August contents: How to grow your own saffron........Planning ahead is the best way to have healthy food all year round.....Sowing salad crops in modules now means the best conditions for germination.....Keeping crops harvested is important.....Mulching well looks after vitally important worms and also soil fertility......
Saffron flowering in large container in late October
The aromatic thread-like stamens of saffron laid out to dry on paper towel
How to grow your own saffron. Or how to achieve the ultimate in 'grow your own one-upmanship' by growing the most valuable spice in the world!
Saffron is incredibly expensive to buy but is actually incredibly easy to grow! It's simply a type of hardy crocus, and you can grow saffron bulbs in exactly the same way as any other crocus.In the Middle Ages - Saffron Waldon in Essex was the centre of saffron production in England - hence it's name. One of the reasons was the very dry, sunny climate there - which is a curse for many vegetables gardeners, but is just perfect for saffron production, as dry sunny conditions are exactly what it likes. This is why it is a such a commercially important crop in Middle Eastern countries, which have the perfect climate for it. Originating in the eastern Mediterranean - Saffron has been valued both for cooking and for it's medicinal properties since the Bronze Age, and is depicted in the Minoan cave paintings of Crete. It is vitally important to remember though, that it is Crocus Sativus - to give it it's correct botanical name - which is the ONLY kind with edible stigmas! Other crocus are toxic if eaten. It is the stigmas - NOT the stamens as I heard one so-called 'food expert' say recently - that produce the saffron! (You can see them clearly in the picture above).
The part which we buy as dried saffron is the dried stigma of the flower, and each flower will have at least one of these which splits into three as it emerges from the flower. These are best picked before midday, when the flower is dry. If it becomes wet, then the stigmas can become runny and the saffron is ruined, as much of the flavour and important nutrients are lost. This is why I grow it in pots in my polytunnel in our damp Irish climate. Saffron is rich in flavonoids, vitamins and unique carotenoid phytochemicals, which recent research has shown may be therapeutic for many conditions including depression, may have an anti-aging effect on our cells, and is also cytotoxic - meaning it has been shown to kill cancer cells in the laboratory. I've certainly always thought of it as an uplifting, 'feel-good' spice. I believe that a saffron-rich Paella or risotto is one of the most comforting dishes in the world!
Saffron bulbs are available for planting now in some garden centres, but you can also easily get them online which I prefer, as the ones sold in garden centres are not the biggest bulbs - and larger bulbs give more flowers - so more saffron. www.sativus.com in the Netherlands sell organic bulbs - and I prefer to buy organic bulbs for the obvious reason that a flower produced from any bulb will contain a combination of all of the chemicals used in it's production, which are absorbed by the plant's tissues as it builds itself up to produce it's flowers for next year. Bulbs need planting as soon as possible now, as they are available from August onwards, but some suppliers often have cheaper offers in September, when they may want to get rid of any leftover stock. They may have even cheaper offers once the correct planting time is over - but these bulbs are still worth planting, because they will actually flower in their first year. Then they may possibly take a year off, just producing leaves and building up the bulb's strength again for flowering, just as many bulbs will it planted late. As they are perennial bulbs, they will flower again the year after that rest if fed well while in leaf, and every year thereafter. In fact if you're really kind and feed them well when they're in green leaf after flowering and are still growing - they may even not take a year off at all!
They need planting at a depth of about 15 cm, and about 10 cm apart, in a very well-drained spot in full sun - either outdoors in the ground or in a well drained container. Or alternatively - you can grow them in a tub in a polytunnel as I do where they enjoy the summer heat to ripen the bulbs.Alternatively they can be grown in the tunnel permanently, but as they don't like being shaded by other crops and are very hardy, I find a container in the tunnel is best, because then you can move it out if more space is needed. The container can be put outside in full sun somewhere out of the way once their crop has been harvested in November, but don't let them get waterlogged or they will rot. The other very good reason for growing them in a tunnel is that the flowers don't get rained on when they're flowering so the stigmas are dry. This is very important - because there's nothing worse than watching all that lovely saffron-coloured liquid running down the flower stems after heavy rain! In the tunnel or under a cloche they're completely protected and your valuable saffron won't be ruined!
Each flower will produce three orange stigmas from around mid-October through to November. Pick them as early as possible in the morning by parting the petals and pulling them out of the centre of the flower gently by hand. It's very fiddly to do - which is why it's such an expensive spice. No one has yet discovered a way of mechanically harvesting it - it is all done by hand - and it must be really hard labour bending over to pick an entire field of it! I prefer to harvest it this way rather than picking the whole flower as they do when it's grown commercially - later all sitting around tables in the traditional way and chatting while they separate the saffron from the flowers. If you don't pick the flower - this can then die down as it naturally would afterwards - returning it's nutrients to the bulb. I lay the stigmas on kitchen paper on a cake tray or similar to dry them for a few days. Then I just fold up the paper and store them on it in an envelope, or a glass jar, once they are thoroughly dry.
Just as with any other bulb - the thin leaves that appear with, or just after, the flowers should not be cut off - they will die down naturally the following spring. They are there to make food for the plant and build up the strength of the bulb for next year. While the bulb is still in leaf it's a good idea to give a liquid feed a few times, in order to build up the bulb's energy for flowering the following year. As they originate in dry mountain ranges where they're baked in summer and very cold but very well drained in winter - give them conditions as near as possible to that and they will thrive - producing up to 3 offsets (baby bulbs) each year which increases your stock. You can lift the bulbs when the leaves have died down and replant the new offsets, which will take a couple of years to reach flowering size themselves. Alternatively, you can just leave the clumps of bulbs until they appear overcrowded, then just lift them and replant then.
The only pest I have experienced with growing saffron is mice - and they really are an absolute curse! They just love the bulbs and will dig them up and eat them all overnight. Even covering with small mesh wire netting doesn't work unless the mesh is minute - as they can squeeze through - so mousetraps are sadly the only option if you're growing at ground level! Put traps down as soon as you plant the bulbs, but make sure these won't kill small birds by covering the traps with small mesh wire netting! The other alternative is to grow them raised off the ground or staging, either in hanging baskets or pots sitting on top of upturned pots, so that the mice can't climb!
I know it seems a lot of bother for what seems like a very small crop - but when you consider how much saffron costs, and experience a luscious Risotto or Paella made with your very own full-flavoured, home-grown saffron - you'll know exactly why you went to all the trouble!
Planning ahead is the best way to have healthy food all year round
Although this is a really hectic time for gathering and preserving of summer crops both outside and in polytunnels - thinking ahead is really key at this time of year. Good planning now will really pay off in late autumn and winter. If you don't have protected space like a tunnel or greenhouse - and haven't so far sown any winter crops - then this month is really the very last chance to sow many crops that you will get a decent return from in the open ground over the autumn and winter - perhaps given the extra protection of frames or cloches. There are plenty of suggestions in the sowing list for this month.
I also always try to make sure that all the ground in the vegetable garden is covered either with something that will give a crop in late autumn and over winter, or with a green manure which will improve it's fertility and structure. That may then later be covered with a rainproof dark cover of some kind to kill off the top of the green manure used and let the worms begin to work the decomposing it and pulling the plant material in. Then all I have to do to prepare ground for early crops is just scratch over the surface which by then will be nice and crumbly - the worms having done most of the work! I know it's difficult to think about the winter when we still hope to enjoy some more summer - but if you don't think ahead now - then you'll be sorry later. I always start to sow my winter salads at the end of July - when the last thing one wants to think about is winter! The thing is though - a lot of late autumn and winter crops like chicories, kale, pea shoots etc. all need a long growing season even for growing undercover. Just sowing a couple of weeks later means you'll get far later and smaller crops - or you may possibly not get a worthwhile crop at all. Faster-growing things like Oriental salads and other leafy veg like spinach and watercress can be left until the end of this month or even early September to be sown.
Sowing salad crops in modules now means the best conditions for germination
At this time of year, sowing in modules is particularly valuable for crops that prefer cooler conditions while germinating. Crops like lettuce and spinach will germinate more easily, since you can give them ideal conditions - something you can't always be sure of in the open ground. Germination of some crops, particularly lettuce, can be inhibited by too high a temperature in the first 48 hours after sowing - so I tend to sow lettuce in particular, in the afternoon or evening, and then keep the modules in the shade of a north facing wall for a few days until they're all well germinated. This is the main reason people can find lettuce difficult at this time of year - and sowing in modules in the cool this way completely avoids that problem. After they're all well germinated - then I move them into better light, still shading from the sun a bit as it can be very strong at this time of year. Sowing into modules also means you can give plants more protection from slugs, which is the other major cause of seedling losses. Plants in modules or pots also tend to grow on a bit faster, which is useful if you're a bit behind with your seed sowing and they're also out of reach of slug damage if they're on a table or other structure raised off the ground! Starting off your winter salads this way means that as soon as a summer crop is finished - you'll have lovely big plants in modules that you can plant into nice neat rows with no gaps and away you go!
Lettuce 'Jack Ice' - early Sept.
Endive 'White Curled'
Lattughino - one of the best winter lettuces
With the price that vegetable may well be in the shops after the drought here and in many other countries this year - and possible lack of availability of many crops - it really makes sense to grow all that we possibly can ourselves. Salads are a particularly important crops to grow in winter - when there is almost nothing other than baby leaf spinach in the shops - and even then it's at least two days old at best, and already losing vital nutrients. Anyway - I could never bring myself to buy any sort of bagged salad. If I had no option - I would buy organic baby leaf spinach but only for cooking - never for eating raw!
Growing your own is by far the best - zero food miles, fresher, cleaner and far cheaper too. Farmer's markets are the only other alternative if you want to buy a better selection of organic vegetables. But make sure they're genuinely certified organic by asking what organisation they are certified by - and checking if you have any doubts. (They should display their certification number on their stand. They won't mind you asking in the least if they're genuine organic producers, because checking the validity of produce is good for them as well. They pay a hefty licence fee to be inspected and verified every year - so the last thing they want is anyone trying to cheat - trying to pass off their produce as organic if it's not!) As salads are so easy to grow yourself though - they are always my first priority for sowing all year round. As soon as one crop is planted from modules - then another is sown in order to keep up the continuity - gradually changing over to sowing tunnel crops at the end of this month and throughout September. I'd far rather have too much than not enough - the hens are always grateful for any surplus and all the greens make for eggs with fabulous, orange-coloured yolks!
There are some really good varieties of overwintering lettuce now - and you've still just got time to order them! Varieties like Jack Ice (from Real Seeds UK), 'Fristina', 'Belize' and 'Lattughino' are excellent. The Organic Catalogue in the UK luckily still has the wonderful winter lettuce Lattughino available this year - but how much longer it will have it is hard to know, now that it's been taken over by Suttons/Dobies - owned by global multinational seed giant Groupe Limagraine! If you grow it this year though - you can save your own sed next year as it's not an F1 hybrid. It crops for months - from late September until the following May, by just picking leaves from the outside every so often rather than the whole head,and also watering well in spring as the weather warms up. Another terrific lettuce for winter growing is 'Jack Ice', which I discovered a few years ago, and is from Real Seeds. It's a really good-flavoured, crisply crunchy, loose-leaved lettuce with leaves like an 'Iceberg' but which don't make a heart - so you can go on picking the lovely crisp leaves all winter long. In addition to that, as the leaves are all green, they are far more nutritious than 'Iceberg'. So far I've found it to be very hardy both in the tunnel and outside - and I also find it doesn't bolt too easily all year round - so it's definitely at the top of my list now, along with Lattughino.
Even the very cheap 'value' ranges of lettuce seeds are also good for over winter. They're cheap because they're usually open-pollinated, easy-to-grow varieties that are tough, hardy and grow like weeds! I mean - where else could you potentially get 1200 lettuces for 60 cents - if all of them germinated? That's about 3 year's supply at least by my reckoning! I buy those to grow for my hens, to supply some of their winter greens when grass is short - but we often end up eating them ourselves too! Those I tend to sow in a pinch of 5-6 seeds per module and don't bother to thin at all, planting them out just as they are, because they seem to mostly be the loose-leaf types which don't mind this treatment one bit. Endive is another great winter salad that crops all winter. White Curled is a very good variety that will go on cropping well into early spring - under cloches, in a cold frame or in a polytunnel.
If you don't have a garden, then it's easy to grow salads in pots, in a good peat-free organic compost. If you're short of space you could even try my 'stepladder garden' idea which produces an amazing amount of salads throughout the winter from plants growing in recycled mushroom boxes, again filled with peat-free organic compost, on each step! Recycled skip or log bags make great raised beds too. The picture here was taken in March but they're useful all year round, being warmer and more well drained than anything growing in the ground in winter, particularly if they're sited against a south-facing wall. Lamb's lettuce is another good hardy winter salad for outside - and even watercress can be grown from seed (Sutton's 'Aqua') or from cuttings. It's much hardier than many people think - it should overwinter well under cloches. It does so brilliantly in the tunnel and you can keep picking it all winter.
Why not try some Claytonia (also called miner's lettuce or Winter Purslane), if you haven't done before. It's higher in Vitamin C than anything else you can eat in the winter. It's also very hardy, very attractive in salads and if left to go to seed in the spring, you will have it forevermore, so you'll never have to buy seed again! One well known garden writer who came here a few years ago said that she thought it was an absolute nuisance - but I love it and any stray seedlings are easily hoed out. If ground is bare it also sows itself around conveniently making an instant, well-behaved and quickly biodegradable green manure which worms absolutely adore! It's a really good-natured and adaptable plant that I would really hate to be without!
Another staple of mine here both in the tunnel and outside is chard - which is almost two vegetables in one, with delicious spinach-tasting leaves and crunchy coloured stems. Ruby, Silver or Golden stemmed Swiss chards are all easy to grow - I sow them two seeds to a module and then thin to leave three plants per module. My favourite is Ruby Chard which is more nutritious than the plain white variety, being higher in phytonutrients. Chard seeds are really clusters of seeds - so you may often get 3 or 4 plants from one seed but you can't always guarantee that - so that's why I always sow 2 as you can't afford to lose time by having to sow more at this time of year. When they're big enough, I plant out about 45cm/18ins apart both outside and in the tunnels and they produce a far bigger crop this way than thinned to one plant per spot. Although they're a very hardy crop - they really appreciate some protection from wind and cold and will crop reliably all winter. My other winter favourite that I'm never without is my own wonderful strain of Ragged Jack kale, which one of the most useful vegetables I grow. I multi-sow it in blocks at this time of year, plant the block out as they are - not thinning, and then pick it all winter, both in the tunnel and outside. First as baby salad leaves, then bigger leaves and then finally it bears wonderful flower buds in spring which we like better than sprouting broccoli. I's an absolute paragon of a vegetable!
Keeping crops harvested is important
August is also the month when many people are away for a week or two, especially if you're tied to school holiday times. The weather is so unpredictable that it's hard to know how much things will need watering - but if you water thoroughly and then give everything a really good mulch,with grass clippings (which I use a lot as you will know) or with compost, before you go away - this will help to stop water evaporating and also keep weeds down at the same time. Any weeds that do come up while you're away will be very easily pulled up later from the moist, friable soil under the mulch. Most things should be safe enough for a week or so. You may be frying if you're in the Med. - but I doubt we will be here! If French or runner bean plants dry out at all the flowers tend to drop off before setting - they need consistent moisture at the roots if they are not to drop their flowers before they set pods. Mulch them well with grass clippings - keeping them about 6ins/10cm away from the bases of the stems to prevent possible rotting. The value of mulching can't be underestimated - bare soil heats up much faster and loses both water and nutrients very quickly. Mulching also encourages good worm activity, as worms prefer cooler soil. Perhaps you could persuade a friend or fellow allotmenteer to water if the weather's extremely dry and hot - as long as you tell them to pick whatever crops need picking and keep them for themselves - that's normally a pretty good incentive! Always make sure that you water well before you mulch and then the mulch will stop the water evaporating and seal it in.
If crops aren't picked - as soon as the plants have set seed, a hormone signal is sent to the main part of the plant to say 'job done, seed set, so no need to produce any more'. This is one of the reasons for picking things when they're young and tender rather than when they're older and would give a heavier crop. It's so easy and tempting to overdo that! They tend to taste far better when young anyway. If they're not picked, you will have to pick a lot of old pods bulging with set seed when you come home - they will be inedible unless you want to shell them for winter bean stews but the actual pods will only be fit for the compost heap at that stage, and it will take at least a couple of weeks for the plant to get back to producing more flowers. That means that you may not get many more beans before the colder autumn weather and reducing light stops growth. Keep picking and they'll keep coming!
Much better to give away all of your crops for a week or so, while you're away - and keep your plants continually producing, so you can come back to some lovely home grown food. And it's always a useful way to cultivate some goodwill and store up some 'Brownie points' at the same time!!
Mulching well looks after vitally important worms and also soil fertility
One of the main reasons for mulching is that if soil is bare at this time of year your worms will also go much deeper to avoid dryness and high temperatures, which they don't like, so mulching to keep soil cool and moist is a must. You really want worms to stay in the upper layers of the soil, working through organic matter to make any plant foods available for your crops. Although there's an increasing awareness now about how vital bees are, which is excellent, worms - like bees, are absolutely vital to the whole ecology of the garden and in fact of the whole planet! Many people don't appreciate this.A friend rang me a while ago to say she had just read a book on pests and diseases which actually listed worms as a pest, because they make worm casts on lawns! Absolutely unbelievable.- When you think about it, after people kill all the worms in their croquet lawns or bowling greens (why else could you possibly want an immaculately smooth lawn?) they must have terrible drainage problems - having to scarify, to kill the moss growth caused by the lack of drainage, spike them to aerate and then add sand, then fertilise! What a palaver and what an amount of chemicals - all just to get a smooth green lawn! Worms would have done all that for free - if you let them!Thereby saving an awful lot of man-hours, pollution and carbon! You can just sweep the worm casts in with a good stiff bristled yard brush - they're a free natural fertiliser of the very best kind. Ditto golf courses! These days one might describe the game of golf - ("a good walk spoiled" as someone once aptly described it) - as also coming with a massive carbon footprint - despite the fact that golf courses need grass which in theory absorbs carbon!
When soil and plant debris have passed through worms and been processed, they are many times richer in nutrients than whatever the worms originally ate! So in essence your high-potash banana skin will translate into at least 10 times as much potash after worms have eaten it, than it would in your compost if you didn't have worms! Each worm is an amazing little fertiliser factory designed by Nature - just imagine that! This incredible natural fertiliser is also rich in beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms. The gazillions of abundant microorganisms which live in a healthy soil are absolutely vital not just to plant health - but also to the health of the entire planet - but because we can't see them - many of us don't even know they exist - and we completely take them for granted!
Neonicotinoid pesticides and glyphosate weedkillers don't just kill bees! These toxic man-made chemicals also kill worms and other essential soil life - without which mankind won't be healthy for very long. Next time you walk on the earth - don't think of it as just so much dirt under your feet. Think of it as the living, breathing, complex and multi-layered world, full of the life-giving organisms contained in it - and give it the respect it truly deserves! We depend on the earth for our survival and abuse it at our peril! There's a lot of talk about vertical farms and hydroponics lately - but plants drip-fed with nutrient solutions can't produce healthy food, as they by-pass all of the vital soil-dwelling organisms that plants need to keep both themselves and us healthy, and which also fix climate-changing carbon from the atmosphere.
The actions of worms make plant foods more available to all the billions of soil bacteria which then act like a digestive system in the 'gut' of the soil to make nutrients readily available for plant roots to absorb. A healthy range of bacteria in the soil helps the plant's immune system to function correctly in exactly the same way that a healthy gut is essential for our immune system. You may remember this is something I talked about in more depth a couple of months ago. It's a vitally important process. Without worms and their associated bacteria, and other soil organisms like micorrhizal funghi, plant debris does not break down into what is known as humus, which is gradually absorbed into the soil and fixes carbon. Without worms globally - we would all be literally buried under millions of tons of unrotted plant debris lying around everywhere in a very short time. Without worms working in your garden soil - when you put compost or a mulch onto the surface - it just stays there in exactly the same state, instead of gradually disappearing as it should. Nature worked out this perfect ecological balance - where everything works together.
My son caught me apparently talking to myself in the potting shed several years ago (I do it all the time!) I explained that I was talking to the worms in my homemade worm bin - Dendrobaenas - which work through food waste much faster than the more usual red tiger worms. He raised his eyes to heaven and said "OMG Mum - your obituary will be entitled "The Woman Who Talked To Worms"! I replied that I would be delighted as there could actually be far worse things to talk to! Anyway I love my worms - they're doing such a great job and I was just telling them so!! Hey - I talk to plants, so what's wrong with talking to worms? I mean I can see them actually doing something! They do react suddenly to loud noises, so they can in effect hear or feel sound waves - so why might they not react to my positive and encouraging dulcet tones?!! I've had those Dendrobaena worms for a few years now - they do a fantastic job of processing our kitchen waste with great gusto. I got them mail order from Finnis worms in the North of Ireland. Dendrobaena are in fact a type of earthworm, but not the 'deep tunnelling' type. They live in the top few centimetres of soil, processing plant wastes, a job at which they are the most efficient of all worms. Most municipal composting systems now use them exclusively. They will even eat mouldy bread and left over pasta - which you can't put onto the normal compost heap.
You mustn't put meat scraps, fat or dairy leftovers into worm bins - so our dogs get those, but you can put finely-ground eggshells into it as this is beneficial and provides calcium which worms need, as they prefer a soil pH of about 7. I dry them out in the bottom oven of the range oven first and then put them in a tough plastic bag and stamp on them. Doing a bit of creative visualisation at the same time - it's very therapeutic - especially if someone's annoyed me! (*I'm particularly thinking here of the person who keeps lifting ideas and content from my blog, barely disguising it and presenting it as their own work with no attribution or credit to me!). The only thing here that actually goes into the brown recycling bin now is bones - after stock making of course (or broth as some people now trendily call it!)! I wonder if there's a sort of domestic scale grinder out there which would turn them into bonemeal fertiliser? (Sadly bones don't break down in the soil - which means I'm still finding bones in the garden which my old labrador Lara (the children's nanny for 14 years!) buried in her favourite spots more than thirty years ago! Those and the old half-eaten tennis balls I come across occasionally bring back so many happy memories and make me smile - so they're serving another purpose!)
Remember - love and respect your worms! They make it possible for us to exist. Don't kill them by using weedkillers, artificial fertilisers and poisonous pesticides which are death to all soil life - not just worms! Remember that a healthy soil life is vital for our health too. Perhaps we could instigate a 'Wonderful Worms Week' to make people more aware of their importance and celebrate them, instead of trying to get rid of them because they think they're a nuisance. Now there's an idea!
(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 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.)
August contents: Barely controlled chaos!......Aubergines, Peppers and Tomatoes.....Get second crops of Climbing French Beans.....Time to think about winter now!.....Routine jobs......
The most important place in my Polytunnel Potager - my seat under the peach trees. Here I sit and think - surrounded by scented herbs & flowers, with lemon verbena either side of me, Nicotiana behind me - bees buzzing, butterflies dancing around me and birdsong..... This is my personal piece of Paradise!
First I would like to say a huge THANK YOU to all those who came to my talk last Sunday at Russborough House in County Wicklow despite the appalling weather! And also many thanks to The Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland, for inviting me to speak on my pet topic! It was so nice meeting everyone - including many followers of my blog. In November 2010 - Irish Times Journalist Fionnuala Fallon said that walking in to my Polytunnel Potager was - (quote) "a bit like walking into the wardrobe of C.S.Lewis - not quite Narnia perhaps - but definitely a very different universe to that outside". Thank you Fionnuala - I couldn't have put it better myself. and that was such a lovely thing to say about the magical place I've created here - full of dancing butterflies, buzzing bees, birdsong, scented flowers, good things to eat - and above all - the peace that only comes from being at one with Nature. It was so nice to be able to share my passion for my 'Polytunnel Potager' with everyone - and I hope I conveyed some of that magic to you all.
Summer polytunnel produce - a sumptuous feast for the eyes and for the body!
Barely Controlled Chaos best describes the polytunnel right now!
The picture above showsa small selection of some the produce which I'm picking from my polytunnel now. Trying to take a picture that shows you the entire polytunnel would be absolutely impossible - you wouldn't be able to see a thing except leafy abundance! It's a veritable fruit and veg jungle at the moment - stuffed with good things to eat in every corner - in every nutritious colour of the rainbow! And the kitchen is full of crates of produce being preserved for the winter - so that's chaotic too!The picture shows just how much fabulous produce it's possible to grow in a polytunnel without using any chemicals - just by working with Nature a bit of TLC. I love to take lots of pics at this time of year - it's so nice to have them to cheer myself up in the depths of a long wet Irish winter! It's also nice to have lots of produce stored for the winter. Anything that doesn't get eaten fresh makes it's way either into the freezer or dehydrator. There are 11 varieties of tomatoes in the picture, most of which are either made into my 'Totally Terrific Tomato Sauce'and frozen in portions (recipe in that section) - or just frozen whole for saucing later, if I'm short of time. Only Rosada and Incas dehydrate really well - but Blush is quite good too. And all the fruit makes a really special treat when semi-dehydrated to soft 'leather' stage into chewy fruit sweeties! They're the only kind of sweets that get eaten here - with the occasional bit dunked into melted dark chocolate - now that's serious decadence!
Borage, sweet potatoes behind - with convulvulus, marigolds, feverfew. Endive & beetroot flowering for saving seed at far end & also peaches - with a Flame grapevine in middle in the right hand side bed!
A few years ago, year someone who had just put up a new polytunnel asked me if I could put on a whole page of tunnel photos as they needed some inspiration! Someone else asked me if I could walk around once a month and take a comprehensive video. While they were both brilliant ideas - apart from the time it would take which at this time of year I don't have with so much work to be done - when I walked round my tunnels later with these ideas in mind and tried to take a few photos - I realised that it would be impossible to get a real idea of what's going on in them without a lot of description too - which is what I've tried to do in my blog over the last few years, in my 'Late Lunch' radio feature on LMFM, and more recently in my daily Tweets. You don't need to have a Twitter account to see these.
The picture here provides a small 'vignette' of my polytunnel potager garden - which is repeated in various combinations all around. I try to have a balanced ecology which echoes the garden outside and because of this it's almost impossible for anyone to get a true picture of what's really happening in there - especially at this time of year. Unless one examined it inch by inch - it's so like a jungle that it's impossible to see it all! So many things are growing through things, around things, underneath and up and over things - just as Nature grows things. There's a riot of vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs, with happily buzzing bees and butterflies everywhere - and also sparrows and other small birds flitting around hunting for insects to feed their broods. There's even a few resident frogs. It's very hectic and really difficult to see anything too clearly, and to get a sense of just how much is going on. No neat rows of crops with wide, uncultivated spaces in between, as one sees in many polytunnels. I think the best term for it is 'controlled chaos' - barely! It's a fine line I know - and one has to take care that things don't sometimes get smothered, or by reducing air circulation too much one encourages disease. Science is no proving what I always knew in my gut from observing Nature - and that is that communities of plants are actually much healthier than monocrops of just one type of plant. You can see what I mean from the picture of the sweet potato bed above! They actually have beautiful flowers too. So often the photos of my vegetable beds look more like flower borders - but then that's just how Nature loves to grow things - and that's why the plants are happy and healthy! Sadly though, it does make it rather difficult to take photos that don't just end up looking like one great big colourful and leafy blur! So as I've already said - this month, the tunnel looks like a very colourful jungle! But there's a very fine line between trying to make every possible inch productive, or the whole lot descending into total chaos - and believe me - it's not far from that right now!! Hardly any space to walk around the tunnel at all without tripping over or walking on something!
I've been growing with Nature in this way ever since I started vegetable gardening over 40 years ago. Before that I just used to arrange flowers from my parents garden - and I think I'm probably still doing that subconsciously! It always just seemed a far more natural way of growing to me - and I love creating attractive ad successful planting combinations. Back then it was called 'inter-cropping' or 'catch-cropping', and companion planting. 'Permaculture' enthusiasts have now re-named it 'Polyculture' - but they didn't invent it - they're just using a fancy new name for something good organic gardeners have done for centuries - and Nature has done forever! Nature doesn't do 'monoculture' and neither do good organic gardeners! Over the last few years I've seen so many people announce they've discovered so-called 'new' ways to garden - with either very inventive names or using old names forgotten except by older people. I have a huge collection of old Soil Association magazines going back to long before I was born and they're utterly fascinating. They knew about the benefits of soil bacteria back then - even without the benefits of modern electron microscopy!
For instance there was a debate about the merits of 'no-dig' way back in 1947 - and the inter-planting of maize with cover crops like legumes in the former Rhodesia was nothing new - likewise 'no cultivation' and 'surface mulching' of fruit. Equally fascinating was the fact that camel dung was not used in Mongolia!! I would love to have been able to ask "why not?" Seriously though - there's nothing new under the sun and I often wish that the people who originally discovered and wrote about such things were actually given some credit for their original ideas. Lady Eve Balfour, H. J. Massingham and Lawrence Hills may not have had the advantage of all the modern scientific instruments that we have now - they just did what they felt was right in their gut - and observed their results closely. They knew then as apparently so many people are only just 'discovering' now - that proper stewardship of the soil was the only sustainable way to grow healthy crops.They were constantly experimenting to find out how to mimic Nature and to grow crops better. It's such a great pity that more people didn't listen to them back then - instead of being seduced by the impressively fast results of the nitrogen fertilisers and other toxic chemicals which have been responsible for destroying so much precious biodiversity, and have caused so much illness, misery and pollution.
