What to Sow in June - 2017

"Remember - always sow the seeds. You can catch up on everything else - but if you get behind on doing that, then there's nothing you can do about it."  ..........    (A great piece of advice I was given many years ago) 
 
 
Sow in gentle warmth in pots or modules for late summer tunnel/greenhouse cropping:
 
There's still time to sow French beans (dwarf and climbing), edamame (soy) beans, sweet corn, courgettes, pumpkins, summer squashes, marrows and melons. You can also still sow cucumbers & gherkins (Restina excellent variety) for late summer and early autumn cropping, also calabrese/Italian broccoli (Green Magic good) and self-blanching celery for later autumn crops.
 
Shade propagators and young seedlings well from strong sun at all times now using and make sure to turn off propagators during the day, if it's warm enough. The temperature can rise dramatically in greenhouses and tunnels at this time of year, and if it's too hot - things can quite literally cook!  Although in theory you can sow everything outside now - the nights can still be quite cold, so it's still worth sowing tender crops like French and runner beans, sweetcorn, basil,  cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and squashes in pots or modules in a greenhouse, tunnel or propagator for planting outside in a couple of weeks. These need reliable warmth and will germinate far more quickly undercover - often in 2-3 days - making them at least a week to to 10 days earlier than anything you might sow now outside. In addition, if the weather turns very wet - seeds can rot. Sowing in modules also avoids potential losses through slug damage, leather jackets and other pests - and it helps you to make better use of valuable growing space. 
 
Sow some quick growing annuals now directly into the tunnel soil in odd corners to attract bees, hoverflies and other beneficial insects, these provide them with vital pollen and nectar. 
 
It's also it's time to start to thinking about the slower developing winter tunnel crops. Self-blanching celery for winter tunnel cropping needs to be sown in cool conditions around mid - late June, for tunnel planting later, as it is quite a slow developer at first. 
 
 

Outdoors, sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop:
 
Amaranth (callaloo), beetroot, carrots, cabbages (leafy non-hearting and late stone head types), peas (early vars. such as Kelvedon Wonder from now to ensure cropping before early autumn frosts), calabrese and 'tenderstem' broccoli, courgettes & marrows, 'Witloof' chicory (for winter forcing), endives, salad onions, Florence fennel, French and runner beans, leeks (an early var. for baby leeks), land cress, lettuces, perilla, orach, kohl rabi, kales (early June for winter cropping), radishes, rocket, Swiss chards, spinach, summer squashes, sweet corn, white turnips and swedes, summer purslane, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes, soft herbs such as basil, oregano, parsley, coriander, dill, fennel etc. and perennial hardy herbs including sorrel. 
 
Also sow some single, fast growing, annual flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), calendula, Californian poppies, convulvulus tricolour, nasturtiums, phacelia, sunflowers etc. to attract beneficial insects like hoverflies to help with pest control, and bees to help with crop pollination. 
 
Sow fast-growing green manures like buckwheat, red clover, mustard (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 that won't be used for 6 weeks or more, or which needs improving. Red clover, buckwheat and phacelia in particular are also great for bees! (You can 'bulk buy' buckwheat seed very cheaply from your local health food shop - just don't get 'roasted' buckwheat - it obviously won't germinate!!) 
 
 
 
In warm well drained soils outside, tubers of oca, mashua, sweet potatoes and yacon can be planted now 
 

(although all of these will produce a better crop in the tunnel, particularly in Ireland, as they like warm soil, bulk up late and are vulnerable to autumn frosts. They also prefer well drained conditions) With yacon - you plant the small baby 'growing' tubers that cluster round the stem area at the top of the larger tubers. These all need a long growing season as they only begin forming their tubers in late autumn - in colder frost prone areas growing them in a greenhouse or tunnel is the best way to get a reliable crop, but be aware that Yacon in particular needs a lot of space!
 
*Sorry to mention it at midsummer - but it's now time to think ahead to what crops you will want to grow over the winter, in the polytunnel or outside, and buy the seeds now if you haven't done already! Otherwise they may disappear off the shelves, when garden centres re-organise their stock for the autumn season which they tend to do around the end of June. Online seed companies may also be sold out of popular varieties by then.
 
 
(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.)

The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in June - 2017

June contents: What do Scientists really Know about Life, the Universe and Everything?....Only a few more sleeps until pure 'Tomato Heaven'!... 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 
 
North-east polytunnel beds look like a herbaceous border
One of the polytunnel beds 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 hard to put into words. I think poets were often better at expressing this intangible '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 happy, abundant 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 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 the wiser among us realise the 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 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. 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 paid for by the vested interests of multinational chemical companies. 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 today! After yesterday's news that he is selfishly dumping the Paris Accord on climate change, just to be popular with his American voters, I spent a 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 spent about three hours this morning writing part of this blog post which I then dumped - because 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!
 
 
 
An exciting time of year! Only a few more sleeps until pure 'Tomato Heaven' - for the rest of the summer!!
 
Tomato Heaven! Insalata Caprese - with (from bottom) John Baer, Green Cherokee, Ananas Noir & luscious buffalo mozzarella.
Tomato Heaven! Insalata Caprese - with (from bottom) John Baer, Green Cherokee, Ananas Noir & luscious buffalo mozzarella.
 
 
 Dealing with aphids in polytunnels
 
The first thing many people to when they see aphids is panic and reach for a spray of something - even some who consider themselves organic!  The first thing to understand about aphids is that feeding with artificial fertilisers or overfeeding with manures encourages just the sort of growth that all aphids enjoy. It also reduces the plants ability to make it's own defences by depressing soil bacteria. Overfeeding - even with organic manures - 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 often see such '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!! 
 
Tomatoes in recycled 10lt buckets on grow-bag trays in the west/fruit tunnel - potted flowers between  plants  attract beneficial insects

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tomatoes in recycled 10lt buckets on grow-bag trays in the west/fruit tunnel - potted flowers between  plants  attract beneficial insects
 
Aphids on any plant are a sure sign that a plant is stressed in some way - with a reduced immune response - and it'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 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 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 aggressive little devils, they are voracious hunters of things like greenfly and caterpillars to feed their growing broods. There's 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 - 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!  The only thing I ever use the organic soap spray for is for scale insect on my citrus trees if I get a very bad infestation - or otherwise I just scrape them off with my fingernail or a hard toothbrush.
 
 
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 - so I 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 'Coolglass' - 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.
 
 
Heat-damaged main tomato shoot on left with healthy undamaged side-shoot on right to be trained up as replacment main shoot
Heat-damaged main tomato shoot on left with healthy undamaged side-shoot on right to be trained up as replacment main shoot
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!
 
 
Cucumber 'Burpless Tasty Green' with courgette 'Atena' in side bed late May
Cucumber 'Burpless Tasty Green' with courgette 'Atena' in side bed late May
 
 
This year I've got no ripe tomatoes on the 1st June as I have done other years. Although they're at the stage that they're often sold as 'ripe' in supermarkets - they're nowhere near that yet for me. I like my tomatoes really ripe! They'll be another few days yet - the 'Maskotka (always the first) are only just 'turning' and developing a more yellowy/olive green tint. It's been such a difficult year though that I'm really lucky to have them at all. 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!   
 
 
 
 
Bush cherrry tomato 'Maskotka
Bush cherrry tomato 'Maskotka
 
 
Maskotka 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 Kilruderry in September, 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!) 
 
 
Bumble bee pollinating beefsteak tomato, with carrots under fleece behind
Bumble bee pollinating beefsteak tomato, with carrots under fleece behind
 
 
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.  
 
 
 

 

 

Tomato feeding 

 
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 behave though - 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!
 
 
Other Crops
 
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 seasonWe've been eating courgettes, sugar peas Delikett, Shiraz mangetout pea, calabrese Green Magic and small broad beans 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, 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 actually be grown outside.
 
 
I've planted two rows of basil where the early kale 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 now as crops will be shading them out, and you 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 
Mini garden under peach trees with thyme, calendula, borage and wallflower
Mini gardens under peach trees with herbs & flowers attract beneficial insects & bees
 
 
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! 
 
 
 
It gives 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 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.)

The Vegetable Garden in June - 2017

Topics for June:  Pretty Productive Potagers.....Potato Blight - my way of dealing with it.....Keeping diseases and pests at bay.....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?  
 
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Flowers mixed with vegetables 'potager-style'. Brassica bed planted with nasturtium, tagetes and viola
 
Flowers mixed with vegetables - in the French 'potager' style.  Brassica bed planted with nasturtiums, tagetes and viola
 
 
Pretty Productive Potagers
 
 
I'm a big fan of French potager-style gardens that mix flowers, fruit and herbs with vegetables.  They seem a far more natural way of growing things to me.  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 - but to me some of them look incredibly sterile and bare - almost like mono-cultures! 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 the 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!  
 
South east raised bed in veg garden - loo roll sown parsnips doing well in foreground, gap where lettuce removed, celery and red cabbage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

South east raised bed in veg garden - parsnips doing well in foreground, celery and red cabbage

 

There's suddenly and explosion of growth everywhere after the rain of the last few days - including weeds! I'm a bit behind outside in my kitchen garden/ornamental potager this year due to the difficult wet spring we've had here and being away from it for 2 weeks in mid-May - not a good time to go away but the LitFest at Ballymaloe was too hard to resis. Then my daughter arrived for a week's holiday the day after I came back - and family always have to come first - but I'm gradually catching up with the garden work now.  We've already got lots for eat from the tunnel as well as salads and potatoes outside - and soon it should soon be filling up with an abundance of other wonderful crops now we're into early summer.  I'm so lucky to have the polytunnels for early spring crops as we have such a wet climate and would otherwise have nothing at all outside in some late winters/early spring - but there's only so much you can grow in them at this time of year and it gets far too hot in the polytunnels for most things now. At this time of year things grow really quickly but this year in particular it's very noticeable after the very slow start because of the earlier very cold nights. You can see from the giant Echium by the cottage wall just how fast things can grow at this time of year. They've grown about ten feet in the last month and are nearly up to the roof already! They are full of deliriously happy bees at the moment. So many that it sounds like there's a swarm in the garden! It's so lovely to see them and so good to know that by growing so many flowers with my veg - I'm helping them to survive! 

 
Don't forget if you haven't yet sown annual flowers to attract beneficial insects and bees etc., then 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 they must be single flowered or they're no use! 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 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! 
 
 
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.

 
Planting 'Apache' potato plants with nice root balls and tiny developing tubers in April.
Planting potato plants with nice root balls and tiny developing tubers in April.

Even early blight won't bother me now though - all my potatoes are already 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. The mulch also seals the surface, stops the water evaporating too quickly and creating too humid an humid atmosphere around the plants - possibly encouraging blight. Someone told me a couple of years ago about another really daft idea they 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 recipe for encouraging blight as fast as possible that I've ever heard! 

'Apache' potato plant with nice rootball and tiny developing tubers ready for planting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'Apache' potato plant with nice rootball and tiny developing tubers ready for planting

 

Blight spores are in the air everywhere all the time, waiting for exactly the right conditions - warmth and high humidity (which you'd give them by covering them) in order to germinate and grow on potato foliage - so trying to 'shut it out' is a ridiculous idea!! Really good air circulation and low humidity conditions are the keys to avoiding it as long as possible. That, and growing more resistant varieties, of which a few are being bred now. Sadly though they don't 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.

 
 
 
If I do see any signs of blight on the Red Duke of York - my best blight indicator, then I shall 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 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. 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!
 
 
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 2017 garden festival were about that, as we've had such a dry spring. The monsoon-like weather of the last few days will certainly have cured that!
 
 
The other 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. 
 
 
Watering
 
The weather forecast is for warmer weather this weekend. Keep an eye on your plants as it's surprising how quickly things can dry out now - particularly if it's very breezy as well. Keeping plants well mulched after you've watered and the soil is moist is really 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 mulch reduces evaporation so you will need to water less often.  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! 
 
 
Effective watering at the roots where it's most needed is the key, rather than just aimlessly splashing it about on the surface! Timing is everything too. Potatoes, for instance, benefit most from water just as they come into flower, as that's when the tubers are starting to swell. A good soaking and mulching with grass clippings will really pay off then. As I've said often, 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!! 

 
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' 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. 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!

 
Other jobs
 
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. 
 
Far better to cultivate a smaller patch really well, than take on too much and end up with an unproductive mess!
 
 
 
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. 
Virused 'Roseval surrounded by healthy plants
Virused 'Roseval surrounded by healthy plants
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, raised (or 'no-dig') beds
 
New raised bed looking north
New raised bed looking north

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? 
 
 
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, except at 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.)

The Wildlife and Flower Garden in May - 2017

Fascinating moth by the back door handle - 22.5.14
Fascinating moth by the back door handle

There are so many beautiful small things to see if you keep your eyes open!

To see a world in a Grain of Sand
And a heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.........
William Blake (1757-1827)
Snail on window birdfeeder - trying to work out the logisitics! 21.5.14
Snail on window birdfeeder - trying to work out the logisitics!
Biodiversity isn't just vitally important - it's very beautiful and life-enhancing too
Holding the closest thing to infinity in the palm of my hand - 17.5.11
Holding the closest thing to infinity in the palm of my hand! 
I think I held possibly the closest thing to infinity in the palm of my hand a couple of summers ago - when I had to scoop yet another young swallow up from the kitchen windowsill and set it free!  Now forever immortalised in the photo I took as he very calmly surveyed all around him while sitting in my hand!  Those small jet black eyes looking back at me had seen such marvelous things in exotic landscapes that I shall never see - such a tiny, perfect, weightless scrap of life - to fly so close to infinity! To think that swallows fly those 6,000 miles, with all it's many hazards and yet somehow miraculously come straight back to the very nest they were born in! The result of millions of years of evolution and genetic programming. Nature truly is a wondrous thing. After flying all those thousands of miles - it seems strange that some of them can't even find their way back out of my kitchen! But it truly was a moment I shall remember forever! For me - that one swallow most definitely did 'make my summer'! People really miss a great deal when they don't appreciate the small things in Nature - there's so much joy to be found in them.
The top half of the kitchen door out into the courtyard is permanently open at this time of year - I can't bear to shut it unless there's a westerly blowing in a horizontal storm from God-knows-where. I so love to hear all the birdsong - with the result that swallows regularly fly in several times a day, to see if there's any suitable rafters to nest on!  There's obviously a lot of pressure on the housing situation at the moment, last year they raised three broods successfully, and judging from the flocks skimming and swooping over the fields catching insects, and dangerously 'buzzing' low over the dogs lying in the yard - it seems like most of them made it back home again after their winter sojourn in warmer, more exotic climes! They fly in through the half door, do two or three circuits of the kitchen ceiling above my head as I sit here at the computer, and then most quite easily fly out again. Just a few dumb ones try the closed windows, then sit on the windowsill looking pathetic until they're rescued! They're looking for every prospective nest site now - and while I'm quite prepared to keep on covering mowers, feed bins etc. to protect them from swallow droppings - even I draw the line at bird droppings on the kitchen table!
 


Happily there's loads of insects around at the moment to feed all the demanding broods! Apparently there's been another daddy long legs population explosion both here and in the UK due to the mild autumn and winter last year. There's certainly been one here - if the huge beaks full the starlings are able to collect are anything to go by - they're doing their usual fantastic job of pest control! There's leather jackets in some of the vegetable beds that didn't get weeded over the winter but the starlings can't get at those, as I have to cover them with netting against pigeons or I'd have no lettuce at all! Leather jackets have already cut off a couple of lettuces just at soil level - where they munch through the root. Very annoying - but that just proves that leaving beds with grass on them in autumn and winter only encourages the little blighters!  I've been watching the starlings going in and out of their nest sites in the stables.  They're so comical!  I have to hide and peep just around the corner - if they see me they stand on the gutter just above the air vents where they're nesting with stuffed beaks full of leather jacket grubs looking very jittery, trying to pretend they're not really going in there and making extremely annoyed and tetchy noises when they see me! They won't go into their nests while a potential large predator like me might be watching! There's such a huge bird population in the garden now that I hardly ever see a pest of any sort. The birds do their job of hoovering up edible pests very efficiently - it never ceases to amaze me that there's actually enough food for all of them! Our five acres have been organic for 34 years now though - and there's a huge amount of biodiversity here. Sadly it's not enough habitat to support some birds like Cuckoos which used to nest close by. All that habitat that was so abundant when we first moved here has all been destroyed now. Hedges ripped out and everything drenched with poisonous chemicals. Even on a garden scale I know several people who use slug pellets like a mulch and still constantly have plants destroyed by slugs - and yet I never use a thing and there's barely a hole in anything thanks to all the wildlife here that lives on them! I'm convinced  that once you start killing anything - you upset the balance of the garden ecology and that allows pests to get out of hand that would normally be kept in check by other creatures. Nature's wonderful food chain where everything depends on something else for it's survival.
 


The House Martin situation is sadly again not looking happy either again this year.  There was a pair inspecting the remains of old nests a few of weeks ago but they didn't stay and obviously weren't descendants of ours. There are none here again this year and I miss them so much. Late in the summer, the last time they had nested here four years ago, I'd found some fledgelings, looking perfect but completely weak, listless and unable to fly, on the ground in the courtyard - they later died. I guessed that they'd suffered nerve damage when being caught in some chemical spraydrift somewhere. That's a perilous hazard of our 'modern' industrial farming if you're a bird and your diet totally consists of flying insects caught on the wing. I am utterly heartbroken - I will miss their sleepy cheeping at dusk in late summer, as they squashed tightly together in their cosy nests before they took off again on their long flight to their winter home.  It was such sweet music to fall asleep to. I haven't seen one swift flying above here either - years ago there used to be lots nesting in old high buildings in the village 2 miles away - but sadly the spraying has poisoned their food supply too. They may well never come back now.............There's so much spraying around here now that I'm beginning to feel that I might just leave one day too - despite the wonderful memories in all of the plants and trees that I planted with such hope 34 years ago. But who would provide a home for all the wildlife that relies on us here now? We're like a tiny oasis in the middle of a chemical desert!
 

It's Starling Central here at the moment! The noise all around the garden everywhere is unbelievable - there's an absolute cacophony of bird sound - particularly first thing in the morning - squawking, screaming, demanding babies everywhere!  The noise in my kitchen is ear-splitting at times too! The ivy on the side of the house facing the stables is definitely the noisiest spot, it's a multiple nesting site busy enough to challenge any city high rise development in terms of busy comings and goings! You could easily spend a whole day just sitting and watching them - it's fascinating! Sparrows and a robin on the bottom few tiers, a pigeon just above them and jackdaws at the top on one side of the chimney - with starlings under the roof tiles on the other. The starlings are by far the noisiest, but are the most assiduous parents, never leaving the nest unattended if they think another feathered species like crows or magpies are watching, looking constantly stressed out and aware that something's waiting for an opportunity to 'baby snatch'. Sadly they're no match for the crafty magpies though - who wait their chance until the parents are away searching for food to feed their hungry broods. Magpies really have become vermin, there's so many of them now and they prey on all the bird's nests. They've destroyed so many again this year - it's heartbreaking.  People throwing their takeaway rubbish in our road ditches just encourages them! 
 
