The Fruit Garden and Orchard in March - 2017

Buds of early crop on potted blackberry 'Reuben' Buds of pear Beurre d'Alexandre Lucas Fat buds on red-leaved peach  bursting with promise
Figlets - baby figs developing on Nero d'Italia Furry vine leaves  cradling a bunch of delicious seedless black grapes! Masses of flower buds on the potted dwarf Morello cherry
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One of the things I most love most about this time of year is that all the fruit buds are so burstingly full with the promise of deliciousness to come later in the year - nature's wonderful example of hope and energy. It's amazing how in the last week or so, it's just like something pressed the 'GO' button and all of a sudden buds everywhere are growing visibly every day.  It really feels like spring has finally arrived in a rush!  It makes good sense to grow as much fruit as we possibly can ourselves and not be too dependent on buying imported produce, whether it's just a few berries, or if it's tree fruits like pears or peaches. Imported organic fruit like peaches and apricots especially are always scarce and expensive in the shops or markets - and locally grown peaches - especially organic,  are simply non-existent!  One or occasionally two varieties of apples are available but you never see the very best tasting varieties - only those that have been bred to travel well and produce huge crops for supermarkets! Your own fruit from your back garden or allotment is tastier, fresher, more full of nutrients and has a much lower carbon footprint than any you could ever buy! If you're also an organic gardener like me - then it additionally has no nasty toxic chemicals, either in it or sprayed on it post-harvest! 

 

Spring is always early in the fruit tunnel.

March  peach blossom on a young tree  in the polytunnel 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March  peach blossom on a young tree  in the polytunnel 

At this time of year, when much of the garden outside is still barely waking up - most of the fruit action is happening in the polytunnel. There - everything is already moving fast and getting ready for another summer's production. What a lovely thought - so much delicious fruit to look forward to!  The pears and plums are always the first to burst open outside - and the Lidl pear trees in the 'new' orchard are already swelling huge clusters of fat buds! Pears are one of my favourite fruits - so just looking at those buds makes my mouth water! I must say I've been very impressed with the quality and great value of most of the fruit trees from both Lidl and Aldi. The only problem is that the apple trees rarely indicate what rootstock they are grafted on - which is a vitally important omission because it's not just important to plant the right one for your soil but also it's an indicator of the eventual size that the tree will grow.  Also occasionally other trees like peaches will just say 'Peach' which isn't exactly helpful if you want to plant a couple of different varieties so that you have a long season of fruiting! This weekend I'll be getting on with planting more trees in the new orchard as things are getting very urgent with all the recently arrived bare-root trees showing signs of swelling their buds! Panic time!! If it rains as it's forecast to do - then I'll just have to pot up the remainder - but I would prefer to plant direct into the ground as I find they always establish far better. 

 

 

 

Pollinating peach and apricot trees is important if you want fruit!

Beautiful blossom on the dwarf potted peaches and apricots in the fruit tunnel
Beautiful blossom on the dwarf potted peaches and apricots in the fruit tunnel

I always save the very last of my frozen peaches from the previous summer to eat now - just to remind me of how utterly delicious they are, Then all the pollinating doesn't seem quite so much of a time consuming chore! Accompanied by a tiny glass of home made peach Schnapps, I just fly along pollinating! The early peach growing in the bed at the top of the east tunnel is just starting to flower, and the dwarf peaches in pots in the west tunnel are already in full bloom as they're always earlier. These will have to be protected on the coldest nights - but the dwarf ones are easy to cover with fleece, being only shoulder height. The early peach in the ground is a bit more difficult. The blossom still needs protection on the coldest nights if a severe frost is forecast, so I use a big sheet of fleece to cover as much as I can of the tree, using a 5 ft long blunt ended bamboo cane to help reach the topmost part of the tree. I use the same cane for 'fleecing' most things this year - it makes a useful extra arm now - since my accident 3 years ago when I smashed my right arm and shoulder, I can't extend my right arm above shoulder height to reach things which is a bit of a nuisance to put it mildly!  But one gets used to it and there's ways around most things with a little initiative. One just has to think laterally, be inventive and learn to do things differently! Determination is really all you need - and I refuse to be beaten by anything!

