tunnel you could even be really kind and give them a winter 'mini-break' by penning them in there for a couple of weeks if you have a suitable small house for them - mine always love the warmth and dryness in the polytunnel and have a fabulous time dust bathing in the dry soil! The only problem then could be keeping away the foxes which may try to eat through the side of the tunnel trying to get at them - something which actually happened to me many years ago, when rearing broilers in a polytunnel!  Last year I reared chicks in one of my polytunnels - and they were very well-protected inside two interlinking, super-size, metal dog cages covered with two layers of small mesh chicken wire. Not even a mouse was able to get through that to steal food!  When they were old enough - they then ranged on the tunnel bed pecking at all the greens and worms in it, until they were hardy and well-feathered enough to go into their house outside, where they are now.
 
 
Make sure you have plenty of layers pellets in for them as many farm shops close for several days over the Christmas and New Year holidays - because even if  shops are open - they may run out of stuff. (Remember that organic layers pellets and animal feeds are the ONLY ones that can now be guaranteed not to contain GM soya, or Glyphosate-treated grains, because 'so called free-range' hens are fed on exactly the same feed as battery or cage hens!) By the way - I wouldn't advise feeding red cabbage or sprouts to hens - I did that years ago when I was producing organic eggs commercially and a couple of weeks later many of my egg customers complained that I must be feeding the hens on 'chemical feed' all of a sudden - as the eggs tasted really sulphurous and horrible! That was clearly caused by the amount of the phytochemical sulforaphane in them - which really shows you clearly that what the hens eat really does affect the quality of the eggs they lay - and that anything in the feed, good or bad, is passed directly on to you!  It's just the same with other animals - just as we are what we eat - we are also what they eat, if we eat them! That's one of the reasons I would never feed anything other than organic feed to my hens or chickens for eating - I don't want GMO maize and soya, or Glyphosate-treated grain in my boiled eggs or my chicken meat!
 
 
The eve of the winter solstice is when I celebrate my New Year's Eve - usually with a few fellow gardener friends, talking about gardening (what else?), with a glass or two of wine and nibbling a bit of good cheese, perhaps making a little music and having a bit of 'craic'. It's what I like to think of as the 'Gardener's New Year's eve! A time when we all look back over the dying year and are just on the very brink of the next. 
 
 
Just in case you don't get time to read any more here on the blog before Christmas - (also just in case I don't get time to write it!)..................... I HOPE  MOST SINCERELY THAT YOU WILL ALL HAVE A VERY PEACEFUL, WARM AND HAPPY CHRISTMAS - SURROUNDED BY THOSE YOU LOVE MOST - wherever in the world you are..............X
 
 
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 it, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would mention that it originally came from me. Thank you.

The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in December - 2019

 

Contents:  Beneficial Bedfellows - Nature loves Diversity!.... There is no healthy life or a healthy planet without a healthy soil!... Early propagation in my Polytunnel Potager last year!.... Despite low light levels now - there's still plenty of healthy food to eat in the polytunnel..... Lovely luscious leaves.... Midwinter tunnels.... You can start sowing seeds again in late December.... Good housekeeping keeps down disease - so keep clearing up any rubbish!....Looking after biodiversity is important - even in a polytunnel! 

 

Sweetcorn 30th September this year - pollinated and swelling nicely. Interplanted with 'Scarlette' Chinese cabbage Interplanting lettuces like loose-leaf & little gem with different times of maturity & types of growth gives a longer harvest Late polytunnel celery, interplanted with landcress & red Lollo lettuce. 20th Sept
Lettuce 'Little Gem' interplanted with baby leeks in containers Leeks interplanted with lettuce which will be harvested before leeks mature Pumpkins & squashes interplanted with sweetcorn - mid June polytunnel



Beneficial Bedfellows - Nature Loves Diversity!

 

A few years ago I worked out that if you spend an average of 25 euros a week on organic vegetables that you could be growing yourself - then even a medium sized polytunnel will pay for itself quite quickly.  In practise that means if any size of polytunnel doesn't pay for itself within roughly 2 years in terms of produce & money save on the food budget - then it's not being properly utilised!  So suing every inch pays off.  The latest soil science also shows that keeping the surface of soil covered at all times either with a growing crop or with other plants such as green manures like clover - or even just a mulch, benefits the soil and the plants, as it increases the activity and diversity of all the soil organisms like bacteria and fungi which benefit the health of the plants.

 

Luckily this is something I've done for many years, as I started off my organic growing originally in a tiny garden - needing to grow as much of our own food as possible for my allergic first child.  So I learnt very quickly how to get the most use out of every inch of my space - and intercropping or interplanting or overlapping crops is the best way to do it. That was over 40 years ago - these days some people claim to have invented it and have given it the hip new name of 'Polyculture' - but basically it's exactly the same thing!  The crops can be annual, perennial or permanent such as fruit bushes or trees. It doesn't really follow any rules except the obvious one of rotating annual crops which I still stick to - as it makes more sense to me from the point of view of using the soil in a diverse manner - not depleting the same nutrients constantly, and also for avoiding diseases and nematodes which can build up if you grow the same crop every year in the same space.

 

I see a lot of articles promoting this way of growing now, some from authors who may not have even done it judging by some of the things they recommend growing together!  There's nothing like experience to teach you what works and what doesn't - but it's mostly common sense. Intercropping tall plants with lower-growing, shade loving ones always works really well - as long as the plants you use enjoy the same growing conditions, such as the type of soil needed. The combination I see constantly cited is the famous native American Indian 'Three Sisters' combination - of sweetcorn, climbing beans and squashes grown together. It may work well in the hot, sunny and dry conditions of American prairie summers - but doesn't work here. It may look impressive for a couple of weeks to show admiring visitors but that's about it!  You might get small crop but you won't get a good crop from any of them, and depending on the year - you may get a lot of disease. Growing tall plants together doesn't work in Ireland as they need plenty of above-ground space for air circulation etc.

 

Good air circulation is something that's even more vital in a polytunnel, no matter what the time of year, otherwise disease can set in rapidly in the often damp air. Over the years though - I've found that growing crops and flowers all mixed up together is definitely the way to get the best out of the tunnel, and including lots of flowers for beneficial insects in the mix as well means I also have edible flowers all year round, and all the pest control I need - because Nature appreciates the natural diversity and does it all for me!  The photos above show a few examples of combinations of crops which I have used a lot for many years, both in the polytunnel and outside, and which work very well for me.  You may come up with lots more combos of your favourite crops - it's fun to experiment - and Nature will thank you for it!  

 

"Human welfare is fundamentally linked with Mother Earth.....not just because the soil is the primary source of most of our food....but because it occupies a key position in the rhythmic cycle of life itself." - Stanley Whitehead.  (from Mother Earth - the Journal of The Soil Association, Winter 1947-48)

 

 My 'soil' 35 years ago  A lump of that soil sitting on my soil now!
 The dead and impoverished 'soil' I inherited 38 years ago                A lump of that original soil sitting on my soil now - full carbon and of life! 

 

There is no healthy life or a healthy planet without a healthy soil - it should be World Soil Day every day!

 

The two contrasting pictures above show an example of how any soil can be healed - even one so seriously degraded that it is almost devoid of all life! The picture on the left shows the totally exhausted and lifeless soil which I started off with here 39 years ago - so badly degraded and impoverished by over 20 years of 'industrial farming' and poisoned with Glyphosate and other agri-chemicals - that not even weeds wanted to grow! The picture on the right shows a lump of that very same soil, which I had carefully saved an example of, sitting on a bed of the soil which I now have - a vitally alive, healthy, carbon and humus-rich soil full of the vital microbial life that keeps both plants and humans healthy. I knew by the time we moved here - from my own seven years of organic gardening and also by watching how Nature works - that soil can be restored to healthy life gradually by feeding it with natural plant wastes and composts. I'm not superwoman, I'm now partially disabled and don't have any help here. It won't take you 39 years - it can be done! And from the moment you start to heal your soil you will become part of the solution - and not part of the problem. The health of the entire planet - as well as the health of all biodiversity including humans - depends on a healthy soil that contains all the active microorganism in it which can sequester carbon, storing it in the ground. The healthier soil is - the more effective it is at doing that. Without a healthy soil - we can't grow healthy crops full of the vital nutrients - vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients - which our bodies evolved to eat in order to keep us healthy.

 

Three years ago I had the great honour of being invited by 'The Environmental Pillar' (an advocacy coalition of 28 Irish environmental groups) to give a talk at the Irish launch of the European 'People4Soils' initiative at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, on 'World Soil Day'.  It was with the above quote that I began my presentation. I was asked if I would talk about what practical action gardeners could take to help to restore soils. I was delighted to accept their invitation, since soil is a subject very close to my heart and which I am absolutely passionate about, having been an organic grower and farmer for over 40 years. Looking back through over 38 years of photographs, to find the best ones which illustrated the points in my presentation, brought back so many memories for me and it was a great pleasure. For the benefit of those who weren't able to attend, I'm repeating my opening and closing few words here. The talk was filmed - and you can watch it here (apologies for the sound quality and background noise!):   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjN30StFsf0

 

The enthusiasm and energy from all of the people who attended was infectious.  A wide diversity of environmental groups were represented - not just organic farming organisations.  I sincerely hope that they will all go on and continue to spread the awareness that soil is not just essential to growing healthy food for us - but also that restoring soil carbon, by regenerative organic farming methods, is absolutely key in helping to mitigate climate change. In the last 35 years we have lost approximately 30% of our soils globally, mostly through the destruction caused by intensive chemical agriculture. Felling forests, drainage and destruction of wetlands is also not just adding to this loss of carbon-fixing humus but also causing emissions of even more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. As the living soils in forests and peat bogs are major carbon sinks, this is having a massive effect on accelerating climate change. But there is hope that we can do something and this is what I wanted to get across. We can ALL do something - and we all should act now - without delay!

 

The well-known expert soil scientist Rattan Lal, from Ohio State University, estimated a few years ago that just by restoring 2% of global soil carbon - we could mop up ALL of our current greenhouse gas emissions from whatever source....  What a stunning statistic!  Regenerative, sustainable organic farming and growing is the ONLY method of agriculture which can do it. Just putting back some plant wastes into soil but still continuing to use fossil fuel-derived, soil-destroying chemicals can't do that. A combination of the two simply doesn't work, as one will cancel out the other!  Agricultural chemicals destroy the soil life which is vital to making carbon-fixing humus in the soil. In addition - using chemicals literally 'mines' carbon from the soil and also depletes it of many nutrients which are vital to our health and that of all other creatures.

 

In 1963, the late Rachel Carson - author of Silent Spring and heroine of the environmental movement said "I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with Nature, and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature - but of ourselves."  - Sadly too few heeded her timely and much-needed warning. The lure of chemical farming and cheap fossil fuels proved too seductive. We thought had it all - and like irresponsible teenagers we squandered the riches of our Mother Earth to the point were in many places soil can no longer do the job it evolved to do - which is to sustain healthy life on this planet.....But like irresponsible teenagers we now have to grow up, prove our maturity and urgently take responsibility for our actions!

 

In the autumn of 1992 - just after the first Rio Earth Summit - I organised a lecture at the National Botanic Gardens which was given by Alan Gear - who was then Chief Executive of HDRA - now called Garden Organic, which the largest organic gardening organisation in Europe. His lecture was entitled - "The Road From Rio".  His warning was again stark - that we ignore the value of soil at our peril! Hearing his motivating talk, many of us were re-energised and went home determined to do whatever we could to help raise awareness of how valuable soil is and what a vitally important contribution organic farming could make to a more sustainable future. Not just for growing healthy food but also in mitigating climate change. 

 

A lot of people talk about climate change now - but actually do nothing to help mitigate it! As a 'doer' and a practical person not a philosopher - I went home from Alan Gear's lecture and planted 300 more trees - many of them biomass willows, oaks, hawthorns, hornbeam and birches. I'm so glad I planted them - and a lot more since. They've been so useful for shelter for animals and plants, for fuel and for making soil-healing compost from the smaller prunings. They're also a wonderful year-round resource - hosting biodiversity of all kinds - bees, insects and other creatures so vitally important in the connected web of life. If you only do a couple of things for our children's future and for the planet - please plant a tree or two, use peat-free compost and try to support organic agriculture if you don't have somewhere to grow your own organic food. Don't put it off until tomorrow - do it now! I know organic produce isn't cheap - but the more people who buy it the cheaper it will become and the more governments globally will sit up and take notice! Consumer power works! 

 

Ultimately - only climate-friendly, carbon-restoring agriculture will be able to help to combat climate change. We cannot go on mining the remaining carbon from soils and replacing it with fossil-fuel derived, climate-destroying chemicals which worsen the problem even more. Intensive farming is costing us the earth - quite literally!  Fast forward over 50 years since Rachel Carson's dire warning....and the words of Rattan Lal give us hope that we CAN do something to avoid total catastrophe - and that the answer to doing that lies in the soil. But only in a healthy, living soil. It's no good us burying our heads in the sand and saying that it's all too depressing, there's nothing we can personally do, so we'll just go on ignoring it as usual! That's a mistake! It's no good either just "talking the talk" without "walking the walk" too!  

The soil that gave us life and nurtured us holds the key to our past - and the evidence of may past civilizations who didn't heed the warning signs of impending disaster........that soil also holds the key to the future of life on this beautiful earth as we know it.......and THAT KEY is now in OUR hands! 

 

Trying to reduce our carbon footprint can begin at home - because we all have to eatl! We can't turn back the clock - but we CAN ensure a future infinitely better than it otherwise will be if we do nothing. I know that as gardeners or even just as consumers we can all do something. Act globally but think locally is the mantra of the Green Party. As co-founder of our local Fingal Green Party - that has always been my mantra too, and being a practical person - I find it helps to physically do something when I'm stressed-out from worrying about bigger issues which I can't personally control. 

 

Organically-managed soils have massive potential to capture and store carbon - and the more we support organic agriculture - the greater the chance is that our children will have a viable future on this planet, which is the only home we have. I believe that if only half the resources had been put into inventing technology to deal with the challenges we face with climate change that have been put into space exploration - we could have halted the steep rise in the greenhouse gases and already have the problem if not fixed - then at least it's rapid progression halted. Instead of that scientists seem increasingly fascinated by childish fantasies of space exploration. (Landing on Mars is a total denial of the problems we face while the world is burning up - quite literally as the disastrous fires in California this year proved).

 

Early propagation in my Polytunnel Potager last year! 

   
   
New arrivals - the chicks at only one day old Chicks only 4 days old but growing so fast - I'll soon have to make their nursery enclosure bigger! The males have a white spot on their head
New arrivals - the chicks at only one day old last December - so cute! Chicks only 4 days old but growing so fast - I soon had to make their nursery enclosure bigger! The males had a white spot on their head as baby chicks



I grew baby chickens instead of baby plants last December - something I hadn't done for years!  Over the few months, since a fox had decimated my 6 hens last year, I had really missed them and the beautiful organic eggs they used to lay. I found it hard to stomach the organic eggs I was buying after that, as even though I knew they had to have a larger outdoor space than normal free range hens and had to be fed only organic food, those eggs were still nothing like as good as our own. It was clear just from the colour of the yolks that they weren't on the wide enough range which I believe necessary, or being fed the amount of green food which I've always fed to mine. It's not the fault of the producers however - they have no choice but to keep the maximum amount of stock on the land which they are allowed to under the organic standards, purely in order to make a living. They're certainly not making vast profits! The problem is that most people think all eggs should be a cheap food. They won't pay a realistic price for organic eggs that properly reflects the high standards of production which I had recommended should be adopted over 35 years ago, when I was asked for my input to help formulate the organic poultry standards here in Ireland. I was told that my recommendations were far too demanding, and that they couldn't be economically viable. But those high standards which I recommended were the way in which I had always kept my poultry. It was also the standard of livestock husbandry which I had grown up experiencing at home - where all of our animals, including our flock of pure-bred Rhode Island Red hens, were kept to the highest standards and greatly valued by my parents, who had gone through the privations of Second World War rationing. They knew, as I do now, that an egg is a perfect meal, chock-full of healthy nutrients, and it should be valued as such! 

 

That's why I used to organise 'farm walks' here for my customers, back in the mid-1980's, which were a very popular way to show how organic production worked, and how happy all the poultry were.  I knew then, from personal experience, that if customers were educated, and understood the reasons why organic eggs had to be more expensive than conventional eggs, if they knew what went into their production and also the benefits for both our health and for the environment - then they were more than happy to pay a price which more clearly reflected the actual costs and benefits of that kind of production. I simply can't believe that organic egg producers are still only getting the same price for their eggs that I was achieving 30 years ago! How on earth they are making a living at all at that price frankly astonishes me!  One of the main reasons I enjoyed selling directly through my box scheme (the first in Dublin) and also at The Dublin Food Coop in those days, was the opportunity to explain to customers exactly why organic food has to cost more - and also how in the long run it works out much less expensive - both for our health and for the planet. Many of those customers are now still good friends, more than 20 years after I retired from organic production, and are all still committed organic consumers, which gives me a lot of satisfaction. Occasionally I even get previous customers phoning to ask me if I have any spare eggs or some other organic product - or where is the best place to buy them if I don't.

 

Anyway to make a long story a bit shorter - last autumn I decided to rear some day-old chicks again. This is something which I hadn't done for years, since I gave up commercial organic egg and chicken production. For the last 15 years or so I'd bought half-grown pullets from time to time - but I wasn't at all comfortable about them having been fed the genetically-modified soy protein, and Glyphosate, or other pesticide-sprayed ingredients which are in conventional poultry feed while growing, before I got them. Even though after they arrived here, they were fed nothing but organic food, with plenty of greens, and their health visibly transformed surprisingly fast, within a couple of weeks of arriving, I still wasn't truly happy. I knew from past experience though, that rearing them organically from day-old produced far better, stronger hens, which laid eggs for much longer with no problems - even though they were exactly the same breed of hybrid hens used for non-organic commercial egg production. I also knew that the broilers which I used to rear for meat were far healthier, and could be reared to heavy weights of 4kg plus, with none of the joint problems or ill-health which are common in non-organic broiler production. This is because when chickens are organically-reared, they are far healthier due to the nutritious, natural organic feed and a diet which also includes the green food, bugs and worms etc, which they would naturally find when on extensive free-range. They are also much fitter because they have more space to exercise and the freedom to behave as chickens like do, scratching, dust bathing, chasing butterflies etc. - and so are naturally are far less stressed, just like we would be. 

 

However, the more I thought about it - the less happy I was with buying day-old female chicks from the only source of them here in Ireland. It is a hatchery which although good, was routinely discarding the male chicks, which is normal practice for any hatchery providing female laying hens for the commercial egg-laying sector.  As male chicks are usually approximately 50% of all those hatched, this means that on average, 50% of the chicks are just wasted - either thrown into a bin or ground up in a roller - often without being gassed first in some instances! That being so, when I called to order them, I asked if it would be possible to have some of the male chicks, which would otherwise have just literally been thrown away! This is something which I've never done before, and I knew there was a distinct possibility that they wouldn't make much of a chicken - but I felt I must try it purely as an experiment!  We've been programmed in recent times to expect a buxom, large-breasted chicken, but whatever they look like, and however skinny they are - they'll still be chicken! As I remarked to my son - whatever kind of chicken they end up looking like - they'll still have skin, liver and bones - upon which he said "Aw..ww.... Mu..m" - having just returned from admiring the seriously cute, day old chicks!... 

 

Having reared organic broilers for many years and compared them to the much racier-looking Rhode Island Red cockerels that my father used to rear - I was realistic and knew that these laying hybrids weren't going to look like your average supermarket chicken. But neither would they taste like them either!  However little meat they produced - it would taste damn good and will be totally organic - even if it only made soup! In the Far East where chickens originated - they don't look like supermarket chickens either. They race around the jungle villages doing what chickens naturally do - looking very lean and fit  - but they still provide nutritious meat and bones for the people who raise them! My 'skinny hybrid chickens' were going to have the happiest, most pampered life here that any chicken could possibly have, and when their time to be useful had come, they would be gently removed from their perch in the middle of the night when they're naturally dozy, and dispatched as quickly and humanely as possible - so they wouldn't know a thing about it.  Perhaps 'skinny hybrid chicken' could become a fashion statement like 'skinny jeans'?  A sort of badge of ethical omnivore-ism - to counteract some of the more vile vegan criticism I got on Twitter!  For me - if they were just going to make enough of something edible to justify the cost of their feed - then I would be more than happy and would have proved a point.

 

As an ethical omnivore, eating only higher-welfare organic meat - even if only 2-3 days a week - I believe that a system which discards half of all stock bred simply cannot be justified on welfare, environmental, or sustainability grounds. While organic production doesn't generally have to justify it's methods - I believe that ALL meat production, whether for organic or any other system does. Quite apart from the fact that we should constantly strive to improve standards of all organic production - for animal welfare reasons alone this is something which we must take a hard look at and seriously improve. Anyone who eats meat is now under constant attack from some of the militant, more recently 'converted', what I call 'fashion-vegan' elements of society. While I despise some of the more uninformed 'fashion-vegans' - those who openly don't care about the environment or pesticides  - which frankly I find astonishing given that all pesticides are routinely and cruelly tested on animals!

 

I feel that they do actually have a point though when it comes to the case of animals which are industrially-bred, but then routinely discarded as they are considered non-viable for commercial production. When I posted the first picture of my chicks with my comment about this on Twitter - I was thrilled to discover that there is now a firm in the Netherlands who have very recently started rearing both male and female chicks of a new, dual-purpose hybrid chicken which I hadn't heard of, for commercial, state of the art, environmentally sustainable production. They have done a deal to provide chicken to Lidl - so it must definitely be cost-effective!  Although their chickens are not organic, as they are fed on some conventional food waste. I think that this really is something that organic production should be emulating.  As long as the chickens have plenty of space to do everything they need to in order to be healthy and happy, as they seem to have in this system - even if they can't be moved constantly to fresh ground as I do my small flock - green food could be grown elsewhere to provide that missing element of their feed. Seeing the pictures of it reminded me somewhat of the system I used to use to raise my organic broilers in one of my polytunnels years ago - but much more hi-tech! The chickens loved lazing around in the warm dry sunshine and venturing outside for a snack whenever they felt like it - it was like the chicken equivalent of the Riviera! 