 
Fekkitt the starling - the story of a brief but unforgettable love affair
 
If you follow me on Twitter you'll know that two years ago I rescued a baby starling.  It's nest had been destroyed by a marauding magpie and all it's siblings murdered. Nature can be so cruel sometimes - but never as gratuitously cruel as man.  Anyway Fekkitt - as I called her - was named so for reasons that are obvious when you think what I might have said when I saw the magpie drop her from a height onto the concrete yard one evening in early May! Baby birds are always difficult to rear and restore to the wild - so I didn't hold out too much hope at first. She was popped into a small, snug cardboard box full of toilet tissue near the back of the Aga for the night to keep warm and perhaps recover.  I fully expected her to be dead the next morning, so the squawking that greeted me at 5am the following day was very welcome! The next problem was to supply some juicy food! Birds get all the hydration they need in the first few weeks from the insects and grubs like leather jackets that their parents provide.  I wished I could find the lovely beaks full of leather jackets that all the starling parents were able to find in such vast numbers in the wildlife meadow. How I wished they'd drop some for me! So as a last resort it was a few worms from my worm bin and chopped tinned dog food for a day or so, which she ate but didn't really like. It was difficult to find enough food until we discovered that a pet shop a few miles away in the local town sold meal worms for feeding to pet lizards etc. 
 

Fekkitt absolutely thrived on them, getting noisier and cheekier by the day.  As she started to fledge she amused us hugely by 'helicoptering' as my son put it - jumping up and down in her cage to practice flapping her wings furiously! She rapidly grew into a beautiful sleek young bird and when I saw her looking out of the window longingly, I knew it was time that she was outside. So she spent a few days out in the security of the stables, still able to go back into her cage at night if she wanted and still being fed with mealworms by me - but flying freely around the yard whenever she wished. After her first night not roosting in the cage but up in the rafters, I couldn't find her the next morning, so was convinced she'd gone. I was so upset that I decided to go and buy a couple of plants to cheer myself up. I never need much of an excuse! When I came back no happier after a long morning of miserable and fruitless retail therapy, my son said there was a starling flying around the ivy over the back door all morning and that he was convinced it was Fekkitt. I thought it highly unlikely but the minute I appeared out of the back door - a frantic ball of feathers dive-bombed me, landed on my head and clinging on tightly for all it was worth! Just like a toddler after being left for the first time at playschool - or a dog whose owner had been away for a few days. After that morning she was never far away from me if I was outside - and if she was hungry she'd hang around and wait at the back door for me to appear.
 
 
We used to go for walks together to look for grubs hiding under stones like the other starlings do, but she often got bored and found investigating the laces on my boots far more interesting! Her first flight up to the top of the TV ariel on the house chimney was a terrifying dare-devil affair! I wondered if mother starlings were quite so nervous - but to them it's probably just a matter of course! Her first bath in some water she found in a bucket in the yard had me in helpless fits of laughter. She went totally bananas, had so much fun and the antics were epic!  Lots of diving in and doing somersaults, wing flapping and showers of water sprayed everywhere! Then afterwards, just like a grown-up bird, she went and sat on one of her favourite perches in the fir tree at the end of the old stable in the yard to preen her feathers dry in the sun. It was so funny to see her doing all those 'grown-up' bird things - I could have watched her forever. At times she would jump onto my shoulder and snuggle under my hair at the back of my neck. I think she really regarded me as Mum - and my mop of hair as a warm and secure nest! She was so entertaining and utterly enchanting. Then one night - as part of the gradual process of growing up - she started roosting with a bunch of other starlings in the blackthorn thicket at the end of the top paddock. I was so worried, as there was always a sparrowhawk lurking nearby ready to pick off the unwary - and that particular morning it had grabbed a pigeon. In the midst of the blackthorn thicket there was relative safety in numbers with all the others though - and whenever I called to her she would answer me immediately and fly swiftly towards me like an arrow to sit on the fence waiting eagerly for me to produce some more goodies. 
 

Finally the day came when there was a huge gathering of what seemed like hundreds of starlings in the blackthorn thicket - the level of noise was simply incredible. When I heard it I instantly knew that it heralded the end of our magical time together.  I'd seen those gatherings before. The call of the wild is far too strong - and in truth I would not have wanted it any other way. I called to her a few times until she finally answered me with her usual chirrups and very reluctantly tore herself away from her new chums, to fly onto my arm just briefly for one last time.  It was almost as if she was saying - "Goodbye - I've really just GOT to go"........Then she flew back to the others and a couple of hours later they all left.  Everything suddenly went horribly quiet. The silence was deafening!. I had mixed feelings as you can imagine - I missed her so much. But starlings are wild birds not pets - and it was always my intention that she should be free to go with the others, when the time came that she was ready. I have to admit I cried rather a lot on and off for a few days! I still well up thinking about it even now two years later. Despite the fact that I felt so sad - I was so grateful and happy that I'd been given the extremely rare privilege of being accepted as a trusted foster mother, by such a tiny but hugely intelligent scrap of life. It was a truly magical and unforgettable experience.
 
 
This year the starlings are back here once again and nesting in the stables as usual. They always come back to the same place just like swallows. They're currently frantically busy all day rearing their noisy broods and hunting for leather jackets in the meadow.... But there's just one particular bird that often perches either at the very top of the weeping ash, or on the branches of the fir tree at the end of the old feed shed, when it's taking a moment's break from feeding it's brood. They were Fekkitt's favourite perches! It doesn't fly away immediately as the others do when we walk past - and I can get quite close before it flies off back to it's nestlings. It often sits watching me as I work in the garden. I've been out a few times with some meal worms in the same dish - tapping on it in just the same way and calling her. The sleekly beautiful adult bird often answers me several times with chirrups and seems to hesitate for a few, heart-stopping moments - but doesn't fly down to me. Perhaps it is her - I'll never know. But I like to imagine that it might be. All I know is that I shall remember that incredibly precious time with her to my dying day. 
 
1. The baby starling - just dropped in yard by Magpie 18.5.15 2. A nice snug nursery for Fekkitt 3. Fekkitt - beak open screaming for food!
 
4. Growing fast 5. I suppose you must be Mum! 6. Just one week on & starting to look sleekly grown-up already
7. Becoming curious about the world outside her nest 8. Fekkitt gazing longingly out of the window from her cage - time to move outside! 9. 'I believe I can fly'! Her first terrifying flight up to the top of TV ariel
10. I used to take her for walks to teach her to look for grubs under stones 11. But most of the time I think she felt safer sitting on Mum's boot! 12. Soon Fekkitt spent more time with her new pals in the blackthorn bushes
     
     
Fekkitt - Bon Voyage my precious baby - it's been nice knowing you!
 
I hate to see birds in cages. Someone once said to me that my courtyard outside the kitchen door was an ideal spot for an aviary, since I love birds so much. I said - "I have one already". They said "Oh? Where"?... I replied - "Out there ... and all the birds you can see in my garden are there by choice because they want to be and because they think it's a lovely place to live. Not because they've been trapped!"
 
The most precious things in life on this beautiful planet are priceless - and cannot be bought or owned by anyone. 
 

Biodiversity begins at home - we can all do something to help preserve it and every little bit helps

 

Biodiversity is the fragile web of complex interactions and interconnections of life on this planet, both above and below ground, that scientists are only just fractionally beginning to understand. But it matters crucially to all of us - wherever we live or whatever our creed or culture. Whether it's a wildflower or a forest, the destruction of any of it impoverishes us all in every conceivable way, and increasingly threatens our own very existence. For what man does to the Earth and all the things that exist on it - he ultimately does to himself. We should be putting money into researching ways of reducing food waste - not pumping more money into GM crops and even more chemicals to produce food that will mostly be wasted, and make those who consume it ill! That agenda's being pushed by the chemical companies of course, to swell their bank balances. More production will just mean more waste and more pollution and more destruction of carbon-fixing soils unless food waste is dealt with first.
 
 

Even such a seemingly small thing to many people as gardening organically, without using chemical sprays and slug pellets, can make a huge contribution if you add up all those chemical-free gardens around the world. It can really make a difference in out own backyard too. Hedgehogs, for example, can eat an enormous number of slugs and ground beetles in one night- but if those they eat have been poisoned with slug pellets or neonicotinoid pesticides, they will die too! They are becoming increasingly rare and endangered now but they're our garden friends - help them and they will help you. Right now they're making nests and rearing their litters of hoglets (lovely word!), so please be careful you don't tidy too much, particularly any corner you haven't touched for a year or so, or you may disturb them! Always leave an undisturbed corner in your garden where wildlife can thrive and it will make an enormous difference. You will see the results of helping wildlife very quickly, not just by reducing the number of pests in the garden but also greatly enhancing the beauty and your enjoyment of your garden as you begin to appreciate and understand it's resident wildlife more and more. I talked in April about some of the things you can do to help it to thrive, so have a look back at last month.

 
A hedgehog story
Mother hedgehog and 3 small, blind, spineless 'hoglets'
 

Mother hedgehog with 3 small, blind, spineless 'hoglets'

A few weeks later, tucking into breakfast and ignoring slugs!
 

A few weeks later, tucking into dog food and ignoring slugs!

Nurturing Nature - a very prickly but timely tale!! -  About twenty years ago or so, we were tidying up a rather neglected corner of the garden under shrubs when our terriers started barking furiously - unlike us, they had spotted the hedgehog nest! I knew that even if I covered them back up there was absolutely no way the dogs would leave them alone - so I had to make a very quick decision, before the mother possibly deserted the nest - or worse! I scooped them all up, mum and three mouse-like, spineless, soft, grey, blind babies, and put them safely into a shed, with an old tea chest full of hay for a nest box. I gave the mother water and fed her with a saucer of dog food every day, and also cut a fresh turf of grass each day, putting worms, slugs and beetles in it for her to find, and also to teach her hoglets to hunt as they grew. After a few weeks, those babies became lively adolescents,  by then prickly but totally enchanting, highly intelligent and very friendly. They would come running to the door whenever they heard the sound of the knife tapping on the dog food tin, and would pull at the laces on our trainers - perhaps their eyesight isn't too good and they thought they were worms!
 
 
Myself and Wendy in the garden - 17.5.11

Myself and Wendy in the garden - May 2011

Friends from far and wide came to visit them, spending hours looking through the window!  Most children are fascinated by hedgehogs - particularly if they've been brought up on a diet of Beatrix Potter's 'Mrs. Tiggywinkle' stories, as mine were. Her lovely stories are a great way to introduce them to wildlife. Even my daughter - by then a teenager and pretending to be far too 'cool' to be excited by mere hedgehogs - could occasionally be caught out watching, riveted, at the window!  
 
 
One of the people who came to see them and brought her grandchildren was my dear friend the late Wendy Walsh - who remembered actually meeting Beatrix Potter and shaking her hand as a very small child, when staying with an aunt in the Lake district in England. Just imagine that! Beatrix Potter was a great conservationist, as well as being a talented artist and author, personally saving thousands of acres of the beautiful Lake District for posterity, and also the Herdwick sheep, a breed which evolved over centuries to become perfectly adapted to living there and nowhere else.  Wendy was a neighbour of mine and not only one of my dearest friends, but also my role model. She was a wonderful gardener with a great knowledge of plants and also a kind and incredibly wise woman - an 'old soul', as she would say. A wonderfully encouraging and patient teacher, she was a brilliant botanical artist who had painted a lot of illustrations for the Kew Gardens Magazine. She did much to raise people's awareness of the value of biodiversity through her many books of beautiful paintings which she collaborated on with Dr. E. Charles Nelson of The National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, here in Ireland. She had led the most fascinating life travelling all over the world, and even in her nineties was still full of vibrant and unquenchable spirit, and curiosity. She was like a surrogate mother to me and I learnt so much from her.  I always remember her when I think of hedgehogs - and she would be so delighted!
 
Anyway, as time passed, one day I felt that the hedgehog family were finally ready to face the world, and so with the most regretful of goodbyes, we left the door open............! I often come across hedgehogs in the garden now, and occasionally have to rescue them, so I like to think that their descendants may still be out around our 5 acres here somewhere. There's plenty of 'hogitat' - and they certainly won't be poisoned by slug pellets here!
 
 
Sadly hedgehogs - once abundant throughout the British Isles - are now becoming an endangered species, like so much other once abundant wildlife.  If we don't change our chemically-addicted ways, we may become endangered too - within just a few generations! Surely anyone who has children must think about what they are feeding them and what sort of a future world we are passing on as their inheritance - even if those people don't care about wildlife. The kind of future they will live in is being shaped by us every day by our choices and actions.  Anyway - I take a great deal of pleasure and pride in being able to manage a large garden organically - with no help and also producing all our own food. And it's chock full of biodiversity. I would never dream of telling people "you must do this" - I prefer to show people that it can be done in a practical way by showing them the results!
 
I think that "Walking the walk" rather than just "Talking the talk" - as the saying goes, is the best example.
 
Encouraging wildlife is rewarding in so many ways. Teaching children about it and it's importance is really vital, it can also become a lifelong interest which costs them nothing and can bring them great joy and peace, as it has done me. I was lucky enough to be brought up in the country and to learn about the importance of biodiversity at my father's knee. He was passionate and knowledgeable about wildlife and the countryside, and enjoyed passing on that knowledge to me in the happy hours I spent by his side. I treasure those memories and hope that I was able to pass on much of his love of the natural world to my children. You don't need to have a big country garden to be able to enjoy nature - or even a garden at all in fact. Most parks and gardens, or even a country walk, are full of wonderful wildlife sights if you just stop, open your eyes and look  -  the small things are often the most fascinating - and there truly can be almost a whole world in a grain of sand! Children who spend all their free time looking at screens of one sort or another are starting to develop many behavioural and health problems - like attention problems, anxiety, depression and obesity - all of which are directly attributable to their virtual 'incarceration' inside.  Richard Louv's brilliant book 'Last child in the woods' coined the phrase 'Nature Deficit Disorder' for this problem. He said "that a lack of routine contact with nature may result in stunted academic and developmental growth". I think that some adults suffer from that too! If you want to find out more - here's a link.
 
(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.)
 
 

Fruit Garden and Orchard in May - 2017

May topics: A new way to grow strawberries - my stepladder garden. Other fruit jobs. An urgent job for grapevines. Time to plant tender fruit raised from seed. Make your own fruit cage. The best time to buy fruit trees?
 
 
 
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Tunnel grown strawberries Albion, Gento & Christine - 24.5.15

 Tunnel grown strawberries Albion, Gento & Christine in May - 2015

 

May, Chelsea Flower Show and the first strawberries and cream, are synonymous with the real start of summer aren't they? The strawberries they sell there won't be organic though, I'll bet! They'll have been grown using a lot of pesticides, as recent research shows that strawberries are one of the most sprayed fruit crops. But you can easily grow your own perfect, chemical-free, healthy and delicious fruits and extend the summer season from May until November even in the tiniest garden or courtyard - using the idea I came up with a few years ago! This year they won't be quite as early as those pictured in 2015 - the weather has been so erratic that they bulk of then are only just starting to ripen - even in the polytunnel. We've had a couple of small bowls already though - and in a couple of weeks its looks like we may have a glut before the end of May - a nice problem to have! As ever - the Alpine strawberries are first off the starting blocks and will crop continuously from now until the end of November.

 
A new way to grow strawberries - my stepladder garden has been re-invented yet again! 
 
 
Alpine strawberry Reugen already cropping well on my 'stepladder garden'
Alpine strawberry Reugen already cropping well on my 'stepladder garden'
Alpine strawberries are the latest occupants of my stepladder garden this year. They're a wonderful variety called Reugen which I grew from seed I got from Chiltern Seeds many years ago.  Every year they seemed to get a bit harder to pick due to my bad back. Then a couple of months ago it occurred to me that they'd be an awful lot easier to pick if they were growing on the rising tiers of my 'stepladder garden', instead of growing in a low raised bed. Even sitting on a stool to pick them still involved an awful lot of bending to pick a decent amount! So I took out last year's occupants - herbs - which made them parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme steps. I then refreshed my usual soil and organic peat-free compost mix then transplanted some of the alpine strawberry plants growing on the edges of the beds in the other polytunnel. They've already settled down very nicely into the recycled mushroom boxes. They're such a fiddle to bend and pick being smallish and much harder to find than normal-sized strawberries - so this is a much easier way of growing them. They're really appreciating all the extra TLC, as they do need watering a bit more frequently in the heat of the tunnel - but they've been smothered with huge bumblebees bees pollinating their beautiful tiny flowers since mid-March and are ripening a huge crop. There's already a veritable waterfall of deliciously aromatic small strawberries. The polytunnel smells of scented strawberry jam every morning when I open the door - it's fruit Paradise! Alpine strawberries are heaven to eat - but hell to pick! Growing them this way is perfect for them!
 
'Strawberry Steps' a few days after planting - looking promising!
 My 'Strawberry Steps' a few days after planting in 2015
 
 
Strawberries are a fruit that can be planted at this time of year and will establish very quickly. Perpetual strawberries will start to give you good crops in just a few weeks and continuously for the rest of this year. Some specialist online fruit nurseries in the UK sell 'cold-stored' plants at this time of year. These take off like rockets as soon as they are planted - and all the perpetual varieties will fruit right up until November in a polytunnel, greenhouse or any sunny spot. They will also fruit for much of the summer and autumn if just covered with cloches outside in the garden. If you love strawberries but simply don't have room for another soil bed in your garden, or perhaps don't even have any garden - only a courtyard, balcony or a path - then the stepladder growing method I invented a few years ago is just the thing for you! It takes up so little space that you could grow a high-rise strawberry bed even in a well lit sunny porch. Imagine not even having to go outside on a wet day to pick fruit? Growing some inside as well as outside will spread the crop conveniently and also give you a longer season of fruit too.
 
Side view of the stepladder garden planted with strawberries, starting to ripen. The alyssum attracts pollinators
Side view of the stepladder garden planted with strawberries, starting to ripen. The alyssum attracts pollinators
 
 
I've used this method to grow all sorts of crops over the last few years and they're very happy. If you have a stepladder with nice wide steps - or can buy one cheaply - then that's an ideal start. To grow the plants in, those recycled plastic mushroom boxes from the local supermarket fit nicely onto the average step, they're deep enough to hold enough a good amount of compost, and are perfect for this. They don't have drainage holes in the bottom - only about half way down the sides, but that's not a problem - as you don't want water from one pouring down straight onto the next one down. There's generally about a couple of inches at the bottom with no drainage holes in those boxes - so that means there's always a small reserve of moisture at the bottom that will stop the boxes drying out completely on a hot day, as long as the compost is generally kept nice and moist most of the time. They're also nice and light even when filled with the compost mix. If you can't get those - any sort of plastic box that would fit onto the steps would do though, and if it has no drainage holes - then I would make some about a third of a way up the sides. If it does have holes on the bottom - then I would put a piece of polythene cut from a compost bag on the bottom, going about an inch or so up the sides - just to stop water and feed draining straight through if the compost gets very dry and is difficult to re-wet. Or you could use those rectangular cat litter trays as effective drip trays. You can put a box on each step, then on the ground in front of the last step you can put either a large pot or another box on a plant saucer or drip tray. Strawberries really seem to love growing this way - I think it's because they get more light, warmth and really good air circulation, so they don't get diseases caused by damp.
 