In photos of other peoples gardens or tunnels, who perhaps grow commercially - there are often beautiful long rows of crops which one can take lovely clear photos of. Funny - but I don't think that's so beautiful! Controlled - yes. Natural - no! Some of them look more like monocultures - with great swathes of bare soil between the rows - and those people quoting the old fashioned phrase that "we should be keeping the hoe moving"! Sorry but that's rubbish - science says different now and it's also not the way that nature grows things. Nature never leaves soil bare as I've often said before. It always covers it with some plant or other unless it's too poisoned for anything to grow at all! I rarely see those people growing flowers among crops either - as I do. Apart from wanting to grow my plants as naturally as possible - I also want them to have the highest nutrients possible - and you don't do that by leaving huge areas of exposed soil. In addition - now that I don't grow commercially any longer, I want the widest possible range of crops for me and whatever members of the family happen to be around at any given time.
Things need to be a lot more flexible and I like to have a good choice available all the time. I like to experiment too, so I tend to grow quite short rows of many things, depending on how productive they are. I try to use every possible inch of valuable tunnel space either to provide food for us, or for the wildlife that helps to keep any pests under control, whether that's outside or inside in the polytunnels. I try not to have large expanses of bare earth that I hoe or weed - which would obviously make it far easier to take nice clear photos. That's not very good for soil though. Nature doesn't grow things like that - and I try to replicate nature as closely as possible. I think this is why everything works and I don't have any so-called 'pest' problems - even when growing in containers. Nature invented a food chain where everything depends on everything else and it all works perfectly. It has a beautiful equilibrium. It's only when man intervenes with chemicals that some species are wiped out, others get the upper hand and then perhaps become what we humans have termed 'pests! I try to mimic Nature by growing as many things together as I can, as naturally as possible.
Here in my blog I try to show people that you don't necessarily need a large garden, to be able to grow some healthy food for yourself and your family that can make a contribution towards the household budget. I also try to convey that 'growing your own' shouldn't have to take over your life either - and that it is possible to fit it into a normal busy life full of other interests that we all have. Organic gardening is only part of my life, although it's a very important part as I try to grow all the fruit and vegetables that we need all year round. But I do many other things like most normal people. I don't just garden and do nothing else - so time is also a factor. I have just the same amount of hours in a day as anyone else! The garden often has to look after itself for much of the time. I just dash in and out to water occasionally in the tunnels or to grab something for supper! I have to say though - that without the tunnels I'm not sure I would continue vegetable gardening! The challenges of increasingly unreliable weather would make it nearly impossible in our wet climate. With a tunnel large enough to supply a family of four with a good range of food all year round costing probably less than most family holidays these days - I think they're terrific value. I worked out years ago that if they're used properly, all year round - they should pay for themselves in two years - if we're eating the correct amount of fruits and vegetables we are supposed to eat in order to be healthy!
Aubergines, Peppers and Tomatoes
Aubergine'Bonica' (pictured here) is as usual cropping really well. The fruits look so beautiful it's almost a shame to pick them!. Each of the plants has already produced 5 or 6 fruits and has loads of babies developing. Sutton's and Simpsons sell the seed of this one and it's the best variety I've ever grown - it's thoroughly reliable and I now grow really good aubergines every year - despite our unreliable climate here in Ireland. 'Bonica' came out top of the Royal Horticultural Society trials about 10 years ago and it's easy to see why. It's currently producing huge, beautiful minimum 12-13oz plus aubergines faster than we can use them - some weigh over a pound or around 500g! I freeze any that I don't use immediately. They're sliced - brushed with olive oil and frozen on sheets of grease-proof paper, then bagged for winter use. They can then be oven roasted straight from frozen. By the way - I never salt them - it's not necessary with home grown ones and ruins their sweet, almost meaty flavour. Considering that even non-organic, chemically sprayed ones are over a euro each at least in some supermarkets - they're well worth the extra TLC and they're very happy in the recycled coleslaw buckets as you can see from the picture here! Aubergines need careful watering - never soaking them near the stem as they are very susceptible to stems rotting near the base. Peppers need the same careful cultivation and watering for the best results.
Tomato art! Some favourite delicious beefsteaks.
We always look forward to our first Caprese salad of the year with huge anticipation! This year because of the heatwave we enjoyed it earlier than usual - and we've had several since. Although our absolute favourite for this is Pantano Romanesco - which has no equal for flavour if it gets plenty of sun as it has done this year - I discovered a lovely new variety of tomato a few years ago. It's a heritage variety called Moonglow which came from Simpsons seeds and has a lovely fruity, quite unusual, almost 'apricotty' flavour. We really enjoyed it with Green Cherokee, Nyagous and with a huge slice of Ananas Noir in the centre of each plate - it looked almost too good to eat it looked so pretty - but we managed to force ourselves! Our classic Caprese though is usually thick slices of juicy beefsteaks Pantano Romanesco and John Baer (a wonderful very early tomato from Plants of Distinction with a split personality which produces some beefsteak-like and some classic medium tomatoes with a fabulous flavour). With it we have some really good yieldingly-soft buffalo mozzarella (pizza standard cow mozzarella just won't do!) - dressed with my pesto dressing (a frozen pesto cube dropped into in more olive oil which thaws and dilutes it), a few grinds of black pepper and prettified with some shredded basil. Accompanied by some crusty ciabbatta still warm from the oven, to mop up the juices, it's heaven on earth. One is instantly transported to the Med.! What more could you want? You can close your eyes and feel that you're perhaps sitting in a little sun-warmed piazza somewhere in Italy in late evening - and almost imagine that when you open them again you will see a gilded campanile silhouetted against a cloudless turquoise sky!............
Tomatoes Amish Paste, Green Cherokee and Indigo Rose
I can't believe that it's already time to 'stop' the tops of the tomato plants. This year seems to have flown. When the plants have reached the top of the 8 ft bamboo canes which support them - normally when they have 7 or 8 trusses on them depending on the variety - I cut the tops off. I like to keep a bit of air circulating above the tops of the plants, so I don't like to let them grow right up to the roof of the tunnel, as many people do. Usually the plants won't ripen more than eight trusses anyway in a polytunnel in our climate here, because the air becomes more humid and the light much less as autumn approaches. In a tunnel which is only growing tomatoes, where you can keep the air much drier for them, you could allow them to carry more, by training them up twine which you let out, lowering the stem along diagonally - I used to do this when growing commercially. But most gardeners want to grow a wide range of different crops in their tunnels at the same time - this makes it more difficult to keep the air as dry as possible for crops like tomatoes, aubergines and peppers. Some other crops like cucumbers and melons need more watering - making the air much more humid, so it's really a bit of a juggling act. At this time of year it becomes even more important to be really careful with your watering - watering in the mornings if possible to allow the atmosphere to dry out a bit - rather than watering late in the evening - particularly when a cold night is forecast - as this will hasten the demise of most tender summer crops! Careful watering will ensure they last that bit longer without disease.
Pantano Romanesco - in my opinion the easiest and also the best tasting beefsteakI walk round at least two or three times a week now with a large bucket, cutting off any damaged, diseased, or dead foliage (the 3 D's), or whenever I see something as I'm picking crops. Using a knife or scissors for a clean cut - or stems may tear and then let in disease. This is really important. Diseases, particularly grey mould (botrytis) can spread like wildfire on the muggy, gloomy grey days we often get in August here in Ireland, even with all possible ventilation. It's a particular problem where we live - where we can get a sort of low cloud/sea mist for days on end, which often only lifts for an hour or two around lunchtime, often descending again around 3pm. Tomatoes really hate that sort of weather! The continental beefsteak types are the most vulnerable, and must be watched really carefully. I actually pick them with secateurs to avoid tearing the truss stems. Take a look at them every day and pick off anything dodgy looking immediately. You'll often see the shrivelled dead flower petals still clinging to the end of the swelling fruit, it's a good idea to gently pick this off, it is a bit fiddly - but if you don't - disease can often start there and very quickly turn the whole fruit mouldy and rotting, then spread to the rest of the truss. The trusses need to be kept really clean and free of any detritus. As I've said before, they are not really that happy growing here in polytunnels, they'd really much prefer the hot summers and brilliant light of the Med. - but their wonderful flavour makes a bit of extra TLC worthwhile!That thought keeps me going through the winter. You can't buy a tomato that tastes anything like them anywhere in Ireland - but they do bruise incredibly easily when properly ripened. The commercially grown types are bred for 'travel-ability' and shelf life - not tender, melting, luscious flavour! Basil is a bit fussy too, but if you're really careful with watering, pick off browning or diseased leaves immediately and keep pinching out the flower buds - it should keep going all summer.
Don't cut off curling up tomato leaves unless they are discoloured or going brown, or grey and mouldy at the tips - curling up is normally caused by excess heat a couple of weeks earlier, or depletion of nutrients as the plants get older. Only take off the first couple of leaves below the ripening trusses to help improve air circulation - even if they are still green. The others further up are needed to help the plant to photosynthesise and to keep drawing up the sap. Keep looking for any side shoots which may still appear all down the stem.Be very careful with the watering in the whole tunnel now. Try to water in the mornings if possible, on a day when sunny weather is forecast, this gives surface moisture a chance to dry off before the tunnel is closed in the evening. Watch the weather forecast, try to plan your watering and don't go soaking the whole tunnel thoroughly if wet dull weather is forecast for a couple of days. Try to keep the moisture content of the soil fairly even. Fruit may split if the roots have dried out too much and the plants are then soaked, and uneven, erratic watering can also cause 'blossom end rot' (where the fruit gets round black patches on the flower end) or the small fruit may even drop off altogether.
I feed all the tomatoes now, with a half strength feed, at every other watering, as the slightly yellowing lower leaves with paler top leaves can be a sign of lack of nutrients. The top ones should still look healthy and green. The 'Maskotka' bush cherry tomato in large pots is looking particularly hungry now, as it started cropping really well at the beginning of June. It's a fantastic little cropper - every time I think it surely must finish soon, another flush of flowers appears! I think just one or two bushes would definitely keep one person in tomatoes for most of the summer- and could even be grown on a sunny balcony as they don't make huge plants. They hang from the plants like bunches of grapes and the flavour is utterly delicious! I have had a few split ones - but this was my really fault as in the hot weather they've really needed watering every day, because of being in pots instead of the tunnel soil, and there were one or two days where I was very busy doing other things and just forgot! This year my stepladder garden is tomatoes and herbs - Basil and Oregano. It's been hugely successful. This would fit onto any balcony or into even the tiniest of gardens! I used Tumbling Tom on top, with 'Maskotka' in a large pot at the bottom as it makes a larger bush, with 'Sweet Pea Currant' either side, and 2 plants of the smaller '42 Days' tomato in between.
Get second crops of Climbing French Beans
'Cobra' French bean top & 'Golden Gate'
We've had a good crop from the early Cobra French beans I sowed direct back in April. They took ages to get going - looking distinctly dodgy for some time - but eventually they took off and it's so nice to have them early. I keep picking them regularly, because French beans will quickly stop producing more if they get too big and stringy and start developing seeds. If your French beans have just finished cropping, and you don't want the ground immediately for something else, you can carefully strip all the leaves completely from the plants, snapping them off with your finger and thumb just where the leaf stalk joins onto the stem. They do this quite readily. Then give them a feed and water (avoiding the base of the stem as usual), and give wider the root area a nice mulch too - avoiding the base of the stems or they may rot. Within a few days, you should see tiny new flower shoots developing in the leaf axils. These will carry another later crop into the autumn.
French beans are one of the most productive crops you can grow in a tunnel and well worth growing, particularly in Ireland, where our summers can often be wet - which French beans absolutely hate. They're one of the very best crops for freezing too. Just loose freeze quickly without blanching, bagging up afterwards. The round podded, stringless variety 'Cobra', is totally reliable, incredibly productive and absolutely delicious. It's actually an improved form of the old variety 'Blue Lake'. Beans fit well into the rotation plan in a polytunnel, making a good break between tomatoes and cucumbers, and also fixing nitrogen for following winter salads and greens. I trialled a new French bean - 'Golden Gate' from Dobies a couple of years ago. This was supposed to be really early, with good setting of flowers, very tasty and productive, ideal for tunnel growing. It was none of those things, in fact it was absolutely pathetic and tasteless into the bargain! So I won't bother with it again - I shall stick to 'Cobra' as ever! Quite apart from anything else, 'Cobra' seed is about a third of the price (particularly in B&Q). Golden Gate was an attractive golden bean, that's all - and a few people commented that it looked pretty!
Delicious white flowered runner bean Moonlight
Four years ago I tried another bean experiment! As you'll know if you're a regular reader - I love experimenting with different ways of growing. I also love the taste of fresh runner beans, but I live in a windy spot here - and every year, when growing runner beans outside, as soon as they're carrying a full crop in August along come the early autumn gales and destroy them. Literally blowing them to bits - no matter how well-supported they are! So I decided to try some inside! As white-flowered runner beans tend to set pods more easily, and I always have a lot of bees in the tunnel anyway, I thought it might be worth trying what was then a new partially self-fertile variety called Moonlight - bred by crossing a French bean and a runner bean - thinking they might be amenable to growing in the tunnel. Lo and behold - I was right! I know most people grow them easily outside - but we seem to get particularly strong 'autumn' winds up here in August. Since there are always plenty of bees in the tunnels because I grow so many flowers in them - there is no problem with pollination and for the last 3 years I've had delicious runner beans. Moonlight is a stringless and really delicious variety - which I think has as good a flavour as Painted Lady which was always my favourite - but didn't really like tunnel cultivation.
Time to think about winter now!
In the midst of all this glorious abundance though - it's time for a serious reality check! You really have to start thinking really seriously NOW about winter tunnel crops- if you want any! This month is your last chance to sow many of them if you want a really good selection of salads and other crops throughout the winter. Although there won't be room for some time yet to plant most in the tunnel and it may also be still much too hot for them on any warmer days, if you don't start sowing winter crops now - it will be too late by the time you actually have the polytunnel space clear for them. There is a marked difference between many crops sown now and the same ones sown in early September. Sown now - most things will start to crop well in late autumn and be productive through the winter, but put it off for another month and they may not start cropping until well after Christmas. This particularly applies to calabrese (broccoli), Swiss chards, Sugar Loaf chicory and some types of lettuce. I generally do two sowings of all these veg. as a 'fail-safe' method to ensure I have them, just in case some disaster befalls the first lot I've sown. If they all survive successfully - you'll find a space to fit them in somewhere and will be so glad of them in deepest winter! You can start sowing these in modules outside now (if you haven't done so already) then bring them in as their space becomes available as summer crops are cleared.
Now is when good planning really pays off and it ensures that your polytunnel is as productive as it possibly can be all year round. To make the most of expensive tunnel space, you should always have something ready to plant as soon as a previous crop is cleared. There's a list of what you can sow now in the 'What to Sow in August' bit as usual. It's also a good idea to make a few notes now about this year's crops when things occur to you as you go round the tunnel - what's done well - what maybe needs a bit more space - or something you will do differently or maybe try next year, while it's still fresh in your mind. Keep a notebook and pencil in there - you'll forget by the time you get back to the house and something else interrupts your train of thought! This will help you to draw up an even better plan for next year's crops. You'll be ordering the seed for them this autumn if you want to get the best varieties as many quickly sell out.
Keep ventilating as much as possible, leaving doors fully open during the day. I close my tunnels at night as even at this time of year a strong wind can suddenly get up from nowhere on the odd occasion, particularly before a sudden thunderstorm - and if it's from the wrong direction, it can rip off the doors and destroy the tunnel, as I've learned from bitter experience twice in the past! Closing the doors will also keep badgers and foxes out too - as they're extremely fond of the odd bit of ripe fruit or an easy to dig up worm or two!
A little extra care and time spent now, will pay off hugely, by keeping all your crops going much longer into the autumn. What often happens is things can get into a bit of a mess when people are away on holidays, they look at it all when they come back, lose heart and then just give up! If you let things become a disease-ridden jungle at this time of year - and don't deal with it - then you're just storing up a lot of disease which you will get even earlier this autumn or next year. Good housekeeping now is absolutely essential! Be vigilant - it pays off! Clear any diseased plant material and also anything that isn't productive any more - and plant something useful for the winter. Soil likes to be kept working - and even if you just plant hardy vegetables that you could grow outside - things like lettuce, winter spinach, kales and chards still be two or three times more productive inside instead of being blown around by freezing winter gales and rain outside.
Keep weeds down along the sides of the tunnel a bit inside just a bit - these rob moisture and also stop air circulation - encouraging disease.
If like me you have very raised beds either in your tunnel, you almost have to treat them like giant containers or pots, asthey do need watering a bit more often. On the other hand, the crops do tend to be slightly earlier because the soil is warmer - and the drainage is so much better. I get a very graphic illustration of this sometimes when we get floods elsewhere and there is water running between the beds! They are also an awful lot easier on the back too - which is why I put in mine! Mulching well does help too - as always - stopping evaporation, conserving moisture, providing nutrients and encouraging good worm activity. Preparing the soil well beforehand with really good home made compost or other well-rotted organic matter, to provide lots of 'sticky' water-retaining humus, is most important too.
(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.)
Remember the golden rule - always sow the seeds - you can catch up on everything else later except that! With day length shortening and decreasing light available to plants - it is vital that some are sown as soon as possible now if you want plenty of winter food!
2 varieties mangetout peas for soup, sprouting & seed, kale rear centre beside peach & perpetual spinach beet. Food security!
Sow outdoors in pots or modules:
(For planting later in the tunnel or greenhouse, when summer crops are cleared. These will all crop in late autumn/early winter - some like chard, perpetual spinach beet & kale will crop steadily all winter.)
Calabrese* (Unwin's 'Green Magic' is a great variety that crops well all autumn and over the winter in the tunnel if picked regularly, and protected from serious frost with fleece), 'Kaibroc' (Marshalls - fast cropping, delicious kale/broccoli hybrid) Cabbages 'Greyhound' & leafy non-hearting spring collard types, carrots (early 'Nantes' types, in long modules or pots), kales such as Cavalo Nero, dwarf green curled and Ragged Jack, lettuces** non-hearting leafy types (like Lattughino, Lollo Rossa, oak leaf & Jack Ice), winter 'Gem' & winter butterheads, endives, kohl rabi*, Swiss chards & leaf beets, beetroot 'Bull's Blood' and McGregor's favourite for salad leaves**, peas (for pea shoots), sugar loaf chicory* (Pain de Sucre), Claytonia**(miner's lettuce), American land cress**, watercress, leaf chicories (radicchio), rocket**, summer turnips**, coriander**, chervil**, plain leaved and curled parsley and sorrels.
Covering seed trays while they are outdoors, with a fine mesh-covered frame or cloche, gives young seedlings protection from pests (like cabbage root fly and cabbage white butterflies), and also provides shelter from scorching sun, strong winds or heavy rain.
You could also now plant a few early variety potato tubers in pots in mid-August to bring inside later for a Christmas crop, 'autumn planting ready' types are available now in garden centres if you haven't saved your own seed tubers from your first early crops, or held some back from spring planting.
Outdoors, sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop:
(To possibly cover with cloches or frames later in autumn.)
Beetroot, brocoletto 'Cima di Rapa', early 'Nantes' type carrots for late autumn cropping, cabbages (red round head**, 'Greyhound' and leafy non-hearting spring types), peas (for pea shoots), sugar loaf and leaf chicory*, radicchios*, endives, Japanese overwintering onions**, salad onions, Claytonia (winter purslane/miner's lettuce)**, lambs lettuce**, American landcress**, winter lettuces, kales, radishes, rocket, Swiss chard and leaf beets*, summer spinach, summer turnips, Chinese cabbage* and other oriental greens such as Choy Sum, Pak choi, mibuna, mizuna, mustards 'Red & Green Frills', Chinese kale (Kailaan), Komatsuna**, winter radishes, quick maturing salad mixes, parsley, chervil*, buckler-leaved and French sorrel. Sow fast growing green manures like buckwheat, red clover, mustard (a brassica so careful with rotations) and Phacelia, to improve soil, 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms (digging them in later after the first frosts, then covering to protect soil, preventing nutrient loss and possible pollution), on any empty patches of ground cleared of crops that won't be used over winter.,
(*Early Aug. only, ** mid-late Aug.)
If you don't get some things sown now they won't have enough time to develop to crop well over winter, as with the shortening days now all growth slows dramatically in a couple of weeks. And another thing! - Remember these are just suggestions - you don't have to sow them all! If I was forced to choose only six veg to grow over the winter in my polytunnel they would be Ragged Jack Kale, ruby or silver Swiss chards, watercress, lettuces Lattughino and Jack Ice, and sugar loaf chicory. They are all incredibly productive all winter in a polytunnel.
N.B. Sow in the evenings if possible as germination of some seeds can sometimes be affected or even prevented altogether by too high a temperature during the first 24 - 48 hours - this applies particularly to lettuce, spinach and also greenhouse sown carrots. Protect module-sown seedlings outside from heavy rain or strong sunlight with a plastic mesh such as 'Enviromesh' - which also protects against carrot root fly, cabbage white caterpillars and cabbage root fly - all of which can still decimate unprotected seedlings. Old net curtains work well too! Sowing in modules on a table or raised area outside also provides seedlings with good protection from slugs.
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you.)
July contents: How to Grow Fabulous Figs.....Polytunnels are an all-weather Playground and Larder for Small Birds!.....Give thanks every time you see a bee!.....Nature could easily live without us - but we can't live without Nature!....Raspberries.....Summer Pruning and The 'June Drop'.....Strawberry Fields Over and Over Again!....Grapes.....Other general Fruit Care
A glorious summer picture from mid-July 2017. The young apple trees in the new orchard were weighed down with fruit. We had a great apple year!
What a contrast -it's a sorry drought-stricken picture this year! Barely any apples left in the new orchard! Most apples and pears have already dropped off. Everything is parched.
It's another fantastic fruit year - except in the New Orchard sadly!
Last year's warm autumn ripened the fruiting shoots and wood really well on pretty much everything - so there's been masses of blossom on all kinds of fruit except in the new orchard - where the young trees have already dumped most of their fruit due to the drought! Even though many days in the last month were dark and gloomy, with threatening skies - we never got any rain here! Elsewhere though we're already enjoying summer's abundance! Strawberries, gooseberries, currants and raspberries both in the tunnels and outside - with figs, apricots, cherries and peaches undercover in the tunnels and cape gooseberries just starting to ripen on last year's over wintered plants in tubs. The earliest grapes in the tunnel are almost ripe too. Although it may seem a bit of a luxury to some people using a tunnel mainly for growing fruit, it ensures that I get good crops here in my very windy and often cold spot, and we can enjoy all of our harvest undamaged. They're protected from the weather, warmer and the blackbirds can't reach them since I finally discovered how to keep them out but still let the all the bees in! The only fruit that no pests have discovered yet are the Cape gooseberries or golden berries - and there's only so many of those you can grow as they take up so much room! I like to have the broadest range of fruit possible all year round. Variety stops you getting bored with too much of the same thing, and also gives us a good range of healthy phytonutrients.In many fruit growing areas like Herefordshire - fruit like cherries that birds love is all grown in tunnels now - which have sides that can be lifted for ventilation and pollination when necessary. This ensures good crops.
How to Grow Fabulous Figs!
It's the best fig year I've ever had - all the varieties have been enjoying the sun and heat that we've had and we've already enjoyed many of them. These delicious fruits, which have been valued since ancient times, are super-healthy for us to eat. They're chock-full of vitamins, essential minerals and gut-friendly fibre. The early 'breba' crop, which formed on last year's ripened wood and overwintered as tiny figlets in the leaf axils, are all ripening fast in the fruit tunnel now - and it's very tempting to eat too many of them!! Breba comes from the Spanish word 'breva'. I haven't got quite enough fruit to justify using the dehydrator yet, as they're so nice to eat fresh - but I'm hoping there could be an autumn glut later on, judging by the vast amount of small fruit already forming nicely on this year's shoots. I might even try making a fig liqueur - I had the idea for doing that the other day, when I was making peach Schnapps with the early peaches. That way I could preserve the figs for eating with cheese perhaps and also make a fabulously rich and slightly naughty mouthwatering drink or ice cream too! Finger's crossed! They'll definitely be getting even more TLC from now on! I get a lot of questions about growing figs - so here's my guide. As I've learnt from experience and lots of trial and error rather than books - this may not be identical to anything you may read in the 'expert' textbooks - but this is what I've found works for me here in often damp and sunless Ireland!
Figs are always expensive fruit to buy - even the non-organic figs in most shops here are around €1 each! They are really easy to grow though, if you have a very warm spot in the garden - or even better a polytunnel or greenhouse. I don't grow them in the ground, as they can become too vigorous and produce little if any fruit. They will fruit well in relatively small tubs. I grow all my figs in tubs of various sizes - gradually moving them on in size every couple of years depending on how old they are and how congested the roots.It's really important at this time of year to keep all figs in containers constantly moist - never saturated but at the same time never drying out completely either! It's also important to feed them regularly so that they can develop all of their fruits. If you let them dry out completely they will drop shrivelled small fruits about 3 weeks later when you've already forgotten that you may have let them dry out at some point! If you water erratically, letting them dry out too much and then later drenching them - any fruits that have already developed may split and be ruined before they ripen. Remember - evenly moist is key - and they need both regular watering and feeding now, to develop this year's crop. They depend on you for their food supply if they're in pots. I feed them with Osmo certified organic tomato food at every other watering now - but stop feeding once the fruit is ripening. I start to feed again later when the autumn crop is developing.
Figs in containers must never wilt - so they do need regular attention - but they're worth it! If you're not sure they need watering - then scratch the surface of the compost with your finger - if it feels and looks moist then don't water. If it's dry and the compost is shrinking away from the sides of the pot - then water quickly! On the other hand - wilting if the compost feels wet means that the roots are in trouble and may possibly even be rotting. That is almost certain death to a fig - so if in doubt - then don't water! Figs outside need very little feeding or they may grow too leafy and less productive even with their roots restricted - but again keep them watered and mulched, as if they are growing against a wall they can dry out very quickly in hot sunshine. I've never managed to successfully ripen figs outside here - but some friends only a couple of miles away nearer to the coast and lower down, have a fig tree that ripens fruits every year - although, in my opinion, not enough to justify the space it takes up - even though it does look very ornamental and Mediterranean! (It's OK - they don't read my blog!) You really need a very sunny, sheltered spot with some root restriction for much success outside here. In the warmer climate in central or southern UK - many varieties will fruit well against a warm wall. We used to have fabulous figs every year against a warm, south facing old brick wall where I grew up on the edge of the Cotswolds. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I love them so much - their taste brings back so many childhood memories. The grown-ups often wondered why there were so few in the school holidays! We always blamed the birds!!
I have over 15 varieties now (lost count!) all of them slightly different - and all of which ripen at varying times - which altogether give me some fruits most days during the summer. I grow them all in my standard mix of half organic peat-free compost/half garden soil with a small handful of bonemeal and seaweed meal when planting. I also dust the roots directly with 'Rootgrow' mycorrhizal fungi when potting on or planting - this definitely helps to develop the vital symbiotic fungal threads they need to help their roots to access more nutrients. I always put a few broken up bits of polystyrene (from those horrible un-recyclable plant trays that bedding plants come in and kind friends land on me periodically - saying "You recycle stuff don't you?....Thought you'd like these" - Bless them!). These are useful for important extra drainage in the bottom - and are a lot lighter than heavy gravel! Don't over pot them to start with - just move them up gradually to 15 litre pot size or they will produce too much leafy growth at the expense of fruit. If you keep the roots fairly restricted - they will form sides shoots without pruning and fruit earlier in life. If they are over-potted and produce too much growth in summer, it helps to prune back branch leaders to about 4 leaf joints of new green growth beyond the last fruit. It's on this growth that next year's baby figlets will form in the autumn. Figs don't need pollinating - their flowers are actually inside-out and are the lovely fleshy part that forms inside the fruits.
Several people have asked me to list all the fig varieties I grow - so here they are. As they are easy to propagate from suckers or cuttings, I have several Brogiotto Nero - one a small tree-size in a huge tub and three of it's offspring, in 15 litre pots. All the others are also in 15 litre pots. Rouge de Bordeaux, Sultane, Bourjasotte Grise, Brown Turkey, Califfo Blue, Violetta, White Marseilles, Panachee, Icicle (for decorative leaves not fruit), Bornholm and Dalmatie (thought to be variants of the same Danish Variety. I also have a couple of unnamed varieties - one given to me by a friend which originated in an old Co. Meath walled garden here in Ireland (I think possibly Brunswick), one other and three plants of one variety that I picked up just labelled 'Fig' for €5 in a garden centre sale. That find was the best of the lot - with massive blue-black fruits similar to those huge ones that one sees sold in shops. If I were to recommend only one variety as I've been asked to many times - then Rouge de Bordeaux I would say is possibly the most productive and easiest to obtain of most of these apart from Brown Turkey - which you see recommended everywhere and doesn't have anything like the rich flavour of R de B! All of them in my experience will produce two crops per year in July and then Sept/Oct in a polytunnel if well looked after.
Figs aren't bothered by many pests here. Scale insect may be a problem on bought in plants - but brushing those with melted coconut oil kills them as it blocks up the pores in their shell that they breathe through. That generally gets rid of them permanently.I also keep an eye out for rodents and blackbirds - as they really love them!So do wasps in the autumn unfortunately!
My polytunnels are an all-weather Playground and Larder for Small Birds!
