The Polytunnel Potager - August/September - 2020

August contents:  A gloriously abundant - but hectic time in the polytunnel!.... Growing new potatoes for Christmas..... Barely controlled chaos!..... Aubergines, Peppers and Tomatoes..... How to get second crops of Climbing French Beans.....Time to think about winter now!..... Routine jobs......

 A small selection of just some of the produce currently available from the polytunnel.  It's a sumptuous feast for the eyes, the body and the brain!

 A small selection of just some of the produce currently available here.  It's a sumptuous feast for the eyes, the body and the brain!

 

A gloriously abundant - but hectic time in the polytunnel!

 

At the moment every day seems to be a mad dash to get some crops preserved - and to think up some new recipes for using the produce which just can't wait another minute to be picked and eaten NOW!  But time and the days are getting shorter for gardeners and polytunnel growers.  We urgently need to think ahead to winter and possible shortages of veg later on.  If you haven't already got more than enough seedlings to fill your tunnel or greenhouse for the winter, then sow some more while there is still some chance that they will make enough growth to give you good crops over the winter, or you won't have any until early spring.  I always think that it's far better to have too many in case I have a disaster with one crop - rather than not enough.  And if I end up with too many seedlings, surplus to requirements - then there are always plenty of delighted recipients!  I've already sown crops like Sugar-Loaf chicory, kales, perpetual spinach beet, and chards etc which I find so useful over winter, and I've also rooted lots of new watercress plants - but there are still plenty of faster growing crops you can sow now that will give you useful crops this autumn, as well as continuing on through the winter if we have a mild one. With our winters having been so wet over the last few years, I've tended to rely on the polytunnel more and more as the most reliable source of fresh winter food - particularly salads. I'll be sowing more of those this month.  

 

Before our supper every evening - I like to mindfully say the 'grace' which I unthinkingly repeated parrot-fashion, as fast as possible, before every meal while at school - but which now has so much more meaning..... "For what we are about to receive - may we be truly grateful" -  Because we truly are so grateful to Nature for her abundant generosity, and to all of the wonderful creatures which help us to grow such vibrantly life-giving food.

 

Growing new potatoes for Christmas

 

 

What a colour! Fab blue smashed potatoes - 'Blaue Anneliese'
What a colour! Fab blue smashed potatoes - 'Blaue Anneliese'

I've already potted up some potatoes for Christmas - especially important for us this year, as I grew all of my potatoes in pots and none outside in the ground.  This was because the surgery for my dodgy ankle was postponed due to Covid19, and I wasn't able to get enough ground ready early enough, so we've eaten a lot of those already. The only potatoes which I did plant in the ground were planted in the polytunnel, quite late for me, on 23rd March, as they didn't arrive early enough to be sprouted well before that. I planted just one row of the healthy, anthocyanin-rich, maincrop variety 'Blaue Anneliese' down one side of one of the raised beds.  I can't tell you how impressed I am with this potato from Fruit Hill Farm in Co Cork - it's a new variety to me -- but is without doubt the best-tasting and best-textured blue/purple variety I've ever grown.  It's fluffy when just cooked, and yet oddly enough - waxy and firm when cold.  Not qualities usually found combined in one potato, but which make it very useful. It makes fabulous potato salad, wonderful saute potatoes and deliciously fluffy purple smashed potatoes - what more could one ask of any potato? 

 

In addition to that though, so far it's also the healthiest looking, and clearly the most disease-resistant of all the purple potatoes I've grown over the last 35 years I've grown them!  It is still growing so strongly and looking so healthy that I'm leaving it be for now, until we've eaten all of the rest in pots.  It's more than happy to be left alone, with just an occasional careful watering at the roots and never wetting the foliage, which would cause blight.  At this stage it has already covered the entire bed and is now half covering the main centre path on the opposite side of the bed, and still looking astonishingly healthy!  I could really do with the space to plant some autumn and winter crops now - but far be it from me to upset a potato which is clearly so thoroughly still enjoying itself at this time of year!  I think I shall leave it to grow for as long as it wants to - as an experiment. It will be interesting to see if it finally goes down with blight - although the Fruit Hill Farm website said that it is resistant to late blight. We shall see - currently it is looking resistant to everything - although I usually lift all my potatoes before the end of August because rodents often become a problem, and I doubt it will be resistant to them!.

 

You can use any sprouted potatoes to plant for Christmas potatoes, as all of them will grow, but first and second early types are the most reliable if you have any left from early crops. Alternatively you can buy suitable tubers for growing Christmas crops from garden centres now - although these may not necessarily be the best-flavoured types. These are just tubers which have been kept in cold storage from the same spring planting seed tuber crops that suppliers would have been selling in spring.  I do that every year with some of my spring planting tubers saved from the previous year - which by this time look shrivelled and often have very long sprouts on them - often 30 cm or a foot long!  Long sprouts aren't a problem though - I just lay them on their side and wind them gently around the pots - usually using 2 or 3 litre pots for these Christmas crops. They soon take off like rockets as they're so delighted to finally be planted. I also normally save healthy some small, healthy-looking tubers from the current year's early crops. Either way works just fine. 

 

If I'm saving some of my early crop from the same year for doing this - I dry them off in the sun for a few days and let them go green, then I put them in the fridge to chill them for a week or so before planting in the pots.  But I'm not sure doing that is strictly necessary.  Potatoes are always keen to grow whatever the time of year - as anyone who has ever accidentally left a forgotten bag of them half-finished at the back of the veg cupboard will know!  When they're potted, just keep them outside for a few weeks somewhere where they'll get good air circulation, to hopefully avoid late blight. Then bring them into the polytunnel as soon as any frost is forecast.  From then on always cover them at night with fleece just in case, and don't over-water or they may rot at this stage as they won't be growing strongly any more - just 'ticking over'. It may seem like a bit of a faff I know - but at Christmas your 'new' potatoes will be a real treat - and you'll be so glad that you went to the trouble of doing them!

 

If the variety you are growing isn't a first or second-early one, and isn't ready in time for the festive season - then just as long as you don't let them get damaged by frost, and keep covering them at night with some fleece - then they'll just keep growing on after Christmas, through a few more weeks until they are finally ready. I've often done that depending on what variety I'm growing - and in fact they'll be even more welcome in a dismal, dark January than they will be at Christmas - when there are so many other goodies to eat! I may even plant some more of the 'Blaue Anneliese' to see what they do - although they're a late maturing, maincrop really, so I doubt they'll be ready for Christmas.  They're also so vigorous that they're not very happy in pots either - but I might put a few in very large tubs as an experiment.  Apart from the obvious advantage of growing our own fresh food, especially varieties which I could never buy - experimenting is what keeps me interested in gardening.  Finding new and better varieties and new ways of growing them is always exciting.  When I stop being excited by that - then I shall give up! 

  

 

The most important place in my Polytunnel Potager - my seat under the peach trees. Here I sit and think - surrounded by scented herbs & flowers, with lemon verbena either side of me, Nicotiana behind me - bees buzzing, butterflies dancing around me and birdsong.... This is my personal Narnia - pure Paradise!

  

Barely Controlled Chaos best describes the polytunnel right now!
 
 
The picture above shows a small selection of some of the produce which I'm picking from my polytunnel now. Trying to take a picture that shows you the entire polytunnel would be absolutely impossible - you wouldn't be able to see a thing, except leafy jungly abundance!  It's a veritable fruit and veg festival at the moment - stuffed with good things to eat in every possible corner - in every nutritious colour of the rainbow! And the kitchen is full of crates of produce being preserved for the winter - so that's even more chaotic!  The picture shows just how much fabulous produce it's possible to grow in a polytunnel without using any chemicals - just by working with Nature and a bit of TLC. I love to take lots of pics at this time of year - it's so nice to have them to cheer myself up in the depths of a long wet Irish winter!  It's also nice to have lots of produce stored for the winter. Anything that doesn't get eaten fresh makes it's way either into the freezer or dehydrator. There are 11 varieties of tomatoes in the picture, most of which are either made into my 'Totally Terrific Tomato Sauce' and frozen in portions (recipe in that section) - or just frozen whole for saucing later, if I'm short of time. Only Rosada and Incas dehydrate really well - but Blush is quite good too. And all the fruit makes a really special treat when semi-dehydrated to soft 'leather' stage into chewy fruit sweeties! They're the only kind of sweets that get eaten here - with the occasional bit dunked into melted dark chocolate - now that's serious decadence!
 

 

Borage, sweet potatoes behind - with convulvulus, marigolds, feverfew. Endive & beetroot flowering for saving seed are at far end & also peaches - with a Flame grapevine in middle on right!Borage, sweet potatoes behind - with convulvulus, marigolds, feverfew. Endive & beetroot flowering for saving seed at far end & also peaches - with a Flame grapevine in middle in the right hand side bed!
 
 

A few years ago, someone who had just put up a new polytunnel asked me if I could put on a whole page of tunnel photos as they needed some inspiration!  Someone else asked me if I could walk around once a month and take a comprehensive video.  While they were both brilliant ideas - apart from the time it would take which at this time of year I don't have with so much work to be done - when I walked round my tunnels later with these ideas in mind and tried to take a few photos, I realised that it would be impossible to get a real idea of what's going on in them without a lot of description too - which is what I've tried to do in my blog over the last few years, also in my 'Late Lunch' radio feature on LMFM, and more recently in my daily Tweets. You don't need to have a Twitter account to see these - you can just enter through the Twitter window here - and then just go down through my timeline - which good friends of mine do who don't want to be on social media.

 

The picture above provides a small 'vignette' of my polytunnel potager garden - which is repeated in various combinations all around.  I try to have a balanced ecology which echoes the garden outside and because of this it's almost impossible for anyone to get a true picture of what's really happening in there - especially at this time of year. Unless one examined it inch by inch - it's so like a jungle that it's impossible to see it all! So many things are growing through things, around things, underneath and up and over things - just as Nature grows things. There's a riot of vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs, with happily buzzing bees and butterflies everywhere - and also sparrows and other small birds flitting around hunting for insects to feed their broods. There's even a few resident frogs. 

 

It's very hectic and really difficult to see anything too clearly, and to get a sense of just how much is really going on - one just sort of 'feels' the energy of it.  There are no neat rows of crops with wide, uncultivated bare spaces in between, as one sees in so many polytunnels, because that's not how Nature grows things. I think the best term for it is 'controlled chaos' - barely!  It's a fine line I know - and one has to take care that things don't sometimes get smothered, or that by reducing air circulation too much one encourages disease. Science is now proving what I always knew in my gut from observing Nature - and that is that communities of plants are actually much healthier than monocrops of just one type of plant.  Plants are just much happier growing together. I don't give the way I grow any special title - like Permaculture or No Dig or Agroecology, because I don't feel the need for a 'badge' - and because it's all of those things and more. It's just gardening with Nature without synthetic chemicals, how Nature does it.  Which is just what I originally learnt that organic gardening is!

 

So often the photos of my vegetable beds look more like flower borders - but then that's just how Nature loves to grow things - and that's why the plants are happy and healthy!  Sadly though, it does make it rather difficult to take photos that don't just end up looking like one great big colourful and leafy blur!  You can see what I mean about being hectic from the picture of the sweet potato bed above! They actually have very beautiful flowers too. So as a result - this month, my polytunnel looks like a very colourful jungle! But there's a very fine line between trying to make every possible inch productive, or the whole lot descending into total chaos - and believe me - it's not far from that right now!! Hardly any space to walk around the tunnel at all without tripping over or walking on something!

  
I've been growing with Nature in this way ever since I started vegetable gardening - for well over 40 years now. Before that I just used to arrange flowers from my parents garden - and I think I'm probably still doing that subconsciously!  It always just seemed a far more natural way of growing to me - and I love creating attractive and successful planting combinations. Back then it was called 'inter-cropping' or 'catch-cropping', and companion planting. 'Permaculture' enthusiasts have now re-named it 'Polyculture' - but they didn't invent it - they're just using a fancy new name for something good organic gardeners have done for centuries - and Nature has done forever!  Nature doesn't do 'monoculture' and neither do good organic gardeners! Over the last few years I've seen so many people announce they've discovered so-called 'new' ways to garden - with either very inventive new names, or using old names forgotten except by older people. I have a huge collection of old Soil Association magazines going back to long before I was born and they're utterly fascinating. They knew about the benefits of soil bacteria back then - even without the benefits of modern electron microscopy!
 
  
For instance there was a debate about the merits of 'no-dig'  way back in 1947 - and the inter-planting of maize with cover crops like legumes in the former Rhodesia was nothing new - likewise 'no cultivation' and 'surface mulching' of fruit.  Equally fascinating was the fact that camel dung was not used in Mongolia!!  I would love to have been able to ask "why not?" Seriously though - there's nothing new under the sun and I often wish that the people who originally discovered and wrote about different ways of growing things were actually given some credit for their original ideas - rather than others claiming to have invented it and giving it their own name! 
 
 
Lady Eve Balfour, H. J. Massingham and Lawrence Hills may not have had the advantage of all the modern scientific instruments that we have now - they just did what they felt was right in their gut - and observed their results closely. They knew then as apparently so many people are only just 'discovering' now - that proper stewardship of the soil was the only sustainable way to grow healthy crops.  They were constantly experimenting to find out how to mimic Nature and to grow crops better. It's such a great pity that more people didn't listen to them back then - instead of being seduced by the impressively fast results of the synthetic nitrogen fertilisers and other toxic chemicals which have been responsible for destroying so much precious biodiversity, and have caused so much illness, misery, biodiversity loss and environmental pollution!
 
  
In photos of other people's gardens or tunnels, who perhaps grow commercially - there are often beautiful long rows of crops which one can take lovely clear photos of.  Funny - but I don't think that's so beautiful! Controlled - yes. Natural - no!  Some of them look more like monocultures - with great swathes of bare soil between the rows - and those people quoting the old-fashioned phrase that "we should be keeping the hoe moving"! -- Sorry but that's rubbish - science says different now and it's also not the way that nature grows things. Nature never leaves soil bare as I've so often said before. It always covers it with some plant or other, unless it's too poisoned for anything to grow at all!  I rarely see those people growing flowers among crops either - as I do. Apart from wanting to grow my plants as naturally as possible - I also want them to have the highest nutrients possible - and you don't do that by leaving huge areas of exposed soil. In addition - now that I don't grow commercially any longer, I want the widest possible range of crops for myself and whichever members of the family happen to be around at any given time. 
 
  
Things need to be a lot more flexible and I like to have a good choice available all the time. I like to experiment too, so I tend to grow quite short rows of many things, depending on how productive they are. I try to use every possible inch of valuable tunnel space either to provide food for us, or for the wildlife that helps to keep any pests under control, whether that's outside or inside in the polytunnels. I try not to have large expanses of bare earth that I hoe or weed - which would obviously make it far easier to take nice clear photos. That's not very good for soil though. Nature doesn't grow things like that - and I try to replicate nature as closely as possible. I think this is why everything works and I don't have any so-called 'pest' problems - even when growing in containers. Nature invented a food chain where everything depends on everything else and it all works perfectly. It has a beautiful equilibrium. It's only when man intervenes with chemicals that some species are wiped out, others get the upper hand and then perhaps become what we humans have termed 'pests!  I try to mimic Nature by growing as many things together as I can, as naturally as possible.
 
 
Here on my blog I try to show people that you don't necessarily need a large garden, to be able to grow some healthy food for yourself and your family that can make a contribution towards the household budget. I also try to convey that 'growing your own' shouldn't have to take over your life either - and that it is possible to fit it into a normal busy life full of other interests that we all have. Organic gardening is only part of my life, although it's a very important part as I try to grow all the fruit and vegetables that we need all year round. But I do many other things like most normal people. I don't just garden and do nothing else - so time is also a factor. I have just the same amount of hours in a day as anyone else!  The garden often has to look after itself for much of the time. I just dash in and out to water occasionally in the tunnels or to grab something for supper! I have to say though - that without the tunnels I'm not sure I would continue vegetable gardening! The challenges of increasingly unreliable weather would make it nearly impossible in our wet climate. With a polytunnel large enough to supply a family of four with a good range of food all year round costing probably less than most family holidays these days - I think they're terrific value. I worked out years ago that if they're used properly, all year round - they should pay for themselves in two years - if we're eating the correct amount of fruits and vegetables we are supposed to eat in order to be healthy!
 

 

Aubergines, Peppers and Tomatoes 

 

Aubergine 'Bonica'Aubergine 'Bonica' (pictured here) is as usual cropping really well. The fruits look so beautiful it's almost a shame to pick them!. Each of the plants has already produced 5 or 6 fruits and has loads of babies developing. Many companies sell the seed of this one and it's the best variety I've ever grown - it's thoroughly reliable and I now grow really good aubergines every year - despite our unreliable climate here in Ireland.
 
 
 
'Bonica' came out top of the Royal Horticultural Society trials about 10 years ago and it's easy to see why. It's currently producing huge, beautiful minimum 12-13oz plus aubergines faster than we can use them - some weigh over a pound or around 500g!  I freeze any that I don't use immediately. They're sliced - brushed with olive oil and frozen on sheets of grease-proof paper, then bagged for winter use. They can then be oven roasted straight from frozen.  By the way - I never salt them - it's not necessary with home grown ones and ruins their sweet, almost meaty flavour. Considering that even non-organic, chemically sprayed ones are over a euro each at least in some supermarkets - they're well worth the extra TLC and they're very happy in the recycled coleslaw buckets as you can see from the picture here! Aubergines need careful watering - never soaking them near the stem as they are very susceptible to stems rotting near the base. Peppers need the same careful cultivation and watering for the best results.
 
  
 
Tomato art!Tomato art! Some favourite delicious beefsteaks.
 
We always look forward to our first Caprese salad of the year with huge anticipation!  This year because of the heatwave we enjoyed it earlier than usual - and we've had several since. Although our absolute favourite for this is Pantano Romanesco - which has no equal for flavour if it gets plenty of sun as it has done this year - I discovered a lovely new variety of tomato a few years ago. It's a heritage variety called Moonglow which came from Simpsons seeds and has a lovely fruity, quite unusual, almost 'apricotty' flavour. We really enjoyed it with Green Cherokee, Nyagous and with a huge slice of Ananas Noir in the centre of each plate - it looked almost too good to eat, as it looked so pretty - but we managed to force ourselves!  Our classic Caprese though is usually thick slices of juicy beefsteaks Pantano Romanesco and John Baer (a wonderful very early tomato from Plants of Distinction with a split personality which produces some beefsteak-like and some classic medium tomatoes with a fabulous flavour). With it we have some really good yieldingly-soft buffalo mozzarella (pizza standard cow mozzarella just won't do for this salad!) - dressed with my pesto dressing (a frozen pesto cube dropped into in more olive oil which thaws and dilutes it), a few grinds of black pepper and prettified with some shredded basil.  Accompanied by some crusty home-made ciabatta still warm from the oven, to mop up the juices, it's heaven on earth. One is instantly transported to the Med.!  What more could you want?  You can close your eyes and feel that you're perhaps sitting in a little sun-warmed piazza somewhere in Italy, in late evening - and almost imagine that when you open them again you will see a gilded campanile silhouetted against a cloudless turquoise sky!............Ah well.......dreams cost nothing!
 
 
 
Tomato 'Amish Paste' - the best for tomato sauce Tomato 'Green Cherokee' - great flavoured huge emerald green beefsteak - 4.8.13 Tomato 'Indigo Rose' growing  with tagetes, basil & red clover - 6.8.13
Tomatoes Amish Paste, Green Cherokee and Indigo Rose 
 
 
I can't believe that it's already time to 'stop' the tops of the tomato plants. This year seems to have flown. When the plants have reached the top of the 8 ft bamboo canes which support them - normally when they have 7 or 8 trusses on them depending on the variety - I cut the tops off. I like to keep a bit of air circulating above the tops of the plants, so I don't like to let them grow right up to the roof of the tunnel, as many people do. Usually the plants won't ripen more than eight trusses anyway in a polytunnel in our climate here, because the air becomes more humid and the light much less as autumn approaches. In a tunnel which is only growing tomatoes, where you can keep the air much drier for them, you could allow them to carry more, by training them up twine which you let out, lowering the stem along diagonally - I used to do this when growing commercially. But most gardeners want to grow a wide range of different crops in their tunnels at the same time - this makes it more difficult to keep the air as dry as possible for crops like tomatoes, aubergines and peppers. Some other crops like cucumbers and melons need more watering - making the air much more humid, so it's really a bit of a juggling act. At this time of year it becomes even more important to be really careful with your watering - watering in the mornings if possible to allow the atmosphere to dry out a bit - rather than watering late in the evening - particularly when a cold night is forecast - as this will hasten the demise of most tender summer crops! Careful watering will ensure they last that bit longer without disease.
 
 
 
Pantano Romanesco - in my opinion the easiest and best tasting beefsteakPantano Romanesco - in my opinion the easiest and also the best tasting beefsteak
 
I walk round at least two or three times a week now with a large bucket, cutting off any damaged, diseased, or dead foliage (the 3 D's), or whenever I see something as I'm picking crops. Using a knife or scissors for a clean cut - otherwise stems may tear and then let in disease. This is really important. Diseases, particularly grey mould (botrytis) can spread like wildfire on the muggy, gloomy grey days we often get in August here in Ireland, even with all possible ventilation. It's a particular problem where we live - where we can get a sort of low cloud/sea mist for days on end, which often only lifts for an hour or two around lunchtime, often descending again around 3pm. Tomatoes really hate that sort of weather! 
 
 
 
The continental beefsteak types are the most vulnerable, and must be watched really carefully. I actually pick them with secateurs to avoid tearing the truss stems. Take a look at them every day and pick off anything dodgy-looking immediately. You'll often see the shrivelled dead flower petals still clinging to the end of the swelling fruit, it's a good idea to gently pick these off, it is a bit fiddly - but if you don't - disease can often start there and very quickly turn the whole fruit mouldy and rotting, and then spread to the rest of the truss. The trusses need to be kept really clean and free of any detritus. As I've said before, they are not really that happy growing here in polytunnels, they'd really much prefer the hot summers and brilliant light of the Med. - but their wonderful flavour makes a bit of extra TLC worthwhile! That thought keeps me going through the winter. You can't buy a tomato that tastes anything like them anywhere in Ireland - but they do bruise incredibly easily when properly ripened.  The commercially grown types are bred for 'travel-ability' and shelf life - not tender, melting, luscious flavour! Basil is a bit fussy too, but if you're really careful with watering, pick off browning or diseased leaves immediately and keep pinching out the flower buds - it should keep going well all summer.
 


Don't cut off curling up tomato leaves unless they are discoloured or going brown, or grey and mouldy at the tips - curling up is normally caused by excess heat a couple of weeks earlier, or depletion of nutrients as the plants get older. Only take off the first couple of leaves below the ripening trusses to help improve air circulation - even if they are still green. The others further up are needed to help the plant to photosynthesise and to keep drawing up the sap. Keep looking for any side shoots which may still appear all down the stem. Be very careful with the watering in the whole tunnel now. Try to water in the mornings if possible, on a day when sunny weather is forecast, this gives surface moisture a chance to dry off before the tunnel is closed in the evening. Watch the weather forecast, try to plan your watering and don't go soaking the whole tunnel thoroughly if wet dull weather is forecast for a couple of days. Try to keep the moisture content of the soil fairly even. Fruit may split if the roots have dried out too much and the plants are then soaked, and uneven, erratic watering can also cause 'blossom end rot' (where the fruit gets round black patches on the flower end) or the small fruit may even drop off altogether. 
 
 
 
Tomato & herb stepladder garden
Tomato & herb stepladder garden
I feed all the tomatoes now, with a half strength feed, at every other watering, as the slightly yellowing lower leaves with paler top leaves can be a sign of lack of nutrients. The top ones should still look healthy and green. The 'Maskotka' bush cherry tomato in large pots is looking particularly hungry now, as it started cropping really well at the beginning of June. It's a fantastic little cropper - every time I think it surely must finish soon, another flush of flowers appears! I think just one or two bushes would definitely keep one person in tomatoes for most of the summer- and could even be grown on a sunny balcony as they don't make huge plants. They hang from the plants like bunches of grapes and the flavour is utterly delicious! I have had a few split ones - but this was my really fault as in the hot weather they've really needed watering every day, because of being in pots instead of the tunnel soil, and there were one or two days where I was very busy doing other things and just forgot! This year my stepladder garden is tomatoes and herbs - Basil and Oregano. It's been hugely successful. This would fit onto any balcony or into even the tiniest of gardens!  This year I used Tumbler this year on every step, and we were eating them in mid-May!
 
 

 

 

 

Get a second crop of Climbing French Beans 

 
 
'Cobra' French bean top & 'Golden Gate''Cobra' French bean top & 'Golden Gate'
 
We're starting to get a good crop now from the Cobra climbing French beans I sowed in mid-June. I normally start them off much earlier, but many sowings this year have been delayed due to my dodgy ankle.  I keep picking them regularly, because French beans will quickly stop producing more if they get too big and stringy and start developing seeds. If your French beans have just finished cropping, and you don't want the ground immediately for something else, you can carefully strip all the leaves completely from the plants, snapping them off with your finger and thumb just where the leaf stalk joins onto the stem. They do this quite readily. Then give them a feed and water (avoiding the base of the stem as usual), and give wider the root area a nice mulch too - avoiding the base of the stems or they may rot. Within a few days - you should see tiny new flower shoots developing in the leaf axils. These will carry another later crop on into the autumn. 
 
 
 
French beans are one of the most productive crops you can grow in a tunnel and well worth growing, particularly in Ireland, where our summers can often be wet - which French beans absolutely hate. They're one of the very best crops for freezing too. Just loose freeze quickly without blanching, bagging up afterwards. The round podded, stringless variety 'Cobra',  is totally reliable, incredibly productive and absolutely delicious. It's actually an improved form of the old variety 'Blue Lake'. Beans fit well into the rotation plan in a polytunnel, making a good break between tomatoes and cucumbers, and also fixing nitrogen for following winter salads and greens. I trialled a new French bean - 'Golden Gate' a couple of years ago. This was supposed to be really early, with good setting of flowers, very tasty and productive,  ideal for tunnel growing. It was none of those things, in fact it was absolutely pathetic and tasteless into the bargain! So I won't bother with it again - I shall stick to 'Cobra' as ever! Quite apart from anything else, 'Cobra' seed is about a third of the price (particularly in B&Q). Golden Gate was an attractive golden bean, that's all - and a few people commented that it looked pretty!
 
White flowered runner bean Moonlight experiment seems a success    

Delicious white flowered runner bean Moonlight 

 
A few years ago I tried another bean experiment! As you'll know if you're a regular reader - I love experimenting with different ways of growing. I also love the taste of fresh runner beans, but I live in a windy spot here - and every year, when growing runner beans outside, as soon as they're carrying a full crop in August, along come the early autumn gales and destroy them. Literally blowing them to bits - no matter how well-supported they are! So I decided to try some inside!  As white-flowered runner beans tend to set pods more easily, and I always have a lot of bees in the tunnel anyway, I thought it might be worth trying what was then a new partially self-fertile variety called Moonlight - bred by crossing a French bean and a runner bean - thinking they might be amenable to growing in the tunnel. Lo and behold - I was right! I know most people grow them easily outside - but we seem to get particularly strong 'autumn' winds up here in mid-August. Since there are always plenty of bees in the tunnels because I grow so many flowers in them - there is no problem with pollination and for the last 6 years I've had delicious runner beans from them. Moonlight is a stringless and really delicious variety - which I think has just as good a flavour as Painted Lady which was always my favourite - but sadly it didn't really like tunnel cultivation.
 
 
 
Time to think about winter now!
 