 
To fill the grow-boxes, I mix 1/3rd good garden soil and 2/3rds peat-free organic compost. (my favourite Klassman organic compost is ideal for this and not too heavy). The bit of soil is important to add as it gives the mix more moisture holding capacity. I also add about a tablespoonful of seaweed meal to the mix for each box. This adds some potash and also alginates - which again helps with water retention and also encourages the good microbial activity which you want for healthy crops. I plant 2 strawberry plants into each box, this is plenty - as they'll be so happy if well looked-after that they grow into quite big plants. I plant them just 'proud' of the soil with the crown of the plant just at finished soil level. Strawberry plants should never be buried below crown level or they will quickly rot - they hate to be wet. When I've got the box nearly full I make a sort of pyramid shape in the compost with my hand on each side and then put one strawberry plant on top of each - fanning out the roots a bit like the spokes of an umbrella. I cover the roots with compost and then water gently in with the rose on the watering can. Two plants is plenty for each box or they'll be too crowded. I don't water them again until they're growing well and the compost is starting to dry out. A good 'Perpetual' or 'ever-bearing' variety like Albion will produce crops from mid May until November, given the warmth and shelter of a polytunnel. Being so productive - the plants will exhaust their food supply fairly quickly in their small boxes, so after they've been cropping for a month or so, I then feed about twice a week with a good tomato feed like Osmo organic which I find excellent. When the plants start to make runners - then you could hang some of those 'growing pockets' on the sides of the stepladder, so that you could root the runners into them to produce new plants. Or, alternatively, you could root them into small pots on top of each box - detaching each of the runners once they're well rooted. Never cut them off as some catalogues recommend - perpetual strawberries don't usually make runners after their first year - and if you don't root them - you'll have to buy more plants! Don't worry - they won't exhaust well-fed and well looked-after plants.
 
 
If you have a source of cheap stepladders - you could even have several and make a bank of them against a wall - giving you a lot more growing space! They're far cheaper than any of the specially designed and very expensive wooden structures you can buy for growing in - and also don't have any nasty wood preservatives! They may not look quite as beautiful but frankly - costing anything upwards of 200 euros they're too expensive! Once they're covered with plants - you can hardly see the structure anyway!  My stepladder cost me 20 euros from Lidl about 8 years ago and the boxes cost nothing! Set that against the price of buying organic strawberries, if you can find them - or even non-organic, and the stepladder will be paid for in just a couple of weeks!  One year I grew salads on it, with a tomato trained up one side, growing in a large 10 litre pot, and a cucumber in the same size pot up the other. Both pots were sitting on plant saucers, and they were tied to the frame and to canes as they grew. It worked really well. Basically anything that will grow in a window box will grow well this way if looked after well, and it really extends your growing space. OK - it does take a little bit of watering every couple of days depending on the weather - but it's very little trouble really. I grow my auriculas on a stepped staging of recycled planks resting on concrete block against a north wall and you could also grow other things in that way. If you don't have a stepladder - many people may have an old skip bag hanging around gathering dust - and these make another great raised growing space for many things!  I'm now on the lookout for a couple more cheap ladders with nice wide steps!
 
 
Strawberry jobs outside
 
 
Put straw, strawberry mats or ground cover material under developing fruit of strawberry plants, to keep them off the damp ground - they may develop botrytis if resting on bare soil. Fruit of the early varieties is just starting to ripen now, so put netting over them to keep the birds away. Keep an eye out for slugs - look under straw and mats, pick them up and destroy - using your preferred method -don't use slug pellets! In containers, mulch strawberries with a thick layer of gravel or grit, this keeps them clean and deters vine weevil from laying it's grubs into the compost.  If you're buying pot grown plants from nurseries and garden centres - make sure they're firmly rooted in their pots, if they are loose they may already have vine weevil munching away the roots! They are also very likely to have nasty chemicals in the soil too - so I wouldn't want to eat them! The vine weevil nematode - a biological control - works well instead of chemicals if the soil temperature is warm enough. It needs to be above about 10 deg C, so you can use it safely in summer.
 
 
Other jobs in the fruit garden
 
 
Mulching to conserve moisture and keep down weeds is a priority at the moment,  around any trees, bushes or canes, particularly around those newly planted, as letting the soil dry out or letting weeds get the upper hand will mean problems establishing roots and poor crops later. Hand weed between raspberry plants, don't hoe, or you may damage or even slice off the shoots of new canes as they emerge from the ground. If the spring is very dry it's important to keep apple trees well watered and mulched - if they are dry at the roots this will encourage powdery mildew to develop on the new shoots. Never mulch right up to the stem though - always keep any mulch about about 30cm/1ft away from the stem.

 
On blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries now, keep an eye out for gooseberry sawfly caterpillars - they eat the leaves and can reduce them to skeletons very quickly! If you find any squash them or pick them off and put them on the bird table! The birds are so hungry this year as there are so few insects about that they will be grateful! If you run a few hens in your fruit cage in winter and early spring - you won't have a problem with these as they hoover them up.

Tie in new growths of loganberries, Tayberries and blackberries, to stop them lashing around in wind and being damaged.
 
 
Blueberries are flowering now, so it's really important to make sure they don't dry out - particularly if they're in containers - or the flowers will just drop off instead of setting fruit. Don't forget to use rainwater for watering, as they are ericaceous plants (in other words they are plants that like an acid soil like rhododendrons - or like the wild bilberry you can find growing in the mountainous and boggy areas all around Ireland. They don't like hard, calcium-rich tap water. If you're planting new bushes, make sure you plant at least two varieties, so that you get good pollination and fruit set. My favourites are 'Brigitta Blue' and 'Darrow' - the latter is the best flavoured variety I've found so far - some varieties are pretty tasteless in my opinion! If you're planting blueberries purely for their health properties - tests a couple of years ago showed that black berries are just as high in healthy antioxidant phytochemical compounds - they just haven't had an expensive PR campaign like blueberries have! They're an awful lot easier to grow though, will thrive in any garden and be productive - even on a north facing wall (see previous diaries). There are thorn-free varieties that will thrive in small gardens or even in containers - and they tend to be less vigorous that the thorny kind, so won't take over your garden and they're available in most garden centres. There are even 'primocane' varieties now like 'Reuben' that will fruit in their first year! 
 
 
An urgent job for grapevines
 
Side shoot or fruiting spur of  grapevine  - showing end of shoot pinched out 2 leaf joints beyond prospective bunches
Side shoot or fruiting spur of grapevine - showing end of shoot pinched out 2 leaf joints beyond prospective bunches
Grapevines are developing fast now. Pinch back the ends of all fruiting shoots now on the side-shoots or 'spurs' as they are known - two leaves beyond budding potential flowering trusses. These are easily recognisable and doing this concentrates all the vine's energy into developing the fruit rather than unproductive leafy growth. It also prevents it becoming the tangled, unproductive mess that I see in so many gardens! Occasionally if a vine is very vigorous - I may leave two bunches developing on every other side shoot to give me a bigger crop - but I wouldn't do this on newly planted or weak-growing vines. Don't pinch back the last two buds on the main 'rod' or stem. The first will draw the sap along the stem and continue the leading shoot's growth. The second is insurance in case for some reason you happen to lose the first. That can then be pruned back in winter if the other remains undamaged then. You can have as many main 'rods' or stems carrying side shoots as you want or your space allows - but remember that air circulation is vital for preventing disease - especially when the fruit is ripening.
 
 
Time to plant tender fruit raised from seed this year
 
 
Cape gooseberries (Physalis Peruviana) in October
Cape gooseberries (Physalis Peruviana) in October
 
 
 
Plant Cape Gooseberries  (golden or pichu berry) outside at the end of May, or earlier in polytunnels. These are a useful fruit as they don't need to be protected from any pests, which don't see the delicious orange fruit inside their little paper lanterns. They are a great crop to grow in containers against a sunny wall, where the extra protection helps the fruit to ripen in the autumn - you can also bring in the whole plant in its pot to a frost free place where they go on ripening over the winter. I grow mine in tubs in one of my tunnels. When they're picked in the autumn they keep for months in the fridge in their little packages. 
 
 
Young Physalis (cape gooseberry) plants - ready for planting
Young Physalis (cape gooseberry) plants - ready for planting 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
My Cape gooseberry plants are just ready for planting into their tubs in the next few days, as you can see here. They're incredibly easy to grow, trouble free and delicious and very expensive to buy in shops - so do try them. They're unbelievably easy to grow.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
You can plant melons out under cloches at the end of the month in milder areas, or in the tunnel if you have space -where they really love the warmth and humidity. Plant on a mound of well prepared, fertile ground in a sunny spot and watch out for slugs!  Water the soil and put slates down around the planting area to trap them prior to planting - then you should have less trouble with them. When melons have grown 4 or 5 leaves - pinch out the tip to encourage side shoots to form - then pinch these out at 5 leaves also. The fruit buds will then form on the sub-laterals from these, as I explained in last month's fruit diary.
 
 
Peaches, nectarines and apricots outside should be about the size of a large pea and ready for their first thinning now. Gently twist off any awkwardly placed. crowded or damaged fruitlets, leaving them about 2in/5cm apart. At the next thinning, when they are the size of large walnuts, leave them spaced 4in/10 cm apart. Those in tunnels should have already been thinned as they will be at least three weeks ahead. If you don't do this then the tree may dump all it's fruit later on as it can't cope with developing them all!
 
 
Prune and train all stone fruits and figs where necessary now. If you need to make large pruning cuts on something like cherries then do it on a sunny day when the cuts will have a good chance to dry out and promote healing so that disease has no chance to set in. 
 
 
Feed, mulch and water rhubarb well - also tidy up any broken stems - we had a vicious wind one night last week, which smashed many people's rhubarb patches locally. Rhubarb leaves are so large that they behave just like sails in the wind! Don't worry though - they soon recover - it's hard to kill rhubarb! Break off any flowering shoots as soon as they start to emerge or they will drain energy from the plants.
 
 
Make your own fruit cage
 
 
Why not make your own fruit cage now? It's so much handier to be able to walk in and out - instead of grovelling on your hands and knees or bending double underneath netting!  They are extremely expensive to buy ready made, with steel tubing etc. but I made one really cheaply a few years ago, which does exactly the same job for a fraction of the price, and looks just as good. I used 8ft.x 3in tree stakes, driven 18in into the ground about 8ft apart each way, tacking tying wire to the tops with staples, stretching the wire as tight as possible, and then hanging netting all around the sides, leaving a good overlap for getting in and out. I then used a separate piece of netting, draped over the top and down about a foot or so all around the sides, for the roof of the cage. I used clothes pegs to secure all the netting last year, but this year I shall use small wire ties - I think that will look neater!.
 
 
You will need to be able to take off the roof off the cage in the winter or it may be weighed down by snow and broken. You also want birds to be able to get in there for most of the winter, to clear up any pests which may be lurking. You can put the top back on again before the fruit starts ripening! The netting needs to be big enough to allow bumblebees in, but small enough to keep birds out. There were a lot of frustrated blackbirds in my garden for the last couple of years - they were cursing me all the time!!  But I do plant a lot of fruit for them down in my little wood, seedlings I find around and any rooted pieces of my other bushes. If you're handy at carpentry, you could even make the cage structure look quite decorative, adding finials etc., and making a feature out of it - Oh for the time and energy!! I bought all my netting in the autumn a few years ago, when many of the garden centres and multiples had end of season clearance sales. Keep an eye out for cheap netting this autumn - it's often a third of the usual price!
 
 

The best time to buy fruit trees?

 

 It's possible to plant most types of fruit all year round now from containers, but it really is the most expensive way to buy them, and the range available is actually very limited in most garden centres here in Ireland. While naturally it's much nicer to be able buy Irish grown plants and trees, sadly enough choice of good flavoured, productive fruit that the average gardener needs simply isn't there at present. Many of the varieties I see for sale in garden centres - or even listed in 'so called' specialist fruit nurseries, are totally unsuitable for our climate, or for small back gardens. Either that or go to the other extreme of having a root stock so 'dwarfing' they are no more than the fruiting equivalent of garden gnomes, and will never produce more than one or two apples if you're lucky! The trees are generally not healthy in our damp climate here and are susceptible to scab, they are very difficult to grow well and also incredibly expensive. That's fine if you only want a bit of an ornament, but there are more suitable root stocks and plenty of tasty, productive varieties available out there which are far better - they're just not obtainable here! You could actually get three good varieties by buying mail order bare root apple trees, for instance, for the price of just one of those potted, extra-dwarfing 'Coronet' varieties here! So if you want a really wide choice of fruit to give you a long season - you really have no option other than to buy from a specialist mail order supplier either in Ireland or the UK. I know the market isn't huge here - but there are times when I feel there's a 'that's good enough' attitude from some garden centres, who often know very little about fruit and have absolutely no interest in it. It's very short-sighted, as people won't come back and buy more if their first efforts are a waste of time. Usually the buyer thinks it's their fault - when often in fact it's a totally unsuitable varieties like Cox's Orange Pippin or Golden Delicious, both of which prefer a warmer drier climate - or it's on the wrong root stock for their soil and situation.

 

I'm not going to buy a bad variety just because it may be all that happens to be available here.  Fruit trees are a major long-term investment. Imported mail order bare root trees and plants are usually much cheaper, and bare root trees will undoubtedly establish far better, so this is a good time of year to look online or send off for fruit catalogues - all are full of very useful information on taste, season of ripening, climate suitability, size and pruning techniques. In fact - all the information you don't get when you buy an apple or other fruit from a garden centre - and best of all - catalogues are free! It means you can really do your homework and choose the perfect variety for your garden or orchard. The next couple of months is a really good time to order trees etc. for autumn delivery from October. If you order over the summer - you will be first in line and get the best of what's available rather than if you leave it until the mood strikes you after Christmas - when all you will get is the tail end of what's left!  If you plant fruit trees and bushes in the autumn, the soil is normally still warm and in a reasonable condition to work and prepare properly, so trees will have two or three months when the soil is still warm enough to encourage good root activity. That means they should establish well before they have to start supporting top growth. After December though, our Irish winters can become very wet, often making it impossible to touch the soil in many areas until well into early spring. Thinking ahead at least two or three months is just as important in the fruit garden as it is in the vegetable garden. The problem is that many people don't start to think about planting fruit until they see someone else's apple tree flowering or see them in garden centres.
 
 
The other drawback of buying potted fruit from garden centres is that invariably the trees and bushes will have been potted using a peat compost - not a natural habitat for fruit trees!  In fact not a natural growing medium for anything except bog plants! The chemical fertilisers which have to be added can promote a lot of soft, unhealthy growth, and the trees often aren't happy about establishing their roots outside into soil when planted, after getting used to the peat - particularly if they a bit pot-bound as they usually are! Before ordering any fruit - do your research well - plan the right varieties to will pollinate each other, order now for good bare root trees to plant in early autumn, and look forward to really good crops in years to come!
 
(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.)

The Vegetable Garden in May - 2017

 May topics:  Gardening golden rule number one - always be flexible!  The many advantages of 'raised', 'deep' or 'lazy' beds.  Protecting early potatoes and other crops with fleece.  Feed your compost heap!  Planting out tender crops in late May.  Other jobs for May.                    

                                       

Delicious broccoli - Nine Star Perennial

Delicious broccoli - Nine Star Perennial

 
Early May is my favourite time of year - there's so much to look forward to! 
 
 
At this time of year - winter's finally over - we haven't yet said goodbye to Spring and every day there's something new, fresh and green to enjoy n the garden.  It's so lovely to see that fresh green growth again and start to enjoy a few outside crops. Luckily, despite the cold nights of the last couple of weeks, there's now plenty of insects around for birds to eat too and many beneficial ones like hoverflies that deal with any aphids. Despite cold nights we've had some lovely warm sunny days too though. Finally the soil is warming up and suddenly everything is lush and burstingly green again - you can almost hear everything growing! 
 
 
For the second year running, we're enjoying again what was a new crop to me until last year, although it's something that I've meant to try for many years. The luscious broccoli Nine Star Perennial which you can see above - so good with a little butter or Hollandaise sauce (or in my case - rather a lot!) It does take up a lot of room though and it's hard to fit in everything - even into a large garden - especially when there's only one gardener - just me! With only very occasional help mowing etc. from other members of the family! I don't ever remember less slug damage to the lush new shoots of plants fast emerging in the borders - that just proves one of the many benefits of having a very hungry population of birds and other wildlife in the garden! It's a really heavenly late spring morning here as I write. Although it's a bit breezy -there are bumblebees buzzing happily while they enjoy all the flowers - and the birds are singing their hearts out! In the polytunnels bees and butterflies are already busy - or sit on the leaves warming themselves up in the early mornings - and just occasionally I sit for a moment too - to feel the blessing of the gentle early morning sun on my face.  It's so good to be alive. Despite the usual gardener's aches, I almost feel like skipping like a lamb. 
 
 
Gardening golden rule number one - always be flexible!
 
 
It's truly wonderful to get your hands into the warm, vitally alive earth - to literally 'plug-into' it's energy.  It feels so good that I almost feel my fingers would sprout roots if I left them there for long enough! One could be tempted to think that gardening rules would always be the same for ever - but our seasons are less reliable and predictable now. Take care over the next few days - as frosts can still occur unexpectedly when the skies clear late at night. Temperatures have been plummeting here at night to -8 deg C on some nights. The potatoes will have to be fleeced every night now as they're up about 12 inches or more in some cases and it's not worth taking the risk of losing them now. May weather can often see-saw back and forth between baking hot summer-like days and freezing cold wintry nights - so it's not a good time for a gardener to be away from the garden for very long if you grow all your own food!! I'm constantly obsessing about the weather in May and ready to run out with fleece at the slightest hint of a frost! But it really does pay off taking that extra bit of care - even if some evenings it's the last thing you feel like doing, after a long hard day! I console myself with the thought of all the delicious crops to come - many of which will see us all through next winter. Most of the crops that I grow I could never buy in the shops even if I wanted to - especially grown organically - and I wouldn't dream of eating anything else but organic! 
 
 
It pays to make sure that you've got plenty of fleeces available to cover vulnerable tender plants when necessary. And if you're already panicking and feeling a bit behind with the work - then don't worry - so am I! But there's still plenty of time to catch up this month. Pretty much everything can still be sown, especially things like pumpkins and squashes - which develop very fast and hate to be held up and get pot bound. I often find my May sowings actually do far better than earlier ones specifically for that reason. Don't forget though that if you use fleeces - take them off during the day and dry them out if possible - because wet fleece is worse than no fleece and offers no protection at all. The weight of it can do a lot of damage too - especially if it gets frozen to the plants. A lot of trouble some may think? But when I taste the wonderful early veg that I can't buy anywhere then it's well-worth every bit of effort!
 
 
In the past, before climate change began, our weather seemed to be a little more predictable - but just as in other areas of life - there's no point thinking about the past except to learn from it and to be prepared for anything! We have to deal with the here and now - gardeners now have to think 'on the hoof' and be practical. We're going to have to be a lot more flexible with our gardening in the future, be adaptable and find new ways of doing many things - responding and adapting to the unreliable and fickle weather from week to week. You can pretty much throw the all old gardening advice books out of the window - that is when it comes to advice about exactly when and precisely how to do things. Flexibility is the key from now on. I've never slavishly followed the rule books anyway, being something of a rebel! I always asked 'why'? I read all the basic advice I could in my early days of gardening and then adapted it to my organic way of doing things and also to my particular local climate. That flexibility is vital, is something I've learnt from many years of practical experience in various changing gardening situations and locations. I call it 'seat of the pants' gardening!
 