The sparrows and other small birds that are constantly in my polytunnels never bother any fruits. I'm always glad to see them, as they are terrific at clearing up all kinds of pests like bugs and spiders etc. I never see any pests at all in the tunnels thanks to the sparrows, robins and wrens hunting all day in there. They bring all their babies in too - it's fun watching and listening to the adults teaching them how to hunt. I'm rather sad that they also chase butterflies and moths though - despite how amusing their frantic 'keystone cops' chases can be at times! I keep finding detached wings - like discarded and crumpled ball gowns the morning after a dance - all around the tunnels. It can be a difficult balance making sure all the creatures that you want to encourage like bees and sparrows can get in - and yet managing to keep blackbirds out! I leave just enough room for them to squeeze in - but not enough for any enterprising blackbirds! Many other birds are an even worse nuisance this year - magpies and crows are also attacking fruit as soon as they see any colour - especially apples - and it's impossible to net everything, particularly orchard fruits. It's not that they're thirsty as some people suggest - we have a stream, a large wildlife pond, several smaller ones - and drinking water at various spots all around the gardens.
Give thanks every time you see a bee!
Bumble bee on orange blossom in the tunnel
Without bees we wouldn't have so many healthy citrus fruits
Most people by now appreciate that bees pollinate about 2/3rds of the food we eat either directly or indirectly - so without them we would be very hungry! Sadly there is a huge amount of money invested in producing and promoting pesticides by the multinational chemical companies. These pesticides actually disable and kill bees - so this causes bitter divisions between those who believe that we can't possibly produce food without pesticides - which is patently rubbish since humanity ate and evolved for millions fo years before they were invented - and those who believe they are destroying not just bees but endangering all of biodiversity. This has become so bitter recently that even genuinely neutral but extremely concerned scientists such as Prof. Dave Goulson - professor of biology at the University of Sussex are being attacked by the so-called Big Ag pro-pesticide lobby who naturally want to continue profiting from their bee-killing poisons! Dave specialises in the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and has written a number of terrifically informative books on bees. Of course Big Ag's natural reaction to anyone questioning the safety of their pesticides is that 'attack is the best form of defence' - just like the poisons that they peddle! Here's a link to an article which demonstrates this very thing - https://energydesk.greenpeace.org/2017/07/17/syngenta-bayer-ceh-study-neonicotinoids/
The summer fruit season is in full swing now, mostly thanks to the good offices of above bees! It's really difficult to keep up with all the picking and preserving as well as the watering and the rest of the garden work - especially with this year's heatwave and drought! I'll be so glad I did though, during the long cold winter months when we all need plenty of vitamin C and other health-promoting antioxidants to keep winter colds at bay! Freezing fruit is by far the best way to preserve all that freshness. Making jams adds a lot of unnecessary sugar to fruits and the cooking destroys much of their nutrients, so we eat very little jam here - hardly ever in fact. We prefer our fruit straight and fresh mostly. Taste buds get used to the natural flavours of fruit without sugar very quickly. Anyway - if you're a jam maker and can't live without it - you can easily just chop and freeze the fruit to make jam in the winter when there's more time - a nice job for a cold day!
A mixed fruit and kefir smoothie made from either fresh or frozen fruit is just the way we like to start the day any time of year. A handful of mixed berries, some kefir and full fat milk, blitzed in the blender with a little raw unfiltered organic honey if necessary and anything else you like to throw in. That is an ambrosial breakfast - fit for the Gods! It looks like there'll be a huge blackberry crop this year - the bushes are absolutely smothered with several different sorts of bumble bees right now - everything from really tiny to huge! All carrying huge orange pollen sacks on their hind legs. I'm so thrilled to see them. The loud sound of buzzing is amazing when you walk up the garden to the tunnels at midday currently. There's already a huge crop developing, and a couple of the Himalayan Giant x wild bramble hybrids I've developed for earliness and flavour over the years are already starting to turn colour and ripen very early due to the warm weather. There are also masses of bees in the tunnel right now - pollinating the Cape gooseberry (golden berry/physalis) flowers on the plants grown from seed this year, and we're already eating the ripe fruits on last year's overwintered plants. I'm so grateful for bees - and we all should be - as without them we would have no fruit crops or indeed many other healthy foods like almonds. There are quite a few nests in various places in the long tufts of grass around in our wildlife meadow and new orchard now - as well as solitary bee nests in the dry raised bank of the bee and butterfly border at the north end of the polytunnels. Last year a swarm of native honey bees moved into the roof of my late mother's old cottage opposite my back door. I was so thrilled to see them - and they must think this is a pretty good spot with all the fruit blossom and other flowers. They do a great job of pollinating everything. I feel we've been given the 'beeswax seal of approval' !
So much of the intensive agriculture all around us has wiped out the habitats that they naturally depend on like hedges - and food plants they need like wildflowers. Bees really need our help to survive - and it's in our interests to make sure that they do! We tend to take them for granted - but without all of their hard work - there would be very little fruit or many other crops for us to eat.Nuts like almonds, and fruit like oranges and lemons for instance entirely depend on pollinators. That more than ever proves that we must do all we can to help them. We certainly do everything we possibly can to help them here - by growing everything organically without sprays of any kind - organic or otherwise, by providing lots of nesting sites like dry sand and gravel mounds, piles of dry logs under hedges and bee hotels for overwintering habitat, and also by growing lots of flowers that provide both nectar and pollen all year round - even in the tunnels. It's especially important to provide flowers in winter for bees that don't hibernate. They will often come out to forage on mild winter days - and if they don't find some food - they may use all their energy and die. There are lots of winter flowering shrubs and flowers you can plant to help bees, but in wet weather it helps to grow some winter flowers in greenhouses and tunnels too - where they can forage in the dry. That way they remember where the food sources are - and will keep coming back time after time - helping to pollinate your crops.
Pollinators are all industrious workers, so there's already a great crop on the earlier fruits - and there promises to be an enormous crop on all the varieties of cultivated blackberry - which are the proverbial 'hive of activity' at the moment! Blackberries are one of my most valuable staple fruit crops, as they freeze fantastically well and are so useful. I froze about 80 lbs last year, and we should have enough for smoothies and puddings until the next crop starts to ripen in August. We already have the earliest ones ripening in the fruit tunnel now, where I allow just a few to grow at the edge - keeping them under strict control! My late mother brought her Himalayan Giant blackberry with her when she came to live with us in the late 1980's. It's the very best flavoured blackberry if you have the space for it - and the time to keep a very close eye on it! The small cutting she brought with her now covers about 1/8th of an acre! It's hybridised over the years with the native ones in our hedges thanks to the bees, and has produced some very good new varieties, some earlier, some with a more 'bramble'-like flavour. Gerry Kelly my co-host on our 'Tunnel to Table' feature on his Late Lunch radio show begged one off me a few years ago - I did warn him that it would look very innocuous for about a year until it got it's feet under the table and felt safe - and that then it would take off! Being kind-hearted though, he planted it in a choice south facing spot in his lovely fertile veg garden - some people just don't listen. When he was here for our last programme he told me I was right - that it had started looking just a wee bit scary! It has a habit of creeping up on you quietly while your back's turned! I told him to move it even right now and not to leave one scrap of root behind - even a tiny thread!
Talking of fruit in tunnels - the raspberries on pots are doing incredibly well and are already ripening their second crop of fruits this year! Each year they keep repeating and ggiving us tasty ripe raspberries up until Christmas! I also have some pots of black raspberries in there too, to keep them away from birds, as I didn't have any room left in the fruit cage! The fruit I got from them last year had a really intense flavour - rather like the raspberry boiled sweets I used to be able to get as a child. They're supposed to be exceptionally high in good phytochemicals - but they're a bit pippy though - and mine tend to fall to pieces when they're picked. I still have an open mind about them, which is why I have them in pots - as in addition to the pips - they're looking dangerously like the invasive Rubus Cockburnianus which is taking over the place wherever I haven't go time to control it by cutting it down! There are 'celebrity gardeners' endorsing them - but then they're paid to do that! That's again why I don't take ads of any kind on this blog - then I can be totally honest and tell it like it is! I think that's what people really want - not expensive celebrity endorsed stuff that's a complete waste of space? I would never use weedkillers of any sort to try to control them even if they did work - and I doubt they would on the aforementioned rubus! A non-organic friend of mine - who still uses Roundup/glyphosate despite my pleas - can't control it at all either - even with an absolute arsenal of chemicals!
Raspberries can often need picking over twice a day on hot days - at this time of year they can ripen astonishingly fast. When summer varieties have finished fruiting, I cut down the fruited stems to ground level immediately, give them a general purpose organic feed, water it in well and mulch with something like grass clippings, to encourage new stems to grow for next years production and to keep weeds down and moisture in.
Autumn 'primocane' varieties, which will carry another early crop on last autumn's fruited canes, have been cropping for over a month now. When those canes have finished producing fruit, cut them down immediately to give the young stems already growing which will carry this autumn's fruits more room to grow. The previously widely available varieties - 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss' can become invasive weeds and don't have half the flavour of newer variety Brice, and another which I planted on on Joy Larkcom's recommendation - 'Joan J' . They both have a wonderful flavour - Joan J in particular seems to have a little more acidity, which you really need for that 'full on' raspberry flavour that's lacking in the older rather insipid autumn varieties. The berries are huge too and it's very vigorous and productive. I started them off in pots when they arrived and left the newly planted canes about 18ins/45cm high so that I could try just a few early fruits to see what the flavour was like and also to see if they were worth planting - they were!
This autumn I'm looking forward again to a plentiful autumn crop of the really huge, mouthwatering 'Joan J' berries you can see pictured here - both in the tunnels and outside. It's definitely the best flavoured of any of the autumn ones I've tried yet and I can't recommend them highly enough. 'Joan J' also freezes exceptionally well. 'Brice' would be a very close second though. In general the autumn fruiters are much more healthy, vigorous and productive than the summer fruiting varieties, and also much less fussy about soils, so if you don't have a lot of room - grow the autumn fruiters which will crop well twice pretty much anywhere - giving you twice the value from your space. They'll even grow well in containers as I do in the tunnel - but are thirsty and need regular watering and TLC. Definitely a possibility though if you don't have much space in the garden. I'm currently trialling a new autumn raspberry just released for 2018 - a variety called Erika - and so far it's looking vigorous and very promising. I'll let you know how the flavour compares with 'Joan J'.
Tayberries and loganberries are also ripening now. Tayberries have a wonderfully rich, almost scented 'raspberryish' flavour and grow like weeds. Both of these two and also blackberries will grow in a shady place or on a north wall - a very useful attribute which means that even if you don't have a sunny garden - you can still produce lots of your own fruit. Or if you want to extend the season by a few weeks, put one plant in a sunny spot and another on a north wall or shady spot, as long as it has good soil and good top light and is not overhung by trees. I get a lot questions these days from people living on housing estates with ever-decreasing sized gardens - but if you're really determined to grow your own food - nothing will stop you! I lived in a house with a tiny garden for a couple of years, more than 30 years ago, but still managed to produce masses of fruit and veg. in containers. Currants, gooseberries and Morello cherries will also all grow in a north facing spot, as well as 'Conference' pears and some apples. Again, any good fruit catalogue should tell you which varieties are most suitable for particular spots.
Summer Pruning and The 'June Drop'
Apples should by now have done their 'June drop' - a self-thinning which often doesn't normally happen until early July in Ireland, due to our damper climate - but this year the heatwave in June meant that many have dropped some fruits early. In fact in my new orchard - most of the trees have dropped their fruit sadly! If the fruits are still overcrowded, thin them out, taking off any misshapen, scabby or damaged ones first. In some cases where they have enough soil moisture available, trees could still have up to five fruits on each spur - thin these to just one or two every 3-4ins/10cm. Don't let young, newly planted trees crop too heavily - as this can encourage some to start 'biennial bearing' where the tree may only crop well every two years. Some varieties are more prone to doing this than others.
When the bottom third of lateral/side shoots from branches has really firmed up, feels 'woody' and is no longer easily bent, then you can summer prune - which encourages the wood to ripen more and produce flower buds for next year's crop. Make a cut slanting down and away from the leaf joint about two or three buds above the basal leaf cluster. I don't normally summer prune here until the end of July , as with our often wet summers wood isn't usually ripe enough until then. Don't prune the main branch leader(end) shoots, that's a job that's done in the winter, in order to stimulate growth. Keep trees watered well in this dry weather we're currently experiencing and also mulched to retain moisture and discourage mildew.
Earlier this year I recommended a book called "Pruning and Training" by Alan Titchmarsh. It's an excellent and comprehensive book with plenty of good photographs and diagrams, if you want information on pruning a wide variety of fruit as well as trees and shrubs. I wish there had been a book like this when I was first learning about gardening - it would have saved a lot of trial and error! Alan Titchmarsh is a Kew trained, qualified horticulturist, who really knows his stuff - unlike some of the unqualified presenters of current gardening programmes, who often broadcast totally incorrect information without even bothering to research what it is glaringly obvious they don't actually know! I think that people presenting gardening programmes should have a really 'in depth' horticultural knowledge if they are advising people what to do - not just be visually attractive, confident TV presenters! There is an old saying - "It is a wise man who knows what he doesn't know - and a brave one who admits it" - they should have the humility to go and learn what they don't know! Anyway if you don't want to buy a book on pruning - fruit catalogues can often be a mine of free information - the one from Deacons nursery on the Isle of Wight has particularly good illustrations! But they also have lots of incredibly temptingly named, wonderful old varieties - so keep the credit card locked up - and that's good advice from one who really knows all about those particular pitfalls!!
Strawberry Fields Over and Over Again!
Another old variety I grow was given to me many years ago by my dear and very much missed friend the late Dr. Wendy Walsh - the well known botanical artist - who used to live nearby and had a lovely old walled garden. It has a pinkish-white berry, similar in size and shape to other regular strawberries, with a delicious 'pineappley' flavour. She didn't know it's name and said it had always been there in the garden. I'm guessing from looking at old fruit books and botanical plates that it is Victorian, or possibly earlier. The Victorians bred a great many varieties as they had a fascination for endless variety in all fruits - as have I. That's why I've kept it going for many years - and I would hate to lose it, so I gave some runners several years ago to a friend who I knew would also treasure and keep it, just in case. Josef Finke of Ballybrado House in Co. Tipperary had a similar looking variety, which I remembered seeing in the old Victorian walled garden there, but he grubbed it out many years ago, saying it was like a weed everywhere. It is indeed vigorous, seems disease and virus-resistant and is clearly a great survivor. A living relic of the past - I wonder who bred it and where? I would dearly love to discover it's name if anyone knows anything about old white varieties, of which there were once many. As you can see from the picture taken a couple of weeks ago, when very ripe and almost falling off it turns the very palest, most delicate pink and is very attractive mixed with other varieties. For the time being, I shall just go on calling it 'Antique White', until I discover it's true identity. A fragarian mystery if ever there was one! Some years ago - one fruit catalogue announced a NEW strawberry called Snow White. It looks identical to this one I've had for 30 years!
Grapes need regular feeding and watering now too as the bunches are developing fast. Never let them dry out too much or the skins may split if you then go and drench them! You can grow them easily in large bucket sized containers, training them on a single stem or rod, around a framework, in a spiral fashion works very well, and being containerised means that you can protect them from the birds and bring them inside to ripen if they are late varieties like 'Muscat of Alexandria' - a fantastically flavoured, very heavy cropper, but very late so it won't ripen outside here in Ireland, even against a south facing wall. Grapes in containers need watering almost every day now while they are swelling their fruits, particularly if they are in a greenhouse or tunnel. I'm also feeding these at every other watering now - with the high potash Osmo tomato feed - as all the vines are carrying huge crops. Promising lots of lovely fruit for eating fresh , dehydrating and freezing! Grapes grow really well in containers, and growing them this way allows you to grow many different varieties to spread the season in quite a small space. It's very hard to find organically grown, chemical-free grapes for sale anywhere - and even if you can - they'll cost an absolute fortune! In the picture here - the seeded grape 'Bianca' - growing in a large pot, is trained around supports in a spiral but with so much foliage and fruit it's difficult to see the support! 'Bianca' is an early variety, ready in mid-late August, and is one the first of my grapes to ripen.
The grape Lakemont Seedless is now taking off even more and venturing up over the door at the south end of the larger tunnel. As this is space which is normally wasted in most tunnels I'm delighted to encourage it! I like to have every possible inch of my polytunnels filled with fruit flowers or veg! When Gerry Kelly and I were in the tunnel yesterday to record 'Tunnel To Table' which goes on Thursday 28th - we were met by an incredible curtain of grapes - a lovely sight - especially since they are so delicious dehydrated! Yummy scattered over winter salads and irresistible straight from the freezer in snatched handfuls! I freeze them because they son't keep well semi-dehydrated and I don't want to dry them out completely. It's an excellent variety - totally fuss-free and if you only have enough space for one - it's happy everywhere, easy to grow, doesn't need any tedious thinning and above all - is utterly scrumptious!
Other General Fruit Care
There shouldn't be too manygreenfly and other pests around in thegarden if you've carried on feeding your birds to keep them around - the sparrows and blue tits deal with most of them here - they're always busily hunting around the garden. If you do find a lot of greenfly - it's often a sign that either you are overfeeding your plants, leading to a lot of soft sappy growth, or that the plants are stressed in some other way - perhaps the growing conditions aren't quite right. Healthy, happy, organically grown plants are rarely bothered by any pests in my experience they can produce their own defences. The secret of organic gardening is to achieve a balance of everything - both pest and predator. In the healthy ecosystem that you are trying to achieve in an organic garden, you should always see a little bit of everything - but never enough of any one thing to seriously damage crops. Growing lots of flowers among crops helps by attracting beneficial insects - looks wonderful - and also attracts pollinators. Correct growing conditions and thorough housekeeping - removing diseased or dodgy looking growth as soon as possible should cope with most problems and prevent it spreading if you do have any.
The main thing to remember with all fruit at this time of year, apart from picking (which I'm sure you don't need any advice on!) - is to keep everything watered in dry spells and keep mulching to reduce competition from weeds, reduce evaporation and keep roots cool and moist which all fruits appreciate. And also to keep the birds out! Check fruit netting regularly to make sure there are no holes in it - I caught next door's cat climbing up my fruit cage the other day, and found some of the netting pulled down leaving a gap which birds could easily have got in. If there's even the tiniest chink in your fruit cage armour - those crafty blackbirds never miss a trick and don't wait for an invitation! Today I spent ages chasing a particularly persistent young one out of the polytunnel - as soon as my back was turned - it was in again! There's plenty of fruit for them outside - but some - like some humans (not you dear readers) are just plain greedy!
Remember - Nature could easily live without us - but we can't live without Nature!
Nature doesn't have the big PR budgets that must be paying for the multitude of seemingly innocuous/impartial (not!) journalists towrite the endless 'pro-pesticide/anti-organic ignorance' articles I'm seeing so much of online right now! Nor does it pay for certain minor celebrities - (indirectly paid by those same chemical companies) who also say they are 'pro-science' - unlike 'organic ignoramuses' like me! Nature relies on us folks - ordinary people like you and me - to spread the word that we MUST protect it with every fibre of our being. Nature is vital to the future for our children and their children - just as much as it was vital to our past.
I hope that makes it quite clear why I don't allow anyone else access to write any articles for my blog despite the large number of email requests that I get - and I also refuse advertisements. Some may well be innocent - but some - especially the more flatteringly admiring ones - may well be Trojan horses. And quite apart from that - the fact is that I don't know anyone else who can write about organic growing from more years of practical experience than me - whatever you may think about my ideas!
(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.)
July contents:Eating a seasonal healthy 'rainbow' is easy if you grow it yourself!......Pretty and Powerful Purple Potatoes!.....It's the season of firsts....but also gluts!....Splendid spiralisers!....Think about next year's 'Hungry Gap' now....Potato blight hasn't arrived yet!.....Carry on composting!....Drown perennial weeds....Keep mulching....Soil is more precious than gold!
Eating a seasonal 'rainbow' is healthy, delicious and so easy if you grow it yourself!
One of the greatest joys of growing your own organic vegetables is being able to eat seasonally and rediscover how really fresh organic vegetables untainted by chemicals, should taste. I believe that this satisfies a very deep-seated need in us - and that's not surprising since humans evolved to eat food grown by nature in it's purest form possible in an unpolluted world - each type of food in it's proper season.I think that all year round availability of everything has ruined many people's anticipation and enjoyment of food. It's lost much of it's excitement and become almost boring! These days you can find vegetables and fruits from the furthest corners of the globe on supermarket shelves which are all particular varieties chosen for productivity, uniform appearance, ability to travel without bruising and for long shelf life. They're sadly not chosen to taste fantastic and to be as nutritious as those you can pick fresh from your own garden. They are often picked before they are ready, and are devoid of most of their natural taste and nutrients. They are mere commodities, conveniently packaged into whatever form makes them the most commercially profitable for the 'pile it high and sell it cheap' supermarkets. Low cost seems more important than quality. It's definitely worth growing a few vegetables yourself if you possiblycan - even if you only have the smallest patch or a window box.
Increasing numbers of scientific studies suggest that long-term consumption of a diet high in a wide variety of colourful plant phytonutrients - or 'eating the rainbow' in other words - offers protection against the development of cancers, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases. The healthy exercise and fresh air that gardening entails is also good for us - both physically and mentally! Only organic food, free of man-made synthetic chemicals, grown in it's natural season and then harvested at it's absolute peak, can ever have all the properly developed nutrients our bodies need to be healthy. I would also suggest that chemically-grown produce and processed foods have also ruined people's taste buds - so that they have become less sensitive and discriminating. Taste is very often tied to nutrition in most fruits and vegetables. Many of the aromatic compounds which actually give fruit and vegetables their wonderful array of flavours are in many cases the very same ones that give them their health-protecting phytonutrients.
Just how wonderful is it that you can eat so many things that are not absolutely delicious but are actually good for you? We vegetable gardeners are so lucky! Far luckier than unfortunate people who are restricted purely to buying and eating the often days or weeks old produce they can find in shops!
Pretty and Powerful Purple Potatoes!
Potatoes are just one example of a colourful veg that pack a very powerful punch in terms of both nutrition and health benefits. In the last few years, many scientific studies have found that the antioxidant anthocyanin phytonutrients in purple potatoes like those picture above, combined with other compounds they contain, can lower blood pressure and actually even kill cancer cells! That's not the only reason I'm such a big fan of them though! They look utterly fabulous and taste fantastic too! What's not to love as they say? Happily a lot more people now seem to be interested in the stunning looks and health benefits of the blue and purple potato varieties. This was very much shown by the huge reaction on Twitter a few days ago when I posted a tweet aboutthe very attractive but rare variety Peru Purple. That's why I decided to write an article about a few of the ones which I have personal experience of. As you will know if you're a regular reader - I never write about anything unless I can write from my own personal experience.
I found my very first purple potatoes, Truffe de Chine - about 35 years ago in Harrods Food Hall in London of all places - which was a treasure trove on unusual vegetables then They were such an exciting find! Since thenI've discovered that upmarket veg shops are always well worth investigating for possibly interesting things to grow if you're in London or any other large, ethnically diverse city. I got my original elephant garlic in New York of all places - many years ago - before I decided that I didn't want to fly anymore and contribute to climate change. It's amazing what you can find! My very rare holidays or short trips anywhere always included visits to the local food markets and shops, to see what treats I can find to save seeds or tubers from! If my children are on holidays they are always instructed to do the same! To me, such shops are just like sweet shops are to children, or handbag shops are to some 'fashionistas'!! I can never resist that childlike urge to try to grow anything different from pips, seeds or tubers. I grew Cucamelons and Kiwanos that way many years ago - long before anyone had even heard of them. I find it hugely amusing that certain 'celeb veg writers' have apparently only just now 'discovered' them! I've been growing them since before many of them were even born - as I've been a keen 'food tourist' for years!
I've always grown for taste and nutrients rather than bulk - and being an artist - looks are also important for me. As I've already mentioned, both looks and taste are often linked with nutrients. We don't need to eat potatoes 365 days a year - in fact they could become boring if we ate them every day - rather than the treat we feel they are. Food should never be boring - it should be a joy! I like eating tasty potatoes but we don't eat them more than twice a week at most - another reason being their high carbohydrate content, although that can be mitigated somewhat by a process known as 'retrogradation' (sounds very scientific but actually easy!) which I used in my 'From Tunnel to Table' recipes this month. I explained it simply after the recipes here: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/recipes . By the way - I never, ever boil potatoes - I always steam them! Boiling potatoes means that you are pouring many of their valuable nutrients straight down the sink! That means they're also losing much of their flavour - which you can see very clearly if you boil the purple ones - as the water turns blue! In addition to this, I nearly always steam or bake them the night before we eat them - then then cool and chill them. As I mentioned on my blog this time last year - chilling them overnight in the fridge for a minimum of 8 hours reduces their carbohydrate content, by turning more of the starch they contain into what's known as 'resistant starch' - which is very good for feeding our good gut microbes. It was only about a month ago that I heard this fact mentioned in the media, on a BBC programme 'The Truth About Carbs'. Oddly enough, although this has only fairly recently become known - I've always done this. I've always preferred potatoes either cold in salads, or re-cooked as re-baked, fried or roasted scalloped potatoes - especially with a couple of fried eggs. They beat traditional deep fried chips with eggs any day - that's been one of my favourite meals since I was a small child. Some potatoes are better for doing this than others - it's a very handy and healthy way to prepare some ingredients for meals in advance. If you always keep a few cooked potatoes in the fridge - perhaps cooking them at the beginning of the week - they're really hand for super-quick meals as I mention in my recipes this month. Mashed potatoes freeze extremely well too. We always leave the skins on when eating any potatoes. Not only are many of the nutrients actually in or just beneath the skin - but again there's lots of gut-healthy, sastisying fibre in them too - so it's incredibly wasteful not to eat them!
One of the best potatoes for cooking and cooling this way is Purple Majesty. Interestingly, this is also the particular potato that featured in the blood pressure reduction study. Unfortunately a problem with plant breeders rights means that you can't get Purple Majesty seed tubers here in Ireland. So I'm afraid that being a bit of a rebel - I've always ignored that legal restriction! I've saved my own seed tubers for several years from some which I originally bought in a Northern Ireland supermarket about 10 years ago, and I've grown them ever since. As long as you don't sell them - that is a perfectly legal! And as long as you always only save tubers from the healthiest plants - you can keep your stock healthy so you won't have problems. Purple Majesty is a maincrop variety which really benefits from my method of starting tubers off early in pots. This gives them the longest season possible before the dreaded potato blight hits. As soon as I see evidence of blight I take off the tops, cover the bed with something waterproof and they keep really well for months that way. They also keep well in normal cool storage if you suffer from slug problems. Purple Majesty retains it's colour and phytonutrients well when cooked, has a lovely floury texture and a fantastic, 'nutty', sort of 'baked potato' flavour - despite being a relatively new introduction compared to some. It's proven to be the highest in antioxidants of all purple potatoes and is one of the best tasting varieties too - and I've grown dozens of them over the years. I'm happy to say that now you can get it by mail order from some UK seed companies. It bakes, fries and steams well - and makes a lovely fluffy mash.
Salad Blue is another potato which is great masher and baker too.It is an early maincrop heritage variety, thought to have been bred in Victorian times. It's recently become very popular again and well deservedly, and is fairly widely available online. It also keeps very well in storage, after growing my particular way. Since I invented my method of starting potatoes off early in pots to give them a long season - I have all the potatoes I need all year round using this method and I never need to use any spray for blight - even copper-sulphate.
Violetta is a newly-introduced deep purple, second-early variety. It's the earliest of the purple varieties to be ready, and it crops well both in the polytunnel and outside. I wasn't that impressed with the flavour of some of the non-organically grown Violetta which I tried four years ago from a well-known Dublin food shop - but I've since found that growing them organically for the last three years, without the chemicals that make them absorb more water, really makes a huge difference to the taste! I got my original seed tubers from Tuckers Seeds in Devon, who used to sell a lot of different varieties of organic seed potatoes and were good about sending to Ireland - but sadly they no longer sell online and are now only open to customers at their shop in Devon. Violetta is delicious steamed and eaten with lashings of butter - when it has a nice 'waxy' texture. It's good cold too - I sued it in my Torilla recipe this month. Sadly it doesn't mash well or make good scalloped potatoes though, as it absorbs a lot of oil when cooking and doesn't crisp up well. It's not a bad baker though.
Vitelotte Noire - (otherwise known as Negresse or Truffe de Chine) is a very old variety which was first recorded as being sold in the early19th century, in the markets of Paris markets - but it is thought to be originally far older than that. Also a maincrop variety which is fairly late to bulk up - it is salad type with a similar long shape to 'Pink Fir Apple' but not as knobbly. It has very dark purple flesh marbled with a lighter colour and has a great flavour. You can sometimes find it in upmarket vegetable shops. Vitelotteis more resistant to blight and other diseases than many other potatoes - so it is well-suited to organic growing. This was that first potato that I found among the tempting exotic-looking displays in Harrods Food Hall all those years ago. I've been growing it ever since and have passed it on to many people.
Peru Purpleis extremely rare and currently only available from seed banks such as The Irish Seed Savers Association or possibly other keen potatophiles - which is where I obtained mine. It's well worth growing if you can find it! It is very pretty with a deep red-purple skin, and is a slightly lighter colour, marbled with white inside. Although I've found virtually nothing about this particular variety online - (only that purple potatoes originally come from Peru!) - it seems from my first season of growing it that it's a maincrop cultivar. I can certainly vouch for the fact that it makes the most deliciously fluffy, pale mauve mash. It also makes absolutely THE most fabulous scalloped-potatoes ever! It quickly crisps and browns on the outside while staying light and fluffy on the inside. This is an aspect of their cooking qualities that I'm sure you'll understand I naturally felt that I had an obligation to research extensively on your behalf! It will definitely make fabulous oven fries or crisps......but more research will undoubtedly be necessary to investigate this! It definitely deserves to be far more widely known and grown! If you have it - share it - that will ensure that it not only survives but thrives!
On that note - if anyone has any other purple-fleshed varieties I'd love to know about them and possibly swap some tubers? I'd like to collect as many as possible.