 
An old freezer basket covered with fine Enviromesh protecting seedlings from bad weather and pests
An old freezer basket covered with fine Enviromesh protecting seedlings from bad weather and pests
In the midst of all this glorious abundance though - it's time for a serious reality check!  I just want to remind you that you really have to start thinking really seriously NOW about winter tunnel crops- if you want any! This month is your last chance to sow many of them if you want a really good selection of salads and other crops throughout the winter.  Although there won't be room for some time yet to plant most in the tunnel and it may also be still much too hot for them on any warmer days, if you don't start sowing winter crops now - it will be too late by the time you actually have the polytunnel space clear for them. There is a marked difference between many crops sown now and the same ones sown in early September.  Sown now - most things will start to crop well in late autumn and be productive through the winter - but put it off for another month and they may not start cropping until well after Christmas. This particularly applies to calabrese (broccoli), Swiss chards, Sugar Loaf chicory and some types of lettuce. I generally do two sowings of all these veg. as a 'fail-safe' method to ensure I have them, just in case some disaster befalls the first lot I've sown.  If they all survive successfully - you'll find a space to fit them in somewhere and will be so glad of them in deepest winter! You can start sowing these in modules outside now (if you haven't done so already) then bring them in as their space becomes available as summer crops are cleared. By the way - if you have any old freezer baskets never throw them out - they're endlessly useful!  At this time of year I use them to protect small seedlings which need to be outside, but are very vulnerable to slugs or cabbage root fly, which is still very active at this time of year! An old freezer basket covered with fine Enviromesh is perfect for keeping them out completely, so that you're not disappointed by finding they have no roots, when you come to plant them in September!
 
  
Now is when good planning really pays off and it ensures that your polytunnel is as productive as it possibly can be all year round. To make the most of expensive tunnel space, you should always have something ready to plant as soon as a previous crop is cleared. There's a list of what you can sow now in the 'What to Sow in August' bit as usual. It's also a good idea to make a few notes now about this year's crops when things occur to you as you go round the tunnel - what's done well - what maybe needs a bit more space - or something you will do differently or maybe try next year, while it's still fresh in your mind. Keep a notebook and pencil in there - you'll forget by the time you get back to the house and something else interrupts your train of thought! This will help you to draw up an even better plan for next year's crops. You'll be ordering the seed for them this autumn if you want to get the best varieties as many quickly sell out.
 

Routine Jobs

 
 Keep ventilating as much as possible, leaving doors fully open during the day if you can. I always close my tunnels at night as even at this time of year a strong wind can suddenly get up from nowhere on the odd occasion, particularly before a sudden thunderstorm - and if it's from the wrong direction, it can rip off the doors and destroy the tunnel, as I've learned from bitter experience twice in the past! Closing the doors will also keep badgers and foxes out too - as they're extremely fond of the odd bit of ripe fruit or an easy to dig up worm or two!

 
A little extra care and time spent now, will pay off hugelyby keeping all your crops going much longer into the autumn. What often happens is things can get into a bit of a mess when people are away on holidays, they look at it all when they come back, lose heart and then just give up!  If you let things become a disease-ridden jungle at this time of year - and don't deal with it - then you're just storing up a lot of disease which you will get even earlier this autumn or next year. Good housekeeping now is absolutely essential! Be vigilant - it pays off! Clear any diseased plant material and also anything that isn't productive any more - and plant something useful for the winter. Soil likes to be kept working - and even if you just plant hardy vegetables that you could grow outside - things like lettuce, winter spinach, kales and chards still be two or three times more productive inside instead of being blown around by freezing winter gales and rain outside.
 
 
If like me you have very raised beds either in your tunnelyou almost have to treat them like giant containers or pots, as they do need watering a bit more often. On the other hand, the crops do tend to be slightly earlier because the soil is warmer - and the drainage is so much better. I get a very graphic illustration of this sometimes when we get floods elsewhere and there is water running between the beds! They are also an awful lot easier on the back too - which is why I put in mine!  Mulching really well does help too - as always - stopping evaporation, conserving moisture, providing nutrients and encouraging good worm activity. Preparing the soil well beforehand with really good homemade compost or other well-rotted organic matter, to provide lots of 'sticky' water-retaining humus, is most important too.
 
 
 (P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)

What to sow in August - 2020

Remember the Golden Rule: "Always sow the seeds - you can catch up on everything else later except that!"  With day length shortening and decreasing light available to plants - it is vital that some crops are sown as soon as possible now if you want plenty of winter food.
 
 2 varieties mangetout peas for soup, sprouting & seed, kale rear centre beside peach & perpetual spinach beet. Food security!
 Two varieties of mangetout peas for soup, sprouting & seed, kale rear centre beside peach, and perpetual spinach beet. Growing and saving our own seed is growing our own food security - and in these uncertain times everything we can do for ourselves gives us more independence!
 
 
Sow outdoors in pots or modules:
 
 
(For planting later in the tunnel or greenhouse, when summer crops are cleared. These will all crop in late autumn/early winter - some like chard, perpetual spinach beet & kale will crop steadily over the winter.)
 
Calabrese* ('Green Magic' is a great variety that crops well all autumn and over the winter in the tunnel if picked regularly, and protected from serious frost with fleece), 'Kaibroc' (Marshalls - fast cropping, delicious kale/broccoli hybrid). Cabbages 'Greyhound' & leafy non-hearting spring collard types, carrots (early 'Nantes' types, in long modules or pots), kales such as Cavalo Nero, dwarf green curled and Ragged Jack, lettuces** non-hearting leafy types (like Lattughino, Lollo Rossa, oak leaf & Jack Ice), winter 'Gem' & winter butterheads, endives, kohl rabi*, Swiss chards & leaf beets, beetroot 'Bull's Blood' and 'McGregor's Favourite' for salad leaves**, peas (for pea shoots), sugar loaf chicory* (Pain de Sucre), Claytonia**(miner's lettuce), American land cress**, watercress, leaf chicories (radicchio), rocket**, summer turnips**, coriander**, chervil**, plain-leaved and curled parsley, and sorrel. 
 
 
Covering seed trays while they are outdoors, with a fine mesh-covered frame or cloche, gives young seedlings protection from pests (like cabbage root fly and cabbage white butterflies), and also provides shelter from scorching sun, strong winds or heavy rain
 
 
You could also now plant a few early variety potato tubers in pots anytime from early to mid-August - to bring inside later for a Christmas crop. 'Autumn planting ready' types are available now in garden centres if you haven't saved your own seed tubers from your first or second-early crops, or held some back from earlier spring planting.
 

 

Outdoors, sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop:

 (To possibly cover with cloches or frames later in autumn.)  

 

Beetroot, Brocoletto 'Cima di Rapa', early 'Nantes' type carrots for late autumn cropping, cabbages (red round head**, 'Greyhound' and leafy non-hearting spring types), peas (for pea shoots), sugar loaf and leaf chicory*, radicchios*, endives, Japanese overwintering onions**, salad onions, Claytonia (winter purslane/miner's lettuce)**, lambs lettuce**, American landcress**, winter lettuces, kales, radishes, rocket, Swiss chard and leaf beets*, summer spinach, summer turnips, Chinese cabbage* and other oriental greens such as Choy Sum, Pak choi, mibuna, mizuna, mustards 'Red & Green Frills', Chinese kale (Kailaan), Komatsuna**, winter radishes, quick maturing salad mixes, parsley, chervil*, buckler-leaved and French sorrel. Sow fast growing green manures like buckwheat, red clover, mustard (a brassica so careful with rotations) and Phacelia, to improve soil, 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms (digging them in later after the first frosts, then covering to protect soil, preventing nutrient loss and possible pollution), on any empty patches of ground cleared of crops that won't be used over winter.,
 

(*Sow Early Aug. only,  **sow mid-late Aug.)
 

If you don't get many crops sown now, they won't have enough time to develop to crop well over winter, as with the shortening days now all growth slows dramatically within a couple of weeks. Another thing! - Remember that these are just suggestions - you don't have to sow them all! 

If I was forced to choose only six veg to grow over the winter in my polytunnel they would be Ragged Jack Kale, Ruby or Silver Swiss chards, Perpetual Spinach Beet, Watercress, lettuces Lattughino and Jack Ice, and Sugar Loaf Chicory. They are all incredibly productive over even the hardest winter in a polytunnel, or protected with cloches outside - often continuing well into spring.

 

 N.B. Sow in the evenings if possible as germination of some varieties of seeds can sometimes be affected or even prevented altogether by too high a temperature during the first 24 - 48 hours - this applies particularly to lettuce, spinach, celery and also greenhouse sown carrots. Protect module-sown seedlings outside from heavy rain or strong sunlight with a plastic mesh such as 'Enviromesh' - which also protects against carrot root fly, cabbage white caterpillars and cabbage root fly - all of which can still decimate unprotected seedlings. Old net curtains work well too! Sowing in modules on a table, or raised area outside also provides seedlings with good protection from slugs.

 

 

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

The Fruit Garden and Orchard - July/August 2020

July contents:  Summer prune apples by the seat of your pants - not the textbooks!.... The 'June Drop'.... How to Grow Fabulous Figs..... It's another fantastic fruit year!.... Give thanks every time you see a bee! - Pollinators are vital to fruit growing.... Nature could easily live without us - but we can't live without Nature!.... Raspberries....  Strawberry Fields from the past!.... Grapes..... General Fruit Care.... and Why I don't accept advertisements or editorials!

1. Badly placed branch of 'Tickled Pink' apple  growing up through crown of the tree - arrow showing direction of adjustment 2. Branch on 'Tickled Pink' with water-filled plastic bottle attached. The angle can be adjusted by squeezing out water
1. Badly placed branch of 'Tickled Pink' apple  growing up through crown of the tree - arrow showing direction of adjustment 2. Branch on 'Tickled Pink' with water-filled plastic bottle attached. The angle can be adjusted by squeezing out water

 

 

Summer Prune by the Seat of your Pants - not the Textbooks!

 

Gardening 'by the seat of our pants' and not by the textbook - is something I've been advising since I first started this blog 10 years ago, and the recent weather proves that this is becoming increasingly important every day.  We can't just slavishly follow the standard advice given in old textbooks which were written decades or even centuries ago, when weather patterns were far more predictable, and before our weather became increasingly erratic.  Despite this many 'experts' still seem to be lazily quoting from those old books, rather than thinking independently, and adapting their advice to prevailing conditions now. This year our weather has almost seemed back to front!  We had what used to be normal June/July hot dry weather in April and May - and then quite the opposite - very wet spring weather, with cold temperatures, in late June and July. This means that in some cases, depending on where you live and the weather you've had in your locality, the side shoots on apple trees - or laterals, as they are more correctly called, may not have ripened fully enough yet to summer prune, as they put on a lot of soft new growth after the torrential rains arrive in June. When they will be ripe enough, only you can judge, and this will depend not just on your area, but the weather you've experienced this year and even possibly the variety and how well-established it is. It truly is 'seat of the pants'  time for making decisions! 

 

When the new shoots at the base of laterals or sub-laterals carrying first 2-3 buds/leaf joints feel really firm and woody and no longer pliable enough to bend - then they should be ripened enough to prune. If in doubt, leave them for another couple of weeks to firm up. If you do it too early - additional later soft growth may develop which you don't want, but you should be safe enough to prune if you do it by late August. This helps to promote the formation of flower buds for next year. As it's the side shoots or laterals which carry the flowers and subsequently fruit, the aim in pruning an apple tree is to develop a good open, cup-shaped framework of main branches, carrying fruiting spurs, or clusters of fruit buds, which develop from the sub-laterals. Occasionally you will get side shoots about 6-8 ins or 20 cm long which terminate themselves naturally in a fruit bud - you'll recognise this as it's round and fat rather than pointed. You can leave those unpruned as they won't put on any further extension growth, but will carry fruit next year instead.

 

Sometimes you may find a new, long vigorous shoot growing very upright from the main trunk of the tree, not from the existing branch system. You don't want that growth crowding the centre of the tree, and even if you prune it it will still grow in the same direction - but if the shoot is well placed, where there is enough of a gap or space lower down for it to form another main branch, you can weigh it down to almost horizontal, as you can see I have done in the picture of the young 'Tickled Pink' tree above with a water-filled, recycled plastic bottle. You can vary the weight of this according to how much you want to lower the branch and how supple it is. Doing this will encourage the branch to form fruiting spurs next year, which you can summer prune the following year as I've already described. The incredibly skilful kitchen gardeners of former centuries used to do this with lead weights which clipped neatly onto branches to train fruit trees into wonderfully intricate shapes - but try as I might, I haven't been able to find a supplier for these anywhere. Perhaps it's because lead is so expensive now - or too toxic?   

 

Commercial chemical apple growers nowadays limit growth and promote fruiting buds on apple trees by using extremely toxic, growth-retarding sprays.... not what you want in your apples!  Anyway, when you have your branch lowered into position and the wood has set firmly into shape - no longer springing back up when you remove the weight -  during the winter you can then prune it back by a third or half to encourage further new growth from it's tip.  Again - think about the cup shape you want the tree to have in a few years time, with well-spaced branches to allow for good air circulation to prevent disease. If you're not sure about the shape, take your time - always take a few steps back and have a good look at the shape of the whole tree - before you prune in the wrong place!  Think of it as tree sculpture!  

 

The 'June Drop'


 
Apples should by now have done their age old 'June drop' - a self-thinning which often doesn't normally happen until early to mid July in Ireland, due to our wetter climate.  But this year due to the drought in April and May many apples dropped some or even all of their fruit very early. Iy was a tragic sight to see so many tiny fruits on the ground!  Luckily the rain then came just in time to save the remaining ones - although apples will be very scarce this year!  If yours haven't dropped their fruit and fruits are still overcrowded - thin them out, taking off any misshapen, scabby or damaged ones first. In some cases where they have enough soil moisture available, trees could still have up to five fruits or even more on each spur - thin these to just one or two every 3-4ins/10cm. Don't let young, newly planted trees crop too heavily - as this can encourage some to start 'biennial bearing'  where the tree may only crop well every two years. Some varieties like Ashmead's Kernal and Bramley's Seedllng are more prone to doing this than others. 
 
 
When the bottom third of lateral/side shoots from branches has ripened - in other words really firmed up, feels 'woody' and is no longer easily bent, then you can summer prune. This encourages the wood to ripen more and produce flower buds for next year's crop. Make a cut slanting down and away from the leaf joint about two or three buds above the basal leaf cluster.  I don't normally summer prune here until the end of July or August, as with our often wet summer, wood isn't usually ripe enough until then. Don't prune the main branch leader (end) shoots of branches, that's a job that's done in the winter - in order to stimulate extension growth. Keep trees watered well in this dry weather we're currently experiencing and also well mulched, to retain moisture and discourage mildew.
 
 
A few years ago  I recommended a book called "Pruning and Training"  by Alan Titchmarsh. I still think it's an excellent and comprehensive book with plenty of good photographs and diagrams - ideal if you want information on pruning a wide variety of fruit as well as trees and shrubs. I wish there had been a book like this when I was first learning about gardening - it would have saved a lot of trial and error!  Alan Titchmarsh is a Kew-trained, qualified horticulturist, who really knows his stuff - unlike some of the unqualified presenters of current gardening programmes, who often broadcast totally incorrect information without even bothering to research what is glaringly obvious they don't actually know!  I think that people presenting gardening programmes should have a really 'in depth' horticultural knowledge if they are advising people what to do - not just be visually attractive and confident TV presenters!  There is an old saying - "It is a wise man who knows what he doesn't know - and a brave one who admits it" - they should have the humility to learn what they don't know before often advising others wrongly!  But if you don't want to buy a book on pruning - free fruit catalogues can often be a mine of information - the one from Deacons nursery on the Isle of Wight (now sadly gone) had particularly good illustrations! They also had lots of incredibly temptingly named, wonderful old varieties - I do hope that some other nursery took over their collection when they closed down. Sadly Read's Nurseries are now closed too - and they had the National Fig collection. It's such a pity that the range of varieties available to gardeners seems to be narrowing all the time - just when it's ever more important that we have a diversity of varieties to choose from, given the unexpected challenges we may face with climate change.
 

 

 

How to Grow Fabulous Figs! 

 

It's another good fig year in the polytunnel - all the varieties have been enjoying the sun and heat in there and we've already enjoyed many of them. These delicious fruits, which have been valued since ancient times, are super-healthy for us to eat.  They're chock-full of vitamins, essential minerals and gut-friendly fibre. The early 'breba' crop, which formed on last year's ripened wood and overwintered as tiny figlets in the leaf axils, are all ripening fast in the fruit tunnel now - and it's very tempting to eat too many of them!!  Breba comes from the Spanish word 'breva'. I haven't got quite enough fruit to justify using the dehydrator yet, as they're so nice to eat fresh - but I'm hoping there could be an autumn glut later on, judging by the vast amount of small fruit already forming nicely on this year's shoots. I might even try making a fig liqueur - I had the idea for doing that the other day, when I was making peach Schnapps with the early peaches. That way I could preserve the figs for eating with cheese perhaps and also make a fabulously rich and slightly naughty mouthwatering drink or ice cream! Finger's crossed! They'll definitely be getting even more TLC from now on! I get a lot of questions about growing figs - so here's my guide. As I've learnt from experience and lots of trial and error rather than books - this may not be identical to anything you may read in the 'expert' textbooks - but this is what I've found works for me here - in often damp and sunless Ireland!

 

Figs are always expensive fruit to buy - even the non-organic figs in most shops here are around €1 each! They are really easy to grow though, if you have a very warm spot in the garden - or even better a polytunnel or greenhouse.  I don't grow them in the ground, as they can become too vigorous and produce little if any fruit. They will fruit well in relatively small tubs, although naturally they need a little more care when totally dependent on you for their food and water. I grow all my figs in tubs of various sizes - gradually moving them on in size every couple of years, depending on how old they are and how congested the roots.  It's really important at this time of year to keep all figs in containers constantly moist - never saturated - but at the same time never drying out completely either. 

 

It's also important to feed them regularly so that they can develop all of their fruits. If you let them dry out completely they will drop shrivelled, small fruits about 3 weeks later when you've already forgotten that you may have let them dry out at some point!  If you water erratically, letting them dry out too much and then later drenching them - any fruits that have already developed may split and be ruined before they ripen. Remember - evenly moist is key - and they need both regular watering and feeding now, to develop this year's crop. They depend on you for their food supply if they're in pots. I feed them with Osmo certified organic tomato food at every other watering now - but stop feeding once the fruit is ripening. I start to feed again later when the autumn crop is developing on the new green shoots made this year.

 

Figs Rouge de Bordeaux, Precoce de Dalmatie and Madeleine des Deux Saisons
Figs Dauphine, richly-flavoured Sultane, & again Madeleine des Deux Saisons Figs Rouge de Bordeaux, Précoce de Dalmatie and Madeleine des Deux Saisons

 

Figs in containers must never be allowed to wilt - so they need regular attention, but they're worth it!  If you're not sure they need watering - then scratch the surface of the compost with your finger - if it feels and looks moist then don't water. If it's dry and the compost is shrinking away from the sides of the pot - then water quickly! On the other hand - wilting if the compost feels wet means that the roots are in trouble and may possibly even be rotting. That is almost certain death to a fig - so if in doubt - then don't water! Figs outside need very little feeding or they may grow too leafy and less productive even with their roots restricted - but again keep them watered and mulched, as if they are growing against a wall they can dry out very quickly in hot sunshine. I've never managed to successfully ripen figs outside here - but some friends only a couple of miles away, nearer to the coast and lower down, have a fig tree that ripens fruits every year - although, in my opinion, not enough to justify the space it takes up - even though it does look very ornamental and Mediterranean-like! (It's OK - they don't read my blog!) You really need a very sunny, sheltered spot with some root restriction for much success outside here. In the warmer climate in central or southern UK - many varieties will fruit well against a warm wall. We used to have fabulous figs every year against a warm, south facing old brick wall where I grew up on the edge of the Cotswolds. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I love them so much - their taste brings back so many childhood memories. The grown-ups often wondered why there were so few in the school holidays! We always blamed the birds!!

 

I have over 15 varieties now (lost count!) all of them are slightly different - and all of which ripen at varying times - which altogether give me some fruits most days during the summer.  I grow them all in my standard mix of half organic peat-free compost/half garden soil with a small handful of bonemeal and seaweed meal when planting. I also dust the roots directly with 'Rootgrow' mycorrhizal fungi when potting on or planting - this definitely helps to develop the vital symbiotic fungal threads they need to help their roots to access more nutrients. I always put a few broken up bits of polystyrene (from those horrible un-recyclable plant trays that bedding plants come in and kind friends land on me periodically - saying "You recycle stuff don't you?....Thought you'd like these" - Bless them!). These are useful for important extra drainage in the bottom - and are a lot lighter than heavy gravel! Don't over pot them to start with - just move them up gradually to 15 litre pot size or they will produce too much leafy growth at the expense of fruit. If you keep the roots fairly restricted - they will form sides shoots without pruning and fruit earlier in life. If they are over-potted and produce too much growth in summer, it helps to prune back branch leaders to about 4 leaf joints of new green growth beyond the last fruit. It's on this growth that next year's baby figlets will form in the autumn.  Figs don't need pollinating - their flowers are actually inside-out and are the lovely fleshy part that forms inside the fruits. 

  

MFig 'Violetta' - ripening overwintered fruits at bottom picture, autumn fruits developing above on this year's growth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig 'Violetta' - ripening overwintered fruits at bottom picture, autumn fruits developing above on this year's growth.

Several people have asked me to list all the fig varieties I grow - so here they are.  As they are easy to propagate from suckers or cuttings, I have several Brogiotto Nero - one a small tree-size in a huge tub and three of its offspring, in 15 litre pots. All the others are also in 15 litre pots. Rouge de Bordeaux, Sultane, Dauphine, Bourjasotte Grise, Brown Turkey, Califfo Blue, Violetta, Madeleine de Deux Saisons, White Marseilles, Brown Turkey, Panachee, Icicle (for decorative leaves not fruit), Bornholm and Precoce de Dalmatie (thought to be variants of the same Danish Variety. I also have a couple of unnamed varieties - one given to me by a friend which originated in an old Co. Meath walled garden here in Ireland (I think possibly Brunswick), one other and three plants of one variety that I picked up just labelled 'Fig' for €5 in a garden centre sale. That find was the best of the lot - with massive blue-black fruits similar to those huge ones that one sees sold in shops. If I were to recommend only one variety as I've been asked to many times - then Rouge de Bordeaux or Dauphine are I would say possibly the most productive and easiest to obtain of most of these apart from Brown Turkey - which you see recommended everywhere and but doesn't have anything like the rich flavour of either! All of them in my experience will produce two crops per year in July and then Sept/Oct in a polytunnel if well looked after.

 

Figs aren't bothered by many pests here. Scale insects may be a problem on bought-in plants - but brushing those with melted coconut oil kills them by blocking up the pores in their shell which they breathe through. That generally gets rid of them permanently. I also keep an eye out for small rodents and blackbirds - as they really love them! So do wasps in the autumn unfortunately! 

  

It's another fantastic fruit year!

 

Melons raised up on pots ripening.
Melons raised up on pots ripening.

Last year's warm autumn ripened the fruiting shoots and wood really well on pretty much everything - so there's been masses of blossom on all kinds of fruit.   We're already enjoying summer's abundance! Strawberries, gooseberries, currants, raspberries and even blackberries - both in the tunnels and outside - with figs, apricots, cherries and peaches undercover in the tunnels and cape gooseberries just starting to ripen on last year's over-wintered plants in tubs.  The earliest grapes in the fruit tunnel are almost ripe too. Rose Dream and Summer Red are a little sweet and insipid for my taste - but they make good sultanas when they're dehydrated. Although it may seem a bit of a luxury to some people using a tunnel mainly for growing fruit, it ensures that I get good crops here in my very windy, often cold and wet spot, and we can enjoy all of our harvest undamaged (apart from wasps that is!). The vines in particular are protected from the weather, warmer and the blackbirds can't reach them since I finally discovered how to keep them out, but still let the bees in! 

 

The only fruit that no pests have discovered so far are the Cape gooseberries or golden berries - and there's only so many of those you can grow as they take up so much room!  They're far too vigorous to grow in the ground, but really appreciate the warmth of the polytunnel - where I 'm growing them in large tubs, which reduces their vigour slightly.  I like to have the broadest range of fruit possible all year round. Variety doesn't just stop one getting bored with too much of the same thing, but it also ensures there will always be some kind of fruit available which gives us a good range of important healthy phytonutrients. In many fruit growing areas like Herefordshire, fruit like cherries and strawberries that birds love, are all grown in tunnels now.  They have sides that can be lifted for ventilation and pollination as and when necessary. It's my dream to own one of those if I ever win the lottery! 

 

Give thanks every time you see a bee! - Pollinators are vital to fruit growing

 

The other thing I've been talking about since I began this blog 10 years ago, and in fact long before that - is that we must do everything we can to help pollinators.  That's not just about growing pretty flowers for bees, or not using peat composts - it's also about helping other pollinators like moths, butterflies and other insects.  It's also, and most importantly, about NOT using pesticides of ANY sort. There should be no need for pesticides in an ecologically well-balanced organic fruit garden or orchard.  There is NO pesticide of any sort which kills insects but doesn't harm bees - so please would people stop saying that there must be an organic one?  Pests in an organic garden or orchard are kept down to a manageable level by beneficial insects and birds hunting them for their food, or sometimes by using clever things like pheromone traps for codling moth. There should never be a situation where you try to 'get rid of' all insects of any kind - remember - BEES ARE INSECTS TOO! This is something I am constantly asked about and it makes me so angry!  If you have an insect problem - then look to your methods of growing, or perhaps the variety you are growing, and asking if it is suitable for your conditions - rather than looking to kill things!  The late physicist Prof Richard Feynman was a great fung of common sense and had a wonderful phrase - he said that "the job of a scientist is to listen carefully to nature, not to tell nature how to behave" -  that is something I've always felt should apply to organic gardeners too!

 

Bumble bee on orange blossom in the tunnel - give thanks every time you see a bee - without them we would be very hungry!
Bumble bee on orange blossom in the tunnel  Without bees we wouldn't have so many healthy  citrus fruits


Fostering a balanced ecology with plenty of biodiversity in our garden or farm is something that ALL of us gardeners and growers can easily do.  
And supporting the products of organic farming is another way of supporting pollinators, as it does the same but on a larger scale. That way we CAN all make a huge difference - not just to pollinator health - but also to our own.  If we don't buy crops that are grown with pesticides, then everything we buy makes a difference to bees and other pollinators, as well as all other biodiversity somewhere -. Here's an article which was published in the Guardian newspaper today which makes pretty frightening reading for those who haven't thought about this problem before, and take most of our food crops for granted. The article seems to give more importance to the lack of habitat and climate-change as being the main causes - but in fact both of those are in a large part due to the monocultures of industrial chemical farming. It's PESTICIDES which are without question the cause. We could replace habitat tomorrow - but if we don't stop using pesticides - bees, insects and all the associated biodiversity which depends on them won't stop disappearing! . 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/29/bees-food-crops-shortage-study

 

Most people by now appreciate that bees pollinate about 2/3rds of the food we eat either directly or indirectly - so without them we would be very hungry!  Sadly there is a huge amount of money invested in producing and promoting pesticides by the multinational chemical companies. These pesticides actually disable and kill bees - so this causes bitter divisions between those who believe that we can't possibly produce food without pesticides - which is patently rubbish since humanity ate and evolved for millions of years before they were invented - and those who know without question that they are destroying not just bees but endangering all of biodiversity. This has become so bitter recently that even genuinely neutral but extremely concerned scientists such as Prof. Dave Goulson - professor of biology at the University of Sussex are being attacked by the so-called Big Ag pro-pesticide lobby who naturally want to continue profiting from their bee-killing poisons! Dave specialises in the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and has written a number of terrifically informative books on bees.  Of course Big Ag's natural reaction to anyone questioning the safety of their pesticides is that 'attack is the best form of defence' - just like the poisons that they peddle!  Here's a link to an article which demonstrates this very thing -  https://energydesk.greenpeace.org/2017/07/17/syngenta-bayer-ceh-study-neonicotinoids/ 

 
 
The summer fruit season is in full swing now, mostly thanks to the good offices of the above bees!  It's really difficult to keep up with all the picking and preserving as well as the watering and the rest of the garden work - especially with this year's heatwave and drought!  I'll be so glad I did though, during the long cold winter months when we all need plenty of vitamin C and other health-promoting antioxidants to keep winter colds at bay!  Freezing fruit is by far the best way to preserve all that freshness. Making jams adds a lot of unnecessary sugar to fruits and the cooking destroys much of their nutrients, so we eat very little jam here - hardly ever in fact. We prefer our fruit straight and fresh mostly. Taste buds get used to the natural flavours of fruit without sugar very quickly. Anyway - if you're a jam maker and can't live without it - you can easily just chop and freeze the fruit to make jam in the winter when there's more time - a nice job for a cold day!  
 