Here's a link to their website so you can see the Dutch system for yourself. It offers plenty of food for thought - if you'll pardon the pun! : https://www.duurzaam-ondernemen.nl/meest-dier-en-milieuvriendelijke-legboerderij-ter-wereld-komt-naar-belgie/

 

Quite apart from anything else - having my new baby chicks gave me something to look forward to - something which at this of year is badly needed! I was so excited when I was on my way to pick them up in Northern Ireland - I was just like a child at Christmas!  Everything making up their snug enclosure was recycled. A giant dog cage, which had previously hosted a rescued hedgehog, lined with the huge sheets of cardboard from the boxes I can't resist saving - (you never now when they might come in handy!)! Bubble wrap which some new furniture for my son's room came wrapped in 4 years ago, and on the top 2 grow bag trays also helping to keeping the heat in - which were filled with some seed trays in the next week to start off some very early seedlings using the small amount of residual heat coming off the top of the cage. 

 

This is how I used to do all my early seedling propagation years ago - by raising chicks underneath the greenhouse staging every spring - with plants on top! The upper end of the top left bed which the cage was sitting on had already been sown with all my leftover lettuce, mustard and edible green manure seeds, and covered with polythene to help germination, so when the chicks were old enough to start venturing out beyond the warmth of the infra-red lamp for a few minutes - there will be green food, which would help teach them to forage. All that in the lovely wind-proof environment of the polytunnel. In 8 weeks, they were fully feathered and hardy enough to go out, they all went into the 'Hen Hilton' - as a friend described the re-purposed Wendy house that my son turned into a hen house! Lucky chicks or what? 

 

I loved watching my little 'Christmas presents to me' growing!  I could sit watching their antics for hours - especially in the first few days - when like toddlers they try to do all the things that 'grown-up' hens do, like preening their feathers - then wobble and fall over!  But most especially - I loved knowing that each of the hens would have the best life possible, and provide me with at least 1,000 eggs each during their lifetime of 3 years or more, and also that the cockerels would have a lovely free-range life until they were ready for the table. In fact - they made wonderful table birds, with a totally different flavour and texture of meat than normal even organic chickens. It was much darker and more like the texture of fillet steak or duck - but tasting of chicken.  

 

The hens have really thrived, each of them laying eggs almost every day since last April, and have more than earned their keep. They really are the best hens I've ever had anddeserve being treated like the princesses they are!  I gave them a broccoli birthday party today as they are one year old, and it's their favourite food!  So our egg security is hopefully assured for the next few years!  Especially with new reinforced runs and some effectively 'fox-proof', solar-powered electric fencing! I may get some more of the cockerels for producing 5 star chicken meat next autumn - depending on what happens over Brexit!  If it happens before then, I won't be able to up to the North of Ireland any more to the hatchery - such a tragedy for the few chicks that I would have saved from being dumped at birth, and given a lovely life for a few months. My son has threatened to go on strike if I get any before that, as the ones I got last year started crowing at 3 a.m. last April and it was a while until we had them all finally gone because I had broken my ankle baldy in mid-March!

 

 Hens first birthday broccoli party!

 Hens first birthday broccoli party!

Despite low light levels now - there's still plenty of healthy food to eat in the polytunnel

 

Red Duke of York - planted in pots in mid-August to give us some delicious new potatoes for Christmas
Red Duke of York - planted in pots in mid-August to give us some delicious new potatoes for Christmas

At the moment - some days are so gloomy that they barely seem to get properly light at all. Despite this, as you can see - there are still lots of lovely 'squeaky-fresh' vegetables to pick in the tunnel beds - or even just growing in containers - as you can see below.

 

 

 




 


 

Lovely luscious leaves


  
 


 
Red curly kale picked as baby leaves for salads is also happy in a container Salad mix Colour & Spice from Mr Fothergill's planted with red stemmed cutting leaf celery Watercress will give you lots of lush leaves palnted in a large tub
Red curly kale picked as baby leaves for salads is also happy in a container Salad mix Colour & Spice planted with red-stemmed cutting celery Watercress gives lots of nutritious lush leaves even in a large tub

 

I don't know why more people don't grow at least a container or two of mixed leaves, even if all they have is a balcony or windowsill. It's so easy if you choose the right varieties - and it needn't be very expensive. Mixed salads or lettuce mixes are always the cheapest seeds - you get far more for your money - and you can grow in almost anything that will hold compost once it's deep enough for the roots! You don't need to fill it right up with expensive peat free compost - save broken polystyrene or plastic plant trays, or even tougher un-rotted plant remains from your compost heap, and fill up the bottom with those. They'll give you good drainage as well. Most salad plants are very happy with just 10 - 12  inches of good compost to put their roots into as long as you keep them sufficiently watered. You can mix some soil into the lower layers as well - which gives the compost more water holding capacity and makes it cheaper again! When you compare it with your outlay - even just one or two meals would easily more than cover the cost of doing it!  Make an early New Year's resolution for 2018 - and if you're only a summer gardener - then vow to make next year the year that you will have salads all through the winter too. Brussels sprouts and parsnips may be delicious comfort food from outside I grant you - but somehow they don't feel quite as vibrantly bursting with health as a salad picked five minutes before you eat it! I look forward to mine every day.

 

Planning ahead and remembering to sow winter veg. in August and September is often difficult to remember while dealing with summer gluts, but it really pays off now. Loose leaf lettuces, chicory, chards, spinach, kales, watercress, lamb's lettuce, Chinese leaves, rocket etc. are all really useful winter salads that I'm cutting now. What isn't quite perfect for the table - the hens get - which keeps them healthy and laying eggs with lovely orange yolks all winter! I would never want to be without my winter tunnel crops - you can really feel the crisp, green lusciousness doing you good! Vegetables that are often taken for granted in summer because they're plentiful, become treasures to be relied on in winter! It's so nice to be able to go out and 'pick & mix' a really varied salad every day - sort of 'dowsing' the salad beds to see what feels just right for you on that particular day! There are only pathetic organic salad or spinach bags in the shops right now and - at the moment it's mostly just baby spinach which is tired, several days old and often already practically composting in the bags! Frankly, I can think of far better ways of spending €3!

Watercress growing happily in tunnel bed with other salads, beet leaves, lettuces and edible winter flowering violasWatercress growing happily in tunnel bed with other salads, beet leaves, lettuces and edible winter flowering violas 
 
Lately my daily salad of choice has always included watercress, - which is full of healthy phytonutrients and goes well with everything. When I walk into the tunnel the watercress seems to just be screaming -  "me...me...I'm the best choose me!" -  it always looks so vigorous and lush. Very few people seem to grow watercress over the winter in the tunnel - although it's easy and incredibly productive. It grows very easily from seed or cuttings, grows very quickly once it gets going and just needs a constantly moist spot to thrive - even in shade. If you can find any really fresh bunches in greengrocers shops or in supermarket bags, then it's well worth trying from cuttings - that way you'll get plants a lot faster. Pinch the lower leaves off, then put the stems into a jar of water on the warm kitchen windowsill for a few days, where they should produce some fine white roots very quickly. You can then pot them up in pots or plant into the ground in your greenhouse or tunnel and keep them well watered - just covering with fleece if hard frost is forecast. Remember that watercress is a member of the brassica (cabbage family) - so take that into account in your rotation plan. As you can see here - it will even grow happily in tubs if well watered! An indispensable plant. Not only fast-growing but also one of the most nutritious salads you can eat!
 
 
Watercress is far higher in important phytonutrients than winter lettuce.  Like all members of the brassica family - it's chock-full of healthy nutrients - iron, Vit C and phytonutrients like sulforaphane (proven to be active against cancer) and incredibly good for your health. It's even recorded that the Greek physician Hippocrates even sited his clinic beside a stream in order to take advantage of being able to grow watercress in the water.  He must have known something - as it was he who coined the phrase "Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food" - and I'm a great believer in that. There is a common misconception that you need running water to grow watercress - but you actually don't!  Just never let it dry out and it will be very happy. It's also great to grow in the polytunnel in the winter as it doesn't mind the damp atmosphere - which can kill other plants like lettuce. In fact it loves the damp and grows so thickly that it blocks out light too - not allowing any weeds a chance!  Unlike among the wider spaced lettuce where the generally mild autumn here has encouraged determined self sown claytonia seedlings to keep on coming up between the more widely-spaced plants! It's really important to keep on top of weed growth at this time of year because even just a few low patches can really restrict air circulation.  Weeds like chickweed in particular can hang onto moisture and encourage disease in vulnerable plants like lettuce. So keep your winter tunnel salads well weeded.
 
 
 Young watercress plants from cuttings, in recycled buckets on a grow bag tray. Easy to ensure they don't go short of moisture they need to grow well.Young watercress plants grown from cuttings, in recycled buckets on a grow bag tray. Easy to ensure they don't go short of the moisture they need to grow well. 
 
 
Keep ventilating the tunnel every day for at least a couple of hours if you can to avoid moist stagnant air building up - air circulation is really important to avoid diseases. Watercress is the only crop which I make sure is kept really moist at the roots at this time of year. There's barely any other watering to be done now in the tunnel but if you think the soil looks very dry - then just scratch around just under the surface with the tip of your finger - you'll often find that it's moist enough there so needs no water. But if it feels really 'dust' dry - then just dribble a little water between plants like lettuce etc., being very careful not to go close to or splash plants, as this can cause rotting very quickly. I's also a good idea to keep an eye on the weather forecast and try to water on a day when it's forecast to be milder for a couple of days. Don't drench anything though - as with low light levels and cold temperature at this time of year things are growing very slowly and won't use it. If they're sitting in cold wet soil their roots may rot, or stems may rot at soil level.
 
 
Gloom at 3pm in the polytunnel - looking a bit like a theatre set with the curtains drawn back!Gloom at 3pm in the polytunnel - looking a bit like a theatre set with the curtains drawn back!
 
 
I suppose to some it may seem like quite a lot of faffing around, uncovering the salad beds in the tunnels in the mornings and hanging up the fleeces on the crop support bars to dry! But when you get into a routine - it only takes about 10 minutes or so and it's well worth doing when temperatures are very low. The fleeces can get very wet on some nights and left on all the time would stop air circulation, encouraging more damp air and possibly causing grey mould and rots. I use a very blunt ended bamboo cane, a bit like a long arm, to help lift the opposite side of the fleece up, wind it up and then to push the ends up and hang them over the crop support bars - as it's impossible for one person to be on both sides of the bed at once!  If it's been a very cold night I wait until the tunnel temperature comes up to about 1 deg C before I take fleeces off. I put the fleeces back on again in the afternoon about 3 pm at the moment - closing the tunnels before temperatures dip and frost sets in. 
 
 
I know it's a bit of trouble but if you're at home anyway and can do it - it really makes a huge difference to what will grow well over the winter, lettuce in particular really appreciates it. Things like lamb's lettuce, claytonia and land cress don't really need it as they're very hardy - but everything grows so much better for that extra bit of TLC!  Such a lovely sight greets me when I uncover the beds - it does my heart good to see so many healthy and colourful things growing so beautifully when it feels like the North Pole outside! It's almost like unwrapping a Christmas present every day - and it definitely is the best present you can give to your health, eating a good mixture of raw green leaves every day! I use old cloche hoops to rest the fleeces on which suspends them slightly over crops. I find doing that gives much better air circulation - and it the weather's really Arctic I can put a double or even triple layer on without weighing the plants down. 
 
 
Delicious calabrese/broccoli 'Green Magic'

 

Another of my 'old reliables' in winter is Calabrese or summer broccoli. I've been growing the very productive variety 'Green Magic' since it was first on the market. It's the best I've found for winter tunnel production and after the main heads are cut in mid-late November from a late July sowing - it slowly produces deliciously sweet, smaller side shoots all winter long, which are lovely either raw in salads and dips or stir-fried. It's quite happy given some protection with fleece if severe frost is forecast - but otherwise doesn't need any more protection than just being inside in the tunnel. I grow it throughout the year - in mid-late January I'll sow more which will give me an early tunnel crop - and then another sowing in late March or April will see me through the summer nicely. Again it's another crop I wouldn't be without as it's so full of healthy nutrients  

 
 
 
 
Midwinter tunnels
 

Midwinter tunnels

 
 
Our weather may soon possibly turn a lot colder - there's possible snow forecast for higher ground next week! It was this week in 2010 that we got the last spell of serious snow - and although there's only light snow forecast for the North in odd places and frost down here at the weekend - it's just as well to be prepared! 
 
 
If we do happen to get any snow - it's really important to keep gently clearing as much snow as possible off tunnels, because if it's allowed to build up too much and it becomes heavy - the weight of it could split the polythene or even make the tunnel collapse! Remember gently is the watchword - polythene is much more brittle when it's very cold, particularly if it's a couple of years old. Late morning to midday seems to be the best time, because it's the warmest (ha!) time of the day inside the tunnel and it will slide off fairly easily then. I shall be happy if we get just a little snow sometime during this winter - because couple of years ago I discovered it's a very effective way of cleaning algae off the tunnels! As it slips down it scours the algae off - leaving the polythene sparklingly clear! You can encourage it by using a very soft, long handle cobweb brush. It's the only time one gets used in this house! I bought it specifically for clearing tunnel snow! 
 

 

You can start sowing seeds again in late December

 
 
If you're desperate for a gardening 'fix' and want to try a few giant onions, shallots or leeks for some early crops or whoppers for next autumn's flower shows why not try sowing a few if you have somewhere warm to germinate them? It would be a waste of precious energy to use a propagator now - but they'll only need about 55/60 deg.F or 10/15 deg.C. After germination they'll be quite happy growing on quietly as long as you can give them above 45 deg.F or 7/8 deg.C with good light, protected from frost.  A bright windowsill in the house is fine as long as it's not too cold, remember to turn them every day - so they get an equal amount of light on all sides and also remember to bring them inside the room before you close the curtains at night, so they don't get chilled. Another trick you can use is to fix some tin foil around one side of the pot, using a couple of small canes or barbecue skewers to fix it to so that it reflects the light. Most plants don't need very high temperatures - but they do need the very best light you can give them. If they get 'drawn' and spindly they're much more susceptible to disease. Sow them thinly, spacing them out if possible, and don't over water. In about 4- 6 weeks or so you can prick them out individually into small finger pots or modules, planting out at the end of March when they're growing strongly - or even earlier in the tunnel. Even if you don't want to enter competitions - you'll still have some really early! 
 
 

Good housekeeping keeps down disease - so keep clearing up any rubbish!

 
 
As I mentioned earlier - this is particularly important at this time of year - keep clearing up any dodgy looking, mouldy, or dead and rotting leaves the minute you see them - to keep diseases at bay. Open the doors and ventilate for a few hours every day if at all possible. Even at this time of year air circulation is really important - it helps to keep the atmosphere inside from being too damp which otherwise would encourage disease. Keep a sharp eye out for those nasty little grey slugs too - there's nothing more disappointing than finding that a perfect looking lettuce is filthy and slug ridden inside! They tend to be braver in winter as the low light fools them into thinking it's dusk!  Putting a few pieces of broken slate at various spots along the beds always traps them as they think they're safe hiding under those! Snip them in half or throw them to your hens if you have them - they really love the extra protein! My hens always inspect everything for slugs first before starting on the 'side' of green veg when I throw them any scraps from the tunnel! Or chuck them outside the tunnel to take their chance instead! - Well it is the season of goodwill after all - but any hungry birds will be quick to spot them too! 

 

Don't forget next winter too - while you're busy thinking about next summer's crops 

 
As I mentioned earlier  - if you planned well back in midsummer -  you should have plenty of salads, chards, kales and celery etc in the tunnel now for the winter. It's very easy to forget that winter veg does grow a lot more slowly, so you need far more of each plant for a continuous crop than you would normally plant in the summer. At least 3 times as much I would say. It's often something one only learns from experience though. When I started my 'organic box scheme' 35 years ago (the first one in Dublin), one of the first things I learnt from experience was that you must plan well - in order to have something available for customers all year round. If you don't they go somewhere else! I know it seems a long time away - but if you leave it until midsummer, you may not be able to get many of the varieties you want even by mail order, and most of the garden centres take out their seed displays in July. So when you're doing your seed orders in the next few weeks, think about next winter's veg too!
 
 

Looking after biodiversity is important - even in a polytunnel! 

 
 
The tunnel is a lovely sheltered place to sit and relax and get one's recommended daily 20 mins of daylight - even in the very depths of winter. Particularly if all the cheery Christmas crowds and constant 'muzak' get a bit much! Definitely 'in heavenly peace' I can't bear shopping centres at Christmas - or in fact at any other time!  At midday on a frosty but sunny day one can almost believe it's spring - with a few winter pansies, cyclamen, primroses or perennial wallflowers in full bloom, wafting their scent around you - and the birds singing while waiting for their turn on the feeders just outside the doors!  Hellebores in pots are already flowering. I have my chair arranged so that I can watch their antics.  A robin always appears hopefully as soon as I venture inside - he's expecting me to start hoeing! Growing mini-gardens full of wildlife friendly flowers and herbs at the ends and in the corners looks lovely and doesn't cast any shade on crops. It creates a far more natural environment - attracting in all manner of beneficial creatures. A few days ago on a still, mild day - there was even a brave bumble bee in there - so I was glad there were some flowers for her.  Adventurous bees are so grateful for any winter flowers.
 
 
One of the most important items to have in a polytunnel is the comfortable seat in a sunny spot at one end! There, you can sit and make plans for next year - dreaming of all the abundant and delicious riches to come - snug as you like in the winter sun! Who needs a carbon-guzzling expensive winter sun holiday when you can have a sunny and productive polytunnel instead? - Not me!!
 
 
  
Many people lose interest in the winter and leave their tunnels full of the sad, dead and disease-ridden remains of last summer's crops! Doing this is just storing up trouble for next year! A tunnel or greenhouse is a very expensive investment - every possible inch of it should be used positively and productively all year round!  
 
 

Talking of winter - the sun is very close now to reaching it's lowest point in our sky and at this time of year us gardeners are eagerly looking forward to the solstice. That's when the year turns the corner and life giving light starts to return to our little corner of the planet, heralding a new gardening year to come. Like most of you - I can't wait! Ancient peoples celebrated the Winter Solstice as the start of a new growing year. They were far more in tune with Nature than us - they had to be for their very survival - and as a result they had far more respect for the soil than we do now. They valued it in a way that we seem to have forgotten.

  

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

What to sow in December - 2019

Pink kale microgreens for winter salads.

Pink kale microgreens for winter salads - so easy to sow nutritious microgreens all year round even in a small space

 

Inside or in the polytunnel

 
 

On the kitchen windowsill you can sow sprouting seeds - or 'microgreen' baby salads. They're super-nutritious and easy to grow in small trays of organic compost or paper towels - just as we all used to grow mustard and cress as children. Seeds such as sunflower, red amaranth, beetroot, basil, broccoli, kale, radish and of course mustard and cress etc. are all suitable and if they can be started now, may be ready for Christmas salads and garnishes. 

 

Sprouting seeds in jars is also very easy to do, and sprouted seeds are a highly nutritious and healthy addition to winter salads. Make sure you use organic seeds which won't have been treated with any pesticides. Also make sure that you rinse them thoroughly and regularly though, particularly if you have the jars in a warm place - preferably rinse them at least 2/3 times a day with filtered water, to avoid bacteria or disease possibly building-up. 

 

'St. Stephen's' - or 'Boxing Day' has always been the traditional day for sowing giant exhibition onions and pot leeks - if you're into those!  I prefer mine a bit smaller and tastier! Although it's a very neat way to avoid the washing up perhaps - and cold turkey might be a bit more appealing after an hour or two outside!  Or alternatively - you could actually sow them on a table somewhere in the house. They take 2-3 weeks to germinate and won't need any heat by being sown in the house, which saves energy that you would otherwise use by putting them in a propagator. They only need to go out into good light when they have germinated.

 

If you're absolutely desperate to sow something this month and have a greenhouse or tunnel with a heated mat or propagator that provides very gentle bottom heat - no more than 50 deg F/10 deg C - then you could in theory sow suitable types of winter lettuces like 'Winter Gem' (little gem type) and  'Rosetta' - (a reliable indoor winter butter head) Seed of these F1 hybrids is very expensive and you don't get many in a packet - so sowing individually into modules is definitely the safest, most cost-effective method. Sowing individually in modules also gives seedlings better air circulation, avoids any damage from 'pricking out' seedlings causing possible 'damping off disease'. Having larger plants in modules for planting later also reduces the risk of slug damage. Wait another couple of weeks though, germinate them in the house and when put out into your greenhouse or tunnel, the light will produce better seedlings.

 

Frankly, the light levels are so poor now that it's really not worth risking expensive F1 seed! - Those sown in another month or so will easily catch up, be much healthier and far more sturdy, because light levels will be higher. Commercial growers would obviously give these seedlings artificial light and heat - but I don't think that any lettuce grown with so much artificial heat and light is worth the resulting climate changing greenhouse gas emissions - particularly if we get a sudden very cold spell. You could try a few cheap lettuce, oriental salad mixes or other salad leaves like rocket if you want to, or even broad beans or peas in pots if you haven't done any yet - germinating inside in gentle warmth initially and then putting them out into the light as soon as they've appeared. Realistically though, you're not really going to gain very much if anything at all by sowing right now - wait until the very end of the month or early January 2019 - then plants they stand a far better chance of successfully growing on and being healthy and productive. Most things are barely 'ticking over' right now. In another month - with light levels increasing they will start to grow far better even though it'- will still be cold. 

 

Far better instead to spend your time instead making a really good cropping plan, comparing the catalogues, ordering seeds and seed potatoes. Popular varieties always sell out quickly. Sorting pots and seed trays into sizes and cleaning them is also a great job you can do now to be prepared for seed sowing later.