It's the season of 'firsts' now for many ...
Nothing ever tastes quite like that very first bite of seasonal produce at it's best - whether you're a new gardener or if you've been growing you're own food for many years!The first strawberries, courgettes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas...etc. One of the simplest, most satisfying and most joyous pleasures in life is to be able to cultivate a garden, and to produce as much of your own food as possible - while at the same time helping all of the other creatures that are part of Nature, just as we are. Our garden here has not just been a source of sustenance for many years - but also a source of great joy, health and peace. This picture here was taken in 1981, of some of my first summer's produce here at Springmount. It was proudly displayed on the then kitchen table. It gave me such a great a sense of achievement back then - and a feeling that no matter what life threw at us - we would survive it all and feed ourselves well! ......I still hope that will be the case for many more years to come - but in the future with the erratic weather of climate change - that is definitely going to be more of a challenge! \I coujld see climate change happening here 30 years ago - but no one wanted to hear about it them - when something could have still been done to mitigate it's worst effects! The soil was so bad here in those days - it's a lot better now after 35 years of organic husbandry. There have been many changes here since those days. The children have grown up, various people - some much loved family, assortments of animals, and momentous life events have all come and gone, but one thing never changes. That is that my enthusiasm and desire to learn from mistakes and successes, to constantly look for good new varieties or better selections of old ones - to do things even better and to keep improving the soil with every year that passes. Also to find easier ways of growing that will allow me to continue my gardening even after a couple of accidents have left me less able to do many things. Experiments continue. That's the wonderful thing about gardening - and why it holds such a continuing fascination for me. You never stop learning and no one ever knows it all. Nature doesn't give up all of her secret easily - but if you work with her - the rewards are many.
....But it's also the season of the gluts!
There is no more delightful and satisfying sight than a really well organised and productive vegetable garden at this time of year. It's so satisfying to stand back and look at everything after a hard day's work.The whole garden has a summer carnival atmosphere about it - like a glorious celebration of Nature's abundant generosity. We're surrounded by masses of delicious vegetables - so many luscious things to choose from that we could have several different ones in gluttonous portions every day! Mother Nature has pressed the 'fast forward' button and everything is growing so incredibly fast that it's hard to choose what to eat next!
Of course with seasonal growing and eating - gluts of many fruits and vegetables can naturally sometimes become a problem. It's always a feast or a famine! One minute you're dying for that very first taste of something - then all of a sudden there's far too many! It's a good problem to have though. In these times of fast rising prices for so many things - it's a good feeling to be as self-sufficient as possible in most things. (Particularly with the uncertainty brought about by the Brexit decision - but I won't start on politics. When under pressure I tend to try to find positive, practical side ways to cope!) This is when it's so useful to have a freezer - particularly since we're not that into chutneys - or jams being high in sugar! Priority for eating fresh has to be given to those that perhaps don't tend freeze quite as well as some others. Most things freeze well, but some veg need cooking first.
Courgettes, which we've now been eating for 2 months from the tunnel and outside, don't freeze well raw but do freeze very well as a component of my caramelised roast red onion ratatouille, which is totally addictive, incredibly useful, and a brilliant standby to have in the freezer (if it makes it that far - because it's so delicious cold it's hard to resist! You can find it in the recipe section). It's a terrific way to use up too many courgettes - something which always happens! They freeze very well cooked like this and are so useful to have put by to use as a side vegetable or to throw into sauces.
Broccoli is another brilliant freezer candidate which always seems to be all ready at once - particularly the more productive F1 varieties like 'Green Magic' from Unwins - my all year round favourite. I pack the small individual florets into recycled plastic take away boxes. Other people's I hasten to add! We don't eat them - but it's amazing how many so-called healthy eaters do! I'm not complaining though, I'm only too happy to do their recycling for them - one box holds two portions of broccoli very nicely. That way they don't get smashed up in the freezer. There's no need to blanch them before freezing quickly either - it just wastes nutrients! They are perfect if tipped straight into fast boiling water from frozen when you want to use them. I always sow a late crop of 'Green Magic' calabrese now for planting in the tunnel in September - which will give us pickings all through the winter if covered with a bit of fleece when a very hard frost threatens.
Some crops like climbing French beans, broad beans and peas, I tend to grow specifically for freezing - firstly because they obviously don't grow over winter in the polytunnels but also because they are mostly unaffected by several months in the freezer, and make a very welcome change during the darkest months of the year. So they are 'squirrelled' away for winter suppers, after enjoying the novelty of the first few platefuls of fresh ones. It can be hard to keep up with filling the freezer as well doing all the garden jobs that all seem to need doing at once, but it will be so welcome during the long winter months when organic vegetables and fruits are scarce, expensive, depleted of nutrients and without much variety unless they've come from God knows where, along with a massive carbon footprint too!. It feels so good in the depths of winter to enjoy a bit of the summer's sunshine captured in the harvest from your own garden!
Things like pumpkins or winter squashes that will store for a long time overwinter are also a major priority crop now. They don't need valuable freezer space either, just a cool dry place. With careful ripening they can often be stored right up until next year's are sown or even later - increasing in vitamin A while in storage. So they are a very valuable winter staple. On the subject of pumpkins and squashes - unless you're entering giant pumpkin competitions you don't want huge ones, so encourage fruiting side shoots to form by pinching out the main shoot after 4-5 leaf joints. Then each of the side shoots produces flowers and that way instead of just one huge pumpkin - I get 3 or four good sized ones which store very well for the winter. Last week I had my first major basil harvest of the year, grown in the tunnel as it's far too windy here to do well. To me - my vegetable garden is far more important than money in the bank. It's so comforting knowing that I have a really good range of foods preserved for the winter. In fact - even if I had oodles of money - I could never buy most of the things that I grow.
A few years ago I discovered another fantastic way to use courgettes - and I promise that I could never have believed that their taste could be so utterly transformed, just by the way they are prepared! I first read about them in Domini Kemp's column in the Irish Times Magazine a few years ago.They looked fun so I bought a cheap 'Lurch' model just to try it - half expecting it to be rubbish! I couldn't have been more wrong! Fabulous 'courgetti spaghetti' in an instant - but watch your fingers!! Three years ago year my June 'Tunnel to Table recipe was Spaghetti Courgetti with Pesto and it was really delicious (in the recipe and 'listen' sections if you want to try it). The 'courgetti' are also delicious just very simply stir fried with a clove of garlic and some soy sauce - you would think you were eating a whole Chinese stir-fry - they're just fantastic! The very best way to cook them in my opinion though is in my Creamy Courgette and red onion Gratin - also in the recipe section. It's my most popular recipe ever! Everyone loves it and now we don't have enough - something that's never usually a problem at this time of year!! Another of my recipe - my Lemon Courgette Cake I think is my best cake ever! It keeps brilliantly, getting better over three or four days (if it lasts!) and also freezes fantastically well. I don't know why some people make fun of spiralisers - they're brilliant! I wouldn't be without mine now! They clearly haven't tried them!
Think about next year's 'Hungry Gap' now!
Talking of the winter months- it's now that we need to think about next year's 'hungry gap'! Difficult I know - with everything growing so quickly and so much staking, watering, weeding and mulching etc. to be done! It can be difficult to remember that a great many winter and late spring crops take almost a whole year to grow. Some, like Brussels sprouts and leeks, should have been sown a couple of months ago. So at the same time as storing some of the tender vegetables for a bit of winter variety - we have to think aboutplanting the hardy onesthat will be the mainstay of our diet then. This may seem an odd time of year to be thinking about winter veg. when we hope we still have a lot more summer to enjoy - but it's just a reminder that if you don't think about them now, then come winter or next year's spring 'hungry gap' you won't have any! You need to plan now for what's going to follow on after your summer crops - both outside and undercover - and then make sure you have the seeds or the plants that you will need.
From mid-June to the end of August is when most of the seeds need to be sown for many things like chicory, oriental veg., winter lettuces etc. If you sow them from now on in modules using organic seed compost - you will have them ready to plant as soon as early summer crops are over - thereby making the best use of your growing space. If you haven't already sown things like leeks, kale and purple sprouting broccoli for growing outside - then garden centres should still have good plants at the moment - but get them as soon as you can because plants that are still hanging around in a month or so may have become starved or root bound in their modules and won't produce good crops. There's lots more info. on what to sow now and next month for winter and also quick growing crops to mature this autumn in the sowing list for this month. There's also still some sowingsto be done of vegetables that will mature in the autumn. Some, like Chinese cabbages and radicchio actually prefer the shortening, post-solstice days. If sown before then they'll often run straight up to seed in the late summer heat (we hope!). Again there's a lot more suggestions in my 'What to Sow' section of the blog.
It's time to transplant winter brassicas like Brussels sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli, cauliflowers, kales and cabbages to their final winter cropping quarters if you already have the plants - the bigger and more well established they are before the autumn - the better your crops will be.
Don't forget to put brassica collars around the stems to keep off the cabbage root fly and also to suspend netting above them to stop the cabbage white butterflies laying their eggs on them. If you just rest the netting on them, the butterfly will still manage to lay her eggs onto the topmost leaves. I find that carpet squares are best for making brassica collars, as they are flexible and don't shrink. I tried to make some from old, paper backed carpet underlay but when they dried out a bit one had shrunk so the root fly got in - you can see the result here! You could still sow some kale, if you can cover them with cloches later on - these won't make huge plants but can still be well worth picking as 'baby' leaves, even if we get a cold autumn. Kales will also do very well over the winter in a tunnel and will be far more productive than they ever would be outside. If you didn't sow any brassicas, a friend of mine bought some very good organic plants online last year, so you could try that - or visit one of the good local garden centres who are worth supporting in these days of big DIY mulitples. You can also sow spring cabbages and swedes - I find sowing in modules under fine netting best, to avoid any pests and also seedlings possibly getting smothered by weeds, as can easily happen with everything growing so quickly now.
Keep sowing lettuces and other salads little and often - I sow a few lettuces in modules each time I'm planting some out- this keeps up a regular supply, as I never like to be without the makings of a good salad. There's lots of great lettuces to sow in July. I grow 'Little Gem' baby cos because I love their crunch and I also grow a lot of the loose leaf types too - as they can crop for months, particularly in the spring and autumn if you keep them well watered, as you just pick a few leaves from each plant every time you need some. They're really useful in an ornamental potager, as they're very attractive and picking a whole head of lettuce does tend to leave rather a hole in one's planting pattern! Good old 'Lollo Rossa' is always a reliable one for this, very colourful, disease resistant and full of antioxidants, the seed is cheaply available everywhere now - and is often given away free with gardening magazines. 'Jack Ice' and Lattughino are my favourite loose leaf winter lettuces now, but 'Fristina' and 'Belize' are also very tasty, bolt-resistant green ones, which both have nice firm leaves and are nicely 'crunchy' in the middle, not 'floppy' as some of the loose leaf types often can be. I've found that 'Jack Ice' and Lattughino also overwinter really well in the tunnel, are very disease resistant and also slow to bolt. 'Cherokee' is a really good crunchy leaved Batavian which everyone remarked on last winter/spring - wanting to know what it was. Nymans is a great red Cos variety. Like a lot of the red lettuces - it seems quite hardy, has a lovely flavour and eventually makes nice crispy hearts in spring, after picking a few leaves from the outside over winter. All of these benefit from cloche protection later on in autumn if outside rather than in a tunnel - more to prevent excess wet than cold.
'Sugar loaf' chicory is another old favourite standby for sowing now or up until mid August that will grow well all winter both outside and in the tunnel - making nice big, tightly wrapped, blanched hearts like cos lettuces in late winter and early spring - and with slightly more bitter outside leaves that make a great late winter tonic for hens. Early July sowings seem to make the biggest hearts - so don't delay sowing it!.
One winter veg I would also never want be without, no matter what, is Ruby Chard - and the perfect time to sow it for good winter crops is before the end of July. I particularly like the variety Vulcan - I've found that it's far better in terms of productivity than any of the other coloured chards which tend to run up to flower very easily at the slightest excuse. It's very easy to grow and much more bolt-resistant, than those as long as you give it plenty of root room and keep it well watered in hot weather, especially in polytunnels in spring. It has equal standing ability to the plain white stemmed one - and of course it's far more nutritious than the white one, having a lot of the phytonutrients I mentioned earlier, due to the red colours. We think it tastes better too.
Potato blight hasn't arrived yet!
That's tempting fate isn't it? But with the hot, dry weather this year it so far hasn't arrived. When it does I will cut all the tops off my potatoes as soon as they are showing the first signs of blight. Then I will cover the bed afterwards with black polythene to stop any blight spores washing down through the soil and infecting the tubers. There's already a very good crop under the potatoes this year as they were started so early - although they will be suffereing from the lack of water now with the hosepipe ban - and I just can't manage to carry enough in the watering can for the whole potato bed. I developed my own particular method of growing them over 35 years ago - starting off in pots early and then planting out under fleece, because I like to grow a lot of unusual and old varieties, some of which are a bit more fussy and more blight susceptible - but they all have really fantastic flavour. It's a bit more trouble I grant you - but no more than planting out any other vegetable or indeed bedding plant from pots - and well worth it! When blight hits them - I cut off the haulms (stems) of the plants straight away, take them off the bed and dispose of them (not on the compost heap) and then cover the bed with polythene. Rain washing the blight spores down through the soil onto the tubers is what rots them. Don't leave them until the stems are all blackened and have collapsed - as it's far too late by then - the blight will have travelled down the stems and the tubers will have been infected too.
Getting my potatoes in early by starting them off in pots means that my potatoes have a really good crop under them by the time blight strikes. Potatoes all need at least 12-15 weeks of good growth to have even a small crop so growing them this way means I don't have to grow the tasteless 'so-called' blight-resistant ones. Taking off the stems and covering at the first sign of blight means that they always keep well and as long as there's no slug problem then I don't lift them until the autumn when I have more time. I never spray even with an organic copper spray as I have a heavy clay soil where copper could build up and become a problem. I naturally wouldn't dream of using the fungicide 'Dithane' - I don't want to eat any poisonous sprays when there's absolutely no need to! Not spraying is far cheaper too and easily avoided by taking a little trouble and forethought. Some potato crops may be sprayed with fungicide every week! Then the tops are sprayed off with a weedkiller such as Glyphosate/Roundup to 'dessicate' kill them off - making them easier to harvest - and then after that the tubers are treated with an anti-sprouting chemical so that they keep better in bulk storage. Yuck! - The potatoes are then afterwards sold to unsuspecting public as fit to eat! Usually with a very misleading and suitably pretty picture of bucolic bliss on the packaging! OMG! I don't want to horrify people - but you do have a clear choice - which you can only make if you have the information! If you don't grow your own spuds - even Lidl sell extremely good value organic potatoes all year round now - and they're usually far better varieties than Tesco's!
I believe that ALL chemical use - fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers - should have to be declared on all food crops and even on container grown plants in exactly the same way that all ingredients/additives now legally have to be in processed foods - at least that way people could be informed and then choose whether or not they wanted to eat those chemicals - which are in effect less tested, more unknown and even more toxic additives than those in some processed foods! Up until very recently no tests had been done to determine the combined 'cocktail effect' of all these chemicals in the body - particularly when they are combined with all the other chemicals we are exposed to daily in the environment. The EU finally instigated a study on this in 2012 as they're now getting seriously worried about the public health implications of it - but that only issued a 'preliminary report' in July 2014 and it won't be completed for another few years.That of course is assuming that lobbying by the huge multinational chemical companies doesn't make sure that the report never surfaces, or is watered down!
Carry on composting!
Keep collecting compost material, mixing it up well, particularly if you're incorporating grass clippings which can be very wet and slimy put on in an unmixed layer. Their very high nitrogen green sappiness needs to be balanced with plenty of high carbon, brown and more stemmy stuff, or ripped up newspapers, cardboard etc.Keep your compost covered, so that it heats up really well, destroying any weed seeds and breaking down the plant material quickly. You could fry an egg on my compost heaps at this time of year! - The hotter it is - the better!It's easier to get the heap to heat up if it's fairly big. Compost bins are OK but don't heat up so much. They're very useful for keeping rats out though if you have a lot of fruit waste which tends to attract them. A very hot heap also puts them off, and by the time it cools down - everything in it should be well broken down and not so attractive to them. I use old pallets to make my compost bins, they allow air in at the sides, and then I cover the tops and front with heavy gauge black polythene silage cover. This also keeps the rain out and so keeps all the nutrients in the compost where I want them. I'm always was astonished to see 'experts' on TV not covering compost heaps - haven't they heard of nutrient loss, 'run off' and pollution?? Uncovered compost may still make a good soil conditioner - but all the goodness will have been completely washed away, wasting all the valuable nutrients and polluting groundwater!
Drown your perennial weeds!
I don't put perennial weeds like docks, scutch (couch) grass and mares tail onto the compost heap, as it wouldn't kill them - I reserve extra special treatment for them in order to recycle the nutrients they've robbed from my soil! First I put them in a black bin bag to wilt & cook for a week or so, then I put them into a large barrel of water beside the compost heaps, with about half a bucket of chicken manure to get them festering nicely! (or you could alternatively use HLA - 'household liquid activator' as the wonderful late Lawrence Hills euphemistically called it (use your imagination - the final insult to a weed!!) This is added to throughout the summer and by the following year everything has rotted nicely, any fibrous plant material remaining can at that stage go onto the compost heap with the rest of the now benign liquid being used as a liquid feed, diluted about 10-1. Warning here - cover this when it's festering - the smell is appalling and attracts horseflies like a magnet!It's actually very good for seeing off unwanted visitors though - just invite them to admire your compost heaps and give it a really vigorous stir while they're standing beside it - it works like magic!! Don't get it on your hands though - or you won't get rid of the smell for a fortnight! The same goes for comfrey, borage and nettle feed - much the best when done together in a large barrel - as the high nitrogen nettles help the high potash comfrey to break down quickly, the borage supplies valuable magnesium, and they make a nice balanced feed for most things when diluted to the colour of weak tea after a few weeks.
The first runner beans will be flowering soon - but you won't have any problem with pollination if you've been encouraging bees and other pollinators into the garden by growing lots of flowers among your vegetables as I do. It makes the 'potager' or kitchen garden look beautiful too, and flowers such as Nasturtiums and violas are also edible and can be used in salads.
The value of mulching
Talking of runner beans - it's important to keep them evenly moist at the roots as any dryness at the roots encourages the flowers to drop. A good mulch will help retain moisture and grass clippings are brilliant for this - also keeping weeds down. As I've said so many times before - always mulch on already damp soil, keeping the mulch a few inches away from the direct stem area to avoid possible rotting and watering in well as soon as you put fresh grass clippings on to avoid any burning of the roots by the high nitrogen in the clippings.
Keep mulching everything you can, as this stops evaporation, saves on water, protects the soil surface from heavy summer rain (I wish!), encourages worms and keeps the weeds down by excluding light. Plants and worms love mulches rather than bare soil. A nice cooling mulch keeps the worm working in the upper layers of soil - rather than disappearing lower down away from the dry summer heat. That means they're making more plant nutrients available to the roots of crops. Worms like green food - it's much better for them than newspaper or cardboard, although they do need carbon too. I know a lot of people use newspaper under grass mulches, but all I can say is they can't have very many birds in their gardens! I tried that years ago around shrubs and fruit bushes, but the birds here had one helluva time scratching them up everywhere looking for worms! The garden quickly resembled the local rubbish dump - so I just use grass clippings on their own now! They still get scratched about but don't look so bad and after a few days they fade to a nice light brown colour!
Don't use massive mulches of manure - doing that promotes soft growth that's far more vulnerable to both diseases and slugs! It also buries deeply and suffocates many of the vital organisms that live in the top layers of the soil which plants need to be healthy. The majority of soil-dwelling bacteria need oxygen to survive and do their job of interacting with plant roots - if you make life hard for them you make it much harder for them to do their job - if they do it all. Lashing on tons of manure can also unbalance the population of soil bacteria. This is something many people don't know. In every layer of soil there is something that specifically evolved to live in that particular place. Leave it where it evolved to be - don't make life hard for it!
Take care of your soil - it is more precious than gold!
Gold can't grow food either! We didn't evolve to eat commodities grown with chemicals in the poisoned, impoverished and lifeless medium that conventionally farmed soils have become. Neither did we evolve to eat foods grown in hydroponic situations with artificial light where the plants are fed with fertiliser (and often fungicide) solutions and deprived of all the vital symbiotic bacteria & funghi that are present in a living soil that they need to produce their proper nutrients! To be healthy and productive - soil and all it's microbial life needs to be replenished and protected constantly. That's what Nature does. We cannot keep taking crops from soil without helping it to regenerate all those natural things it needs. Soil is a living community of microbes - or it should be. In some parts of the planet - soil has just become a completely lifeless, depleted dust which simply holds up plants while they're fed with chemicals. It has so little organic matter left in it that it erodes, washes away or blows away easily. We can't keep taking crops from the soil and not replacing all those elements that made them - any more than we could give up real food and just live on vitamin and protein supplements! Soil loss is also becoming more and more important from an environmental, as well as from a food growing perspective, as it traps carbon dioxide and is a massive carbon sink - so it is absolutely vital to mitigating climate change. Only a healthy, living organic soil can do this!
The soil gave us our past and nurtured us - we now hold it's future in our hands.We must use it more wisely. If we keep taking more and more from it without giving anything back, what we are actually doing is robbing our own future - and so are the multinational manufacturers of these planet-polluting chemicals which are destroying it! They don't care about the future of our children - or even apparently theirs! They only care about big profits now!
(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.)
Topics for July: Holiday time and watering plants.....Rough guide to watering Tomatoes in containers & in the ground.....Side shoots on Tomatoes....Pollination of Tomatoes.....Other Tunnel Crops.....Free Watercress for Healthy Winter Salads......Thinking ahead to other late autumn and winter crops
Midsummer abundance, photo taken early morning. So full of crops that Gerry Kelly and I only had time to talk about just a few on radio in From Tunnel to Table
To say that polytunnel or greenhouse gardening can be challenging at times would be an understatement - especially with this year's long heatwave! But the rewards are many as you can see from the pictures both above and below. The picture above was taken at 6 am as currently for the rest of the day - the sun is so bright that it's impossible to take a photograph where you can see anything - there's so much glare! I don't know how the plants are able to cope with it - and some are really stressed. So is the gardener too! There is no doubt that it is climate-change which is causing the erratic extremes of weather that we have seen recently - but it's a fact - and we just have to learn to cope with it somehow! That's one of the reasons why growing so many different varieties of tomatoes for the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival is so valuable - because that way I can get a very good picture of how different tomato cultivars deal with the differing conditions here over the course of the summer. How they respond not just to heat - but also later in the early autumn to perhaps colder, more humid conditions. That's extremely important - as tomatoes are one of the most important food crops for gardeners and for commercial producers - not just here in Ireland but worldwide.
If I was putting up a polytunnel now I would definitely put in those side-opening vents which would make a huge difference right now to the soaring temperatures inside. It's been well over 100 deg F or 45 deg C most days for over a month or more and that's most unusual for Ireland. Years ago when we lived nearer to the coast a few miles away before we moved here - I had one of those small 'Garden Relax' plastic greenhouses, the forerunner of polytunnels, that were one of the first kinds available to amateur gardeners then. I also had a glasshouse - and with that it was much easier to prevent it from overheating in hot weather as I could use a paint called CoolGlass - which could be painted onto the outside of the roof very easilywith a household brush. It shaded the greenhouse when it was dry - and then became clear if there was a shower of rain. Sadly, there isn't anything like that yet for polytunnels! When we moved here, where it's high up and a lot more windy - I put up a new glasshouse, then another, and then another - before I finally gave in and had to be content with only polytunnels! The great thing aboujt polytunnels is that they can flex slightly in the wind - whereas a glasshouse just cracks - and once the wind gets in anywhere, and one or two panes blow out - then the whole house just shatters!
A Polytunnel is your own personal 'Mediterranean Fruit-fest' at this time of year!
Protection from the elements and warmth, even on cloudy days in summer, means that with the almost Mediterranean climate in a polytunnel at this time of year - you get so much more in return for the work you put in compared to growing fruit and vegetables outside. They're a great 'uplifter' on a grey gloomy day and also an incredibly cost-effective method of food production - no matter what size they are - if every inch inside is used as efficiently as it should be. They're also a way of keeping us gardeners sane when the weather's against us! Inside a polytunnel it can feel more like southern Europe - especially on a sunny day or even when it's so foul that you wouldn't even put a cat out - which can often happen in our Irish 'summers'! Mine certainly feels like that right now - a Mediterranean banquet! It's a real feast of colours, scents and tastes - of tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, courgettes, French beans, melons, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, figs, lemons, oranges, blackberries, cherries, cape gooseberries and grapevines literally dripping with fast-swelling, emerald bunches. The list goes on - with scarlet geraniums, nasturtiums, feverfew, orange marigolds and many valuable herbs like Perilla dotted about wherever they can be squeezed in, attracting insects like butterflies, hoverflies and with the constant hum of happy bees. I also grow some flowers in big pots which like hot dry conditions too - like some of the most richly scented but slightly more fussy roses that don't flower well outside here - like Emporeur du Maroc - which really hates our damp weather. It's scent hits me when I open the polytunnel in the early mornings at this time of year. It flowers in the polytunnel for months, repeat-flowering well, and it's wonderful for using in recipes especially for making Rose Petal Syrup. With the scent of the citrus blossom, lemon verbena and Jasmine filling the air too - it's really like being in another country altogether! Who needs Mediterranean holidays? I think the money's far better spent on a polytunnel where you can grow healthy food and enjoy relaxing in sunlight almost all year round! It's absolute heaven - and I can't bear to be away from mine for very long!
Things grow so incredibly fast in the almost tropical atmosphere that it can be all too easy to let yourself become a 'polytunnel slave' (a willing one in my case!) and rush round all the time watering, tending and harvesting. There just seems to be so much to do and so little time - even if you're up well before 6 am and working until it's dark! It's definitely necessary to relax in a deckchair in the sun occasionally though, admire it all and just enjoy the moment - something I try to do for least few minutes to do each day no matter how busy I am. I've never seen organic peaches or grapes for sale anywhere other than on very rare occasions in farmer's markets and even then they're imported from a long way away and a horrendous price - but they're easy to grow once you know how. At this time of year if you have a tunnel - you can bite into gloriously mouthwatering, properly ripe tomatoes warmed by the midsummer sun, with just a hint of a basil leaf. Or perhaps pick a few cherries and raspberries for a pre-breakfast snack, then sink your teeth into a lusciously yielding peach running with juice. I feel really sorry for all those poor souls who have to buy their fruit laced with chemicals, plastic wrapped, picked half ripe, bred to have skins tough enough to withstand the rigours of travelling hundreds of miles across Europe or further afield to reach the customer's plates days, or even weeks later!
I'm lucky enough to have two large polytunnels now to enjoy gardening in - I used to have four when I was producing organic crops commercially. Now it's a bit of a luxury to be able to grow whatever I want and to have fun experimenting with exciting new crops - rather then being tied to the same old purely commercial crops. But do you know something - they're still not big enough - I could fill at least four more polytunnels and still need more covered space! I would love to have a dedicated vine tunnel for instance. Just as the old walled gardens had their vine houses many decades ago - and a fig tunnel and a citrus tunnel and.................! The problem is - I could do with a few assistant gardeners as well!Ah well........a polytunnel is also definitely a place to dream in. And dreams are free!
They may not be the most beautiful structures in the world from the outside - but polytunnels are like people - it's what's on the inside that really counts! The more traditional greenhouses are very beautiful things I'll grant you - and who wouldn't want to own one? But they're also an expensive luxury item! Not only that - but as I've already said - being on a windy site here I lost three, before I gave up and decided that the only way I would ever be able to grow anything in the teeth of year-round south-westerly gales was in polytunnels! They may be slightly less attractive - but they're around half the price. Still not a cheap item - but I've proved over many years that any decent sized tunnel, if used properly all year round, will pay for itself in about 2-3 years. There's quite a lot you can do inside not only to improve their rather utilitarian looks, but also attract in all sorts of beneficial insects and bees, to keep pests away and pollinate your crops. If the many treats inside are eye-catching enough - one tends to overlook the less than beautiful surrounding structure.
What I call my 'Polytunnel Potager' can look really stunning inside all year round with the addition of many flowers and herbs growing alongside the vegetables! Not only that - it's a far more natural way to grow anything. Nature doesn't do acres of bare soil between neat rows of vegetables, as I said to Gerry Kelly recently on our 'From Tunnel to Table' radio programme. In a polytunnel - just as in Nature - diversity is strength! I've always studied and tried to reproduce the way that Nature grows things as closely as possible - giving each plant the conditions it needs to grow as well as it can and accompanying it with other plants that it might grow with naturally. The latest soil science is now proving that just as I had always believed - plants are far healthier when they're grown as communities with many different plant families all growing all mixed together, using the soil in different ways - instead of as long rows of isolated mono-crops with bare soil in between. The plants are healthier because growing them like this encourages different the bacteria and fungi in the soil which help all the plants to grow better and to produce the compounds they need to protect themselves from pests and diseases. As many of those same phytochemical compounds are the ones tht when we eat them also help to protect us from disease too - why would any sane person grow any other way? Surely it's only common sense? Why would anyone use chemicals that destroy all the vital soil life which Nature specifically co-evolved plants to work with - in a beautifully designed symbiotic relationship? It never made any sense to me - but perhaps in the short term it makes financial sense to those selling agricultural chemicals!