 

 
For the last few days, whenever it's sunny and the wind has dropped enough to have the tunnel doors open, there's been several bumblebees busily helping with the pollination, I even saw my first honey bee two days ago.  I saw my first hoverfly and ladybird last week - so insects are starting to wake up. That's just one of the reasons I grow so many flowers in there - the insects are attracted to the nectar in them and then I get the benefit of them pollinating the peaches as well!  I re-homed a couple of ladybirds the other day that I'd found crawling up a sunny wall. I put them on the nettles I always leave in the corner of the tunnel, where they should find some early nettle aphids for breakfast and they're safer from the keen-eyed birds. Small birds like Wrens, Robins, Sparrows and Dunnocks always come into the tunnel at every opportunity, as they know there's always insect food in there that they won't find outside just yet. There still aren't that many bees around though, and if you have early peach or apricot trees in the tunnel they'll need pollinating during the day, while it's warm and the pollen is 'running'. The best time to do this is around midday if you can. The trees will then need protection at night with a light covering of fleece if a very severe frost is forecast, to protect the developing embryo fruit. I know it seems like a lot of fuss and bother - but when you sink your teeth into that first late June peach - you'll be so glad you did! 
 
Pale pink unpollinated peach flower
A. It's easy to tell which flowers to pollinate. This pale pink flower has only just opened and is not yet pollinated.
Peach flower with deeper pink staining in centre - clearly indicating pollination has taken place
B. This older flower has deep pink staining in centre - which indicates that pollination has taken place - so no need to brush that flower
Pollinating peach blossom gently with soft paintbrush
C. Pollinating peach blossom gently at midday with a soft paintbrush fixed to a cane so I can reach the top ones!
 
 
I'll be pollinating my two fan trained peach trees and the dwarf potted peaches and apricots every day for the next couple of weeks. I don't just rely hopefully on any early bees, because the fruit is far too precious and only available once a year! I work over the trees with a soft paintbrush fixed on the end of a bamboo cane so I can reach right to the top, very gently transferring pollen from one blossom to the next. Midday is generally the driest time in a tunnel when it's been open for a few hours and the humidity lessens, so that's the most effective time because if the pollen is wet it won't work. A day or so after pollination - you'll see some flowers develop a deeper pink staining in the centre of the flower which you can see pictured above. This means they've been pollinated and the fruitlets have set successfully. It's quite easy to see then which ones you've done already - so you don't have to do every single flower again, just the very pale flowers which have only recently fully opened. It's a very fiddly job and being an impatient person it's not one I look forward to - but actually it only takes about 15-20mins to do quite a large fan trained tree - so I just steel myself and think about warm summer peaches. To encourage myself over the last few years, I've got into the habit of leaving the very last of the frozen peaches from the previous summer to eat now  - just to remind myself exactly why I'm doing such a fiddly job! They really taste fabulous - even half frozen! Last year I tried to count the fruit on both of my 8ft wide 15ft high fans planted either side of the north door of the large east tunnel - but I gave it up as a bad job at well over 150 fruit on each! The dwarf trees in pots won't produce as many but they'll be a bit earlier, so the peach crop is spread over about 2 months.
 


Last chance now for pruning most things

Now is absolutely your last chance to finish pruning everything outside except stone fruits like plums and cherries, which are best pruned when they start back into active growth, to avoid silver leaf disease. Pruning can be a very confusing job, with the result that many people often don't attempt to do it at all - and end up with very little fruit as a consequence. A couple of years ago I came across a really useful book on pruning, which I can thoroughly recommend. It's in the Alan Titchmarsh 'How to Garden' series from BBC books - entitled 'Pruning and Training'. I have to be honest that years ago, I wasn't that keen on his presenting style compared to the wonderful and very sadly missed late Geoff Hamilton. However, he rose in my estimation considerably when he started gardening organically as Geoff did and he now seems convinced that it's the only way. Unlike some of the more recent celebrity gardeners - he is also extremely knowledgeable - as he was not self taught. He actually trained at The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, so he really knows what he's talking about when it comes to pruning not just fruit, but everything else too. I know it's a book I shall refer to often - even though I already have quite a collection of really old fruit pruning and training books. He really IS an expert and the book would be very useful if you're new to gardening in general, or even just to fruit growing in particular. It's really comprehensive - and is also the first book I have ever found that actually explains clearly how to prune a Kiwi fruit! (I learnt by trial and error) It has very concise, clear diagrams - from planting through to maintaining. It's altogether an excellent book for advice on pruning almost everything. Don't forget that when you're reading books written by most 'experts' - that they're often resident in the south east of England - where they would normally have a much warmer and drier climate compared to ours here in Ireland! Their advice often doesn't  take into account the fact that there are people who actually live somewhere else! Our climate is normally much wetter in Ireland and also a week or two later - so take that into account and adjust for your particular climate when following their advice. So many of these 'experts' either seem to have half of their book written by someone else - or have never actually done what they're telling you to do - a fact which is often obvious if you're someone who has many year's experience of gardening. I've often found that good fruit nursery catalogues can be a far more reliable source of information than many books - and they're free!
 