 
Basic requirements like the need for good rotations will never change though - in fact they will become even more necessary and relevant to how we can best utilise our precious soils in the future. I find that so many of the new 'experts' these days are giving advice obviously taken directly from often outdated books and not gained from their own practical experience - if they indeed have any! In so many cases that's just not relevant any more. Everything is changing now - and so must we - if we want to keep producing enough good, healthy food for ourselves. This year - with unexpected droughts, violent storms and floods once again all over the entire planet - it is predicted that food prices will rise even more. So it's never been more important to grow our own food - and to do it organically - which is sustainable and helps to mitigate climate change, rather than accelerating it as conventional chemical farming does!  After the driest spring here ever - later on in the year we may well have to cope with even worse drought but organic soils are much more resistant to the stresses of extreme weather conditions. All the humus organic soils contain acts as a buffer almost like a sponge - cushioning plant roots against extremes of both floods and drought. Humus also fixes carbon in the soil which helps to offset climate change. In areas where soils have been degraded and topsoil lost through many years of chemical farming, rainfall just runs off the compacted dead mineral dust that passes for soil - causing flooding - instead of soaking into the humus rich, moisture retentive sponge that a good organic soil should be. All plants grow far more healthily, withstand stress better and are more naturally disease-resistant in a well nurtured and properly structured, organic soil.
 
 
The many advantages of 'raised', 'deep' or 'lazy' beds
 
 
Potatoes mulched with grass clippings in one of the new raised beds
Potatoes mulched with grass clippings in one of the newer raised beds

Every spring I am so grateful for my raised beds. I've grown in raised or 'deep' beds for over 35 years now. That's the basis on which I originally planned the whole vegetable garden here - as I lay in my hospital bed and later for a few months at home, unable to walk after a bad fall from a horse. I already knew that gardening in the conventional way, on the flat was going to be out completely in the future.  On re-reading my treasured collection of old Soil Association 'Mother Earth' magazines going back to the late 1930s, I also found that there were some very interesting results from so-called 'no-dig' growing then - especially on lighter soils. Others were growing in 'raised' or 'deep beds' or even 'lazy beds' as they are called here in Ireland. So I decided to combine all three methods of growing to suit my capabilities - by making 'raised/no-dig/lazy beds'! Planning the garden gave me hope and kept me going at what was one of the very lowest times in my life. I've never regretted the work of making them. Originally they were just made by simply throwing the soil up from the paths to give more depth and drainage and afterwards mulched - just as the old 'lazy beds' were made for growing potatoes, in pre-famine days, in the West of Ireland. Luckily I had some help do that hard job in those days - and until my relative fitness returned, all I had to do was to mulch and plant! The beds weren't made by lashing on tons of bought in non-organic manure or mushroom compost, their fertility evolved gradually and naturally over time. 

 

Over the years of mulching, green manuring and adding as much home-made compost as possible - they've become so raised that they're more than double the height they were when I started.  It's only rarely now that I have to do any gardening on the flat - when planting trees for instance - and when I do I am so thankful for my raised beds and so is my back!! The beds are so much easier to work, and are an absolute godsend now that I'm partially disabled with one half-working arm since I broke my right shoulder very badly over 3 years ago. When I was growing commercially, I used to have 12 un-dug raised 'deep' beds, 30 feet long and 4 feet wide. I made the raised deep (or no dig) beds about 4ft or less wide so that I could reach comfortably to the middle from both sides. On a 4ft bed I can just plant 3 rows of potatoes across - then space them out a bit more along the length of the bed - about 2ft apart down the bed or 3 ft for main crops. That works very well for me. Now I've cut down and am planning to have only the 6 closest to the house. I'm gradually raising all of these even higher using planks, so that I shall always be able to grow my own veg - even if I have to just sit on a chair. I have no intention of ever giving up veg growing! The other half of the old deep beds will gradually be planted with even more fruit so hopefully will be far less labour intensive - but still very productive. That will still give us plenty of room for vegetable growing along with the tunnels, which I find much easier to manage. The tunnels are always workable no matter what the weather conditions outside, in our often very wet climate. I also have to take into account that the family around the table is often smaller at times now too - so I don't need quite as much.

 

My new, higher level raised beds were made with planks treated with an organic wood preservative (very important where you're growing food) and filled with soil dug from the wildlife pond which I created a few years ago at the bottom of the wildlife meadow. Although unfortunately I couldn't persuade the chap who dug the pond to separate and sort the soil into topsoil and subsoil, I've found over the years that by using compost, green manures, organic mulches, cover crops and proper rotations to create humus and encourage beneficial microbial life, it only takes about 3 or 4 years to convert even the very worst of soil into a really nice medium to grow plants in. It never has to be dug. At the very most it's lightly forked if necessary to remove crops. I can use my fingers to plant small modules and a small trowel to plant bigger modules things like cabbage plants. You don't need tons of compost or manure, it's like junk food for plants and very little better than force-feeding with chemical fertilisers! It's far better to encourage and work with nature and to do things gradually, allowing all the microbes and soil life to develop in nature's own time, if you want to grow really healthy and nutritious crops. If you pile on the tons of nitrogen-rich manure advocated by some -  firstly there's potential for massive run-off and pollution of groundwater in our increasingly wet climate. Secondly, any excess nutrients that don't run off are taken up by plants, promoting soft sappy growth that is far more vulnerable to pests and diseases in exactly the same way as artificially-fed crops.

 
 
Overfed plants are just like overfed people - unhealthy! In addition, quite apart from that it's virtually impossible to find an organic farmer with manure for sale - and any non-organic you buy will contain many pesticides, weedkillers and antibiotic residues which are extremely damaging to all soil life. I'm planning to gradually convert all my old deep beds in my currently downsized vegetable garden into these higher level beds over the next couple of years, using my sub/topsoil mix and proper organic methods of gradual soil improvement the way Nature does it. No 'quick-fix' methods for me! 
 
 
If you haven't seen it - here's the video of the talk I gave last December at The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, for the Irish Launch of the 'European People for Soil' campaign.  It was entitled 'There is life after soil abuse'.  In my talk I showed how I gradually restored the natural health the soil here using organic methods:       https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjN30StFsf0&feature=youtu.be
 
 
Protecting early potatoes and other crops with fleece 
 
 
The most vulnerable things that really need to be looked after outside now are the sappy new shoots of potato plants - they can't stand even the slightest whiff of frost or they'll turn to black mush, so they must be covered with fleece if frost threatens. They are too big now to earth up, as I get them going early. I planted out my pot raised potatoes about 3 weeks ago. They'd been sitting outside on the polythene covering their designated raised bed for a couple of weeks to acclimatise to outside - and I covered them at night with cloches and fleece for protection. They'll be ready after the tunnel potatoes are finished which were started off in pots in January. I start all of my potatoes off in pots these days, in order to both get earlier crops and to avoid blight and spraying - even with organic sprays such as copper. I am astonished about how inflexible some people are - they are amazed that I would go to such trouble for potatoes - which have always been planted a certain way! Yet they would think absolutely nothing of starting off half-hardy plants or bulbs that way! And you can't even eat those!!
 
 
I always make sure I have at least two lots of fleece to cover each of my beds, just to be on the safe side. The fleece comes very cheaply on a big roll so I can conveniently cut off exactly what I need to cover everything securely. It's massively cheaper to buy it that way. If it's windy I also cover the fleece with Enviromesh or netting to hold it down, or use cloche hoops. I fix the fleece to them with wooden clothes pegs which are needed as it's very windy here, and what  can often happen is that fleece will tear and blow away in the sudden gusts we get just before a rainstorm - then the wind drops after midnight and there's a frost! As I'm lucky to have a big enough garden at home to grow my veg., it's easy to run out and put fleeces on in the evening after watching the weather forecast!  It takes me about half an hour to cover everything that needs it, including anything in the tunnel. Then I take off the fleeces again in the morning, which only takes about five minutes, in order to dry them and have them ready for the next cold night. As I've said before - wet fleece is worse than none at all! And several layers are far more effective - 2 or 3 layers of dry light fleece will trap air just as layers of clothing do for us - and protect even quite soft things from anything but the very hardest of spring frosts.

 
If you have an allotment it's obviously a bit more difficult - as obviously you're not there all the time. In that case I think I would make up a frame or hoops to drape the fleece over, perhaps then securing it with netting as it can blow off very easily being so light. Or you could make your own cheap polythene covered frames as I described a couple of months ago, maybe even putting fleece underneath them, where it will stay dry, as double insurance. It's amazing how much water fleece will collect on a cold night, it offers less frost protection if it's actually resting on plants, particularly if it's wet, and it's also then surprisingly heavy. You may think all this is an awful fiddle - and at 8pm in the evening, trying to cover a bed on my own with an aching back and fleece that insists on blowing off in even the slightest breath of air - I'd be inclined to agree! However, I know I'll get my reward in many different varieties of wonderful completely chemical-free un-sprayed organic potatoes for most of the year! I also grow some potatoes in large pots too, if I'm trying new varieties or growing rare ones. I  normally grow around 12-16 different varieties - and if you think that's barmy - Dave Langford, the potato expert who lives in Leitrim, and who often comes down to the potato day at Sonairte, grows around 150 varieties every year! As someone remarked, I do use a lot of 2 litre pots for starting them off, which could be expensive, but as one of my best friends is a garden designer, I can always get plenty of free pots in whatever size I need. They would otherwise just be dumped, probably not recycled, and I've been re-using most of them for at least 20 years now! Make friends with your local landscaper or nursery - offer them some free veg. in return for pots which they don't want anyway and they may be glad to get rid of them cluttering up the place! 
 
 
Potato Mayan Gold flowers are pretty enough for any herbaceous  border!
Potato Mayan Gold flowers are pretty enough for any herbaceous  border!

Most of the varieties I grow are early or second early varieties, which need a shorter growing season than maincrops, so tend to bulk up faster - early enough to have a really good crop under them before blight strikes here in most years. Purple Majesty is an early maincrop - and that has done well here for several years now - even recovering from frost quite well. There's quite enough variety for anyone's needs. Some are waxy, some floury, some salad potatoes or unusually coloured ones. I like to use different types for different culinary purposes, enjoying the variety. I'd get bored with the same one for everything - variety is the spice....etc.  

 

If I were really forced to choose just one single variety for taste however, it would probably be the Mayan Gold which is a second early/early maincrop.  It is very versatile, being waxy if lightly cooked, or very floury if cooked for longer. It looks every bit as beautiful as it tastes, is very ornamental with quite unusual foliage and gorgeous deep purple flowers. It also fascinatingly folds up it's leaves at night, a bit like a Maranta (the prayer plant). I've grown it for several years since it first became available, both in the tunnel and outside, and I've seen it recover quite well from late frosts, and even blight, growing on again healthily when the weather became drier. It's fantastic for every use in the kitchen, and the top chefs in London go mad for it to make saute potatoes. It's only problem is that it soaks up an awful lot of melted butter!!  A deep gold, almost sweet potato-like colour - it even increases in vitamin A in storage! Although it's actually quite difficult to store, as it starts to sprout like mad in November, but I discovered why, on reading Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix's great vegetable book again. Apparently the Phureja potatoes, from which it is descended, do not have a proper dormant period, being more adapted to growing conditions in the Caribbean. Which definitely explains why dear old MG enjoys itself thoroughly in the tunnel. It's just flowering now - and it always looks so beautiful! The other advantage of not being day length sensitive is that it's quite happy to grow at any time of year - so I often use if for Christmas new potatoes, planting it at the beginning of September. It's one I wouldn't want to be without!.......But then......there's so many others too - like the deliciously healthy, purple-fleshed, high anthocyanin varieties. I've got 6 different varieties of those now - the first of which I obtained in Harrods Food Hall in Knightstbridge over 30 years ago! I can just never resist anything different! It's absolutely impossible to just pick just one favourite!!
 
 
The potatoes in pots which were started off at the conventional time of mid-March are planted out and about 6ins. high. I water them in after planting and then mulch them thickly with grass clippings, keeping the mulch 3 or 4 inches or 10cm away from the base of the stems. Then I water again immediately, otherwise the strong vapour given off by the nitrogen in the freshly cut grass clippings can burn the stems and leaves. This is really important whatever crop you are using a grass mulch on. Always water immediately - even if the ground was already moist beforehand. A lot of 'experts' forget to tell you this - then you wonder why your plants turn yellow and the leaves curl up!  Doing this also 'seals' the grass mulch into a mat quite nicely, sort of knitting it together, which helps to keep moisture in, cutting down on watering, and also keeps the weeds down. After a few days it goes brown and looks very neat and tidy. It's also a very handy take-away nest material for blackbirds - yesterday I surprised a blackbird in a potato bed - it flew off with a huge beak full of mulch - at a distance it looked as if it was carrying a small hedgehog almost as big as itself - then I realised it was helping itself to ready chopped, nicely dried grass bedding! Delighted to be of service in return for the pest control and the lovely music! The gratitude won't extend to free raspberries however!! There's plenty of berries planted exclusively for them down in the woodland!
 
 
By the way - if you're thinking of saving a few of your own early potato tubers for seed tubers for next spring - then make sure that you mark one or two of the very best, most healthy-looking plants, as soon as the foliage has fully emerged. Those must have perfectly green, really healthy-looking leaves with absolutely no yellow blotches, no twisting or odd-looking crinkling - as these could possibly be carrying viruses. Again many 'experts' tell you only to save sound looking tubers - but they don't tell you to look at the plants when they're growing - which is what you should actually be doing!  Tubers which are in fact carrying a virus can look perfectly sound and ok, - and it's only when they grow foliage that you can see if they are unhealthy and virused, by which time it's too late.  Check their health again when lifting - more on that in a couple of months.  As I've mentioned before - Lady Christl is the very fastest if you want to produce extra-earlies in the way that I do (planting in Jan.), Duke of York (which has a slightly better flavour) is the next fastest - only about a couple of weeks behind and Apache has now been a great success for the last few years. Mayan Gold is also definitely worth trying, though it's about another week or so after them until it has a worthwhile crop. Sharpe's Express and Annabelle are also good for 'extra-earlies'.
 
 
Other jobs for May
 
Brassicas safely tucked up under Enviromesh
Brassicas safely tucked up under Enviromesh
 
Planting out brassica plants such as cabbages and calabrese - these must be protected with brassica collars fitted snugly around the stem against cabbage root fly. Seedlings must also be protected from now on too - as the fly is becoming active. As you obviously can't yet use brassica collars on them because they're too small, it's best to completely cover them with fleece or 'Enviromesh'. I prefer 'Enviromesh' as it gives better air circulation and light transmission. This will stop cabbage white butterfly too, and I saw several of those in the tunnel a month ago!

 
If you're starting off in a new allotment, where previously grass has been growing, there may be plenty of wire-worms, cutworms and leather-jackets (daddy long legs larvae) in the soil.  It's a good idea to turn over the soil a few times before planting and let the eager birds scratch them up. These can otherwise devastate newly planted out lettuces, cabbages, etc., slicing neatly through the stem, causing the plants to collapse, by which time it's too late. If you see that happening to one, then dig around the base of the others - you may find the grey-brown caterpillar-like grubs there before they kill other plants. Destroy! Chickens are brilliant for putting onto newly cultivated ground for a while specifically for this purpose - nothing escapes their searching sharp eyes and eager beaks!
 
 
Carrots also need covering completely now with enviromesh. It's better to sow them in a row,  rather than broadcast in a wide band - as I saw someone recommending recently, unless you've got an extremely weed-free soil, otherwise they'll get smothered by weeds. It's much easier to see where a distinct row is. You really don't want to weed unless you absolutely have to, as the smell of bruised carrot foliage will attract every carrot fly for 10 miles! In a row you can see exactly where the carrots are much more easily, then you can just hoe either side of the row and leave the few weeds in the middle without bruising the foliage and causing the release of scent. Do this very early in the morning - carrot flies only become active around 8am-ish as the day warms up - so the earlier you can do this the better. Then water the row and cover securely again - carrot flies will get through the slightest gap. I find that this way I get great crops with no damage.  I mostly grow the larger Nantes type carrot all year round now as I think they have the best flavour.
 
 
Feed your compost heap!
 
 
Remember - making compost isn't rocket science - so don't get in a state about it! Many people think it has to be absolutely perfect - it doesn't. Nature does it gradually all on it's own! Weeds can grow incredibly fast at this time of year but all annual weeds can go into the compost heap, so there'll be plenty of material around to make it now! Just make sure you have a good varied mix of soft green material and more fibrous brown and stemmy stuff. If it's going a bit slimy, perhaps because you've added too much cut grass or sappy green stuff, then turn it and mix in more carbon. Material like well shredded newspapers, un-sprayed straw, hay or dried up plant stems and chipped woody prunings will all balance the wet stuff and introduce some air, so that the heap will work better. A shredder is really useful in a large garden, it conveniently chops up things like woody prunings and brassica stems into an ideal size for mixing into the compost heap. Put all your perennial weeds like docks and nettles into a barrel of water - many are deep rooting and bring up very valuable minerals from lower down in the soil profile. Rotted in water they'll make a really good liquid feed combined perhaps with comfrey or nettles. Then when they're totally rotted in a few months - they can then be added to the compost heap along with everything else. I put anything which might attract rodents, like fruit and vegetable scraps, into one of those municipal grey tumbler bins, along with some shredded newspaper and chicken bedding of manure and shavings, to start their decomposing - they can then go onto the heap or the garden if they're well enough rotted. I put a deep tray underneath to catch the drips - there's a surprising amount. I bottle the fluid which runs off, and after storing for a while it makes a good liquid feed diluted to the colour of weak tea. Alternatively you can also add those things to your worm bin if you have one, although worms aren't that keen on tomatoes as they're too acid!
 
 
 
New material is added to the compost heap before it's re-covered to retain heat
New material is added to the compost heap before it's re-covered to retain heat
Unless you cover compost heaps - then mostly all you're making is a soil conditioner - and all the valuable nutrients will be lost! It will also be emitting greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide. So don't forget to keep compost heaps covered with something waterproof - whatever the time of year. This argument also applies to my deep mulching with manure comments earlier!  Covering it also helps to keep the heat in, which makes the heap rot much faster, keeping in the steaming fumes, which then condense back into the heap, stopping possible nitrogen loss into the air. There's no point going to all the trouble to make lovely compost if you then leave it open to all the weather, so that the rain pours through it and washes out all the valuable nutrients, which leach out, run off and are lost, also polluting groundwater. In order to catch any possible run off from heaps it's a good idea to plant comfrey beds beside them, or let nettles grow there - which will usually plant themselves! These will capture any nutrients which run off and will then recycle them into liquid feed or onto the heap again when their leaves are cut.

 
If you've just started gardening and you don't have enough good compost available yet, or want to 'top up' nutrients for hungry crops, then Osmo Organic Universal granular fertiliser, fish, blood and bonemeal, and seaweed meal are all useful. There are more and more good compound organic fertilisers available now, so don't let fast growing crops go hungry, as if starved they may run quickly to seed. Don't let them be thirsty either - keep them well watered - mulching with things like grass clippings from lawns not treated with chemicals (I hope you wouldn't!) to conserve water wherever possible. Plants can't make use of food without water. Don't just rely on these alone however - you also need the humus that soil microbes make from decomposing plant remains and carbon, found in manures and/or compost, in order to protect the structure of the soil and to feed the resident worms and all the billions of microorganisms which live there and make nutrients available to plants, in what's known as a symbiotic relationship - mutually beneficial in other words. 
 