At this time of year, if the voluptuous abundance of your polytunnel doesn't make you feel smugly satisfied, or if seeing a friend's productive one doesn't make you long to own one yourself so that you too can grow all manner of good things - then you are a totally lost cause as far as any sort of fruit or vegetable gardening goes! There really is no hope for you!!If you don't have one, but are just thinking about it - then do go and have a look at one owned by a good gardener now, and just imagine how much money it could save you - because it really will! A polytunnel can fill your freezer and keep you in salads and a huge variety of other super-fresh, super-healthy vegetables, fruits and herbs all year round! Granted - polytunnels can be a huge amount of work - but they're really what you make of them - that's up to you. You could just grow perennial crops instead of changing them 3-4 times a year with the seasons as I mosltydo - although this way you do get less out of them.
The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival goes back to it's roots!
This year I'm once again growing a lot more different varieties of tomatoes for the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival - that this year is being held at our wonderful National Botanic Gardens Glasnevin in Dublin, for the very first time. I'm so excited about this as I first organised a tomato day there back in the early 1990's, on a much smaller scale, with Jeremy Cherfas - who was then director of the Heritage Seed Library of the then HDRA (now called Garden Organic) kindly donating some heritage seed and he came over from the UK to speak at it. That was my small seedling of an idea - which then became the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival which has grown stronger each year - now running for several years since I decided to resurrect it in 2012. I knew that people were becoming more interested in preserving so-call Heritage varieties - so I felt that the time was right. I also felt that making them aware of the importance of preserving genetic diversity was becoming increasingly important. This year it's being held on the 18th and 19th of August and will run for a fortnight after the initial weekend of talks and demonstrations.
For a 'tomatoholic' like me - it's the perfect excuse to go a bit over the top a bit on the tomato front! It's also a great way to trial new varieties and compare them with my tried and trusted 'old reliables'. When one's sowing tomatoes in March it's impossible to know what the summer will bring in terms of weather - some may hate cold nights - while others may be less fussy. In May again this year, temperatures were so hot that the developing plants were quite literally 'fried' at the top - looking as if someone had blasted them with a blow-torch! They were curling up their top leaves and looking 'fern like' - almost as if they had been sprayed with weedkiller. A lot of people have asked me about this leaf curling. It's the extremes of temperatures affecting the plants. Unfortunately in a polytunnel you have less control than in a greenhouse where you can apply shading paint to the glass. Even if you have one of those expensive, side opening tunnels, the sun can still scorch the tops of plants when it's at it's most intense. If any tomato variety can withstand those extremes and still produce a really good-tasting and worthwhile crop - then it's a pretty good one in my book! I'm growing most varieties both in the ground and in pots so that I can compare which do better in one or the other, or both. The ones in pots do need quite a lot of watering at this time of year or they can get stressed pretty quickly.
Holiday time and watering plants
Talking of watering crops - that reminds me! If you must go away on holiday - I've always found mid-October to be the very best time for a polytunnel owner. By then you've had the best of the summer and early autumn crops, and your tunnel should already be fully planted with crops to see you through the winter. These crops won't need too much tending or watering in October unless you're going away for weeks - as the weather's cooling down a bit. The tunnel needs much less fussing over at that time of year, and instead of the usual deflated feeling when you return from holidays - because of nothing to look forward to except long, cold, miserable grey days - it's nice to be able to look forward to continuous all-weather gardening, eating fresh salads and other delicious treats every day throughout the grey winter days! On the other hand - watering can be a huge problem if you go away in high summer. A few years ago I had a query from someone who'd spent a fortune on an automatic watering system for his polytunnel, got it all properly set up and went away with the family for a couple of weeks. He came back to find all the tomatoes blighted and everything dead poor man! I honestly think they're a complete waste of time and money for home gardeners, who want to grow a broad range of different crops in their tunnels, all with differing requirements. Even if you have the same one crop throughout your tunnel - there's still no guarantee it will work properly anyway. I have a friend who hates watering and spends ages fiddling about with hers! She could have watered her tunnel ten times over in the time she spends faffing around with all the bits and pieces!
I always think it's rather unfair of people to expect non-gardening neighbours, or even experienced gardening friends or family, to attempt to look after their polytunnel or greenhouse in the height of summer unless it's very small. Things can go badly wrong so very quickly. You've lost a whole summer's crops if they do - and perhaps good friends too! It's far too much of a responsibility. In the autumn most holidays are far cheaper anyway. If you can't afford one because you've just spent hundreds of euros or even a thousand on a new polytunnel - then instead of feeling deprived - just congratulate yourself instead for making a clever investment that will give you huge returns for many years to come! Most holidays cost far more than a small polytunnel - which unlike a holiday will bring you joy and good health every single day, all year round for many years - and also a comfortable place to sit in warm sunshine even on a frosty day in midwinter. (You won't believe this - but I promise you I have a friend who even has an old sofa in hers!)
I made a decision years ago to not fly anywhere any more - but only to go to places where I could go by car. It's far more carbon-friendly than flying to some noisy, garish and utterly pointless holiday resort! I love the quieter parts of the Mediterranean, where I pick up lots of ideas for food and planting - but even those are far less quiet nowadays. I have a confession to make here - my very rare holidays now are usually spent taking off in the car for just a couple of days and visiting gardens - or the best nurseries either here or in the UK - hunting for unusual fruits or 'jungle' plants - my secret addiction! I used to manage sometimes to combine this with work, in the form of my portrait sculpture - but sadly I can no longer do that now since smashing my right shoulder! Although my right arm's still ok for not too heavy gardening - I now no longer have the perfect control and reach necessary for very finely detailed portrait work. Luckily my gardening, especially in the polytunnels, more than satisfies my creative urges now.
At this time of year, I usually get up around 5.30 and do all the watering, feeding and side-shooting etc. of tomatoes before 9 am - as then it can become far too hot to hang around for long in the tunnels. Then mid-morning and mid-afternoon I damp down the tunnel paths with plenty of water so that it's evaporation helps to lower the temperature a little and keeps the air moving. I'm having to water the tomatoes and aubergines in containers twice a day at the moment. They're doing well though - and the aubergines in particular thoroughly enjoyed the recent very hot days of last week. 'Bonica F1' is the variety I always grow now, after trying many other varieties over the years. It's always the best performer whatever the weather does in our 'summers'. We often get low grey cloud for days on end here up on a hill not far from the coast. That is death to most aubergines - but no this one. As long as you're careful to gently pull fading petals away from the end of the developing flowers just as they start to fade to brown after the fruit has set - it always produces it's huge fruits. If you don't do this - they often start to rot. Do try it next year if you haven't tried aubergines before, or had no luck with them It's thoroughly reliable and came top in the RHS trials of aubergines a few years ago.
As tomato crops everywhere are starting to develop their fruits now- I'm getting a lot of questions about feeding and watering them.People always want to know how often you should water but there's no absolute formula.It's impossible to say - because you should only water when they need it - and every tomato plant and situation is different. It's something you just have to learn to 'play by ear'. Every garden situation is different depending on how you're growing things, whether they're in the ground or in containers of commercial potting compost or in the soil. It also depends where your greenhouse or tunnel is situated - whether it's in a very sunny spot or partly shaded and even how big it is, especially with a tunnel - as smaller tunnels can tend to have less air circulation. So these are just very general guidelines. Every year is different too -the weather obviously has a huge influence on how often things need watering - and as with most gardening - it's all about common sense and observation really - getting to know your plants, playing it by ear and noticing their needs daily in order to get the very best crops. Oddly enough - even different varieties vary in how you can get away with watering them. Sungold for instance, will split immediately if you water it just a bit too much when it has already 'set' it's skin and is ripening - but Rosada won't - unless you absolutely flood it! It's much more good-natured and far less temperamental. Individual varieties can all vary in their water requirements. Just like people - they're all different! You can't possibly make hard and fast rules - every tunnel, greenhouse or garden varies. Never just water a bit every day as a matter of course - that can lead to over-watering, and also cause roots to stay far too close to the surface, rather than going deeper to search for water and nutrients. Give plants a good soaking at night when watering in warm weather, so that it doesn't evaporate quickly as it would if watering during the day. And in the autumn do the reverse - if plants really need watering - then do it in the mornings - so that damp cold air isn't hanging around at night which can cause disease.
Rough guide to watering Tomatoes in containers.
I get a lot of questions about this. I grow some of my my tomatoes, peppers and aubergines in 10lt containers on grow bag trays. This is because I only ever use a quarter of the 'in the ground' ground space in my tunnel for the tomato family - which also naturally includes peppers and aubergines. In the tunnel - just as in the outside garden - I always operate a strict minimum four course rotation. Many people say there's no need to and don't bother for a few years, getting away with it for a while - but without doing that you can encounter soil problems like diseases and nematodes sooner or later. The containers I use are either recycled empty coleslaw buckets from the local deli, which I cut drainage holes in around the base - or sometimes 12 litre containers which I get from the local horticultural supply shop very cheaply compare to the DIY multiples! They are a similar size to the average large bucket. I start to feed with the brilliant Osmo organicTomato Food (which is high potash and encourages fruit production) as soon as the first truss has set. Why is Osmo so brilliant? Because you will never get magnesium or any other sort of deficiency when using this feed - and as it's also organic, it's safe to use and totally natural. When Dermot O'Neill came out to look at my tomatoes a few years ago for RTE's Mooney Show - he was amazed at how healthy my tomatoes in containers looked and how much fruit they were producing!
When plants are in containers - the roots are restricted and they can't forage far to find their own food, so they're obviously totally dependent on you. I start feeding when the first truss has set, I then use the tomato feed at every other watering - half strength (i.e. at one watering I feed at half strength, and at the other watering - I just use plain water.) I keep a water butt at tunnel temperature in the tunnel for watering the tomatoes - so that I don't use freezing cold water directly from the hose. Plants don't enjoy cold showers any more than people do! I don't water automatically - I play it by ear depending on how dry the growing medium is. I use a fifty/fifty peat-free and garden soil mix which I find best cushions the plants against heat or any variations in watering - I'm only human! Consistently just moist is they key - neither being permanently soaked and sitting in water - nor alternatively bone dry with the compost shrinking away from the side of the containers. I don't like to feed at full strength all the time as I feel the roots are more vulnerable but if I think something is looking just a little hungry - I will sometimes feed at full strength once or twice. The Osmo feeds are very gentle as they don't contain synthetic chemicals but just natural safe plant foods and won't burn plant roots - so you can feed at full strength if necessary, just as long as the compost is moist first.
It's fine to water into the top of the container top as long as youdon't do it right against the base of the stem. Thisavoids possibly causing rots where the base of the stem joins the roots especially in cold weather. This is always a vulnerable spot - particularly with aubergines and peppers. Always water around the edge of the container if possible - letting it drain through into whatever the plants are sitting in or on - they should usually soak this up over the next couple of hours if it's not too much. I sit my buckets on grow bag trays and if the plants haven't soaked up all the water after a few hours - I would tip it out. I never leave them sitting in water in the trays more than overnight - and only then if the plants have dried out a bit too much - but I try to prevent that. As I've already said - you sort of have to 'play it by ear' and get a 'feel' for it. I will often lift the edge of the container to feel it's weight before the plants get too big - over-watering is death to all plants in containers. If the top looks dry-ish but it still feels quite heavy, then it's probably ok for water but don't forget that the plants will make it feel heavier as they get bigger. If I'm not sure, I'll sometimes just scratch the surface of the compost to feel it. If the top is dry and the container feels a bit light then I know that water is needed immediately. Sometimes the compost will look a bit lighter in colour too - depending on the make. I never let plants get really parched to the point of almost wilting with the compost shrinking away from the sides of the container - this makes it far harder to re-wet any compost and can also make them drop their flowers or fruit. Drying out too much or erratic watering can stress the plants very badly and makes them far more vulnerable to physiological problems like 'blossom end rot' - which is caused by poor calcium transport in the plant tissues due to lack of consistent watering. Erratic watering also makes them much more attractive to pests like aphids and red spider. Stressed plants are always more vulnerable. Just like you and I - their immune systems are affected too, and they may not always be able to mobilise their defences as fast as they can when growing in ideal conditions in soil in the ground.
I know it does seems like a lot of trouble but when you get used to it, it becomes routine and is well worth it. You will have terrifically healthy crops of delicious tomatoes this way. Last year I grew about 70 plants in containers - mostly getting 8 fabulous trusses of fruit per plant. They certainly repaid all the TLC! All the expert books say you can only get 4 trusses from tomatoes when growing in containers. I do love to prove all those so-called 'experts' wrong! Successful organic growing is all about understanding your plants' needs, anticipating and preventing any possible problems. Proper old fashioned good gardening in other words! There's no substitute for knowing your plants!
Last year's Tomato Report 2016 gives information on the soil/organic potting compost mix I use in my containers. Many Garden Centres now stock all the Osmo organic feeds etc. and Klasmann Deilmann organic seed and potting composts - they're also available from Whites Agri, Lusk. Co. Dublin and Fruithill Farm in Cork. I wouldn't use anything else now - even for ornamental plants - all plants love it and grow very healthily. It's worth every cent of the extra expense! It's also well-worth knowing that I'm not destroying all the wonderful biodiversity in bogs in order to grow my plants - which is what peat users are doing!
Tomato plants growing in the ground
These are much easier to deal with as because the roots aren't restricted - so they're naturally far less vulnerable to fluctuations in watering. The same rules still apply of not watering directly against the base, not using freezing water from the hose and not letting them dry out completely. In the ground plants only need feeding about twice a week with the high potash Osmo Tomato Food - but again it depends on your soil and how fertile it was at planting. If I think plants are running out of steam and the leaves are maybe starting looking a bit 'yellowy' then I would give them a boost with the Osmo Universal feed which stimulates growth - but if they're growing in the ground and it's reasonably fertile - this shouldn't be needed. The last thing you want is too much lush leafy growth, which can cause disease if too crowded. If you only have a small number of plants to feed though - it's possible to make a fairly balanced feed from comfrey, nettles and borage stuffed into a water barrel. It stinks to high heaven - but is very effective! It's impossible to make enough to feed a lot of plants regularly though.
Side shoots on Tomatoes
Last month when talking about side shoots - I forgot to say that all tomato plants constantly keep trying to outwit you - as they are really genetically programmed to be bushes in actual fact - so they go on trying to be those by producing more side shoots all the time even where you've already taken some out. This is how they perpetuate themselves in the wild - by 'flopping' shoots over and 'walking' along to a new spot. You just have to be strict with them - otherwise they can very soon become a tangled, disease ridden, unproductive mess!
You mustkeephaving a good look at least every couple of days and nip out any more which may develop. I look over the plants every day, as I can guarantee I'll miss the odd shoot because I grow so many plants. Don't just do it once a fortnight, as I saw one gardening 'expert' journalist recommending recently in a local newspaper - they could be 60cm or 2 feet long by then at this time of year! The journalist in question, who shall remain nameless, is obviously not an experienced tomato grower! As you can see from the pictured examples here - which I left deliberately, to photograph -in just a week they can be very long, wasting the plant's valuable fruiting energy and seriously reducing air circulationif you leave them there! On the continental beefsteaks in particular, especially 'Pantano Romanesco' and occasionally even on cherry types, they may also make new 'side shoots' - like the ones pictured here, on the end or even the middle of flower/fruit trusses, so check there too and nip out immediately if necessary, otherwise they can attract moisture and set up ideal conditions for disease.
1. Side shoot developing on end of flower truss.
2. One week later - flower truss with new shoot on end getting much larger.
3. Same flower truss, after remedial action with secateurs!
Air circulation is absolutely vital to tomatoes, particularly all the continental beefsteaks, which can rapidly go down with botrytis (grey mould) and also blight at this time of year in very humid, damp conditions. Ventilating as much as possible, even on dull or rainy days, is most important. Leaving doors shut can even hinder pollination of flowers, as too high a temperature can actually damage the plants and the bees can't get in either! My tunnel doors are always open every day - unless there's a howling gale blowing from the wrong direction. And if the temperature on a very hot day still gets too high - then 'damping down' the paths, not the plants, will help to reduce the temperature by water evaporating - keeping the atmosphere 'bouyant' and the air moving.
Unlike conventional chemical growers, organic gardeners don't use systemic chemical fungicides, only occasionally surface, copper-based ones (I don't). I am amazed that anyone would still recommend spraying tomato plants with water - apparently in order to help pollination! That's rubbish! I'e also seen people recommending that you spray with garlic if you see aphids! It's totally unnecessary and as I mentioned again later - wetting tomato foliage in particular encourages disease. Aphids are again a sign of stressed plants probably grown with too much manure or other chemical fertiliser. Now I know some of the old 'conventional' text books used to recommend spraying with water many years ago - but they also used to recommend all sorts of nasty fungicides too! Things have moved on a bit since then, and cultivating plants organically means first and foremost giving plants the optimum conditions they need to promote healthy growth - that can mean taking a little bit more trouble occasionally but it really works. The old-fashioned 'fire brigade' mentality - of reaching for the sprayer for a quick fix whenever something goes wrong - instead of preventing it in the first place - doesn't have any place in an organic garden. I know it's a bit challenging trying to give everything the best conditions you can when you're growing so many different crops in one tunnel - but it is achievable with a little thought and care
Pollination of Tomatoes
Don't mist over tomato plants as I've already said! Tomatoes don't like the humid conditions that cucumbers do. Misting them frequently with water produces just the sort of damp conditions which are ideal for encouraging blight. Blight and other fungal spores ideally need a fine film of moisture on the leaves in order to germinate and multiply rapidly! All that is really required for good pollination is the right temperature, with even moisture at the roots, and encouraging pollinating insects into the tunnel to do their job, by growing flowers to attract them. Many of the more enlightened big commercial growers now use bees and even flies to pollinate crops in their vast greenhouses - something that crop research stations have always done. As I'm constantly saying -just grow lots of single, nectar producing flowers among your crops, both inside and outside, and you won't have any pollination problems.
Other Tunnel Crops
Cucumbers and melons are also growing really well in large containers now. Again, fruiting much earlier than those in the ground - by a couple of weeks. I'm experimenting a lot more again this year with containers, I have far more growing experience now than I had 37 years ago when my whole vegetable garden was grown in containers for two years, while renting a house en route to where we live now! That year I grew 45 lb of Runner beans on wigwams in recycled Marks and Spencer carrier bags (they were the strongest!). The other cucumbers are doing nicely in the ground, they're at the side of the tunnel where they don't get draughts and it's a bit more humid - they and melons are just about the only plants that really love sauna-like conditions! But even though they like warmth - they must be kept evenly moist at the roots - if they dry out at all at the roots and the air is humid they'll get powdery mildew very quickly - particularly as the air gets colder at night in autumn.
Aubergine 'Bonica' pictured here is growing in the same 10 litre buckets in a well-drained peat-free compost/soil mix and have just set their first fruits. I'm always careful to watch the flowers after they are just set - and when they start to fade I gently pull the browning flower downwards away from the calyx as that's where rots can set in- which is one of the main problem with aubergines in our climate. The other problem is stem rot where the stem joins the roots at the top of the compost. I avoid this by planting them slightly mounded up in the buckets and never watering against the stem but always around the outside of the bucket.
The yellow courgette Atena which I always grow as part of the cucurbitaceae rotation in the tunnel is already producing well. They will go on until early November with luck, the last few weeks under fleece. French bean 'Cobra' is as delicious and reliable as ever, and also Calabrese 'Green Magic'. It's really important to keep on top of picking all of these, and also watering regularly. If the plants dry out for too long in hot weather or if the pods, fruit or shoots get too big, that sends a hormone message back to the plant to say 'job done - we're on course to produce seed' and the plants will stop producing any more.
If you're growing early sweetcorn in the tunnel, when the plants start producing pollen give them a bit of a shake every day - wait until about midday if possible when the atmosphere has dried out a bit - so that the pollen dusts around nicely - it's often too humid first thing in the morning just after the doors are opened. Even if you've only got one plant in your greenhouse as one questioner at one of my recent talks said she had - it will still pollinate better if you do this. I always shake the outside plants too if there's no breeze to do the job - but that's rarely the case here on my very windy hill!
My tunnel sweetcorn 'Lark F1' is planted between pumpkins as usual - Queensland Blue, Jumbo Pink Banana, Golden and Blue Hubbards, Hokkaido etc. They are some of the best dense, deep orange fleshed ones for really long term storage and I won't ever risk the entire crop outside again in case we get yet another poor summer. They are too valuable for the winter larder. I will at least be assured of some then whatever the weather. I am being really strict with them though - and keeping them under severe 'house arrest' - pinching out all the shoots at four leaves or they would take over the entire tunnel. I've planted more outside too. The sweet corn is sown 2 or 3 to a pot and not thinned, then planted out 60cm/2ft intervals in a row. That way they pollinate each other well even though they're in a row rather than a block and produce at least 2 delicious cobs per plant.
If you're growing sweet potatoes, they don't want too rich a soil starting off otherwise they just produce masses of foliage - not tubers. They need similar soil to carrots, deep and well drained. They just get a light dusting of seaweed meal when planting and mulching with moisture retaining grass clippings to prevent weed growth. After that they only need watering occasionally to prevent them drying out. Like Oca and Yacon they don't start to produce their tubers until August - so from then on they get fed weekly with a high potash tomato feed - I use the Osmo food for them too. If you want to try growing them it's still worthwhile planting them now - and if they're a bit hungry in their pots by now just give them a liquid feed just to encourage them, then plant as above. Once you have good varieties you can keep tubers from your own crop each year and propagate slips from them.
The early peach on the north-east side at the end of the tunnel is covered with a fleece curtain, fixed with clothes pegs, once the fruit starts to change colour - as the rapidly ripening fruit screams 'eat me' at every blackbird within ten miles! There's always one or two in there doing a 'recce' - but no matter how gorgeous they look, they never touch them until they are just ripe - just when I say to myself "I'll pick them tomorrow" - I can almost guarantee they'll have a go at them. They seem to have a radar for ripening fruit! It doesn't seem to matter what netting I put up at the doors either - they always manage to ruin a few if I don't do this, but hiding them hiding them generally does the trick! The peach on the other side of the door doesn't ripen until early September. I bought both trees from Lidl - one just marked 'peach' and the other 'nectarine' from Lidl seven years ago. Magically one turned out to be a yellow-fleshed early peach and the other a late white-fleshed one - serendipity at work! Couldn't have planned it better! They're due for their summer pruning now. Leaving one or two good shoots to develop at the base of each branch to bear fruit next year, one shoot at the top to draw up the sap to the ripening fruit, and pruning other shoots two leaves beyond any ripening peaches. All other new shoots will be removed completely to let in air and light.
It's really important to prune tunnel-grown peaches properly, otherwise they quickly become an unproductive mess, taking over the entire tunnel, as they can make five or six feet of growth in a year. That happened to me many years ago when I didn't know how to prune them properly and the tree almost went through the roof! Practical experience is always the best teacher - you never forget your mistakes! The most important thing to remember is that they always fruit on the new green shoots made the previous year. Mine are trained as sort of half fan/half bushes or 'fushes' at the north end of the tunnel either side of the door, with roughly 9ft or 2 & 3/4m of width each, a space which is often wasted or full of rubbish in many tunnels. There, they are in full sun, but don't cast any shade on anything else, don't get peach leaf curl as they are protected from rain, and produce over 100 peaches every year! With my mini-gardens of flowers and perennial herbs like thyme and oregano at their feet they look good all year round and not an inch of space is wasted.
Some of the figs are ripening their early crop now - the necks of the fruit have weakened and fruits have started to 'flop', now drooping downwards, they will need another few days yet. Brogiotto Nero is the earliest - but Rouge de Bordeaux won't be far behind and then all the others will follow. I wait until I can see the first fruits starting to crack at the 'navel' end - that means they're really ripe. There is nothing more disappointing or wasteful than picking an unripe fig - they are so precious. It's what the Italians call the 'Breba' (overwintered) crop that's ripening now, and this autumn's main crop is just developing as smaller figlets on this year's new green shoots. Figs are very reliable in large containers - withstanding even really low temperatures in winter for short periods. I've got over a dozen varieties now with a range of ripening times. With even non-organic figs around one euro each in shops - they're well worth growing, very nutritious and dead easy. They are much more productive in a tunnel - really appreciating the extra warmth and shelter. Many varieties will crop twice a year.
While I'm on the subject of fruit - don't be tempted as I very stupidly was a couple of years ago by those lovely juicy-looking grapes trained as bushes in containers, which some of the garden retailers have at this time of year - the dead give away if you look at the label is that they usually have Italian wine names on them! They are grown in massive nurseries somewhere like Sardinia or southern Italy, and are totally unsuitable varieties for growing in Irish gardens - or even Irish greenhouses - we just don't get enough light and sun. If you only want vine leaves for 'Dolmades' that's fine - but they won't ripen their wood enough to produce decent grapes in our climate! I've also seen 'Muscat of Alexandria' for sale everywhere recently - that will do well in a warm greenhouse here - but not outside. Even in a greenhouse or tunnel it won't ripen until mid-late October or even November and is completely useless outside - but the labels don't mention that - if the importers even actually know! Mine is in a large tub, which I think hurries it up a bit - and it is utterly delicious, with a juicy muscat taste - in late OCTOBER! You could possibly ripen it in a warm porch too. Keep grapes under control (see June). I'm feeding all my grapes and figs in containers with every other watering now as the bunches of grapes are developing very fast. Never let them dry out completely, or the grapes shrivel and stop developing. The vines in the ground are all fed with tomato food once a week.
Free Watercress for Healthy Winter Salads
It's worth taking some new cuttings of watercress now, to produce nice plants for September planting to give good winter crops. It's by nature a creeping plant, and as soon as it's shoots are 4-5 in/10cm long - it starts to produce lots of roots at every leaf node in order to root itself into the soil. This is a great thing for grateful gardeners who may be short of salads - because as soon as you cut off those rooted side shoots and replant them they take off like rockets - and you will have a metre square bed of watercress in no time at all! It's a terrific plant for the damp, shadier parts of the garden or tunnel polytunnel which many other plants don't like. If you can buy a nice bunch, or a very fresh bag of watercress, choose the healthiest looking shoots, take off the lower leaves which may rot quickly in the water and infect the stems, put them in a jar of water for a few days and they will quickly start to produce roots. You can then pot these up in organic potting compost and away you go! When they're big enough - plant them out in really fertile, moist soil.
Contrary to popular opinion - watercress doesn't need running water - and indeed is not safe growing in damp mud or running water in a stream, as it may act as host to the tiny snail which can pass on liver fluke - not something you want! Keep the plants well watered after planting though, or they will become tough and too peppery, particularly at this time of year. Also pinch off any flower buds you see developing, or they will flower and set seed, which stops them producing the lovely lush growth you want. Watercress is a brassica, so needs to occupy that spot in your rotation, but is otherwise mostly trouble-free and hugely productive all winter. I keep watercress growing indefinitely by propagating plants like this. I always keep a pot of newly rooted shoots in a shady spot in the tunnel or outside in summer and then I propagate more for the winter from those. Mine just goes on from year to year. Even more plants for free - nothing better!!
Think ahead to late autumn and winter crops
Sorry to spoil the summer party but if you don't think about autumn and winter crops now - you won't have very much! Many of these are better sown outside in modules now and brought under cover later on, as it's far too hot in tunnels at the moment. See my 'What to Sow Now in July' list.
It's also time to order saffron bulbs now as they will need planting by the end of August. If you like living dangerously - you could wait until the beginning of August - when they're often discounted hugely so that seed/bulb companies can get rid of them. That's how I got mine originally. They're quite hardy and will grow outside, but they like to be baked in summer. Not only that - in my experience, we never get dry enough autumns to collect the saffron's valuables styles as it's always far too wet here! So I grow mine in the tunnel now - you can even grow them in well drained containers. Good drainage and a summer baking is all that they need. If you live in the drier climate of Essex you may be able to grow it outside. Saffron Walden was named after saffron - it grew well there in the Middle Ages. It's worth taking a bit of trouble with it as it's so expensive to buy. The ultimate in cheffy 'one-upmanship' is a risotto made from your very own home grown saffron!!
Don't forget that forcing chicory needs to be sown in the next week or so - or it won't be big enough to force for chicons in the winter. I also grow the very reliable 'Sugar Loaf' chicory, which folds up it's huge outer leaves all by itself and makes lovely crunchy, light green 'cos-like' hearts after Christmas - not too bitter, delicious and very welcome healthy winter salad. It grows exceptionally well in the tunnel too - and the hens love the outer crunchy green leaves in late winter when there's not much in the way of greens about for them.
Swiss chard also benefits from being sown before the end of July for winter cropping in the tunnel, it's well worth sowing into modules outside soon to plant in the tunnels later - where it's incredibly productive until the following late spring.
It's also a good time to sow another crop of carrots now as they should miss late carrot fly. An early, fast-growing variety such as Nantes is good they'll produce good sized sweet roots in the autumn
(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.)
Remember, always sow the seeds. You can catch up on everything else, but if you don't sow seeds on time - you may have lost your chance. This is especially important for any late autumn and winter crops that need starting off now!
Ruby chard Vulcan - one of the best winter crops in the polytunnel our outside
Hearting chicory Sugar Loaf or 'Pain de Sucre' - another winter standby in the polytunnel or outside
*Also very important* - If you haven't got seeds of some winter vegetables you will need then get them as soon as possible, as many garden centre shops take their seed displays down this month, and online may also be sold out.
Seeds to sow now for late autumn & overwinter protected tunnel crops:
Outdoors in pots or modules, for planting later on in the tunnel or greenhouse when space is freed up and the tunnel or greenhouse is cooler:
Calabrese*, kales such as Cavalo Nero, dwarf green or red curled and Ragged Jack, Florence fennel, beetroot, kohl rabi, Swiss chards**, early peas, dwarf broad beans, Sugar Loaf chicory**, basil, coriander, dill, plain leaved & curly parsley, and sorrel. Covering while outdoors with a fine mesh covered frame or cloche will give young seedlings protection from pests (like cabbage root fly and cabbage white butterflies), and also protect them from scorching sun, strong winds or heavy rain.