 
After you've pruned your fruit trees and bushes, you need to feed established ones - if you haven't done that already. A few handfuls of seaweed meal (potash to encourage flowering and fruit), and if necessary, a good general feed such as the certified organic Osmo Universal granules which are useful feeds for most things as they are well balanced and encourage the beneficial bacteria vital for proper uptake of nutrients by tree roots. Blackcurrants need a bit more nitrogen as they need energy to make new growth each year - so use some rich compost, chicken or even pigeon manure (must be well composted to avoid burning roots).  I find Osmo granules very useful for everything and they are certified organic. You may have added a long acting fertiliser such as bone meal and seaweed meal to any recently planted fruit at the time of planting, so just give these a good mulch to keep weeds down and keep moisture in. Grass clippings will do for this but remember don't pile them deep too close to the stem, keep a few inches away or they may cause stem rots. This will keep weeds down, keep the roots and cool and encourage good root development and biological activity. Remember - keep off all soil if it's still very wet. Work from the paths or put down a wide plank or two to walk on in order to spread your weight, to avoid compacting the soil. Compacting soil damages the drainage by squashing air out of the soil. Don't forget that soil life needs air too!


Autumn raspberry pruning

 
By the way, I'll just repeat again that you do not have to prune down all fruited stems of autumn raspberries now. If you leave a few, maybe 1/3rd - 1/2 of last year's stems, then they'll fruit again, lower down the stems, in early summer. After that you can cut them down to their base and the new growth from those will fruit a little bit later. This spreads the crop conveniently and does no harm to the raspberries at all, as long as the clumps are well established and well fed. If you're just buying them then 'Joan J' or 'Brice' are the best two varieties available now - I grow both of them. The yellow variety Allgold or Fallgold (as it seems to be called more often now is also good). I've grown 'Joan J' in large pots in the fruit tunnel for the last threee years now and they have been a great success, producing huge delicious fruits continuously until almost Christmas!
 
 

There's still time to plant soft fruit like strawberries and raspberries. 

 
 
I did a bit of my favourite sort of retail therapy a few days ago! Not for me handbags and shoes!! Strawberries are the sort of retail therapy that makes me happy!  Ken Muir's Nursery in the UK have a new variety of perpetual strawberry called Finesse! Squeals!! I'm so excited - their wonderful variety Albion has been a great favourite of mine for many years, it's so reliable and delicious that I've given up most other varieties! Being a 'perpetual fruiting' variety - it fruits from early May until November in the tunnel and I think it has the best taste of any strawberry apart from the old variety Gento, which I brought here from the garden I where I grew up. Gento was bred in France in the 1960's and is without doubt the nearest in taste to wild strawberries. It has that meltingly delicious and incomparable flavour. It doesn't travel well though because it bruises easily and starts to deteriorate the minute it's picked, which is probably why it fell out of favour.  It hasn't been available as plants for about 30 years at least, so I really treasure mine - quite apart from the sentimental value. I grew up eating it and so did my children - and I've been propagating from those same original plants for almost 40 years now! Don't believe those who say you shouldn't do that! As long as you only ever propagate from the healthiest and most productive plants and then rotate them around the garden - changing their location every few years to avoid any build up of pests and diseases - then it's perfectly possible!  Gento is actually one of the parents of Mara des Bois - which has inherited much of it's flavour but is smaller and not quite as productive.  Albion is a good alternative - it's very productive, delicious and a great choice if you want a really good strawberry that fruits all summer long. It freezes well too as it's juicy berries are nice and firm. 
 