 
A mixed fruit and kefir smoothie made from either fresh or frozen fruit is just the way we like to start the day any time of year.  A handful of mixed berries and nuts, some kefir and full fat milk, blitzed in the blender with a little raw unfiltered organic honey if necessary and anything else you like to throw in. That is an ambrosial breakfast - fit for the Gods!  It looks like there'll be a huge blackberry crop again this year - the bushes are absolutely smothered with several different sorts of bumble bees right now - everything from really tiny to huge! All carrying huge orange pollen sacks on their hind legs. I'm so thrilled to see them. The loud sound of buzzing is amazing when you walk up the garden to the tunnels at midday currently. There's already a huge crop developing, and a couple of the Himalayan Giant x wild bramble hybrids I've developed for earliness and flavour over the years are already starting to turn colour and ripen very early due to the warm weather.  There are also masses of bees in the tunnel right now - pollinating the Cape gooseberry (golden berry/physalis) flowers on the plants grown from seed this year, and we're already eating the ripe fruits on last year's overwintered plants. I'm so grateful for bees - and we all should be - as without them we would have no fruit crops or indeed many other healthy foods like almonds. There are quite a few nests in various places in the long tufts of grass around in our wildlife meadow and new orchard now - as well as solitary bee nests in the dry raised bank of the bee and butterfly border at the north end of the polytunnels.  4 years ago a swarm of native honey bees moved into the roof of my late mother's old cottage opposite my back door. I was so thrilled to see them - and they must think this is a pretty good spot with all the fruit blossom and other flowers. They do a great job of pollinating everything. I felt we'd been given the 'beeswax seal of approval' 
 
 
So much of the intensive agriculture all around us has wiped out the habitats that they naturally depend on like hedges - and food plants they need like wildflowers.  Bees really need our help to survive - and it's in our interests to make sure that they do! We tend to take them for granted - but without all of their hard work - there would be very little fruit or many other crops for us to eat. Nuts like almonds, and fruit like oranges and lemons for instance entirely depend on pollinators. That more than ever proves that we must do all we can to help them. We certainly do everything we possibly can to help them here - by growing everything organically without sprays of any kind - organic or otherwise, by providing lots of nesting sites like dry sand and gravel mounds, piles of dry logs under hedges and bee hotels for overwintering habitat, and also by growing lots of flowers that provide both nectar and pollen all year round - even in the tunnels. It's especially important to provide flowers in winter for bees that don't hibernate. They will often come out to forage on mild winter days - and if they don't find some food - they may use all their energy  and  die. There are lots of winter flowering shrubs and flowers you can plant to help bees, but in wet weather it helps to grow some winter flowers in greenhouses and tunnels too - where they can forage in the dry. That way they remember where the food sources are - and will keep coming back time after time - helping to pollinate your crops.
 
 
Pollinators are all industrious workers,  so there's already a great crop on the earlier fruits - and there promises to be an enormous crop on all the varieties of cultivated blackberry - which are the proverbial 'hive of activity' at the moment!  Blackberries are one of my most valuable staple fruit crops, as they freeze fantastically well and are so useful. I froze about 80 lbs last year, and we should have enough for smoothies and puddings until the next crop starts to ripen in August. We already have the earliest ones ripening in the fruit tunnel now, where I allow just a few to grow at the edge - keeping them under strict control! My late mother brought her Himalayan Giant blackberry with her when she came to live with us in the late 1980's. It's the very best-flavoured blackberry if you have the space for it - and the time to keep a very close eye on it! The small cutting she brought with her now covers about 1/8th of an acre! It's hybridised over the years with the native ones in our hedges thanks to the bees, and has produced some very good new varieties, some earlier, some with a more 'bramble'-like flavour. Gerry Kelly my co-host on our 'Tunnel to Table' feature on his Late Lunch radio show begged one off me a few years ago - I did warn him that it would look very innocuous for about a year until it got it's feet under the table and felt safe - and that then it would take off!  Being kind-hearted though, he planted it in a choice south facing spot in his lovely fertile veg garden - some people just don't listen. When he was here for our last programme he told me I was right - that it had started looking just a wee bit scary! It has a habit of creeping up on you quietly while your back's turned! I told him to move it even right now and not to leave one scrap of root behind - even a tiny thread! 
 
 

Raspberries 

 
 
Talking of fruit in tunnels - the raspberries on pots are doing incredibly well and are already ripening their second crop of fruits this year! Each year they keep repeating and giving us tasty ripe raspberries up until Christmas! I also have some pots of black raspberries in there too, to keep them away from birds, as I didn't have any room left in the fruit cage! The fruit I got from them last year had a really intense flavour - rather like the raspberry boiled sweets I used to be able to get as a child. They're supposed to be exceptionally high in good phytochemicals - but they're a bit pippy though - and mine tend to fall to pieces when they're picked. I still have an open mind about them, which is why I have them in pots - as in addition to the pips - they're looking dangerously like the invasive Rubus Cockburnianus which is taking over the place wherever I haven't got time to control it by cutting it down!  There are 'celebrity gardeners' endorsing them - but then they're paid to do that! That's again why I don't take ads of any kind on this blog - then I can be totally honest and tell it like it is! I think that's what people really want - not expensive celebrity endorsed stuff that's a complete waste of space? I would never use weedkillers of any sort to try to control them even if they did work - and I doubt they would on the aforementioned rubus!  A non-organic friend of mine - who still uses Roundup/glyphosate despite my pleas - can't control it at all either - even with an absolute arsenal of toxicchemicals! 
 
 
Raspberries can often need picking over twice a day on hot days - at this time of year they can ripen astonishingly fast.  When summer varieties have finished fruiting, I cut down the fruited stems to ground level immediately, give them a general purpose organic feed, water it in well and mulch with something like grass clippings, to encourage new stems to grow for next year's production and to keep weeds down and moisture in. 
 
 
Autumn 'primocane' varieties, which will carry another early crop on last autumn's fruited canes, have been cropping for over a month now. When those canes have finished producing fruit, cut them down immediately to give the young stems already growing which will carry this autumn's fruits more room to grow. The previously widely available varieties - 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss' can become invasive weeds and don't have half the flavour of newer variety Brice, and another which I planted on Joy Larkcom's recommendation - 'Joan J' . They both have a wonderful flavour - Joan J in particular seems to have a little more acidity, which you really need for that 'full on' raspberry flavour that's lacking in the older rather insipid autumn varieties. The berries are huge too and it's very vigorous and productive. I started them off in pots when they arrived and left the newly planted canes about 18ins/45cm high so that I could try just a few early fruits to see what the flavour was like and also to see if they were worth planting -  they were!
 
 
This autumn I'm looking forward again to a plentiful autumn crop of the really huge, mouthwatering 'Joan J' berries you can see pictured here - both in the tunnels and outside. It's definitely the best flavoured of any of the autumn ones I've tried yet and I can't recommend them highly enough. 'Joan J' also freezes exceptionally well. 'Brice' would be a very close second though. In general the autumn fruiters are much more healthy, vigorous and productive than the summer fruiting varieties, and also much less fussy about soils, so if you don't have a lot of room - grow the autumn fruiters which will crop well twice pretty much anywhere - giving you twice the value from your space. They'll even grow well in containers as I do in the tunnel - but are thirsty and need regular watering and TLC. Definitely a possibility though if you don't have much space in the garden. Last year I trialled a new autumn raspberry - a variety called Erika - and so far it's looking vigorous and very promising. The flavour compares well with 'Joan J', and it's very productive.
 
 
 
Raspberry Joan J size comparison with 1 euro coin
Raspberry Joan J size comparison with 1 euro coin
Tayberries and loganberries are also ripening now. Tayberries have a wonderfully rich, almost scented 'raspberryish' flavour and grow like weeds. Both of these two and also blackberries will grow in a shady place or on a north wall - a very useful attribute which means that even if you don't have a sunny garden - you can still produce lots of your own fruit. Or if you want to extend the season by a few weeks, put one plant in a sunny spot and another on a north wall or shady spot, as long as it has good soil and good top light and is not overhung by trees. I get a lot questions these days from people living on housing estates with ever-decreasing sized gardens - but if you're really determined to grow your own food - nothing will stop you!  I lived in a house with a tiny garden for a couple of years, more than 38 years ago, but still managed to produce masses of fruit and veg. in containers. Currants, gooseberries and Morello cherries will also all grow in a north facing spot, as well as 'Conference' pears and some apples. Again, any good fruit catalogue should tell you which varieties are most suitable for particular spots.

 
 

Strawberry Fields from the past!

 
Old white strawberry - name lost in the mists of time - possibly a Chiloense hybrid?
Old white strawberry - name lost in the mists of time - possibly a Chiloense hybrid?
Another old variety I grow was given to me many years ago by my dear and very much missed friend the late Dr. Wendy Walsh - the well known botanical artist - who used to live nearby and had a lovely old walled garden. It has a pinkish-white berry, similar in size and shape to other regular strawberries, with a delicious 'pineappley' flavour. She didn't know it's name and said it had always been there in the garden. I'm guessing from looking at old fruit books and botanical plates that it is Victorian, or possibly earlier. The Victorians bred a great many varieties as they had a fascination for endless variety in all fruits - as have I. That's why I've kept it going for many years - and I would hate to lose it, so I gave some runners several years ago to a friend who I knew would also treasure and keep it, just in case. 
 
 
Josef Finke of Ballybrado House in Co. Tipperary had a similar looking variety, which I remembered seeing in the old Victorian walled garden there, but he grubbed it out many years ago, saying it was like a weed everywhere. It is indeed vigorous, seems disease and virus-resistant and is clearly a great survivor. A living relic of the past - I wonder who bred it and where? I would dearly love to discover it's name if anyone knows anything about old white varieties, of which there were once many. As you can see from the picture taken a couple of weeks ago, when very ripe and almost falling off it turns the very palest, most delicate pink and is very attractive mixed with other varieties. For the time being, I shall just go on calling it 'Antique White', until I discover it's true identity. A fragarian mystery if ever there was one! Some years ago - one fruit catalogue announced a NEW strawberry called Snow White. It looks identical to this one I've had for 30 years! 
 
 

Grapes

 
 
Grape 'Bianca'
Grapes need regular feeding and watering now too as the bunches are developing fast. Never let them dry out too much or the skins may split if you then go and drench them! You can grow them very easily in large bucket-sized containers, training them on a single stem or rod, around a framework, in a spiral fashion works very well, and being containerised means that you can protect them from the birds and bring them inside for their flowers to pollinate properly - which doesn't happen if they get wet when flowering, It also helps to ripen them if they are late varieties like 'Muscat of Alexandria' or 'Flame' - both fantastically flavoured, very heavy croppers but very late so won't ripen outside here in Ireland, even against a south facing wall. Grapes in containers need watering almost every day now while they are swelling their fruits, particularly if they are in a greenhouse or tunnel. I'm also feeding these at every other watering now - again with the useful high-potash Osmo tomato feed. All the vines are carrying huge crops. Promising lots of lovely fruit for eating fresh, for dehydrating and freezing! 
 
 
Grapes grow really well in containers, and growing them this way allows you to grow many different varieties to spread the season in quite a small space. It's very hard to find organically grown, chemical-free grapes for sale anywhere - and even if you can - they'll cost an absolute fortune! In the picture here - the seeded grape 'Bianca' - growing in a large pot, is trained around supports in a spiral but with so much foliage and fruit it's difficult to see the support! 'Bianca' is an early variety, ready in mid-late August, and is one the first of my grapes to ripen. 
 
 
 
Lakemont seedless grape climbing over south door
Lakemont seedless grape climbing over south door
The grape Lakemont Seedless is now taking off even more and venturing up over the door at the south end of the larger tunnel. As this is space which is normally  wasted in most tunnels I'm delighted to encourage it! I like to have every possible inch of my polytunnels filled with fruit flowers or veg!  On entering the tunnel we're met by an incredible curtain of grapes - a lovely sight - especially since they are so delicious dehydrated!  Yummy scattered over winter salads, and irresistible straight from the freezer in snatched handfuls!  I freeze them because they don't keep well semi-dehydrated and I don't want to dry them out completely. It's an excellent variety - totally fuss-free and if you only have enough space for one - it's happy everywhere, easy to grow, doesn't need any tedious thinning and above all - is utterly scrumptious!
 
 

Other General Fruit Care

 

There shouldn't be too many greenfly and other pests around in the garden if you've carried on feeding your birds to keep them around - the sparrows and blue tits deal with most of them here - they're always busily hunting around the garden. If you do find a lot of greenfly - it's often a sign that either you are overfeeding your plants, leading to a lot of soft sappy growth, or that the plants are stressed in some other way - perhaps the growing conditions aren't quite right. Healthy, happy, organically-grown plants are rarely bothered by any pests in my experience, as they can produce their own defences. The secret of organic gardening is to achieve a balance of everything - both pest and predator. In the healthy ecosystem that you are trying to achieve in an organic garden, you should always see a little bit of everything - but never enough of any one thing to seriously damage crops. Growing lots of flowers among crops helps by attracting beneficial insects, looks wonderful, and also attracts pollinators. Correct growing conditions and thorough good housekeeping - removing diseased or dodgy looking growth as soon as possible, should cope with most problems and prevent themt spreading if you do have any.
 
 
The main thing to remember with all fruit at this time of year, apart from picking (which I'm sure you don't need any advice on!) - is to keep everything watered in dry spells and keep mulching to reduce competition from weeds, reduce evaporation and keep roots cool and moist which all fruits appreciate. And also to keep the birds out! Check fruit netting regularly to make sure there are no holes in it - I caught next door's cat climbing up my fruit cage the other day, and found some of the netting pulled down leaving a gap which birds could easily have got in. If there's even the tiniest chink in your fruit cage armour - those crafty blackbirds never miss a trick and don't wait for an invitation! Today I spent ages chasing a particularly persistent young one out of the polytunnel - as soon as my back was turned - it was in again! There's plenty of fruit for them outside - but some - like some humans (not you dear readers) are just plain greedy! 
 
 
 

Remember - Nature could easily live without us - but we can't live without Nature!

 
 
Nature doesn't have the big PR budgets that must be paying for the multitude of seemingly innocuous/impartial (not!) journalists to write the endless 'pro-pesticide & GMO/anti-organic ignorance' articles I'm seeing so much of online right now! Nor does it pay for certain minor celebrities - (indirectly paid by those same chemical companies) who say they are 'pro-science' - unlike the 'organic ignoramuses' - like me!  Nature relies on us folks - ordinary people like you and me - to spread the word that we MUST protect it with every fibre of our being.  Nature is vital to the future for our children and their children - just as much as it was a vital part of our past. 
 
 
I'm often asked to write articles for some publications, and also to accept 'editorials' (so-called) for this blog. I want to make it quite clear why I don't allow anyone else access to write any articles for my blog despite the large number of email requests that I get - and I also refuse advertisements. Some may well be innocent - but some - especially the more flatteringly admiring ones - may well be Trojan horses. And quite apart from that - the fact is that I don't know anyone else who can write about organic growing from more years of practical experience than me - whatever you may think about my occasionally odd ideas! 
 
 
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)
 
 

The Vegetable Garden in July/August - 2020

 

July contents: Eating a seasonal 'rainbow' is so easy if you grow it yourself!.... Pretty Powerful Purple Potatoes!.... Keep polytunnels closed to avoid potato blight? - Don't be daft!...   It's the season of firsts - but also gluts!....  Soil is more precious than Gold!....  Splendid spiralisers!....  Think about next year's 'Hungry Gap' now....  Carry on composting!....  Drown perennial weeds....  Keep mulching....  
 
 
Salad Blue Purple Majesty
Violetta Peru Purple
 
 
 
 
Eating a seasonal 'rainbow' is so easy, more healthy, fresher and more delicious if you grow it yourself!
 
 
One of the greatest joys of growing your own organic vegetables is being able to eat seasonally and rediscover how really fresh organic vegetables, untainted by chemicals, should taste.  I believe it satisfies a very deep-seated need in us - and that's not surprising since humans evolved to eat food grown by nature, in its purest form possible, in an unpolluted world - each type of food in it's proper season. I think that all year round availability of everything has ruined many people's anticipation and enjoyment of food.  It's lost much of it's excitement and has become almost boring!  These days you can find vegetables and fruits from the furthest corners of the globe on supermarket shelves which are all particular varieties chosen for productivity, uniform appearance, ability to travel without bruising and for long shelf life. They're sadly not chosen to taste fantastic and to be as nutritious as those you can pick fresh from your own garden. They are often picked long before they are ready to eat, and are devoid of most of their natural taste and nutrients. They are mere commodities, conveniently packaged into whatever form makes them the most commercially profitable for the 'pile it high and sell it cheap' supermarkets! Low cost food seems to be more important to some people than food quality - but you get what you pay for!  It's definitely worth growing a few vegetables yourself if you possibly can - even if you only have the smallest patch of ground, a tub outside on a path or a window box. 
 
 
Increasing numbers of scientific studies suggest that long-term consumption of a diet high in a wide variety of  colourful plant phytonutrients -  'eating the rainbow'  in other words - offers protection against the development of cancers, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases. The healthy exercise and fresh air that gardening entails is also good for us - both physically and mentally!  Only organic food, free of man-made synthetic chemicals, grown in it's natural season and then harvested at it's absolute peak, can ever have all the properly-developed nutrients our bodies need to be healthy.  I would also suggest that chemically-grown produce and processed foods have ruined people's taste buds - so that they have become dulled, less sensitive and discriminating. Taste is very often tied to nutrition in fruits and vegetables. Many of the aromatic compounds which actually give fruit and vegetables their wonderful array of flavours are in many cases the very same ones that give them their health-protecting phytonutrients.  And of course, as I'm always pointing out, studies by Newcastle University some years ago proved that organic fruits and vegetables are up to 70% higher in such valuable phytonutrients.
 
 
Just how wonderful is it that you can grow and eat so many things that are not absolutely delicious but are actually good for you?  We vegetable gardeners are so lucky!  Far luckier than those unfortunate people who are restricted to just buying and eating the often days or weeks old produce they can find in shops!
 
 
 
Pretty Powerful Purple Potatoes! 
 
 
Potatoes are one good example of a colourful veg that packs a very powerful punch in terms of both nutrition and health benefits.  In the last few years, many scientific studies have found that the antioxidant anthocyanin phytonutrients in purple potatoes like those pictured above, combined with other compounds they contain, can lower blood pressure and actually even kill cancer cells in the lab!  That's not the only reason I'm such a big fan of them though! They look utterly fabulous and taste fantastic too!  What's not to love as they say?  Happily a lot more people now seem to be interested in the stunning looks and health benefits of the blue and purple potato varieties. This was very much shown by the huge reaction on Twitter when I posted a tweet about the very attractive but rare variety Peru Purple. That's why I decided to write about a few of the ones which I have personal experience of. As you will know if you're a regular reader - I never write about anything unless I can write from my own personal experience.
 
  
I found my very first purple potatoes, Truffe de Chine - about 40 years ago in Harrods Food Hall in London of all places - which used to be a treasure trove of unusual vegetables then.  They were such an exciting find - I'd never seen them before!  Since then I've discovered that upmarket veg shops are always well worth investigating for interesting things to possibly grow if you're in London, or any other large, ethnically diverse city. It's amazing what you may find!  
I got my original elephant garlic bulb in a small fruit and vegetable shop on First Avenue in New York of all places, many years ago on a rare holiday - long before I decided that I didn't want to fly anymore and contribute to climate change.  My very rare holidays or short trips anywhere have always included visits to the local food markets and shops, to see what treats I can find to save seeds or tubers from!  If my children are on holidays they are always instructed to do the same!  To me, such shops are just like sweet shops are to children, or handbag shops to some 'fashionistas'!!   I can never resist that childlike urge to try to grow anything different from pips, seeds or tubers. I grew Cucamelons and Kiwanos that way many years ago - long  before anyone had even heard of them. I find it hugely amusing that certain 'celeb veg writers' have apparently only just now 'discovered' them!  I've been growing them since before many of them were even born - as I've been a keen 'food tourist' for years! 
 
  
I've always grown for taste and nutrients rather than bulk, and being an artist, looks are also important for me. After all - we eat with our eyes! As I've already mentioned, both looks and taste are often linked with nutrients. We don't need to eat potatoes 365 days a year - in fact they could become boring if we ate them every day - rather than the treat they are when you grow only the very best-tasting varieties.  Food should never be boring - it should be a joy!  I like eating tasty potatoes but we don't eat them more than two or three times a week at most - due to their high carbohydrate content.  By the way - I never, ever boil potatoes - I always steam or bake them.  Boiling potatoes means that you are pouring many of their valuable nutrients straight down the sink!  That means they're also losing much of their flavour - which you can see very clearly if you boil the purple ones - as the water turns bright blue! We also always leave the skins on when eating any potatoes. Not only are many of the nutrients actually in or just beneath the skin - but again there's lots of gut-healthy, satisfying fibre in them too - so it's incredibly wasteful not to eat them!
 
  
Purple Majesty is an interesting and delicious variety that makes large tubers.  This is the particular potato which featured in the blood pressure reduction study. Unfortunately a problem with plant breeders rights means that you can't get Purple Majesty seed tubers here in Ireland. So I'm afraid that being a bit of a rebel - I've always ignored that legal restriction! I've saved my own seed tubers for about 15 years now from some which I originally bought in a Northern Ireland supermarket about 10 years ago, and I've grown them ever since.  As long as you don't sell them - that is perfectly legal!  And as long as you always ONLY save tubers for seed from the healthiest plants - you can keep your stock healthy so you won't have problems.  Purple Majesty is a main-crop variety which really benefits from my method of starting tubers off early in pots. This gives them the longest season possible before the dreaded potato blight hits. As soon as I see evidence of blight I take off the tops, cover the bed with something waterproof and they keep really well for months that way, as long as you don't have slug problems. They also keep well in normal cool storage if you do have slug problems. Purple Majesty retains its colour and phytonutrients well when cooked, has a lovely floury texture for making mash and a fantastic, 'nutty', sort of 'baked potato' flavour - despite being a relatively new introduction compared to some. It's so far proven to be the highest in antioxidants of all purple potatoes and is one of the best tasting varieties too - and I've grown dozens of them over the years. It bakes, fries and steams well - and makes a lovely fluffy mash.
 
  
Salad Blue is another potato which is a great masher and baker too. It is an early maincrop heritage variety, thought to have been bred in Victorian times.  It's recently become very popular again and well deservedly, and is fairly widely available online. It also keeps very well in storage, after growing my particular way. Since I invented my method of starting potatoes off early in pots to give them a long season - I have all the potatoes I need all year round using this method and I never need to use any spray for blight - even copper-sulphate.  Fruit Hill Farm in County Cork had it this year.
 
  
Violetta is a deep purple, second-early variety. It's the earliest of the purple varieties to be ready here, and it crops well both in the polytunnel and outside. I wasn't that impressed with the flavour of some of the non-organically grown Violetta which I tried seven years ago from a well-known Dublin food shop - but I've since found that growing them organically, without the chemicals that make them absorb more water, really makes a huge difference to the taste!  I got my original seed tubers from Tuckers Seeds in Devon, who used to sell a lot of different varieties of organic seed potatoes and were good about sending to Ireland - but sadly they no longer sell online and are now only open to customers at their shop in Devon.  Violetta is delicious steamed and eaten with lashings of butter - when it has a nice 'waxy' texture. It's good cold too, in tortillas and potato salads. Sadly it doesn't mash well or make good scalloped potatoes though, as it absorbs a lot of oil when cooking and doesn't crisp up well. It's not a bad baker though. 
 

Attractive Vitelotte Noire after steamingAttractive Vitelotte Noire after steaming
 
Vitelotte Noire - (otherwise known as Negresse or Truffe de Chine) is a very old heritage variety which was first recorded as being sold in the early 19th century, in the markets of Paris markets - but it is thought to be originally far older than that. Also a maincrop variety which is fairly late to bulk up - it is a salad type with a similar long shape to 'Pink Fir Apple' but not as knobbly. It has very dark purple flesh sometimes marbled with a lighter colour and has a wonderful flavour. You can sometimes find it in upmarket vegetable shops. Vitelotte is more resistant to blight and other diseases than many other potatoes - so it is well-suited to organic growing. This was that first potato that I found among the tempting exotic-looking displays in Harrods Food Hall all those years ago. I've been growing it ever since and have passed it on to many people. One of my favourites, I love that I'm growing history too.
 
 
  
 
 
Peru Purple, steamed, chilled overnight & scallopedPeru Purple, steamed, chilled overnight & scalloped in olive oil
 
Peru Purple is extremely rare and currently only available from seed banks such as The Irish Seed Savers Association or possibly other keen potatophiles - which is where I obtained mine. It's well worth growing if you can find it!  It is very pretty with a deep red-purple skin, and is a slightly lighter colour, marbled with white inside. Although I've found virtually nothing about this particular variety online - (only that purple potatoes originally come from Peru!) - it seems to be a maincrop cultivar. I can certainly vouch for the fact that it makes the most deliciously fluffy, pale mauve mash. It also makes absolutely THE most fabulously crispy scalloped-potatoes ever! It quickly crisps and browns on the outside while staying light and fluffy on the inside. This is an aspect of their cooking qualities that I'm sure you'll understand I naturally felt that I had an obligation to research extensively on your behalf! It will definitely make fabulous oven fries or crisps......but more research will undoubtedly be necessary to investigate this! It definitely deserves to be far more widely known and grown! If you have it - share it - that will ensure that it not only survives but thrives!
 
 
A much newer variety which I'm growing for the very first time this year, which looks set to become a firm favourite, is Blaue Annaliese, and I can tell you I'm already completely hooked! A hybrid between Violetta, which I've talked about above, and another purple variety - it was selected for its excellent disease-resistance from its breeding trials and was launched in 2007.  It's now almost mid July - there is blight everywhere and so far it is looking beautifully healthy. despite being in the polytunnel, as I couldn't get any ground ready outside early enough due to my ankle problems - so finger's crossed!  It's tubers are such a gorgeous deep violet/indigo- blue colour that they're almost black, so are clearly very high in healthy anthocyanins. Having already snaffled a few from just below the soil surface by footling around - I can tell you that they look absolutely stunning cooked too, and have a lovely sweet, almost chestnutty taste. I think it certainly has the most vigorous and healthiest-looking foliage of any potato I've ever grown, but clearly likes plenty of room!  It's already smothered the Peru Purple which was 4 feet away!  In future I shall give it an entire bed to itself, where it's wandering, far-reaching roots can't get mixed up with any other varieties. Although it is a maincrop variety rather than a first or second early which are more suitable, I held back some tubers from my spring planting to plant in the next week or so as an experiment for Christmas potatoes. I shall report back.  Seed tubers were available this spring from Fruit Hill Farm in Co. Cork.  https://www.fruithillfarm.com/seeds-and-propagation/organic-seed-potatoes/gourmet-potatoes/blaue-anneliese-organic-seed-potatoes.html
 
 
 
Keep polytunnels closed to avoid potato blight? - Don't be daft!
 