In the polytunnel, if you have any vacant space after clearing early summer crops, you can still sow:
Dwarf and climbing French beans, or early varieties of peas to crop in late autumn* (otherwise sow in pots or modules for planting later when space becomes available). Sowing in pots and modules helps to make the most of valuable tunnel space as it means that you can have large plants ready for planting as soon as early summer crops are cleared.
Seeds to sow outdoors for autumn and overwinter crops:
In modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop:
Beetroot, brocoletto 'Cima di Rapa', carrots, cabbages ('Greyhound' and leafy non-hearting spring types**), overwintering spring-heading cauliflowers**, peas* (early dwarf vars.only now), Florence fennel, 'Witloof' chicory (for winter forcing), sugar loaf chicory, radicchios, endives, salad onions, claytonia, landcress, lettuces (Lattughino, Fristina, Winter Density, Jack Ice, Cherokee, all good varieties), kohl rabi, 'Hungry Gap' kale (for spring cropping), radishes, rocket, Swiss chards and leaf beets, perpetual and summer spinach, summer white or yellow turnips, Chinese cabbage, Choy Sum, Pak choi, mizuna, mustard 'Red Frills' and other oriental leaves, Chinese kale (Kailaan), lamb's lettuce (corn salad), salad mixes, herbs such as parsley, chervil, coriander, dill, fennel, buckler-leaved and French sorrel. Also sow some single, quick growing, annual flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), calendula, Californian poppies, nasturtiums, phacelia, etc. to attract beneficial insects like hover flies to help with pest control, and bees to help with crop pollination. Sow fast growing green manures like buckwheat, red clover, mustard (which is a brassica so watch rotations) and Phacelia, to improve the soil, 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms (after digging in), on any empty patches of ground cleared of early crops that won't be used for 6 weeks or so, or which needs improving. This is also the best time of year to sow all types hardy herbaceous perennials, biennials and wildflowers. Foxgloves, primulas and hellebores in particular germinate really quickly and easily if sown as soon as this year's seed is ripe.
Again - sowing into modules means that you will get maximum crops out of your space by always having something ready to plant wherever there is room - bigger module-raised plants are also more resistant to slugs and other pests. Sowing a wildflower meadow mix in seed trays or modules is actually a far more reliable method of establishing a new meadow than trying to sow directly into grass where there is too much competition from other mature plants and also many pests. These can be planted out in patches later.
(*Early July only, ** mid-late July)
N.B. At this time of year, it is best to sow modules in the evenings or in the shadeif possible -
Germination of many seeds can be badly affected or sometimes even completely prevented by very high temperatures - this applies particularly to lettuce and spinach seed which can become dormant if sown at too high a temperature. You don't want to 'cook' your plants until you're ready to eat them! Don't forget that all growth begins to slow down progressively from the end of Julyonwards due to the decrease in daylight length. So in order to get a worthwhile, continuous winter harvest you will need at least one and a half times as many plants of leafy crops in particular, than you normally would need for summer crops.
!! A warning - If you are collecting seed from plants. It's a great time of year for saving all types of seed from your own plants - but be careful! Many kinds of plants - particularly Hellebores and Euphorbias - have irritant toxic sap which can give you very severe and extremely painful burn-like blisters on the ends of your fingers and hands - as I know to my cost! To be on the safe side - always wear gloves when collecting seed from any plant - even if they're not well-known to actually be toxic - you never know what you personally may be allergic to!!
Topics for June: The first fruits of summer......Should we really eat fruit - or is it just sugar?.....Can you have Strawberry Fields forever? .....Should you replace strawberry plants after 3 years?.....Raspberries.....Cherries.....Looking after Container & polytunnel fruit....Summer citrus care.... Is locally grown more important than organic?
Above is a bowlful of the early mixed berries and cherries that we're enjoying from the polytunnel right now before the outside ones are ripe. There are raspberries Joan J and purple one Glen Coe, Tayberries, blackberry Reuben, Alpine (or wild-type) strawberries, also Albion, Mara des Bois, Gento and Old White strawberries, and Morello cherries. I grow a wide variety in the polytunnel so that there is almost always something to pick no matter what the weather is like outside - or how ingenious the birds are!
Some of the more exotic top fruits like figs, potted dwarf cherries and early peaches are just starting to ripen now too - a little later that most years due to the lateness of the season - and it's really beginning to taste like high summer now! The ever-reliable perpetual-fruiting strawberries were the first fruits to produce berries in early May - but we've been eating fruit of all kinds for several weeks now as you can see above. The weather has been really hot during the days for the last couple of weeks - although the nights have been very cold. Although some nights have been really chilly and it was actually only 1deg C in the tunnels for the last two nights - which included midsummer's eve believe it or not! Today the weather is hot again - and windy - which is drawing any moisture out of tree's leaves quickly and many are wilting. We already have drought conditions here and water restrictions, and the weather forecast is for it to be even hotter next week. If this weather continues for much longer - the apples may drop a huge amount of fruit! Luckily though - with the protection of the polytunnel all the berry crops in pots will continue to crop well if kept well-watered - so they are definitely worth the space they take up! Keeping fruit well watered and mulched will be most important in hot weather now - as the first thing to go is the fruit - if plants are stressed by any dryness at the roots. The sweet cherries outside have already dropped many fruits. Due also to the good summer last year - there are a lot more bees around too - doing their vital job of pollination. As I'm constantly saying - growing flowers for bees and other pollinators is a good idea everywhere in the garden, including and especially in the fruit garden. Without bees - we wouldn't have a lot of fruit or nuts such as peaches, apricots, almonds and raspberries, to name just a few. Bees are vital to almost 3/4 of our food supply, so we need to encourage them and look after them by not using pesticides, particularly now that they're in serious trouble, being in decline in many areas.
Should we really eat fruit - or is it just sugar as some people say?
Does night follow day? Nature evolved us to eat fruit as part of our naturally omnivorous mammalian diet! All mammals eat fruit. Even stone age humans were storing fruit in caves as archaeological evidence proves, but then - they didn't have polytunnels!Some consider growing fruit in polytunnels to be a bit of a luxury and not worth the space it takes up - but I consider it an absolute essential to make space for at least some! It's not just that it saves an absolute fortune on buying fruit in shops - although it's rarely possible to buy organically-grown berries. It's also because it's really well worth extending the outdoor season at both ends by growing fruit in pots - because it means you can enjoy them fresh for much longer and also freeze more. When the pots have finished fruiting then they can be put ion a sheltered place outside to make way for other crops. I read the science papers regularly, and every single day more and more new research is being published which shows how incredibly beneficial all kinds of fruits are for our health! This meta-analysis of 95 worldwide studies, published in 2017, by Imperial College London, showed that the greatest benefit came from 800g or 10 portions of fruit and veg per day (one portion being defined as 80g) and that vitamin or antioxidant supplements have not been shown to be effective. This is hardly surprising since, despite all our much-vaunted scientific knowledge - we still don't know all of the beneficial compounds which are present in fruits and vegetables, or how they may all work together synergistically to produce their legion of health benefits. Nature doesn't give up her secrets easily! http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_22-2-2017-16-38-0
Some of the anti-sugar people equate eating fruit to being the same as eating sugar - but they clearly know very little about the massive amounts of phytochemicals and the other antioxidant benefits contained in those perfectly delicious packages that Nature provided for all creatures to eat - including us humans! The one-track-minded 'fruit-forbidders' - as I call them - also completely ignore that the natural fibre so essential for keeping our gut microbes healthy - is also neatly packaged with the fruit! Nature provided what we evolved to eat, and knows best what we need to be healthy - not celebrity dieticians or doctors! I've always believed that eating what Nature provides - just whole, real foods, not processed into juices etc. and not grown using toxic man-made chemicals - is the only healthy way for us to eat. Nature balances the packaged fruit with just enough deliciousness to make it palatable for us to eat. Fruit breeders are constantly trying to breed ever-sweeter varieties to suit our more modern sweet-adjusted tastes - but when the sugar content increases, very often the real taste of the fruit diminishes, although there are some good examples of modern-bred fruits. It's the complex flavour-producing aromatics in whole, unprocessed fruits which hold the secret to the amount of healthy phytonutrients and other compounds which they contain. So we don't smother fruit with extra added sugar - it doesn't need it and neither do we! And we always eat whole fruits - not juiced - when many of their health benefits are just thrown away.
Tunnel-grown strawberries Albion, Gento, Christine & Malling Centenary - which have been cropping since early May
Can you have Strawberry Fields forever?
Well maybe not forever - but certainly from May until November if you're growing some of the perpetual (or ever-bearing) varieties in a polytunnel! I ordered 'cold stored' runners of a new variety of 'perpetual' strawberry - from Ken Muir's Nursery last month by phone (I like to try at least one new variety of something each year). The beautifully established plug plants (with flower buds!) arrived quickly by post (you can't beat that) and are now already settling into their new home! They will fruit very soon - not too long to wait to try a new variety! Apropos the 'buying local' principle by the way -which I mention later - I always try all the Irish nurseries for plants first (more in hope than expectation!) Usually they have very little choice of varieties. The - 'couldn't care less' - "You can put your name down, and we might have it if we remember it next autumn" - which I've had from some nurseries is an attitude that doesn't really do it for me! Helpful, efficient, informative and knowledgeable (rare) service is so much better if you want people's return business! So many of the nurseries don't even sell the varieties that are best suited to our climate!
I grow several different varieties of perpetual strawberries, as they're far better value for the space they take up than the summer fruiting varieties which take up just the same amount of space but only fruit once. The flavour of the perpetuals is just as good if not better. After the first flush of fruit in June (or earlier in the tunnel), they'll take a break for a couple of weeks, then continue flowering and fruiting all summer and autumn until the first frosts. In the tunnel they never seem to stop! They're great value for money and really earn their space. All the varieties tend to differ slightly, both in cropping potential and flavour - 'Gento', the old strawberry I mentioned above was bred in France in the '60's and sadly is not available commercially any more but 'Mara des Bois', which was bred from it - softer but still with a fabulous flavour, and it's widely available. 'Albion' is another good fruiter with a great flavour which even freezes well - thawing without falling apart - and also 'Everest' is good too. One I got a couple of years ago - 'Malling Opel' - seemed a bit of a shy fruiter at first, but it's settled down nicely now into regular cropping, has a great flavour and is just enormous! Unusually the berries will hold a long time on the plants once they look ripe - and actually develop an even deeper flavour the longer you can bear to leave them! The same goes for many of the more modern varieties - which tend to be firmer and keep longer as they've been bred for travel-ability and shelf life. They don't all have the best flavour though - so what's the point? As I always say - looks aren't everything! Growing your own allows you to choose the variety and also to pick it at maximum ripeness for the very best flavour.
Early varieties of summer strawberries should all be cropping well now. It's really important to keep them up off the ground with a good old fashioned mulch of straw, even in dry weather. This keeps them clean and keeps the air circulating around the fruit - helping to prevent grey mould (botrytis) disease. If you do find any fruit which is diseased then pick it off straight away, or it will infect everything else very quickly!
Should you replace strawberry plants after 3 years?
Some people say you should replace strawberry stocks after three years but personally I think that's unnecessary if your plants are healthy. It's perfectly alright to continue to propagate from healthy plants. This year my old favourite Gento seems even better than ever - thoroughly rejuvenated and enjoying the five star treatment it's now getting in the east tunnel and the last few weeks of hot weather! It has been producing wave after wave of huge delicious fruits and has been flowering continuously since early May! The most important thing with strawberries is to only ever propagate from the most productive plants which are fruiting well, with perfect looking, healthy leaves - not twisted or blotched with yellow. Then you can't go wrong. It's also a good idea to move them to fresh ground every 3-4 years.
We've been enjoying the first of our strawberries from the tunnels for over a month now. We had a taste testing recently and decided that meltingly delicious Gento was still definitely tops for flavour - with Albion coming a close second, Mara des Bois next, then Malling Opal and the much vaunted old French variety Gariguette after that. Christine and Malling Centenary came last - good flavour but not that sensational - and I want sensational in strawberries! Malling Centenary is the one set to replace Elsanta - which I don't grow because I think it's completely tasteless - sadly that's the one sold in many garden centres! Malling Centenary is summer fruiting - but a huge cropper with a pretty good taste and also good disease resistance. Gento is an old variety I've mentioned before - which was bred in France in the early 1960's - and my stock came as runners taken from plants growing in the garden where I grew up, almost 40 years ago. I took some runners from the plants in the kitchen garden there, when my now grown-up children were toddlers - and the plants I have now are the much propagated offspring of those original plants! I would hate to lose them - they're a lovely connection to that magical garden I remember so well - most of it, including the 6 acres of wonderful orchards I played in as a child are now sadly lost under a ghastly housing estate - like so many other long lost old gardens!
Conventionally-grown strawberries are one of the most sprayed crops! I think that people are unaware of this. In organic gardening and farming, good husbandry and good housekeeping take the place of the fungicides and pesticides used as a matter of course in conventional chemical growing. Keeping one step ahead of any possible pests and diseases is the key. Keep an eye out for any slugs too - they'll hide under the straw if you use it and come out at night for a strawberry supper if they get the chance! My early variety of choice now is Christine, which I think tastes every bit as good as the old variety Royal Sovereign - the flavour 'yardstick' for the last century or so. 'Christine' is very disease resistant and reliable, and forces very well in pots, so I usually have a good succession from early May onwards, first in the tunnel and then outside (barring accidents!!). I always take fresh runners of strawberries I want to force every year, grow them on outside in 2 litre pots for the rest of the year and then bringing them into the tunnel in early February. As always, I make sure to take runners only from the heaviest cropping and healthiest-looking plants. They must be securely covered against marauding blackbirds - who like Goldilocks always like to try tasting a few before they find one that's just right! As a result, they can do a lot of damage very quickly - so l check the netting covering them every day - to make sure there are no chinks where they can sneak in! Do make sure though that the netting you use is large enough to allow bees in easily though, so that they can pollinate all fruits, or you'll have very poor crops. The really big bumble bees can get stuck in very fine netting poor things, and life is tough enough for them right now! Without bees - we wouldn't have any crops or be around ourselves for long either!
Cherries are my favourite fruit - I think! Always difficult to choose though - as it's often just what happens to be ripe and tasting fabulous at the time!But there's nothing like a plump, scrumptious, crisply ripe cherry picked straight from the tree!Denis Healy's fruit and veg stand at Clontarf Farmers Market had some lovely early French ones last week. There was a fabulously tempting array of seasonal produce there - everything you could possibly want. I had to severely limit myself! It's wonderful to think there is such a huge range of organic produce available now - particularly exotic fruits. Not everyone wants to grow their own, or even can! Let's face it - mangoes, persimmons and limes are a bit of a challenge in Ireland or the UK aren't they? Believe me - I've tried!!
Cherries are something I've been trying various methods of growing for many years without much success. They do grow and I get loads of cherries - but the birds get most of them! If I ever will the lottery I'll have a polytunnel just for cherries! They're really difficult to protect from the birds - the blackbirds in particular enjoy them as much as I do! I thought I'd found the solution a few years ago when a new, more dwarfing root stock came onto the market - called 'Minarette' . I decided I would plant another cherry walk, across the middle of my kitchen garden/potager, which might just stay dwarf enough for me to net all the trees to keep the birds off. Sadly it didn't work out very well, because although root stocks do have a big influence on tree vigour, varieties of scion (the top bit that fruits!) still have a big influence, particularly with cherries and also with some triploid apples. I rather stupidly forgot this when ordering, and went for a spread of fruit over the season - early, mid. and late - rather than noticing that the catalogue suggested that 'Celeste' was the most naturally compact variety! They were right, and for my purposes, it would have looked far neater if I'd planted all of that one variety, then the walk would have looked much more uniform. There's been a good set of fruit on the cherries this year, and plenty of bees around to do the pollination work. They have been working hard! I'd been wondering how I could stop all the fruit being eaten by blackbirds yet again, when a couple of years ago, I had an absolute brainwave!
Due to my magpie instincts, I never throw anything away which could possibly be usefully recycled to do another job. This does have its disadvantages though, as I mentioned a few months ago - as we tend to end up with shed loads of 'stuff' - but I can guarantee that whenever I feel enough is enough and put something out into the recycling bin - I will need it for a specific job the very next week'! Anyway, I remembered a stash of large netting bags which my chap who delivers my winter logs brought some smaller ones in. I don't usually get those - as my wood burning stove takes half a tree at a time - but they were all he had left when I ran out.
Pictured here, the result of a morning's work was what looked like a rather questionable art installation in the garden - (as if some mad artist had been let loose - well??!!) It worked like a charm on the branches I was actually able to cover though - and so I will do the same again this year - and hope for more cherries again! (I thought I might ask my log guy if he did them in green - which might at least blend a bit more and not look quite so untidy - but then realised that because they're red they tend to camouflage the fruit and confuse the blackbirds - so that when the fruit ripens the birds don't see it as easily - neat eh?)
After all the crop is cleared, I'll take the bags off and then prune the more vigorous trees atthe end of July - that's the best time to prune into hard wood on cherries and plumsto avoid the risk of the trees developing silver leaf, or shot hole (bacterial canker) diseases,which stone fruits are particularly prone to in our damp Irish climate. At other times it's best to 'pinch out' or prune any soft growth with scissors if you want to shape trained trees. My one 'Celeste' tree is noticeably far more compact than all the others, by comparison, and almost 'bottle brush' looking, the leaf nodes being much closer together than on the other trees. It's an early variety which I think would do very well in town gardens here, particularly as it doesn't need another tree for pollination - being self-fertile. It might even do well in a container on the 'Minarette' root stock - certainly worth a try. I got my trees by mail order from Ken Muir's Nursery, in Essex, UK - who win a Gold Medal at Chelsea Flower Show every year. Over the years I've tried many mail order nurseries, but have always found them the most reliable - good strong plants, beautifully packed - and very pleasant, helpful people to deal with. They're not always the cheapest - but they are most definitely the best in my experience. You're unlikely to get that variety here if you want it, so don't even bother looking - but perhaps some obliging nurseries might order it for next year for you.
The early crop on the 'primocane' types of autumn fruiting raspberries (which crop again on last autumn's fruited canes) is just flowering now outside - and in the fruit tunnel, the pots of 'Joan J' brought in earlier on to bring them forward are already ripening their huge delicious fruits. As soon as the old canes I left on from last year have finished fruiting, all of them will be cut back down to the base and the plants fed, so that they can concentrate all their energy into the new canes already developing which will fruit this autumn and again, lower down the canes, in early summer next year. I grow the excellent large, tasty varieties 'Brice' (red), 'Allgold' (yellow fruited), and also 'Joan J' - a new variety which Joy Larkcom recommended to me when she was here a few years ago - she thought it tasted as good as the variety 'Brice', which I already had in the garden. Actually I think it's even better. It's a huge cropper, with big, firm fruits that freeze exceptionally well. I've been growing it for about 6 years now and I love it. Last year I potted some up in 10lt pots and they fruited really well last autumn. We even had a few for Christmas! They're now carrying a huge early crop which is just starting to ripen. The experiment was definitely a great success.
I love experimenting - that's what makes gardening interesting, and how you find new ways of doing things. The old kitchen gardeners of centuries ago were masters of extending the seasons at either end. I often see 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss' recommended, (rather than the newer and better Brice and Joan J), I tried them both years ago and neither were anything like as good as those I've mentioned. I'm actually sorry I ever planted them, as they've both become very invasive weeds in the garden!! I keep digging them out wherever I find them and planting them down in the wood for the wildlife but I just can't get rid of them!) I love the good tasting summer varieties too - but like strawberries - if you've only got room for one row of raspberries, then it makes more sense to grow one of the new autumn fruiting ones - they have just as good a flavour and are so much better value for the space they occupy since they produce fruit twice a year if you feed them well and prune them my way.
When it comes to pests - if you've done your homework properly and encouraged a good balanced environment for attracting birds and beneficial insects into your garden - then you shouldn't really have much of a problem. The odd greenfly - if you can find any -is easily dealt with by a sharp spray from the hose, but I've hardly seen one all year so far, as the huge population of birds are absolutely desperate for food for their fledglings and are constantly patrolling the garden searching for insects. Due to a few bad summers for insect breeding - apart from last summer - food supplies may be short - so if you keep feeding the birds, with peanuts (in a feeder) and meal worms - either dried or fresh, it will encourage them to stay in your garden and they'll help you keep potential pests down - rather than going further afield.
Diseases, as I've already mentioned, are normally avoided by good cultivation techniques - giving plants optimum growing conditions, good air circulation and good hygiene practices by that I mean keeping an eye out for any rotting or diseased fruit and disposing of it immediately. Consistent - rather than erratic watering also helps to keep plant stress down, feeding properly and also mulching - to retain moisture, keep roots cool and stop any competition from weed growth. Fruit like gooseberries can suffer from powdery mildew if they become dry at the roots but growing the newer, more disease resistant varieties like 'Invicta' can help.
Look after fruit in containers and polytunnel fruit
If you have any kind of fruit in containers - keep plants consistently and evenly watered or any developing fruit may drop off. The first thing any fruiting plants do if they're stressed is to ditch their fruit! This can often happen with figs about 2-3 weeks after they've gone short of water - and often you don't remember why they're now dropping fruit. Constantly just moist not saturated or very dry is the key with them. It's also a good thing to feed them weekly with a good quality, organic, high-potash liquid feed. If you don't have your own comfrey/nettle feed, or are not sure of it's consistent quality, then it's worth buying a good balanced proprietary organic brand such as Osmo liquid tomato feed - which I find excellent for everything. Being short of the correct nutrients will also stress the plant and could potentially affect next year's fruit bud development. If you're planting permanent fruit in containers of whatever sort - always make sure there's good drainage and leave enough room at the top for watering and mulching.
If you're growing grapes keep pinching out the fruiting shoots two leaves beyond the developing bunch on each spur as the shoots grow, and any sub-laterals growing off those shoots to one leaf beyond their base. One good sized bunch per spur is enough for the vine to develop and ripen properly if you want decent sized dessert grapes of seeded varieties - but you can let the seedless ones carry two bunches per spur. Give them a weekly feed now, whether they're in pots or in
the ground. Tie in any non-fruiting leading shoots, particularly on seedless grapes - you'll be depending on those for next year's crop!
Figs confined in potsneed feeding at every other watering now as the early 'breba' crop is developing and so are tiny young autumn figlets. Don't let them dry out completely and wilt or they will immediately drop developing fruitlets. The overwintered crop of figs on some varieties is starting to ripen now - I can't wait! I'm almost tempted to say these are my favourites too!....Oh hang it - I just love all fruit! The same goes for peaches, which are developing fast now, the early ones being almost table-tennis ball sized now.
The golden berries/cape gooseberries now ripe on last year's overwintered plants come ready packed by Nature in their own, protective little 'designer' paper cases! They will keep on fruiting all summer from now on in the tunnel - and this year's new plants from seed sown in February are just starting to flower too. They'll be ripening from late July/August onwards.
Summer citrus care
Lemons in pots can stand outside during the summer in a sheltered spot out of the wind. They're flowering at the moment and the bees will help to pollinate them. Don't forget to water them and give them a high nitrogen liquid feed like nettle stew - mixed with rainwater (not tap water) every fortnight. On TV some time ago we were shown some miserably 'chlorotic' looking yellowy-leaved lemon trees - the proud presenter didn't mention that they are lime-hating plants like rhododendrons - perhaps he didn't actually know!
All citrus trees are starting to make a lot of new growth now - the small, soft, brownish-red new shoots also carry the beautifully scented flowers. The older leaves may be looking a little yellowish after the winter - particularly if you've used tap water at all for watering them - which they hate! You can remedy this mineral imbalance by using an organic feed like Maxicrop seaweed and sequestered iron feed, which is widely available. Lemons can be incredibly productive if you look after them well - and they're not complicated to grow - just treat them like rhododendrons or other ericaceous plants. Scale insect is the worst pest - and can be easily dealt with by using an organic soap spray - but NOT when the soft young shoots are developing or you will burn them. The soap works a treat as it coats the scale insect all over so then it can't breathe through it's skin as it normally would, so it suffocates and dies. Scale insect can badly weaken the plants and make 'honeydew' which encourages 'sooty mould' to grow - disfiguring and again weakening the trees by blocking photosynthesis.
From now on I also give mine a weekly feed ofOsmo Universal Organic plant food - mixed into rainwater- this is a balanced feed and I find it works very well on lemons or anything else where you want to promote growth or that needs a bit of a boost. It works very fast too. Don't use a high potash chemical tomato food on lemons as they hate them.
Is locally grown more important than organic? Some say it is!
The answer is - that both are important actually! This is a topic hotly debated at the moment. To those who say that eating local is more important than eating organic - my reply is that firstly I want to support organic farming wherever in the world it's being done. And by the way - don't they eat lemons or other fruits we can't grow here in enough quantities to supply our local demands? In addition - if you eat seasonally as we try to do - not only is it more environmentally sustainable but it's also healthier, as my recent research for a blog article proved. Organic farming doesn't just protect the environment but also protects bees and other biodiversity and also regenerates precious soil which are becoming increasingly endangered. I know some people are against imported organic produce, but regardless of where in the world it is being produced - the sale of that produce is also supporting local economies, communities, schools, often Fairtrade producers etc. - and also the local environment - wherever that happens to be.
Some of the'local purists' should keep quiet about carbon footprints - if that's why they say local is better - especially if they're flying off on holidays here there and everywhereat least once a year - and if they're also supporting industrial chemical agriculture by buying it's produce! Frankly that's just a tad hypocritical! Agricultural chemicals have a massive carbon footprint because they are made using fossil fuels and also destroy soil life - thereby releasing even more carbon! Ireland is also a net exporter of agricultural produce. This is often a point rather selfishly overlooked in the 'local' argument! ("Sauce for the goose" springs to mind!) If I need to buy anything I would always choose Irish organically grown if there is actually a choice. Anyway, if you think about it, the carbon footprint of something organic produced in a warmer country may often be far less than that of something grown with artificial heat and light much closer to home.
I think that seasonal and organic eating, as far as possible, is a far better thing to aim for - because in that case - you're probably eating local most of the time anyway. It greatly increases the pleasure you get from food too. Firstly it's properly ripe so it has far more flavour and also a better nutrient profile. Eating seasonally means that you can look forward to and thoroughly appreciate each season as it comes around. I know that it hugely increase the pleasure I get from food. That first peach yesterday was like just nectar! Who wants to eat the same tasteless, plastic-wrapped stuff all year round? Growing some your own organic fruit is so easy - even if you only have a small garden or room for just a pot. There's no reason to buy the exorbitantly expensive, non-organic junk we see for sale in supermarkets or even at local 'pick your own' farms' - which are rarely organic!
I certainly wouldn't want to eat the highly-sprayed local produce currently available in every supermarket just because it's grown locally! If I buy anything - it's only ever organic - no matter where it comes from. Some conventional, chemically produced, locally grown lettuce for instance may be sprayed 20 times or more with a cocktail of different pesticides, fungicides, weedkillers etc. and the soil they're being grown in already will already contain residues of chemicals from previous crops. Studies have already shown that these can interact and become up to 1,000 times more toxic as they amplify each others effects! Frankly - you might as well go and forage for food in a chemical dump!! There's obviously some imported stuff - like lemons for example - that even 'local' purists are going to have to buy unless they're going to live a very spartan life! If more people supported organic - then it would become cheaper and more widely available.
Enjoy the bountiful harvests of summer - and don't worry about the cream!
The latest scientific thinking on that is that it's actually good for you! I always thought it was anyway! And of course all organic dairy products, including cream, are naturally far higher in good Omega 3 fats than non-organic, so it's even healthier! The fat in dairy products is where most of the nutrients are. If you're worried about all the calories - then just work them off with all that weeding and mulching!! Actually though, I think creme fraiche is much nicer than cream anyway - it's even better for you than ordinary cream - as it's also probiotic and especially so if you make it at home more cheaply using kefir grains. Try making an ice cream with just strawberries, home made creme fraiche or yogurt, a little sugar or organic Stevia drops and a dash of lemon juice - it's heavenly! Yum! That's for when you get fed up with them straight, or dipped in melted 99% dark chocolate of course - and that's healthy - positively medicinal in fact, with all the healthy polyphenols in the dark chocolate!!
Really the best thing about growing your own organic fruit is that you can eat it properly ripe and still warm from the sun - while it's super-fresh and mouth-wateringly good!
(Please note.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. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)
Topics for June: Pretty and Productive Potagers.....Potato Blight - my way of dealing with it.....Keeping diseases and pests at bay.....Dealing with slugs..... Watering & other jobs.... Keep the ground busy - don't waste an inch of growing space!....Saving money by taking cuttings of veg plants....Making high-rise, raised (or 'no-dig') beds...What can you do about spray drift?
Flowers mixed with vegetables - in the French 'Potager'-style. Brassica bed planted with nasturtiums, tagetes and viola
Pretty and Productive Potagers
I'm a big fan of French potager-style gardens that mix flowers, fruit and herbs with vegetables. They have always seemed a far more natural way of growing things to me, beause that's the way Nature grows things all mixed up together. At the moment I'm seeing lots of lovely photographs of other people's vegetable gardens on Twitter. Many are incredibly neat, controlled and very tidy looking with their neat rows of vegetables, but to me some of them look incredibly sterile and bare - almost like mono-cultures - with bare soil everywhere! Now I know that some chaps tend to think that planting flowers with your veg is a bit 'girly' but it's not! There's actually a very good scientific reason behind it - quite apart from the fact that it looks beautiful! If you don't have flowers that produce nectar and pollen - then why would any self-respecting beneficial insect visit your plot to lay it's eggs? Nature isn't that stupid or altruistic - insects need food as much as we do! The added extra of planting flowers for bees and other insects is that not only does this help with pest control - thereby making your garden more productive - but it also makes the vegetable garden look even more decorative. In my opinion, contrasting flowers make rows of delicious vegetables look even better! This is particularly important in a small garden where you may not have enough space for separate areas. I often used to visit the late Rosemary Verey's beautiful potager garden at Barnsley House, near Cirencester in Gloucestershire. It was an inspiration, as are dear Joy Larkcom's wonderfully delicious-looking books. One day I hope to make it to see the potager at Villandry. If only there were 48 hours in every day! I think that nothing looks prettier or more satisfying than a neat, productive garden full of good things to eat, interspersed with flowers and fruit trees! The trouble is - picking them spoils the nice patterns!