 
Ken Muir's Nursery are the best fruit nursery I've ever dealt with and their people on the other end of the phone are also by far the nicest.  I've been buying fruit of all kinds from them for about 35 years and they are thoroughly reliable. I can't recommend them highly enough. Many people have asked me where I got Albion and they've always been happy with both their plants and their customer service. (and no - I don't get anything free or even a special price! I just like to give credit where it's due and always try to recommend good retailers to you!)  I'm really looking forward to trying this new strawberry Finesse. In their words it is: 
 
"An outstanding perpetual variety which combines heavy yields with great fruit quality, excellent flavour and good disease resistance. ‘Finesse’ produces bright red, medium to large heart-shaped berries which are both sweet and juicy. Plants are vigorous, producing very few energy-sapping runners, resulting in heavy crops of up to 1.2kg (2.6lb) per plant."
 
So there you have it - straight from the horse's mouth! I can't wait for my new plants to arrive in a few days time - it will be just like Christmas again!!  
 
Many of the mail order nurseries have good offers right now. Prepare the ground well and then water and mulch after planting.  Never mulch dry soil - always water first. A few years ago I was asked to visit a garden to give some advice on pruning raspberries, and discovered that sadly, the person asking had planted autumn and summer ones right next door to each other - with the result that they had all become so mixed up that it was absolutely impossible to tell which was which! Never plant summer and autumn fruiting raspberries close together always keep autumn varieties in under strict 'house arrest'. The summer ones are slightly more genteel, and don't have quite such territorial ambitions! Autumn varieties in particular can spread sideways at a very alarming rate once they've settled in, and the two varieties can easily become muddled up and indistinguishable very quickly!  
 
 
 

Birds help to keep fruit pests down - until they become pests when it's fruiting!

 
 
Talking of greedy feeders - don't put fruit cage netting back up yet, wait until the fruit is forming. The birds need to be able to get in to the fruit bushes and canes to help clear up any pests like blackcurrant blister aphid or gooseberry sawfly caterpillars (which can completely defoliate a large black or red currant bush literally within hours!) Hang a peanut feeder in there to attract the the birds, and they'll also do a good job 'working over' the bushes while they await their turn!  DON'T use nasty detergent-based washing up liquid sprays on them as I saw one gardener on a TV programme doing a few years ago (they unbelievably claimed they were bio-dynamic!!!?) Washing-up liquids contain formaldehyde and other nasty chemicals in many cases but even if they're organic - they're unnecessary and can harm beneficial insects. If you have bantams or chickens, You can use an old fashioned organic method that I remember my father using every winter when I was growing up. He used to run some of our poultry into our fruit cages throughout most of the winter. Chickens are amazingly efficient pest clearers and scratching around under bushes for grubs is their natural behaviour coming from the jungle!  I had a bad case of sawfly many years ago when I first planted some new bushes which were obviously carrying it. They cleared up the pupae that overwinter on the ground very efficiently the following winter - eating all the grubs before they could crawl up and do any damage to the bushes. I've never had a problem with it since! Poultry also gradually supply a good hit of nitrogen for the following spring and keep weeds down, doing three jobs at once! Don't leave them on ground too long though - always take them out before early spring - or they will 'sour' it with too much nitrogen.


Tidy up outdoor strawberry beds by cutting off any old, dead, spotty and yellowing leaves from plants now, scrape off any old straw or bark mulches from beds, letting birds in again, clear any weeds and then feed with seaweed meal, watering it in if dry. Then mulch with good compost if possible, keeping it away from the necks of plants to avoid possibly encouraging rotting. If plants are loose and pull up easily then suspect vine weevil and treat with nematodes.

 
The same applies to strawberry beds under cover, if you haven't dealt with them already. Some of the early varieties are in bud and the alpine strawberries 'Reugen' are already flowering in my tunnel.  Hoverflies love them and a small row somewhere in the tunnel will attract in lots of them, as well as fruiting all summer long, often until November! 'Reugen' (from Chiltern seeds) is easy from seed and is larger than normal alpine varieties, but with that same exquisite, aromatic wild strawberry flavour. Sown now it will fruit later this year - and after that will barely stop cropping in a polytunnel!  Last year we had the first fruit in April!  They tend to hide their fruit among the abundant leaves though - which as a bonus as birds don't find them so easily but that also means that they're hell on the back to pick! One has to bend over for ages to pick a whole row of them - even in a raised bed! Every year I give my 'stepladder garden' a makeover and grow something different. This year I've decided it's going to be the 'Reugen' alpine strawberries. Hopefully that will save a lot of backache!!
 