 
Purple Majesty left showing its violet-purple flesh colour - with the deeper-coloured indigo blue-black Blaue Annaliese on right Blaue Anneliese looking healthy and vigorous - taking over an entire bed!
Purple Majesty left showing its violet-purple flesh colour - with the deeper-coloured indigo blue-black Blaue Annaliese on right Blaue Anneliese looking healthy and vigorous - taking over an entire bed!
 
While talking of polytunnel potatoes I want to knock this misconception on the head once and for all!  I NEVER keep my polytunnels closed to prevent blight at this time of year - because it doesn't!  In fact if anything, it positively encourages it!  As always - I write this blog from 45 years of personal experience - not from something daft that I've read in a book!  You cannot possibly keep a tunnel so airtight that it doesn't allow any air in.  And anyone who grows in a polytunnel can tell you that when they are closed, even on a dull day with no sun at this time of year, they can feel like a sauna - especially in Ireland with our higher air humidity, even if the soil in the tunnel were to be so dry that nothing would grow in it!  I've grown in a lot of different-sized polytunnels for many years now, starting off with a tiny, 6 ft by 4ft, 'Garden Relax' polythene-covered greenhouse in my very first garden 44 years ago. I now have 2 large, quite high ones with good air circulation - but I can still confidently say that THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO WAY YOU CAN SHUT POTATO BLIGHT OUT OF A POLYTUNNEL!  It is always circulating in the air at this time of year, and all it needs are the right conditions to germinate and grow on either potatoes or tomatoes. Those conditions are humidity and warmth, both day and night for 48 hours - and keeping a polytunnel closed day and night for that length of time at this time of year does just that! 
 
 
Careful hand watering of potatoes, ONLY when necessary, in a polytunnel or outside, and NEVER ever, watering from above or wetting the foliage are key to avoiding blight in hot, dry weather. Automatic watering systems often encourage blight by over-watering and never allowing the surface of the soil to dry out. That's one of the reasons why I hate them, as I mentioned in the polytunnel blog this month. OK - I know standing and watering plants is not everyone's most favourite occupation, but not only is it a lot cheaper than an automatic system - but it allows you more control and to really see what's going on with your crops.  And that observation and knowledge is what makes the difference between being a really good gardener and just an adequate one.

 

 
   
It's the season of 'firsts'....
 
 
First year's produce at Springmount - 1982
 
 
Nothing ever tastes quite like that very first bite of truly seasonal produce at it's best - whether you're a new gardener or if you've been growing you have grown your own food for many years! The first strawberries, courgettes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas...etc. One of the simplest, most satisfying and most joyous pleasures in life is to be able to cultivate a garden, and to produce as much of your own food as possible - while at the same time helping all of the other creatures that are part of Nature, just as we are. Our garden here has not just been a source of sustenance for many years - but also a source of great joy, health and peace for the soul. This picture here was taken in 1983, of some of my first summer's produce here at Springmount. It was proudly displayed on the then kitchen table. It gave me such a great sense of achievement back then - and a feeling that no matter what life threw at us - we would survive it all and feed ourselves well! .... I still hope that will be the case for many more years to come - but in the future with the erratic weather of climate change - that is definitely going to be more of a challenge! 
 
 
 
 
I could already clearly notice the effects of climate change beginning to happen here 35 years ago.  But few wanted to listen then, and many denied it - when something might still have been done to mitigate its worst effects!  In September of 1992, just after the first Rio Earth Summit that June - I organised a lecture at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin.  It was given by Alan Gear - then chief executive of the HDRA (now re-named Garden Organic) - the local Irish group of which I organised at the time.  His lecture was entitled 'The Road From Rio - Where Do We Go From Here'.  His warning was stark - act NOW or it will rapidly get worse, and all of Nature, including humans, will bear the consequences of our inaction!  Even then it was clear that soil was part of the solution - and increasingly science is showing this to be more true with every passing day.  
 
 
Restoring soil carbon through regenerative organic agriculture, by gardening organically without using climate-destructive peat products, or by supporting organic farming, are the best chance each of us has to truly be able to do something personally to help mitigate climate change.  The soil was so bad when I started growing here, after years of chemical agriculture destroying all of its carbon, that it was almost like lifeless concrete when it was dry - and like sticky glue when it was wet!   It is so much better now after 38 years of minimal digging, constant mulching and loving organic husbandry that I can plant just with my hands - I don't need tools!  It is now completely transformed, and it is so wonderful to sink one's hands into it, with its vibrantly alive community of creatures and microbes - truly plugging into the earth and the source of our earliest beginnings. Is it any wonder that it benefits our mental health just to feel it and to inhale beneficial microbes like Mycobacterium Vaccae - which has been scientifically proven to cure depression?  It is so sad that so many people never get the chance to experience that.
 
 
There have been many changes here since those early days. The children have grown up, various people - some much loved family, assortments of animals, and momentous life events have all come and gone.  But one thing never changes - that is that my enthusiasm and desire to learn from mistakes and successes, to constantly look for good new varieties or better selections of old ones and ways to do things even better so that I keep improving the soil with every year that passes. Also to find easier ways of growing that will allow me to continue my gardening even after accidents have left me partially disabled and now less able to do many things. Experiments continue. That's the wonderful thing about gardening - and why it holds such a continuing fascination for me. One never stops learning and no one ever knows it all, no matter how long we do it. Nature doesn't give up all of her secrets easily - but if you work with her - the rewards are plentiful.
  
 
Take good care of your soil - it is more precious than Gold! 
 
 
Gold can't grow food either! We didn't evolve to eat commodities grown with chemicals in the poisoned, impoverished and lifeless medium that conventionally farmed soils have become.  Neither did we evolve to eat foods grown in chemical hydroponic situations, with artificial light where the plants are fed with fertiliser (also often fungicidal) solutions and deprived of all the vital symbiotic bacteria & fungi that are present in a living soil which they need to produce all their proper nutrients!  To be healthy and productive - soil and all it's microbial life needs to be replenished, encouraged and protected constantly. That's what Nature does.
 
 
We cannot keep taking crops from soil without helping it to regenerate all those natural things it needs.  Soil is a living community of microbes - or it should be. In some parts of the planet - soil has just become a completely lifeless, carbon-depleted dust which simply holds up plants while they're fed with chemicals. It has so little organic matter left in it that it erodes, washes away or blows away very easily. We can't keep taking crops from the soil and not replacing all those elements that made them - any more than we could give up real food and just live on vitamins and protein supplements!  Soil loss is also becoming more and more important from an environmental, as well as from a food growing perspective, as it traps carbon dioxide and is a massive carbon sink,  so it is absolutely vital to mitigating climate change. Only a healthy, living organic soil can do this! 
 
If you would like to know more about how us gardeners can restore soil and by doing so help to mitigate climate-change - here's a link to the soil talk which I gave at our National Botanic Gardens, in Glasnevin, Dublin in 2016:
 
“There is life after soil abuse. Practical ways that gardeners can help to restore damaged soils” - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjN30StFsf0
 
 
The soil gave us our past and nurtured us.  We now hold its future, and ours in our hands.  We must use it more wisely.  If we keep taking more and more from it without giving anything back, what we are actually doing is robbing our own future - and so are the multinational manufacturers of these planet-polluting chemicals which are destroying it!  They don't care about the future of our children - or even apparently theirs! Their only concern is big profits now!
 
 
The season of Plenty - but also gluts!
 
  
There is no more delightful and satisfying sight than a really well organised and productive vegetable garden at this time of year.  It's so satisfying to stand back and look at everything after a hard day's work. The whole garden has a summer carnival atmosphere about it - like a glorious celebration of Nature's abundant generosity.  We're surrounded by masses of delicious vegetables - so many luscious things to choose from that we could have several different ones in gluttonous portions every day! Mother Nature has pressed the 'fast forward' button and everything is growing so incredibly fast that it's hard to choose what to eat next! 
 

Of course with seasonal growing and eating - gluts of many fruits and vegetables can naturally sometimes become a problem. It's always a feast or a famine! One minute you're dying for that very first taste of something - then all of a sudden there's far too many! It's a good problem to have though. In these times of fast rising prices for so many things, and even food shortages lately due to COVID19 - it's not just a good feeling to be as self-sufficient as possible in most things. but also sensible. Particularly with the other uncertainty brought about by the forthcoming Brexit - but I won't start on politics!  When under pressure I tend to try to find positive, practical side ways to cope!  This is when it's so useful to have a freezer - particularly since we're not that into chutneys or jams, all being high in sugar!  Priority for eating fresh has to be given to those that perhaps don't tend to freeze quite as well as some others. Most things freeze well, but some veg need cooking first. 
 
 
Courgettes, which we've now been eating for a month from the tunnel, don't freeze well raw but do freeze very well as a component of my caramelised roast red onion ratatouille, which is totally addictive, incredibly useful, and a brilliant standby to have in the freezer (if it makes it that far - because it's so delicious cold it's hard to resist! You can find it in the recipe section). It's a terrific way to use up too many courgettes - something which always happens! They freeze very well cooked like this and are so useful to have put by to use as a side vegetable or to throw into sauces. 
 
 
Broccoli is another brilliant freezer candidate which always seems to be all ready at once - particularly the more productive F1 varieties like 'Green Magic' from Unwins - my all year round favourite. I pack the small individual florets into recycled plastic take-away boxes.  Donated by other people I hasten to add!  We don't eat Chinese takeaways - but it's amazing how many so-called healthy eaters do!  I'm not complaining though, I'm only too happy to do their recycling for them - one box holds two portions of broccoli very nicely. That way they don't get smashed up in the freezer. There's no need to blanch them before freezing quickly either - it just wastes nutrients!  They are perfect if tipped straight into fast-boiling water from frozen when you want to use them.   I always sow a late crop of 'Green Magic' calabrese this month for planting in the tunnel in September - this will give us useful pickings all through the winter if covered with a bit of fleece when a very hard frost threatens.
 
 
Some crops like climbing French beans, broad beans and peas, I tend to grow specifically for freezing - firstly because they obviously don't grow over winter in the polytunnels but also because they are mostly unaffected by several months in the freezer, and make a very welcome change during the darkest months of the year.  They are mostly 'squirrelled' away for winter suppers, after enjoying the novelty of the first few platefuls of fresh ones.  It can be hard to keep up with filling the freezer as well doing all the garden jobs that all seem to need doing at once, but it will be so welcome during the long winter months when organic vegetables and fruits are scarce, expensive, depleted of nutrients and without much variety, unless they've come from God knows where, along with a massive carbon footprint! . It feels so good in the depths of winter to enjoy a bit of the summer's sunshine - captured in the harvest from your own garden!
 
 
Things like pumpkins or winter squashes that will store for a long time overwinter are also a major priority crop here. They don't need valuable freezer space either, just a cool dry place. With careful ripening they can often be stored right up until next year's are sown or even later - increasing in vitamin A while in storage. So they are a very valuable winter staple. On the subject of pumpkins and squashes - unless you're entering giant pumpkin competitions you don't want huge ones, so encourage fruiting side shoots to form by pinching out the main shoot after 4-5 leaf joints. Then each of the side shoots produces flowers and that way instead of just one huge pumpkin - I get 3 or four good sized ones which store very well for the winter. Last week I had my first major basil harvest of the year, grown in the tunnel as it's far too windy here to do well outside. To me - my vegetable garden is far more important than money in the bank. It's so comforting knowing that I have a really good range of foods preserved for the winter.  In fact. even if I had oodles of money - I could never buy most of the things that I grow.
 
 
  
Spiralised courgettes
Splendid spiralisers!
 
 
A few years ago I discovered another fantastic way to use courgettes - and I promise that I could never have believed that their taste could be so utterly transformed just by the way they are prepared! I first read about them in Domini Kemp's column in the Irish Times Magazine. They looked fun so I bought a cheap 'Lurch' model just to try it - half expecting it to be rubbish!  I couldn't have been more wrong!  Fabulous 'courgetti spaghetti' in an instant - but watch your fingers!!  4 years ago my June 'Tunnel to Table recipe was Spaghetti Courgetti with Pesto and it was really delicious (in the recipe and 'listen' sections if you want to try it). The 'courgetti' are also delicious, just very simply stir-fried with a clove of garlic and some soy sauce - from the taste you would think you were eating a whole Chinese stir-fry,  they're just fantastic!  The very best way to cook them in my opinion though is in my Creamy Courgette and red onion Gratin - also in the recipe section. It's my most popular recipe ever! Everyone loves it and now we don't have enough - something that's never usually a problem at this time of year!!  Another of my recipes - my Lemon Courgette Cake - is I think is my best cake ever! It keeps brilliantly, getting better over three or four days (if it lasts!) and also freezes fantastically well. I don't know why some people make fun of spiralisers - they clearly haven't tried them properly - they're brilliant! I wouldn't be without mine now! 
 
 
 
Think about next year's 'Hungry Gap' now!
 
 
Talking of the winter months - it's now that we need to think about next year's 'hungry gap'!  Difficult I know - with everything growing so quickly and so much staking, watering, weeding and mulching etc. to be done!  It can be difficult to remember that a great many winter and late spring crops take almost a whole year to grow. Some, like Brussels sprouts and leeks, should have been sown a couple of months ago.  At the same time as storing some of the tender vegetables for a bit of winter variety - we have to think about planting the hardy ones that will be the mainstay of our diet then. This may seem an odd time of year to be thinking about winter veg, when we hope we still have a lot more summer to enjoy - but it's just a reminder that if you don't think about them right now, then come winter or next year's spring 'hungry gap' you won't have any!  You need to plan now for what's going to follow on after your summer crops - both outside and undercover - and then make sure you have the seeds or the plants that you will need. 
 
 
From mid-June to the end of August is when most of the seeds need to be sown for many things like chicory, oriental veg., winter lettuces etc. If you sow them from now on in modules using organic seed compost - you will have them ready to plant as soon as early summer crops are over - thereby making the best use of your growing space. If you haven't already sown things like leeks, kale and purple sprouting broccoli for growing outside - then garden centres should still have good plants at the moment - but get them as soon as you can because plants that are still hanging around in a month or so may have become starved or root bound in their modules and won't produce good crops. There's lots more info. on what to sow now and next month for winter and also quick growing crops to mature this autumn in the sowing list for this month. There's also still some sowings to be done of vegetables that will mature in the autumn. Some, like Chinese cabbages and radicchio, actually prefer the shortening, post-solstice days. If sown before then they'll often run straight up to seed in the late summer heat (we hope!). Again there's a lot more suggestions in my 'What to Sow' section of the blog.

 
Cabbage damaged by root fly on rightCabbage damaged by root fly on right
 
 
It's time to transplant winter brassicas like Brussels sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli, cauliflowers, kales and cabbages to their final winter cropping quarters if you already have the plants - the bigger and more well established they are before the autumn - the better your crops will be.  Don't forget to put brassica collars around the stems to keep off the cabbage root fly and also to suspend netting above them to stop the cabbage white butterflies laying their eggs on them. If you just rest the netting on them, the butterfly will still manage to lay her eggs onto the topmost leaves! I find that carpet squares are best for making brassica collars, as they are flexible and don't shrink. I tried to make some from old, paper backed carpet underlay but when they dried out a bit one had shrunk so the root fly got in - you can see the result here! You could still sow some kale, if you can cover them with cloches later on  - these won't make huge plants but can still be well worth picking as 'baby' leaves, even if we get a cold autumn. Kales will also do very well over the winter in a polytunnel and will be far more productive than they ever would be outside. If you didn't sow any brassicas, a friend of mine bought some very good organic plants online last year, so you could try that - or visit one of the good local garden centres who are worth supporting in these days of big DIY multiples. You can also sow spring cabbages and swedes - I find sowing in modules under fine netting best, to avoid any pests, and also seedlings possibly getting smothered by weeds, as can easily happen with everything growing so quickly now.
 
 
 
Lettuce 'Fristina'
Keep sowing lettuces and other salads little and often - I sow a few lettuces in modules each time I'm planting some out- this keeps up a regular supply, as I never like to be without the makings of a good salad. There's lots of great lettuces to sow in July.  I grow 'Little Gem' baby cos because I love their crunch and I also grow a lot of the loose leaf types like the wonderful Jack Ice too - as they can crop for months, particularly in the spring and autumn if you keep them well watered, just picking a few leaves from each plant every time you need some. They're really useful in an ornamental potager, as they're very attractive and picking a whole head of lettuce does tend to leave rather a hole in one's planting pattern! Good old 'Lollo Rossa' is always a reliable one for this, very colourful, disease resistant and full of antioxidants, the seed is cheaply available everywhere now - and is often given away free with gardening magazines. 'Jack Ice'  and Lattughino are my favourite loose leaf winter lettuces now, but 'Fristina' (pictured) and 'Belize' are also very tasty, bolt-resistant green ones, which both have nice firm leaves and are nicely  'crunchy' in the middle, not 'floppy' as some of the loose leaf types often can be. I've found that 'Jack Ice' and Lattughino also overwinter really well in the tunnel, are very disease resistant and also slow to bolt. 'Cherokee' is a really good crunchy leaved Batavian which everyone remarked on last winter/spring - wanting to know what it was. Nymans is a great red Cos variety. Like a lot of the red lettuces - it seems quite hardy, has a lovely flavour and eventually makes nice crispy hearts in spring, after picking a few leaves from the outside over winter. All of these benefit from cloche protection later on in autumn if outside rather than in a tunnel - more to prevent excess wet than cold.
 
 
Chicory Sugar Loaf - Pain de Sucre
 
 
 
'Sugar loaf' chicory - Pain de Sucre  is another old favourite standby for sowing now or up until mid August that will grow well all winter both outside and in the tunnel - making nice big, tightly wrapped, blanched hearts like cos lettuces in late winter and early spring - and with slightly more bitter outside leaves that make a great late winter tonic for hens. Early July sowings seem to make the biggest hearts - so don't delay sowing it!. 
 
  
 
Ruby chard Vulcan
 
 
One winter veg I would also never want to be without, no matter what, is Ruby Chard - and now is the perfect time to sow it for good winter crops, before the end of July. I particularly like the variety Vulcan - I've found that it's far better in terms of productivity than any of the other coloured chards, which tend to run up to flower very easily at the slightest excuse. It's very easy to grow and much more bolt-resistant than those as long as you give it plenty of root room and keep it well watered in hot weather, especially in polytunnels in spring. It has equal standing ability to the plain white stemmed one - and of course it's far more nutritious than that, having a lot of the phytonutrients I mentioned earlier, due to the red colour.  We think it tastes better too.
 

 

 

 

 

 

Carry on composting!

 
 
Keep collecting compost material, mixing it up well as you do, particularly if you're incorporating grass clippings which can be very wet and slimy put on in an anaerobic, unmixed layer. Their very high-nitrogen green sappiness needs to be balanced with plenty of high carbon, brown and more stemmy stuff, or ripped up newspapers, cardboard etc. Keep your compost covered, so that it heats up really well, destroying any weed seeds and breaking down the plant material quickly. You could fry an egg on my compost heaps at this time of year! - The hotter it is - the better! It's easier to get the heap to heat up if it's fairly big. Compost bins are OK but don't heat up so much.  They're very useful for keeping rats out though if you have a lot of fruit waste which tends to attract them. A very hot heap also puts them off, and by the time it cools down - everything in it should be well broken down and not so attractive to them. I use old pallets to make my compost bins, they allow air in at the sides, and then I cover the tops and front with heavy gauge black polythene silage cover. This also keeps the rain out and so keeps all the nutrients in the compost where I want them. I'm always astonished to see 'experts' on TV not covering compost heaps - haven't they heard of nutrient loss, 'run-off' and pollution?  Uncovered compost may still make a good soil conditioner - but most of the nitrients will have been completely washed away, wasting all the valuable soil-enriching fertility, polluting groundwater and emitting climate-change accelerating Nitrous Oxide!!
 
 

Drown your perennial weeds!
 
 
I don't put perennial weeds like docks, scutch (couch) grass and mares tail onto the compost heap, as it wouldn't kill them - I reserve extra special treatment for them in order to recycle the nutrients they've robbed from my soil!  First I put them in a black bin bag in the sun to wilt & cook for a week or so, then I put them into a large barrel of water beside the compost heaps, with about half a bucket of chicken manure to get them festering nicely!  Or you could alternatively use HLA - 'household liquid activator'  as the wonderful late Lawrence Hills euphemistically called it! (use your imagination - the final insult to a weed!!) This is added to throughout the summer and by the following year everything has rotted nicely, any fibrous plant material remaining can at that stage go onto the compost heap with the rest of the now benign liquid being used as a liquid feed, diluted about 10-1. Warning here - cover this when it's festering - the smell is appalling and attracts horse flies like a magnet!  It's actually very good for seeing off unwanted visitors though.  Just invite them to admire your compost heaps and give it a really vigorous stir while they're standing beside it - it works like magic!!  Don't get it on your hands though - or you won't get rid of the smell for a fortnight! The same goes for comfrey, borage and nettle feed - much the best when all mixed together in a large barrel - as the high nitrogen nettles help the high potash comfrey to break down quickly, the borage supplies valuable magnesium, and they make a nice balanced feed for most things when diluted to the colour of weak tea after a few weeks, when the smell had mostly gone.

 
End of brassica bed planting of Nasturtium, Tagetes & Viola, to attract beneficial insects.End of brassica bed planting of Nasturtium, Tagetes & Viola, to attract beneficial insects. 
 
 
 
The first runner beans will be flowering soon -  but you won't have any problem with pollination if you've been encouraging bees and other pollinators into the garden by growing lots of flowers among your vegetables as I do. It makes the 'potager' or kitchen garden look beautiful too, and flowers such as Nasturtiums and violas are also edible and can be used in salads. 

 

 

 

The value of mulching

 

Talking of runner beans - it's important to keep them evenly moist at the roots as any dryness at the roots encourages the flower buds to drop. A good mulch now will help to etain moisture .  Grass clippings are brilliant for this - also keeping weeds down.  As I've said so many times before - always mulch on already damp soil, keeping the mulch a few inches away from the direct stem area to avoid possible rotting, and watering in well as soon as you put fresh grass clippings on - to avoid any burning of the roots by the high nitrogen in the clippings.

 

 Keep mulching everything you can, as this stops evaporation, saves on water, protects the soil surface from heavy summer rain (I wish!), encourages worms and keeps the weeds down by excluding light.  Plants and worms love mulches rather than bare soil. A nice cooling mulch keeps the worms working in the upper layers of soil - rather than disappearing lower down, away from the dry summer heat. That means they're making more plant nutrients available to the roots of crops. Worms like green food - it's much better for them than newspaper or cardboard, although they do need carbon too. I know a lot of people use newspapers under grass mulches, but all I can say is they can't have very many birds in their gardens! I tried that years ago around shrubs and fruit bushes, but the birds here had one helluva time scratching them up everywhere looking for worms! The garden quickly resembled the local rubbish dump - so I just use grass clippings on their own now! They still get scratched about but don't look so bad and after a few days they fade to a nice light brown colour!  

  
Don't use massive mulches of manure - doing that promotes soft growth that's far more vulnerable to both diseases and slugs!  It also buries too deeply and suffocates many of the vital organisms that live in the top layers of the soil, which plants need to be healthy.  The majority of soil-dwelling bacteria need oxygen to survive and do their job of interacting with plant roots.  If you make life hard for them,  you make it much harder for them to do their job.  Lashing on tons of non-organic manure can also contain chemicals which can unbalance the population of soil bacteria. This is something many people don't know. In every layer of soil there is something that specifically evolved to live in that particular place. Leave it where it evolved to be - don't make life hard for it!
  
 
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and over 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)
 
 

The Polytunnel Potager - July/August 2020

Topics for July:   Polytunnels should be available on prescription!..... A Polytunnel can be your alternative to a 'Mediterranean' holiday in Summer! ...... Holiday time and watering plants..... Rough guide to watering/feeding Tomatoes in containers & in the ground..... Side-shoots on Tomatoes.... Pollination of Tomatoes..... Other Tunnel Crops..... Free Watercress for Healthy Winter Salads......Thinking ahead to late autumn and winter crops 

 

NW bed, late Mangetouts and Runner Bean Moonlight with watercress seedlings in centre, Parsley Italian Giant and spinach Viroflex seed dryng top end. Atena courgette in side bed with Ruby chard producing seed. NE bed, Rosada and Blush tomatoes starting to ripen, celery Chinese Pink forming seed in centre. Early peach ripening at top end
NW bed, late Mangetouts and Runner Bean Moonlight with watercress seedlings in centre, Parsley Italian Giant and spinach Viroflex seed dryng top end. Atena courgette in side bed with Ruby chard producing seed. NE bed, Rosada and Blush tomatoes starting to ripen, celery Chinese Pink forming seed in centre. Early peach ripening at top end
SW bed John Baer, Dr. Carolyn and Pantano Romanesco tomatoes, celery in centre, climbing French beab Cobra beside path. Saving Jack Ice lettuce seed top end SE bed Blaue Anneliese from south end bed - looking very healthy
SW bed John Baer, Dr. Carolyn and Pantano Romanesco tomatoes, celery in centre, climbing French beab Cobra beside path. Saving Jack Ice lettuce seed top end SE bed Blaue Anneliese from south end bed - looking very healthy

 

Polytunnels should be available on Prescription - they are so beneficial for Mental Health!

Is there anything as wonderful as this time of year in the garden?  If the glorious abundance of healthy foods that surround us everywhere now doesn't excite you and make you grateful for Nature's generous abundance - then you're a lost cause as far as organic real food gardening is concerned!

 

Most kinds of gardening can be challenging at times - especially when you have any sort of movement-limiting disability, but having an area which is accessible in all weathers like a polytunnel can make it very much easier!  Having a polytunnel means that even if you're in pain or just don't feel like doing anything on that particular day - you can still get your daily dose of sunlight and Nature watching, even if it's lashing with rain! This is especially so if you plant your polytunnel as I do - with lots of flowers, herbs and fruit, as well as vegetables - which attract bees and other beneficial insects, frogs, hedgehogs and birds all year round. I make a point of sitting in there for at least 20 minutes at sometime during each day.  But usually the sitting doesn't last very long - there's always something which needs doing - especially at this time of year.

 

One of the reasons I started this blog was because I wanted people to know that no matter what your problems - if you're really determined to grow healthy food, it's still possible to find a way - unless one is completely paralysed!  It's often just a matter of thinking laterally - and finding another way rather than giving up and saying "I can't"!   I refuse to say that, and I always prefer to get on with things no matter what my problems - because I feel that doing anything rather than just sitting and complaining is far better and more positive - no matter what one's situation. 

 

This year I've seen so many people complaining about being 'locked down' due to COVID19 - how bored and stressed they are, how much they are missing socialising with other people and how it's badly affecting their mental health.  Very often they say that because of that they're eating cake, chocolate or crisps, or finding themselves at the bottom of a bottle of wine - but believe me - I've 'been there and done all that' many years ago. I have the ultimate Tee Shirt - with probably more excuse than many!  NONE of those are the answer to any problems and will only make them feel worse!   So although I'm not a fan of complaining about personal problems - I thought I'd share just a little bit more about my life experiences with you, in case you might think my life has all been easy! .... I hope I won't bore you!