Don't forget if you haven't yet sown annual flowers to attract beneficial insects andbees and other insects like hoverflies - that you can still buy them in garden centres. Any nectar and pollen producing flowers will do and perennials like scabious, verbena Bonariensis and nepeta are also good - and especially herbs like Thyme and Marjoram. But don't forget theymust mostly be single floweredor they're not much use to insects! It's also important to ask the garden centre if they've been grown using neonicotinoid insecticides. The garden centre staff may think you're a 'barmy way out green' as I was described recently - but if you explain that most of the food we eat is actually provided thanks to pollination by bees - and that they're seriously under threat from these poisonous insecticides - then they may start to listen. If you don't mention that - they will think that this issue is something they needn't concern themselves with because the customer doesn't care. Many plants have bee-friendly labels on them now - but there is actually no legal definition for 'bee -friendly' and the plants labelled as such can still be grown using bee-damaging pesticides. These pesticides may also transfer by leaching into the surrounding soil where you plant the flowers, killing a lot of beneficial soil life including useful ground beetles and centipedes - so you don't want to kill them - and neither do you want to eat veg grown in soil which contains those chemicals! It's really good to know that by growing so many flowers with my veg - I'm helping bees and other beneficial insects to survive!
Potato Blight - my way of dealing with it
I keep a sharp eye out for potato blight now, as conditions will be ideal for it's development over the next few days, with warm weather following the recent torrential rain. If you got your seed tubers in early by starting off 1st and 2nd early varieties off in pots, as I do every year now - you should already have a decent crop under them already though. First and second earlies only need 10-12 weeks to develop a reasonable crop - and obviously after that any increase in the weight of the crop is a bonus. If we get a dry early summer, unless it's very humid we may not get blight until July - but after that it's mostly a given! I avoid early blight every year using my 'pot-planting' method. I know a lot of people just can't get their head around starting off potatoes in pots because it's not the way things were always done. But why not? It's easy enough to do on a garden scale, and no different to planting lilies or dahlias! Many other crops are started off this way and people don't have a problem with that! With climate change we will have to learn to 'think outside the box', be flexible and adapt our methods if we want to produce crops without harmful chemicals - although even those are becoming less effective now. Even permitted organic sprays such as copper sulphate can be harmful too, and build up in the soil if overused. It's severely restricted now under organic standards. I've never used any sprays whatsoever here for blight on potatoes but still get good crops.
Even early blight won't bother me now though - all my potatoes are already flowering and developing their tubers nicely. Another four weeks should see them with a really good crop underneath. We've already eaten about 2/3rds of their their siblings in the tunnel - so that's just as well. I planted the outside crop in mid April this year as you can see here. They were all started off in early March and by then were already well developed plants with a good root ball. After planting I always give them a good watering and then a heavy mulch of grass clippings which keeps the moisture in and weeds down - making sure to leave the stems clear of mulch which could rot them. After laying down the mulch I then water again - to ensure that no fumes are given off as the clippings don't heat up - which can burn leaves. The heavy mulch seals the surface, blocking out light so that weeds don't germinate and also stops the water evaporating too quickly - creating too humid an atmosphere around the plants and possibly encouraging blight. I then don't water again until the flowers are open - because this is the time when they start to develop their tubers. Less watering means less possibility of encouraging blight - so the best time to water is when you know plants will need it most.
Blight spores are in the air everywhere all the time, waiting for exactly the right conditions - warmth and high humidity Really good air circulation and low humidity conditions are the keys to avoiding it as long as possible. That, and growing more resistant varieties - like those pictured below - of which a few are being bred now. Sadly though they don't always have the wonderful flavour of the varieties I grow. There haven't been too many nights of frost since my potato plants were planted, so luckily I've only had to cover them a couple of times with a double layer of fleece to protect them from frost - there's no damage at all and they're growing really well. I always take fleeces off first thing in the morning as air circulation is so important to keep disease at bay. Despite hailstone the size of marbles in early May - there was no damage and they were looking really beautiful, but this morning are looking somewhat battered and bowed by the torrential rain overnight. They will recover though - but I shall now keep my eyes peeled for those first signs. Someone told me a couple of years ago about a really daft idea they had read somewhere - which was - "to cover the plants with polythene at the first sign of blight in order to stop it getting to the plants"! That's definitely the best way to reduce air circulation and the best recipe for encouraging blight as fast as possible that I've ever heard!! You can't shut blight out - any more than you can stop plants breathing!
Innovator flowering - a blight resistant cultivar called Albert Bartlett Russet in UK
Potato Tibet flowering - the most blight resistant potato I have ever grown.
As soon as I see any signs of blight on the Red Duke of York - my best blight indicator, then I immediately cut the haulms (tops) off all the plants immediately and cover that part of the potato bed with black polythene to stop any of the fungal spores washing down through the soil and rotting the tubers. Red Duke of York is always my blight indicator, being more susceptible than most - so it's always the first to be hit. After that I shall keep a careful eye on the other varieties in the bed and as soon as I see any sign of the 'tell tale' black blotches on the leaves, I shall do the same with them. Using this method - I've been growing enough potatoes to feed the family for most of the winter every year for the the last 25 years or so - when I gave up direct planting of seed tubers at the traditional time of mid-March. Combining that method with my 'extra early' mid January planting of tunnel crops - which I wrote about earlier this year - it means that I usually have my own potatoes all year round, depending on how many of the family and friends there are here to eat them! If you're growing in raised beds as I do - you can even leave them in the ground for months then - they keep far better this way unless you have a massive slug or rodent problem. I don't normally lift the remainder of the crop until frost is a possibility, then I store them stacked in slatted plastic trays, in a cool frost-free shed, loosely covered with black material to keep the light out, but still maintaining good air circulation.
New strains of potato blight have developed over the last couple of decades and become far more resistant to the chemical fungicides used by conventional chemical farmers. This is why many non-organic, commercially grown crops are sprayed often 20 times or more with chemical fungicides - quite apart from all the toxic 'cocktail' of other chemicals they are treated with. These include 'dessicants' - like glyphosate weedkiller which is used to spray off the foliage before harvest in order to make it easier for machines to harvest the potatoes). Even blight sprays aren't effective enough some years though - in that case farmers often then don't even bother lifting the crops because it's not economic - and they just plough them back in. Sometimes not for months though - leaving them rotting in the ground, and this just leads to even more blight proliferating in our mild damp winter climate here in Ireland! That creates the perfect conditions for the evolution of blight resistance - and the smell of rotting crops is disgusting around here sometimes. I am convinced that this practice combined with increasing use of fungicidal sprays has contributed in a major way to the development of more resistant strains of blight over the last few decades. I am also convinced that the amount of chemicals the general population is consuming now if they're eating these crops is going to cause a 'Tsunami' of health problems in years to come. Many scientists are beginning to worry about this issue too. Just this week some new evidence emerged about fungicides that are routinely used on many crops. Many think that fungicides are less harmful - but recent research has found that they induce changes in gene expression in mice similar to those in people with autism and neuro-degenerative conditions like Huntingdons disease. This could explain the increasing incidence of such diseases. They're certainly not what I would want to eat - which is why I grow all mine organically with no sprays whatsoever - not even organic ones like copper that are allowed under some organic guidelines! Growing potatoes my way, I find that I can grow enough potatoes to see us through the year without using any sprays. It might be a little more trouble - but I believe it's worth it!
Keeping diseases and pests at bay in other crops
When it comes to diseases in other crops - constant good housekeeping is the order of the day - especially so in salad crops like lettuce! Botrytis and downy mildew can spread like wildfire in if you're not vigilant. Keep an eye on crops and pick off any yellowing, rotting or otherwise diseased leaves immediately! This is especially important in wet weather. Conversely in dry weather - powdery mildew can often be a problem. If plants are not well-watered and mulched they may suffer this in dry conditions, as it is caused by dryness at the roots. Most of the questions at this year's Irish Garden advice stand at the Bord Bia Bloom 2018 garden festival were about that. and the heatwave we've been experiencing for the last few weeks with no rain at all will encourage it.
Dealing with slugs
Conversely - the scourge of wet weather - slugs, can be dealt with by picking off, slate or beer traps, keeping weeds down among crops and keeping any grass paths beside veg beds cut very closely so they have nowhere to hide! My preferred method is snipping with scissors on my nightly prowl and also using pieces of slate along rows where they hide and can easily be scooped up daily to feed to the hens! I know a lot of people find the scissor method difficult - but believe me it gets easier - particularly if you've had something nice destroyed by them! The other good thing about that method is that they are still available as food for all the wildlife in the garden. As I often mention - this garden is not just managed for our benefit - but also for the benefit of as much wildlife as possible. There are so many birds in this garden that I really don't know how they all manage to feed themselves! I rarely see pests though - so I guess that encouraging the birds, as well as other methods really pays off. I don't just grow veg - and I never have holes in my hostas either! If you have any beds or ground you're not using - growing a green manure will discourage those other pests - leather jackets - which will proliferate if you let grass grow on beds when they're empty. A warm September is perfect egg-laying weather for the Daddy Longlegs (cranefly)! Leaving beds vacant and forking over a few times before putting in lettuce is good at getting rid of many. The starling population in particular love leather jackets and are very efficient at clearing them up.
The weather forecast currently isn't holding out much hope for serious rain, which we desperately need now after the last few weeks of hot weather. Keeping plants well mulched after you've watered and the soil is moist is vitally important now, as crops are growing fast and will soon become stressed if they dry out, which reduces the length and amount of their crop and makes them run to seed early. A good heavy mulch reduces evaporation so you will need to water less often. It also keeps plant roots cool. Containers can often need watering twice a day in warm weather - a bit of a drag I know - but if you want to grow stuff and have no garden - it can still be done!
A good soaking and mulching with grass clippings, compost or other organic material will really pay off then. As I've said above - remember to keep any mulch a couple of inches away from the stems.Protecting all bare soil with an organic mulch helps to buffer it against drought, and as the worms gradually work it in, it naturally becomes humus, which acts like a sponge and absorbs more water. This is one of the reasons modern industrial chemical farming ruins soils, because it uses up soil humus and doesn't return organic matter like strawy manures and recycled plant wastes as farming did for hundreds of years, and as organic farmers still do now. The unnaturally, chemically fed soil becomes just a lifeless dust. Without any added humus it's carbon store is depleted and so it doesn't absorb water. More and more hedges and field margins have also been taken out which would have absorbed water. Heavy rain then just runs off quickly causing flooding problems, pollution of rivers etc. That's what we suffered in many places this spring. Plants then also become stressed and sick - needing even more chemicals to keep them alive!!
Effective watering at the roots where it's most needed is the key, rather than just aimlessly splashing it about on the surface where it just evaporates! Timing is everything too. As I've already mentioned - potatoes, for instance, benefit most from water just as they come into flower, as that's when the tubers are starting to swell.I always water everything by hand. It can be time consuming at times, but I prefer doing this because I grow so many different types of crops together, often 'catch-cropping', inter-planting or 'poly-cropping' (the latest 'buzz word'!) with salads or other fast-growing crops between rows of slower growing crops, which all need different amounts of water. I've tried various automatic systems over the years, but find they tend to waste water and never really do it as well as you would yourself. Doing it by hand also means you're really looking at your plants, getting to know them well and noticing any possible first signs of something going wrong - a few aphids perhaps, or a spot of mildew. Powdery mildew is often a sign that things are too dry at the roots. I find that courgettes in containers always suffer from this in particular - they tend to crop brilliantly for a few weeks - as my early ones in the west tunnel are doing right now - but then no matter how much you water, as the plants get bigger they will get mildew on the leaves. Those growing in the ground are far happier really - but again - if you have no garden - containers are the only option, so you can get around the problem by sowing another few, 3-4 weeks after the first ones, then when the first ones go beyond the point where they're still cropping well - the next ones should start cropping.
Water is a precious and valuable resource, not just for us humans but for all life, so don't waste it, save every drop you can. If you're recycling grey water, make sure you're not using chemicals like bleaches and disinfectants, and use it as soon as you collect it, as it can become a bit smelly if you store it! I prefer to use it for crops that are going to be cooked rather than salads! I think that all new houses should by law have to install rainwater harvesting systems, for uses such as flushing toilets etc. If you collect as much rainwater as possible like I do - Hoselock do a very useful and efficient water pump which you can use to pump water out of water butts and onto your garden, it saves a lot of back breaking work carrying water to where you want it as you can attach a lose to it. It comes out pretty fast though - so make sure you're aim is careful!
Keep the ground busy - don't waste an inch of growing space!
Have something ready to go in pots or modules so that you can plant it immediately any crop is finished and cleared. Things grow really fast at this time of year, so "gather ye rosebuds (or vegetables) while ye may"! - After the summer solstice, growth starts to slow up, in some cases quite dramatically! You should be starting to enjoy some of the rewards of your efforts this month - if you're lifting early potatoes, don't forget to save a few for a really early crop next year as it's difficult to buy them early enough in Ireland - and even if you order online they don't always come in time to get them sprouting before mid January. We've been eating new potatoes since mid April from the earliest plantings in the tunnel.
Make absolutely sure you only save any seed potatoes from the very best, healthiest-looking plants. In case you don't know what a virused one looks like, here's a photo I took a couple of years ago - clearly showing the difference between a healthy looking plant and one obviously infected by virus. I would normally 'rogue' this one out as soon as I recognised it was virused, as it can be spread to other plants by aphids and I grow a lot of rare old varieties, which I want to keep healthy. I deliberately left this one just in order to take a pic. of the example for you - very noble! Aphids can spread any virus to other plants. I often get problems with bought in so-called 'certified' seed, but very rarely on any that I save myself, as I am super-careful about what I save. Always wash the potatoes you're saving, dry them off gently with kitchen paper and leave them in a single layer somewhere cool where air can circulate around them.
I'm planting out pumpkins and sweetcorn this weekend. I hate being without them - and the weather is so unpredictable nowadays. The pumpkins were potted on as small seedlings into 2 litre pots and are now nice big plants, with the roots just starting to show through the bottom of the pot. Never let pumpkins become pot bound - they don't grow on well if they get a check. As usual I will give them all a heavy mulch of grass clippings to retain moisture and keep the weeds down. When 4 leaves have developed I shall pinch out the tip of the plants to encourage them to side shoot from each leaf axil. Each one of the subsequent shoots should then produce at least one pumpkin each. If you don't do this, the plant may set just one fruit and then later ones further along the shoot may not develop properly. I'll be planting my celery outside too, inter-planting between the sweetcorn plants for shade - which it likes.
Make sure you have seeds of winter crops like sugar loaf chicory 'crystal head', winter lettuces, lambs lettuce, land cress etc. - If you go to the garden centres next month looking for them - they won't be there - as I've learnt to my cost on several occasions. They seem to think that nobody sows anything after midsummer - so they send all their seeds back to the suppliers!! Or order them online. The Organic Gardening catalogue, among others, has a good range of winter cropping salads etc., most need sowing in July or early August at the latest. Jack Ice, Lattughino and Fristina are fantastic winter lettuces which are loose leaved, hardy and stand for a long time in spring. Jack Ice is a new one I discovered 3 years ago - from Real Seeds. It's grown really well in the tunnel for the last 3 winters and was quite hardy outside too. By the way, don't sow radicchio before midsummer as it can run to seed.
Keep up with successional sowing of salads - that's something that's so easy to forget when you're busy - but otherwise you can find you suddenly have a gap - particularly if we get a hot spell (I wish) and plants go to seed. Even at this time of year I still sow into modules - that way plants are bigger much more resistant to the odd nibble from pests. Please don't use slug pellets - they're the lazy gardener's option and kill so much helpful wildlife. Would you deliberately poison a blackbird or a hedgehog? No of course you wouldn't! But if you use slug pellets that's exactly what you're doing! An evening stroll with the scissors is far nicer! Don't forget to give slugs alternative places to hide too, like a slate or similar placed on beds, where they think they're safe during the day - then pick them up and dispose of by your preferred method! You all know mine now!
Keep your fleece on standby - don't put it away completely just yet! We often get the odd late frost in many parts of Ireland. The night before last it was only 2 deg. C on the potato bed - but at this stage mine were far too big to cover and as the beds are very raised and also on a slight slope I hoped any frost might slip down hill. Luckily no damage! Don't get caught out though if you're planting out tender things. Make sure they're well hardened off, watch the weather forecasts and get to know your particular local climate, as it varies hugely from the North to the South and South-West - and even in individual gardens in the same locality!
Saving money by taking cuttings of veg plants
You can save yourself a surprising amount of money by propagating some of your veg plants from cuttings - particularly those that can be expensive to buy in as plants or as seed - like F1 hybrid tomatoes. It's really easy once you know how, as you will see from the pictures here. Some things like overwintered chard can be cut down with a very sharp spade or loppers and will re-sprout from the base. This is particularly useful if they're just going up to seed and you don't have any to follow on for a while. You can still harvest some useful pickings from them in a week or so. I did an experiment a few years ago and kept some going for 2 years by doing this.
Even expensive tubers like Mashua, Yacon and Oca can be propagated by cuttings - just like dahlias. I first discovered this easy method of water rooting quite by accident many years ago on dahlias. I broke one and stuck it in a jar of water to see if the stem would flower - and it rooted! You just take the cutting about 6ins/15cm long with a very sharp knife like a craft knife (this is important to avoid bruising) cutting just below a leaf node. The stem must be solid not hollow - again to avoid rotting. It it's hollow then re-cut it further up where it's solid. Put it in a jar of water for a couple of weeks, making sure it doesn't dry out. A north-facing windowsill is good for this at this time of year, as you don't want them cooking. Some will start to root withing a few days and it's fascinating watching them develop. When you think they have enough roots, then pot them up in a small pot of seed compost and water well. The low nutrient in seed compost is a sort of half-way house between the water they were in and their future home and shouldn't burn the roots. The people who sell these tubers at vastly inflated prices won't like me for telling you this - but that's nothing new! Often the cost of buying plants puts people off trying the more exotic veg - and they can be great fun to grow!
Making high-rise, deep raised, (or 'no-dig') beds
The re-development of the kitchen garden into a raised ornamental potager is ongoing and the new, higher raised beds are a complete joy to work! Made from two tiers of 7 inch planks, so that even when my back is dodgy, it means I don't have to bend and I can even sit on a stool or chair to garden if necessary. It makes my heavy clay soil so much easier to work, and will improve as more compost is added over the years. The plan is to hopefully complete half the garden this year - another four beds, depending on finances and my son's goodwill! (he barrowed about 3 tons of soil per bed, from the top paddock to the garden bless him!). Possibly a little ambitious - but one has to have goals! We used 7 x 2 inch planks, treated with an oil-based organic wood preservative from Fruit Hill Farm, with corner brackets and 3ft/1m lengths of rebar hammered in along the sides at intervals for support, which looks very neat and they won't rot in the wet ground. I'm now making a carrot fly frame to fit over the bed and looking for some nice finials for the corners. I'm always looking for some new way to improve the garden - I'll never be bored!
I used my own organic soil (for over 35 years) which we had after digging out my new bigger wildlife pond at the bottom of the field (one of the best things I've ever done). I didn't lash on tons of manure or mushroom compost as some advise! It can seriously upset the balance of soil life and nutrients - and would also contain contaminants like pesticides used in both the production of the original straw and hay in the manure and also worm treatments and antibiotics used for treating animals. Mushroom compost is also made from conventionally chemically grown straw which is then dessicated with glyphosate pre-harvest. In addition - when being prepared for mushroom cultivation - the substrate is then also treated with soil sterilants like Methyl Bromide and organo-chlorine pesticides against destructive fungus gnats. I don't want those 'chemical cocktails' in any of the food we eat - combinations of which have been proven to be many times more toxic than the original chemicals individually! I prefer to be a little more patient and rely on nature's gentler less toxic way of doing things - mulching, composting and worms! It's much safer!
According to Garden Organic (formerly the HDRA) - the 'grow your own boom' has brought on a massive increase in the use of peat, weedkillers and other pesticides, and if you've been reading this blog for a while you will know as organic gardeners and people who care about the environment, that's something we don't want at any cost! It's not necessary for us to use pesticides in order to grow food! There are safer organic alternatives!
The grow your own boom is also sadly leading to the death of more wildlife like birds and hedgehogs and also pet deaths through eating metaldehyde slug pellets. DON'T USE THEM - THEY'RE NOT NECESSARY!Just take a bit of extra trouble instead of thoughtlessy lashing on pesticides! I was talking to someone recently whose lovely Labrador dog had been killed by eating some of a bag of slug pellets that a neighbouring farmer had left lying around - he was devastated! How could anyone be happy knowing that their use of pesticides might come at such a price?
Keep up with hoeing the weeds if you have any bare soil. Mulching is better for soil though and if you weed well and then put on a thick light excluding mulch - that will keep weeds down even after rain. Mulching also improves the soil - then making it much easier to get perennial weeds like docks out with all their roots intact - so they won't come back. If you're finding it hard to keep the weeds down on a new allotment or garden, as often happens a this busy time of year, then don't just give up and let them run to seed. Remember the old quote "one year's seeds - seven year's weeds!". Either cover the ground with black polythene or some other total light excluding mulch, or even better, keep mowing it and making compost which will improve the soil and save you money at the same time! The grass roots will break up the soil and you can dig it in to each patch as you find you can manage it - if you sow some clover into it as well, this will fix 'free' atmospheric nitrogen, adding hugely to the soil's fertility when you dig it in and also encourage worms.
It's far better to cultivate a smaller patch really well, than take on too much and end up with an unproductive mess!
What can you do about spray drift?
This is becoming an increasing problem in many areas of Ireland and the UK where people living in rural areas are being directly affected and their air, gardens and even water polluted. Several people have contacted me to ask what they can do about it. At this time of year it's particularly bad. Two weeks ago there was spraying in a field to the north west of my boundary and there was some slight spray drift as the wind was in my direction, so I registered yet another complaint with the Dept. of Ag. here. A waste of time since they will not admit there is a problem - but at least I registered my complaint! Yesterday I'd just finished some work in the garden when I heard a tractor again in the next door field, and although it was still far too hot - I rushed to close the tunnels. Luckily for once the wind wasn't in my direction. I had a nasty incident a few years ago, when my garden and tunnels suffered serious spray drift contamination and I had to dump most of my crops - so if I hear a tractor these days I panic and rush out to see where it is. If there's any possible threat, I close the tunnels and cover all the outside salads with fleece. Currently that's all I can do - unless I'm prepared to have my produce privately tested at a cost of about 600 Euros and then take a court case personally against the farmer who is spraying - something that would take years to resolve, with enormous stress and at huge expense. In addition - as I no longer make my living from growing commercially - all I would be likely to recover would be the cost of the lost produce! They don't take into account any possible soil contamination as these products are currently approved for agricultural use.
One of the problems around here is some 'here today, gone tomorrow' farmers who rent land for just the year to grow a crop and then move on somewhere else. It's just rape and pillage of the soil! They obviously don't care about any chemical residues they leave behind, they don't care about the damage they do to soil or biodiversity and they don't even have to care even about being good neighbours as they don't live nearby! They certainly don't care about what state they leave the land in, because they have no investment in it's future. Their only interest is to make as much money as they can from it now and move on! It's almost got to the stage where I'm afraid to go out when the wind's in our direction - in case the spray-drift happens while I'm gone! I almost feel like I'm under siege here sometimes! It's all so different to how it was here over 35 years ago when we first moved here and were surrounded by species-rich old pasture abundantly full of wildflowers - now sadly all gone! Even our lovely crystal clear stream which used to support the young eels we often found has now been polluted and all life in it completely killed by agricultural effluent and all the uphill neighbour's grey water illegally being piped into it.
As I wrote this it was World Environment Day - do people not see the connection or do they really just not care? Sadly after my experience with our Dept of Agriculture a few years ago, frankly I wouldn't waste my time bothering with them again. They only came out here after 3 weeks of constant harassment, when they knew that I had already dumped most of the crops - and then said they couldn't find any traces of pesticides on the few bits that remained! They knew perfectly well that after 4-5 days it's difficult to find traces of the surfactants or adjuvants which make the pesticide coat the surface of the leaves more efficiently - despite the fact that at the time a friend & I still couldn't breathe in the tunnels or the garden 2 hours after the sprayers had gone from the field next door!. These adjuvants have never actually been safety tested at all as they were considered to be 'non-active' constituents of the sprays. However there is a growing weight of scientific opinion now which believes that these chemicals are just as toxic individually, as the chemical which they are sticking to the plants - and that when combined, all the chemicals in the mix form 'cocktails' which are many times more toxic. Their waste of public money paying a top official to come out here was purely a PR exercise because I was making such a fuss! However - I had registered my complaint.
Sadly there's very little you can do currently, exceptat least do what I did. Make a note of the wind direction and wind speed and log your complaint with your local environmental health officer and your Department of Agriculture. If some farmers are going to use chemicals then they should at least be used responsibly and to the absolute letter of the current law - whether I personally approve of them or not. Because the huge new sprayers are so expensive these days - many farmers don't have their own machines any more and use contractors to do the spraying instead. Those contract sprayers really don't give a damn when they do it - they still get paid for doing it and just do it when it suits their work schedule! You already know my opinion on the use of chemicals - but sadly we can't change the world overnight.
If some of us choose to grow or farm organically, we at least have a right not to have our gardens, produce, or even the air we breathe contaminated by chemicals which we don't wish to consume. If I was still a commercial grower I could have lost my organic certification and therefore my livelihood over such an incident - it is that serious. The sprays smell a bit like Jeyes fluid or creaosote fence preservative. Remember - if you can smell it on the air - then the air you are breathing is full of the particles of whatever is being sprayed - and you are being forced to breathe in cancer causing poisons with no choice. Even when it comes to smoking we now have a choice not to frequent the same areas as a smoker - but we have no choice but to breathe in pesticide polluted air.Meanwhile the sprayer operator sits up high on his huge machine in an air conditioned cab totally oblivious and uncaring!
I hope all your vegetable gardens are growing really well this mid-summer. Do savour every delicious mouthful and enjoy every single moment mindfully. The ups and downs of life over the years have taught me that you never know what's around the next corner.
(Please note.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. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)
June contents: June is busting out all over - summer has finally arrived!..... What do Scientists really Know about Life, the Universe and Everything?.....Hurrah - the Maskotka are ripe! Now we have 'Tomato Heaven' for the rest of the summer!... Dealing with aphids in polytunnels....Heat Damage on Tomatoes....Tomato feeding...To side-shoot or not to side-shoot - that is the question!.....Keep encouraging tunnel wildlife to help you with pest control.
Polytunnel 7th June - lots done - but some catching up to do!
June is busting out all over - summer has finally arrived!
I'm a couple of days later than usual with the polytunnel blog this month mostly due to the incredibly hot weather of that last couple of weeks!After the bitterly cold winter and erratic spring we had - the sudden extreme heat came as a bit of a shock to a lot of the overwintered crops which were still hanging on and producing useful leaves etc for the kitchen. I had to spend an awful lot of time watering in the polytunnels and outside - and also had to freeze an huge mountain of spinach and chard which quickly decided to bolt and run up to flower triggered by the sudden heat of well over 40 degC most days. It was high time they were out of their space though, as I still have a lot of summer crops to plant. I've still got about 2/3rds of the tomatoes to plant! Some of the earlier sown ones were planted in large tubs - especially the 3 early bush varieties as I was interested in comparing them. That was easy as I didn't have to wait for another crop to finish before planting those! More on tomatoes later. As you'll see from the picture above and if you compare it to last year's early June picture of the polytunnel below - things are a little bit behind, but are catching up fast now and I'm planting as fast as I can! Another thing that caused a bit of a delay was manning the Garden Advice stand in the main plant marquee at the Bord Bia - Bloom In The Park Show on the Bank holiday weekend - but it was really nice to meet so many keen gardeners and so rewarding to send them home with lots of new ideas and full of enthusiasm to carry them out. The one thing I'm never short of is lots of ideas to do new things and find new ways of growing organic food. My only problem is always a shortage of both time and energy!
I'm also growing quite a few additional polytunnel plants in preparation for a new illustrated talk which I will be giving for the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland, at the Russborough Garden Show - which takes place on Sunday the 29th of July at Russborough House in County Wicklow. I'm really excited about giving this new talk which is outlined below - and I do hope that some of you that live in Ireland will be able to come and hear me talking about what regular readers will know is one of my pet topics!
'The Polytunnel Potager - A Productive, Beautiful and Wildlife-Friendly Space'
To paraphrase William Morris - "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody it is this: have nothing in your polytunnel or greenhouse (or house) that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful"
(The talk will cover the topic of how to grow vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers organically in an ornamental way - as part of a integrated, decorative, indoor potager garden - illustrating some of the many 'useful and beautiful', easily available plants, suited to this type of cultivation. It will also include how to encourage the wildlife - including bees and beneficial insects for pest control and pollination which are vital for success, and briefly cover the topic of soil health in greenhouses or polytunnels.)