 
Early summer fruiting varieties of strawberries, like 'Christine', or even the excellent perpetual fruiting variety Albion, will fruit quite happily in 2 litre pots, as long as you're careful to remember to water and feed them regularly. This means you don't have to make a permanent bed in the tunnel if you don't want to - which can take up a lot of space. You can put them back outside once they've finished fruiting, to produce runners for next year. 'Christine' is the best flavoured early variety and is very reliable - I always have fruit from that in early May, and I find that with the protection of the tunnel - the perpetual varieties follow on quite soon after - often fruiting until November. Those can also be grown in pots but they need larger ones to produce well continuously over the summer and autumn. 'Albion' is the very best perpetual for this way of growing - or in fact any. Mine fruit from May until November in the tunnel - and you can't ask for more than that! They need feeding regularly if they're in pots, with a good organic tomato feed like Osmo. And do keep an eye out for vine weevils - if one or two plants suddenly wilt and the plants become loose, it could mean that little devils are eating the roots! There are nematodes to deal with them which are a good organic option - you can buy them online. Peat composts encourage them - so not using those is better from every point of view - including the environmental one! 

 

Growing grapes in polytunnels or outside

 
Fig 'Brown Turkey', pot-grown Grapes 'Regent' & 'Muscat of Alexandria' in early August - with a clothes horse supporting the massively heavy crop!
Fig 'Brown Turkey', pot-grown Grapes 'Regent' & 'Muscat of Alexandria' in early August - with a clothes horse supporting the massively heavy crop!
You can still plant grapevines from pots, either inside or outside, in the ground or in pots. Prepare the site well because they'll be there for a long time and use a good mycorrhizal fungi product like Rootgrow, to dust the roots before planting. This will expand the reach of the roots and their nutrient catching ability hugely. Grapes like a really well drained warm spot outside. If you want to grow really good desert grapes, then I think that planting them in a polytunnel or greenhouse is best though, unless you live in the sunny south east of either Ireland or the UK. The north side or end  is best - where they won't shade anything else during the day. Training them over the end roof arch, as I do, is also a good utilisation of space that's often wasted, or alternatively you can train them at about 1 metre high along the sides, where again they don't shade anything else because they come into full leaf well after any winter lettuce or other light-hungry crops are finished. Although it's normal to prune things after they're planted, you mustn't prune grapes now or they'll bleed!  It's too late as the sap is rising strongly. It's a mistake you only ever make once believe me! I did it a bit too late once and it was just like turning on a tap - the sap just poured out as soon as it was cut!  Don't worry though - in couple of weeks, when the buds start to swell noticeably and break - you can then pinch out or rub off any soft shoots that you don't want or are growing in the wrong direction. Those young green shoots won't bleed. 
 
 
Growing grapevines in pots or tubs is great fun as they're so flexible and can be trained into a variety of different shapes. Pots of trained grapes were something the Victorians were very fond of using to make centre-pieces at their elaborate dinner parties. You can also grow them as spiral 'bushes' in pots which is fun, tulip shapes or even 'umbrella' standards - allowing several permanent stems about 3-4ft/1m. to develop. When space gets tight you can put them outside for the summer in a sheltered spot, just bringing them in later on to ripen - safely away from the hungry blackbirds and wasps which love them!! This week I'm potting up the last of the grape cuttings I took in December 12 months ago when pruning - they've nearly all rooted well - about 90%. It's a very easy way to increase your vines, as cuttings take very easily. You can even do what some of the old kitchen gardeners did if you only want one plant - you can train a shoot up through a pot from the bottom - the shoot will root gradually over the year, if you keep the pot moist. You can then sever the shoot at the bottom in mid-winter when the shoot is dormant and it can be detached! It's a great way of increasing a grapevine if you've forgotten to take cuttings at the right time in winter, like me this year - so many people have asked me for Muscat Hamburgh - which is the very best seeded black dessert grape. It's even self-thinning! Thinning bunches of seeded grapes really IS something I have absolutely no patience for! The problem is that with some varieties that make very tight bunches, these can attract moisture and therefore disease. I'm sadly removing one very good tasting variety Perlette this year because of this. If I had a gardener or had time myself to thin the bunches it would be fine. It has a really fabulous muscat flavour and always sets dozens of bunches - but I'm afraid it's sadly time to say goodbye now after 20 years of growing it for varieties more suited to organic growing and my lack of time!!
 