 
Even if you can get well rotted organic manure - again - it shouldn't be lashed on.  As I said previously - too much can be just as damaging to beneficial soil life as chemical fertilisers. Moderation is the key. You can make up for a shortage of humus by mulching with grass clippings and other plant wastes, making worm compost, growing green manures or cover crops to incorporate into the soil surface and making as much garden compost as you can. Everything helps - the more varied the better. Mushroom compost is highly undesirable though, as if it's non-organic it will almost certainly contain very persistent toxic chemicals which kill vital soil life and may contaminate crops - and apart from that it also has a very high pH, which can again unbalance soil nutrient availability - causing chlorosis and yellowing of leaves.
 
 
Planting out tender crops in late May
 
 
At the end of the month, or the beginning of June, depending on where you live, you can start to plant out more tender crops like celeriac, celery, sweet corn, courgettes, French and runner beans etc. after properly 'hardening off' (see April). I don't like to put up a fixed structure for beans, as I find individual 8 ft canes work much better on my sometimes extremely windy site. They can then move individually in the wind and when fully-grown don't present a 'fixed wall' or wigwam of beans - which may well all blow over completely, as has happened several times over the years! We often have very strong winds here in our summers!  If only one cane blows over, the plants suffer less damage and are far less likely to break,. It's also more easily pick up and supported again than trying to resurrect a whole row! I sow two beans to a 500 ml plastic yogurt pot - I find those an ideal size. Each pot full is then tipped out and planted beside it's own cane. There's still time to sow things like French and runner Beans, sweet corn and squashes. Squashes courgettes and pumpkins in particular grow really fast!
 
 
My pumpkin display photographed by Joy Larkcom in 1991
My pumpkin display photographed by Joy Larkcom in 1991

 

If pumpkins and summer squashes are developing fast, and the weather is not warm enough to plant them out - don't risk planting them too early. If the roots are filling the pots - feed them - pot them on into bigger pots and wait until the weather is warmer. They hate being checked and never crop as well if you allow them to become pot-bound. When you're ready to plant them out - plant them into a nicely prepared, really fertile, sunny spot and stand well back!  They grow very quickly, and are wonderful winter food. If ripened properly they will keep for months - in fact I'm usually using the last of my stored ones when I'm sowing the next year's! I've still got some of last year's that are perfect! 

 

When Joy Larkcom was staying here in 1991, she took this wonderful photo of some of mine on the table in my hall. I love to see them all arranged there in the autumn. They keep really well there for ages as it's dry but quite cool.  I almost can't bear to use them as they look so sculptural and decorative! Greed always manages to win over art in the end though! My pumpkin and basil soup is one of the best midwinter 'cheerer-uppers' I know - real comfort food. My kids used to call it 'sunshine soup' - it really reminds one of all the colour and warmth of high summer in the middle of winter. The ones best for storing are not the watery easily carved, over-sized 'Halloween' ones though. You want the really hard, deep orange fleshed, high dry matter varieties like Blue Hubbard, Crown Prince, Marina di Chioggia, Queensland Blue, Hokkaido, Golden Hubbard, Pink Banana and Buttercup. These will store for at least six months if ripened well and are another vegetable which ripens more and increases in Vitamin A with storage. The ones that start off blue all turn pink as they ripen more with age. They can be used in exactly the same way as 'butternut' squashes, but are much tastier! These are all available from The Organic Catalogue, Suttons, Simpsons, Real Seeds, Mr. Fothergill's  etc. and grow so quickly that you've still got time to sow them even in June in pots, when their germination will be more reliable and slug proof than outside! My tips on sowing all the cucurbit family are in this month's polytunnel diary.

 
Don't worry about the stuff you haven't done - if like me you're behind because of the difficult weather, or life got in the way as it does! Remember that the most important thing of all to do in your garden is to enjoy it! Even the smallest bit of home grown produce is a real achievement - so celebrate it! 
 
Happy gardening.....and Happy Eating! We've got the whole of the exciting summer to look forward to!
 
 
(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.)

The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in May - 2017

To everything there is a season and for everything a use - even seasonally-bolting vegetables!  
 
Processing the spinach mountain late at night!
Processing the spinach mountain late at night! Spring Cream of Spinach soup - a delicious and easy way to use spinach
 
Enough thoughts of winter -  now is the time to anticipate summer crops. And you know what they say about anticipation being half the pleasure of anything! The last of the overwintered lettuce, spinach and chicories are now starting to bolt - so as well as being so much to do outside - I've also been busy until late at night inside dealing with the spinach mountain by washing and freezing as fast as I can! Spinach is such a useful veg to have in the freezer as a standby for quick meals and can be thrown straight into the saucepan from frozen to make a great soup - my easy recipe for cream of spinach soup (or other greens soup) is here: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/recipes/418-cream-of-watercress-soup-and-patriot-s-celebration-soup-from-tunnel-to-table-two-new-recipes-for-spring  
 
 
As I've mentioned often - I never blanch anything! I always just wash if necessary, dry in the salad spinner to get rid of excess water and then just freeze as fast as possible! The bolting lettuce will also be used up to make one of my favourite early summer soups - lettuce and lovage - an annual treat that uses up fast-bolting tunnel lettuce in May. Some people would just throw it onto the compost heap at this stage - but it's still perfectly edible - even if a little stronger tasting. I have three large lovage plants  growing in pots - specifically for making this divine soup. I bring them into the tunnel early every March to force them on in time to make it - outside plants would be too late for the tunnel lettuce. I look forward to this soup every year. Oddly enough - I never make it at any other time of year - probably because the rest of the year there's so much else to eat!  It's also great for using up the last of the stronger-flavoured, bolting overwintered lettuce. In addition - it avoids wasting precious healthy nutrients at a time of year when any fresh veg are welcome! Green lettuce is best for it I think - the red ones tend to look a bit 'mud'-coloured in soup! The last of the spinach is frozen making handy 'ready-prepared' veg for super-fast meals and throwing into smoothies. The bolting chicory is enjoyed by the hens and I always transplant a few chicories outside into the bee and butterfly border for the beautiful blue flowers that bees and other insects love and then later on seeds which birds like Goldfinches enjoy. Nothing is ever wasted here! 
 
 
There's so much to do in the tunnel at the moment that the pace of work is really hectic - but there's also much to look forward to!  My mouth's already watering at the prospect of that first fabulous tasting tomato - will it be Maskotka, Sungold, Chiquito or John Baer?  This year they're a bit later due to the cold weather. This time last year their first flowers were already open!  It will probably be Maskotka I expect as usual, particularly as it already has fruit on it the size of marbles. But John Baer won't be far behind - and they both have wonderful flavour.  Is there anything to compare with the year's very first taste of anything? Year-round availability of virtually every known fruit and vegetable, imported from God knows where, actually spoils the seasonal anticipation, excitement and childlike enjoyment of that very first, mouthwatering burst of flavour!  How lucky we are as gardeners, that we can have that 'first' treat so many times with every single year. After those early tomatoes, in a few weeks the beefsteaks will start to crop - and there truly is nothing like the taste of that first Caprese salad of buffalo mozzarella and a good beefsteak like Pantano Romanesco with an aromatic basil dressing, accompanied by some home-baked crispy warm ciabatta bread! 
 
 
Imported out of season produce often looks as tempting and attractive as 'Snow White's' poisonous apple.  It's almost always a huge disappointment sadly, a pointless waste of money, and possibly full of chemicals and carbon guzzling air miles. Imported shop bought, or even locally grown organic food can never compare with the flavour, freshness or nutritional content of your very own home-grown organic produce!  Nutritional content of produce imported from the other side of the world or even from Southern Europe is something I talk about in this article: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/492-for-the-highest-nutrients-in-fruits-and-veg-timing-is-everything
 
 
Buying something tired and already several days old from your supermarket can never rival the enormous sense of achievement and satisfaction from enjoying the well-earned fruits of your own labours - especially if they've been grown in an organic and sustainable way. There is just nothing like the satisfying crunchy sweetness of that first mangetout, or the first May strawberry. There's so many mouthfuls of summer delights to come! The first of the cherry tomatoes in June, a sun-warmed juicy peach in July or the August morning when you open the tunnel door and the scent of a ripe melon hits you, and you cradle it in your hand, the fruit slightly cracking where it joins the stem in readiness to drop off the vine. It doesn't get the chance - the pruning knife slices into a juicy ripe melon in a very satisfying way - so it rarely reaches the kitchen! Nectar for the Gods - and the ultimate in take-away breakfasts!  I have to admit that the first of anything in this garden very rarely reaches the kitchen - that's the gardener's extra special reward!! 
 
 
The healthy pleasures of polytunnel breakfasts
 

At this time of year, I've usually had at least two of my five-a-day before I even have 'proper' breakfast! Unless there's a howling gale - then breakfast or brunch in the tunnel accompanied by birdsong is a must. Even on a dull day at this time of year the tunnel is warm.  Most normal people put decking outside in their gardens - but I have some inside one of my tunnels so that I can sit in there at a table whatever the weather! Even when I was growing commercially, I always had a small table and chair to sit in one of my tunnels. It's a great place to plan and think. Pre-breakfast snacks at this time of year and for the rest of the summer mostly consist of 'grazing' my way around the tunnels on whatever happens to be good at the time and within arm's reach as I do my morning watering! 

I think that tunnels are really magic places that can lift the spirits and bring you joy and good health all year round. The psychological benefits of them are definitely not something to be underestimated. In fact I think that doctors should be allowed to prescribe them and health service grants should be available for people who want to purchase them! Think how much they could save the Dept. of health! My tunnels definitely prevent SAD (seasonal affective disorder) for me. I know if I spent all my time indoors in winter the lack of light would really affect me. The tunnels also provide regular gentle exercise too - that has a far more positive health giving result than just going to a gym. The freshest possible healthy food!  In the tunnel I'm able to get my hands into the soil every day, finding a spot of weeding or something else to do - or just potter no matter what the weather. There's always something to look at or do. It's also a great place to have a coffee with friends - who love being surrounded by all the abundance!  A friend called in recently who has been ill for over a year and hadn't seen the tunnels for a long time. She said that just looking all the crops and flowers did her good and that it was "just like coming home" - such a lovely thing to say. She left well-pleased with a box full of various food plants and produce to help speed her recovery.  Growing your own health in a polytunnel is something you can do all year round! Sometimes in winter, I'll just sit in there with a cup of coffee - getting my dose of natural daylight without having to brave the lashing rain and howling gales outside - and planning the next year's crops! Having the tunnel to escape to from the unfriendly weather any time of year really is really like escaping to a magic land - "Not quite Narnia - but definitely a very different universe from that outside" - was how journalist Fionnuala Fallon so beautifully described a visit to my tunnel in November 2010!! 

 
It's easy to have a magic land full of food and flowers all year long if you plan well. Especially in winter.  In next month's diary I'll be showing you just how you can start to do that too. You need to plan ahead well for plentiful and varied winter crops. Sorry to mention the 'winter' word when we're only just hopefully looking forward to a good summer - but in tunnels, or anywhere else in the garden for that matter - planning is vital for success! Why not resolve to make this the year that you can pick brilliant veg. not just all summer - but all winter long too!  I'll tell you how next month. 
 
 
There's a growing excitement about tomatoes!
 
 
Exciting new tomato 'Indigo Rose'- naturally high in cancer- fighting plant phytochemicals
Exciting new tomato 'Indigo Rose'- naturally high in cancer- fighting plant phytochemicals
The lure of finding a good new tomato variety is always totally irresistible for meI'm growing a few new varieties again this year for the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival '17 - being held at Killruddery in September! (For more info see my Polytunnel & Greenhouse diary for March and the Press release about this year's Festival). The best news for me of course is that once again - it's not me who is organising it!!  So I have all the excuse I needed to try a few exciting new varieties (new to me anyway) - and to get all the fun and flavour, but without the hassle! The reason I came up with the idea of holding the very first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival back in 2012 was to demonstrate and celebrate the remarkable beauty and genetic diversity of tomatoes - and to make people aware of just how vitally important it is that we preserve all of their valuable genes. Not to mention the wonderfully healthy nutrients they contain - and also the fact that they're one of the most versatile fruits or vegetables there is!  Just imagine if some deadly disease were to strike tomatoes, that there was no organic, or even (God forbid!) chemical way of dealing with - so no more tomatoes?  Can you imagine a life without tomatoes and all the wonderful things we can do with them?  If that was to happen - there could just be one tomato hidden away somewhere that might possibly hold the only genetic key to resisting that disease. Plant breeders could then use it's genes to produce new strains of tomatoes resistant to the disease. This is true of so many other food crops too. Preserving all genetic diversity is vitally important. Tomatoes were just a really great way to show that to people. Plant breeders are busy now using wild and Heritage varieties to produce new strains which are even more full of healthy nutrients.
 
 
The tomato pictured here - Indigo Rose - was one of the first of a new breed of naturally-bred tomatoes that are high in the healthy anthocyanin plant phytochemicals. These are nutrients that are brilliant for our health - boosting our immune and circulatory systems and protecting us from a number of major diseases. Seed of Indigo Rose was first released to gardeners in the USA in early 2012 - it's stunning looks were what gave me the idea of holding the first Tomato Festival. I first held a tomato day back in the late 80's - but sadly Indigo Rose wasn't around then. Diversity isn't just about saving old heritage varieties - although that's vitally important. It's also about preserving good, modern, naturally-bred varieties too. If you grow tomatoes at all - do come along to the Festival, bring your tomatoes to show off too and join in the fun! We had a great day last year with 138 varieties - we're hoping for even more this year!
 
 
I talk about growing, planting, supporting tomatoes etc. here:  http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/497-totally-terrific-tomatoes-my-suggestions-for-easy-delicious-varieties-and-the-basics-of-growing-them   .............So I won't repeat that again here as this is already a long article. If you scroll down to the end of that article - you can also listen to the Tomato Special which Gerry Kelly and I did on LMFM radio last month - so that people could prepare for the Tomato Festival.
 
 
There's a lot more to polytunnels than just tomatoes! 

 

Me with what I call the' Emperor's New Clothes Plant' - Yacon - last year!

Me in the big polytunnel behind what I call the 'Emperor's New Clothes Plant' - Yacon. The latest fashionable 'must have' plant!

 Cucumbers, melons, courgettes - the cucurbitaceae

 
7 cucumbers ready to pick on this Burpless Tasty Green plant in large tub and more on the way 25.6.15
7 cucumbers ready to pick on this Burpless Tasty Green plant in large tub!
 
 
 
I think the next most common tunnel or greenhouse crop to tomatoes that people grow is probably cucumbers - because you really can't beat the taste of homegrown ones - especially the older varieties which I think have more flavour. I've been growing Burpless Tasty green for around 35 years now - and I still think it can't be beaten for easiness of growing, flavour or productivity for home gardeners. Seed of BTG is incredibly cheap compared to the more 'prima donna-ish' newer hybrids - you'll get about 20 seeds for the price of just one seed of those expensive varieties! I always plant cucumbers and melons on a slight mound, watering in carefully with tepid water. Afterwards I never water very close to their stems again as they can be very prone to root rots just where the stem meets the soil. I always use tunnel temperature water to water them around their outer root area - using water from the water butt kept in the tunnel specifically for that purpose. I never use cold water from a hose!  I tend to give them a slightly richer soil than I would give tomatoes, again preparing the soil in the same way a few days beforehand but also forking in a nice bucketful of good compost or well-rotted manure per plant. I then water the prospective planting site thoroughly and leave it for a couple of days for the soil to settle and warm up. If I'm growing more than one plant I plant them roughly 3ft/1m apart. I plant my early tunnel courgettes in the same way.
 
 
For those of you who are buying plants from garden centres rather than using plants you have grown from seed - make sure you inspect them very carefully! If there's any sign of browning, cracking or other damage on on the stem anywhere, particularly where it meets the compost at the top of the root ball - DON'T BUY THE PLANT! That's the first sign of root rots setting in. Very often these plants reach the nursery or garden centre from the suppliers perfectly fine - then they might get watered with a cold spray from a hose, very often by someone untrained who wouldn't know a cucumber from a cabbage - and plants can be well on the way to root rots before you even buy them!  Another tell-tale sign of this is wilting - even when the compost feels damp. That's always an indicator of root problems. A mistake many beginners often make is that because they see something wilting - they think the plants need more water (I can't tell you how many plants I lost that way when I first started growing things!) but it almost always means that there is a problem with the roots and the last thing they need is even more water! That's why it's generally safer to grow them from seed yourself. 
 
 
But don't worry if you haven't sown any yet - as they're fast developing plants, there's still plenty of time to sow them now for a mid - late summer (or even an autumn crop with the small gherkin types). It's best not to start them off too early anyway, as it can be difficult to give them enough warmth early on to keep them growing on really well, because another thing that all the cucurbit family hates is being pot-bound and getting checked. Pumpkins in particular really hate this as they make huge root systems - and if they get 'pot-bound' before planting out they never really do as well afterwards. Some years ago I was sent some half-sized grafted cucumbers for trialling. To be honest I wasn't that impressed with them compared to my usual varieties and they also brought in red spider mite - which didn't please me, as I then had to go to the expense of buying a biological control! A very good half-sized cucumber, ideal if the larger ones go off before you use all of them is Restina - the seed of which I got from Lidl of all places! It's a gherkin type which is useful for pickling or grows to make a very nice half-sized tasty cucumber too - and it's incredibly productive, as many of the gherkin types are. 
 
 
The sword in the stone! Attacking a 2.8kg (6lb 3ozs) Queensland Blue in late April.
The sword in the stone! Attacking a 2.8kg (6lb 3ozs) Queensland Blue in late April.

Pumpkins and squashes are one of my most important staple crops and I start them off from seed in late April or early May in the propagator. If ripened properly, they'll store incredibly well through the winter and I always expect any so far unused to keep well until I am sowing the next year's ones. I grow the really dense fleshed ones - and these actually increase in beta-carotene, as they ripen even more while they are stored over the winter. You don't think of vegetable crops as being alive after they have been harvested - but they actually are. After they've been harvested a lot is still going on inside the cells of the plant - whatever type of plant it is! It always fascinates me how a pumpkin that starts off with a turquoise blue skin at harvesting time in late autumn can gradually change over the winter to an even more beautiful deep orange pink, like the Queensland Blue pictured here. I usually grow at least six varieties - and they are all so beautiful to look at, that being an artist I hate to cut them up for cooking! But the really good varieties also taste fantastic too - like sweet potatoes but much firmer - so I get over it! The giant ones sold for Halloween are totally useless for storing - and also cooking - they are utterly tasteless and watery compared to the ones I grow. Some of the best varieties to grow are Golden Hubbard, Blue Hubbard, Invincible, Crown Prince, Hokkaido, Giant Pink Banana, Buttercup, Marina di Chioggia and Queensland Blue. We cut up a Queensland Blue a couple of weeks ago - with great difficulty I hasten to add - a bit like breaking and entering! You need a really stout knife or hatchet to safely cut into these babies! We roasted wedges in the oven with garlic and a little butter and oil - they were absolutely delicious! They're also fantastic for the best ever pumpkin pies and soups (recipe elsewhere) and you can even use their flesh in cakes and smoothies too. The friend who was here yesterday said she made the most fabulous curry with one I gave her a couple of weeks ago - I must get that recipe! 