 

Before we moved here, I spent 5 months in 1980 unable to walk due to a fall, on top of which I contracted viral meningitis and was seriously ill. Luckily my children didn't catch it, and I think the only reason that I did was because my immune system was already at an extremely low ebb, low due to taking so many painkillers, serious antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications. These are drugs which no matter what problems I've had since - I have refused ever to take again!  They gave me a stomach ulcer on top of already serious problems - which I cured purely by natural means - as I also did the M.E./Chronic Fatigue/Post-Viral syndrome which I suffered from after recovering from the initial viral meningitis infection.  I think the meningitis may have been brought in by my doctor, who was visiting another poor woman on the same road who had caught it, and who sadly, subsequently died from it.  Anyway, I spent the time I was unable to move very much reading everything I could lay my hands on about soil, and potager gardens and no-dig, raised or deep bed gardening, so that I would somehow still be able to garden and grow my own food - even if I was confined to a wheelchair.  I also read a lot more about natural health cures, as I had a lot of time!

 

Luckily I very slowly recovered, but what kept me going through that awful time and kept me sane were the dreams, hope and inspiration I found in those books!   As I got better I also experimented and learned how to grow a huge amount of organic food in tubs and strong carrier bags - even though I could often do little more than 10 minutes activity before almost fainting and having blackouts due to the ME/CFS I was suffering from. That time was good practice for what unfortunately followed only 2 years later, after we moved here - when once again I was in severe pain and unable to do anything, after simply bending down to undo a very stiff bolt on the bottom of a stable door, something which when I straightened up from doing it, left me with rapidly progressive weakness in my left arm, serious nerve pain from nerve damage, and needing cervical spine surgery to remove pieces of collapsed discs which were pressing on my spinal cord and impacting on nerves originating in my cervical spine area. It was probably the final straw for my spine which had already been damaged time and again from many years of falling off horses (or them falling on me!), which had culminated in the 5 months in bed, after which I was banned from ever riding again, which was a severe blow,  as I had to face the fact that I was never going to be able to fulfill my lifelong ambition to be a Grand Prix dressage rider! That undeniable fact was pretty hard to deal with, as I'd ridden since before I could walk. 

 

Up to that point - horses had been my life - with growing organic food for my severely allergic child as a necessary side occupation. But once again gardening saved my mental health from severely deteriorating.  Over the next 20 years or so, I even became a commercial organic producer for a time, also fulfilling my other ambition to become a sculptor (with a little success).  But throughout, as progressive and debilitating degenerative disc-disease gradually made things more difficult -  I was constantly finding new and easier ways to do things, so that I could continue to grow our own food, which was my first priority.  I've always treated whatever life has thrown at me as a bit of a challenge - saying to the fates "OK - whatever you throw at me - I will NOT be defeated, and will damned well find some other way to do it!".  I won't bore you with any more about all the other accidents etc along the way!  Well done if you've got this far!

 

Fast forward to 2020 - and although the left ankle which some of you may know I broke badly last year has healed brilliantly - all through natural healing.  This spring things have been made really difficult once again by me having to spend another 3 months on sticks due to the planned reconstructive surgery for a very old injury to the other right ankle, exacerbated by hopping about on it after breaking the left one last year!  This had been postponed due to COVID19.   Anyway - despite being unable to do very much for 3 months - I've still managed to sow some seeds (sometimes that was all I did some days), and do a little bit of gentle planting and clearing and also write this blog four times a month. It's surprising how much one can achieve even if sometimes you only have half an hour's 'standing time' as I call it - as long as you just make a point of doing it every day.  I know from experience that it makes you feel so much better to achieve that. 

 

The tunnels are both looking a bit hectic right now!  You won't find bare soil and neatly weede rows of anything anywhere!  In the bigger east tunnel, along with the few crops like lettuce, spinach, watercress and kale which I had left over from last autumn until last month, I still have the other perennial fruits and veg that I grow, which means that there's always something to be found for a meal.  There's peaches ripening now, sorrel, perennial Welsh and Egyption Walking Onions, garlic, Red Leaved Dandelion (a chicory actually), Vegetable Mallow (like spinach), watercress, herbs, self-sown Nasturtiums and Glin Castle perennial kale to pick. I'm also sneaking off a delicious few of the incredibly vigorous and healthy-looking Bleu Annaliese potatoes - which were planted quite late, on 21st March inside, purely because I wasn't able to clear any space outside. They've taken over an entire bed in the tunnel, completely smothering the extremely rare Peru Purple potatoes which had been planted 3 weeks earlier - so I don't mind stealing any of their tubers that I can find just under the surface!  Grapes are looking very promising too, and the blackberries which keep returning from the remains of those growing in the spot where I put up the new polytunnels 13 years ago, are fruiting deliciously in the fruit tunnel right now.  I've never been able to completely eradicate them - so now we've reached a sort of uneasy truce!  I allow them to form early fruit on the canes that keep coming back - and then I cut those right down the minute they've finished fruiting - when the rest of their siblings outside have started ripening their early ones!  That way I get a longer season of fresh fruit and they produce new shorter growth after this month, which they will fruit on next year, and don't become too dangerous!  

 

French beans, mangetout peas and runner bean Moonlight are only a couple of weeks away from cropping = despite being sown late due to my ankle problems delaying the clearing of winter crops. Although most people grow those outside at this time of year - we always get severe gales in August which flatten them, just when I hope they'll start cropping. They'll be fine in the polytunnel and they will also go on cropping much later than any grown outside, so worth doing. There are also figs, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and potted mulberries ripening.. And of course there's always lots of flowers for the all important wildlife - that look after the pest control for me.  I also have Sungold, Tumbler and Maskotka tomatoes ripe in the smaller and warmer fruit tunnel (or west tunnel), gherkin baby cucumber Restina producing tons of baby-sized cucumbers, and early Atena courgettes have been cropping so well for weeks that we're almost fed up with them already - and it's only July!  

 

Also in the bigger east tunnel, I'm saving a lot of my own seed again this year.  I hadn't done so of some crops for a couple of years, but the unavailability of several varieties this year, and some seed companies running out completely of others, due to the sudden rise in popularity of growing your own veg during the pandemic, reminded me that it was time to do so again.  This will ensure that I will have plenty of seed of all my staple crops like winter spinach, lettuce, purple carrots, kale and celery!  Potatoes are saved each year as a matter of course, as many of those I grow are rare and can't be obtained anywhere. As you may know I start all of my potatoes off in pots now, and each year I hold back a couple of pots to save for seed tubers, when I'm planting the rest. I've found that to be the most successful way to ensure that I don't lose them.

 

A Polytunnel can be your alternative to a 'Mediterranean' holiday in Summer!

 

 

Protection from the elements and warmth, even on cloudy days in summer, means that with the almost Mediterranean climate in a polytunnel at this time of year - you get so much more in return for the work you put in compared to growing fruit and vegetables outside.  As I've already said, they're a great 'uplifter' on a grey gloomy day and also an incredibly cost-effective method of food production - no matter what size they are - if every inch inside is used as efficiently as it should be. They're also a way of keeping us gardeners sane when the weather's against us!  Inside a polytunnel it can feel more like southern Europe - especially on a sunny day or even when it's so foul that you wouldn't even put a cat out - which can often happen in our Irish 'summers'!  Mine certainly feels like that in most summers - a Mediterranean banquet!  It's a real feast of colours, scents and tastes - of tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, courgettes, French beans, melons, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, figs, lemons, oranges, blackberries, cherries, cape gooseberries and grapevines literally dripping with fast-swelling, emerald bunches. The list goes on - with scarlet geraniums, nasturtiums, feverfew, orange marigolds and many valuable herbs like Perilla dotted about wherever they can be squeezed in, attracting insects like butterflies, hoverflies and with the constant hum of happy bees. I also grow some flowers in big pots which like hot dry conditions too - like some of the most richly-scented but slightly more fussy roses that don't flower well outside here - like Emporeur du Maroc - which really hates our damp weather.  Its scent hits me when I open the polytunnel in the early mornings at this time of year. It flowers in the polytunnel for months, repeat-flowering well, and it's wonderful for using in recipes especially for making Rose Petal Syrup. With the scent of the citrus blossom, lemon verbena and Jasmine filling the air too - it's really like being in another country altogether!  Who needs Mediterranean holidays? I personally think that money is far better spent on a polytunnel where you can grow healthy food and enjoy relaxing in sunlight almost all year round! It's absolute heaven - and I can't bear to be away from mine for very long!

 
  
Things grow so incredibly fast in the almost tropical atmosphere that it can be all too easy to let yourself become a 'polytunnel slave' (a willing one in my case!) and rush round all the time watering, tending and harvesting. There just seems to be so much to do and so little time - even if you're up well before 6 am and working until it's dark!  It's definitely necessary to relax in a chair in the sun occasionally though, admire it all and just enjoy the moment - something I try to do for at least a few minutes each day no matter how busy I am. I've never seen organic peaches or grapes for sale anywhere other than on very rare occasions in farmer's markets and even then they're imported from a long way away - with a huge carbon footprint and a horrendous price - but they're easy to grow once you know how. At this time of year if you have a tunnel - you can bite into gloriously mouthwatering, properly ripe tomatoes warmed by the midsummer sun, with just a hint of a basil leaf. Or perhaps pick a few cherries and raspberries for a pre-breakfast snack, then sink your teeth into a lusciously yielding peach running with juice. I feel really sorry for all those poor souls who have to buy their fruit laced with chemicals, plastic wrapped, picked half ripe, bred to have skins tough enough to withstand the rigours of travelling hundreds of miles across Europe or from further afield to reach the customer's plates days, or sometimes even weeks later! 
 
  
I know I'm still so lucky to have two large polytunnels to enjoy gardening in - I used to have four when I was producing organic crops commercially. Now it's a bit of a luxury to be able to grow whatever I want and to have fun experimenting with exciting new crops - rather than being tied to the same old purely commercial crops. But do you know something - they're still not big enough - I could fill at least four more polytunnels and still need more covered space! I would love to have a dedicated vine tunnel for instance. Or even a cherry tunnel!  Just as the old walled gardens had their vine houses many decades ago - and a fig tunnel and a citrus tunnel and.................! The problem is - I could do with a few assistant gardeners as well! Especially now -  since my ankle problems, which are really slowing me up!  Ah well........a polytunnel is also definitely a place to dream in. And dreams are free!
 
  
They may not be the most beautiful structures in the world from the outside - but polytunnels are like people - it's what's on the inside that really counts! The more traditional greenhouses are very beautiful things architecturally speaking I'll grant you - and who wouldn't want to own one? But they're also an expensive luxury item! Not only that - but as I've already said - being on a windy site here I lost three greenhouses, before I gave up and decided that the only way I would ever be able to grow anything in the teeth of almost year-round south-westerly gales was in polytunnels! They may be slightly less attractive - but they're around half the price. Still not a cheap item - but I've proved over many years that any decent sized tunnel, if used properly all year round, will pay for itself in about 2-3 years. There's quite a lot you can do inside not only to improve their rather utilitarian looks, but also to attract in all sorts of beneficial insects and bees, to keep pests away and pollinate your crops. Sometimes my tunnels are so full of butterflies they feel like a butterfly farm - and people actually pay to visit those!  If the many treats inside are eye-catching enough - one tends to overlook the less than beautiful surrounding structure.  What I call my 'Polytunnel Potager' can look really stunning inside all year round with the addition of many flowers and herbs growing alongside the vegetables!  Not only that - it's a far more natural way to grow anything. Nature doesn't do acres of bare soil between neat rows of vegetables. In a polytunnel - just as in Nature - diversity is strength! 
 
  
As I've already said - at this time of year, if the voluptuous abundance of your polytunnel doesn't make you feel smugly satisfied, or if seeing a friend's productive one doesn't make you long to own one yourself so that you too can grow all manner of good things - then you are a totally lost cause! There really is no hope for you!! If you don't have one, but are just thinking about it - then do go and have a look at one owned by a good gardener now, and just imagine how much money it could save you - because it really will! A polytunnel can fill your freezer and keep you in salads and a huge variety of other super-fresh, super-healthy vegetables, fruits and herbs all year round!  Granted - polytunnels can be a huge amount of work - but they're really what you make of them - that's up to you. You could just grow perennial crops instead of changing them 3-4 times a year with the seasons, or mix perennial and annual crops as I mostly do .
 
   
Holiday time and watering plants 
 
 
If you must go away on holiday - I've always found mid-October to be the very best time for a polytunnel ownerBy then you've had the best of the summer and early autumn crops, and your tunnel should already be fully planted with crops to see you through the winter. These crops won't need too much tending or watering in October unless you're going away for weeks - as the weather's cooling down a bit. The tunnel needs much less fussing over at that time of year, and instead of the usual deflated feeling when you return from holidays - because of nothing to look forward to except long, cold, miserable grey days - it's nice to be able to look forward to continuous all-weather gardening, eating fresh salads and other delicious treats every day throughout the grey winter days! 
 
 
On the other hand - watering can be a huge problem if you go away in high summer. A few years ago I had a query from someone who'd spent a fortune on an automatic watering system for his polytunnel, got it all properly set up and went away with the family for a couple of weeks. He came back to find all the tomatoes blighted and everything dead poor man! I honestly think they're a complete waste of time and money for home gardeners, who want to grow a broad range of different crops in their tunnels, all with differing requirements. I personally think they just encourage disease!  There is no automatic watering system that can ever be a substitute for the gardener's observation and care.  Even if you have the same one crop throughout your tunnel - there's still no guarantee it will work properly anyway.  I have a friend who hates watering and spends ages fiddling about with hers!  She could have watered her tunnel ten times over in the time she spends faffing around with all the bits and pieces! 
 
 
I always think it's rather unfair of people to ask non-gardening neighbours, or even experienced gardening friends or family, to attempt to look after their polytunnel or greenhouse in the height of summer unless it's very small. Things can go badly wrong so very quickly. You've lost a whole summer's crops if they do - and perhaps good friends too!  It's far too much of a responsibility. In the autumn most holidays are far cheaper anyway. If you can't afford one because you've just spent hundreds of euros or even a thousand on a new polytunnel - then instead of feeling deprived - just congratulate yourself instead for making a clever investment that will give you huge returns for many years to come!  Most holidays cost far more than a small polytunnel - which unlike a holiday will bring you joy and good health every single day, all year round for many years - and also a comfortable place to sit in warm sunshine even on a frosty day in midwinter. (You won't believe this - but I promise you I have a friend who even has an old sofa in hers!)
 
 
I made a decision many years ago to not fly anywhere any more, due to its carbon footprint - but only to go to places where I could go by car.  It's far more carbon-friendly than flying to some crowded, noisy, garish and utterly pointless holiday resort! I used to love visiting the quieter parts of the Mediterranean many years ago, where I used to pick up lots of ideas for food and planting - but even those are far less quiet nowadays. I have a confession to make here - my very rare holidays now are usually spent taking off in the car for just a couple of days and visiting gardens - or the best nurseries either here or in the UK - hunting for unusual fruits or 'jungle' plants - my secret addiction!  I used to manage sometimes to combine this with work, in the form of my portrait sculpture - but sadly I can no longer do that now either since smashing my right shoulder in 2013!  Although my right arm's still ok for not too heavy gardening - I now no longer have the perfect control and reach necessary for very finely detailed portrait work. Luckily my gardening, especially in the polytunnels, more than satisfies my creative urges now. 
 
 
At this time of year, I usually get up around 5.30 and do all the watering, feeding and side-shooting etc. of tomatoes before 9 am - as then it can become far too hot to hang around for long in the tunnels. Then mid-morning and mid-afternoon I damp down the tunnel paths with plenty of water so that its evaporation helps to lower the temperature a little and keeps the air moving. I'm having to water the tomatoes and aubergines in containers twice a day at the moment. They're doing well though - and the aubergines in particular thoroughly enjoyed the recent very hot days of last week. 'Bonica F1' is the variety I always grow now, after trying many other varieties over the years. It's always the best performer whatever the weather does in our 'summers'. We often get low grey, cloud for days on end here up on a hill not far from the coast. That is death to most aubergines - but not this one. As long as you're careful to gently pull fading petals away from the end of the developing flowers just as they start to fade to brown after the fruit has set - it always produces it's huge fruits. If you don't do this - they often start to rot. Do try it next year if you haven't tried aubergines before, or had no luck with them. Bonica is thoroughly reliable and came top in the RHS trials of aubergines a few years ago.
 
 
For a 'tomatoholic' like me - THE TOTALLY TERRIFIC TOMATO FESTIVAL, which I founded in 2012, was the perfect excuse to go a bit over the top a bit on the tomato front!  It was also a great way to trial new varieties and compare them with my tried and trusted 'old reliables'.  When one is sowing tomatoes in March it's impossible to know what the summer will bring in terms of weather - some may hate cold nights - while others may be less fussy.  In May again this year, temperatures were so hot that the developing plants were quite literally 'fried' at the top - looking as if someone had blasted them with a blow-torch! They were curling up their top leaves and looking 'fern like' - almost as if they had been sprayed with weedkiller. A lot of people have asked me about this leaf curling. It's the extremes of temperatures affecting the plants. Unfortunately in a polytunnel you have less control than in a greenhouse where you can apply shading paint to the glass. Even if you have one of those expensive, side opening tunnels, the sun can still scorch the tops of plants when it's at its most intense. If any tomato variety can withstand those extremes and still produce a really good-tasting and worthwhile crop - then it's a pretty good one in my book! I'm growing most varieties both in the ground and in pots so that I can compare which do better in one or the other, or both. The ones in pots do need quite a lot of watering at this time of year or they can get stressed pretty quickly. 
 
 
As tomato crops everywhere are starting to develop their fruits now - I'm getting a lot of questions about feeding and watering them. People always want to know how often you should water but there's no absolute rule.  It's impossible to say - because you should only water when they need it - and every tomato plant and situation is different.  It's something you just have to learn to 'play by ear'. Every garden situation is different too - depending on how you're growing things, whether they're in the ground or in containers of commercial potting compost or in the soil. It also depends where your greenhouse or tunnel is situated - whether it's in a very sunny spot or partly shaded and even how big it is. This is especially the case with a polytunnel - as smaller tunnels can tend to have less air circulation. So these are just very general guidelines. Every year is different too - the weather obviously has a huge influence on how often things need watering. This year in May and early June, I sometimes had to water containers twice a day because of the heatwave. 
 
 
As with most gardening - it's all about common sense and observation really - getting to know your plants, playing it by ear and noticing their needs daily in order to get the very best crops. Oddly enough - even different varieties vary in how you can get away with watering them. Sungold for instance, will split immediately if you water it just a bit too much when it has already 'set' it's skin and is ripening - but Rosada won't - unless you absolutely flood it!  It's much more good-natured and far less temperamental. Individual varieties can all vary in their water requirements. Just like people - they're all different! You can't possibly make hard and fast rules - every tunnel, greenhouse or garden varies. Never just water a bit every day as a matter of course - that can lead to over-watering, and also cause roots to stay far too close to the surface, rather than going deeper to search for water and nutrients. Give plants a good soaking at night when watering in warm weather, so that it doesn't evaporate quickly as it would if watering during the day. And in the autumn do the reverse - if plants really need watering - then do it in the mornings - so that damp cold air isn't hanging around at night which can cause disease.
 
 
Rough guide to watering and feeding Tomatoes in containers.


I get a lot of questions about this. I grow some of my tomatoes, peppers and aubergines in 10lt containers on grow bag traysThis is because I only ever use a quarter of the 'in the ground' ground space in my tunnel for the tomato family - which also  naturally includes peppers and aubergines. In the tunnel - just as in the outside garden - I always operate a strict minimum four course rotation. Many people say there's no need to and don't bother for a few years, getting away with it for a while - but without doing that you can encounter soil problems like diseases and nematodes sooner or later. The containers I use are either recycled empty coleslaw buckets from the local deli, which I cut drainage holes in around the base - or sometimes 12 litre containers which I get from the local horticultural supply shop very cheaply compared to the DIY multiples!  They are a similar size to the average large bucket. I start to feed with the brilliant Osmo organic Tomato Food (which is high potash and encourages fruit production) as soon as the first truss has set. Why is Osmo so brilliant? Because you will never get magnesium or any other sort of deficiency when using this feed - and as it's also organic, it's safe to use and totally naturalWhen Dermot O'Neill came out to look at my tomatoes a few years ago for RTE's Mooney Show - he was amazed at how healthy my tomatoes in containers looked and how much fruit they were producing!
 
 
When plants are in containers - the roots are restricted and they can't forage far to find their own food, so they're obviously totally dependent on you. I start feeding as soon as the first truss has set, I then use the tomato feed at every other watering - half strength (i.e. at one watering I feed at half strength, and at the other watering - I just use plain water.) I keep a water butt at tunnel temperature in the tunnel for watering the tomatoes - so that I don't use freezing cold water directly from the hose. Plants don't enjoy cold showers any more than people do!  I don't water automatically - I play it by ear depending on how dry the growing medium is. I use a fifty/fifty peat-free and garden soil mix which I find best cushions the plants against heat or any variations in watering - I'm only human! Consistently just moist is the key - neither being permanently soaked and sitting in water - nor alternatively bone dry with the compost shrinking away from the side of the containers. I don't like to feed at full strength all the time as I feel the roots are more vulnerable but if I think something is looking just a little hungry - I will sometimes feed at full strength once or twice. The Osmo feeds are very gentle as they don't contain synthetic chemicals but just natural, safe plant foods and won't burn plant roots - so you can feed at full strength if necessary, just as long as the compost is moist first.
 
 
It's fine to water into the top of the container top as long as you don't do it right against the base of the stem. This avoids possibly causing rots where the base of the stem joins the roots especially in cold weather. This is always a vulnerable spot - particularly with aubergines and peppers. Always water around the edge of the container if possible - letting it drain through into whatever the plants are sitting in or on - they should usually soak this up over the next couple of hours if it's not too much. I sit my buckets on grow bag trays and if the plants haven't soaked up all the water after a few hours - I would tip it out. I never leave them sitting in water in the trays more than overnight - and only then if the plants have dried out a bit too much - but I try to prevent that. As I've already said - you sort of have to 'play it by ear' and get a 'feel' for it. I will often lift the edge of the container to feel it's weight before the plants get too big - over-watering is death to all plants in containers. If the top looks dry-ish but it still feels quite heavy, then it's probably ok for water but don't forget that the plants will make it feel heavier as they get bigger. If I'm not sure, I'll sometimes just scratch the surface of the compost to feel it. If the top is very dry and the container feels a bit light then I know that water is needed immediately. Sometimes the compost will look a bit lighter in colour too - depending on the make. 
 
 
I never let plants get really parched to the point of almost wilting with the compost shrinking away from the sides of the container - this makes it far harder to re-wet any compost and can also make them drop their flowers or fruit. Drying out too much or erratic watering can stress the plants very badly and makes them far more vulnerable to physiological problems like 'blossom end rot' - which is caused by poor calcium transport in the plant tissues due to lack of consistent watering. Erratic watering also makes them much more attractive to pests like aphids and red spider. Stressed plants are always more vulnerable. Just like you and I - their immune systems are affected too, and they may not always be able to mobilise their defences as fast as they can when growing in ideal conditions in soil in the ground.
 
 
I know it does seem like a lot of trouble but when you get used to it, it becomes routine and is well worth it. You will have terrifically healthy crops of delicious tomatoes this way. Last year I grew about 70 plants in containers - mostly getting 8 fabulous trusses of fruit per plant. They certainly repaid all the TLC! All the expert books say you can only get 4 trusses from tomatoes when growing in containers. I do love to prove all those so-called 'experts' wrong!  Successful organic growing is all about understanding your plants' needs, anticipating and preventing any possible problems. Proper old fashioned good gardening in other words! There's no substitute for knowing your plants!
 
 
My 'Tomato Report' gives information on the soil/organic potting compost mix I use in my containers. Many Garden Centres now stock all the Osmo organic feeds etc. and Klasmann Deilmann organic seed and potting composts - they're also available from Whites Agri, Lusk. Co. Dublin and Fruithill Farm in Cork. I wouldn't use anything else now - even for ornamental plants - all plants love it and grow very healthily. It's worth every cent of the extra expense! It's also well-worth knowing that I'm not destroying all the vital and wonderful biodiversity in bogs in order to grow my plants - which is what peat users are doing!
 
 
Tomato plants growing in the ground

 
These are much easier to deal with, as because the roots aren't restricted - so they're naturally far less vulnerable to fluctuations in watering. The same rules still apply though, of not watering directly against the base, not using freezing water from the hose and not letting them dry out completely. In the ground plants only need feeding about twice a week with the high potash Osmo Tomato Food - but again it depends on your soil and how fertile it was at planting. If I think plants are running out of steam and the leaves are maybe starting looking a bit 'yellowy' then I would give them a boost with the Osmo Universal feed which stimulates growth - but if they're growing in the ground and it's reasonably fertile - this shouldn't be needed. The last thing you want is too much lush leafy growth, which can cause disease if too crowded. If you only have a small number of plants to feed though - it's possible to make a fairly balanced feed from comfrey, nettles and borage stuffed into a water barrel. It stinks to high heaven - but is very effective! It's impossible to make enough to feed a lot of plants regularly though.
 
 
Side-shoots on Tomatoes
 
 
Last month when talking about side shoots - I forgot to say that all tomato plants constantly keep trying to outwit you - as they are really genetically programmed to be bushes in actual fact - so they go on trying to be those by producing more side shoots all the time even where you've already taken lots out. This is how they perpetuate themselves in the wild - by 'flopping' shoots over and 'walking' along to a new spot. You just have to be strict with them - otherwise they can very soon become a tangled, disease ridden, unproductive mess!  You must keep having a good look every couple of days to spot any more which will develop.
 
 
I look over the plants every day, as I can guarantee I'll miss the odd shoot because I grow so many plants. Don't just do it once a fortnight, as I saw one gardening 'expert' journalist recommending recently in a local newspaper - they could be 60cm or 2 feet long by then at this time of year! The journalist in question, who shall remain nameless, is obviously not an experienced tomato grower! As you can see from the pictured examples here - which I left deliberately, to photograph - in just a week they can be very long, wasting the plant's valuable fruiting energy and seriously reducing air circulation if you leave them there! On the continental beefsteaks in particular, especially 'Pantano Romanesco' and occasionally even on cherry types, they may also make new 'side shoots' - like the ones pictured here, on the end or even the middle of flower/fruit trusses, so check there too and nip out immediately if necessary, otherwise they can attract moisture and set up ideal conditions for disease.
 
1. Sideshoot developing on end of flower truss.
 
1. Side shoot developing on end of flower truss.
2. One week later - flower truss with new shoot on end getting much larger.
 

2. One week later - flower truss with new shoot on end getting much larger.

3. Same flower truss, after remedial action with secateurs!
 

3. Same flower truss, after remedial action with secateurs!

 

Air circulation is absolutely vital to tomatoes especially, particularly all the continental beefsteaks, which can rapidly go down with botrytis (grey mould) and also blight at this time of year in very humid, damp conditions. Ventilating as much as possible, even on dull or rainy days, is most important. Leaving doors shut can even hinder pollination of flowers, as too high a temperature can actually damage the plants and the bees can't get in either! My tunnel doors are always open every day - unless there's a howling gale blowing from the wrong direction. And if the temperature on a very hot day still gets too high - then 'damping down' the paths, not the plants, will help to reduce the temperature by water evaporating - keeping the atmosphere 'bouyant' and the air moving.  

 
 
Unlike conventional chemical growers, organic gardeners don't use synthetic systemic fungicides - although some occasionally use surface, copper-based ones. I never have done as I have a very heavy clay soil and any copper-based product is specifically restricted for use on clay soils, both in the UK and Ireland, due to the fact that copper can build up in them over years of constant use I am amazed that anyone would still recommend spraying tomato plants with water - apparently in order to help pollination!  That's rubbish!  I've even seen people recommending that you spray with garlic if you see aphids!  It's totally unnecessary and as I mention again later - wetting tomato foliage encourages diseases like blight. 
 