 
If you have grapevines in pots - lay them on their side now to ensure that the buds break evenly all along the rods or stems. That's if you haven't done that already. If you don't do this the buds at the top get all the plant's energy when the sap rises, then some of the lower buds can be weakened or may not develop at all. I've just noticed the buds on all my potted grapevines starting to swell now in the tunnel. They're always a bit earlier than those planted in the ground.  It's a very good way to grow some of the later ripening grapes, as being in a pot tends to encourage them into growth just a little bit earlier, so they then ripen earlier. You should already have untied and lowered the rods (or stems) of all grapevines growing in the ground as far as possible for the same reason.


At this time of year I take down the smaller netting at the top of the tunnel entrances, just leaving up the big square-meshed pea and bean netting which keeps the hungry pigeons out. If I don't take the small netting down - the bumblebees can't get in, or get stuck trying to!  It must be put back up before the strawberries are ripe though, as my blackbirds have perfected a brilliant rather 'hobby-like' dash method of last minute fast 'wing folding' - flying straight through the larger mesh - I've watched the crafty devils do it!  Greedy little blighters that they are -  especially considering that I grow lots of fruit elsewhere which is left specifically for them - but they still want mine as well!
 
 

Figs in tunnels or greenhouses need feeding and tidying up now

 
Fig 'Rouge de Bordeaux' - this year's small embryo fruits clearly visible

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig 'Rouge de Bordeaux' - this year's small embryo fruits clearly visible
The tiny embryo fruits will be starting to swell rapidly on indoor fig trees now. At this stage they are large pea sized - these are very easy to distinguish from any small to middle-sized fruit which may have developed late last autumn after the main crop. Although they may have appeared to have survived over the overwinter - those larger figlets, one of which you can see in the picture here, should be taken off now as they won't develop properly and may give off a hormone signal to the plant which stops the smaller others developing - or it may possibly start to rot and spread disease. Either way it won't develop and ripen.  In the picture here you can clearly see the difference between the two. Also take off any 'mummified' and wizened undeveloped fruits or they could spread diseases. Prune back overlong or weak shoots and those not carrying any embryo fruits by about half, to stimulate production of fruit buds. It looks as if I may have a good crop on all my potted bushes again this year - I'm hoping to have enough to dry for the winter - they're one of my favourite fruits. The only problem with them is that they're so delicious fresh that we tend to eat them for breakfast or lucnch every day when they're in season and I never get a chance to dry any!  Weed the tops of tubs or pots now, scratch off a little of their old compost from the top and replace with a fresh compost/earth mix enriched with some added seaweed meal and general organic fertliser. At this stage you may notice some suckers and this is a great way to increase your stock if you want to. Figs grow like weeds and are very easy from these 'Irishman's cuttings'.
 
 

Cape Gooseberries

 
Cape gooseberry seedlings germinate well from home-saved seed
Cape gooseberry seedlings germinate well from home-saved seed
There's still just time to sow Cape gooseberries (Physalis Edulis) - which is a tender perennial fruit. They will germinate in about 10 days in a warm propagator. They're now being touted as the next 'superfruit' and called 'Inca berry', Pichu berry or goldenberry - dried ones cost a fortune in health food shops where you can't even find organically grown ones! Those little paper 'lanterns' that seem ubiquitous on every smart dessert plate now? (I've had a sneaking suspicion for a long time that many people don't know what they are - so don't eat them - that restaurants may actually wash & 'recycle' them from plate to plate!) They're very expensive to buy in the shops, but unbelievably easy to grow if you have the space (they grow like weeds and make a 5-6ft wide and high bush eventually). They appreciate the protection of a tunnel. I grow mine in 10 litre buckets and they're quite happy. If you grow them in the ground they can take over - making too much leaf, and as they are also tomato family - it's easier to fit them into rotations growing them in containers too. When properly grown and ripened, they're delicious and will last for months in their neat little paper cases. Last year I experimented with a few that I picked in November - to see just how long they would last - and they kept well in the salad drawer of the fridge until May! And tasted as good as ever! As they come ready packaged the birds don't know what they are - and not even the mice have discovered them yet either - a valuable attribute! Don't get the dwarf variety though - it's a complete waste of time - producing very little fruit. In a mild winter Cape gooseberries will overwinter in pots in a tunnel or in the ground - and those will fruit much earlier than ones sown the same year. I've found it difficult to keep them going in pots for more than two years though.
 