 
Propagating and planting the cucumber family
 
 
I propagate all my cucurbit family (courgettes, pumpkins, melons etc..) in the same way. I sow them in 3 inch pots singly, on their sides, edge of the seed up, about 1/2 in deep, covering with vermiculite, and water in with tepid water. After this, I cover the pot with a polythene bag and germinate them in a propagator at approx 20 deg C plus/68degF.  After this - I never water from the top again - always from underneath by sitting them in water for a couple of minutes. I keep them steadily growing well, even potting on if necessary, before it's warm enough to plant in the soil either in the tunnel or outside. Cucumbers in particular need night time temperatures of at least 20 deg.C to grow on really well after planting out. Unlike tomatoes, cucumbers and melons love sauna-like conditions - humidity and warmth, so the place to grow them is in the middle of your tunnel or greenhouse where they won't be in a draught and it will be a bit more humid. Or if you have more than one tunnel - then give them a tunnel to themselves. I must say I miss the four tunnels I used to have when I was growing commercially - my rotations were just so much easier. After planting, always water at the base of the mound they're planted on - not against the stem - and with tunnel temperature water, as I've said before. You shouldn't have a problem with rot if you do this. Don't over water, but never let them dry out either, or you may encourage powdery mildew to develop on the leaves, which is caused by dryness at the roots combined with high humidity. This is a particular problem in the autumn as cooler nights encourage it too. A good moisture retaining mulch of grass clippings or compost after planting (again kept well away from the stem) will help to keep that at bay by keeping the outer roots moist. Stop (pinch out) the main stem once it reaches the top of whatever support you're training it up, stop any lateral (side) shoots at the fourth leaf joint and any sub-laterals (side shoots from the side shoots!)  at the second leaf joint beyond the first good fruit. If you're growing an 'all female' variety of cucumber, take out any male flowers immediately if any appear - this sometime happens if the plant is stressed in some way. Female flowers have a tiny cucumber behind the flower, male ones just have a plain stem behind the flower.
 
 
I plant my melons on a mound in exactly the same way, but I prefer to grow them trailing on the ground, using a side bed, rather than training them up a string or net which I basically don't have time for as it's so fiddly. I pinch out the main stem when five leaves have developed. The plant should then develop four or five side shoots, which will bear the fruits. Pinch these out when they reach the extent of their space, or at five leaves - these will then develop the lateral shoots which will bear more fruits. Bees will often pollinate these for you if there are lots around, but to ensure pollination, you can pick a male flower and push it gently into a female flower when they develop. The best time to do this is around midday when it's warm enough for the pollen to develop and the atmosphere isn't too humid. Careful watering of these in the same way as cucumbers is again absolutely key. When the fruits have formed - put each developing fruit on something like a piece of wood, slate or an upturned pot to stop any chance of them rotting where they're in contact with the soil and where there's less likelihood of slugs nibbling them. This also attracts warmth which helps to ripen them. (This is something I was asked about at a talk last year in respect of pumpkins - this is a good way stop them rotting outside in the garden too) You'll know when melons are starting to ripen by keeping an eye on the stem - when a crack start to develop just around where the stalk joins the fruit - and you also get that unmistakable scent - you can be sure they're ripe. I promise you that when you taste your first home grown, perfectly ripe, sweet and aromatic melon - you will be totally hooked!  
 

 
Ridiculously productive Atena courgette in late May 2015
Ridiculously productive Atena courgette in late May 2015
There's still plenty of time to sow pumpkins, courgettes etc. for planting outside, or better still in the polytunnel if you have space. You are guaranteed a really good crop in the tunnel in our unreliable often wet summers!  My courgettes crop until November in the tunnel, making them really worth the space - those outside give up much earlier. I don't bother with green courgettes much now - maybe one or two plants - I grow the yellow one 'Atena' from Suttons, a firm, deliciously sweet variety, not at all 'cabbagey tasting' like most yellow ones - and also far more productive than any of the other yellow ones I've ever tried. Everyone loves it's sweet flavour. It's very like the variety 'Eldorado' that Suttons sold in the early 1990's. I saved seed for several years, but then sadly lost it. It was quite variable though, as it had originally been an F1 hybrid. I prefer to sow all my courgettes in pots too. Although in theory all the books say you can sow courgettes etc. outside from the beginning of June, in my experience those sown inside now (or inside anytime for that matter) will still be miles ahead, far less likely to be eaten by slugs or other pests, and will crop far more quickly than any sown outside. I often think that most seed sowing instructions are written by companies mostly located in the south or west of the UK. In Ireland or the north of the UK our growing season is considerably colder and shorter than other places, so use every aid possible to speed things up! Sow them in exactly the same way as the pumpkins etc.above. I usually grow a couple of Atena in large tubs in the fruit tunnel for some early courgettes, then pull these out as soon as those outside, or planted in the ground in the other tunnel are cropping. After a while in tubs they tend to get mildew aa they hate the root restriction, but they provide a really useful early crop  this way.
 
 
Planting Aubergines and Sweet Peppers 
 
 
Aubergine 'Bonica' 25th July 2013
Aubergine 'Bonica' in July 
You can plant out Aubergines and sweet peppers towards the middle/end of the month too if it's warm enough - these like a really warm soil. If you have too many Solanacae (tomato family) to fit in with your rotations these will grow well in large pots on grow bags trays or sitting on plastic. I grow them in 10lt. pots, 3 pots to each grow bag tray. This means I can water into the tray rather than the pots, when plants are bigger and need more watering or feeding. I like to plant both aubergines and peppers on slight mounds - with the soil sloping away from the stem - towards the sides of the pot, as this prevents root rotting - to which they are both particularly susceptible. Don't let the plants root through the bottom of the pots into the tunnel soil, or it will mess up your rotation plan in just the same way as if they were in the ground! They require the same careful watering as most other things, never against the base of the stem - always around the outside of the pot if necessary.  Be careful never to over water in case the weather then turns cold. 
 
 
Aubergines are the only one of this family that I would be inclined to mist over - but only if the weather is very hot and the atmosphere very dry in your greenhouse or tunnel, as they can be very susceptible to red spider mite. By the way - if you can actually see tiny very fast moving red spiders, these are usually the predatory mite - Phytoseilius Persimilis. This means you are lucky, as this is what you would normally have to buy to control red spider. Many people confuse it with spider mite but it is very fast moving and visibly red. I often see them in the tunnel and the conservatory. The red spider mite pest you actually can't actually see without a hand lens, it shows itself by a sort of dusty, dry, silvering of the leaves, and if it is a very bad infestation, by dusty fine webs on young shoots as well. Red spider hates humidity, so misting over any affected plants a couple of times a day with a fine mister spray is a good idea. If you get a bad infestation you will have to buy the predatory Phytoseilius. It is very effective - but as it costs around 40 euros for a decent sized greenhouse - you obviously want to avoid it if you can!
 
 
 
Climbing French Beans, early broad beans and peas
 
 
Cobra French Bean
Cobra French Bean
Climbing French beans are a fantastically productive tunnel crop. You can always be sure of a good crop inside - even in a miserable summer. I grow the variety 'Cobra' (very cheap seed in B&Q) it's a round-podded stringless bean - actually an improved form of 'Blue Lake' and is fantastically reliable - both indoors and outside in the garden. I always grow a lot as it also freezes exceptionally well and it's nice to have a bit of a change from cabbages, leeks and chard in the winter! I sow two or three seeds (pre-sprouted on damp kitchen paper) into a recycled 500ml plastic yogurt pot or milk cartons, gently pulling out the weakest if three germinate, leaving two, planting them out when they have a good root-ball but just before they get too friendly and start winding round each other! Again, always watering from underneath by sitting the whole tray of seedlings in water for a few minutes rather than pouring water into their tops. They are also extremely susceptible to root rots at soil level. Milk cartons unzip very conveniently along the join in the carton and then I plant the whole pot out about a foot/30cm apart on a very slight mound made by making a depression between each set of plants. After that I always water between plants - again never against the base of the stem. Follow these instructions and I can promise you that you will not only fill your freezer but be giving away beans! The flat podded French beans don't freeze as well as the round ones, but have a very good flavour fresh and are very productive.  I don't bother with dwarf beans in the tunnel as they take up exactly the same ground space but don't crop anything like as well.  What I term 'high-rise' crops are much better value for the space they take up in a tunnel, cropping skywards as they do - just as long as you stop them at the top of their canes or supports, leaving enough room for air to circulate well.  
 
 
Broad bean 'Crimson Flowered'
Broad bean 'Crimson Flowered'
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The mangetouts and early Shiraz purple mangetout peas will be cropping in the next couple of weeks - The mangetout 'Delikett' won't be far behind those. Delikett is a deliciously sweet sugar (round podded) variety which never gets stringy, and goes on cropping for ages.  When it gets really huge it can also be podded and the peas used separately. It crops really well in the tunnel from an early February sowing, as does Shiraz. I sow these quite thickly in large recycled plastic fruit punnets, I never bother spacing them out too well. about 8-10 punnets gives me a 10 foot row from a whole packet of seed. That works well, as I usually then give the 'Crimson Flowered' broad bean the other half of the row. 
 
 
 
Originally from the HDRA seed library - now known as the Garden Organic Heritage Seed  Library - I've been re-selecting and saving seed of this fabulous flavoured one for well over 30 years now. Re-selecting for traits like taller, heavier cropping plants. At one time it was extremely rare and one couldn't buy it - but several seed companies are selling it now - although I don't think they are as good as my selection which is quite improved from the one I originally got. It's not the biggest cropper, only four or five seeds to a pod, but it does produce a lot of pods on the now taller plants and has an incredible flavour - the best of any broad bean. The small undeveloped pods are nice too if picked early and cooked whole - they have the same flavour as the broad bean seeds. It's also extremely decorative and worth growing just for the flowers and perfume alone, which really hits you when you walk into the tunnel in the evenings. The best thing for me though - is that when it's flowering it's full of deliriously happy bees all day long! They love it just as much as I do! 
 
 
Sweetcorn and late celery
 
 
If you've got a large tunnel and have room for a small block or row of sweetcorn plants, they're much more reliable in the tunnel than outdoors in our wet summers, as a dry atmosphere at pollination time is vital. In Ireland we often get a wet spell just when the outside ones are producing their pollen - resulting either in very disappointing cobs or none at all! Although they do take up a lot of space, I often sow late self blanching celery now or in mid June - to plant between the sweetcorn plants for a late autumn/Christmas crop. Celery appreciates the shade of the sweetcorn as  long as you don't let the soil dry out and will crop well all winter if you just snap off one or two stalks at a time rather than cutting the whole head. Celery is one of the things I can't do without in the kitchen, so I like to have my own available for as long as I can. Sweet corn can also be sown now in a deep pot, again removing the weakest to leave two in the pot, then planting them out into the tunnel bed when they're about 6-8in/15cm high, about 18in - 2ft./45-60cm each way, that leaves room for the celery. Sweetcorn hates root disturbance so be careful not to break up the root ball when planting. They're a great crop to follow on after my extra early potatoes, the bed should have been well composted or manured for the potatoes, so both the sweet corn and the celery will be very happy with just a light dressing of a general organic fertiliser such as 'Osmo Universal' certified organic fertiliser granules. The celery is slower growing, and after the sweet corn has cropped, I just chop the stems off at the base with secateurs and let the celery grow on into the autumn. It should keep well until at least Christmas, and you can always leave some of the bare sweet corn stems cut at about 2ft/40cm if you like - to act as support for the fleece which you may need to cover the celery with in late autumn!  By the way - when the sweetcorn is pollinating - make sure to go along the row and shake some of them - around midday if possible, to spread the pollen, as they're normally wind pollinated. This way you're guaranteed great crops.
 
 
You could alternatively grow pumpkins with your sweetcorn as long as they can get plenty of light - thus ensuring two crops that need dry weather - in case we get another awful summer! In my experience though, the famous '3 sisters' Native American way of combining them both with climbing beans as well. doesn't work in Ireland!  Amusing and a great talking point for those who want one - but not productive, either inside or outside. We don't have the same hot, dry summers and intense continental light that the USA has . Low cloud and warm grey mist can often be the best part of our summers here. At the end of the day - productivity is the whole point for me - as we aim to be as self-sufficient as possible and don't have space or energy to waste on unproductive crops just to talk about them!
 

Sweet Potatoes, Oca and Yacon
 
 
Another great crop which makes a good break in the tunnel rotation is sweet potatoes. These aren't related to anything else so make a really good 'break' in the tunnel rotation and can be very productive if you know how to grow them. Some of the 'so-called experts' obviously don't however - as they tell you to plant them in very fertile soil!  If you do that - all you'll get is a great crop of enormous leaves!! Ignore their advice and plant them in a deep, well-drained soil used by a previous crop - and only add a light dusting of seaweed meal before planting - then mulch with grass clippings or comfrey to keep any weeds down and water just to keep the soil moist after that. Never over-water or they can start to rot. I plant mine about 2ft/60cm apart and leave them to ramble along the ground. They are quite happy there - forming extra roots along the stems which you can use for 'slips' - or cuttings later on. I've seen people train them up trellises - but those seem far too lusciously leafy to me to be very productive tuber-wise!  I've tried them in large pots before but they weren't very happy - but last year I tried them in my new idea - 'skip bag' raised beds. They were incredibly happy - I think they loved the great depth of soil. I planted them following on from some 'extra-early' ordinary potatoes that I'd grown in the skip bag, again with only a little seaweed meal until starting to feed in August in the same way as those planted in the ground. They produced a huge crop and it's definitely something I shall do again. 
 
 
Now for my top sweet potato tip!  In early August I start to feed the plants with a high potash tomato feed like Osmo liquid Tomato feed whenever I need to water them. This is because it's only then that they start to develop their tubers, triggered by the shortening days, as they are 'day length sensitive' sub-tropical plants. They will they go on developing the tubers until the soil begins to cool or there is frost, so  usually early November here. Outside in most areas of the UK and Ireland they would be pretty much a waste of time as it's usually far too cold and wet in the autumn and they stop growing too soon to give a really worthwhile crop. A few years ago, I successfully overwintered late autumn 'slips' in well drained, barely watered pots in the house. Last year I thought I would try to overwinter some in very well drained soil in the cold tunnel but lost the lot. They seem to be very prone to rotting under about 50degF/10degC. and won't even keep after harvesting unless I keep them in the house somewhere over that temperature. Some of the garden centres and multiples may have plants of 'Beauregarde' fairly soon - which is a good variety to grow. It has delicious deep orange flesh and is the most reliable for home gardeners. Johnstown Garden Centre had one called Bonita for the last two years, a white-fleshed variety which did very well and produced even bigger tubers than Beauregarde, and also one called Murusaki which was similar.  Orleans is an improved form of Beauregarde - giving bigger tubers but less of them. This year I'm trying a purple one which I don't know the name of sadly - I bought tubers last winter from organic grower friend Denis Healy's farmers market stall and I've managed to root cuttings of it. I thought they were worth trying as I love the purple ones - they were from Spain, rather than further afield, so I think they may grow well in a polytunnel here. It will be an interesting experiment!
 
 
Oca is another tender-ish crop which forms it's delicious lemony flavoured tubers in the late autumn - but beware - once you have grown it in the tunnel you will always have it as even the tiniest tubers will grow again the following year! That said - it's not really a thug, is easy to grow and like sweet potatoes is a good break crop. The small tubers are like floury lemon flavoured new potatoes - nice steamed and served with fish. You can also eat the delicious sharp flavoured leaves and pretty, small star-shaped yellow flowers in salads in moderation. Moderation is the key though - you don't want too much of it! 
 
 
Something that again some 'experts' fail to tell you - or may not even know, is that it's actually a member of the sorrel family and so is extremely high in oxalic acid - too much of which could actually give you kidney stones, if you are susceptible! Some garden writers who should know better, are now even suggesting it as the new alternative to potatoes - as a staple root crop that won't get blight. Even those who write about 'healthy eating' - quite astonishing!!  I've done a lot of research over the years into the nutritional qualities of crops, as it's something I've always been interested in - especially growing all of my family's food and also being fascinated by plants. Apart from the fact that you'd really never get big enough crops here outside - I would suggest that they are a rather dangerous 'staple' crop to eat every day instead of potatoes! Nice occasionally, as a side dish - but not worth risking on an every day basis!  
 
 
Now for another of what I love to call the 'Emperor's New Clothes' plant -Yacon - that I'm pictured with above!! It is undoubtedly an extremely handsome plant - but as the old saying goes - looks aren't everything!  It's the very latest 'must have' plant - even what I would call a garden 'fashion statement'!  Everyone professes to love it and to get great crops from it - but frankly I don't believe them and I have no problem saying so! Particularly if they live in the British Isles! I suppose it depends what you call great crops though?  A few years ago I tried Yacon plants in the tunnel. I've tried them outside before - but never got much of a crop as they also don't develop their tubers until the days shorten so they need a long warm autumn - not something we usually get here!  At €28 per potted plant as seen in garden centres over the last few years - it would need to be an awful lot more than just good looking for me! Plants in my polytunnels have to really earn their space!  It did produce a good bunch of tubers per plant and even flowered with small sunflower like blooms - but quite frankly it's a waste of time unless you have acres of spare tunnel space - and who has, except a botanic garden? I certainly don't - for me it's a waste of valuable tunnel space (a minimum 2/3 sq.metres per plant) and outside won't produce a worthwhile crop in our cold damp autumns anyway! In addition to that - all the' experts' (there I go again) say it tastes of 'Granny Smith' crossed with mild pear (copying each other - having obviously read each others articles!) Now come on please! I reckon I have very good unspoiled taste buds. Living as I do on a totally organic, low salt diet and being a non-smoker, I can usually taste the most delicate flavours - but apple and pear?  I don't think so!!  At best - weak water chestnut - but yes, a lovely crunchy texture, I'll give you that! It's also being promoted as a less 'windy' alternative pre-biotic vegetable to Jerusalem artichokes. Now there's a veg with attitude - it certainly makes it's presence felt - or otherwise!  It's cheap to buy, overwinters outside because it's as hardy as old boots and it's almost impossible to lose. What's not to like - apart from the fact that it's just not as fashionable!? And it also has a most fantastic nutty flavour - valuable and versatile in countless winter recipes. Give me Jerusalem Artichokes any time over Yacon! This year Yacon will be relegated to my Jungle garden - with all the other interesting foliage plants. It will look absolutely splendid there, and I will just appreciate it's admittedly exotic looks!! 
 
 
 
Beautiful tubers of Mashua or Anu
Beautiful but hot - tubers of Mashua or Anu
 
Mashua or Anu - this is another crop that's suddenly become fashionable - although it's very much an acquired taste for most to say the least! If you like Wasabi - then you'll love it!  It's actually a type of climbing nasturtium - Tropaeolum tuberosum - so the leaves and flowers can be eaten in salads and are just as tasty as it's cousin the more ordinary annual nasturtium that we all know and love. The roots are the real crop though - and are far higher in some cancer-fighting phytochemicals than any other members of the wider cabbage family to which they belong.
Tropaeolum tuberosum aka Anu or Mashua in flower
 
 
 
The very strong, if not to say explosively hot, radish-tasting tubers are beautiful but not for the faint hearted! Not bad grated very sparingly raw in salads - but I believe in South America they are greatly prized when dried, stored and later cooked. I haven't tried doing that with them yet!  
 