 
As I'm always saying - aphids are a sign of stressed plants which have probably been grown with too much manure or synthetic chemical fertiliser, which makes them far more vulnerable. Now I know some of the old 'conventional' text books used to recommend spraying with water many years ago - but then they also used to recommend all sorts of nasty fungicides like arsenic or nicotine too!  Our knowledge has moved on a bit since then, and cultivating plants organically means first and foremost giving plants the optimum conditions they need to promote healthy growth - that can mean taking a little bit more trouble occasionally but it really works.  The old-fashioned 'fire brigade' mentality - of reaching for the sprayer for a quick fix whenever something goes wrong - instead of preventing it in the first place - doesn't have any place in an organic garden. I know it's a bit challenging trying to give everything the best conditions you can when you're growing so many different crops in one tunnel - but it is achievable with a little thought and care
 
 
 
"Tomato

Pollination of Tomatoes 

 
Don't mist over tomato plants as I've already said! Tomatoes don't like the same humid conditions as cucumbers. Misting them frequently with water produces just the sort of damp conditions which are ideal for encouraging blight. Blight and other fungal spores ideally need a fine film of moisture on the leaves in order to germinate and multiply rapidly! All that is really required for good pollination is the right temperature, with even soil moisture at the roots, and encouraging pollinating insects into the tunnel to do their job, by growing flowers to attract them. Many of the more enlightened big commercial growers now use bees and even flies to pollinate crops in their vast greenhouses - something that crop research stations have always done. As I'm constantly saying - just grow lots of single, nectar producing flowers among your crops, both inside and outside, and you won't have any pollination problems. 
 
 
Tomato 'Maskotka' in a 10 litre bucket
 
 
 
Other Tunnel Crops
 
 
Cucumbers and melons are also growing really well in large containers now. Again, fruiting much earlier than those in the ground - by a couple of weeks. I'm experimenting a lot more again this year with containers, I have far more growing experience now than I had 39 years ago when my whole vegetable garden was grown in containers for two years, while renting a house en route to where we live now! That year I grew 45 lb of Runner beans on wigwams in recycled Marks and Spencer carrier bags (they were the strongest!). The other cucumbers are doing nicely in the ground, they're at the side of the tunnel where they don't get draughts and it's a bit more humid - they and melons are just about the only plants that really love sauna-like conditions! But even though they like warmth - they must be kept evenly moist at the roots - if they dry out at all at the roots and the air is humid they'll get powdery mildew very quickly - particularly as the air gets colder at night in autumn. 
 
 
Aubergine 'Bonica', first fruits just set, in 10litre buckets on staging mid JuneAubergine 'Bonica', first fruits just set, in 10litre buckets on staging mid June
 
Aubergine 'Bonica' pictured here is growing in the same 10 litre buckets in a well-drained peat-free compost/soil mix and have just set their first fruits. I'm always careful to watch the flowers after they are just set - and when they start to fade I gently pull the browning flower downwards away from the calyx as that's where rots can set in- which is one of the main problem with aubergines in our climate. The other problem is stem rot where the stem joins the roots at the top of the compost. I avoid this by planting them slightly mounded up in the buckets and never watering against the stem but always around the outside of the bucket. 
 
 
 
 
 
Pumpkins planted either side sweet corn, trying to take over tunnelPumpkins planted either side sweet corn, trying to take over tunnel
 
 
The yellow courgette Atena which I always grow as part of the cucurbitaceae rotation in the tunnel is already starting to produce well. They will go on until early November with luck, the last few weeks under fleece. French bean 'Cobra' is as delicious and reliable as ever, and also Calabrese 'Green Magic'. It's really important to keep on top of picking all of these, and also watering regularly. If the plants dry out for too long in hot weather or if the pods, fruit or shoots get too big, that sends a hormone message back to the plant to say 'job done - we're on course to produce seed' and the plants will stop producing any more. 
 
 
 
If you're growing early sweetcorn in the tunnel, when the plants start producing pollen give them a bit of a shake every day - wait until about midday if possible when the atmosphere has dried out a bit - so that the pollen dusts around nicely - it's often too humid first thing in the morning just after the doors are opened. Even if you've only got one plant in your greenhouse as one questioner at one of my recent talks said she had - it will still pollinate better if you do this. I always shake the outside plants too if there's no breeze to do the job - but that's rarely the case here on my very windy hill! 
 
 
My tunnel sweetcorn 'Lark F1' will be planted between pumpkins as usual - Queensland Blue, Jumbo Pink Banana, Golden and Blue Hubbards, Hokkaido etc. They are some of the best dense, deep orange fleshed ones for really long term storage and I won't ever risk the entire crop outside again in case we get yet another poor summer. They are too valuable for the winter larder. I will at least be assured of some then whatever the weather. I am being really strict with them though - and keeping them under strict 'house arrest' - pinching out all the shoots at four leaves or they would take over the entire tunnel. I've planted more outside too. The sweet corn is sown 2   or 3 to a pot and not thinned, then planted out 60cm/2ft intervals in a row. That way they pollinate each other well even though they're in a row rather than a block and produce at least 2 delicious cobs per plant. 
 
 

If you're growing sweet potatoes, they don't want too rich a soil starting off otherwise they just produce masses of foliage - not tubers They need similar soil to carrots, deep and well drained. They just get a light dusting of seaweed meal when planting and mulching with moisture retaining grass clippings to prevent weed growth. After that they only need watering occasionally to prevent them drying out.  Like Oca and Yacon they don't start to produce their tubers until August - so from then on they get fed weekly with a high potash tomato feed - I use the Osmo food for them too. If you want to try growing them it's still worthwhile planting them now - and if they're a bit hungry in their pots by now just give them a liquid feed just to encourage them, then plant as above. Once you have good varieties you can keep tubers from your own crop each year and propagate slips from them.  
 
 
Luscious looking - but not quite ripe yet. 28th JuneLuscious looking - but not quite ripe just yet. 
 
The early peach on the north-east side at the end of the tunnel is covered with a fleece curtain, fixed with clothes pegs, once the fruit starts to change colour - as the rapidly ripening fruit screams 'eat me' at every blackbird within ten miles! There's always one or two in there doing a 'recce' - but no matter how gorgeous they look, they never touch them until they are just ripe - just when I say to myself "I'll pick them tomorrow" - I can almost guarantee they'll have a go at them. They seem to have a radar for ripening fruit! It doesn't seem to matter what netting I put up at the doors either - they always manage to ruin a few if I don't do this, but hiding them hiding them generally does the trick! The peach on the other side of the door doesn't ripen until early September. I bought both trees from Lidl - one just marked 'peach' and the other 'nectarine' from Lidl 12 years ago. Magically one turned out to be a yellow-fleshed early peach and the other a late white-fleshed one - serendipity at work! Couldn't have planned it better! They're due for their summer pruning now, when they've finished fruiting. Leaving one or two good shoots to develop at the base of each branch to bear fruit next year.  All other new shoots will be removed completely to let in air and light.
 
 
 Buried treasure - ripening peaches under wraps away from birds!Buried treasure - ripening peaches under wraps away from birds! 
 
It's really important to prune tunnel-grown peaches properly, otherwise they quickly become an unproductive mess, taking over the entire tunnel, as they can make five or six feet of growth in a year. That happened to me many years ago when I didn't know how to prune them properly and the tree almost went through the roof!  Practical experience is always the best teacher - you never forget your mistakes! The most important thing to remember is that they always fruit on the new green shoots made the previous year. Mine are trained as sort of half fan/half bushes or 'fushes' at the north end of the tunnel either side of the door, with roughly 9ft or 2 & 3/4m of width each, a space which is often wasted or full of rubbish in many tunnels. There, they are in full sun, but don't cast any shade on anything else, don't get peach leaf curl as they are protected from rain, and produce over 100 peaches every year!  With my mini-gardens of flowers and perennial herbs like thyme and oregano at their feet they look good all year round and not an inch of space is wasted.
 
  
Some of the figs are ripening their early crop now - the necks of the fruit have weakened and fruits have started to 'flop', now drooping downwards, they will need another few days yet. Brogiotto Nero and Sultane are the earliest - but Rouge de Bordeaux won't be far behind and then all the others will follow. I wait until I can see the first fruits starting to crack at the 'navel' end - that means they're really ripe. There is nothing more disappointing or wasteful than picking an unripe fig - they are so precious. It's what the Italians call the 'Breba' (overwintered) crop that is ripening now, and this autumn's main crop is just developing as smaller figlets on this year's new green shoots. Figs are very reliable in large containers - withstanding even really low temperatures in winter for short periods. I've got over a dozen varieties now with a range of ripening times. With even non-organic figs around one euro each in shops - they're well worth growing, very nutritious and dead easy. They are much more productive in a tunnel - really appreciating the extra warmth and shelter, where many varieties will crop twice a year.
 
  
While I'm on the subject of fruit - don't be tempted as I very stupidly was a couple of years ago by those lovely juicy-looking grapes trained as bushes in containers, which some of the garden retailers have at this time of year - the dead give away if you look at the label is that they usually have Italian wine names on them! They are grown in massive nurseries somewhere like Sardinia or southern Italy, and are totally unsuitable varieties for growing in Irish gardens - or even Irish greenhouses - we just don't get enough light and sun. If you only want vine leaves for 'Dolmades' that's fine - but they won't ripen their wood enough to produce decent grapes outside in our climate! I've also seen 'Muscat of Alexandria' for sale everywhere recently - that will do well in a warm greenhouse here - but not outside. Even in a greenhouse or tunnel it won't ripen until mid-late October or even November and is completely useless outside - but the labels don't mention that - if the importers even actually know! Mine is in a large tub, which I think hurries it up a bit - and it is utterly delicious, with a juicy muscat taste - in late OCTOBER! You could possibly ripen it in a warm porch too. Keep grapes under control (see June). I'm feeding all my grapes and figs in containers with every other watering now as the bunches of grapes are developing very fast. Never let them dry out completely, or the grapes shrivel and stop developing. The vines in the ground are all fed with tomato food once a week.

 

 Free Watercress for Healthy Winter Salads

 

It's worth taking some new cuttings of watercress now, to produce nice plants for September planting to give good winter crops.  It's by nature a creeping plant, and as soon as it's shoots are 4-5 in/10cm long - it starts to produce lots of roots at every leaf node in order to root itself into the soil. This is a great thing for grateful gardeners who may be short of salads - because as soon as you cut off those rooted side shoots and replant them they take off like rockets - and you will have a metre square bed of watercress in no time at all!  It's a terrific plant for the damp, shadier parts of the garden or tunnel polytunnel which many other plants don't like. If you can buy a nice bunch, or a very fresh bag of watercress, choose the healthiest looking shoots, take off the lower leaves which may rot quickly in the water and infect the stems, put them in a jar of water for a few days and they will quickly start to produce roots. You can then pot these up in organic potting compost and away you go! When they're big enough - plant them out in really fertile, moist soil. 
 
 
Contrary to popular opinion - watercress doesn't need running water - and indeed is not safe growing in damp mud or running water in a stream, as it may act as host to the tiny snail which can pass on liver fluke - not something you want!  Keep the plants well watered after planting though, or they will become tough and too peppery, particularly at this time of year. Also pinch off any flower buds you see developing, or they will flower and set seed, which stops them producing the lovely lush growth you want. Watercress is a brassica, so needs to occupy that spot in your rotation, but is otherwise mostly trouble-free and hugely productive all winter. I keep watercress growing indefinitely by propagating plants like this. I always keep a pot of newly rooted shoots in a shady spot in the tunnel or outside in summer and then I propagate more for the winter from those. Mine just goes on from year to year. Even more plants for free - nothing better!!
 
 

Think ahead to late autumn and winter crops

 
Sorry to spoil the summer party but if you don't think about autumn and winter crops now - you won't have very much! Many of these are better sown outside in modules now and brought under cover later on, as it's far too hot in tunnels at the moment.  See my 'What to Sow Now in July' list.
 
 
It's also time to order saffron bulbs now as they will need planting by the end of August. If you like living dangerously - you could wait until the beginning of August - when they're often discounted hugely so that seed/bulb companies can get rid of them. That's how I got mine originally. They're quite hardy and will grow outside, but they like to be baked in summer. Not only that - in my experience, we never get dry enough autumns to collect the saffron's valuables styles as it's always far too wet here!  So I grow mine in the tunnel now - you can even grow them in well drained containers. Good drainage and a summer baking is all that they need. If you live in the drier climate of Essex you may be able to grow it outside. Saffron Walden was named after saffron - it grew well there in the Middle Ages. It's worth taking a bit of trouble with it as it's so expensive to buy. The ultimate in cheffy 'one-upmanship' is a risotto made from your very own homegrown saffron!!
 
 
 
 Hearting chicory Sugar Loaf or 'Pain de Sucre'Hearting chicory Sugar Loaf or 'Pain de Sucre'
 
 
Don't forget that forcing chicory needs to be sown in the next week or so - or it won't be big enough to force for chicons in the winterI also grow the very reliable 'Sugar Loaf' chicory, which folds up it's huge outer leaves all by itself and makes lovely crunchy, light green 'cos-like' hearts after Christmas - not too bitter, delicious and very welcome healthy winter salad. It grows exceptionally well in the tunnel too - and the hens love the outer crunchy green leaves in late winter when there's not much in the way of green foods about for them. 
 
 
 
 
Swiss chard also benefits from being sown before the end of July for winter cropping in the tunnel, it's well worth sowing into modules outside soon, to plant in the tunnels later - where it's incredibly productive until the following late spring.
 
 
Now is also a good time to sow another crop of carrots now as they should miss the later hatching of carrot fly.  An early, fast-growing variety such as Nantes is good they'll produce good sized sweet roots in the autumn
 
 
 (P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in June - 2020

Topics for June:  You lose some - you win some! A tale of two cherries..... The first fruits of summer..... Can you have Strawberry Fields forever? .....Should you replace strawberry plants after 3 years?.....  Raspberries.....  Cherries..... Looking after Container & polytunnel fruit.... Summer citrus care....  Don't worry about the cream!...

The heartbreaking sight of splitting and rotting cherries The sour cherries should have a chance to ripen fully without bird damage under their cover of Enviromesh

 

You lose some - you win some!  A tale of two cherries

 

From my experience of the last 40 years of watching the increasingly erratic weather patterns undoubtedly associated with climate change, growing many varieties of fruit will become increasingly difficult in the future.  It will not always produce reliable crops - so I think that definitely the most sensible thing to do is to hedge one's bets by growing as wide a variety of health-giving fruits as possible. The erratic weather will often mean that there will be some years in which some varieties of particular tree fruits which flower early in the year, and then swell their fruits in gentle spring rains may be a disaster - as they have been this year. This year all of my apples were badly affected by the almost three-month long drought, the young fruitlets dropping off in May - as opposed to just some dropping in June - the fabled 'June drop' - which the old gardeners always talked about, after which they would select and thin the remaining fruits. This year - there were none to thin! 

 

At the end of May on examining the apple trees in the 5 year old new orchard, I found that due to cold, wet and windy weather at pollination-time, some had pollinated badly and were bearing very few fruits, whereas other varieties which flowered slightly earlier, had obviously missed that and had set many fruits. I was very worried though, and rightly so it transpired, knowing that since March we'd had a complete drought - and you can't water an entire orchard - even if there wasn't a hosepipe ban! You'd need your own water supply or lagoon - actually we did have our own water supply for our first few years here.  The hill we live on - appropriately named Springhill on old maps - has many springs which never ran dry even in the hottest summer - including a sparklingly clear one at the rear of our land where it separated our 5 acres from our neighbour.  It was so clean when we first came here that we often had eels travelling up it from the estuary a few miles further down the coast. Sadly, as I've often mentioned here on my blog - since our intensive famer neighbour bought the land adjoining us - that water supply has now gradually become so polluted with pesticides and artificial fertilisers that it now resembles a lifeless open sewer - so cannot be used for watering anything any more, and we had to fence it off so that livestock could no longer drink from it! 

 

Looking at the trees in the middle of this month - I found that almost all of the trees carrying fruits had already dropped them - with at most only 5 or 6 fruits on some - and none on others! Unfortunately it seems to be the later-ripening, long-keeping varieties which keep to Christmas or even early spring the following year that seem to have been the most affected. Many of these would all have flowered at around the same time, and are the varieties which I rely on to fill my winter apple store.  This is why it's so important to choose your varieties carefully if planting a new orchard or even just a tree or two so that you have a range of trees that not only overlap their flowering times and will pollinate each other - but also have diverse ripening times, depending on your needs.  We've had wonderful crops from the new orchard for the last three years, and also from the old orchard on the other side of our 5 acres, near our boundary.  There is not one apple in the old orchard this year, and the ones that are carrying the most fruit this year are a few earlier ripening ones which won't keep more than a couple of weeks, Red Devil, Charles Ross and the slightly later Christmas Pippin (which only just about keeps until Christmas!).

 

Exactly the same happened on the 'Celeste' sweet cherry trees! They had all clearly enjoyed perfect weather at pollination time, the bees as usual had done a fantastic job, and at the beginning of the month the trees were carrying the biggest crop I've ever seen.  After a few days of continuously high temperatures mid-month though - they were already dropping off at speed. Last week we had torrential rain for several days, and almost all of any fruits still left on the trees have split, and those not dropping off are going mouldy, as you can see from the heartbreakingly sad pictures above.  I try to be philosophical and not too down-hearted though, and to always find something to cheer me up and encourage me to keep going - even in the most disappointing of circumstances. This year it's the Sea Buckthorn which is looking fantastic - the berries so crowded along the branches that they reminded me of swarms of bees when I looked at them a couple of days ago. Although the picking and processing is without doubt the least fun and most painful of ANY fruit, even blackberries - they're also one of the most healthy, and are chock full of nutrients, so I'm always glad to have them in the freezer for immune-boosting and incredibly delicious winter smoothies tasting like a cross between Seville oranges and mouth watering orange sherbet. I always compare picking and processing Sea Buckthorn to being a bit like childbirth - absolute hell at the time but with very enjoyable results afterwards!  

 

Meanwhile, this morning I covered the sour cherries which are growing on the north wall of the stables, just opposite the polytunnel door, with a sheet of Enviromesh secured with wooden clothes pegs, which I hope will stop the birds spotting their bright red colour and also frighten them off as it flaps in the wind a bit. The birds had only just realised they are there as they've been so busy gobbling up all the damaged sweet cherries, At least we may get some cherries - even if only the sour ones - but at least they're great for cooking and even higher in healthy nutrients than the sweet varieties!  So as I say above - you lose some - you win some!

 

Fruit growing has always been a long-term investment - but 40 years ago when I planted my first orchard - that investment was a far more reliable oneNow it is much less certain, and the only way that we will be able to grow enough fruit to supply a healthy diet in the future will be to rely on a wide diversity of cultivars of different fruits, not to rely on huge monocultures of any one cultivar of cherry, apple. plum or whatever the type of fruit may be. Only that way can we ensure at least some fruit - whatever the weather may throw at us!

 

 


Mixed berries - Nature's precious midsummer jewels.

Mixed berries - Nature's precious midsummer jewels.

 

 

The first fruits of summer!

 

Above is a bowlful of the early mixed berries and cherries that we're enjoying from the polytunnel right now before the outside ones are ripe. There are raspberries Erika, Joan J and purple one Glen Coe, Tayberries, blackberry Reuben, Alpine (or wild-type) strawberries, also Albion, Mara des Bois, Gento and Old White strawberries, and Morello cherries.  I grow a wide variety in the polytunnel so that there is almost always something to pick no matter what the weather is like outside - or how ingenious the birds are!

 

Some of the more exotic top fruits like figs, potted dwarf cherries and early peaches are just starting to ripen now too - a little later that most years due to the lateness of the season - and it's really beginning to taste like high summer now! The ever-reliable perpetual-fruiting strawberries were the first fruits to produce berries in early May - but we've been eating fruit of all kinds for several weeks now as you can see above. The weather has been really hot during the days for most of the last few weeks - although the nights have been very cold.  Some nights have been really chilly, and today the weather is windy. Luckily though - with the protection of the polytunnel all the berry crops in pots will continue to crop well if kept well-watered - so they are definitely worth the space they take up!  The peaches are looking promising too. Keeping all fruit well watered and mulched will be most important in hot weather now - as the first thing to go is the fruit if plants are stressed by any dryness at the roots.  Due also to the good summer last year - there are a lot more bees around too - doing their vital job of pollination. As I'm constantly saying - growing flowers for bees and other pollinators is a good idea everywhere in the garden, including and especially in the fruit garden. Without bees - we wouldn't have a lot of fruit or nuts such as peaches, apricots, almonds and raspberries, to name just a few. Bees are vital to almost 3/4 of our food supply, so we need to encourage them and look after them by not using pesticides, particularly now that they're in serious trouble, being in decline in many areas. 

 

 

Tunnel grown strawberries Albion, Gento & Christine - a delicious bowlful

 Tunnel-grown strawberries Albion, Gento, Christine & Malling Centenary - which have been cropping since early May

 

Can you have Strawberry Fields forever?
 
 
Perpetual Strawberry - 'Malling Opal' - 63g!Perpetual Strawberry - 'Malling Opal' - 63g!

 

Well maybe not forever - but certainly from May until November if you grow some of the perpetual (or ever-bearing) varieties in a polytunnel! I ordered 'cold stored' runners of a new variety of 'perpetual' strawberry - from Ken Muir's Nursery last month by phone (I like to try at least one new variety of something each year). The beautifully established plug plants (with flower buds!) arrived quickly by post (you can't beat that) and are now already settling into their new home! They will fruit very soon - not too long to wait to try a new variety!  

 

 

Apropos the 'buying local' principle by the way - I always try all the Irish nurseries for plants first (more in hope than expectation!) Usually they have very little choice of varieties. The - 'couldn't care less' - "You can put your name down, and we might have it if we remember it next autumn" - which I've had from some nurseries is an attitude that doesn't really do it for me! Helpful, efficient, informative and knowledgeable (rare) service is so much better if you want people's return business! So many of the nurseries don't even sell the varieties that are best suited to our climate! 

 
 
I grow several different varieties of perpetual strawberries, as they're far better value for the space they take up than the summer fruiting varieties which take up just the same amount of space but only fruit once. The flavour of the perpetuals is just as good if not better.  After the first flush of fruit in June (or earlier in the tunnel),  they'll take a break for a couple of weeks, then continue flowering and fruiting all summer and autumn until the first frosts. In the tunnel they never seem to stop!  They're great value for money and really earn their space. All the varieties tend to differ slightly, both in cropping potential and flavour - 'Gento', the old strawberry I mentioned above was bred in France in the '60's and sadly is not available commercially any more but 'Mara des Bois', which was bred from it - softer but still with a fabulous flavour, and it's widely available. 'Albion' is another good fruiter with a great flavour which even freezes well - thawing without falling apart - and 'Everest' is good too. One I got a couple of years ago - 'Malling Opel' - seemed a bit of a shy fruiter at first, but it's settled down nicely now into regular cropping, has a great flavour and is just enormous! Unusually the berries will hold a long time on the plants once they look ripe - and actually develop an even deeper flavour the longer you can bear to leave them! The same goes for many of the more modern varieties - which tend to be firmer and keep longer as they've been bred for travel-ability and shelf life. They don't all have the best flavour though - so what's the point?  As I always say - looks aren't everything! Growing your own allows you to choose the variety and also to pick it at maximum ripeness for the very best flavour.
 
 
Early varieties of summer strawberries should all be cropping well now. It's really important to keep them up off the ground with a good old fashioned mulch of straw, even in dry weather. This keeps them clean and keeps the air circulating around the fruit - helping to prevent grey mould (botrytis) disease. If you do find any fruit which is diseased then pick it off straight away, or it will infect everything else very quickly! 
 

 

Should you replace strawberry plants after 3 years?

 

Some people say you should replace strawberry stocks after three years but personally I think that's unnecessary if your plants are healthy.  It's perfectly alright to continue to propagate from healthy plants. This year my old favourite Gento seems even better than ever - thoroughly rejuvenated and enjoying the five star treatment it's now getting in the east tunnel and the last few weeks of hot weather! It has been producing wave after wave of huge delicious fruits and has been flowering continuously since early May! The most important thing with strawberries is to ONLY EVER propagate from the most productive plants which are fruiting well, with perfect looking, healthy leaves - not twisted or blotched with yellow, which might indicate virus. Then you can't go wrong. It's also a good idea to move them to fresh ground every 3-4 years.

 

We've been enjoying the first of our strawberries from the tunnels for over a month now. We had a taste testing recently and decided that meltingly delicious Gento was still definitely tops for flavour - with Albion coming a close second, Mara des Bois next, then Malling Opal and the much vaunted old French variety Gariguette after that. Christine and Malling Centenary came last - good flavour but not that sensational - and I want sensational in strawberries! Malling Centenary is the one set to replace Elsanta - which I don't grow because I think it's completely tasteless - sadly that's the one sold in many garden centres! Malling Centenary is summer fruiting - but a huge cropper with a pretty good taste and also good disease resistance. Gento is an old variety I've mentioned before - which was bred in France in the early 1960's - and my stock came as runners taken from plants growing in the garden where I grew up almost 40 years ago. I took some runners from the plants in the kitchen garden there, when my now grown-up children were toddlers - and the plants I have now are the much-propagated offspring of those original plants! I would hate to lose them - they're such a lovely connection to that magical garden every inch of which I remember so well, and visit so often in my daydreams.  Most of it, including the 6 acres of wonderful orchards I played in as a child and saw my first Robin's nest. are now sadly lost forever under a ghastly housing estate - like so many other long lost old gardens! 

 
 
Conventionally-grown strawberries are one of the most sprayed crops! I think that many people are unaware of this.  In organic gardening and farming, good husbandry and good housekeeping take the place of the fungicides and pesticides used as a matter of course in conventional chemical growing. Keeping one step ahead of any possible pests and diseases is the key.  Keep an eye out for any slugs too - they'll hide under the straw if you use it and come out at night for a strawberry supper if they get the chance! My early variety of choice now is Christine, which I think tastes every bit as good as the old variety Royal Sovereign - the flavour 'yardstick' for the last century or so. 'Christine' is very disease resistant and reliable, and forces very well in pots, so I usually have a good succession from early May onwards, first in the tunnel and then outside (barring accidents!!).  I always take fresh runners of strawberries I want to force every year, growing them on outside in 2 litre pots for the rest of the year, and then bringing them into the tunnel in early February. As always when propagating anything - I make sure to take runners only from the heaviest cropping and healthiest-looking plants!
 
 
Strawberries must also be securely covered against marauding blackbirds now - who like Goldilocks always like to try tasting a few before they find one that's just right! As a result, they can do a lot of damage very quickly - so l check the netting covering them every day - to make sure there are no chinks where they can sneak in!  Do make sure though that the netting you use is large enough to allow bees in easily though, so that they can pollinate all fruits, or you'll have very poor crops. The really big bumble bees can get stuck in very fine netting poor things, and life is tough enough for them right now!  Without bees - we wouldn't have any crops or be around ourselves for long either!
 
 

Raspberries

 
The enormous delicious fruits of autumn raspberry Joan JThe enormous delicious fruits of autumn raspberry Joan J
 
  
The early crop on the 'primocane' types of autumn fruiting raspberries (which crop again on last autumn's fruited canes) is just flowering now outside - and in the fruit tunnel, the pots of 'Joan J' brought in earlier on to bring them forward are already ripening their huge delicious fruits.  As soon as the old canes I left on from last year have finished fruiting, all of them will be cut back down to the base and the plants fed, so that they can concentrate all their energy into the new canes already developing which will fruit this autumn and again, lower down the canes, in early summer next year. I grow the excellent large, tasty varieties 'Brice' (red), 'Allgold' (yellow fruited), and also 'Joan J' - a new variety which Joy Larkcom recommended to me when she was staying here  a few years ago - she thought it tasted as good as the variety 'Brice', which I already had in the garden. Actually I think it's even better. It's a huge cropper, with big, firm fruits that freeze exceptionally well. I've been growing it for about 6 years now and I love it. Last year I potted some up in 10lt pots and they fruited really well last autumn. We even had a few for Christmas! They're now carrying a huge early crop which is just starting to ripen. The experiment was definitely a great success.
 