 

Outside

 
You can sow any perennial tree or shrub seeds that may require stratification (frost exposure) in cold weather outside. Many hardy seeds need a really cold spell to germinate. Some will germinate surprisingly quickly. Make sure you protect them well from any hungry rodents!
 
 
It's well worth trying trees and shrubs from seed - many germinate far better from fresh seed than they will from any you can ever buy from catalogues.
 
 
Garlic cloves can still be sown/planted now both outside and also in tunnels, greenhouses or cold frames, for a really early crop of big bulbs next year - most varieties need some cold weather for good root development. Thermidrome and Cristo are my varieties of choice to plant before the New Year - both are strong-flavoured. The only one I've ever grown really successfully from a spring planting though, is 'Cristo'. 
 
 
Choose firm, plump and healthy outside cloves from this year's crop, or buy certified virus-free ones from garden centres. Do NOT use supermarket bought bulbs which will most likely be unsuitable for this climate or may even carry in diseases like onion white rot. This can survive in the soil for up to 20 years and be spread around the garden on your boots!  For the same reason I don't use onion sets outside in the garden at all.
 
 
If you want some extra early onions - then grow some sets in pots or containers. That way they'll be even earlier than they would be if grown in the ground and if you're unlucky enough to get any diseases you can just throw the compost into the food/green waste recycling bin - rather than spreading it around the garden! I grow all my onions from seed sown in early March - this avoids the possibility of onion white rot. There is some evidence now which suggests that garlic may gradually adjust to local climates - so if you find one when you're on holiday that you like and fancy growing it - then plant it in a pot the first year to make absolutely sure it's healthy - and later on plant it out in the garden. Always make sure it has really healthy looking green leaves - not yellow and stunted, twisted or yellow spotted which would indicate virus infection.
 
 
Similarly, if you see any evidence of disease or virus on any bought in garlic or onion sets pull them up immediately and dispose of in the food recycling bin - not onto your compost heap! 
 
 
St. Stephen's Day was also when many of the old gardeners used to plant their shallots. I prefer to wait a couple of months because onion white rot is encouraged by low soil temperatures combined with wet weather, and if I'm buying in shallots sets I want to minimize that risk as far as possible. They can also be started off in pots just like garlic, planting out later for extra big clumps at harvest time, or grown on in containers.
 
 
The seed catalogues are arriving through the letterbox now - I read them eagerly by the fire in the evenings. Although I prefer a catalogue that I can have in my hand - the choice available online is almost limitless now.  Some serious self-control and realism is needed to curb my wildly over-optimistic 'plantaholic' tendencies! They're all just so tempting, that moderation is extremely difficult!  I discovered a website actually selling 600 varieties of tomatoes some years ago - OMG! I left the site after about 15 minutes of painfully groaning...."I want that one - and that one - and that one"!  Hard to believe that I swore 7 years ago that I never, ever wanted to grow tomatoes again (or at least not for a very long time) after growing almost 50 varieties for the Tomato Festival in the difficult 'summer' of 2012! Then having to cook all of them afterwards for the freezer - I'd really had enough of them by that stage! But the problem is, there's always that enticing possibility that I might just find an even better one!...... A bit like childbirth I suppose  - it's amazing how quickly one forgets!!  But seriously - do get your seed orders done early now - before Christmas. Growing your own has never been more popular and the best varieties, or those recommended in magazines - not always the best varieties, but often those the seed companies want to push - will sell out quickly.


You may have your own favourites that do well in your particular local climate and conditions. Although each year I try a few new things, or new variations of old favourites that look as if they may be promising - as a rule I generally only recommend varieties that I've grown successfully for at least 3 years, as that generally gives me a good idea of how they'll perform. So many of the seed companies and garden writers who review the catalogues live in the south of the UK - where temperatures and conditions there are normally very different to here in Ireland!  Prices tend to vary a lot too - some varieties can vary by as much as €2 a packet - so it's worth doing comparisons and shopping around!  You'll kick yourself if you order something and then discover it's far cheaper somewhere else!  It's surprising how costs mount up when you're doing a big seed order. 
 
 
Sharing an order with friends is a good idea too - since seed companies often put far too much seed in the packets sold for amateur gardeners - who on earth needs between 200-400 seeds of celery for instance?  Or 300 cape gooseberry seeds! Couldn't they just reduce the amount and reduce the price correspondingly?  Particularly so, since seed of some things like celery, carrots, parsnips etc, don't keep for very long - losing their viability very quickly once opened. If you're on holiday in Europe - it's ell worth seeking out a garden centre and looking at the seeds available there. A few years ago on my last holiday abroad (I haven't had a 'fly to' one for over 17 years now - it's hard to justify the carbon) I found seeds incredibly cheap - just €1 for massive 'grower'-sized packets! Make sure they're varieties you recognise though - or said to be early-maturing ones, as some may need a much warmer climate then ours in northern Europe. Not worth wasting space for a whole season on something that produces too late to ripen, or to crop well - if it crops at all.
 
 
I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's very satisfying and also most complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work. But if you do happen to copy it, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would mention that it originally came from me. Thank you.

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in November - 2019

 

November contents:  Storing Apples......  Fabulously Fruity Festive Treats..... Pruning grapes is an urgent job.....  How to Prune unruly Grapes.....  How to take grapevine cuttings - the easy no-fuss way.....  On 'Buying Irish' or local......  Reminder - time to plant bare root trees - what to do if conditions aren't suitable?....  More thoughts on Rootstocks...... Choosing Varieties 
 

It's such a delight to pick out a daily treasure from among the  14 varieties in my recycled freezer 'apple store'
                     It's a delight to pick out a daily treasure from among the 14 delicious varieties currently in my recycled old freezer 'apple store'! 
 
 
 
Storing apples
 
 
It's a standing joke in this house that if you stand still for long enough then 'She' (meaning me!) will probably recycle you! I have to admit I am a big fan of recycling as much as possible and I often tend to hang onto things 'just in case' which can cause a few space problems occasionally!  One of the things I've often found though is that if I throw out something which I've hung on to for years - the very next week I'll find the perfect use for it and then will no longer have it!! Possibly a form of insecurity? But it's often amazing how many things can be re-purposed with just a little imagination and ingenuity.  It's not only frugal but also very satisfying being able to re-purpose something rather than just throwing it away thoughtlessly as so many people do!
 
 
One of the things I never throw out is old fridges and freezers that aren't working and can't be mended - which is always the preferred option. Their uses are myriad!  While they may not be the most attractive items in the world and are definitely not as beautiful as those expensive 'artisan'-crafted, wooden slatted, apple stores - they make fantastic rodent-proof, well-insulated, variable humidity apple stores among many other things. This year I've put many of the eating apples into my late mother's old upright freezer, which finally broke down only about 3 years ago after being fixed several times over the last 25 years. It was the perfect excuse to buy a much-needed new, far more environmentally-friendly and energy-efficient one. Re-located into a cold outhouse this old one is perfect for storing smaller numbers of eating apples that ripen at various different times - from their picking time in October up until April. It also houses some of the less-damaged windfalls in a separate drawer - some of which need checking over daily. 
 
 
With only a few of several varieties, I've arranged different varieties in each of the drawers with the earliest ripening at the top, so that the rising ethylene gas given off by the ripening fruits doesn't set off the others off into ripening too. In the past I've learnt that this is something that can happen if you have many different varieties with different ripening times stored together. The drawers are easy to pull out to inspect them and check for any fast-ripening or damaged ones which could rot quickly if left in there and also damage others. This can happen no matter how carefully one picks them - even wind can bruise ripening apples while still on the tree and this may not be evident at the time when they're just picked. Another thing to remember is that apples are living things - not every apple will ripen at exactly the time or keep for the same amount of time - depending on the weather conditions while it is growing. This year in particular I'm finding that a lot of varieties aren't keeping as well due mainly to the long drought we had in the summer - although some of the later ripening ones have not been as affected. I wonder what weather 2019 will bring?
 
 
G.K.Chesterton once said "To learn how to value something - imagine losing it". This is so true and applies to so many things - but for me - especially to orchard fruit like apples, as I've often mentioned. For about 20 years since our neighboring farmer started growing cereals, the poor trees in my original orchard 
adjacent to his property had been affected by the spraydrift from the hormone weedkillers which he used every spring. The result was that all their flower buds dropped off. So - no apples! Having been brought up with an abundance of old heritage varieties, I missed them desperately - especially since the apples available in supermarkets are just tasteless, sugar-filled orbs, with tough, often bitter skins. This year however was different. With oilseed rape growing on the other side of the hedge to my orchard, the weather was a bit odd and the spraying regime was not the same. As a result, Nature worked her magic, the irreplaceable bees have done their job well and I now have enough tasty apples stored - both eaters and cookers - to see me through until at least the end of March, or even April .
 
 
Every day one of these treasures is picked out carefully, polished and admired like the jewel which it is for an hour or so - then to be consumed at lunchtime with much appreciation!  There are so few things in life that one can lose and then regain. I am so deeply appreciative and grateful for every single one of these delicious apples, with all of their complex aromatic flavours, for along with them come so many precious memories that encompass my whole life. I went to a very interesting lecture on scent years ago, that was given by an expert from the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens to the Irish Garden Plant Society - he explained that scent goes directly to the limbic system, and is in fact the first sense that we gain at birth and normally the last sense that we finally lose. That explains why scent can be so evocative for us. G.K.Chesterton was indeed a wise man, who understood that some things are worth more than money. In fact - money can't buy these apples. If you want to eat them - then you will probably have to grow them yourself - because you definitely won't find them in any shops!
 
Plumptious homegrown raisins soaked in Brandy
Plumptious homegrown raisins soaked in Brandy
 
 
 
Fabulously Fruity Festive Treats
 
If your friends are anything like mine - they love receiving delicious gifts that you've put a bit of time, effort and love into making. Apart from the usual homemade chutneys, jams, sloe or damson gins etc. which take a bit longer to produce - there are many other delicious concoctions which are really luxurious treats that can be made at even quite short notice for Christmas presents. One present I love making, because I enjoy eating them is a jar of plumptious raisins, sultanas, dried apricots or perhaps sour cherries (delicious with smoked duck salads!) soaked in some suitable alcohol - which will complement it and you can vary to taste.  One I love making, because I grow a lot of peaches here, is semi-dehydrated peaches, soaked in peach brandy or Schnapps!  Fruits preserved in a rich syrupy alcohol makes the perfect complement to accompany Christmas pates or terrines, ice cream or can be use to make really special bread and butter pudding, rum babas or other desserts - or even perhaps some extra-special muffins!  You can vary the size of the potful for any occasion - I often take a small pot of something if I'm going to lunch or supper at someone's house, so I always have a stock of them handy and also use them a lot here for various things as they're so much better than using plastic!  Something homemade is also so much nicer than a small box of chocolates obviously bought at the last minute at a petrol station on the way!  I'm sure there isn't a cook or food lover on the planet who wouldn't be impressed with such a thoughtful and delicious gift!
 
 
This year I left Autumn Royal, the latest seedless grape to ripen here, until it was almost falling off the vine before semi-dehydrating the berries and then soaking in brandy, because I happened to have quite a lot handy, but you could also use sherry or any other alcohol which takes your fancy. You don't have to own a dehydrator either - you can simply buy really good quality organic, unsulphured dried fruit and soak it for a couple of weeks in the alcohol, giving them a stir or a shake every so often. It's important to always use unsulphured fruit as many people are sensitive or even severely allergic to sulphites. Organic dried fruit is normally unsulphured, which may mean that it doesn't keep quite as long depending on it's sugar content (which also preserves it) but if you need to keep it for very long you can freeze it without problems.
 
 
However, if you don't have a couple of weeks, here's a great way to cheat time and make them overnight - which is almost as good! Just put whatever dried fruit you're using into a saucepan - anything from raisins, sultanas, dried peaches, apples, pears - the possibilities are endless and you could also make some really great combinations from fruit which isn't homegrown (mango in peach liqueur is one of the ultimate), cover with brandy, rum, gin, vodka or whatever is your alcohol of choice, bring to just simmering point, turn off immediately, cover and put aside to cool. Repeat this twice more, then let it get completely cold before decanting into a sterilised storage jar. To sterilise jars, I put clean, dry jars into an oven heated to 100 deg centigrade, leave for 10 minutes, then switch off and allow them to cool down a bit in the oven before removing. Don't take them straight out and put them down onto a cold surface or they may shatter. Let them cool completely before filling with the soaked fruit. Then just seal, put on a pretty homemade label and a bow - Happy Christmas!
 
You can use any sort of sealable jar, or buy suitably gift-sized practical storage or Kilner jars very cheaply - only about €2.50 suitable for a really decent-sized present. These are endlessly useful after the jar has been emptied of it's contents - so I'm sure the recipient will be most grateful!  Or if you're a hoarder like me, who keeps pretty jars for future use - you may already have some unusual and attractive storage possibilities. Dried fruit preserved in this way will actually last for years - becoming even more delicious.  But I doubt it will last long in the household of most food lovers!
 
 
 
Pruning grapes is an urgent job - after the winter solstice things soon start to wake up again!
 
 
Pruning grapevines is really the most urgent job polytunnel fruit to do now - as soon as the leaves have died back and are falling - the earlier the better because we don't know what the winter weather will bring!  Once we're in December it's a job that's so easy to forget with all the hectic preparations to be done for the festive season and then the New Year! Don't leave it until late December or early January because if we have a very mild winter, as many have been recently, the sap can start rising early - particularly with the warmer environment and soil in a polytunnel. If you prune when the sap has started rising you can seriously weaken, or may even kill a vine. While you're pruning you could even turn some of the lengths of wood that you've pruned into new plants by using them as cuttings as described below. Then you might have some young vines next year to increase your stock or give away as Christmas presents to other gardeners! You can also twist the pliable pruned lengths into a base for making a lovely Christmas wreath for your own front door - or as a thoughtful home-made present for someone else! 
 
 
Pruning vine side shoots 2-3 buds from the main stem or rod as it's known - 20.11.14.

Pruning vine side shoots 2-3 buds from      main stem or rod as it's known.

Vine cuttings from this year's prunings, bottom one prepared ready for propagation - 20.11.14

Vine cuttings from this year's pruning, lower one prepared ready for propagation.

Last year's rooted cuttings, ready to tip out, gently separate and pot up - 20.11.14

Last year's rooted cuttings, ready to tip out, gently separate and pot up. 

 

How to Prune unruly Grapes

 
 
People so often panic about pruning vines and as a result do nothing - just letting them ramble and go wild everywhere! The then become a tangled, unproductive and often disease-ridden mess with long leafy shoots growing everywhere very fast! This is a problem I'm often asked about. I know it looks really difficult to know where to start when you're surrounded by a tangled mess of shoots and branches growing wildly all over the place! Believe me - I've been there!  But even if your vine is a real mess like many I've seen - it really is easy to rescue it and untangle the mess - especially at this time of year! Whatever you do to it at this time of year - you can't possibly kill it. But if you delay and leave it too late until the sap is rising fast - then you just might!
 
 
I now grow almost all of my vines in 'T' shapes - with branches or 'rods' as they are known branching out either side at the top of the 'T' - and trained along the sides of my polytunnel at about one metre high. Training like this means that they have a good length of stem for producing the side shoots or 'spurs' which will produce the grapes. As vines come into leaf late - in April - they don't shade any other crops grown this way. They're also within easy reach to pinch back the soft green side growths which will grow out from those fruiting spurs regularly over the summer - you will need to do that continually over the summer prevent another mess. Unlike woody growth, soft green growth can be pinched back at any time of year and the vines won't bleed. This is the best way to keep them properly under control, after their original pruning. 
 
 
Growing them along the sides also makes use of every bit of tunnel space very productively. I don't recommend training them overhead as some people so - because doing that will shade any crops underneath and also be extremely hard to reach and difficult to deal with when they need lots of 'pinching out' of fast growing excess leafy shoots etc during the growing season in order to produce decent grapes. Grown my way they're always within easy reach and jobs don't become a major production - involving stepladders and a lot of time. (Been there - done that - fallen off the ladder!) The way I grow them is far more simple and it's far easier to keep under control. Believe me I get more grapes than I know what to do with every year - and you'll be lucky to get any if you let them become a mess - because that restricts the air circulation too - which means any bunches that do develop get disease and go mouldy!
 
 
If you're starting with a new vine then just prune at the top at about one metre or slightly lower, and next year allow two branches to grow out either side. These will be the beginning of your permanent main 'T' shaped framework. However - if you're starting on a mess - stand back and look at it for a while to 'get your eye in' and then select one or two of the strongest woody branches to be the main stems from now on, one to train either side, and then just prune any other growth back to two buds from those two main stems. The buds on these side growths from the main stem - or 'spurs', as they are called, will produce your bunches of grapes next year, and every year after that. You can alternatively just grow them as a bush if they're in a pot and allow 5 or 6 side shoots to grow out from the main trunk to form permanent branches that will produce one or two bunches of grapes each. It's up to you  - vines are very flexible and will do whatever  you want. The one thing you must remember is to keep on top of the pruning all summer too. It's not rocket science - dead easy! Keep it simple is my motto - and it works for me. Believe me - you won't regret doing it - just be brave!!  
 
 
While I'm doing this year's pruning - I'm going to take some cuttings of the Flame Seedless grape in the east tunnel. After looking a bit 'iffy' for a couple of years - only producing one or two bunches - it's finally decided it likes it here, has at last settled down and cropped really well again this year. It's a very late variety, ripening throughout October depending how warm the autumn is, so it really stretches the grape season well. We're still eating the last bunches fresh as they keep really well in a cool larder or airy cool place. This year I've left two bunches of Flame hanging on the vine - hoping that in that way they may possibly keep until Christmas - we will see! They're still looking good so far - so I'll keep you posted! The other grape that has a long season is Lakemont Seedless, we're still eating the last of those fresh too. I also freeze lots loose, for throwing into smoothies or just eating like sweeties out of the freezer when I open it for something else - they're irresistible!
  
 
The last fresh grapes of the year. Lakemont Seedless and Flame Seedless - 5.11.16
 The last fresh grapes of the year. Lakemont Seedless and Flame Seedless  

 

How to take grapevine cuttings - the easy no-fuss way

 
 
You can use some of the pruned material as cuttings to make more vines using newly ripened wood from this year's growthJust choose pencil thick (or more) hardened (brown and woody) shoots that you've just pruned from this year's growth, with three good buds on. You'll need a pot or bucket of old, free draining, firm gritty compost - no need to break it up or fork it over. I usually use one of the containers that grew aubergines, tomatoes, or something similar, as the nutrients will have been used up. You don't want to put cuttings into nutrient-rich compost as this can deter them from rooting. Cut off whatever now dead plant was in there before obviously - tomato, aubergine or whatever! Then just push the cuttings/twigs down firmly into the compost around the sides of the pot or container, about an inch or so from the sides, with the lowest bud buried, the middle bud just at or just below the soil surface, and the top bud about 3-4ins or 10cm above the compost - ensuring they're the right way up - naturally!  Water them in well, put them somewhere fairly shaded in the tunnel like under the staging and forget them for a couple of months. Alternatively - you could put the cuttings into individual long 'vine' or rose pots to start with - but that's a lot of bother when not all of them will 'strike' and form roots. Probably 80-90% of them should strike. In spring, when they start to show signs of growth, water them carefully every so often - but never over water as they may rot before they have formed proper roots. Protect them from any early frosts with fleece. Then there's nothing else to do until next winter - apart from occasional watering so they don't completely dry out.  Then you can tip them out and separate them gently, potting them up individually into a nice, free draining compost.
 
 
Dead easy! That's next year's Christmas presents for nothing - from something you would otherwise have just thrown away!  Now that's what I really call saving money!! Another frugal idea I came up with a few years ago was to use the long bendy prunings to make decorative wreaths. The long pliable shoots wind easily around each other and can be secured with a little raffia or string - then you can decorate them with whatever you feel like. Pine cones, berries, seashells or even cookies or other little gifts. These make another lovely Christmas present that can be re-used year after year! It beats expensive shop-bought ones!
 
 

On 'Buying Irish' or local

 
 
Talking of which - I'm often criticised for not exclusively promoting Irish nurseries and garden centres.  That criticism is unfair however, as I do promote them whenever they offer reasonable value and a good choice, as anyone who has been reading this blog for long will know. One of the reasons I started this blog, some years ago, was to share the the money saving tips I've discovered over the years with other gardeners. After more than 35 years of being a keen organic gardener growing your own food, and seeking out the best value in what you don't grow - you learn quite a few good tips!  While I'm all for supporting Irish business as it benefits all of us - I don't support anyone who tries to take advantage of the the 'grow you own' boom to rip people off, either by charging double the UK price, or supplying inferior products just because they can if they have little or no competition here! I've always looked for the best value. That's important when you're trying to feed a family a healthy organic diet on a limited budget, whether you're trying to grow it or buy it. Organic choices can be more expensive - even when they don't need to be. 
 
 
Some cynical retailers, particularly some of the supermarkets, still seem to think that eating healthily and buying organic food is a 'luxury lifestyle choice' by well-off nature lovers, who will tolerate constantly rising prices. The reality is actually very different when you have a small child who very nearly died from multiple allergies - like I had years ago. We've always avoided all household chemicals, and always had to buy any organic food which we couldn't grow ourselves for that very reason. (Certainly not a luxury lifestyle believe me - holidays were a rarity too!).
 