 

       


 Tropaeolum tuberosum aka Anu or Mashua in flower

Other polytunnel crops
 
Everest strawberries - on May day a fw years ago
Everest strawberries - on May day a fw years ago
 
 
 
Ever-bearing or perpetual strawberries are another great tunnel crop. The biggest problem with them is the blackbirds, if I put up netting fine enough to keep them out - it keeps out the bees as well, which pollinate them! I must try to find a netting which is about a 1/4 the size of pea and bean netting, as that only deters pigeons. The blackbirds have perfected a 'hobby-like' last minute wing-folding dash as they aim at the squares of netting - I've watched them do it countless times - and I have to admire their ingenuity, but not their greed!  If they get into the tunnel they will try nearly every single one - pecking at them all until they find the very ripest. I think they must be the avian equivalent of 'Goldilocks'!  Encouraging wildlife is all very well - but it has it's limits!! Albion, Buddy and Everest are great flavoured, heavy cropping varieties that all do well for me - cropping from May until November - and you can't ask more than that.   
 
 
'Lakemont Seedless' grape - September
'Lakemont Seedless' grape - September

 

 

All of the grapes are producing plenty of flower buds now, and on both seedless and seeded grapes the main work is pinching out shoots two leaves beyond potential bunches, leaving only one bunch per shoot if you want decent bunches or if the vine is young, or two bunches if they are seedless and you don't necessarily want huge grapes. Be careful not to pinch out the last two shoots needed for extension growth of the main rod or stem. Keep roots moist, but don't over water. 

 
In a normal year I'd be doing the second thinning of peach fruitlets this week, when they're already the size of large walnuts. At the moment they're only the size of large peas - at least two weeks behind due to the cold weather - so I'll be doing their first thinning now - to 2 ins apart. At the end of the month or when they're walnut sized - I'll thin again to 4ins apart. It's a fiddly job I really hate - taking off all that potential fruit!  But if you don't thin - either the whole lot could drop off because the tree has too much to cope with, or you'll just get very small stony fruits. I want big luscious ones - so I thin them! Keeping them well watered now is important too.  
 
 
Lemons beside climbing French beans and calabrese in the tunnel in early May.
Lemons beside climbing French beans and calabrese in the tunnel in early May
 
 
The figs in pots are also developing fast and are being fed a high potash tomato feed, as they kept their embryo fruitlets well over the winter. The 'brega' crop (the term for the overwintered early crop) looks like being really good this year on all of the figs. Brogiotto Nero is looking the best - it's a black fig with deep violet coloured flesh and has the very best flavour I think - but they're all delicious if you're into figs as I am! I've got about 20 varieties now. Figs are very easy to propagate from cuttings or suckers as they aren't grafted and so are much easier to grow than many people think - as long as you're very strict with them! They must be kept under 'house arrest' and restricted in large pots. In the ground - particularly outside - they will just produce masses of leaves and no fruit unless you have them on a very sunny wall with their roots severely restricted in some way. Nice foliage plants in a jungle - but not very productive! 'Violetta', 'Brown Turkey', 'Brunswick', Califfo Blue and Rouge de Bordeaux are some that all have a fast-developing 'breba' crop of baby figs currently. They will need keeping moist and feeding at every other watering, particularly as I want another later crop in the autumn. 
 
 
 
 
(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.)
 

What to Sow in May - 2017

"Remember - always sow the seeds - you can catch up on everything else, but if you get behind on that, then there's nothing you can do about it."  ..........    (A great piece of advice I was given many years ago)

 

Sow in a heated propagator, in a warm place, or directly in tunnel soil when warm enough:

For polytunnel or greenhouse cropping, or for planting outside under cloches or fleece at the end of May

French beans, runner beans, sweet corn, courgettes, edamame (soy) beans, cucamelons, gherkins, pumpkins, summer squashes, marrows and melons. You can still sow cucumbers and tomatoes for late tunnel/greenhouse crops. Also herbs such as basil, coriander, dill, Greek oregano (best for flavour), lovage, mints, parsley (giant flat leaf Italian best flavour) Perilla (Japanese beefsteak plant) and fennel, Alpine strawberries (Reugen best variety) Florence fennel and half-hardy single flowers such as tagetes, French marigolds, nasturtiums etc. for bees and butterflies and to attract other beneficial insects like hoverflies etc. to help with pest control and pollination, both under cover and out in the garden. 

It's really important to shade propagators and young seedlings from strong sun at all times now to stop seedlings from cooking! - You can also switch off propagators during the day to save energy - even if shaded on sunny days they will be plenty warm enough - but do make sure you remember to turn them on again well before it gets chilly in the evening. 

 

Outdoors: 

Sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in the ground where they are to crop, if the weather and your ground conditions are suitable: 

Asparagus, globe artichokes, beetroot, broad beans, carrots, all varieties of peas, savoy and other autumn/winter cabbages, all varieties of sprouting broccoli including calabrese and purple sprouting, cauliflowers, salad onions, Hamburg parsley, landcress, lettuces, perilla, orache, chicory, kohl rabi, kales (those for cropping overwinter outside from the middle of May onwards), parsnips (early May) radishes, rocket, salsify, Swiss chards, spinach, turnips and swedes, summer purslane, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes and perennial hardy herbs including sorrel. Asparagus peas, cardoons, Good King Henry and New Zealand spinach can be sown outside under cloches now, and also from the middle of May, if the soil is warm enough, sweet corn, French and runner beans. Marrows, courgettes, pumpkins, ridge cucumbers and squashes can all be sown outside under cloches at the end of May, in warm areas. Also sow some single annual flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), cosmos, calendula, Californian poppies, convulvulus tricolour, nasturtiums, phacelia, sunflowers etc. to attract beneficial insects like hoverflies and ladybirds which will help with pest control, and also to attract bees which help with crop pollination. Sow fast growing green manures like buckwheat, mustard (a brassica so watch rotations), lupins & red clover (legumes) and phacelia, to improve the soil by adding humus, to encourage beneficial microbes, 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms (after digging in), on any empty patches of ground that won't be used for 6 weeks or more.

 
Although in theory you could sow almost everything except very tender veg. like cucumbers etc. outside in the open ground now - you must keep an eye on weather conditions!
 
 
Unless you've had ground covered with cloches or polythene so that it's dry and really warm - then it's much safer to sow in modules undercover to be sure of guaranteed results. The soil in some areas is still cold after recent frost & heavy rain. A late frost could destroy newly emerged seedlings of tender crops even under cloches. Seed is expensive and you can't afford to waste it. You can't afford to waste time now either, by possibly losing any sowings made at this time of year. Too many important staple winter and storage crops need to be sown this month - and if they fail it may well be too late to sow them again. Even though the sun is strong now and sunny days are warm, there can still be serious frosts at beginning of the month.
 
 
In the tunnel you can plant tender veg like sweet potato 'slips' in pots this month - or in the ground if it's reliably warm enough. They are very frost tender and hate cold wet ground. You can also plant oca and mashua tubers in pots - again to plant out later, at the end of May or early June - or to plant directly into tunnel soil. The small growing tubers of Yacon can also be planted now in the tunnel or in pots to plant outside later.They are just starting into growth now.

The Wildlife and Flower Garden in April - 2017

Nature's hard working pollinators and pest controllers! 

Female dronefly (Eristalis) seems to be laying her eggs on an endive leaf.

Female dronefly (Eristalis) appears to be laying her eggs on an Endive leaf - or maybe just enjoying the sun!

 

It's great to see all the hoverflies and droneflies back in the polytunnels. There's been clouds of them in there on sunny days recently. They love the warm humid atmosphere - and I must say in this freezing weather outside I'm not averse to it myself! They're not just terrific pest-controllers, feeding on aphids, but also wonderful pollinators too. There's been masses of bees in there as well over the last few sunny days, some quite early in the mornings despite the overnight frosts. They must be so grateful for all the lovely flowers in there - and so am I - the scent when I open the doors in the morning is just amazing! They'e doing a great job of pollinating all the early flowering fruit too. So many fruits have set on the two peach trees that I'm going to have quite a job thinning them - but I won't complain - because I dread to think what would happen if all of our pollinators disappeared. So much of the wonderful fruit we are lucky enough to enjoy thanks to them would be non-existent! Where would we be without bees and all the other equally precious insects in Natures rich tapestry of life? I shudder to think. All of the wonderful foods that they pollinate would be gone forever - and our food chain would be well and truly broken! We must all do our best to take care of them by creating insect-friendly habitat, not using pesticides and by supporting organic, biodiversity-friendly farming. We can all do that - even if we don't have a garden!

 

What price fresh air?

 

I was at first rather amused a couple of years ago by a report from the Beijing correspondent of the Irish Times, saying that a jar of fresh air from Provence had made more than 600 euros in an art sale. On reflection afterwards though, I actually thought how incredibly sad it was. Pure fresh air is something we should all be able to take for granted - but sadly it's becoming increasingly rare. This time 3 years ago, one of my favourite cousins died suddenly of a heart attack. When they did the post-mortem they said he had the arteries of someone who'd been a heavy smoker all their life. He had never smoked, he was slim and very fit  - but he'd lived in Beijing for the last 15 years of his life, where many are now afraid to breathe the air and wear masks all the time if outside. Most of the time we're luckier here, although on some days I can see the city smog hanging like a depressing beige veil over Dublin down in a valley in the distance. We're high up on a hill on the Meath/Dublin border here - so most of the time fresh air isn't a problem - although occasionally I can smell pesticide sprays on the air - especially in summer. That makes me so angry! The modern spraying machines may be more efficient at spreading their poisons in micro-droplets instead of drenching things - but that also means they carry on the air far more easily - and those of us anywhere near have no choice but to breathe in that poison. Meanwhile - the sprayer operator sits high up on a huge tractor in an air-conditioned cab totally oblivious and disassociated from any other form of life that may be near. In addition - once every week, my neighbours don't seem to care that they're poisoning everyone elses air by burning plastic on the day just before recycling bin days - so there's less stuff to try to cram into the bin I suppose! Although we have bin charges here in Ireland, some plastics can be recycled free - but it seems that many people can't even be bothered to sort their milk cartons, take away and ready meal rubbish and prefer to burn it instead - polluting the air with one of the most deadly, cancer-causing and long-lasting poisons known to man - Dioxin!  

Coltsfoot already seeding in the drive - loved by seed eating birds including Goldfinches!
Coltsfoot already seeding in the drive - loved by seed eating birds including Goldfinches!

 

 

We need fresh air and so do the creatures we share this planet with. Air full of life-giving oxygen provided by all the diversity of plants - many of whose seeds are carried along by that bouyant air. Fresh air is free, good for us and should be available for all of Nature - including us. It's the equal birthright of every single creature that  lives on this planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why does nature matter?

 

Quietness and peace is something else which is increasingly rare now - at least the type of quietness that is just filled with the sounds of nature - not of man made noise. It's often hard to hear the sounds of Nature now with the amount of background noise from the motorway in the distance, increasing air traffic from Dublin airport 13 miles away, lorries on our country roads, boom-di-boom music being played that you can hear half a mile away and peoples burglar alarms that no-one seems to take any notice of - going all day long! Peace and quiet is something that is vital for our mental health - and constant noise must be just as unpleasant and subliminally damaging to nature as it is to us. The sounds I most like to hear are birdsong accompanied by the low, gentle sound of buzzing from bees happily going about their work of collecting pollen for their broods and feeding on nectar, while at the same time pollinating flowers and fruit which feed us. 

 

35 years ago at this time of year, I could hear the song of skylarks and thrushes all day here, with even the odd cuckoo too. Now the skylarks and cuckoos are gone from anywhere near here and thrushes few and far between, although there are a couple of beauties having song contests here currently - I'm glad to say!  All around the country elsewhere, the insects, hedges and the habitats that songbirds rely on are decreasing every year. Since the 1970's songbird numbers have gone into free-fall, speeding up in the last decade or so, and if nothing is done, it is predicted that many will be completely extinct by 2025! That's only 8 years away now! Does it matter? Yes - because every time we lose any part of nature - we lose a part of ourselves. It diminishes us. Not just that - many of the insects that birds rely on to be abundant at this time of year in order to raise successful broods are also vitally important pollinators of much of our food, it isn't only bees that pollinate crops. Bees and other insects desperately need our help now and we owe it not just to them but to ourselves and also future generations to do something about it before it is too late. They were here on this earth long before we were - and we owe the fact that we are here at all to them. They are our ancestors - we their inheritors.

 

Bee revival

 

I revived a bumblebee, a couple of years ago in spring. It had spent the bitterly cold night clinging to some cherry blossom in the tunnel, where it couldn't find it's way out in the late evening. I had spotted it too late to help - but looked for it early the next morning. Although it looked half dead, I ran back to the house immediately and got a tiny blob of Ben Colchester's wonderful organic honey on the tip of a teaspoon. When I put it in front of the bee it stuck out it's proboscis immediately and started sucking up the welcome honey instantly - like a desperately parched man thirstily drinking water in the desert! You could see the effort as it sucked it up. After just a few seconds, it sort of shook itself, stretched and then suddenly flew up and off around the tunnel - almost as if it was on a high! Then I knew it would live to see another day - that important little life. Important to me anyway. It was one of the most rewarding things I've done for a long time. Afterwards I learnt that apparently giving bees honey is now considered the wrong thing to do. I thought that organic honey would be fine and the natural thing - but bee expert Dave Goulson says that giving them a syrup made from sugar and water is better as honey may possibly be contaminated. I bow to his greater knowledge - but I hope people don't use GM sugar to make the syrup which a lot of the sugar is now!  I'm sure that would be far worse! I made it very happy anyway!

 

1. Bee clinging to cherry blossom in tunnel1. Bee clinging to cherry blossom in tunnel 2. Here she is greedily sipping up the honey from the teaspoon2. Here she is greedily sipping up the honey from the teaspoon

 

 

Is there something you can do to help Nature survive - even if you're not a keen gardener? 

 

 Yes - and I've come up with a great new name for it - 'Benign Neglect'! When I smashed the top of my right arm and shoulder badly 3 years ago - after 2 days sitting on a hospital trolley, the doctors decided they couldn't put a cast on it, pin it or do anything else with it that would work - so as they were completely at a loss (great!) they sent me home in a sling to immobilise it - and just get on with it on my own!  Wonderful!  A radiographer friend informed me that this particular kind of 'non-treatment' had a delightful name I'd never heard of before - 'Benign neglect'!! - The 'if in doubt do nothing' approach! Sadly that didn't do a great deal for my arm, which now only 40% works and won't go above elbow height - A damn nuisance!  But do you know what? I think it's a wonderful description of what it's often best to do in the garden if you want to help wildlife! Often some of the best sites for wildlife - particularly in towns or cities - are where sites that lie empty or old neglected gardens become overgrown. Nature takes over and re-colonises them quickly and beautifully. You'll find wildflowers, wild shrubs such as elders and dog roses, and also garden 'escapees' like buddleias, mixed with any cultivated shrubs and trees that may already be there, all in a glorious jumble. I often find Buddleia seedlings around the garden when I'm weeding - I already have quite a lot of different cultivars that I've bought over the years and bees have cross- pollinated them, so I'm building up quite a collection of new, nicely-coloured ones!

 

Not using chemicals of any sort in the garden is one of the best things you can do. Gardens where chemicals are not used are becoming increasingly important habitats for all wildlife. We can each do something in our own gardens - however small - even if it's just a small tub or a few pots. Flowering plants and wild corners in the garden attract all kinds of insects which small birds feed on. Many of those flowers later on bear seed which is equally important for them. Even leaving a few humble dandelions to grow in your lawn or around it's edges is wonderful for goldfinches and other seed eaters. They're already feeding on dandelion and coltsfoot seed here. And let's face it - you don't even need to sow those wildflowers - they happen by default or 'benign neglect' - to use my newly acquired phrase. And often that's the best way, because then those wild plants that are best suited to your particular soil conditions and climate will thrive and seed themselves! So you won't have to do anything at all except maybe give it a helping hand by collecting seed and sowing a few more! A so-called 'weedy' lawn, full of dandelions, daisies and clover is perhaps one of the best habitats for all kinds of insects. Long grasses are the preferred nurseries for many important moth caterpillars. If it bothers you, then you can always mow a meandering path through it - 'Country Living' style!  When you do that, magically, it suddenly it appears as if it was a completely intended and well-planned wildflower meadow - rather than something you just didn't get round to weeding or mowing! Plant a few single flowered perennials or biennials like meadow geranium (geranium pratense), ox-eye daisies, some scabious and sweet rocket, some garlic mustard (Jack-by-the-hedge) or other wildflowers through it that butterflies love, and sow a few annual wildflower seeds like Flanders poppies in modules to plant here and there in it later on. You get the picture? Then just sit back, relax in a hammock, congratulate yourself with a nice cool drink and enjoy the view - as nature's fantastic free spectacle unfolds! Far better than stressing out over a few weeds, or worse - using deadly poisonous, cancer-causing, 'selective' weed 'n' feed lawn weedkillers that kill bees and are damaging to all wildlife and also any pets!.  

 
Melianthus major, Ceonothus Trewithan Blue, Eucalyptus and wild dog rose, on my 'B&B' bank.
Melianthus major, Ceonothus Trewithan Blue, Eucalyptus and wild dog rose, on my 'B&B' bank. 
 
Contrary to what a lot of people think - you don't have to restrict yourself to just growing native wildflowers in order to help wildlife. They appreciate the nectar, pollen and seeds of non-native flowers and shrubs just as much. Even that of some really exotic looking plants. Remember everything is a wildflower somewhere. It's usually just native plants as food for their larvae that our native butterflies, moths and other insects need to be really specific about. I took a walk up the garden this morning to see what was flowering on my B&B bank (bee and butterfly). This is one of the most satisfying areas of the garden - where everything that likes a dry and well-drained position really thrives. Even really tender plants. When we originally made it I dug in tons of gravel and bark chips after the soil was all moved into place. It was very poor soil too - mostly subsoil from another job were were doing. It's in the shape of a question mark - the top curve being the widest point. In the curve nestles a banana shaped bench where we sit on warm summer evenings to watch bats swooping low overhead catching the moths attracted by the Verbena Bonariensis and the white flowered Nicotiana Affinis which has overwintered there now for 6 years without turning a hair. 
 
 
Euphorbia and Geranium Maderense on the bee & butterfly bank - alongside nettles full of butterfly nests!
Euphorbia and Geranium Maderense on the bee & butterfly bank - alongside nettles full of butterfly nests! 
 
 
 
N.Affinis is the most heavily scented Nicotiana, with a stunning fragrance at night or in the shade. It closes it's flowers in bright sunlight. Few people know that it's actually a perennial with roots a bit like a dahlia. It's grown mostly as a half-hardy annual. But if you overwinter it in pots in dry soil just like dahlia tubers, or in very well drained soil, it can survive really freezing temperatures - getting bigger each year. You can split up and re-pot the tuber-like roots from pots as they fall apart easily to make new plants. I've kept some going for well over 20 years this way, occasionally discarding any that look virused (with deformed leaves)and they're starting to put on a lot of strong young growth again now. To me their evocative exotic scent is the scent of so many summers.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Full moon setting - looking south west over the meadow at dawn
Full moon setting - looking south west over the meadow at dawn
 
I love to get up really early at this time of year, after the clocks go forward. I almost feel as if that first hour in the morning is 'stolen' and mine alone!  Just as the moon is setting in the south west. Despite the slight chill to the air - I always open the top of the half-door that leads outside from the kitchen - so that I can hear the dawn chorus at around 5.30 am.  The sounds are so soothing. At that moment everything is peaceful and the birdsong that echoes around my tree filled garden is hauntingly beautiful.  As my first cup of tea is brewing - I lean on the half door for a few minutes - drinking in all the early morning sounds of invisible flutterings and trying to pick out individual songs. Heavenly! - A  thrush or two, chaffinches, a robin, various tits, blackbirds, pigeons cooing, a wren scolding and a cock pheasant calling his harem. Sometimes so many at once it's difficult to distinguish them all. A cacophony of the most wonderful sounds the earth has to offer. The sparrows are very late risers - they're always the last. When they finally get up they greet the morning with a sound like the chattering of noisy schoolchildren bursting out of school at break time! Some of my swallows arrived back from their long voyage recently. That event always brings tears of joy to my eyes. Each one is a precious miracle that has flown 6,000 miles to return to the very nest where they were born. No matter what problems I may have, as I lean on the door drinking in that peace which is balm to the soul, I always think how very lucky I am in this moment to be able to hear and see such beauty. 
 