 
  
I love experimenting - that's what makes gardening interesting, and how you find new ways of doing things. The old kitchen gardeners of centuries ago were masters of extending the seasons at either end. I often see 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss' recommended, (rather than the newer and better Brice and Joan J), I tried them both years ago and neither were anything like as good as those I've mentioned.  I'm actually sorry I ever planted them, as they've both become very invasive weeds in the garden!!  I keep digging them out wherever I find them and planting them down in the wood for the wildlife but I just can't get rid of them!) I love the good tasting summer varieties too - but like strawberries - if you've only got room for one row of raspberries, then it makes more sense to grow one of the new autumn fruiting ones - they have just as good a flavour and are so much better value for the space they occupy since they produce fruit twice a year if you feed them well and prune them my way.
 
 
When it comes to pests - if you've done your homework properly and encouraged a good balanced environment for attracting birds and beneficial insects into your garden - then you shouldn't really have much of a problem. The odd greenfly - if you can find any -is easily dealt with by a sharp jet from the hose, but I've hardly seen one all year so far, as the huge population of birds are absolutely desperate for food for their fledglings, and are constantly patrolling the garden searching for insects. Due to a few bad summers for insect breeding - apart from last summer - food supplies may be short - so if you keep feeding the birds, with peanuts (in a feeder) and mealworms - either dried or fresh, it will encourage them to stay in your garden and they'll help you keep potential pests down - rather than going further afield. 
 
 
Diseases, as I've already mentioned, are normally avoided by good cultivation techniques - giving plants optimum growing conditions, good air circulation and good hygiene practices  by that I mean keeping an eye out for any rotting or diseased fruit and disposing of it immediately. Consistent - rather than erratic watering also helps to keep plant stress down, feeding properly and also mulching - to retain moisture, keep roots cool and stop any competition from weed growth.  Fruit like gooseberries can suffer from powdery mildew if they become dry at the roots but growing the newer, more disease resistant varieties like 'Invicta' can help.
 
 
Look after fruit in containers and polytunnel fruit
 
 
If you have any kind of fruit in containers - keep plants consistently and evenly watered or any developing fruit may drop off. The first thing any fruiting plants do if they're stressed is to ditch their fruit! This can often happen with figs about 2-3 weeks after they've gone short of water - and often you don't remember why they're now dropping fruit. Constantly just moist, not saturated or very dry, is the key with them. It's also a good thing to feed them weekly with a good quality, organic, high-potash liquid tomato feed. If you don't have your own comfrey/nettle feed, or are not sure of it's consistent quality, then it's worth buying a good balanced proprietary organic brand such as Osmo liquid tomato feed - which I find excellent for everything. Being short of the correct nutrients will also stress the plant and could potentially affect next year's fruit bud development. If you're planting permanent fruit in containers of whatever sort - always make sure there's good drainage and leave enough room at the top for watering and mulching.
 
 
If you're growing grapes keep pinching out the fruiting shoots two leaves beyond the developing bunch on each spur as the shoots grow, and any sub-laterals growing off those shoots to one leaf beyond their base. One good sized bunch per spur is enough for the vine to develop and ripen properly if you want decent sized dessert grapes of seeded varieties - but you can let the seedless ones carry two bunches per spur. Give them a weekly feed now, whether they're in pots or in  the ground. Tie in any non-fruiting leading shoots, particularly on seedless grapes - you'll be depending on those for next year's crop! 
 
 
Figs confined in pots need feeding at every other watering now as the early 'breba' crop is developing and so are tiny young autumn figlets. Don't let them dry out completely and wilt or they will immediately drop developing fruitlets. The overwintered crop of figs on some varieties is starting to ripen now - I can't wait! I'm almost tempted to say these are my favourites too!....Oh hang it - I just love all fruit! The same goes for peaches, which are developing fast now, the early ones being almost table-tennis ball sized now.
 

The golden berries/cape gooseberries now ripe on last year's overwintered plants come ready-packed by Nature in their own, protective little 'designer' paper cases!  Cape gooseberries are actually tender perennials and are worth trying to keep over winter if you have room for them, in order to get an early crop.  I'm also growing a new variety this year, from The Seed Coop - called Schonbrunner Gold. Although it was only sown on the 20th March - it's looking very healthy and vigorous, already flowering and I'm very pleased with it.  Once they start to produce fruit, the productive bushes will keep on flowering and fruiting all summer and autumn in the tunnel. They'll be ripening from late July/August onwards, and the fruit will keep in their little paper cases for months in the salad drawer of the fridge.
 
 
Summer citrus care
 
Lemons in pots can stand outside during the summer in a sheltered spot out of the wind. They're flowering at the moment and the bees will help to pollinate them. Don't forget to water them and give them a high nitrogen liquid feed like nettle stew - mixed with rainwater (not tap water) every fortnight. On TV some time ago we were shown some miserably 'chlorotic'-looking yellowy-leaved lemon trees - the proud presenter didn't mention that they are actually lime-hating plants like rhododendrons - or perhaps he didn't actually know! 
 
 
All citrus trees are starting to make a lot of new growth now - the small, soft, brownish-red new shoots also carry the beautifully scented flowers. The older leaves may be looking a little yellowish after the winter - particularly if you've used tap water at all for watering them - which they hate!  You can remedy this mineral imbalance by using an organic feed like Maxicrop seaweed and sequestered iron feed, which is widely available. Lemons can be incredibly productive if you look after them well - and they're not complicated to grow - just treat them like rhododendrons or other ericaceous plants. Scale insect is the worst pest - and can be easily dealt with by using an organic soap spray - but NOT when the soft young shoots are developing or you will burn them. The soap works a treat as it coats the scale insect all over so then it can't breathe through it's skin as it normally would, so it suffocates and dies. Scale insect can badly weaken the plants and make 'honeydew' which encourages 'sooty mould'  to grow - disfiguring and again weakening the trees by blocking photosynthesis.  Small infestations can also be dealt with by painting gently heated and then cooled, liquid coconut oil onto each insect - a time consuming but very effective job for a wet day!
 
 
From now on I also give mine a weekly feed of Osmo Universal Organic plant food - mixed into rainwater.  This is a balanced feed and I find it works very well on lemons, or anything else where you want to promote growth or that needs a bit of a boost. It works very fast too. Don't use a high potash chemical tomato food on lemons as they don't like them.
 

 

Don't worry about the cream! Just enjoy the bountiful harvests of summer 

 

The latest scientific thinking on that is that all dairy products are actually good for you!  I always thought they were anyway! And of course all organic dairy products, including cream, are naturally far higher in good Omega 3 fats than non-organic, so that means they're even healthier!  The fat in dairy products is where most of the nutrients are. If you're worried about all the calories - then just work them off with all that weeding and mulching!!  Actually though, I think creme fraiche is much nicer than cream anyway - it's even better for you than ordinary cream - as it's also probiotic, and especially so if you make it at home more cheaply using kefir grains. Try making an ice cream with just strawberries, homemade creme fraiche or yogurt, a little sugar or organic Stevia drops and a dash of lemon juice - it's heavenly! Yum!  That's for when you get fed up with them straight, or dipped in melted 99% dark chocolate of course - and that's not just healthy - but it's positively medicinal in fact, with all the healthy polyphenols in the dark chocolate!! 

 

Really the best thing about growing your own organic fruit is that you can eat it properly ripe and still warm from the sun - while it's super-fresh and mouth-wateringly good! - Enjoy!

 

(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 July - 2020

Remember, always sow the seeds. You can catch up on everything else, but if you don't sow seeds on time - you may have lost your chance. This is especially important for any late autumn and winter crops that need starting off now! 

 

Ruby chard Vulcan - one of the best winter crops in the polytunnel our outside Hearting chicory Sugar Loaf or 'Pain de Sucre' - another winter standby in the polytunnel or outside
Ruby chard Vulcan - one of the best winter crops in the polytunnel or outside.  Hearting chicory 'Sugar Loaf' or 'Pain de Sucre' - another winter standby in the polytunnel or outside

 

  *Also very important* - If you haven't got seeds of winter vegetables you will need then get them as soon as possible, as many garden centre shops take their seed displays down this month, and online may also be sold out. Things are calming down a bit on the seed sowing front now - but many crops that need sowing now need sowing as soon as possible, if you want to get decent crops over the winter, as with light levels decreasing growth of many crops slows up dramatically towards the end of this month. After that, only the faster-growing autumn crops will reliably give you a good crop before the winter, and growth of overwintering veg like chicory and chards will also be much poorer. Remember that plant growth is governed by light - not warmth.

 

Due to COVID19 many seed suppliers are already sold out or short of seeds such as chard and perpetual spinach beet this year, so I suggest get your skates on, and order them before you miss your chance!  But please don't buy more than one packet, as it's unnecessary and may result in others being disappointed.  If the seeds you buy are open-pollinated, non-F1 varieties, then next spring and summer you can easily save seed from them which will be far healthier and more vigorous than anything you could ever buy.

  
Seeds to sow now for late autumn & overwinter protected polytunnel crops: 
 
 
Sow outdoors in pots or modules, for planting later on in the tunnel or greenhouse when space is freed up and the tunnel or greenhouse is cooler: 
 
 
Calabrese*, kales such as Cavalo Nero, dwarf green or red curled and Ragged Jack, Florence fennel, beetroot, kohl rabi, Swiss chards**, early peas, dwarf broad beans, Sugar Loaf chicory**, basil, coriander, dill, plain leaved & curly parsley, and sorrel. Covering while outdoors with a fine mesh-covered frame or cloche will give young seedlings protection from pests (like cabbage root fly and cabbage white butterflies), and also from scorching sun, strong winds or heavy rain.
 
 
In the polytunnel, if you have any vacant space after clearing early summer crops, you can still sow:
 
 
Dwarf and climbing French beans, or early varieties of peas such as Kelvedon Wonder to crop in late autumn* (otherwise sow in pots or modules for planting later when space becomes available). Sowing in pots and modules helps to make the most of valuable tunnel space as it means that you can have large plants ready for planting as soon as any early summer crops are cleared.
 

 

Seeds to sow outdoors for autumn and overwinter crops: 

 

 In modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop

 

Beetroot, brocoletto 'Cima di Rapa', carrots, cabbages ('Greyhound' and leafy non-hearting spring types**), overwintering spring-heading cauliflowers**, peas* (early dwarf vars.only now), Florence fennel, 'Witloof' chicory (for winter forcing), sugar loaf chicory, radicchios, endives, salad onions, claytonia, landcress, lettuces (Lattughino, Fristina, Winter Density, Jack Ice, Cherokee, all good varieties), kohl rabi, 'Hungry Gap' kale (for spring cropping), radishes, rocket, Swiss chards and leaf beets, perpetual and summer spinach, summer white or yellow turnips, Chinese cabbage, Choy Sum, Pak choi, mizuna, mustard 'Red Frills' and other oriental leaves, Chinese kale (Kailaan), lamb's lettuce (corn salad), salad mixes, herbs such as parsley, chervil, coriander, dill, fennel, buckler-leaved and French sorrel.

 

Also sow some single, quick growing, annual flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), calendula, Californian poppies, nasturtiums, phacelia, etc. to attract beneficial insects like hover flies to help with pest control, and bees to help with crop pollination. Sow fast growing green manures like buckwheat, red clover, mustard (which is a brassica so watch rotations) and Phacelia, to improve the soil, 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms (after digging in), on any empty patches of ground cleared of early crops that won't be used for 6 weeks or so, or which needs improving. This is also the best time of year to sow all types of hardy herbaceous perennials, biennials and wildflowers. Foxgloves, primulas and hellebores in particular germinate really quickly and easily if sown as soon as this year's seed is ripe. 

 

Again - sowing into modules means that you will get maximum crops out of your space by always having something ready to plant wherever there is room - bigger module-raised plants are also more resistant to slugs and other pests. Sowing a wildflower meadow mix in seed trays or modules is actually a far more reliable method of establishing a new meadow than trying to sow directly into grass where there is too much competition from other mature plants and also many pests. These can be planted out in patches later.


(*Early July only, ** mid-late July)

 
N.B. At this time of year, it is best to sow modules in the evenings, or in the shade if possible - 
 
Germination of many seeds can be badly affected or sometimes even completely prevented by very high temperatures - this applies particularly to lettuce and spinach seed which can become dormant if sown at too high a temperature. You don't want to 'cook' your plants until you're ready to eat them!  
 
Once again - don't forget that all growth begins to slow down progressively from the end of July onwards due to the decrease in daylight length. So in order to get a worthwhile, continuous winter harvest of some varieties, you will need at least one and a half times as many plants of leafy crops in particular, than you normally would need for summer crops. 

 
!! A warning - If you are collecting seed from plants. -  It's a great time of year for saving all types of seed from your own plants - but be careful! Many kinds of plants - particularly Hellebores and Euphorbias - have irritant toxic sap which can give you very severe and extremely painful burn-like blisters on the ends of your fingers and hands - as I know to my cost! To be on the safe side - always wear gloves when collecting seed from any plant - even if they're not well-known to actually be toxic - you never know what you personally may be allergic to!!

The Vegetable Garden in June - 2020

Topics for June: Strength in Diversity means strength in Adversity .... Keep Sowing Healthy Salads.... There's still time to sow flowers for pollinators....  Potato Blight - my way of dealing with it.... Keeping diseases and pests at bay..... Dealing with slugs and leatherjackets.....  Mulching cuts down on 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 biodiverse French 'Potager' style.  Brassica bed planted with nasturtiums, Tagetes and Viola
 
 
 
 Strength in Diversity means strength in Adversity
 
 
Growing a diverse range of flowers, herbs and other crops in your potager or vegetable garden increases the range of biodiversity not just above ground, but also in the soil. This will become increasingly important if we want to be more self-sufficient in an uncertain world, where we can no longer rely on the weather and reliably predict what will grow well at any time of year.  As we try to be as self-sufficient as possible here - growing a wide range of crops means that there's always something to pick no matter what happens. If one crop is a disaster - then usually there are several others to harvest, even in winter. Research also shows that having that broad range of biodiversity increases the chances of crops either not being attacked by pests or diseases, or recovering from them more quickly and easily. .
 
 
I'm a big fan of French potager-style gardens that mix flowers, fruit and herbs with vegetables.  They have always seemed a far more natural way of growing things to me, because that's the way Nature grows things - all mixed up together, without lots of bare soil.  At the moment I'm seeing lots of lovely photographs of other people's vegetable gardens on Twitter. Many are incredibly neat, controlled and very tidy-looking with their neat rows of vegetables, with lots of weed-free soil between the rows, but to me some of them look incredibly sterile and sad - almost like mono-cultures - with bare soil everywhere! Now I know that some chaps tend to think that planting flowers with your veg is a bit 'girly' but it's not! There's actually a very good scientific reason behind it - quite apart from the fact that it looks beautiful! If you don't have flowers that produce nectar and pollen - then why would any self-respecting beneficial insect visit your plot to lay its eggs? Nature isn't that stupid or altruistic - insects need food as much as we do! 
 
 
The added extra of planting flowers for bees and other insects is that not only does this help with pest control - thereby making your garden more productive - but it also makes the vegetable garden look even more decorative. In my opinion, contrasting flowers make rows of delicious vegetables look even better! This is particularly important in a small garden where you may not have enough space for separate areas. I often used to visit the late Rosemary Verey's beautiful potager garden at Barnsley House, near Cirencester in Gloucestershire. It was an inspiration, as are dear Joy Larkcom's wonderfully delicious-looking books. One day I hope to make it to see the potager at Villandry. If only there were 48 hours in every day!  I think that nothing looks prettier or more satisfying than a neat, productive garden full of good things to eat, interspersed with flowers and fruit trees! The trouble is - picking them spoils the nice patterns!  
 
 
Keep Sowing Healthy Salads
 
 
Stepladder salads by my front door - planted standing on one leg!Stepladder salads by my front door last year - planted standing on one leg!
 
I'm always saying that the most important thing you can do every day is to eat a green salad - picked as fresh as possible, early in the morning when all it's valuable phytonutrients are at their highest levels. I like to have a range of ingredients, so that I have the broadest range of nutrients possible. Last year due to my broken ankle, I didn't get my early summer salads planted in the outside beds, as I couldn't stand to prepare the beds obviously!  But - determined not to be defeated - while my daughter was here helping, I got her to bring what I call my step ladder garden around to the front door which I could just hobble to - so that I could plant some salads on it that I would be able to harvest every day after she was gone. I was amazed it's still holding together (famous last words!) as I bought it about 25 years ago now and have been growing stuff on it ever since!  The two lettuces I planted - Lollo Rossa and Cosberg - have done really well. I'm picking a few individual leaves every day, that's the best way to get a long harvest from lettuces if you only have a small space. My step ladder garden takes up less than 1/2 a square metre space, even with a couple of pots either side for tomatoes or other salad vegetables, it's something you could do even on a balcony, so it's well worth doing. I'm so glad I did!  It's been through many variations over the years, and if you want to copy my idea - there's a link here to a blog post I wrote about it a few years ago, with lots more ideas :
 
 
This year, even though I still haven't yet had the surgery to correct my ankle problems due to COVID19 - I've managed to get half of one of the potager beds in the kitchen garden planted with a range of lettuces, celery and broccoli - as none of those would do well in the heat of the polytunnel at this time of year. It's so important to have all those fresh salads - as emerging science is now showing that eating the healthiest diet we possibly can is the best defence we currently have against the effects of the virus.
 
 
There's still time to Sow Flowers for Pollinators
 
 
Don't forget that if you haven't yet sown annual flowers to attract beneficial insects and bees and other insects like hoverflies - 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 mostly be single-flowered or they're not much use to insects!  It's also important to ask the garden centre if they've been grown using neonicotinoid insecticides in the compost. The garden centre staff may think you're a 'barmy green' as I was described recently - but if you explain that most of the food we eat is actually provided thanks to pollination by bees - and that they're seriously under threat from these poisonous insecticides - then they may start to listen. If you don't mention that - they will think that this issue is something they needn't concern themselves with, because the customer doesn't care. 
 
 
Many plants have bee-friendly labels on them now - but there is actually no legal definition for 'bee -friendly' and the plants labelled as such can still be grown using bee-damaging pesticides! These pesticides can 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. You don't want to kill them - and neither do you want to eat veg grown in soil which contains those chemicals! It's really good to know that by growing so many flowers with my veg - that I'm not just doing it because it looks pretty - but I'm helping bees and other beneficial insects to survive!
 

 

 Potato Blight - my way of dealing with it

 

I keep a sharp eye out for potato blight now, as conditions will be ideal for its 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 can build up in the soil if overused, particularly in clay soils. 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, by growing them my way.

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

Even early blight doesn't  bother me now though - because in a normal year, all my potatoes are already flowering and developing their tubers nicely. I normally plant the outside crop in mid April in the way you can see here. They were all started off in early March and by then were already well developed plants with a good root ball. After planting I always give them a good watering and then a heavy mulch of grass clippings which keeps the moisture in and weeds down - making sure to leave the stems clear of mulch which could rot them. After laying down the mulch I then water again - to ensure that no fumes are given off as the clippings don't heat up -  which can burn leaves. The heavy mulch seals the surface, blocking out light so that weeds don't germinate and also stops the water evaporating too quickly - creating too humid an atmosphere around the plants and possibly encouraging blight. I then don't water again until the flowers are open - because this is the time when they start to develop their tubers. Less watering means less possibility of encouraging blight - so the best time to water is when you know plants will need it most.

 

Blight spores are in the air everywhere all the time, waiting for exactly the right conditions - warmth and high humidity. Really good air circulation and low humidity conditions are the keys to avoiding it as long as possible. That, and growing more resistant varieties - like those pictured below - of which a few are being bred now. Sadly though they don't always have the wonderful flavour of the varieties I grow. There haven't been too many nights of frost since my potato plants were planted, so luckily I've only had to cover them a couple of times with a double layer of fleece to protect them from frost - there's no damage at all and they're growing really well. I always take fleeces off first thing in the morning as air circulation is so important to keep disease at bay.  Despite hailstone the size of marbles in early May - there was no damage and they were looking really beautiful, but this morning are looking somewhat battered and bowed by the torrential rain overnight. They will recover though - but I shall now keep my eyes peeled for those first signs. Someone told me a couple of years ago about a really daft idea they had read somewhere - which was - "to cover the plants with polythene at the first sign of blight in order to stop it getting to the plants"! That's definitely the best way to reduce air circulation and the best recipe for encouraging blight as fast as possible that I've ever heard!!  You can't shut blight out - any more than you can stop plants breathing!

 

Innovator flowering - a blight resistant cultivar called Albert Bartlett Russet in UK Naturally  blight-resistant potato Vitelotte  flowering Potato Tibet flowering - the most blight resistant potato I have ever grown.

 

 As soon as I see any signs of blight on the Red Duke of York - always my best blight indicator, then I 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 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 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 last 30 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-based weedkillers which are used to spray off the foliage before harvest in order to make it easier for machines to harvest the potatoes). Even blight sprays aren't effective enough some years though - in that case farmers often then don't even bother lifting the crops because it's not economic - and they just plough them back in. Sometimes not for months though - leaving them rotting in the ground, and this just leads to even more blight proliferating in our mild damp winter climate here in Ireland!  That creates the perfect conditions for the evolution of blight resistance - and the smell of rotting crops is disgusting around here sometimes. I am convinced that this practice combined with increasing use of fungicidal sprays has contributed in a major way to the development of more resistant strains of blight over the last few decades.

 

I am also convinced that the amount of chemicals the general population is consuming now if they're eating these crops is going to cause a 'Tsunami' of health problems in years to come. Many scientists are beginning to worry about this issue too. Just this week some new evidence emerged about fungicides that are routinely used on many crops. Many think that fungicides are less harmful - but recent research has found that they induce changes in gene expression in mice similar to those in people with autism and neuro-degenerative conditions like Huntingdon's disease. This could explain the increasing incidence of such diseases. They're certainly not what I would want to eat - which is why I grow all mine organically with no sprays whatsoever - not even organic ones like copper that are allowed under some organic guidelines! Growing potatoes my way, I find that I can grow enough potatoes to see us through the year without using any sprays. It might be a little more trouble - but I believe it's worth it!

 
 
Keeping diseases and pests at bay in other crops
 
 
When it comes to diseases in other crops - constant vigilance and good housekeeping is the order of the day - especially so in salad crops like lettuce! Botrytis and downy mildew can spread like wildfire 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 every year's Irish Garden advice stand at the Bord Bia Bloom garden festival in early June are about that, as it is normally very prevalent at this time of year. I don't think too many will have problems with it this year though - as we've been experiencing unusually cold and wet weather throughout the British Isles thanks to the erratic weather of climate change.. 
 
 
Dealing with Slugs and Leatherjackets
 
 
The scourge of wet weather - slugs - are a problem every year! They can be dealt with in a number of ways. 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 at first - 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 who are reliant on them for food.  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.  Leather jackets are the larvae of the Daddy Longlegs or cranefly!  Leaving beds vacant and forking over lightly 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. 
 
 
 
Mulching cuts down on Watering
 
 
Courgette bed mulched with grass clippings showing how it packs down and knits together after 10 days - keeping weeds downCourgette bed mulched with grass clippings showing how it packs down and knits together after 10 days - keeping weeds down
 
I've seen so many people complaining about having to water their veg gardens on social media recently, just before we had the massive down pours of the last couple of days (well we didn't have rain - but everyone else seems to have done!). At the same time - I'm seeing the photos they're posting of pale, dead-looking, carbon-deficient soil, especially on allotments - which is just crying out for a good mulch of organic material! Watering without mulching is a waste of water - as much of it just evaporates off into the atmosphere!
 
 
Keeping plants well mulched after you've watered and the soil is moist is vitally important now, as crops are growing fast and will soon become stressed if they dry out, which reduces the length and amount of their crop and makes them run to seed early. A good heavy mulch reduces evaporation so you will need to water less often. It also keeps plant roots cool. Containers can often need watering twice a day in warm weather - a bit of a drag I know - but if you want to grow stuff and have no garden - it can still be done! 
 
  
A good soaking and then mulching with grass clippings, compost or other organic material really pays off. As I've said above - remember to keep any mulch a couple of inches away from the stems. Protecting all bare soil with an organic mulch helps to buffer it against drought, and as the worms gradually work it in, it naturally becomes humus, which acts like a sponge and absorbs more water. This is one of the reasons industrial chemical farming ruins soils, because it uses up soil carbon and humus, and doesn't return organic matter like straw-based manures and recycled plant wastes as farming did for hundreds of years, and as organic farmers still do now. The unnaturally chemically fed soil gradually becomes just a lifeless dust. Without any added humus it's carbon store is depleted and so it doesn't absorb water. More and more hedges and field margins have also been taken out which would have absorbed water. Heavy rain then just runs off quickly causing flooding problems, pollution of rivers etc. That's what we suffered in many places this spring. Plants then also become stressed and sick - needing even more chemicals to keep them alive!! 
 
 
Effective watering at the roots where it's most needed is the key, rather than just aimlessly splashing it about on the surface where it just evaporates - or even worse - on the plant's leaves! Timing is everything too. As I've already mentioned - potatoes, for instance, benefit most from water just as they come into flower, as that's when the tubers are really starting to swell. I always water everything by hand. It can be time consuming at times, but I prefer doing this because I grow so many different types of crops together, often 'catch-cropping', inter-planting or 'poly-cropping' (the latest 'buzz word'!) with salads or other fast-growing crops between rows of slower growing crops, which all need different amounts of water. I've tried various automatic systems over the years, but find they tend to waste water and never really do it as well as you would yourself.  Doing it by hand also means you're really looking at your plants, getting to know them well and noticing any possible first signs of something going wrong - a few aphids perhaps, or a spot of mildew. Powdery mildew is often a sign that things are too dry at the roots. I find that courgettes in containers always suffer from this in particular - they tend to crop brilliantly for a few weeks - as my early ones in the west tunnel are doing right now.  But then no matter how much you water, as the plants get bigger they will get mildew on the leaves. Those growing in the ground are far happier really - but again - if you have no garden - containers are the only option, so you can get around the problem by sowing another few, 3-4 weeks after the first ones, then when the first ones go beyond the point where they're still cropping well - the next ones should start cropping.

 
Water is a precious and valuable resource, not just for us humans but for all life, so don't waste it, save every drop you can. If you're recycling grey water, make sure you're not using chemicals like bleaches and disinfectants, and use it as soon as you collect it, as it can become a bit smelly if you store it! I prefer to use it for crops that are going to be cooked rather than salads! I think that all new houses should by law have to install rainwater harvesting systems, for uses such as flushing toilets etc. If you collect as much rainwater as possible like I do - Hoselock do a very useful and efficient water pump which you can use to pump water out of water butts and onto your garden, it saves a lot of back breaking work carrying water to where you want it as you can attach a lose to it. It comes out pretty fast though - so make sure you're aim is careful!

  
 
Keep the ground busy - don't waste an inch of growing space! 
 
 
Have something ready to go in pots or modules so that you can plant it immediately any crop is finished and cleared. Things grow really fast at this time of year, so "gather ye rosebuds (or vegetables) while ye may"! - After the summer solstice, growth starts to slow up, in some cases quite dramatically! You should be starting to enjoy some of the rewards of your efforts this month - if you're lifting early potatoes, don't forget to save a few for a really early crop next year as it's difficult to buy them early enough in Ireland - and even if you order online they don't always come in time to get them sprouting before mid January. We've been eating new potatoes since mid April from the earliest plantings in the tunnel. 
 