  
Similarly - some nurseries and garden centres seem to have that same attitude towards people who want to grow their own food. I was looking around the fruit catalogues recently to see what new varieties there were - and came across an Irish garden centre charging double UK prices for their fruit trees! Now maths has never been my strong point - but even I can count the difference between fruit trees that cost 45/49 euros here plus delivery - and exactly the same fruit trees that cost 25 pounds sterling (that includes a generous currency conversion) plus delivery from one of my favourite nurseries - Ken Muir's in the UK. I've been buying plants and trees from both of them for over 30 years - and I can honestly say they currently have the greatest range of top quality fruit available at the most competitive prices, as I've often mentioned before. Sadly Deacons Nursery in the Isle of Wight closed last spring which I'm very sad about. I bought the trees for my original orchard from them and they have always had the widest variety of trees too. They also had the best catalogue, which I would read like a novel!  My annual treat was always to choose one or two new varieties from them - hence I now have over 100 different varieties! As I've often said - apple trees are like stamps - the more you have the more you want - there is just no end to their variation and beauty. 
 
 
Here's another cost cutting tip if you're ordering from the UK and happen to have a convenient friend in the North of Ireland - cheaper UK postage applies naturally.  Not only that - if 'Brexit' happens which is still not certain - it may be the only way to get some varieties of fruit in the future!. If you live near enough to go and pick your stuff up from there - it works out cheaper. Planting the trees will more than offset the carbon if that bothers you! (you could car-share the shopping trip with a pal to buy organic goodies there that you won't get here too! Again - I know all the stuff about buying Irish - but when Irish shops sell what I want to buy - then I will!  If it's not available here - then I will buy it somewhere else. I keep on asking for things here but some shops just can't be bothered! Some supermarkets and shops get away with charging exorbitant prices for a very restricted range of produce just because they can!!  'Every little bit helps' - but mostly their profits!!)  When it comes to plants - in these days of EU wide plant certification, there are no worries about plant health importation restrictions or other problems. In just one or two cases you may possibly contravene plant breeders rights, by bringing certain potato varieties here which nurseries won't send by mail order to Eire -  but my blog is also about saving you money and recommending the best varieties to grow from experience. 
 
  

It's time to plant bare root trees - what can you do if conditions aren't suitable?

 
 
The season for bare root tree planting is really on us in earnest now and nurseries are starting to send out their first orders. If you're thinking about ordering bare root trees or fruit bushes - get on with it fast or you'll be at the back of the queue and get the tail end of the nursery stock early next year!  If you've already ordered some - when you trees or bushes arrive get them into the ground as soon as possible. Anything you can plant now while the soil is warmer will get a far better start than anything planted in the New Year after a lot more wet weather as long as the soil is in good condition when planting. If you can't plant for a few days because of frosty weather - then unwrap the plants, put them into a sack or bin bag somewhere frost free like a garage or shed, and fill loosely with compost or put damp newspaper around the roots so that they don't dry out. They'll be fine for up to a couple of weeks like this - particularly if they're in compost - but don't leave them any longer or they may suffer.  If you think you may have to leave them for much longer than that then it's a good idea to bring in some soil now to dry out - either into your tunnel or greenhouse or even a garage. You'll need about enough to mix half and half with a good peat-free organic compost or recycled organic potting compost. If you pot them up into large pots using this mix they will already be acclimatised to your soil. If you're not sure how much just measure it out into your pots according to the number of trees you will have to plant. 
               
 
It can be surprising to see that even dormant, apparently dead-looking plants will still be doing their job of trying to grow at the roots - with tender new white roots growing out from the existing brown ones trying to find some soil. Trees are never doing nothing - unless they're actually dead! The new young roots are very brittle and can easily be knocked off when handling or planting. This is why it's so important to get them either into the ground or into large pots of the soil mix as soon as possible after arrival. If the roots are miles too big for the pots then find bigger pots - never wind them around. If one or two of the roots are only just too big then prune those back slightly so that they just fit in. If a root is cleanly pruned then it will start to make several new roots out from the tip in just the same way that branches do. I've found that on the M26 root stock trees are very happy in large pots, until you have time to plant them out when weather conditions are more suitable or in spring. If you add micorrhizae onto the roots as well when potting them up, then they will start to make nice root systems. Also don't forget that the 'graft union a minimum of 4 inches or 10 cm above the soil' still applies - whether you're planting into the ground or into a pot. It's astonishing how many tree sold in garden centres are potted up too deeply by people who should know better!

 
I described my normal method of planting last month's Oct. diary - but something I forgot to add was that if you're on a seriously heavy clay soil where water can tend to lie on the surface a bit in winter - it's also helpful to add a few shovelfuls of grit or pea gravel to the planting area too - working these into the compost/soil mix which is going back into the hole and then working it in around the roots. The pea gravel is almost more important on a heavy clay soil than adding compost to the mix. That's one of the things I learnt from well-known plantswoman Beth Chatto many years ago. Adding too much compost or manure - even if it's really well rotted - can often be a really bad thing. It can lead to poor drainage and soft, sappy growth caused by an excess of nitrogen, which can then make plants much more susceptible to disease. 
 
 
All plants are grateful for good drainage - roots need air or they can rot - particularly in our often wetter climate here in Ireland. Unless they're bog plants, they don't like their feet constantly wet, and the vital microbes that live in the soil around their roots can't do their job of making nutrients available to the plants in those conditions. Pea gravel or grit is cheaper in bulk bags and it's permanent - so if you're making a long term investment in good fruit trees then it's well worth buying some. Unlike compost or humus - grit doesn't gradually disappear - it's there forever. It doesn't matter where you use it in the garden - everything seems to love growing in it - and it opens up the structure of the soil permanently. It's well worth going to the trouble of digging it in when you're preparing the soil, particularly if you're on a heavy clay soil like we have here. You will only have to do it once - and you won't get the chance to do it again. It will also raise the level of the soil slightly which is another plus. Our winters seem set to become wetter in future with climate change - so take that into account whenever you're planting anything permanent. 
 

I always find this time of year so exciting. As a keen 'pomologist (fruit lover) I just have to plant one or two new varieties each year - particularly as I've started to plant a new orchard as a shelter belt around the hen runs (good excuse!) - actually hens love a bit of shade and shelter whatever the weather.

 
 
More thoughts on rootstocks
 
 
Roots are the foundations of the plant - and just like building a house - if the foundations are not good then sooner or later problems will arise.  If trees are planted badly, on the wrong sort of soil, in poor conditions - or if they're on the wrong root stock for your soil and climate - that can lead to poor root development, with diseases becoming more of a problem or perhaps the whole tree collapsing when carrying a heavy crop of fruit!  That happened to me many years ago - when in my innocence I planted a couple of trees which I now realise were obviously on M9 root stocks - having been assured by the nurseries I got them from here that they were M26 - ha!  After a few years when the tops were heavy - a couple fell over in a gale as the roots weren't vigorous enough on that particular rootstock. After 30 years, those trees are still small, miserable, disease-prone and never produce more than half a dozen apples. You learn by your mistakes - but those were expensive ones! Always ask what root stocks the trees are on - before you tell them which you want!  M26 or the slightly more vigorous MM106 are by far the best here, and recent trials at RHS Rosemoor Garden in the west country of the UK have proved that M26 will grow quite happily and be productive for many years in pots or containers.  I'm still reserving judgement on the 'Coronet' grafted apples in the ornamental potager until I've grown them for a couple more years! So far, I'm not at all sure they're very healthy in our damp Irish weather!
 
 
Apple 'Red Windsor' on 'Coronet' rootstock in my raised bed potager

 

The variety 'Red Windsor' pictured here (on the 'Coronet' rootstock) was bred from Cox and is said to be more disease resistant. I suppose it's a bit soon to judge as I only planted it 4 years ago. It does have a very good flavour - but also has some scab so the fruit wouldn't keep as well as it should. It's early days - so we shall see! I used to recommend 'Holstein' or 'Queen Cox' as the best Co alternative., but there's a new kid on the block so to speak! Herefordshire Russet is a daughter of Cox with the same wonderful flavour but even better keeping qualities as Cox's Orange Pippin. Unlike C.O.P. it's very disease-resistant and keeps for longer too - until well into January. It's the most deliciously crisp and aromatic apple, which only needs one other tree for good pollination - usually not a problem in most urban gardens. Holstein's drawback is that it's what is known as a 'triploid' apple. That means it has no good pollen of it's own so it needs two other pollinator varieties. 'James Grieve'' - a nice, slightly earlier eating apple and 'Grenadier' a good early season cooker - are good pollination partners for it. In fact they are good pollinators for many other apples. If you're choosing pollinators - always check that they are in the same pollination group (flowering time). Any good nursery catalogue will always tell you this. Some nurseries are also selling what they call 'Self fertile Queen Cox' now. I haven't tried it personally but even if it is - apple trees will always crop better when another nearby tree is flowering at the same time, as pollination is far more reliable.


 
Buying bare-root trees is always much cheaper - and all types of fruit will generally establish far better planted this way. Some varieties of fruit are available in pots in garden centres, but there's very little choice of varieties, and they're often potted incorrectly - with the root stock too close to the top of the compost. The graft 'union' which looks like a large bulge on the stem must be 4in/10cm above the top of the compost - otherwise the variety may be able root out into the soil - by-passing the dwarfing rootstock - which means you lose the benefit of that. They're also often in peat composts which means they don't establish as well because the roots are used to pure peat or are going round and round in circles as they are restricted in the pot, and many available here are not good varieties for our climate either. The other thing is that if you're a bit late ordering and the plants aren't sent out until Feb/Mar.- then no matter how well they're packed, if they're delayed at all the plants may begin to shoot, and if the package is handled roughly these shoots can break off as I've already mentioned. Some carriers are better than others, but it's far wiser to order in plenty of time so they travel while they're still completely dormant, rather than when preparing to grow any minute!   
 
 
Most mail order fruit nurseries now sell fruit trees as first year feathered maidens or 'whips'.  They're much cheaper (often a third of the price) and establish much better as the roots are younger and primed to react more quickly because they have far more growth hormone in their root tips. Feathered maidens are just a single stem with possibly a few small side shoots and with roots which are generally about 30cm across their total width when spread out. I know it's tempting to plant larger ones bought in containers from garden centres, so you'll have a crop sooner, but in actual fact the others will very soon catch up and then overtake them within a year or so. I know - I've done it!  
 
 
Often many of the trees in garden centres are already badly 'pot bound', with too much root going round and round in circles in the pot, and at least every other one I see is also planted at the wrong depth in the pot - often with the graft union too close to or even - unbelievably - under the surface of the compost! The graft union is the swollen 'scarred looking' bit above the roots, which should be at least 4in/10cm or more above the roots and surface of the soil/compost, otherwise the variety may eventually root past the graft union - particularly if growing in long grass, and then you will lose the dwarfing/fruit producing influence of whichever root stock the variety is grafted onto, and for which you are paying most of your hard earned cash!  Again - buying bare-root trees avoids this danger.


In Ireland and other similar damp climates like the West Country in England, I think the M26 rootstock is definitely best for most purposes - or MM106 if the variety being grafted is a weaker grower. Both the M9 and M27 very dwarfing rootstocks are much weaker, as I've often said before. Both of those were developed in the warmer and far drier East of England, for 'super perfect' growing conditions, and how many of us can provide those, particularly in these times of unpredictable stormy and wet weather caused by erratic climate swings? Most of the books written by fruit 'experts' these days seem to be written by people living in the East of England too!  It's one of the things I find really annoying, that these 'experts' rarely, if ever, take account of the fact that our local climates can differ vastly from region to region, or even within individual gardens!  In Ireland, even in a small garden I would plant on M26, as it will tolerate a less than perfect soil, will produce very good crops and can be pruned to keep it whatever size you want, even trained into cordons or espaliers - or the MM106 which is just slightly more vigorous and often better for a wetter soil. M26 is fine for most varieties and easily kept within bounds, or trained by pruning.
 
 
Do make sure that wherever you buy them, they can show you proof of not just the variety, but also the rootstock!!  (In my experience - garden centres rarely can - and most look at you as if you've got two heads if you ask them what rootstock the trees are on!)  Johnstown Garden Centre are very good for fruit trees, they import them from an excellent nursery in the UK and can reliably tell you what rootstock the tree is on. You can also buy trees mail order from a reputable Irish nursery. I was looking at the Future Forests website recently - they seem to have a good selection of trees on M26 and MM106 and are based near Bantry, Co. Cork. www.futureforests.net I haven't personally got trees from them but they seem to have a good list of trees on M26 & MM106 and they also give their pollination groups - which is important, as to get the best crops they must be compatible - flowering at similar times. I checked out a couple of friends who got trees from them in the past and say they've been reliable. They also sell some Irish Heritage varieties - but the few that I've tried so far have been a bit disappointing flavour-wise. Being an essentially practical person - I want an apple that is not just delicious but produces well, keeps well and is as disease-free as possible. Each to his own.
 
 
On the subject of pollination - I'm not mad about those so called partner pollinating 'family trees' In most garden centres where  I've seen them - they haven't been pruned properly and the specific branches carrying the individual varieties were not clearly labelled. Or even in some cases actually not labelled at all!  Most people find it difficult enough to understand the intricacies of apple pruning at the best of times - but with those family trees it's a nightmare if they're not labelled - as not all varieties have the same habit of growth, so they could quickly become an unproductive, chaotic mess if you're confused and so do nothing at all!
 
 
Grafted 'family' trees are very expensive too. Buying two or three feathered maiden/first year whips on M26 would cost about the same or even less and take up exactly the same amount or even less space grown as cordons. The would also eventually be far more productive! Even in a tiny garden you could have quite a few different varieties, spreading across the apple season, if you grow them as sloping cordons against a fence.These would take up only the same amount of space as one or two 'family' trees.

 

Choosing Varieties

 
Productive 'Katy'- an early non-keeping apple.
I received an email some time ago asking me to recommend three apple varietiesan early season for eating off the tree, a mid-season variety and a late keeper. I can only recommend those I've grown myself and therefore know will grow well in our often difficult Irish climate.George Cave is my earliest apple - often ready at the end of July with a crisp, 'ciderish' flavour.  'Discovery' is a beautiful late August/Sept-ish ripening apple, with juicy aromatic pinkish flesh, which stays really crisp and good for eating all through September. 'Katy' (pictured here) is another very reliable, huge cropper, deep red and ripening around the same time, but it needs to be eaten almost straight off the tree, as after a couple of weeks of keeping it tastes like nothing, with a bitter skin if it's been picked too long! Apple juice made from a fresh picked combination of the two is a fantastic, beautiful deep pink colour, delicious and freezes well if you have room. It also combines very well with juice of the early cooker 'Grenadier', a heavy cropper, which will pollinate both the other two and also many other varieties. 'Grenadier' is a cooker which cooks to a lovely froth, with a good flavour, but loses it's good acid flavour quickly becoming tasteless if kept after mid-October - which is the whole point of 'cookers'! Apples that ripen before the end of Sept. won't keep at their very best for longer than a couple of weeks at most. 'James Grieve' is a late Sept. early Oct ripening dual-purpose cooker/eater, crisp, juicy and a good pollinator for many others also.
 
 
Apple 'Elstar' on 'Coronet' root stock. Showing some scab - late Oct.
 
The later keeping apples are normally picked mid-late Oct. depending on the season and how early you get severe frost or gales. It also depends on how long the birds will leave them alone! Blackbirds and thrushes can be an absolute pest - they know the exact moment the fruit is right to pick - going straight for the pink coloured bits! You spend all your time encouraging them, feeding them all winter - and that's how they repay you!!  Good mid-season ripening apples are 'Holstein or Queen Cox'(exactly the same flavour as Cox's Orange Pippin - but three times the size - much healthier and more productive - but it's a vigorous triploid so not suitable for training but makes a beautiful bush tree about 15ft/4m-ish high on M26), Herefordshire Russet I've mentioned, Kidd's Orange Red and 'Elstar'  pictured here are good, or 'Egremont Russet.  'Bramley's Seedling' is my mid-season cooker of choice, which we all know. Picked at the end of Oct. it will keep until Feb or even March in cold storage.
 
 
Good very late eaters would be 'Ashmead's Kernal', a scab-resistant, heavy-cropping crisp russet, picked end Oct.- ripening end Dec. It keeps really well until the end of Feb. and also 'Tydeman's Late Orange' again picked end Oct. ripening end Dec., which will keep until April. Both of these last two are actually mouth-puckeringly inedible until after Christmas!  A very good late keeping cooker or dessert apple is 'Annie Elizabeth', also resistant to scab, which has a good acid balance and flavour. That's ready end Dec. and often keeps as late as the following June!  I grow a lot more varieties as I planned my original orchard carefully in order to have my own apples for as much of the year as possible. So I'm sure I've left some good ones out! I find them utterly irresistible and very addictive - so I just keep finding more varieties that I want! The one thing that's particularly important to look for in our Irish climate is scab-resistant varieties, as our damp, mild winters encourage it. Apples with scab won't store - so this is very important for the late keepers. There really are far too many varieties to list here - again - a good fruit catalogue is worth it's weight in gold! 
 
 

Other Jobs
 
 
You can take hardwood cuttings of many other fruit bushes now - as soon as the leaves have dropped. Just stick them about 2/3rds int the ground somewhere well-drained and sheltered and leave them alone for a year.   By then they will normally have made good roots. Very easy! Prune out old fruited canes of blackberries and loganberries now and tie in the new ones grown this year, to stop them being damaged in winter gales.
 
 
DON'T start to winter prune apples until all the leaves have fallenThen clear up all leaves and any 'mummified' fruits to stop diseases re-infecting and possibly spreading next year. This is much easier to do by just mowing closely under the trees and the clippings can all be composted. Save any younger pruned shoots as they are rich in potash. Burn them when dry and save the ash.
 
 
If you've had problems with winter moth caterpillars damaging fruit - put grease/glue bands on the trees NOW. These are available online from The Organic Gardening Catalogue UK - or ask in garden centres. I find that hanging bird feeders in the orchard is also a good idea - the Long-Tailed Tits in particular appreciate them there - being such shy birds. They also seem to do a great job of pest control - I only had one or two apples this year with any codling moth damage. And watching and listening to the Tits going about their business is a total delight anyway - as they process round the trees in little troupes of 5 or 6 birds, making a giggling sound just like silly schoolgirls as they do so. I could watch them all day!
 
 
I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and many years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's very satisfying and also most complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work. But if you do happen to copy it, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would mention that it originally came from me. Thank you.

The Vegetable Garden in November - 2019

November contents list: Local does NOT mean Organic - and why it matters!.... Supermarket price squeezes may give you cheaper veg - but they come at a price!.... Perennial delights.....  It's the season of winter comfort food!..... A crispy crunchy sort of lettuce - hardy 'Jack Ice'..... Be careful of wet soil..... A Heavy Manure rant!.... Be ready for a quick cover-up.... Beware of Slimy characters!... Planting garlic and Onion Sets.... Brace your Brassicas!.... Carry on composting!...... This is 'Dream-time' for gardeners. 

 
Leeks interplanted with Pak Choi -  keep soil covered, protecting the surface & stopping nutrients from leaching in heavy rain
 
 Leeks inter-planted with Pak Choi -  keeping soil covered - protecting the surface & stopping nutrients from leaching in heavy rain
 
 
Local does NOT mean Organic - and why it matters! 
 
 
A misconception I've seen promoted quite a lot recently on social media is that 'local' is as good or even better than organic.  It isn't!  The fact is that the quality of so-called 'local' produce is completely unregulated unless it is organic - so how is the consumer to know?  It may well be grown or reared using a lot of chemicals - particularly now with the weather disruptions, droughts and increased rainfall of climate change sometimes making growing conditions more difficult. Because local produce is often being sold directly to customers in farmers markets or straight from the farm, no one is actually checking to see if it contains levels of pesticides which are above permitted limits. This applies not just to vegetables, but also to meat. While the Department of Agriculture will tell you when asked, as I did some years ago when experiencing spray drift, that farmers have to keep records and that these are checked - in practice this rarely happens unless a major problem is highlighted, and often not even if it is.  In the case of my own complaint, they promised to check my neighbouring farmer's records and when I heard nothing from them and enquired a few months later - they had not done so! 
 
 
Local farmers and growers don't have to answer to anyone.  Now I'm not suggesting for a minute that all of them are unscrupulous - but I personally know of one or two who are - and have the attitude that what you don't know won't hurt you!  I know of a few around here who would tell you that their produce is "as good as organic", or "grown without chemicals, but that they can't be bothered with all the paperwork that being organic entails", or that "applying for organic certification is too expensive", or some other excuse. From that you can usually take it that not only do they not want to go through the rigorous and regular inspection processes that being organic entails, but also that they want to be able to use whatever chemicals or other inputs they like whenever they think it is necessary - especially if it means saving a crop and thereby not losing money. 
 
 
Perhaps some producers may think that the customer won't know anyway, so why does it matter?  Or they may personally believe that chemicals aren't harmful anyway - as evidenced by the number of angry attacking tweets I get from farmers whenever I talk about the dangers of agricultural chemicals, on social media!  There is one local potato producer who even states that their produce is 'chemical-free' on their packaging.  What that actually means in practice no one can tell, since they don't clarify that statement, and there is absolutely no certification or proof needed to make such a claim, nor apparently any law preventing them from doing so!  Does that mean that they don't use artificial fertilisers, fungicides to control blight, pesticides to control insect pests, or Glyphosate/Roundup weedkiller to dessicate (dry off) their crops prior to harvest?  They don't make any of that clear!  
 
 
Frankly - that is deliberately misleading the public, and as someone who has spent 40 years promoting organic food - it makes me very angry and frustrated.  This is because if the consumer is misled into thinking that a product is 'natural' (a now very much misused term) - they may decide to buy that perhaps slightly cheaper produce instead of buying certified organic produce, and that can have an impact on the livelihoods of genuine organic producers who care about public health, biodiversity, soil and climate change, and who have also taken the considerable risk of spending three years in conversion to organic before they can sell their produce at only a slightly higher price to cover their costs!
 