One of the polytunnel beds in June last year - it was already looking like a midsummer herbaceous border - full of abundant life - food, scented flowers and biodiversity
We're never quite alone in a garden
In summer, my favourite time of the day in the garden is late evenings, as the dusk falls. In the slowly decreasing crepuscular light there is a magical stillness where you can hear a leaf drop. Standing still you can almost feel and hear everything growing. There's a tangible atmosphere. One feels some sort of 'vibe' - a definite feeling that one is not quite alone and that the garden has a soul of it's own - or Genius Loci. That feeling is noticeable even in the polytunnels, where the plants are growing urgently. I'm not the only person who feels this - many sensitive gardeners do - and I think to be a good gardener you have to be a sensitive person. I remember the wonderful old Harry Dodson saying the same thing in that lovely TV series the Victorian Kitchen Garden many years ago. At the time he said that some people might think him fanciful - but I didn't - that feeling is definitely there. He said that he felt it most particularly when shutting up his greenhouses at night - and I know what he meant - I feel it too. It's a strange sensation that's impossible to put into words. I think poets were often better at expressing this intangible but very definite 'something'. Yeats's line from his beautiful poem The Lake Isle of Inisfree always springs to mind......."Where peace comes dropping slow......."... I'm certainly at peace in my polytunnels in the evening - surrounded by all the quietly growing plants and with the company of all the bees and birds - just as Nature meant us to be. One can forget for a while the many cares of this world when surrounded by all the wonderfully abundant biodiversity. But I never forget that I'm just a tiny part of this intricately beautiful picture - and that I exist thanks to all the rest of Nature....... It's a very humbling thought.
What do Scientists really Know about Life, the Universe and Everything?
Science is beginning to discover so many amazing things about plants which we were not aware of before. Far from demystifying them - for me it makes them even more fascinating. It's now proving that plants can react to outside influences far more than we previously thought and that they can even communicate with each other - both above and below ground. They can talk to each other too - in a molecular language - by giving off chemical signals to warn each other of threats when another nearby plant is attacked by pests or damaged in some way. Science is even showing how plants may be aware of our presence too - but because we humans are conditioned to expect all other species to react to outside stimuli exactly as we do - we are incapable of recognising that they react in different ways to us. There is still so much more that we don't know about plants and how they live their lives, interacting with everything else in their environment. We need to listen more to them and learn their language - only then will we truly understand these miracles of Nature, that we totally depend upon for our healthy existence, within this interconnected web of life.
Scientists tend to reduce Nature and the food we eat to purely the sum of it's currently-known chemical constituents - but it is so much more than just that. They give all the various components of food names and values, placing them into the context within which they believe they belong given their still limited knowledge. Most of us trust that they are all-knowing......but they aren't - and never can be. Every new scientific discovery shows us very clearly that scientists don't know it all. They're often only guessing at how all the many and complex natural components of foods - some of which they still don't even know about - interact within our bodies. That is, until the next 'eureka moment' that reveals a little more of how Nature works. Even something as seemingly simple as water has properties that react in our bodies in ways that are still, as yet, little understood.
One of my constantly inspirational heroes - the curious, incredibly brave and brilliant Nobel physicist Richard Feynman put it this way - "There is a difference between knowing the name of something and truly understanding it". How very true! The more we know - the more that the wiser amongst us realise that there is a huge amount that we still don't know! Those who try to convince us that GMOs are totally safe are only motivated by short-term commercial greed and by owning the patent on their particular method of genetic engineering. They cannot in all honesty assure us that they are safe - when they still don't even understand fully how organisms such as bacteria or viruses, for instance, interact with each other within their natural environment! They didn't predict the development of Glyphosate-resistance in weeds did they, for instance? Nature has a way of behaving in unpredictable ways and making fools of arrogant scientists! Remember that they are performing their experiments in laboratories. If you take bacteria or other organisms out of their natural environment, cultivate them in an agar or some other nutrient solution in a Petri dish and then study them under a microscope - they are most definitely NOT in their natural environment! As my scientist son says - Heisenberg's Principle - being that the very nature of laboratory experiments fundamentally changes the way things behave - particularly applies to natural organisms. This is one of the first things that all student scientists should learn. They are often limited by the ignorance of their tutors though. A bit more humility in many scientists wouldn't go astray - rather than arrogance and plain greed!
Our gut feeling is often far more reliable than the prevailing scientific opinion of the day - if we are prepared to listen to it. And that 'gut feeling is now an established fact! That's why I grow organically - because I've known in my gut for over 40 years now that it is the only way to grow the healthy real food which our bodies need. It's perfectly simple! Any scientist worth their salt should have the common sense to know that the way that nature evolved us to eat has to be the only healthy way for us to eat. It is a pity so few have the honesty to admit it!! Every time you Google anything about GMOs, pesticides or food these days, you are assaulted by a plethora of different articles by seemingly independent journalists - but in reality paid for by the vested interests of multinational chemical companies or huge food corporations. These first websites that come up are all trying to convince us that those of us who question if their products are safe are a lot of ignorant 'alternative' green idiots who know nothing - and that their 'true' science is all-knowing! They try to convince us that what they are doing is genuinely trying to feed the world - when actually they're only interested in profit - at any cost whatever to the planet!
The only way to sustainably feed a growing population is to restore the vital soil health which their chemicals have been systematically destroying for the last many decades since the advent of agricultural chemicals! Chemicals don't feed the vital soil life which we depend on not just to produce healthy food but also to mitigate the current disastrously accelerating climate change.
I'd better stop now - but I could go on ranting about this forever! You can blame the current incumbent of the White House whose toxic name I can't even bring myself to utter! After last year's news that he is selfishly dumping the Paris Accord on climate change, just to be popular with his American voters, I spent many sleepless night worrying about the future! Don't those voters who put him in The White House realise that what he is doing is destroying not just their children's future - but also that of everything else on this beautiful planet we call home? Are they really so brainwashed by all that stuff on Google - denying climate change and telling us that chemicals and GMOs are perfectly harmless - that they have lost all ability to reason, think for themselves and even use basic common sense? Or are they simply as selfish as he is and just don't want to face reality? He won't care - he's an old man and he'll be dead soon! He's just getting a final high right now on his enjoyment of all-powerful, ultimate control and doesn't give a toss about the future after he's gone! Even merely the fact that he is someone who would condone his children killing endangered African wildlife surely tells you all you need to know - doesn't it?
I know that like me you want hope - not gloom! And do you know what? There IS something every single one of us can do. We CAN fight for Nature in our own plots - whether those plots are just a window box or an acre! I started off here 35 years ago in a silent, barren field with no birds or bees anywhere. Now, despite being an island in the middle of otherwise intensively farmed land, I have a beautiful Nature- filled space that echoes with birdsong all day long - and that includes the polytunnel as you can see from the picture at the top which I took yesterday. Those growers with row upon row of sterile-looking crops (even some organic ones) who don't do everything they can to encourage Nature, are actually missing the point! They're only focusing selfishly on what they are getting out of it for themselves! Some never even mention Nature - but we CAN all make a difference to the future and to vital biodiversity....... and we CAN DO IT together! Rant over folks!
Hurrah - the Maskotka are ripe! Now we have 'Tomato Heaven' - for the rest of the summer!!
This year the first Maskotka was ripe on the 3rd June. It was lovely to come back from an exhausting day in the stuffy heat of the plant marquee at Bloom 2018 - and be met by this sight in the polytunnel! It was sown on the 11th of February and had been subjected to the most horrendous winter weather - even down to freezing due to the propagator braking down! But as usual it sailed through it all without turning a hair - it really is the most reliable tomato ever! Now we'll be enjoying luscious tomatoes for the rest of the summer! Although Maskotka has a wonderful flavour - I just can't wait for the first Caprese salad made with my favourite beefsteaks pictured below!
Maskotka is such a reliable tomato that I would never be without it. It really is the earliest tomato I've ever grown - and I've tried lots! It's a bush variety though, and tends to spread out a bit over the summer, taking up a lot of ground space. I also grow many other plants of the Solanacae family (tomatoes, aubergines etc.) so I haven't got enough room to grow them all in the ground if I want to stick to a proper rotation plan, thereby cutting down on the risk of disease or nutrient deficiency problems. So for both those reasons, I'm growing 'Maskotka' in large pots again this year, which I've found very successful in the past. It's an excellent flavoured, heavy-cropping, large cherry type which is lovely in salads but also tastes really superb cooked in my 'roast ratatouille' that I tend to make in huge batches for freezing over the summer. Of course this year once again, I'm also growing more new varieties for The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival at The National Botanic Gardens Glasnevin so that also puts more pressure on space. I don't mind the extra work though, as I can never resist trying some new varieties! I never have any problems at all with fruit setting - tomatoes are generally self-fertile anyway and again because I also grow mini-gardens at the ends of the tunnels either side of the doors, full of flowers and herbs that bring in the bees and other beneficial insects. (Most people seem to fill that space with junk!)
Dealing with aphids in polytunnels
The first thing many people do when they see aphids is panic and reach for a spray of something - even some who consider themselves organic! Doing that is often the worst thing you can do! The first thing to understand about aphids is that feeding with artificial fertilisers or overfeeding with nitrogenous manures encourages exactly the sort of soft growth that all aphids enjoy. It also reduces the plant's own ability to make it's own defences by depressing soil bacteria and fungi. Overfeeding - even with organic manure - can have the same effect due to the high nitrogen content. You may get very impressive-looking plants by lashing on tons of manure or compost the way that some 'experts' advise - but you won't have healthy plants. They'll make soft and sappy growth that is far more attractive to pests and also to diseases. I so often see these 'experts' being asked later on in the summer how to deal with aphids! That sort of proves my point really - I never actually see any here at all!!
Tomatoes in recycled 10lt buckets on grow-bag trays in the west/fruit tunnel - potted flowers between plants attract beneficial insectsAphids on any plant are a sure sign that the plant is stressed in some way - with a reduced immune response - and that's often the first time we actually notice it. Some people are having problems with aphids at the moment as many plants have been stressed by the extremes of weather swings this spring. An attack by pests is almost always a sure sign of that or some other stress such as the wrong conditions perhaps on a house windowsill, maybe too hot or too crowded. So keep an eye on your plants. Look at them closely every day, particularly any young plants still in propagators. The very hot days occasionally over the last week will have encouraged greenfly and other pests to multiply rapidly, which could be a problem unless there are plenty of predators around. Because I grow so many flowers in my polytunnels to attract beneficial insects - which in turn attract all sorts of insect-feeding birds and other wildlife - I have a permanent army of pest-controllers such as sparrows, robins, wrens and frogs, who hunt in the tunnels all year round. It's fascinating to watch them assiduously searching in every crevice of the plants looking for insects to feed their hungry babies. And there's certainly plenty of those judging from the loud demanding shrieks from every corner of the garden!
If you don't have a feathered army of pest controllers and you have an infestation building up on soft young shoots - don't panic and spray with anything! If there seems to be quite a lot then try just brushing them off gently first with a soft household paint brush or a pastry brush - particularly on plants like tomatoes where you don't want to wet the foliage - as that might encourage disease. Gently brushing with a small soft paintbrush often works well and buys you a bit more time while predators like hoverflies, ladybirds and wasps build up enough to deal with aphids. The gentle brushing also stimulates the plants to develop their own insect defences. Allow small birds like sparrows and wrens into your tunnels - they will help to gobble them up. Just hang large pea and bean netting on the doors & vents to keep pigeons or pheasants out. Put a peanut feeder near the open door of your greenhouse or tunnel as this will attract birds, and while they're waiting for their turn on the feeder they'll be encouraged to look for a few aphids as well. I know it's often quite hard to be patient and just trust nature - we've been so conditioned to believe that everything needs to be sprayed with something - even if it's only something natural!. I don't use any sprays of any sort whatsoever and haven't done for 40 years!
Nature doesn't always give you instant results - particularly in difficult weather - but try it and if it doesn't work you can always order a biological control like aphidius Colemanii - or ladybirds. They're not cheap though at about 40 euros for even the smallest amount you can buy! Whereas birds come free - with an additional entertainment factor!
The other great pest controllers are the members of the beneficial insect army. If you've got lots of insect-attracting flowers in your veg. garden and tunnel then they should attract plenty of predatory insects to deal with your pests. Flowering at the moment in the tunnel are borage, calendula (pot marigold), French marigold, feverfew, salad burnet, limnanthes (poached egg flower), phacelia, perennial Bowles wallflower, pansies, nicotiana, nepeta, scabious, sweet rocket and the herbs parsley and coriander which are flowering really well as well as Sweet Rocket and Nicotiana Affinis which smell heavenly at night - attracting lots of moths for the bats. I've seen quite a few wasps about this year too - and although they're aggressive little devils, they are voracious hunters of things like greenfly and caterpillars to feed their growing broods.
There are plenty of predators more than willing and able to do a good job of pest control for you given the chance - but if you spray with poisonous insecticides or even just an organic insecticidal soap spray - you will break the natural food chain by killing the good insects as well as the bad - including bees. And we all know how vital it is to help bees at the moment as they're so under threat of extinction from pesticides. Throwing the baby out with the bath water so to speak! I even use the organic soap spray for is for scale insect on my citrus trees if I get a very bad infestation - I discovered some time ago that melted coconut oil brushed onto the scale insects with a soft children's paintbrush works just as well as organic soap sprays and doesn't affect anything else. It stops them breathing - then they die and drop off.
Do keep an eye out for the start of any diseases though - I try to run my eye over everything in the veg garden each day if I can and I pick off any fading or diseased leaves etc. immediately - before any disease can start or spreads. In the humid conditions of the tunnel this can happen very rapidly. With all the different varieties of tomatoes making a sudden spurt of growth after the hot weather they also need looking over for side shoots every day - so I take a bucket round with me and pick off any dodgy looking leaves at the same time. Sometimes a purplish colour and browning at the tips or bleaching between the ribs of leaves is actually damage caused by a nutrient deficiency - usually magnesium - which can happen if planting is delayed and things are kept waiting in their pots - this happened with some of my tomatoes this year despite extra feeding. These bits can become diseased later in damp conditions - so I always pick them off if they start to brown.
Heat Damage on Tomatoes
Every year some people ask me why all their tomatoes are curling up very tightly at the top - some looking quite 'ferny' with some of the leaf tips browning - almost as if they'd been sprayed with weedkiller! This isn't caused by a disease - it happens because of stress from very intense heat. Tunnels are generally wonderful but they are a bit more difficult to manage than greenhouses in really hot weather unless you also have side ventilation to reduce the heat build up. It's impossible to shade large tunnels unless you're a millionaire and have automatic outside shading. Shading inside is no good as it doesn't stop the heat and also stops air circulation. Greenhouses are easier as you can paint them with some stuff called 'Cool Glass' - it's a sort of whitewash paint which stops the heat getting through the glass. It goes clear in wet weather so doesn't stop light. My tunnels have been well over 40 deg C/100 deg F for the last couple of weeks when it's been really sunny. The best thing to do in that situation is to 'damp down' all surfaces like paths really well with water three or four times a day while it's so hot. The evaporation cools the air and keeps it moving and buoyant. Only the paths though - NEVER THE PLANTS - despite what I've seen some so-called 'experts' recommending! This just encourages diseases - particularly potato blight - especially in tunnels because they're so warm and humid - and this can attack tomatoes too.
The tops of many tomato plants curling up is always most obvious during the hottest part of the day - but if you look at them last thing at night - you will see some of them almost visibly relaxing and uncurling again - poor things! It's their only way to avoid some of the damage. Since they obviously can't run away, they have had to develop other methods. Although tomatoes like sun and bright light - they can't stand it if it's too intense - so they curl up to try to avoid leaf exposure and damage. As long as you keep damping down paths this will minimise damage as far as possible and it will have less effect. If you don't do this the overheating can cause serious long term damage. Leaves may turn brown and die back altogether, and flowers may drop - affecting potential crops and often killing plants completely. Some don't uncurl again though because they are irreversibly damaged.
If you do have permanent heat damage to the tops of some tomato plants - this will become evident very quickly - within a few days or a week at this time of year. The leading shoot on the main stem can be so burnt, deformed and dwarfed that it will never recovers - although the rest of the plant may still be completely healthy. Often a side-shoot below the top will be unaffected by it and can quickly be trained up as an alternative leader - so although you may lose one truss of tomatoes close to the heat damage on the main stem - the rest will grow on fine later on and you won't lose too much cropping time. This is why if I suspect there may be any heat damage because of excessively high temperatures, I always leave one or two side shoots near the top and don't pinch them out until I can choose the strongest which can take over as the new 'leading' shoot. On the plant in the picture here you can clearly see that the original main shoot has become twisted and deformed - and I have left the next healthy-looking side shoot to train up. Some varieties seem to be more sensitive than other - not all seem to suffer as badly every year. This is a delicious small olive green plum/cherry tomato called Green Envy - which seems to be particularly prone to heat damage but is one of my son's favourites. So that's why I grow it - I have top keep the mower happy!
Don't over water tomato plants either - that doesn't help with heat damage - it just rots the roots! Keep the soil just nicely damp - always watering the surrounding area - never directly onto the base of plants - and mulch with grass clippings or comfrey if you can, to keep the roots cool. As I'm always saying - a little extra TLC, observation and attention to detail and you will be richly rewarded by your very grateful plants!
Just as in 2017 - it's been such a difficult year for young tomato plants. Wild swings in tunnel temperature from 100degF/40degC during the day to freezing nights. On many recent nights here it was only 2 deg C - at least 6 degrees below the basic minimum required for tomato growth. Only just a couple of weeks ago it was -3 deg C in the tunnels! Even under three layers of fleece the tomatoes were quite literally blue with cold! Since then they've been heat stressed too! I'm amazed they've recovered so well, but they're growing on again now and the weather forecast for the end of this week is for warmer nights. Let's hope so!
Maskotka is such a reliable tomato that I would never be without it. It really is the earliest tomato I've ever grown - and I've tried lots! It's a bush variety though, and tends to spread out a bit over the summer, taking up a lot of ground space. I also grow many other plants of the Solanacae family (tomatoes, aubergines etc.) so that I haven't got enough room to grow them all in the ground if I want to stick to my proper rotation plan, thereby cutting down on the risk of disease or nutrient deficiency problems. So for both those reasons, I'm growing 'Maskotka' in large pots again this year, which I've found very successful in the past. It's an excellent flavoured, heavy cropping, large cherry type which is lovely in salads but tastes really superb cooked in my 'roast ratatouille' that I tend to make in huge batches for freezing over the summer. Of course this year, I'm also growing more new varieties for The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival at The National Botanic Gardens Glasnevin this year so that has put more pressure on space. I don't mind the extra work though, as I can never resist trying some new varieties. I never have any problems at all with fruit setting - tomatoes are generally self-fertile anyway and again because I also grow mini-gardens at the ends of the tunnels either side of the doors, full of flowers and herbs that bring in the bees and other beneficial insects. (Most people seem to fill that space with junk!)
My tomatoes are always smothered in small bumble bees as soon as they're flowering - so I think that attracting pollinators is also one of the secrets, and also mulching well to keep the roots just evenly moist and to avoid wild swings in the root temperature which might otherwise stress the plants. It helps to grow flowers close to the tunnel doors on the outside of the tunnels too - a bit like a floral 'runway' or welcome sign to encourage bees to land inside the tunnels! All the tomato varieties are setting nicely now, and I can't wait to show you some of the new ones - they look really exciting - especially the new black varieties which are high in healthy anthocyanin phytochemicals.
As soon as the first complete truss is set on any variety, I start giving them a weekly liquid feed with either a home made comfrey/nettle/borage stew which provides potassium, nitrogen and magnesium - or a proprietary brand like 'Osmo' liquid organic tomato food which I've used for the several years now and found really excellent. You'll find it in most garden centres now and you can also buy it in White's Agri, Ballough Lusk Co. Dublin if you're anywhere near North County Dublin. They are the main importers for Osmo products and have the whole range there. In addition they sell the brilliant Klassman certified organic peat-free compost cheaper than most other places. I think that Osmo certified organic tomato feed is available in the UK - but if it's not available near you - then ask your garden centre to stock it. I find it a really excellent feed for everything both in the ground or in containers. With tomatoes in containers I tend to feed about 3 times a week when they get bigger as they're more dependent. I would never use a non-organic tomato food.
I also make a liquid feed if I only have a small amount of tomatoes, but it's very difficult to make enough for 90 or more plants - if I'm growing for Tomato Festivals! You just can't make it quickly enough! I'm not very scientific about exact amounts as a recipe for a home made liquid feed. I just stuff a large barrel with comfrey, borage and young fresh nettles. The nettles provide the nitrogen that really kick starts the whole breakdown process going, the borage provides magnesium that it's particularly good at extracting from the soil, and the comfrey provides potash. It really smells horrendous when it's really stewing! If you get it on your hands or clothes it's very hard to wash off! The most important thing is to use the comfrey variety Bocking 14 - as that's the one that was selected by the late Lawrence Hills of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (now re-named Garden Organic) as being the comfrey that's highest in potash. Other comfreys, including wild ones are far lower in potash. The one rule I use is to wait until it's really broken down and looks a bit like soup - and then dilute to about the colour of a weak herb tea. Don't use it too early as it may either be useless or possibly even burn roots. Wait until it looks like a green really smelly smoothie! I also give them a tonic of worm compost tea occasionally. It's all about keeping an eye on your crops, getting a feel for what they need, and feeding before they start to look hungry, otherwise it can take them a long time to pick up again. Don't overfeed them but let them become starved either - it's all about balance!
To side-shoot or not to side-shoot - that is the question! Especially with beefsteak tomatoes!
When it comes to removing side shoots, you obviously don't have to remove the side shoots of bush varieties, or you wouldn't get any fruit!. Most people know that you have to pinch out the little shoots growing in the leaf axils between the leaves and the stem on varieties of cordon or upright tomatoes, but I've never seen any of the 'experts' warning about how some of the continental beefsteaks behavethough- which makes me wonder if they've ever actually grown them!! Those types can be a bit of a law unto themselves - or try to be. You have to be firm and impose your will! I never pinch out the one or two shoots near the top of the stems until I can see a very definite main one which will continue the upward growth. From bitter experience I've found that many of them would really much prefer to be bushes which is their natural habit in the wild, and they will often make two or even three shoots at the very top which all look like leading shoots (very confusing), in which case you have to choose one which looks to be the strongest and most likely to grow on further and flower. Or maybe sometimes none at all - they'll just suddenly produce a flower truss instead, going 'blind' with no growing point at the top, in which case you have to be patient and just wait for another side shoot to begin to grow in a top leaf axil, or somewhere else, as it will do in a week or so, and then train that one up.
Beefsteaks really much prefer hotter, sunnier and drier Mediterranean or continental climate summers, like USA summers generally are, where they can be the bushes they obviously long to be, and sprawl about happily about in the sun doing do their own thing. But in our often dull, damp Irish 'summers' - if you're not strict with them - you can end up with a thoroughly unproductive, disease-ridden, slug eaten mess! Particularly with grafted ones which can be far to vigorous judging from the ones I was sent to trial a few years ago. Those were also tasteless which was a bit pointless really! They should produce four decent trusses at least though, if carefully trained. They do tend to be a bit prima-donna-ish, they ripen a lot later than the smaller tomatoes, but their flavour makes it well worth the trouble once you get the hang of them.
Many articles on growing tomatoes are written by experts living in the South East of England where their summers are so much hotter and drier than ours here or in the South West of the UK, so they don't tend to recommend varieties that are suitable for a damper climate. I've tried lots over the years, but in our damp climate with often poor light, I've found 'Pantano Romanesco' really is always the most reliable. 'Costuloto Fiorentino' and Costuloto Genovese also have a great flavour - but are a bit more disease prone in damp summers, as is Super Marmande. Black Krim and Black Sea Man both have supreme flavour but get every known disease far quicker than anything else in a polytunnel. The newer varieties which are being bred seem to be better behaved and less disease prone - but as they don't have even half the flavour - what's the point?! All tomatoes tend to prefer the much drier atmosphere of a greenhouse. I used to grow them in one every year when we lived nearer to the coast, but then greenhouses have their own unique problems too, those encouraged by a drier atmosphere, and all things being equal polytunnels are far better value for money, as you get a far bigger growing space. If I had oodles of money - I'd have a glasshouse just for tomatoes and aubergines - and polytunnels for everything else!
Reminder - Some 'experts' also fail to tell you that some varieties of tomatoes are actually meant to be bushes - and should NOT have their side shoots removed at all or you won't get any fruit! Amazingly - I saw that particular important information being completely ignored on a recent TV programme! Check your seed packet description of any variety before you start to remove side shoots!
The small cucumber Restina - seed of which I get from Lidl - is already producing fruit this year, as I sowed it in late Feb - much earlier than normal. It's a delicious gherkin or half-sized cucumber usually grown for pickling - but also scrumptious for eating fresh, with a really good 'old-fashioned' proper flavour! I can never wait for that first cucumber sandwich of the season! Despite the difficult weather - we've been eating baby courgettes and mangetout peas Oregon Sugar Pod from the tunnel for a couple of weeks now, The courgette is a delicious yellow one called 'Atena' (which will crop until Nov.) and later in the month we'll have French beans. I grow a climbing French bean called 'Cobra' which is brilliant in the tunnel - far more reliable than outside. Just one packet of 'Cobra will give you more than enough to eat for weeks on end if you keep them well picked over and watered - and will fill your freezer for the winter as well. It's an incredibly delicious, reliable and productive variety, DIY chain B&Q actually have the seed at half the price of anywhere else.
I don't bother with dwarf beans any more in the tunnel as they take up exactly the same amount of ground space, but only give you a fraction of the crop of the climbing ones - which make use of what I call 'upstairs space' to give you an enormous 'high-rise' crop. I'm sowing another late batch this week which will crop late into the autumn. The great thing about tunnels though is that they mostly protect crops from the worst extremes of the weather and all crops are far more productive under cover. In the winter this is particularly noticeable with hardier crops like chards and kales which could of course be grown outside.
I've planted two rows of basil where the chard has been cleared. I freeze masses of it to make lots of our vital 'medicinal' pesto during the winter months! There is a rule in this house which states 'you can never have too much garlic, or basil'! That first whiff of summer basil is wonderfully uplifting, but I must say that years ago when I was growing it commercially, after picking the first sixty foot row of a tunnel full of it, one did begin to feel more than a little nauseous! The aroma from the essential oil can be quite overpowering after a while. I prefer to grow basil on it's own in rows - giving it as much light and air as possible as it can be a bit disease prone in a humid tunnel atmosphere. Grown this way it's much more productive than when grown between tomato plants, which seems to be the fashion, as I see it recommended everywhere. Maybe because they go together on the plate?
Weeds shouldn't be too much of a problem nowas crops will be shading them out, andyou should also be mulching well, which excludes light, preserves soil moisture, keeps roots cool and encourages worm activity. If you don't mulch at this time of year the ground in the tunnel gets too hot and dry and the worms will disappear down into the lower layers of the soil where they're cooler and more comfortable. You want to keep them in the upper layers, pulling down mulches into the soil and working for you helping to feed your plants! Go round every day if possible pulling out the odd weed before it gets too big and goes to seed, and at the same time see what needs watering. If you're growing a wide variety of crops some may need water every day and others won't. This is why I dislike automatic watering systems - I think they're a complete waste of money! An automatic system can't tell if a plants waterlogged or too dry! It also can't tell what the weather is going to be later that day! There's no substitute for the personal touch and being observant - that's all having so-called'green fingers' is all about - no mystery! I have a friend who spends far more time fiddling around fixing her automatic system than I ever do with hand watering! It's always getting blocked - and ten to one they invariably let you down when you go away! If you've got room, put a barrel of water in your tunnel or greenhouse, so that you've got ambient temperature water always ready to use rather than chilling things with water from a hose. Water between plants rather than directly onto the roots, and if possible try to water well in the mornings, so that the surface has a chance to dry off before the evening when the doors are closed and the air is still.
Keep ventilating as much as possible now to keep disease at bay. Diseases proliferate in a 'muggy' damp atmosphere. If you've got a tunnel full of cucumbers on the other hand they won't mind! They love to grow in a bathroom atmosphere! Keep the soil moist for them, as the one thing that promotes cucumber powdery mildew more than anything is a damp humid atmosphere combined with dryness at the roots. All the cucurbit family should be growing quickly now, although they're not enjoying the last couple of really cold nights. Keep tying them in to their supports as they can quickly get out of hand. There's also more on planting and training cucumbers and melons, and also my method of planting on mounds to avoid common root rots.in last month's diary.
Keep encouraging tunnel wildlife
You've still got time to sow lots of flowers in your tunnel. You could also leave some of last winters herbs like coriander and parsley to flower and go to seed, or you could buy some buy flowers in modules from garden centres as a last resort. If you even have radishes bolting you can leave those too - they have pretty scented flowers that insects love! Insects also love the flowers of coriander and parsley. They definitely help to bring in insects for pollination and pest control, some can brighten up your salads and they look beautiful too. I always leave one or two chicory or endive plants too if I have room on the ends of rows - the flowers are so beautiful and the bees adore them! I've got enough seed to last me ten lifetimes now! I also keep a shallow saucer or tray full of water in the mini gardens somewhere - for the frogs which like to live in the shady damp areas of the tunnel and who are very efficient at eating those nasty damaging little grey slugs!
Itgives me so much pleasure to walk into my tunnels at this time of year and to anticipate the delights of all the wonderful crops to come - all the while knowing that I haven't poisoned or damaged anything else in order to do it!It's really so much more satisfying to grow your own food while at the same time encouraging and helping nature too. If you look after nature - it will look after you. We often tend to forget that we're only a small part of nature too. If we poison this lovely planet that we all call home - we will be leaving a terrible and painful legacy for our children.
(Please note.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. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)