 
Virused 'Roseval surrounded by healthy plantsVirused 'Roseval' on the left, surrounded by other healthy plants
 
Make absolutely sure you only save 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 picture 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 sowing pumpkins, squashes and sweetcorn this weekend. A bit late due to my ongoing ankle and knee problems which can't be dealt with until the COVID19 pandemic is over. But I hate being without them, they grow fast, and the weather is so unpredictable nowadays. I sowed them on this date last year and they did really well, planted in the polytunnel. Usually by now any pumpkins due to be planted outside have been potted on as small seedlings into 2 litre pots and are by 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, 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 another hot spell and plants go to seed.  Even at this time of year I still sow into modules - that way plants are bigger, and much more resistant to the odd nibble from pests, or from bad weather.. 
 
 
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 bed where the potted potatoes are sitting  - 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 dahliasI 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. If 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 within a few days and it's fascinating watching them develop. When you think they have enough roots, then pot them up in a small pot of seed compost and water well. The low nutrient in seed compost is a sort of half-way house between the water they were in and their future home and shouldn't burn the roots. The people who sell these tubers at vastly inflated prices won't like me for telling you this - but that's nothing new! Often the cost of buying plants puts people off trying the more exotic veg - and they can be great fun to grow!
 
 
 
Making high-rise, deep raised, (or 'no-dig') beds
 
 
New raised bed looking northNew 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 (organic for over 35 years) which was left over 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 composts, manure or even mushroom compost (horror!) as some advise!  Doing that can seriously upset the balance of soil life and nutrients - and if non-organic, would also contain contaminants like pesticides and weedkillers used in both the production of the original straw and hay in the manure, and also any worm treatments or antibiotics used for treating animals. Mushroom compost is originally made from conventional, 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 organochlorine 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! 
 
 
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Keep up with hoeing the weeds if you have any bare soil. Mulching is better for soil though, as I said earlier, and if you weed well first, and then put on a thick light excluding mulch - that will keep weeds down effectively 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 at 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 if you sow some clover into it as well, this will fix 'free' atmospheric nitrogen, adding hugely to the soil's fertility when you cover it to start a 'no-dig' regime or dig it in. 
 
Remember - it's always far better to cultivate a smaller patch really well, than take on too much and end up with an unproductive mess!
 
 
What can you do about spray drift?
 
 
This is becoming an increasing problem in many areas of Ireland and the UK where people living in rural areas are being directly affected and their air, gardens and even water polluted.  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 tillage crops 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 declared by the makers, Monsanto, 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.  The Department of Agriculture's waste of public money in paying a top official to visit 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!  They just do it whenever it suits their work schedule, and then walk away with no penalty if they cause environmental problems, seemingly no matter what they do!  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 that spray-drift incident - it is that serious. The sprays smell a bit like Jeyes fluid or creosote fence preservative.  Remember - if you can smell it on the air - then that air you are breathing in is full of the aerosol particles of whatever is being sprayed - and you are being forced to breathe in cancer-causing poisons with absolutely 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!
 
Sadly if Boris Johnson has his way in the UK - pesticides currently banned there, but allowed in the USA will be deregulated and that means that chemical farmers in the UK will undoubtedly use them - in order not to be at a disadvantage in any trade deal which will allow US produce into the UK after Brexit! The same will happen with GMOs or genetically engineered crops. If this happens, it could destroy UK organic farming because many organic farmers may lose their licence, if they are situated anywhere near conventional farmers and at risk of spray drift, or wind contamination of crops by GM pollen! This makes me so angry - because even more of the biodiversity like bees and soil organisms which we totally depend on for the pollination and growing our crops will be endangered. That means that our food security will be threatened too. There will be no going back if those pesticides and crops are unleashed on the UK. Of course - that's what Trump is counting on. For him it's all about profit, and gaining control over the UK - and those promoting this policy don't give a damn about the environment or our children's future! They won't have to deal with the fallout!
 
 
Sorry for the rant - but it's such a worrying time for the country of my birth, and indeed for all of us! I hope all your vegetable gardens are growing really well this mid-summer, and providing you with delicious produce. Do savour each 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.  Little did any of us think this time last year that we'd be dealing with the current pandemic and with life having changed for many of us utterly, and sadly for some - forever.
 
 
(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 Potager in June - 2020

June contents: What do Scientists really Know about Life, the Universe and Everything?....  A More Unusual Polytunnel Crop....Hurrah - Tomatoes are ripe! Now we have 'Tomato Heaven' for the rest of the summer!...  Dealing with aphids....  Heat Damage on Tomatoes....  Tomato feeding.... To side-shoot or not to side-shoot - that is the question?....  Keep encouraging tunnel wildlife to help you with pest control. 
 
 These Rosada plants leaning towards each other trying to avoid the intense heat in the last couple of weeks reminded me horribly of some of the pictures taken during the Australian bushfires
These Rosada plants leaning towards each other trying to avoid the intense heat in the last couple of weeks reminded me horribly of some of the pictures taken during the Australian bushfires
 
 
What do Scientists really Know about Life, the Universe and Everything?
 
 
"It is a wise man who knows what he doesn't know" -  is an ancient saying that often comes to mind when confronted by the often mind-boggling stupidity of some scientists - especially some on social media!  I believe their often narrow and blindfolded view is actually a hindrance to the furtherance of our knowledge of the natural world.  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 - but 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. To see the dark, early morning picture of the Rosada tomato plants above - desperately seeking comfort and shade by leaning towards each other and almost hugging last week, reminded me horribly of so many of the pictures of the many terrified animal species which we saw during the Australian bush fires that seem ages ago now - but which in reality were so very recent.  Those images still haunt me.  (Later on I talk about heat damage in tomatoes and how to deal with it.)  But those Rosada plants were a reminder to me that we must never take a purely mechanistic view of Nature, especially plants, if we want to understand them better.  We need to listen to them more and learn their language - only then will we truly understand these miracles of Nature, that we totally depend upon for our healthy existence, within the interconnected web of life on this fragile planet.  There is still so much left to discover - so many mysteries to be unravelled - and how exciting it all is!
 
 
Many 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. Many 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 exist - 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 most constantly inspirational heroes - the curious, incredibly brave and brilliant Nobel physicist Richard Feynman put it this way - "There is a difference between knowing the name of something and truly understanding it".  How very true! The more we know - the more that the wiser among us realise that there is a huge amount that we still don't know! Those who try to convince us that GMOs are totally safe are purely 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, can interact with each other within their natural environment! They didn't predict the development of Glyphosate-resistance in weeds did they, for instance?  
 
 
Nature has a way of behaving in unpredictable ways and making fools of arrogant scientists! Remember that they are performing their experiments in laboratories. If you take bacteria or other organisms out of their natural environment, then 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 - "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 naked greed! 
  
 
Nature has given us an innate early warning system which we have termed 'gut feeling' and this is often far more reliable than the prevailing scientific opinion of the day - if we are prepared to listen to it.  That 'gut feeling is now an established fact! That's why I grow organically - because I've known in my gut for over 40 years now that it is the only way to grow the truly 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 one Googles anything about GMOs, pesticides or food these days, one is assaulted by a plethora of different articles by seemingly independent journalists - but which in reality are paid for by the vested interests of the multinational chemical companies or huge food corporations. These first websites that come up in searches 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! 
 
 
I had an incidence of this yesterday on Twitter - when an arrogant Professor of 'Bioinformatics' actually labelled me an 'Organic Crank" for saying that the best way to boost our immunity is to eat a healthy diet - something which is now a widely established scientific fact!  (For those who are wondering - "Bioinformatics is the collection, classification, storage and analysis of biochemical and biological information using computers - especially as applied to molecular genetics and genomics" according to Wikipedia!)...  Of course - we all know that computers are only as good as those programming them!  They are a man-made phenomenon which can't understand or decode Nature!....   And neither seemingly can many university professors - who seem totally isolated and disconnected from the Nature which we actually evolved to live in and on, and need to survive!  They seem totally oblivious to the fact that the genetically engineered organisms they create may have unintended effects on the natural world, which doesn't always react predictably, and that almost none of the GMO crops they produce by inserting viruses and bacteria into their DNA have ever been tested in human trials to discover any unintended effects!
 
 
The only way to sustainably and safely feed a growing population is to restore the vital soil health which agricultural 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 currently disastrously accelerating climate change. 
 
 
I'd better stop now - but I could go on ranting about this forever! You can blame the current incumbent of the White House whose toxic name I can't even bring myself to utter! After selfishly dumping the Paris Accord on climate change, just to be popular with his American voters, I spent many sleepless nights worrying about the future! Don't those voters who put him in The White House realise that what he is doing is destroying not just their children's future - but also that of everything else on this beautiful planet we call home? Are they really so brainwashed by all that stuff on Google - denying climate change and telling us that chemicals and GMOs are perfectly harmless - that they have lost all ability to reason, think for themselves and even use basic common sense? Or are they simply as selfish as he is and just don't want to face reality? He won't care - he's an old man and he'll be dead soon!  He's just getting a final high right now on his enjoyment of all-powerful, ultimate control and doesn't give a toss about the future after he's gone! Even merely the fact that he is someone who would condone his children killing endangered  African wildlife surely tells you all you need to know - doesn't it?
 
 
I know that like me you want hope - not gloom! And do you know what? There IS something every single one of us can do. We CAN fight for Nature in our own plots - whether those plots are just a window box or an acre! I started off here 35 years ago in a silent, barren field with no birds or bees anywhere. Now, despite being an island in the middle of otherwise intensively farmed land, I have a beautiful Nature- filled space that echoes with birdsong all day long - and that includes the polytunnel as you can see from the picture at the top which I took yesterday. Those growers with row upon row of sterile-looking crops (even some organic ones) who don't do everything they can to encourage Nature, are actually missing the point! They're only focusing selfishly on what they are getting out of it for themselves! Some never even mention Nature - but we CAN all make a difference to the future and to vital biodiversity....... and we CAN DO IT together! 
 
 Roses surrounding rose petal syrup with kefir ice cream
 Roses surrounding rose petal syrup with kefir ice cream
 
 
A More Unusual Polytunnel Crop
 
 
Most people think that polytunnels are purely for growing fruit and veg, but I grow quite a few rather more unusual crops in mine! Few people think of roses as being a crop - but they are actually a hugely important commercial crop in countries of the Middle East where they're used a lot in cooking. There, they are used in all manner of sweet and savoury dishes. In English cookery they have also been used for millennia, and in medicines too.  I have loved the scent of the old and hybrid perpetual roses since childhood, where I grew up in a garden full of them. Their scent instantly carries me back to those times. Summers then in the English shires were invariably warm and dry, which suited them perfectly.  Roses love the warm dry weather which they get in abundance in countries like Turkey - but sadly we don't get Middle Eastern weather here in Ireland. Also climate change is changing weather patterns, and at least 1 in 3 summers now seem to be predominantly wet. Rain ruins the flowers of all roses, turning the petals brown and mushy, and causing the flowers of many of the most beautiful ones into rotting brown balls. So - hence I grow some in the polytunnel, where they are never ruined by rain!
 
 
Of course - one of the most important reasons to grow your own organic roses for cooking either inside or out in the garden, is that they are totally safe to eat - whereas those bought from florists will have been sprayed with many toxic pesticides not approved for human consumption - even if you didn't mind eating then! And a recent study of children in flower growing areas showed that children's health is being seriously damaged by such pesticides - so growing your own isn't just better for your health - but better for others too!https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190522162713.htm

 
 
The most historic roses which have been traditionally grown in in the middle East for thousands of years are rosa Damascena, r. Centifolia and r. Gallica - but those only flower once in June and July. Probably my favourite of these is the old moss rose Henri Martin - which I call my Turkish Delight rose - for obvious reasons!  Because these varieties only flower once though - for many years I've been experimenting with some of the most fragrant,more modern, repeat-flowering types. Grown in large tubs of peat-free compost mixed with some soil - to give the compost a bit more body - roses produce really well if they're regularly fed with a good, high-potash, organic tomato feed.. Even the most difficult and fussy of tender roses, like the exquisitely scented, almost black, hybrid tea rose Guinee, or the incredibly scented older roses Emporeur du Maroc and Souvenir du Dr. Jamain, all love polytunnel life. They repeat-flower well, and their flowers are never ruined by rain. I tried for years to grow Guinee outside, but it struggled miserably and I almost gave up.  But a couple of years ago I dug it up, planted it in a large tub, told it in no uncertain terms that this really was it's last chance - and since then it hasn't looked back!  Some of the newer types of repeat-flowering 'English' roses, bred by the late David Austin, are also excellent. Among the darkest of those with a good scent are Falstaff, Munstead Wood, Othello and Shakespeare, and Young Lycidas is a very well-scented deep pink one. 
 
 
I tend to favour the really darkest maroon, or deep crimson-coloured kinds because they seem to make the strongest tasting syrup with a really rich dark colour, but occasionally I include lighter ones too, if they have a really good scent. If you make rose water from all pink roses, it tends to be brownish in colour. Rose water syrup is delicious poured over meringues or kefir ice cream, and lifts raspberries which are marinated in it into another dimension altogether!  O pick the blooms early to mid-morning, after any moisture has gone from the petals, but before the scent starts to evaporate in the warmth of the polytunnel. They can be stored for 2-3 days in a box in the fridge if you don't have enough at the time for a recipe. 
 
 
When making any kind of rose syrup the one thing you must remember is to cut off the white base of the rose petals as this has a bitter tasteThe easiest and quickest way to do this is just to gather the whole bloom tightly in your left hand, pull off the stalk and sepals, and then cut off the whole base of the rose with sharp scissors. Pick out any bits of stamens you see after the petals have fallen into the bowl, as these can also be bitter. This may seem fiddly - but believe me once you have tasted the results - it's well worth it!  
 
 
It is said that scent is the first sense which we develop, and the last one that we lose.  If that's so - then the last scent I would want to experience would be roses. They bring back so many memories for me. The hybrid perpetual rose Ophelia was the first flower that I remember noticing the scent of, in the lovely garden where I grew up.  I grow it here to remind me of that beautiful garden now long since gone - but still there in my memory. And my father always called me Rosebud when I was young. That's the wonderful thing about gardens - we're never really alone while we still have such memories.
 
 
 
We're never truly alone in a garden...
 
 
In summer, my favourite time of the day in the garden is late evenings, when as dusk falls every sense seems magnified - especially scent. 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' or energy - a definite feeling that one is not quite alone and that the garden has a soul of it's own - or 'Genius Loci'. That feeling is noticeable even in the polytunnels, where the plants are growing urgently. I'm not the only person who feels this - many sensitive gardeners do - and I think to be a good gardener you have to be a sensitive person.  I remember the wonderful old Harry Dodson saying the same thing in that lovely TV series the Victorian Kitchen Garden many years ago. At the time he said that some people might think him fanciful - but I didn't - that feeling is definitely there. He said that he felt it most particularly when shutting up his greenhouses at night - and I know what he meant - I feel it too. It's a strange sensation that's impossible to put into words. I think poets were often better at expressing this intangible but very definite 'something'. Yeats's line from his beautiful poem The Lake Isle of Inisfree always springs to mind......."Where peace comes dropping slow......."... I'm certainly at peace in my polytunnels in the evening - surrounded by all the quietly growing plants and with the company of all the bees and birds - just as Nature meant us to be.  One can forget for a while the many cares of this world when surrounded by so much wonderfully abundant biodiversity.  But I never forget that I'm just a tiny part of this intricately beautiful picture - and that I exist purely thanks to all the rest of Nature....... It's a very humbling thought.
 
 
  
Hurrah - Tomatoes are ripe! Now we have 'Tomato Heaven' - for the rest of the summer!!
 
 
First Maskotka ripe 3rd June. Sown 11th FebRipe Maskotka in early June
 
  
Maskotka is a reliable tomato that I would never want to be without, and it has been for many years the earliest tomato I've ever grown - always ripe during the first week of June if sown in early March - and I've tried lots!  But this year it's got competition - Tumbler!  Maskotka is quite a large bush variety, which tends to spread out a bit over the summer, taking up a lot of ground space. Tumbler however is much smaller and more compact, and much more suitable for growing in hanging baskets and on my stepladder garden.  This year, the smaller bush variety Tumbler has been a great success on the steps of my stepladder garden. The first tomato was ripe in 26th May! I didn't sow Maskotka until a bit later though, so comparison is a little unfair! Next year I shall sow them both at the same time and compare the two for flavour and earliness. That's one of the things I love about gardening - the ability to always experiment and compare food crops or other plants, to discover which are the best varieties for growing in your particular location.  
 
 
I also grow many other plants of the Solanacae family (tomatoes, aubergines etc.) so I haven't got enough room to grow them all in the ground if I want to stick to a proper rotation plan, thereby cutting down on the risk of disease or nutrient deficiency problems. That's why I'm growing 'Maskotka' and some of my other favorite tomato varieties in large pots again this year, which I've found very successful in the past. As this year we're not sure if there will be a Totally Terrific Tomato Festival at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, due to the current pandemic, I'm sticking to the tried and tested, best-tasting, reliable varieties which I've grown for many years,  I never seem to have any problems at all with the fruit setting, even when starting them off them very early, as tomatoes are generally self-fertile anyway, and again because I also grow mingardens 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, if they need pollination the insects are all more than happy to provide their services!.
 
 
 

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 do when they see aphids is panic and reach for a spray of something - even some who consider themselves organic! Doing that is often the worst thing you can do! The first thing to understand about aphids is that feeding with artificial fertilisers or overfeeding with nitrogenous manures encourages exactly the sort of soft growth that all aphids enjoy. It also reduces the plant's own ability to make it's own defences by depressing soil bacteria and fungi. Overfeeding - even with organic manure - can have the same effect due to the high nitrogen content. You may get very impressive-looking plants by lashing on tons of manure or compost the way that some 'experts' advise - but you won't have healthy plants. They'll make soft and sappy growth that is far more attractive to pests and also to diseases. I so often see these 'experts' being asked later on in the summer how to deal with aphids! That sort of proves my point really - I never actually see any here at all!! 
 
 
Tomatoes in recycled 10lt buckets

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 the plant is stressed in some way - often with a reduced immune response due to being overfed with high nitrogen fertilisers or perhaps manure. Some people are having problems with aphids at the moment as many plants have been stressed by the extremes of weather 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 - please don't panic and spray with anything!  If there seems to be quite a lot then try just brushing them off gently first with a soft household paint brush or a pastry brush - particularly on plants like tomatoes where you don't want to wet the foliage - as that might encourage disease. Gently brushing with a small soft paintbrush often works well and buys you a bit more time while predators like hoverflies, ladybirds and wasps build up enough to deal with aphids. The gentle brushing also stimulates the plants to develop their own insect defences.  Allow small birds like sparrows and wrens into your tunnels - they will help to gobble them up. Just hang large pea and bean netting on the doors & vents to keep pigeons or pheasants out.  Put a peanut feeder near the open door of your greenhouse or tunnel as this will attract birds, and while they're waiting for their turn on the feeder they'll be encouraged to look for a few aphids as well. I know it's often quite hard to be patient and just trust nature - we've been so conditioned to believe that everything needs to be sprayed with something - even if it's only something natural!. I don't use any sprays of any sort whatsoever and haven't done for 40 years! 
 
 
Nature doesn't always give you instant results - particularly in difficult weather - but try it and if it doesn't work you can always order a biological control like aphidius Colemanii - or ladybirds. They're not cheap though at about 40 euros for even the smallest amount you can buy!  Whereas birds come free - with an additional entertainment factor!  
 
 
The other great pest controllers are the members of the beneficial insect army. If you've got lots of insect-attracting flowers in your veg. garden and tunnel then they should attract plenty of predatory insects to deal with your pests. Flowering at the moment in the tunnel are borage, calendula (pot marigold), French marigold, feverfew, salad burnet, limnanthes (poached egg flower), phacelia, perennial Bowles wallflower, pansies, nicotiana, nepeta, scabious, sweet rocket and the herbs parsley and coriander which are flowering really well as well as Sweet Rocket and Nicotiana Affinis which smell heavenly at night - attracting lots of moths for the bats. I've seen quite a few wasps about this year too - and although they're aggressive little devils, they are voracious hunters of things like greenfly and caterpillars to feed their growing broods. 
 
 
There are plenty of predators more than willing and able to do a good job of pest control for you given the chance - but if you spray with poisonous insecticides or even just an organic insecticidal soap spray - you will break the natural food chain by killing the good insects as well as the bad - including bees. And we all know how vital it is to help bees at the moment as they're so under threat of extinction from pesticides. Throwing the baby out with the bath water so to speak! I even use the organic soap spray for is for scale insect on my citrus trees if I get a very bad infestation - I discovered some time ago that melted coconut oil brushed onto the scale insects with a soft children's paintbrush works just as well as organic soap sprays and doesn't affect anything else. It stops them breathing - then they die and drop off.
 
 
Keep an eye out for the start of any diseases now. I try to run my eye over everything in the veg garden each day if I can and I pick off any fading or diseased leaves etc. immediately - before any disease can start or spreads. In the humid conditions of the tunnel this can happen very rapidly. With all the different varieties of tomatoes making a sudden spurt of growth after the hot weather they also need looking over for side shoots every day - so I take a bucket round with me and pick off any dodgy looking leaves at the same time. Sometimes a purplish colour and browning at the tips or bleaching between the ribs of leaves is actually damage caused by a nutrient deficiency - usually magnesium - which can happen if planting is delayed and things are kept waiting in their pots - this happened with some of my tomatoes this year despite extra feeding. These bits can become diseased later in damp conditions - so I always pick them off if they start to brown.
 
 
 
Heat Damage on Tomatoes
 
 
Every year some people ask me why all their tomatoes are curling up very tightly at the top - some looking quite 'ferny' with some of the leaf tips browning - almost as if they'd been sprayed with weedkiller!  This isn't caused by a disease - it happens because of stress from very intense heat. Tunnels are generally wonderful but they are a bit more difficult to manage than greenhouses in really hot weather unless you also have side ventilation to reduce the heat build up. It's impossible to shade large tunnels unless you're a millionaire and have automatic outside shading. Shading inside is no good as it doesn't stop the heat and also stops air circulation. Greenhouses are easier as you can paint them with some stuff called 'Cool Glass' - it's a sort of whitewash paint which stops the heat getting through the glass. It goes clear in wet weather so doesn't stop light. My tunnels have been well over 40 deg C/100 deg F for the last couple of weeks when it's been really sunny. The best thing to do in that situation is to 'damp down' all surfaces like paths really well with water three or four times a day while it's so hot. The evaporation cools the air and keeps it moving and buoyant. Only the paths though - NEVER THE PLANTS - despite what I've seen some so-called 'experts' recommending! This just encourages diseases - particularly potato blight - especially in tunnels because they're so warm and humid - and this can attack tomatoes too. 
 
 
The tops of many tomato plants curling up is always most obvious during the hottest part of the day - but if you look at them last thing at night -  you will see some of them almost visibly relaxing and uncurling again - poor things!  It's their only way to avoid some of the damage. Since they obviously can't run away, they have had to develop other methods. Although tomatoes like sun and bright light - they can't stand it if it's too intense - so they curl up to try to avoid leaf exposure and damage. As long as you keep damping down paths this will minimise damage as far as possible and it will have less effect. If you don't do this the overheating can cause serious long term damage. Leaves may turn brown and die back altogether, and flowers may drop - affecting potential crops and often killing plants completely. Some don't uncurl again though because they are irreversibly damaged.
 
 
Heat-damaged main tomato shoot on left with healthy undamaged side-shoot on right to be trained up as replacment main shootHeat-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 MayCucumber 'Burpless Tasty Green' with courgette 'Atena' in side bed late May
 
 
Just as in 2017 & 2018 - it's been such a difficult year for young tomato plants. Wild swings in tunnel temperature from 100degF/40degC during the day to freezing nights. On many recent nights here it was only 2 deg C - at least 6 degrees below the basic minimum required for tomato growth.  Only just a couple of weeks ago it was -3 deg C in the tunnels! Even under three layers of fleece the tomatoes were quite literally blue with cold!  Since then they've been heat stressed too! I'm amazed they've recovered so well, but they're growing on again now and the weather forecast for the end of this week is for warmer nights. Let's hope so!   
 
  
 
 
 
 
Bumble bee pollinating beefsteak tomato, with carrots under fleece behindBumble 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, olr very little, fruit!  Amazingly - I saw that particular important information being completely ignored on a recent TV programme!   I've also seen the recommendation to "remove all side-shoots" a lot on social media lately too. Check your seed packet description of any variety before you start to remove any 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 seasonDespite the difficult weather - we've been eating baby courgettes and mangetout peas Oregon Sugar Pod from the tunnel for a couple of weeks now, The courgette is a delicious yellow one called 'Atena' (which will crop until Nov.) and later in the month we'll have French beans. I grow a climbing French bean called 'Cobra' which is brilliant in the tunnel - far more reliable than outside. Just one packet of 'Cobra will give you more than enough to eat for weeks on end if you keep them well picked over and watered - and will fill your freezer for the winter as well. It's an incredibly delicious, reliable and productive variety, DIY chain B&Q actually have the seed at half the price of anywhere else. 
 
 
I don't bother with dwarf beans any more in the tunnel as they take up exactly the same amount of ground space, but only give you a fraction of the crop of the climbing ones - which make use of what I call 'upstairs space' to give you an enormous 'high-rise' crop. I'm sowing another late batch this week which will crop late into the autumn. The great thing about tunnels though is that they mostly protect crops from the worst extremes of the weather and all crops are far more productive under cover. In the winter this is particularly noticeable with hardier crops like chards and kales which could of course be grown outside.
 
 
I always plant basil when the chard has been cleared. I freeze masses of it to make lots of our vital 'medicinal' pesto during the winter months! There is a rule in this house which states 'you can never have too much garlic, or basil'! That first whiff of summer basil is wonderfully uplifting, but I must say that years ago when I was growing it commercially, after picking the first sixty foot row of a tunnel full of it, one did begin to feel more than a little nauseous! The aroma from the essential oil can be quite overpowering after a while. I prefer to grow basil on it's own in rows - giving it as much light and air as possible as it can be a bit disease prone in a humid tunnel atmosphere. Grown this way it's much more productive than when grown between tomato plants, which seems to be the fashion, as I see it recommended everywhere. Maybe because they go together on the plate? 
 
 
Weeds shouldn't be too much of a problem 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 plant is 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 really all that having so-called 'green fingers' is all about - not 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 winter's herbs like coriander and parsley to flower and go to seed, or you could buy some 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 all call home - we will be leaving a terrible and painful legacy for our children.
 
 
(Please note. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)

What to Sow in June - 2020

"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)  
 
image.jpeg image.jpeg
'Alvaro' is a fantastic melon which gave me my best polytunnel crop ever! 'Restina' mini-cucumber is a fantastic cropper- the perfect size for pickling
 
 
Sorry to mention this, but although it's not quite midsummer - 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 so already!  If you don't they may disappear off the shelves, when garden centres reorganise their stock for the autumn season which they tend to do before the end of June. Online seed companies may also be sold out of popular varieties by then.
 
 
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 areas where you have young seedlings well from strong sun at all times now and make sure to turn off the 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! Also remember to fill up spaces between plants in propagators with some fort of insulation like bubble wrap. This stops bare areas losing heat, stops overheating and also prevent energy waste. I save even tiny pieces of bubble wrap that comes in any packaging for this use. 
 
 
Although in theory you could sow everything outside now - the nights can still be quite chilly, 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 2 - 3 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 and also among crops to attract bees, hoverflies and other beneficial insects which will help control pests and provide pollination. These and other flowers in return provide the insects 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 varieties 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 all be planted now 
 

(Although all of these will produce a better crop in a 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!
 
 
(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.)

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