 
When it comes to the issue of only eating local crops - there is an argument that wherever organic food is grown, it is helping to preserve and increase biodiversity, and also promoting soil health - which is vital to helping mitigate climate change and to the future of the planet However I think there is a balance to be found - do we really need to eat asparagus or strawberries all year round, particularly if this could be contributing to climate change?  The increase in supermarkets importing produce from all over the world in recent decades has led to a culture of having whatever we want, whenever we want it - but that isn't necessarily good either for us or the planet. To those who experienced the privations of rationing both during and after World War 2 and who wasted not one scrap of anything edible - those imports must have been a taste of absolute heaven!  But just how much of that produce is now taken for granted and wasted by subsequent generations is evident from the 'bargain bins' full of out of date vegetables and meats which you can see every day you go into any supermarket. And that's not taking into account how much is wasted in people's homes!
  
 
Another thing that makes me angry is when so-called 'healthy eating' magazines are promoting out of season crops in January!  Apart from the huge carbon footprint of crops imported from the other side of the world, which these magazines almost never consider, the articles are rarely promoting organic, so the produce is stuffed with cocktails of unknown chemicals, many of which are banned in Europe, and definitely not healthy! Apart from things which obviously can't be grown here or in the UK, like exotic herbs or pantry goods such as rice which have to be imported and then stored - shopping locally, seasonally and organic for our fresh produce is the very best way to support a cleaner environment, biodiversity and also jobs, in our own neighbourhood.  Perhaps that would even lead to a resurgence of greengrocer's shops?  A temple of vibrantly fresh delights that I remember from my childhood, and which are a rarity now. That would surely be a win/win situation for everybody - except the local shops and supermarkets who negotiate contracts months or sometimes even years in advance, to conveniently buy and sell the same fresh produce virtually all year round!  
 
 
 
Perhaps it's time that shops promoted local food - since we're being told we should all think about our carbon footprint and go vegan?  By the way - that argument simply doesn't hold water!  Going vegan won't remotely help to save the planet unless it's organic as well, since soil carbon destruction caused by agricultural chemicals is one of the biggest contributors to soil erosion and pollution, and accelerating climate change.  Sustainably-reared, regenerative organic livestock grazing pasture not treated with artificial fertilisers or selective weedkillers in fact helps to sequester carbon into soils, by stimulating soil health and the microbial activity in soils which fixes carbon and that artificial chemicals destroy.  I agree that we should all be thinking about transportation emissions and air miles - but one interesting point was made quite recently by Dr. Matthew Jebb, Director of our National Botanic Gardens, in his talk at The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival last August.  He told us that he had worked out that most early and late season greenhouse produce grown in Southern Europe, where the climate is warmer, actually has a substantially lower carbon-footprint - often five times lower, than the same produce grown in the UK and Ireland - even making allowances for transportation etc.  That's because of the high energy use and carbon footprint of forcing early produce in the British Isles. So imported tomatoes or peppers may not be quite so bad after all?  It's a difficult balance sometimes, and I think that a bit of common sense and consumer education  is needed - but I definitely think that the answer is to eat mainly seasonal organic foods, which are local if possible. Anyway, in my opinion, that's a far more enjoyable way to eat - as it means that we get to look forward to certain foods, and enjoy them at their absolute peak of freshness and nutritional perfection, in their proper, natural season in our hemisphere.

 

Supermarket price squeezes may give you cheaper veg - but eventually they come at a price!

 
Sadly as usual it's not the growers who make a big profit but the supermarkets who cynically seem to think they can charge what they like for organic produce.  Although some discounters such as Aldi are stocking more organic produce now - especially in Germany - unfortunately in many cases supermarkets are squeezing what they pay to growers in order to keep their prices artificially low.  If supermarkets squeeze grower's prices too much - they will go under as many have done already. This means that the fewer growers that are left even are even more vulnerable to the bullying of the supermarkets - and that can then leave us 
with less choice too!  I spent many years as a commercial organic grower and I know just how tough it is - particularly when supermarkets only want sizes and shapes to fit their stipulations for packaging. What makes life even more difficult for growers is that it is standard practice to pay producers a minimum of three months AFTER you have supplied your produce!  Supermarket packaging requirements also generate a huge amount of food waste, and much of it goes into landfill, generating climate-changing methane gas!  When I was a commercial grower I used to end up with at least a third of my cucumbers either just a bit too long or just a bit too curvy for their ridiculous criteria - which naturally only refer to cosmetic appearance, size and packaging convenience for them!  
 
 
My answer having about half of my produce rejected purely for cosmetic reasons was to establish the first ever organic box scheme in Dublin - back in the early 1980's.  I also supplied the first ever Farmer's Market in Ireland, The Dublin Food Coop, which started at the same time.  Although it was incredibly hard work and very time consuming - one of the really great things about selling direct to customers was that it gave me the chance to really inform people about the benefits of organic food on a one-to-one basis and to answer any questions. I could explain why organic is not just better for us - but also for the environment and for biodiversity too. Many of my original customers are still my friends now after over 30  years - and all are still committed organic consumers despite the fact that I no longer supply them, having stopped growing commercially in the mid 1990s. Buying produce direct from a local grower or farmer's market is also a really nice thing to do as a consumer. It's fresher and often cheaper as you're cutting out the middle man - and the growers make more too as they're not being squeezed by greedy supermarkets and they get paid immediately. But don't forget that they're very busy people who work long hours - and much as they would love to chat all day they really don't have time!  
 
 
Food waste is a problem I've highlighted for many years - so it's really good to see high profile celebrities getting now involved in the issue. They can give the problem a much higher profile. I watched a programme on TV a couple of years ago which showed leeks being trimmed and packed ready for supermarkets - they cut off almost all of the lovely green tops - which are actually the most nutritious bit - wasting about 2/3rds of the leek and leaving just the white shank. The leeks wouldn't fit the supermarket packaging otherwise! That's one of the best things about growing your own - you can grow the best-flavoured varieties, and use every single nutritious bit! Eating seasonally and growing your own also gives you the pleasure of looking forward to things as they come to the absolute peak of nutrition and deliciousness. Nowadays, in our overly homogenised and globalised world where every bland-tasting thing is available all year round, from who knows where, that mouthwatering anticipation of looking forward to eating the very first of anything is stolen from many of us. I think it destroys a lot of the pleasure we should take from eating seasonal food and from contact with nature. You can't homogenise Nature!  My April blog past explaining exactly why eating seasonal, organic and local food is better for us is here:  http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/492-for-the-highest-nutrients-in-fruits-and-veg-timing-is-everything 
 
 
Perennial Delights
 
Glin Castle Kale
I'm really thrilled with this perennial 'Glin Castle' kale I was given by some friends a couple of years agoNot only is it seemingly impervious to almost every known pest and disease - but it's productive, delicious, hardy and incredibly easy to propagate from cuttings! It just wants to grow and I love plants like that! What an absolute paragon of a vegetable it is! I'm now looking forward to kale forevermore - without any trouble - and I'm all for doing less work! Considering that kale is one of the healthiest vegetables you can eat - what could possibly be better? Mandy Barbour at Incredible Vegetables has similar varieties but I know she has a waiting list since an article on perennial kales in one of the national newspapers. My friends didn't know where this kale originally came from - but apparently it was brought to Glin Castle (former home of The late Knight of Glin) by one of the cooks, from her village. I'm not sure if it is the same variety as the Daubenton Kale which came from France originally - but I suspect it may be. It would be interesting to compare them. The history of vegetables is fascinating, because it doesn't just embrace gardening and culinary history - but also social history as well, since many of the useful vegetables we enjoy today traveled with various migratory peoples from many lands all around the world.
 
 
 
Giant winter spinach ViroflexGiant winter spinach Viroflex
 
It's been mostly a mild autumn up until recently that my second year of 'late crop' autumn spinach trial in the north east bed outside in the veg garden has been a great success again. All three of the varieties are continuing to grow and crop really well. The varieties I've grow are Matador, Missouri and Viroflex. This last one wins hands down for texture, flavour and on frost-resistance too! This is now the fifth year I've grown it. I was delighted with it last year especially the later crop in the polytunnel - which went on cropping far longer than any of the others - well into April. In fact I had to take it out before it was finished as I needed it's space!  It's a hybrid of the old French variety Monstreux de Viroflay - and the family voted it by far the most delicious both raw and cooked. It's actually a variety specifically for autumn sowing to overwinter outside and has very large, thick, fleshy and firm leaves. The others are summer varieties which I grew for comparison, but there is a marked difference in the texture of their leaves. Compared to Viroflex they're both much thinner-leaved, not as tasty and are far more vulnerable to frost. In addition - neither of them did as well in the polytunnel last winter either - bolting up to flower much faster. Viroflex is available from organic seed producers Real Seeds in the UK.
 
 
 In the last few years, we had already had - 6 deg. C suddenly at the very beginning of November.  The same happened again this year - but we need a few good frosts now for the parsnips. I don't think they're ever any good until they've had a couple of decent frosts to trigger them into converting their starches into sugars. By the way - don't forget that those sugars are wrapped up in the complete package of the vegetable - with all the other nutrients and fibre - so it's a bit unfair to compare them to pure sugar as some 'low-carbers' do - especially since they contain a lot of gut-friendly prebiotic fibre, vitamins, minerals and other important phytonutrients as well. As we don't add nutritionless 'free' sugar to anything - I think we can be allowed a few sweetly nutritious parsnips! Perhaps it seems odd to some people to be looking forward to colder weather - but the parsnips are looking so good that I can't wait to eat them! My favourite way is roasted - but parsnips are very versatile and can be used in so many different ways - even in rare cakes! They're one of the seasonal veg I would never want to be without, but they're so expensive to buy in the shops if you want organic - always about one euro per parsnip! 
 
 
It's the season of winter comfort food!
 
                                                                                                                                                                        
Early red cabbage 'Red Rookie' & celeriac 'Albin'I'm not lifting any parsnips yet - but here's a photo of the new variety of celeriac I tried for the first time a couple of years ago - called Albin It makes large, delicious roots ideal for roasting, mashing or using in winter coleslaws. The other vegetable I Iove in winter slaws or ferments is red cabbage - and the variety pictured here is called 'Red Rookie' (pictured here) which I wrote about earlier this year. It's the earliest variety ever bred and was ready to use in August. It has a lovely flavour and has really impressed me since, with it's ability to resist splitting after some of the heavy rain we've had. It's just gone on getting bigger instead. The two pictured here which I cut this morning weighed almost 6lbs/2.5kg each! It's definitely one I shall continue to grow from now on. It's siblings will now be cut and stored in the cold shed for winter use. (There's a recipe for my 'Rainbow Cabbage Slaw' in the recipe section), I also use it for pickles and to make my delicious spiced, slow-cooked braised red cabbage - lovely with rich meats like goose or duck, and also, oddly, with lasagne. Funny how food tastes brings back memories - I first tasted lasagne and stewed red cabbage together many years ago at a friend's 21st - and that evening always comes to mind whenever I eat them together.  It also pairs very well with roast or mashed parsnips. I've tried nearly all the F1 Hybrid parsnip varieties now - and although they are admittedly more vigorous and uniform - newer is not always better. I don't think that any have the same flavour as the old-fashioned varieties.The ultimate comfort food for me at this time of year is a huge dish of parsnips, beetroot, carrots, red onions and sweet potatoes - tossed in good olive oil with some thyme leaves and then roasted in a hot oven until they're just tender and sweetly caramelised around the edges. Irresistible - either hot or cold!  A delicious guilt-free treat that can be enjoyed throughout the winter!  Every time I walk past the parsnip bed now - with their broad white tops looking so promising - my mouth waters at the prospect! Roll on another good frost!!                                                                                                                                                                  
 
 A crispy crunchy sort of lettuce - hardy 'Jack Ice'
 
 
Lettuce 'Jack Ice' - just after planting in early SeptLettuce 'Jack Ice' - just after planting in early Sept
A lettuce I've grown for several years now is the delicious 'Jack Ice' - again from Real Seeds (pictured here). For the last few years it's proved to be a really good winter lettuce for the polytunnel. I'm growing it again in the tunnel this year.  It's leaves are firm like the outside of an Iceberg and are crunchily delicious. So far it's proved to be disease-resistant, and it has all the crispiness of the outside leaves of an iceberg - with a far better, really sweet flavour that everyone loves. It doesn't make a heart at all and goes on cropping for ages - you just snap off leaves from the outside when you need them. Being green right through - it's also far more nutritious than an Iceberg lettuce and is a very good alternative for a Caesar salad if you don't have the classic crispy leaved Romaine lettuce or any Little Gem which I also like for this. It's one of my favourite lettuces now and one I shall always grow it now. As a non-F1 hybrid variety - you can also save your own seed from it too, which is useful if you live here, as Real Seeds UK are now no longer sending to Ireland because of Brexit!.
 
 
Jack Ice is definitely one for your seed orders if you like crisp lettuce like me - and can't stand those wimpy, floppy butter-head ones that wilt quickly in salads!  A couple of years ago, I even experimented with transplanting quite large Jack Ice into the tunnel at this time of year from outside - with a good, big root ball. It didn't mind a bit and seemed to appreciate the shelter - so I shall do the same with any good ones still left outside now, as more frost is forecast in the next few days. You couldn't get away with doing that in the spring or they would immediately bolt - but at this time of year growth is slowing and it's not usually a problem. Far better than leaving perfectly good lettuce, with potentially several more weeks of cropping, outside at the mercy of frosts or marauding pigeons! I'm going to clear the rest of the outside lettuce in the next day or so and cover the vacated bed with something to keep weeds down and stop nutrients being lost in any heavy winter rains. I'll need it early next year, so that will stop the bed getting any wetter and nutrients being lost by leaching in winter rain.
 
 

Be careful of wet soil now

If your soil is very wet after all the rain we've had lately - then don't do any planting even if you grow on raised beds like me, and don't walk on ground at all if you grow on the flat - you'll do more harm than good.  The old gardener's adage that still applies is "If soil sticks to your boots - then that means it's too wet to work"! - Or even to walk on!  All you will do is seriously damage the soil structure, compacting it and squashing air out. That reduces it's drainage capacity, making it much harder for plant roots to penetrate and to find the nutrients they need. Soil is a living thing - it also needs air, and protecting it's structure is just as important as protecting your plants - in fact more so. A good soil structure that contains air is vital to all the microorganisms living within it - along with nutrient and humus-rich compost and animal manures. 
 
 

A Heavy Manure rant!

A few years ago I was taken to task by someone quoting a particular 'expert' - who piles compost and manure onto empty veg beds, leaving it open and vulnerable to all the elements over the winter. Apparently the 'expert' was saying that "some organic people don't know what they're talking about" when they say that this leads to nutrient loss and pollution! Could the 'expert' then please explain exactly why doing this on a farm scale is now in fact illegal under EU law during the autumn and winter - precisely because of the potential risks I mention? 
 
 
As a former member of the Irish Organic Standards Committee - I know the Certification Panel would never give 'Certified Organic' Status to any farmer or grower doing this - even on a small scale. Organic farmers have to be extremely careful to practise good manure management, or they could conceivably cause just as much pollution as non-organic farmers. Back gardeners and allotmenteers shouldn't be doing it either!  To say that doing it on a garden scale "doesn't matter" - or "that 'well made' organic compost holds on to all it's nutrients" - even when heavy rain is pouring through it, is quite frankly utter nonsense! 
 
 
That's a bit like saying that "using a few slug pellets doesn't matter"  (same expert!) -  after all they only kill wildlife and pollute groundwater don't they? Or perhaps saying that "using a little bit of peat doesn't matter" ! ...After all - using peat only destroys bogs and all their related biodiversity - releasing as much or more stored carbon than cutting down rain forests! And also allowing flood waters to drain into river systems much faster than normal, with consequent flooding!) 
 
 
To me the attitude 'that  my/our little bit doesn't make a difference' is selfish in the extreme - and frankly often seems to me to be courting cheap popularity - at the expense of our health, that of the environment and contribute to climate change. I prefer instead to perhaps risk unpopularity by saying some things that really need to be said!   
 
 
If composts and manures didn't contain nutrients that were water soluble - then plants wouldn't be able to grow!  Some are more immediately soluble than others, so to demonstrate this a few years ago - I took a handful of my precious 2 year matured 'well-made' organic compost (I defy anyone to produce better!) - from it's heap which has always been covered except when taking some out. I put it in a jar with some water, stirred it, and left it to settle for 4 hours. You can see the result clearly pictured here. Heavy organic matter settled at the bottom, lighter fibres of insoluble carbon at the top, and nutrient-rich water in between - which naturally would be the first to leach out if the compost was left out in all weathers!  Over the course of a normal winter - many of the other nutrients in the heavier layer at the bottom would also be broken down gradually by the action of soil bacteria, fungi and microbes - it would also then leach out. Try the experiment yourself if you don't believe me! (The jam jar one - not leaving tons of manure or compost uncovered all winter outside!!)

 
2 yr old compost stirred into jar of water - after settling shows heavy organic solids at bottom, lighter material at top and water soluble nutrients  in between  

2 yr-old compost stirred into water. 
On settling it shows heavy organic solids at bottom,
lighter carbon material top with water soluble nutrients between

Five star, two year old matured compost! - Almost edible!
 

Five star, 2 year old mature compost. Almost edible - it smells deliciously sweet!

 
I know it's very often difficult for some people to accept that something they may have been doing for years - and also advising others to do - could perhaps be wrong. But I have to say that such a blinkered and rather selfish 'refusal to accept reality' attitude, particularly when it applies to possible pollution, reminds me somewhat of the 1960's and the passionate advocates of the pesticide DDT!  As you know it was later banned!  Or again reminds me of the current Glyphosate debate - and in the future I have no doubt that it will also be banned - but sadly not soon enough for the many more people whose health will be ruined by it, or the biodiversity which will undoubtedly be killed by it in the meantime!  
 
 
Forty years ago people like me were labelled as 'organic fascists' and 'extreme nutcases' by many pro-chemical agricultural journalists and the farmers who read their columns! Now a much more enlightened Irish Farmer's Journal actually has it's very own dedicated organic section!!  The climate change and antibiotic-resistance that we were also warning about over 35 years ago are sadly also now an accepted fact. Although again - we were called extremists and nutcases at the time for voicing our concerns about their overuse - especially their use as gut-microbe destroying growth promoters in livestock, purely in order to extract more profit! 
 
 
I hope it doesn't take as long to ban the poisonous DNA damaging EDC (endocrine disrupting) pesticides and weedkillers like Roundup/Glyphosate which I believe are responsible for many of our modern non-communicable diseases like cancer and Type 2 diabetes - but sadly it's a constant fight against vested commercial interests, corrupt politicians and also sadly even many of the scientists who are in their pocket! I was actually even threatened by direct personal message on Twitter two years ago by one well-known, pro-GMO and pesticides scientist who I was following at the time, and who works for a seed company secretly owned by a multi-national chemical company. Although I didn't mention who he was (just saying that some scientists were for sale to the highest bidder) - I clearly touched a nerve there!  Needless to say I un-followed him after that, so that he was no longer able to threaten me by Direct Message on Twitter!
 
 
However, time and science move on, and hopefully we also learn! Perhaps gardening 'experts' who lash on the manure think that the EU experts and concerned scientists also don't know what they're talking about?  I'm not always well known for being a supporter of EU legislation - particularly when it comes to things like seed and plant patents etc. - but I wholeheartedly agree with any legislation which stops pollution or damage to human and soil health! Unfortunately the protections of EU environmental law may no longer protect the UK after the Brexit decision. The environment will then sadly be under even more threat, when the UK is keen to placate the vociferous pro-chemical farming lobby and also cultivate USA trade and the large multinationals who don't give a damn about anything other than profit! 
 
 
Just another 'geeky' fact to back up my argument - under Irish implementation of EU wide legislation - it is actually illegal to spread manure or composts onto land after 15th October, and illegal to inject slurry after 31st October. According to the Irish farm advisory service Teagasc's expert Stephen Alexander - even in warm sunny weather, heavy gaseous ammonia (nitrogen) losses into the atmosphere can also occur - so leaving manure or compost uncovered is not actually a good idea at ANY time of year - as I've so often said!  I rest my case! 
 
 
DON'T dig in manure and then leave ground bare over winter either, as suggested by all the old-fashioned gardening books written in another era and also those 'to do' lists copied straight out of them, by many of today's supposedly informed columnists in garden magazines! This may seem to be the easy route to a good soil structure with frost breaking up heavy clods of clay to a fine 'tilth' - but as I've just mentioned - there is absolutely no doubt that doing this does lead to leaching of nutrients, pollution of ground water and carbon loss. It costs us all vast sums of money in taxes to clean up our drinking water and rivers etc. which are polluted by organic nutrients, as well as by agricultural chemicals such as the metaldehyde slug pellets and weedkillers etc. used in conventional farming. Ground should always be covered either by a current crop, a 'cover-crop', a green manure or even just weeds, as these will hold onto nutrients and protect the surface of the soil. Otherwise cover it with polythene, old carpet etc. - or anything that will stop rain washing through it!  The worms will then do just the same job that frost and piles of manure would have done - with the added benefit that if we get a mild winter - the ground won't get covered with slug-encouraging weed growth while your back is turned!  This is terribly important in Ireland with our normally mild, wetter winters. Winters everywhere seem to be getting wetter now as a consequence of climate change - and we have to change our gardening methods to take account of that - not stay stuck in a very different past!
 
 
A healthy living soil - full of everything plants need to be healthy is the basis of all successful organic gardening. Take care of your soil - and your soil will then take care of your plants - ensuring that they have all the nutrients they require and as a consequence are healthy! Those healthy plants will in turn take care of your health!
 
 
When you're ordering seeds - buy some green manure seeds to sow after clearing summer crops next year, on any ground that may be empty and won't be needed too early in 2020.  In Ireland our early spring weather can often be very mild, but too wet to allow the digging in of more fibrous green manures like Hungarian grazing rye early enough for them to have time to rot down sufficiently before sowing early crops, so cover ground you will need for any very early sowing or planting with a light layer of good compost, and then black polythene such as recycled silage cover, which will block the light and stop weeds growing. This will keep the worms working snugly undercover all winter - leaving a perfect weed-free, nutrient-rich crumbly surface that will not require the action of frost to break it down in order to be ready for minimal cultivation - the work will all be done for you, and all you will need to do in spring is just scratch over the surface with a hand cultivator, or fork it over very lightly. My favourite garden tool is a long-handled, three-pronged cultivator that has a hoe on the reverse - I've had it for about 30 years and it's brilliant - almost the only tool I ever use. It's ideal for shallow cultivation. I've had to renew the handle quite a few times! I only use my father's lovely sharp old garden spade for planting trees now.
 