 
Why would you want to be anywhere else but in a garden on an April morning? Or for that matter, on a dusky evening - "When peace comes dropping slow" as Yeats so eloquently put it. 

 


Organic farming is the only sustainable way to help wildlife
 

The dawn chorus is already a lot quieter and less diverse now than it was even 20 years ago! So many people are so caught up in their busy urban lives that they don't even notice. They may not even give a moment's thought to the precious diversity of Nature that we must not lose.  All the latest research being published now is pointing to organic farming as being the only sustainable way for a secure food supply in the future. Preserving soil, and the diversity of life in it, is one of the best ways to capture carbon and combat climate change too. Industrial farming interests say they can't manage without pesticides synthesised from rapidly decreasing fossil fuels - but that is absolute rubbish and is fast becoming an outdated way of thinking. They could if they made the effort. Their chemicals are destroying the precious soil we need to grow crops in - they can't go on cutting down more native forests to grow their GMO crops! They will soon have to learn how to do things differently as there'll be no choice!  If they don't - it won't just be the bees that will disappear. It will possibly be humans too! 
 
 
It's no good us just burying our heads in the sand and hoping it will all go away! It won't!  It's hypocritical to get all fuzzy and warm about the lovely wildlife programmes we're watching on TV - while we're allowing Nature to be poisoned out of existence all around us daily, by doing nothing.  Or worse - by using chemicals in our own gardens through laziness or ignorance, thinking that just our little bit won't hurt! All those little bits add up! Soon the only place that some wildlife will be seen is on repeats of old TV programmes. 
 
 
We can't pretend to be 'green' and care about the environment and then support destructive industrial farming by buying chemically grown and genetically modified products in our local supermarkets - or even in the local farmer's market. I know organic is often more expensive - but so much of what we buy gets thrown away. If we all reduced food waste a bit, ate a bit less meat and grew even just a few simple organic veg ourselves, it would really make a huge difference. It's estimated that at least 50% of the bagged salad leaves we buy in supermarkets are thrown away each week. That's a shocking statistic - but so easy to do something about. For 50 cents you can buy a packet of 'value' lettuce seed with the potential to produce over a thousand lettuces. I think that would be more than enough for several families for a year!!
 
 

Going peat-free helps the climate and biodiversity too

 
 
The increasing destruction of bogs in Ireland is another major contributing factor to the flooding we are seeing more frequently now. Bogs act like giant 'sponges' holding large quantities of water and releasing them gradually into river systems. If they're destroyed they can't do that, so then water runs off quickly causing flooding. Bogs also release far more carbon into the atmosphere than the same equivalent area of rain forest when destroyed - quite apart from the massive loss of all the biodiversity they support.  Funny how most people get far more upset about losing rain forest than they do about losing bogs. Buying an organic peat-free compost, like the Klassman Deilmann one I recommend is something else positive one can do. Not only that - it's far better than any peat compost I've ever used. It has to be - because all the many organic growers who use it rely on it to produce plants for their businesses.
 

 

Don't use chemicals


Many influential scientists are now calling for swift action by the UN, saying that a wide variety of synthetic endocrine-disrupting chemicals in consumer products and pesticides are playing a role in the ever increasing incidence of reproductive diseases. cancer. obesity and Type-2 diabetes world wide. The scientists also include the authors of a recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Environment programme (UNEP), which underlines the urgent need for global action the address the dangers of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDC's).  It has been found that among the harmful effects of these chemicals is damage the hormonal (endocrine) systems in humans and wildlife. At the moment serious pressure is being put on governments currently considering whether to ban certain pesticides by lobbyists for the interests of multinational chemical companies! These global companies say that only they can help us to feed the world and that we need GM crops to do this - while conveniently never mentioning the fact that 50% of all the food grown in the EU is currently wasted! These faceless companies don't care if our children don't have bread tomorrow - as long as they and their shareholders have jam on their bread today!  Morally bankrupt politicians who are making the decisions are also offered attractive financial inducements by chemical and pharmaceutical companies to influence their decisions! A BBC Panorama programme a couple of years ago year showed that our doctors are constantly targeted by pharmaceutical companies, being offered bribes to prescribe this or that drug. It's what's best for us we want if we need vital medicines - not what's best for the health of the big pharmaceutical companies balance sheets!
 
 
As I thought about this, some words from the late Rachel Carson sprang to mind. She was the author of the book 'Silent Spring' - which was published in September 1962 and is credited with starting the environmental movement. Although that was over 50 years ago - her words ring just as true now.  Have we learned nothing? She had no idea of the looming spectre of Genetic Modification. (She sadly died of cancer in April 1964.) Have we really learnt so little in the last 50 years?
 
Here is an extract from a CBS TV programme she presented, which was broadcast in April 1963 - it was entitled  "The Silent Spring of Miss Rachel Carson" :

 
"We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven't become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man's attitude towards nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.........Now, I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery - not of nature, but of ourselves."
 
 
Rachel Carson 'lit a candle instead of cursing the darkness'. Each one of us has a responsibility to keep that flame alive for the sake of our children.  Even if you don't have a garden - even something small like growing a pot of single flowers by your door or on your balcony will feed a few bees and other insects and make a difference to their small lives and chances of survival. Do something now for wildlife - don't leave it until tomorrow or it may be too late. Don't leave it to somebody else - do something yourself now!  You may not think that your tiny bit can make a difference - but all of those tiny bits - added up in gardens throughout the land and throughout the world will make a huge difference. It isn't necessary to use chemicals - I haven't used any in over 40 years - but I still manage to grow all my own food and have a beautiful garden, full of rare and beautiful plants and wonderful wildlife. It's also full of weeds too - or plants that people call weeds!  So many so-called 'weeds' are host plants to many native insects which keep pests away from my vegetables and fruit, and they also make food for birds. All part of nature's intricate and beautiful tapestry. I went out to pick some nettles for soup yesterday, as there are so many lush clumps flourishing in various corners - but when I looked at each one they were covered in butterfly nests. I was thrilled and gladly went without my soup - butterflies are far more valuable than soup! I made it with spinach instead.

 

Here's a few more suggestions for things YOU can do to encourage insects and help wildlife 

 
You'll definitely find something here you can do - whatever size your garden. It's particularly important to grow pollen and nectar producing plants to feed vital insects - which all wildlife higher up the food chain are dependent on. You can put up bat nesting boxes too at this time of year, and also grow lots of night flowering, scented plants, to attract moths and other insects which will, in turn, attract bats in to feed on them. Bats can eat up to 3,000 midges in one night. They don't have to be native plants either, as long as they are single flowered and produce nectar for insects to feed on. The tall, white flowered Nicotiana Affinis is brilliant for attracting moths - they adore it, and the scent in the evenings is gorgeous! Moths are particularly attracted to white and mauve flowers. The dwarf coloured type of bedding Nicotiana isn't much good in my experience, and has no scent either - which I like!
 
 
The same applies to butterflies. Many of which are increasingly endangered. Scabious and Verbena Bonariensis were top of the list of favourites in my garden last summer. I counted over twenty feeding on a single verbena flowerhead on one occasion. I think Orychophragma is going to be a favourite from now on too. When it's flowering early in the tunnel it's usually covered with bees, Orange Tip butterflies and Early Cabbage Whites all day. Hesperis Matronalis (sweet rocket) and Lunaria (honesty) are two other biennial favourites you can grow easily from seed now, which will flower early next year. Bees love all those flowers, they also love dandelions too despite the fact that they are seemingly very double flowers, they are actually compound flower heads of lots of individual flowers, and bees can access the nectar and pollen easily. They're a very valuable early food plant for them. There are millions flowering everywhere at the moment. I know a lot of people look on them as lawn weeds and an awful pest, but if you've ever watched a goldfinch, literally at your feet, pecking the seeds out of a dandelion head while you hardly dared breathe, then you wouldn't want to banish dandelions forever!  Pure magic! It's something you always remember - the tiny bejewelled birds are just so exquisite!
 
 
Ladybirds sunning themselves on Acanthus spinosus leaves
Ladybirds sunning themselves on Acanthus spinosus leaves 
You can put up bee and insect hotels, which you can buy in many garden centres - or you can make one yourself, using all sorts of things like lengths of bamboo cane, air bricks, flowerpots stuffed with straw etc., stacking them into breeze blocks, pallets or wooden boxes. This will provide a home for all sorts of beneficial insects which will work for you in the garden. I only start to tidy up the borders a this time of year because until now all sorts of insects are using the remains of last year's plants to shelter from the weather. I started tidying up the acanthus clumps the other day and found dozens of ladybirds sheltering in there - just coming out to enjoy the morning sunshine! I look around the rest of the B&B border and saw literally hundreds racing up other plant and grass stems to soak up the sunshine! Nature's perfectly uniformed army of pest controllers just rarin' to go!

 

 

 

Make a small wildflower meadow

 
 
If you want to make a wildflower meadow or patch in your lawn, don't waste your money scattering seed into the grass, as most will be wasted. Fill plug trays or seed trays with a low-nutrient peat free compost mixed with some garden soil, and sow into that. Don't feed the grass in your lawn. Mow it a few times with the box on and compost the grass clippings with other plant wastes to use on your vegetables. This will reduce the nutrient content of your lawn and allow wildflowers more chance to grow without competition from more vigorous grasses. Then plant out your plant plugs when they're big enough. Wildflowers hate any sort of fertiliser. The huge amount of artificial nitrates spread by intensive agriculture is responsible for the loss of many wildflowers, which then of course has a knock-on effect on biodiversity, as there are then fewer insects and then fewer seeds for birds. Weedkillers naturally have the same effect. Worryingly - a recent survey in the USA showed that one of the biggest chemical pollutants found in household dust was glyphosate weedkiller. It doesn't stay where it's put as the manufacturers state. People bring it inside on their shoes.
 
 
Last year I even saw a landscape contractor in a white protection suit spraying in a supermarket car park in south Dublin at midday - with what was obviously a weedkiller - with absolutely no warning whatsoever! Unbelievable! People, children and dogs were walking around on the still wet chemicals totally unawares, picking it up on the bottom of their shoes and carrying it into their homes! 

 

What can you do for Birds right now?

 
Don't stop feeding your birds just because it's spring! Life is tough enough for them, particularly over the last couple of weeks of sharp night frosts. Every bit of energy saved by not having to hunt for food will help them to breed more successfully, and help to keep them in your garden where you want them to do your pest control. Don't feed peanuts unless they are in a feeder, but small seeds, meal worms and fat balls are all good - make sure that you remove the netting from fat balls and put them in a feeder - you don't want a nest full of blue tit chicks starving to death because mum and dad got their feet caught in a fat ball net, as can easily happen!  Make sure they've got a clean source of water at all times, and clean bird baths as often as you can - every day if possible. Make a small mud patch somewhere, to help returning swallows and house martins to build their nests. Three years ago the Swifts in the Naul left early without breeding because there were no insects early enough, the better weather arrived too late for them - it was so sad. Today, six or seven swallows are swooping and twittering excitedly to each other in the yard - they must be so glad to be home again after their long flight!  Do they stay together most of the time I wonder? They always remind me of Yeats's lovely poem 'The Wild Swans at Coole'. If you don't know it - it's worth a read sometime. Leave piles of moss, animal hair (if you have it) and dried grass for nest material somewhere where the birds can help themselves. At this time of year, my hens seem to scratch up a lot of the thatch and moss that collects where I've left the grass box off the mower in previous  years - this makes great comfortable nest material, and avoids having to scarify the lawn - if you do that sort of  'O.C.D.' sort of thing!
 
 
A butterfly nest with tiny caterpillars emerging and starting to feed on nettles
A butterfly nest with tiny caterpillars emerging and starting to feed on nettles
 
 
Don't 'spring clean' the garden too much - leave that untidy corner you've been meaning to get to for years - I've got lots of those and they're really valuable places for wildlife!  I had a mad 'tidy up' in one spot many years ago - I think it was in May or June - and disturbed a hedgehog nest - (more next month).  If unlike me you're already a tidy gardener then make one or two wild corners with log and leafy twig piles if you can bear it!. Or if you have a very stony soil - make a mini 'cairn' or dry stone wall somewhere - great for sheltering all sorts of insects. If you have room, think about putting in a small water feature or pond to attract frogs which will eat your slugs (and with a sloping ramp for non-amphibians who fancy a drink or a bath and can't get out again up steep sides! I even have mini ponds in my polytunnel - they're great for frogs and the hoverflies that normally need water to breed in like the one pictured above that I photographed just this morning! You could even go so far as to leave a patch of nettles somewhere - great food for butterfly caterpillars, great liquid feed, and even great soup - a positive paragon of a plant!

 
 
 
Even the smallest garden or balcony could grow a few herbs like lavender, sages, thymes and rosemary in a tub or a hanging basket - leave them to flower - bees and other insects love them and they're useful in cooking too. Grow a few climbers like ivy, to provide more food and shelter - the list is endless, and don't forget the more green plants you grow, the more you offset some of your carbon emissions too! So there's lots you can do!
 
 

And don't forget that everything we do for Nature - ultimately we're doing for ourselves. 

 
 
If you garden organically, without any sort of pesticides, you'll encourage Nature to help you and then your thoughtfulness will be more than amply rewarded. There's so much that us gardeners can do to help preserve the wonderful diversity of wildlife that we have. The more you can do the better. Nature repays even the smallest effort a hundredfold with it's abundance and beauty. 
 
 
That's why I write this blog - to share my thoughts, ideas and practical experience with all of you who read it - in the hope that it will also help you to find the fascination, joy and satisfaction I have done over many years of organic growing. The great thing about gardening is that no matter how difficult life is or how small your garden - you can always grow something, which is so positive. The best thing about gardening is that it grows the spirit too - planting a garden is planting hope. 
 
 
I HOPE YOU ALL HAVE A REALLY HAPPY MAY DAY - AND THAT YOU ALL HAVE TIME TO GET OUT INTO NATURE AND ENJOY YOUR GARDENS!

THE TOTALLY TERRIFIC TOMATO FESTIVAL Killruddery House and Gardens, Sept 3rd

The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival returns to Killruddery this September for another celebration of the diversity and flavour of the not-so-humble tomato. With contests, exhibitions, recipes and a host of guest speakers, the festival is not just a tomato enthusiast’s dream - it’s the best possible opportunity for those new to growing to gain some valuable experience and hear advice from renowned experts.

The festival is comprised of four aspects:

1. Genetic Diversity Display

2. Contests

3. Talks

4. The Walled Garden Project

 

GENETIC DIVERSITY DISPLAY

The highlight of the festival will be the impressive Genetic Diversity Display Table, co-ordinated by Jane Powers. There are over 4,000 known varieties of tomato and last year we managed to round up 138 of them, heirlooms, old favourites and F1 hybrids alike! If you’d like to contribute your own tomatoes to this year’s display, contact Jane to tell her what varieties you are growing to have a place of honour reserved for your tomatoes. A tasting table will also be available if you’re curious to sample some of the many specimens.

Contact Jane at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

CONTESTS

We’ll have contests for tomatoes of all categories and classes, as well as for tomato-based recipes, judged by our special guest, award-winning vegetable grower Medwyn Williams. There are prizes to be won for every contest - and we have a few unusual categories thrown in there too!

 

TALKS

Festival founder Nicky Kyle will give a talk titled 'Tomatoes - From Tunnel to Table'. Easy Ways to work with Nature to Grow, Cook and Eat Tomatoes for you to Maximise their Terrific Taste and Health Potential', and special guest Medwyn Williams will tell us about his journey from growing vegetables with his father to his astounding success at the Chelsea Flower Show. Both talks will be presented by Dr Matthew Jebb, director of the National Botanic Gardens.  Several informal talks will also be taking place in the Farm Market during the day.

 

THE WALLED GARDEN PROJECT

The staff at Killruddery will also be getting involved, with our own Frank Jesper giving tours of the Walled Garden throughout the day and discussing his tomato-growing year so far on Killruddery. We will also have a children’s Seed Saving table to encourage the little ones to get digging!

 

FARM MARKET

Several of our Farm Market friends will be in attendance with lots of delicious accompaniments to your tomato dishes. Stallholders will include Le Skinny Chef, Corleggy Cheese and Grass Roots Nutrition. Visting stallholders include Dearbhla Reynolds from The Cultured Club, Freda Wolf of Intelligent Tea and The Herb Garden’s Denise Dunne.

 

QUICKCROP

If you want to enter the festival but fear you’ve left it too late for seed sowing, our friends at Quickcrop have just the solution! Their six-to-eight-week tomato seedlings are ready to place in your greenhouse right away, ready in plenty of time for the festival. As well as all the usual favourites, Quickcrop also stock a few uncommon tomato varieties such as Ananas Noir, Green Sausage and White Wonder which are bound to catch the eye.

Pick up a seedling tray here:
https://www.quickcrop.ie/product/6-cell-choose-your-own-tray

 

SPECIAL THANKS

We would like to extend our thanks to friends of the festival Nicky Kyle, Jane Powers, Dr Matthew Jebb, Colm Warren Polyhouses, Kathryn Marsh, Madeleine McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds, Quickcrop, and all our competition prize givers. Thank you for your support!

 

BIO - NICKY KYLE

Nicky Kyle has been growing all of her own food organically for over 40 years and was one of Ireland's first certified organic commercial growers. She was a director of the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA) and was also co-founder and director of The Organic Trust. She regularly speaks and writes a blog about organic gardening, poultry, wildlife, healthy eating and cooking - www.nickykylegardening.com . She also writes a monthly column in The Irish Garden magazine and is co presenter of the popular 'From Tunnel to Table' feature on LMFM Radio's award-winning Late Lunch Show with Gerry Kelly. She was the original founder of the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival - with the aim of promoting awareness of the importance of preserving genetic diversity. 

 

BIO - MEDWYN WILLIAMS

Medwyn Williams is the president of the National Vegetable Society, a member of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Fruit and Vegetable Committee, and eleven-time gold medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show. He is the founder of Medwyn’s of Anglesey Exhibition Vegetable Seeds, which he now runs with his son and grandson. Medwyn has been growing vegetables from the age of eight and is also the holder of the prestigious Tudor Rose prize, awarded to him for the best display for the Royal Horticultural Society at Hampton Court, nine Gordon-Lennox trophies for best vegetable display, and two Lawrence Medals for the best horticultural display of the year.

  1. medwynsofangelsey.co.uk This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

BIO - MATTHEW JEBB

Dr Matthew Jebb is the Director of the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin. After studying at Oxford University, he was Director of the Christiansen Research Institute in Papua New Guinea for five years before taking a two-year post-doctorate position at Trinity College. He has described several species of carnivorous plants with Dr Martin Cheek.

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