Uncover the ground a few times over the winter on dry days - the birds will be delighted to clear up any slugs and their eggs etc, but be sure to re-cover securely again before any rain. If you have ducks you can let them in to clear up slugs too. I kept Khaki Campbells and other rare breed ducks for many years - and if I just touched a piece of polythene in the garden - the ducks would come running, quacking excitedly and all piling in almost before I'd uncovered the bed! All rushing to be the first to gorge on any slugs - their favourite gourmet food! Their next favourite is anything soft and green - like juicy lettuce.  I was a bit amused to see poor Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall losing his lettuces to the ducks that some 'expert' had advised him to get to clear up his slug problem a few years ago, on one of those River Cottage TV programmes. Anyone who's ever actually kept ducks could have told him that lettuce is what they really love most to eat in the whole world! 
 
 
I miss my ducks, they were such chatty, intelligent and sociable companions in the garden.  I lost so many to the foxes though that I just couldn't bear the heartbreak any longer - particularly of losing the children's pet ones that they used to carry around under their arms. I wouldn't keep them in small pens - ducks can't bear being shut up in a small area - they pine and it's very cruel to them. I was terribly upset a few years ago to see ducks in a 'Bloom show' garden penned into their minute pond all day - cruelly forced to swim round and round because there wasn't even room to get out to sit on any dry land at the side. They also had no plants to shade them from the blisteringly hot sun which they hate. It was torture for them, and was a disgraceful example to the public - making them think that it was the way you should keep ducks! I complained several times but was, as usual, treated like some kind of extreme nutcase. Some people seem to think that poultry are just ornaments and don't have feelings! When in reality they are highly intelligent and ducks will even answer to their individual names! 
 
 

Be ready for a quick cover-up

  
Now I know some of you don't like using polythene but I've been re-using most of mine for well over 25 years now, which is perfectly possible if it's a heavy grade and you put it away carefully out of the light when it's not needed, instead of leaving it lying around untidily in the garden like some I've seen!  If you can't get hold of any to recycle, then silage covers can be bought relatively cheaply from farm supply shops - and are much better value than the flimsy stuff in small packs from garden centre or DIY stores, that degrades qujcikly in light, then breaks up and pollutes the environment. Get together with a few friends and buy some - it's easy to cut to the size of your beds as it comes neatly folded and then rolled up - just unroll and cut across the width of the folds - that's a neat way to cut bed sized lengths! Perhaps your local GIY group could get together and buy a roll. Make sure you cut it wider than your beds so that rain will run off and you can secure it either side with planks, blocks or something else heavy.
 
 
Make sure you have plenty of fleece to enable you to always have a dry one ready to cover things if frost is forecast if you don't have cloches - which can be expensive. Wooden clothes pegs are useful too, for securing fleece to canes or wire hoops - rather than resting it on the crop. It can often be quite breezy in the evening - then the wind suddenly drops around midnight and there can be a hard frost. Plastic pegs don't work as well.  A home made frame or cloche can be just as effective - but you will still need to take it off or raise it to ventilate at times - otherwise the damp cold air will cause rots very quickly in salad crops. It's not that much bother - when you think how much money you will save on buying organic lettuce - imported and minimum 3-4 days old - even if you can find it!  It really lifts the spirits on a cold, grey, cheerless November day to see the vibrant colours of some of the winter salads when I walk past their bed on the way up to the tunnels every day.                                                                                                                              
 
 

Beware of Slimy characters!

 
Continue to keep a sharp eye out for slugs and snails - checking at dusk and early morning is a good idea if you can - you'll catch most then.  Keep weeds down which encourage them, and also if you have grass paths keep them clipped very closely so the slugs don't have anywhere to hide - they don't like crossing clear ground. I find putting large stones or slates on beds every so often is a very effective way to trap them - slugs will often hide under them and you can remove and dispose of them however you like!  If you put down beer traps then cover them with a slanting roof of slate too - or they will get diluted with rain and be useless. Don't just retreat into the house and do nothing at this time of year - as so many people seem to do!  Slugs will just keep multiplying if it's mild - and you'll have an even bigger problem next year! If you have a really serious problem - then growing salads in a raised bed with a ring of copper wire or tape around it is a good idea - this deters them. Other crops are not so vulnerable! Encourage birds into the garden by feeding them - blackbirds and thrushes love snails in particular - you can often hear the 'tap-tap' sound they make as they break snail shells using a big stone as an anvil!  But don't chuck any snails over the fence into next door's garden - scientists have now proved that they have a homing instinct and will keep coming back like boomerangs! ...... But just a little bit slower! 

 

Planting garlic and Onion Sets 

 
 You can plant garlic now in well drained soil in a sunny spot and in raised beds or containers.  November is your last chance if you want really big bulbs with nice fat cloves. Garlic is actually very hardy and most varieties in fact need a cold spell for proper root development - but the onion family hates sitting in water and will rot. The only garlic variety that I've found so far that makes equally good bulbs if planted after the New Year is 'Christo'. There may be others but I haven't found them yet. If the soil is too wet then, you can plant the cloves into individual modules or small pots - planting out later on in March. I did that this year and the 'Christo' made huge bulbs with many really big cloves. It has a good strong flavour and it's always my most reliable cropper. I tried planting 'Thermidrome' after the New Year a few years ago as an experiment, but just ended up with large single clove-less bulbs like Elephant garlic! - Many varieties will do that if not planted in the autumn. 
 
 
Be sure to buy virus-free bulbs from garden centres or online - organic if possible. Organic bulbs are much less likely to be carrying diseases as organic growers have to operate a proper rotation - unlike chemical growers who can grow the same crop in the same place year after year - a practice that can cause the build-up of many pests and diseases. For the same reason - never plant cloves from supermarket bulbs as they may bring diseases and viruses into your garden. Onion white rot can last 20 years in the soil, and spread around the garden on your boots! The same goes for onion and shallot sets - these are actually much better grown from seed sown early in spring which is very easy 
 
 
Early overwintered onion sets'Electric' made such large bulbs in a tub it split!Early overwintered onion sets'Electric' made such large bulbs in this tub that it split! 
 
 
If you want to grow from sets to get some really early onions - then grow them in pots or containers as in the picture. Plant the sets about 2 - 3 ins/10 cm apart - as they grow they will make their own room and make nice fat medium to large sized bulbs if they're watered regularly. That way if you're unlucky enough to get any disease - you can throw the compost into the food/green waste recycling bin - NOT onto your compost heap!!
 
I plant my garlic finger deep and 1ft/30cm apart each way outside so that I can inter-crop with spring lettuce or other fast growing salads. This doesn't affect the vigour of the garlic at all and protects the soil surface. As you can see in the picture at the very beginning - I also do this with leeks. My beds are 4ft wide so I get 5 rows of garlic across - it looks neat and works well - if you plant at the recommended 7-8ins/10cm apart, there isn't really room to inter-crop, which actually protects the surface of the soil and keeps weeds down between the rows of garlic due to blocking out light. I've tried inter-cropping with carrots - but it didn't keep carrot fly down! Around here the only way is to cover carrots permanently with mesh or fleece, so I grow them separately. 
 
  
Brace your Brassicas Now!  

                                                                           
Brussels Sprouts 'Nautic F1' making nice firm sprouts

Stake brassicas like Brussels sprouts now to stop them rocking about in strong winds - this can create a hole which fills with water and rots roots.  Also make sure your brassicas and lettuce are netted now to keep hungry pigeons off!  Keep an eye out for grey aphids which may be a problem after the mild October - deal with them immediately and don't let them build up or they can be quite difficult to get rid of because they hide in all the crevices of Brussels sprouts and broccoli etc. Preferably give them a sharp spray with your finger over the end of the hosepipe to dislodge them - that's usually enough. They won't crawl back up and the birds will eat them - so encourage your garden birds by feeding them close to the veg. plot. Or use an organic insecticidal soap if you must. Also clear up any leaves that are yellowing or rotting - don't leave them lying around to spread disease - put them onto the compost heap or feed them to hens if you have any. Mine really appreciate the extra greens in the winter and don't mind a bit if they're less than perfect!   Brussels Sprouts 'Nautic F1' pictured here making nice firm sprouts.

 

Carry on composting!

 
Keep making compost - try to get a good varied mix of material - not thick layers of too much soft stuff like grass clippings. If you have a wood-burning stove - you can add the ash to the heap as well - scattering on the layers - this way any soluble potash they contain is retained in the compost and released slowly. If you're clearing up leaves, instead of the recommended piling into wire mesh cylinders, try doing what I discovered many years ago. Mix up the leaves with grass clippings in a bin or enclosure and cover with black polythene or put in a bag. This vastly improves the carbon/nitrogen ration so that they will rot down really quickly into a nice, friable, weed free compost, as long as the grass was short and not containing any weed seeds. Don't use any from chemically treated lawns for this, or in your other compost bin. Those weed and Feed lawn treatments are highly toxic and are believed to even cause cancer in pets! (I'm sure you won't be using moss and weedkillers - but sometimes 'well-meaning' friends may try to dump grass clippings on you!) 
 
 
Could someone please tell me just what's wrong with a few so-called 'weeds' in a lawn? Is there a law against daisies and dandelions - after all - they're vital food for bees, butterflies and other insect pollinators which desperately need our help!  Is using lawn weedkillers to achieve a perfect grass-only surface some sort of 'control' substitute for a frustrated 'hunter gatherer' instinct?  You wouldn't believe how many emails I get from people who can't persuade their partners not to use weedkillers - believe me - I know that difficulty only too well!
 
 
If friends REALLY want to help you ask them to start saving you all their used yogurt pots, plastic trays, large plastic bottles for mini- cloches etc. - in fact anything which might be usefully recycled. Pots, seed trays and labels etc are very expensive and mostly unnecessary. Hang round your local veg. dept when they're refilling the shelves early on busy days - there's masses of useful stuff you can recycle - ask nicely and explain why you want boxes etc. most people are usually only too happy to help. The real prize are those deep plastic mushroom boxes, which are great for sowing carrots, etc. in loo roll middles, they're nice and deep. I also use them on the steps of my stepladder garden. The 10 litre mayonnaise and coleslaw buckets from deli. departments are also useful - great for growing tomatoes or in fact anything in! I've never had such good aubergines since I started growing them in those free buckets!
 
 
This is 'Dream-time' for gardeners already looking forward to next year. It's not far away!
 
 
This time of year is 'dreamtime' for gardeners. Sitting in front of a crackling log fire on a winter evening with a seed catalogue, imagining long warm summer days and abundant harvests to come is always one of my favourite occupations. I always mark far too many things though - so after I've done that - I then go through my collections of seed packets left over from this year, to make sure I'm not duplicating and also checking if any are well out of date. These days you need to order seeds fairly quickly, as the popular or new varieties often sell out by the end of January. Some people don't even think about next year's vegetable gardening until well into the New Year, when it can be too late. I've been caught out several times in the past by not ordering early enough! 
 
 
Another thing you can do on cold winter nights is to draw up next year's cropping plan (I use graph paper), using not less than a four course rotation. That is - making sure that no crop is grown on a particular piece of ground more than once in four years, to avoid a possible build up of disease and specific nutrient depletion. A conventional rotation would be potatoes followed by peas and beans(legumes), followed by cabbage family (brassicas), then roots. This is much easier to plan on a bed system. Outside in the kitchen garden, I use at least a five year rotation taking into account crops like sweetcorn, marrows etc. In the polytunnel it is hard to stick to four! Try to write down what was good or not this year, while it's still all fresh in your mind.

 
If you're only just starting out on growing vegetables or fruit - don't try to take on too much - that's why most people give up. Just do one square metre really well the first year. It's amazing what you can grow in such a small area. Success will encourage you and you will learn a lot - a weedy mess may discourage you for years! Starting on a small scale also allows you to understand your plants and their individual needs better - doing this is the key to becoming a successful gardener.


Order lots of seed catalogues, they're free, and full of really useful information like cropping times, space needed etc. - even if you don't buy from them. I still prefer catalogues in my hand, rather than looking online. Not only do they often have a lot more info. in them, but it's also much easier to compare prices unless you're going to spend hours writing them down! It's amazing how much the price of the same seeds can vary - some catalogues will have far more seed for less money. 
 
  
The same applies to seed potatoes. If you can't find the particular varieties you want here in Ireland - you can order these online from some companies in the UK now too - all with EU plant certs. If they won't send them to Ireland - then you can use Parcel Motel like I do now for many things - particularly organic nuts and other things that are often four times the price in Irish health food shops, if you can get them, than they are postage free from Amazon!  I use a Parcel Motel address in Belfast (UK) and then they transport them down here and leave them in a personalised secure locker for you at one of their depots. Tah Dah! The seed companies start to send potatoes out in December, depending on the weather. Don't put off ordering until you feel the sap starting to rise in the spring - like a lot of gardeners do - it will be too late to get the potatoes sprouting early enough!  I'm not sure and neither are many of the seed companies exactly what will happen after Brexit - so watch this space!
 
 
One tip though -  they all usually wait until they have the whole order together before sending - so if you haven't saved tubers from your spring-planted first earlies and want to get a variety to do my 'extra-early' planting in order to have new potatoes for Easter - then order the early variety separately to any maincrops, as that seed often doesn't come into the suppliers from the seed-potato growers until later - and then it may be too late to get any really earlies in. I get around this by saving a few of my best 'extra earlies' to use as seed the following year, as I've mentioned before. I've often planted them a couple of days after Christmas some years - and you'll be lucky to see seed potatoes for sale anywhere here until at least late Feb. or March. My standard 'wouldn't be without' earlies are usually Apache,  Red Duke of York, and Lady Christl (which is the earliest to bulk up - I will be cropping these in the polytunnel in mid-April from a mid-January planting) The last few years I've also grown Mayan Gold as an 'extra early' - we were eating them only a week after the Lady Christl in mid-April this year! 
 
 
If you're doing an autumn pH test before possible liming - don't lime where you will be growing potatoes next year - it can cause potato scab. They prefer a slightly acid soil. Calcified seaweed or dolomite lime are preferable and more slow release than ordinary garden lime bought from garden centres. They also add other valuable minerals and trace elements.  Adding lime to soil every year as a matter of course, as some gardeners do can eventually lead to an excess of calcium building up in the soil. This can cause 'chlorosis' - when nutrients become 'locked up' and unavailable to plants because of too high a pH. A soil test is well worth doing and a cheap test kit for pH can be bought in any garden centre or DIY shop these days. Too little lime (calcium) in the soil and a low pH discourages earthworms and actually encourages the dreaded, earthworm-devouring New Zealand flatworm which prefers an acid soil - which you do not want! 
 
 
I enjoy sharing my original ideas and experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and also complimentary that others find "inspiration" in my work. If you do happen to use it or repeat it in any way - I would appreciate very much if you mention that it came from me. Thank you. Happy gardening and happy dreaming about next year!

The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in November - 2019

 

November contents:  Summer is overlapping with winter in this year's November polytunnel!.... Thoughts on Polytunnel Purpose and 'Style'....My polytunnel years....Getting started with a polytunnel: .choosing....erecting....deciding on layout....improving soil...other Nov. jobs.
 
 
Late grape Autumn Royal Lovely fat cobs of late-sown sweetcorn Lark pictured on 5th November
Late grape Autumn Royal  Lovely fat cobs of late-sown sweetcorn Lark pictured on 5th November 

 

Summer is overlapping with winter in this year's November polytunnel!

 

Over the last 4 days - we've had twice the average rainfall for two whole weeks at this time of year and tonight a hard frost is forecast!  My wheelbarrow has half-filled with water since Saturday!  The only place which is dry and where I'm not walking through ankle deep floods is in the polytunnels - thanks heavens for them!  It still looks like early autumn in there!  I'm so grateful that I have them, they seem to cope with whatever the weather throws at us.  If I was trying to grow any food outside in this weather I almost think I would give up -  the constant rain is just so depressing.  I hate thinking about what all the rain is doing to unprotected soil all over the country, and how many pollution is washing out of not just degraded agricultural soils around here- but also many garden soils - where people don't have their ground covered either with crops or a waterproof cover. We have yet another 'boil water' notice here, the second or third in the last month - meaning that the local water treatment plants can't cope with the amount of pollutants washing into the reservoirs and rivers from bare and degraded agricultural soils, which no longer contain enough carbon to prevent water just running straight through them.  Well-managed organic soils should contain enough carbon and humus to hold onto a lot of the water like a sponge, largely preventing the run-off of not just water, but also soil. which I was driving through yesterday on my monthly trip to the local town to go to the bank and do some shopping.  Soil needs protection if it is not just to be resilient enough to grow our food, but also store carbon and mitigate climate change. That protection doesn't just mean some sort of cover - it also means the integral protection of enough carbon to buffer it against extremes of weather - whether it's floods in winter or droughts in summer. This is something we're all going to have to be far more conscious of in the future.

 

Many people think that it's the extra warmth in polytunnels that is the important thing and they keep them tightly closed. It isn't though - it's actually protection from wind and heavy rain which is the reason why plants grow so much better in winter than those outside. I never keep my polytunnels closed. Unless we have a gale blowing here I always open both end of the polytunnels every day. Air circulation is vitally important to prevent diseases quickly cause by the damp atmosphere in a closed polytunnel - which can be almost sauna-like even in winter on a bright day!

 

Despite having lost almost half my gardening year to a broken ankle - I'm so delighted that I  can still.go out every day now and pick a huge selection of salad leaves, spinach, kales and chards - at the same time gathering a wide range of healthy nutrients as super-fresh as Nature intended them to be.  There are even some very late-sown summer crops still hanging in there - like sweetcorn and tomatoes - although they'll be coming out this week as I need their space for more winter/early spring crops. I left the very last of the grapes - a new, very late-ripening cultivar called Autumn Royal to ripen as long as possible, as I'm either going to dehydrate those into raisins - or just freeze them as they are. One thing's for sure - I won't be relying on imported supermarket produce for my winter food! 

 

 

Healthy looking 'Jack Ice' lettuce seedlings to be planted in the next few days
Healthy looking 'Jack Ice' lettuce seedlings to be planted in the next few days

If you go to any supermarket at this time of year you'll be lucky to find anything but tired-looking bags of spinach leaves, or maybe occasionally a mix of rocket and watercress - usually several days old and well on their way to semi-rotting!  Farmers markets are full of imported produce too. This is why I'm always astonished that so many people don't use their polytunnels in winter. I'm so behind with my planting this year that I still have a lot of Jack Ice and Lattughino lettuce, as well as other salad greens to plant.  Despite the discouraging weather outside though, and the fact that the decreasing light means they'll grow more slowly for the next few weeks, I know that in a little while after the turn of the year, when light starts increasing again, those seedlings will come on surprisingly fast. Then the lettuce and other greens that I'm planting now will provide plenty of salads for us and greens for the hens right up until the end of next April, if well looked after. 

 

In addition to our food - the flowers in the polytunnels provide vital food for non-hibernating bumblebees and most days the tunnels are also full of robins, wrens and hedge sparrows hunting for insects. With scientists saying how important it is for us to get enough vitamin D - something that we can get from a daily dose of light - it's lovely to be able to be outside in a protected space out of the wind and rain, and to enjoy watching Nature.  I make a point of getting away from the computer and spending at least half an hour in the polytunnels in winter - no matter what the weather.  There always seems to be a few jobs to do to keep warm and I enjoy those precious moments here in my  'Narnia' so much - it's almost like meditation.  Even if I'm just sitting in my chair - I think about all of the life still busy underground appreciating the protected space too.  In an increasingly chaotic and angry world, more than ever, this peaceful place is where I want to be. No matter what problems there are in the world - being out here among Nature, growing plentiful organic food for us, and providing food and habitat for all the wildlife that we now have here in our five acres, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I'm making my own positive small difference by "being the change that I want to see".  It's a good feeling.   

 

Some Thoughts on Polytunnel Purpose and Style

 
 
My polytunnel style is what I call 'Polytunnel Potager' - or in other words - how to produce more delicious food than you ever have thought possible in a more beautiful space than you could imagine. A sort of personal 'Grow your own Paradise'!  Some may think that 'style' and 'polytunnels do not comfortably belong in the same sentence! I must say I can definitely agree with that when I see some examples of forlorn and neglected looking winter polytunnels! Unlike the beautiful Victorian glasshouses -  polytunnels are really rather more practical than decorative structures even if abundantly full of crops. But as I've so often said - if you use a polytunnel well all year round - then you want it to be as nice a place as possible to spend what may be quite a lot of your time. I know from experience that when your eyes are filled with the glorious abundance inside a polytunnel planted in my 'Potager' way - then it's the natural happiness and beauty of all the plants that demands one's attention - not the less than beautiful structure that's protecting them from the elements. The more utilitarian aspects of the polytunnel tend to sink into the background.
 
 
My main polytunnel is really a potager or kitchen garden in miniature - but sadly it never looks perfectly organised like a show garden would - with rigidly organised rows of neat vegetables all identical and with bare soil in between rows. Every inch is full of as much colourful, nutrient-packed food as possible all year round, so it can often look a bit of a muddle to some people's eyes, because there are so many different vegetables, fruits and herbs crammed into every possible space!  In addition to that - anywhere there is even a tiny space, flowers are planted - many edible - which liven up winter salads and also feed any non-hibernating bees or other vital insects that venture out on mild days. 
 
 
Believe it or not - there are good reasons for this seemingly and deceptively uncontrolled lack of 'neatness'! One is that despite being essentially an artificial indoor environment - it's still a 'real' garden, which grows real food, for a real family all year round! As crops are harvested, something else is always somewhere in the wings in modules or pots waiting to take it's place. The other reason for what can appear to be a 'muddle' is that Nature doesn't grow things in perfectly neat rows of just one kind of plant - it likes to mix things up a bit. I like to copy the way Nature grows things as nearly as possible, as I've found that has always given me the best results, with no pests or diseases and with the soil improving every year. Another reason is that different plants have different root structures and their associated microbial communities which all use the soil differently. The late Lawrence Hills, (who started the HDRA -,now re-named Garden Organic and who I was lucky enough to meet and later sculpt a portrait of) once said that "the soil is like the gut of the plant" and science is proving that to be the case every day. This is something which I have always believed to be true, even before science began to prove this theory to be correct.The latest soil science is now beginning to show that growing plants as diverse and varied communities, rather than in single species rows with bare soil in between, is far better for soil and produces much healthier plants. To me though - that's surely only common sense!  I've always been of the opinion that just as in every other community in Nature - even our gut - there is health and strength in ecological diversity!
 
 
The one thing I am fairly strict about though is rotations - as despite what I've heard some gardeners say recently - my 40 plus years of organic gardening experience have taught me that rotations are a vital tool in helping to keep down possible soil-borne pests and diseases. They also stop the build up, or conversely, gradual depletion of particular nutrients. In practice - a four-course rotation isn't that complicated - it just means that everything moves around the tunnel so that nothing is grown in the same bed more than once in four years. So if I have certain crops which I find work well together, then they move around together every year. It can be harder to ensure this in a polytunnel though - and this is why it's vital to do a detailed cropping plan every year. It's all too easy to forget where you grew something three years ago, when one's growing so many things! 
 
  
This year, just like last year, has been a strange autumn weather-wise alternating from boiling hot to freezing and back again for months!  Perhaps this is what we may expect in the future from climate change? Not all lovely and warm all the time which is what some people perhaps hoped - but more erratic, with wild swings and even hurricanes!  Like all of you I haven't found it easy to easy to cope with growing all our own veg, especially in a vulnerable polytunnel. I've also been coping with my broken ankle - so some things were planted a bit later than usual and some still remain to be planted. But these days experience has taught me not to panic - because I know that things will catch up as long as they're well fed and watered, if they are still in pots, and I'm happy that we'll still have plenty of our most important winter tunnel crops again. I like to have plenty of the healthy seasonal green salads, which we eat endless variations of at lunchtime every day. This is one of the other things I'm very strict about as they are full of fibre and antioxidant polyphenol phytonutrients which are vital to our health all year round. It's such a joy to be distracted from my work, to walk away from the computer and go out to pick some fresh salads for lunch - and to be met at the polytunnels by the dear little robin that seems to hang around there all day waiting for me and my pocketful of hen food
 
  
There are few things more rewarding than growing food in a polytunnel at any time of year, but right now it's even more satisfying to see it bursting with good things to eat all winter.  Knowing that there will always be something to eat come what may is such a good feeling - and is doubtless something our ancestors felt too - when they knew they had their winter larders well stocked. Unlike us however - they weren't lucky enough to have polytunnels!  In summer it's relatively easy - stick pretty much anything into the ground and it will grow - almost in spite of you!  At this time of year though - things can be a bit trickier so need a little more care. But any care is more than handsomely repaid by being able to extend the growing season so much at both ends - and by defying the weather outside. I would say polytunnels give you at least another month of growing time at either end of the growing season! And if you get it right - you can pick a huge range of wonderfully healthy fresh salads and many other vegetables such as chards, spinach, more tender kales and calabrese all winter long. At most times of year there's very little choice in shops compared to what you could grow at home or perhaps find in a farmer's market. In winter the choice is even more restricted - with almost never any salads other than sad-looking bagged baby spinach, which is already several days old! 
 
 
Even the organic produce sold in farmers markets can never be as fresh and vitally alive as something you picked just a few minutes ago in your own garden!  In a polytunnel - even hardy vegetable plants grow far better and are so much more productive and juicily tender than they are outside. More than just the occasional higher temperature - as I said previously - it's actually the shelter from the howling cold winds and often torrential rain that autumn and winter can bring that plants really appreciate. After walking through a miserably cold and wet garden on a grey winter's day - it gives my spirits such a lift to open the tunnel doors and survey all of the deliciousness and beauty growing away quietly inside. To me it's like opening a box full of horticultural delights - with a wide choice of different salads and other vegetables and fruit to harvest every day. 
 
    
The great Victorian designer William Morris once famously said "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful". Polytunnels are undoubtedly useful! Although admittedly - they're not the most aesthetically pleasing of structures! I try to make my tunnels as beautiful as possible all year round. As an artist, the shapes and colours of plants are important to me - the bonus is that they're all delicious and nutritious too. So many food plants are decorative as well as good to eat, that it's hard to choose what to grow. As an organic gardener, I want to attract as many beneficial insects and bees as I can to deal with any pests and to pollinate crops - so the flowers serve that purpose too. Tucking treasures into every corner - mixing flowers and vegetables together and never wasting an inch or leaving soil bare, is in fact exactly what Nature does too. All plants are much happier growing together in a varied community, this is how they evolved to grow, happily co-existing in a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. Planting this way is better for soil too, as it encourages a broad natural diversity of microbial life - soil bacteria, fungi and beneficial insects. These are a vital part of the healthy and balanced soil ecology you need to make things work in an organic garden and to give you the most nutrients in your crops. It helps you to achieve an whole ecosystem that's as natural as possible - in an unnatural space - and it works pretty well, given that our intervention by growing crops together from all parts of the world is a bit unnatural in the first place!.
 
  
My polytunnel years - early days
 
 
Before anyone says "Well it's alright for you - you can afford a big tunnel - I can't!" - which someone said to me once - I want to tell you something.  I originally started off in a very small garden in the mid 1970's, and after a couple of years as a beginner gardener, just learning to grow my own food, I put up a tiny, cheap 6 x 8 ft polythene greenhouse as they were called then. I think 'Garden Relax' was the make, if I remember correctly. It was such bliss - I could actually walk into it!!  But before I even had one of those I had already made myself a tall polythene cold frame from skip-reclaimed 2 x 1 inch rough timber & polythene, which was about 8 x 6 x 4ft high. This was placed against a south-facing wall, the side against the wall being open and uncovered, so that when pulled away slightly and raised on bricks - it had good ventilation but also provided a lot of warmth and good shelter. I grew my best aubergines ever in that frame against a south-facing wall! So please - no 'I can'ts!' from anyone - it's not a phrase I've ever allowed myself to use!  My motto is - 'if I can't do it that way - then maybe there's an alternative'!  When we moved to where we live now and I began growing organic veg commercially in the early 1980's, I bought my first 13ft x 65ft polytunnel. It was relatively cheap as it had a very light frame. Something I would regret years later when it disappeared over the horizon in Hurricane Charlie! As I went along - I made sure that every single one of my tunnels paid for itself as my gardening life progressed and expanded. 
          
  
Eventually, I ended up with three 13 x 65 ft tunnels and a much stronger, much higher one which was 18 x 55 ft - and by that time I was growing commercially in a serious way, supplying the Dublin Food Coop, establishing Dublin's first organic box scheme and also growing for supermarkets. The bigger polytunnel was a real luxury with far better air circulation and far more head space which allowed me to grow taller crops like French beans and tomatoes - and even grapevines! Each tunnel was only bought when I had made enough money from my growing activities to fund the next one - both by selling my organic produce commercially and of course saving a lot on the household budget by feeding the family. It was hard work but very worthwhile. Of course growing so many crops and having a lot of livestock back then - sheep, hens for laying, chickens for meat, ducks etc. naturally also meant no holidays! So that saved money and helped a bit too. 
 
 
Anyway, sitting on a beach doing nothing in summer sun was never my thing! A couple of days snatched down in Cork, at the ever-wonderful Ballymaloe was all we could manage for our annual holidays when the children were small. The wonderful classic French cooking of Ballymaloe founder Myrtle Allen was a such a treat for me. Local, fresh and much of it organic - it was pure 'foodie heaven'. I'd grown up eating the very best of food as we had a large kitchen garden and orchards and my parents were great food lovers who enjoyed eating out from time to time at well-known restaurants. Good plain cooking is how I would describe my own efforts!  I had naturally always been interested in the health benefits of food though as I had a severely allergic child who could only eat organic - and as a child I was eating wholefoods like muesli long before anyone else had ever heard of it! Ballymaloe is actually the only hotel I have ever seen that has properly made Bircher muesli on the breakfast menu. In addition - I save money by not updating to the latest expensive technology every five minutes, have the cheapest and most ancient phone ever, my TV has a 12 inch screen and still plays VHS videos!  I use everything until it wears out, rarely buy new clothes or make up and rarely need to go shopping at all!  Boring? No, not at all - we eat the best food in the world here & enjoy nature!
 
  
But back to the point! Ten years ago - I had already been retired from commercial growing for some time due to back problems, and also because I wanted to concentrate more on my sculpture. After 20 years, my old tunnels had been re-covered several times, were now in tatters and the lighter-framed cheaper ones weren't worth covering again. They were also increasingly shaded by the shelter belt I was forced to plant in the late '80s to protect the garden from the neighbouring farmer's spray drift! Having learned quite a lot about growing in polytunnels over the intervening years, I decided to put up two new ones, with much stronger frames, in a better location than the others - in order to be able to continue growing all our own food for as long as I can. I also wanted raised beds in them which I already had outside, because I've had progressive degenerative back problems since a horse-riding accident which necessitated spinal surgery many years ago. Having the raised beds means that no matter how bad I'm feeling, I can still garden - and it's such a positive thing to do. I can also sit out in the tunnel for a little while every day in winter - getting my much needed daily dose of light and looking at a very satisfying range of crops!
 
 
Back to the future - and a salutary soil lesson. There IS life after starting on a building site!
 
 
Almost 7 years on.  A bit of a difference! I have a humus-rich soil full of active, healthy worms! There is hope after builders! This is the 'soil' I started off with 7 years ago in my new tunnels!!
12 years on.  A bit of a difference! I now have a humus-rich soil full of active, healthy, happy worms! There is hope after builders! This lump of  stuff is the 'soil' I started off with 12 years ago in my new polytunnels!
 
 
Summer is normally the best time to put up a tunnel, because the polythene is more flexible when it's warm and can be stretched across the frame better. Unfortunately for us though - we chose a bad time to put them up - but 13 years ago the Celtic Tiger was just about still roaring!  The polytunnel suppliers were very busy then. They insisted on coming to put them up in the worst weather possible - during the wettest July days on record! Something like 7 inches of rain fell here in 4 hours, rivers were bursting their banks everywhere and many people's homes were flooded. They also insisted on re-spreading all the lovely topsoil I had carefully piled on one side - saying they couldn't get their levels right otherwise - which was frankly complete rubbish - but they threatened to go home unless I allowed them to do just that! Well, to cut a very long story short - they got the tunnels up anyway. My lovely topsoil has been all mixed with awful sub-soil and it was like sticky glue! I left it all to dry out which literally took months while I just grew a few things in containers in there! 
 
 
The following New Year I tried to get a spade into the dried out soil and I broke the spade! I just sat down cried! Not something I'm normally given to - but I'd not long before that dislocated my shoulder! So I then called a builder friend and asked if he could help. He brought along his mini-digger,  thinking he'd have all the soil turned over in about 10 minutes. The surface had set just like concrete! Two hours of the digger rearing-up later - he'd managed to break the surface but it was still in huge concrete clods, most about a foot across! More tears! I called another friend to ask if he knew anyone with a big rotovator - not something I would normally approve of as a mostly no-dig or what I prefer to call 'minimum-dig' gardener. But but faced with what amounted to a derelict looking building site - I had absolutely no choice! The friend kindly borrowed a commercial one, arrived with it on a trailer and spent all day going up and down inside the tunnel until most of it was as broken up as he could get it - given that the machine was bouncing off the concrete clods very scarily and threatening to go through the side of the tunnel!
 
 
After that - the soil was still so bad that I had to loosen the hard pan underneath with a long fork, excavate pockets where I could, fill them with compost and plant things in them as if they were in pots!  But it's amazing what plants can do! That was almost 12 years ago. Now, after much compost, constant mulching and green manuring -  with worms and nature having time to do their work - the soil is utterly transformed and wonderful. It's full of life, full of worms and getting better every year. You can see the transformation above.The crops speak volumes about the health of the soil. So don't despair if the same happens to you. An abused soil is never beyond remediation - it can always be retrieved with hope, time & compost! I can never express my gratitude enough to those two good friends whose hard work initially enabled the magic to happen! Even if I'd bought in topsoil and just sat it on top in raised beds - crops would never have been as good without loosening the hard pan underneath really well first so that the vital fungal threads supplying nutrients to plants could spread widely and plants could draw up valuable minerals from low down in the soil profile. 
 
 
Fast forward  a few years - and on 28th October 2014 - I welcomed Irish Times gardening correspondent Fionnuala Fallon and her photographer husband Richard Johnston here to do an article on winter food growing for publication in the Irish Times magazine on Saturday 15th November 2014. Link here
 
 
Fionnuala and Richard had already been here before several times to do various articles over the years - though sadly not all are retrievable from the Irish Times archive - so it's nice to be able to link to this one. It's always great to swap stories with such knowledgeable and observant gardeners - but also slightly scary too - as you know they'll spot any messy bits!  Being very nice people though and gardeners themselves - of course they pretend not to notice!  All gardens have messy bits - and mine is definitely no exception!  It also produces some delicious food though, as you can see from the photo below which I took on the day. As most gardeners do of course - I wished they'd been here a week or so later!  Gardeners are never happy! Pictured in the basket from the left clockwise - Lettuce Jack Ice, leaves of home-bred hybrid kale, ruby chard, purple and green pak choi, oakleaf lettuce Navarra, Oriental radish Pink Dragon, endive White Curled, courgette Atena, with claytonia in centre. On table - sweet potato Evangeline, strawberries Gento and Albion, cape gooseberries and 3 different varieties of figs - looking rather sad as it was a foul day with torrential rain and we were dashing between tunnels! - Of course I naturally found far better ones after they were gone!! What was that about gardeners? 

    

A basket of early November tunnel produce
 A basket of early November tunnel produce 

 

Getting started with a polytunnel?

 
If you're thinking about getting your first polytunnel and you're also an absolute beginner gardener, I would advise perhaps putting up something quite small and cheap to start - so that you can learn to grow things on a small scale first and also make your mistakes small scale too. Taking on too much initially is often the main reason why most people give up, because they find they simply can't cope, particularly with the speed that things happen in a polytunnel. In a tunnel everything grows at least twice as fast - and that also applies to weeds!! The great thing is that you don't need a huge tunnel or greenhouse to grow things - you can even grow quite a useful amount of salads in a couple of containers in a small lean-to structure or cold frame, as I did, or even a well-lit porch. If you're a beginner at organic gardening - this is often the easiest way to learn how to grow things. Smaller mistakes are cheaper! One thing you rarely have much of a problem with in containers is slugs - and that makes things a lot easier for a start! I've done lots of experiments over the years on growing in containers. Many years ago, before we moved here, I grew an entire vegetable garden in a crazy selection of them as we had to be ready to move at a moment's notice! It doesn't matter what they are - as long as they have enough room for the roots, and have drainage holes in the bottom, something will be more than happy to grow in them! 
 
  
What I call my "law of handbags" definitely applies to polytunnels!! Meaning that like handbags and also freezers, the bigger a polytunnel is - the more you want to put in them! Speaking from experience - no matter how big they are they're never big enough for all the things you will want to grow when you really get going! Bigger tunnels are higher too - which gives you more headroom for tall crops, much better air circulation and more space to grow things like tender fruit trees and vines. I grow peaches at the north end of mine, where they don't shade anything, they take up very little space, and I get an average of over 200 large peaches from both of the trees every year. Those would probably cost you a minimum of 1 euro each, if you could buy them, and you'll never get anything that tastes like they do! In contrast - you'd be lucky to get any peaches outside in Ireland as our climate is too wet, which causes peach leaf curl disease - the main problem in peaches. We have abundant container-grown figs from May until October too - outside you'd be lucky to get a crop in September most years. I grow grapes along the sides of both of the tunnels, with the long branches or rods, as they're called, trained at a height of about 1 metre, so that they don't shade anything. Now I get such huge crops of green seedless grapes that I make my own sultanas in my dehydrator. Their intense flavour is indescribable!
 
  
A few years ago I worked out that if you spend an average of 25 euros a week on organic vegetables that you could be growing yourself - then even a medium-sized polytunnel will pay for itself quite quickly. That means if any size of polytunnel doesn't pay for itself within roughly 2 years in terms of produce & money save on the food budget - then it's not being properly utilised!  Although initially they seem quite an investment - believe me it's an investment you will never regret. Although a good one that will last isn't cheap, you can always divert a few euros from other things such as the gym sub (not needed as you'll get plenty of healthy exercise!), maybe even pass on the holiday for a year or two (not needed - how many other places can you think of where you can sit in the sun all year round in this part of the world, getting your daily dose of sunlight and vit D?), or even give up the therapist if you use one (not needed - as the latest research proves that spending time outdoors doing something satisfying is extremely beneficial for our mental health.)
 
  
I've been strongly of the opinion for many years that a small polytunnel should be available free on prescription to everyone - but I can dream on can't I? The vast improvements in people's diet and health would pay for them very quickly, as it would certainly encourage more people to eat their daily quota of fruit and veg. There's nothing quite like picking your own super fresh organic produce - it tastes totally different!  It's been a strange autumn weather-wise here this year - alternating from boiling hot to freezing cold and back again for the last couple of months! I've also been very busy with a family member having been unwell following an accident and needing a lot of time and care - so some things were planted a bit later than usual and some still remain to be planted - but nevertheless I'm happy that we'll have plenty of our most important winter tunnel crops again - especially plenty of the healthy seasonal green salads which we eat endless variations of at lunchtime every day. This is one of the other things I'm very strict about as they are full of fibre and antioxidant phytonutrients which are vital to our health all year round. The most fantastic aspect of polytunnels for me is that I can work whatever the weather - so they make food growing a lot easier to fit into an often frantic lifestyle!
 
 
So, have I persuaded you yet?  If so - then here's a few points to consider if you think that a polytunnel is a good idea. Just what occurs to me right now from experience - not an exhaustive list. Before you even start looking at makes, types etc. and invest hard-earned cash - first investigate if you need any local planning permissions etc. 
 
 

Choosing your tunnel

  
Just a couple of things that occur to me - and that are often not mentioned in books. Buy the biggest tunnel you can possibly afford - as I've already said it will pay for itself very quickly if you use it well. Also get it covered in the heaviest polythene you can - it will last years longer. The 'grip-strips' along the base that clamp the polythene on are far better than having to dig up the outside every time it needs re-covering, so they're a good long-term investment. Again they're not cheap - but they're so much easier and a real time and labour-saver. Speaking from experience - it's amazing how hard it is to find help that is of any use when digging up and re-covering a tunnel of the 'buried polythene' type! If it's not done properly and it's left loose - polythene can easily work loose and then all rip to shreds. I feel that cost-wise it's often roundabouts and swings - and that seeming to save money one way can often turn out even more expensive another- especially when a tunnel is full of valuable winter crops!
 
 
Choose a reasonably level site, sloping just gently to the south if you can. This is ideal for air circulation, as the hotter air tends to rise and frost can slip out downhill on very cold nights if the lower door is open.  You need reasonable sheltered from the prevailing winds or strong wind from any direction - but not too over-hung by trees either - which could stop light, or even worse branches could break off and puncture your tunnel!
 
 
Good ventilation is absolutely essential so it's vital to have a door at either end however small your tunnel is - ideally a sliding door as the ventilation can be varied far more easily according to the weather conditions. They're expensive though - often as expensive as a very small tunnel - but worth every cent on my very windy site! The hinge opening doors are fine but have to be fixed wide-open all the time. As we live on a very windy hill with wind often gusting from different directions on the same of subsequent days - this isn't always ideal. We can get vicious side winds that can threaten the structure of the polytunnel - meaning that doors may have to be closed altogether - which is not ideal for ventilation. Roll up doors are a nightmare! That's how I lost my very first tunnel in Hurricane Charley! they can catch in the wind, double back inside and go up through the roof - which is what happened to mine. The tunnel's a total gonner then and very often the frame too!
 
 

Putting up a new polytunnel 

 
 I would always advise getting the suppliers to erect the tunnel for you themselves and to guarantee their work despite my bad experience! It can often be easier to get a good deal from the makers for them to erect it during the winter when business is generally quieter for them. Don't expect to get a good deal in March or April when everyone suddenly gets keen on grow your own and wants them!  It may cost a bit more but it's well worth it as your tunnel will last years longer before it will need re-covering if it's put up properly in the first place. It's false economy to try to do it yourself if you've never done it before. It looks simple - but it's not! Years ago I lost a smaller tunnel that had been badly put up by someone recommended by the supplier - it turned out that he'd actually never done it before despite saying that he had!  I lost not just the polythene cover but also the entire tunnel! The frame twisted and distorted so badly that it could not be re-covered again and so was a useless waste of money. So be warned!  The larger tunnels also have much stronger frames and if covered with a good heavy gauge polythene and properly erected by the supplier, they will last for many years before they may need covering again. 
 
 

Next step - decide on the layout

 
Deciding how to organise your tunnel can be difficult if you haven't had one before, so here's a couple of suggestions you may find useful. Once you've got your tunnel up it's a good idea to rotovate the soil to open it up if it's become compacted during the process of putting it up, as I described above happened to mine. Borrow or hire a rotavator as you'll only need to do this once - after this the worms will do all the hard work for you! You won't want to disturb the soil surface too much by digging once it starts to establish plenty of life in it - as there are fungi which live in the soil and help plant roots to forage further and they don't appreciate too much disturbance! I would advise making permanent raised beds, four or more, so that you can organise the tunnel easily into a simple four course rotation. This keeps the soil healthy, as you will then only grow any plant family like tomatoes say, brassicas, or onions in the same soil only once every four years or more - thus avoiding a build up of pests and diseases. Next skim off the soil where you want your paths, throwing it up onto the beds. Hey presto - instant raised beds!  One metre or 3 - 4ft wide beds are easy to work from the paths on either side and as they are raised - that makes the work even easier as you never walk on the soil again. They're bliss if you suffer from back problems! You can put in boards along the sides to edge the beds neatly and keep the soil in, and then things will really start to look organised.
 
 
Improving your tunnel soil 
  
The next thing to do is to check the pH to see how much lime there is in the soil. Don't get hung up on testing for deficiencies of this, that, or the other - it's not necessary. You can do more harm than good by adding unnecessary extras. Just do a soil test to get the pH (acidity/alkalinity) right and after that Nature will gradually do the rest itself. You can test for pH very simply with cheap kit which you can get in any garden centre. Generally speaking, a range of 5.5 - 7.5 is ideal, most vegetables and fruit are happy with this, but do bear in mind that it's always a lot easier to raise the pH than to lower it. Then if necessary, apply something gentle like calcified seaweed, or ground Dolomitic limestone, rather than ordinary garden lime. Calcified seaweed raises the pH gently, making the soil less acid. It also supplies minerals and trace elements, and you can use it at any time of year as it doesn't burn roots. Never add ordinary garden lime just as a matter of course each year - doing this can raise the pH far too much and 'lock up' important nutrients in the soil, making them unavailable to plants.
 
 
If you garden organically using a wide variety of composted plant wastes, green manures and mulches, you will be giving plants a varied buffet to choose from. This will gradually increase the fertility of the soil and build up the microscopic life that plants need to keep them healthy. In the world of plants - one size doesn't fit all. Each plant has it's own specific requirements, and can only take exactly what it needs if it has the right ingredients to choose from, and the right soil pH. They know far better than humans what they need! People can do far more harm than good by adding specific supplements and trace elements, such as boron for example, that some some 'expert' suggested might 'do the trick'!  Adding them can seriously unbalance the soil for many years or even be poisonous to soil life as well as plants. If the soil is too acid or too alkaline, or lacking in vital microorganisms, then often these elements aren't easily available to plants. Just get the pH right, add composts etc, and then trust in Nature - it will do the rest! Most people think that the only things that live in soil are worms - but there's a whole world of other microscopic workers in soil just waiting for the right conditions and the right kind of food to encourage them to do the work for you. These vital microorganisms convert plant wastes and animal manures into humus and other foods that plants can use. They are like the probiotics of the soil. Plants need all these good microbes to have a healthy immune system, just as much as humans do. Artificial fertilisers and pesticides like weedkillers damage this soil life. If you use them either in the soil or in seed and potting composts - you will end up with a dead soil and unhealthy plants that are far more susceptible to pests and diseases.
 
 
Don't be tempted to pile tons of manure onto your tunnel soil which some people may advise either.  More is not necessarily better!  This is a huge mistake which many first-time growers make. Adding too much nitrogen-rich manure will unbalance soil nutrients and encourage lots of soft unhealthy growth. It will also encourage manure flies, shore flies, and aphids etc. Taking the time to gradually build up a healthy ecosystem in your new polytunnel, with everything in balance, will pay off in the future. If you have time and can get hold of some really well-rotted manure or compost with plenty of worms in it - then you could spread 2-3ins of it on the surface and fork it in or just leave it on the surface and cover with something to stop it drying out - the worms will work it in gradually and do a lot of the work for you. Just cover it with black polythene or something else to block out light and prevent weeds growing - then leave it alone for a few weeks.
 
 
When you uncover it again to plant things - it will be utterly transformed. The worms will have worked their magic!  All you will need to do then is give the surface a light scratch over - or if it's badly compacted fork it lightly - and it will be ready to plant. Slugs can often be a big problem in a new tunnel, so the other advantage of this approach is that you can uncover it from time to time and snip any slugs you'll find on the surface with a long sharp pair of scissors. If you're too squeamish for that - then get a couple of ducks and they'll dispose of them with great alacrity! After a while slugs won't be too much bother if you deal with them regularly. If you want to grow things in the meantime - then put a few containers on top of the black polythene of other cover and grow stuff in those. You may still be able to find a few plants of lettuce, herbs, brassicas etc. in garden centres - and even if it's too late to plant them outside they may still produce a crop inside. Even if it's only leaves they're still edible! Or you could try sowing some of the seeds I suggest in my 'What to Sow' list for this month.
 
 

Still no time to relax - here's a few suggestions for other November jobs!

  
As I mentioned last month - at this time of year, watering is something I'm always extremely careful about. If I have to do any, I always water the ground between plants - never directly on or around the necks of plants. If you gave the soil a really good soaking before planting your winter veg in the tunnel earlier in the autumn - it shouldn't really need too much watering now. If you think you may need to water it's always a good idea to scratch under the soil with your finger about 3 cm or an inch down to see if it's dry at root level. If it feels dry then water, but don't saturate roots of plants now, as lettuces in particular can keel over very quickly with the cold nights and shorter days.  I try to water early in the morning on a sunny day if possible, when the top of the soil will have a chance to dry off a bit so that there is as little moisture as possible hanging around in the atmosphere overnight. Winter lettuce is one of the most vulnerable plants - it can go down with botrytis (grey mould) very quickly if it's too damp around the plants.
 
 
Another winter salad that's coming on nicely now but doesn't mind damp soil is watercress - which I've already picked from several times despite only being planted for just over a month. It grows very fast in a tunnel and needs the shoots picking regularly as doing that keeps it productive and stops it from flowering. It also needs to be kept constantly moist to produce it's lush peppery leaves all winter. It appreciates a bit of fleece draped over it on the very coldest nights, being slightly more tender than landcress. It's worth the TLC though - as I think the flavour is far better than land-cress which has a more 'rocket like' flavour. Watercress will go on cropping well for months as long as you keep watering it and it's higher in healthy phytonutrients than any other green vegetable. There are plenty of other salads coming on now too - lamb's lettuce, claytonia, many different oriental leaves and lettuces, sugar loaf chicory, endives, beet leaves, silver and ruby chards, herbs like giant flat leaf parsley and multi-sown 'Ragged Jack' kale for baby leaves - which will eventually grow on in spring to become full size - producing it's delicious, asparagus-like flower buds in early spring, which are far tastier than sprouting broccoli.
 
 
Beet leaves McGregor's favourite, frizzy endive & lettuce Jack Ice - 8th Nov

Beet leaves McGregor's favourite, frizzy endive & lettuce Jack Ice              

 

Watercress - Aqua, sown early Sept, harvesting since late Oct. - 8th Nov

Watercress - is sown early Sept, or grown from cuttings


Mild autumn weather can encourage chickweed and other weed seedlings - and these are an ideal damp place for those nasty little grey slugs to hide - the ones that get right into lettuce hearts and destroy them! Chickweed tends to hang on to droplets of moisture too - making the atmosphere around salad plants much more damp and potentially causing disease. For this reason it's vital to keep on top of weeds now. Keep hoeing or hand weeding between plants until the leaves fill their space and block out the light between the plants. In another month growth will also slow up a lot more so weeds won't be so much of a problem then.

 
As I've mentioned - I like to be able to pick a mixed salad for lunch every day - even in the coldest weather. I grow mostly loose-leaf types of lettuce and many other types of leaves for picking individually, so that there's always something to pick every day. At the moment the nasturtiums are still looking very bright and cheerful too, releasing a lovely scent as you walk into the tunnel on sunny days. One doesn't notice the scent quite so much in the summer when so many other things are flowering. Non-hibernating bees are very grateful for them too and the leaves and flowers make a welcome contribution to salads, as frost rarely seems to affect them much in the tunnel. It pays to be organised though and keep the fleeces always at the ready to cover things - just in case the weather turns really cold. If you have Christmas potatoes growing in pots these should be covered with a double layer of fleece at nights if even only a light frost is forecast, as they're particularly vulnerable. 
 
 

Early mornings are the ideal time to catch those nasty little grey slugs in the tunnel. They are a particular problem in new tunnels, but after a while they become less troublesome if long as you keep weeds down and don't let everything run wild over the winter as so many people do! Put a few pieces of slate or large stones along beds at intervals and they will hide underneath - then you can just scoop them up. If you have time for a five minute scissor foray - on misty grey days they will even stay on the surface for an hour or so after dawn. So that's a good time to catch them. Even better you don't have to get up so early at this time of year! I try to keep on top of them as they can do an awful lot of damage - particularly to 'hearting' vegetables like Chinese cabbage, Pak Choi or Sugar Loaf chicory if they get right into the hearts. My frogs have disappeared off to their winter quarters now - I haven't seen any for a week or so. All of a sudden I'm seeing just a few more very tiny slugs - encouraged by the damp air and lack of predators. I think it's time to take the fine netting off the doors now too - to let the smaller birds like wrens, robins and dunnocks in. They love to look for insects and small beetles in the tunnel during the winter - it's a valuable source of food for them. I'll leave the large squared pea and bean netting up to keep the pigeons and pheasants out though - and hopefully this year's crop of blackbirds won't try to get in and eat all my worms! They soon learn to fly through the gaps when they can see strawberries inside - but those are almost finished now. The 'Albion' strawberries in large pots are still ripening their very last fruits and they seem less vulnerable to cold than other varieties - they're still tasting really sweet.

 
 
Only water anything now if absolutely necessary and if the ground seems very dry. Dig around a bit with your finger in the soil if you're not sure. Water well then, preferably in the morning to let the surface of the soil dry out a bit during the day. Over watering, with condensation and damp air hanging around in the tunnel can cause disease. For the same reason, ventilate as much as possible unless it's really too windy. Close the doors well before the sun goes down, or around 3pm at this time of year, in order to retain some warmth. Good housekeeping is essential too - tidiness pays off. Pick off any mildewed, mouldy, yellowing or otherwise dodgy looking leaves immediately - disease can spread like wildfire when plants are growing much more slowly in the damp winter air. Put diseased leaves and other rubbish onto the compost heap or into your worm bin.
 
 
While there's a bit less to do in the garden - it's a good time to sort out your stock of seed trays and pots. A good money-saving tip - cultivate your local garden designer - offer to barter them some veg. next year for giving you all their old pots. They get through masses and often only throw them away. Recycle them!  I have a garden designer friend and we've been bartering pots for years. They last almost forever if you're careful and it's a great way to save money - even half a dozen pots can cost a fortune in garden centres and DIY shops! Particularly the big tree-sized ones! If you don't need that many - then share them with the members of your local gardening club or GIY group. Scrub any pots and trays with hot water that you will need for seed sowing in the spring, and sort into stacks of each size. This will save you a lot of time later in the spring when things really get busy again.
 

Plant a few winter flowers for bees now.  Apart from sowing a few early flowering hardy annuals to bring in pollinators and beneficial insects - you could also bring in some early flowering herbaceous perennials in pots - like Hellebores or primulas. They will flower weeks earlier in the tunnel. I've been growing Bowles Mauve perennial wallflower in my tunnels for years, as it's the most reliable 'flowerer' all through the winter. I was delighted to see that a recent survey confirming that bees love my choice! It even flowers most of the winter outside here too. There are often bees around on mild days during the winter - and they are so grateful for any nectar and pollen producing flowers when there's little else around for them. If you're sowing a few broad beans now in the tunnel - (which is the only sensible place in our usually monsoon-like winters) - having other flowers in there in early spring will attract bees in to help pollinate the beans. I'm sowing some of my Crimson Flowered broad bean now, a wonderful variety originally from the HDRA (now Garden Organic) Heritage Seed Library, which I've been saving the seed of for about 35 years. It does well in the tunnel over the winter and is so much more delicious than Aquadulce Claudia - the variety usually recommended for winter sowing. In my opinion that one's so tasteless that it's only fit for feeding to cattle!
 
 
It's so worth having a polytunnel just to be able to grow winter flowers for creatures like this beautiful bee!
It's so worth having a polytunnel just to be able to grow winter flowers for creatures like this beautiful bee! The morning following Halloween last week I went out to open the polytunnels and found a bumblebee that hadn't been able to find it's way out again after I closed up the tunnels in the late afternoon. It always makes me so happy knowing that because I've planted all the flowers - then even if that does happen, they won't starve to death and that there's always plenty of food in the tunnel to help them get up and away and back to their nests in the morning!  I try to provide everything I can for these incredible creatures - because every single one of them is so very precious .......and they do so much for us in return for us making them welcome! 
 
 
I enjoy sharing my original ideas and experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and also complimentary that others find "inspiration" in my work. If you do happen to use it or repeat it in any way - I would appreciate very much if you mention that it came from me. Thank you for reading my blog.

What to Sow in November - 2019

Photo of The Irish Times article describing how I grow my extra-early potatoes - by Fionnuala Fallon, 20th January 2011
 
Sowing Outside
 
Sowing anything into the open ground now - even under cloches - is pretty much a waste of time in my experience, as the weather is so unpredictable over recent winters that even if it germinates and grows on well for a while - poor weather later on in winter may destroy it and waste expensive seed. That is unless you live in a very mild area, with very well drained soil and don't have a slug problem (is there anyone who doesn't?. If you're lucky enough to have a well drained, warm soil and are really desperate to sow something - you could sow varieties of overwintering broad beans and peas outside - but I've always found that sowing into modules or pots of peat-free compost in a greenhouse or on your windowsill in late Jan. or early Feb. next year is the most reliable method and will produce far healthier plants, with an equally early, and usually far heavier crop. It's always far safer on my heavy soil - avoiding the risk of possible plant losses through bad weather or slugs. Few of us want to spend cold evenings outdoors slug hunting - and they're still active unless the winter is bitterly cold! The long spell of snow and freezing weather earlier this year was a warning about how unpredictable our weather is now. Spending a bit of time in a warm and cosy house, planning next year's rotations really well and choosing what varieties you want to grow, is a far more useful and productive way to spend one's time!
 
 
What you can sow if you have a sheltered cold frame, greenhouse or polytunnel
 
You could still sow suitable types of winter lettuces like 'Winter Gem Vaila' (little gem type), 'Rosetta' - (a reliable indoor winter butter head), and also old fashioned varieties such as 'Black Seeded Simpson' a huge loose-leaved butter head type which can be picked one leaf at a time. At this time of year I mostly grow loose leaf lettuces, which if you're careful when harvesting can last all winter into spring. Seed is expensive and with expensive F1 seeds you don't get many in a packet - so if you are buying F1 seed - then individual seed-sowing into modules is by far the most cost-effective method - even if your tunnel soil is still warm enough for the germination of seeds sown directly in the soil. Sowing into modules also reduces the risk of slug or early woodlouse damage and provides better air circulation - especially if you are using organic peat-free seed composts which are by far the best - thereby preventing 'damping off' diseases. Even the cheaper 'value' lettuce or other salad mixes such as Oriental mixes can still be successful sown thinly in early Nov. - I've often harvested these from the polytunnel until the following May! The reason those mixes are cheaper is because they are usually older, tried and tested, 'bog-standard' open-pollinated varieties (easier and cheaper to produce), which can often be more disease and cold-resistant than 'F1' hybrids, which are more expensive to produce.
 
You can still sow peas for pea shoots - 'Meteor' or Oregon Sugar Pod are good varieties widely available. Soaking overnight and pre-sprouting somewhere warm first is helpful to prevent rotting or mouse attack! Some varieties of non-hearting leafy cabbage greens such as Unwins 'Greensleeves', that have been specially bred for winter sowing, could start to produce useful leaves in the tunnel early in the new year if sown now. 'Cavalo Nero' and 'Ragged Jack' or Russian Red kale can still be sown for baby leaves/micro salads, as can some of the hardier oriental greens like mizuna, mibuna, oriental mustards, cress and oriental salad mixes - depending on the weather these can grow on quite quickly now if it's mild. If the weather is very cold after they've germinated, they will still grow on slowly, with growth speeding up early in the new year when the light increases.
 
Seedling micro-green crops like mustard and cress grown on damp paper kitchen towel or in seed compost and sprouting seeds can also be a useful addition to winter salads - and this is easy to do in a warm kitchen. Make sure you rinse any jar-sprouted seeds well and regularly - preferably 2/3 times a day, with filtered water, to avoid bacteria, moulds or spoilage diseases building up. The warmer your kitchen - the more often you will need to rinse them - but the faster they will grow.
 
It's often worth sowing a fast-growing early carrot variety such as 'Early Nantes' or 'Amsterdam Forcing' in pots, deep containers, or even in long modules like loo roll middles, for planting out into the tunnel later - these will overwinter perfectly if covered with fleece and will crop in late winter/very early spring - thereby avoiding early carrot fly. With a little more warmth - say a kitchen windowsill, parsley can still be sown - the flat leaved variety 'Italian Giant' is much hardier and is by far the most productive and best-flavoured.
 
 
Sow some hardy annuals for bees & to attract beneficial insects
 
Calendula, borage and limnanthes (poached egg plant) will all flower extra early next year if sown now and these will attract beneficial insects like hover flies to help with pest control and also bees to help with pollination of crops like early broad beans.
 
If you germinate things in the house - you must put them out into the tunnel/greenhouse into good light as soon as they have germinated, otherwise they get drawn and spindly from lack of light - and they'll be far more prone to diseases. Another reminder that if it's necessary to water any seedlings in modules - then water them from below by sitting in a tray of water briefly for a minute or so. Never saturate them - and ventilate well. This will hugely cut down the risk of 'damping off' disease. Using a good organic, peat-free seed compost - like the Klassman which I use - is worthwhile too, I find that seedlings are far healthier in that. I then cover any seeds that need it with vermiculite which also promotes good drainage as well as air-circulation around seedling's delicate stems. If frost is forecast you can use fleece for overnight protection - but uncover them in the mornings to let the air in and dry the fleece well before using again otherwise it will give no protection.
 
 
There's still just time to sow a green manure crop, as soil temperatures are still above 50degF/10degC after a relatively mild autumn. Mustard, red clover, phacelia and Hungarian grazing rye are good ones to sow in the tunnel or greenhouse or for outside. Claytonia also makes a good green manure which encourages worm activity and is also a useful, fast-growing edible salad in winter. These are all for digging in in early spring. They provide protection and cover for soils to prevent leaching of nutrients, provide carbon which is food for worms and soil dwelling bacteria - eventually becoming humus which encourages beneficial soil microbes and benefits plant health. Clover and phacelia also have very pretty nectar producing flowers which attract bees and other beneficial insects if you leave some at the end of a bed to flower in spring. Overwintered biennial herbs such a s parsley and coriander will flower early next year and do the same. Borage also makes a very good green manure. It makes a lot of green matter which encourages worms and also has a long tap root which draws up useful magnesium from low down in the soil profile. If you leave one or two plants to grow on it also adds a nice cucumber flavour to healthy spring smoothies and salads! Keep green manure seed beds damp until germination occurs and if we have a very cold winter, cover with fleece if hard frost is forecast while the seedlings are still small. Sow all seeds thinly to avoid overcrowding.
 
 
Garlic cloves can be sown/planted now - both outside and also in tunnels
 
For a really early crop of big bulbs next year - most varieties need cold weather for good root development. Choose firm, plump and healthy outside cloves from this year's crop, or buy certified virus-free ones from garden centres - not supermarket bought bulbs which will be unsuitable for this climate and may even bring in diseases like onion white rot - this can survive in the soil for about 20 years and be spread around the garden on your boots - infecting all members of the onion family including leeks! For the same reason I don't use onion sets in the vegetable garden. If I want some extra early onions - then I grow some sets in pots or containers. This way they're much earlier than any grown in the ground - and if you're unlucky enough to get any disease you can just throw the remains, along with the compost they were grown in, into the food/green waste recycling bin - rather than composting them and again spreading disease around the garden! I grow all my main crop onions from seed sown in early March - it's very easy and by doing this I avoid the possibility of onion white rot. Seed-sown onions also are far less likely to 'bolt' in difficult weather - a major problem this year - and they always keep far better. Mine always keep until well into spring - if they last that long!
 
 
Buy some suitable potatoes now to produce your earliest ever crop of potatoes next year!
 
I always save seed tubers from my early crops for planting my extra early and early crops the following year. But if you haven't saved any early or second early tubers from your own spring crop, a good way to 'cheat' is to keep an eye out for suitable varieties of potatoes such as 'Annabelle' or Charlotte in the veg departments of shops before Christmas. As long as the tubers you buy are organic, which won't been treated with anti-sprouting chemicals - these will be raring to go and will happily send out nice, fat, eager-to-grow shoots quickly, if you take them out of the plastic bag so that they don't sweat and rot - and bring them into a warm place. If they're reluctant to sprout I always put them in a dark place like a box under the kitchen table. These can be used for planting 'extra early' potatoes into pots of peat-free compost in mid-January, so that you can have your first new potatoes at Easter! (M&S usually have the best quality 'Annabelle' - which will readily grow when planted). Greengrocers may also have some suitable varieties - especially harder to get ones like the purple varieties. Any potato is suitable - it's just that the early varieties will give you a crop far sooner - but they'll all grow!
 
Some seed suppliers may also have Lady Christl available before Christmas. I have grown this variety for many years and it's the fastest 'bulking up' variety I've ever found for doing these 'extra-earlies', having usable sized tubers underneath them after only 8 weeks of growth - well before any other early variety. I start them all off in 2 litre pots which are easier to keep together in a group which can be easily covered with fleece if frost threatens.
 
Duke of York, Apache, Sharpe's Express, RedEmmalie and the purple-fleshed early maincrop variety Violetta are also good for doing extra earlies as they are second-early varieties - but any potato variety will do - it still works. Although others may not be as early - especially maincrop varieties. But whichever variety you have - if they're grown in a polytunnel or greenhouse - they will still be miles earlier than any grown outside, so are well-worth growing!
 
Below there's a link to the article written by Irish Times journalist Fionnuala Fallon in 2011, about how I plant my 'extra early' potatoes in January for Easter - sadly now without the photographs, so I've taken a picture of the main picture in the paper, which you can see above.
 
 
(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 often hard-won experience. Thank you.)

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