 

Citrus tree care in early spring

 

 
As with figs, again weed, renew the top compost and feed these. If you see any scale insect on trees - then deal with it now before the tender new shoots start to grow. Use an organic insecticide based on fatty acids which is greasy and stops them breathing through their skins - they then die and fall off.  Slighty warmed melted coconut oil brushed on is effective. Black unsightly 'sooty mould' is usually a symptom of scale insect - it's a fungus which grows on the 'honeydew' which the scale insects excrete - so if you see this then look closely at the leaves - particularly underneath on the leaf midrib and on the stems. You can feed lemons now with a high-nitrogen feed like Osmo liquid feed or nettle liquid feed. Never use chlorinated hard tap water on citrus trees - they hate it. Treat them like acid lovers like rhododendrons and they'll be happy. If they leaves are looking a bit yellow after the winter, a dose of sequestered iron like 'Sequestrene' (available in most good garden centres) will also help to green them up quickly again, diluted with some rainwater.
 
 
 
If you grow even a small amount of your own fruit organically - you can pick and eat it straight from the garden, warmed by the sun, perfectly ripe and at the height of it's nutrition, with all of it's precious phytonutrients intact. The latest studies have also shown that organically grown fruits and vegetables are 60-70% higher in those phytonutrients!  
 
  
I hope you all have a wonderful St. Patrick's Weekend of gardening weather if you're celebrating the Bank Holiday.  
Whatever the weather though, wherever you are - I hope you enjoy a happy weekend's gardening! 

The Vegetable Garden in March - 2017

Leek 'Bandit' with chicory behind & McGregors Favourite beet in the foreground. Rest of bed covered with clear polythene
Leek 'Bandit' with chicory behind & McGregors Favourite beet in the foreground. Rest of bed covered with clear polythene
 
 
The last two days have been wall to wall glorious sunshine here and very spring-like after a frosty start yesterday morning - we could do with a couple of weeks of this lovely weather now to dry things up enough to do any work outside. The soil here is still so saturated that in many well-trodden places I'm walking around in mud soup up to my ankles! The route that I use up to feed the hens and collect eggs every day is really treacherous at the moment! It's currently impossible to do anything useful in the kitchen garden - so all my efforts at the moment are still concentrated on sowing more seeds into modules, so that I have nice, big slug-proof plants ready to go when things dry up enough to finally start planting. 
 
 
Yesterday while I was tidying up a bit in the polytunnel, I saw my very first hoverflies and ladybirds of 2017 - always such a welcome sight. They were no doubt venturing out into the relatively warm midday sun, hoping to see if there might be any early aphids for a spring brunch or some nectar from all the tunnel flowers. Their appearance reminded me that there are still a lot more of the organic gardeners' good friends hiding from the weather and from hungry birds among the dry leaves - so it's a mistake to try to tidy up too much yet. I stopped my housekeeping and left them alone, to concentrate on the last of the peach pruning instead. With the scent of all the wallflowers, narcissi and primroses wafting up from underneath the peach trees - and the burgeoning pink blossom - it really began to feel like Spring had finally arrived at last - even if outside has still some catching up to do. I'd felt the 'gardeners sap' rising yesterday in the early March sunshine and was keen to get out and feel my fingers in the soil - but it was a timely reminder that it's still very early days yet! We seem to have had very hard frosts alternating with saturating heavy rain for the last two months at least, so not only is the soil far too wet but the soil temperature is also still colder than normal. It would be a complete waste of both time and seed trying to sow anything into it even in the raised beds! A couple of weeks of being covered with clear polythene now will work wonders though in the places where I need to do any early sowings of carrots etc. so I'm not panicking.  Over the years I've learnt that it's always a mistake to sow too early - as it often results in seeds just sitting miserably there doing nothing and even perhaps rotting. Any gardening - here at least - will have to be restricted to the polytunnels at the moment - but there's plenty to do in there! After the winter storms over the UK and Ireland - I suspect it's the same for most people!
 
 
Still - there's plenty we can do to prepare for when the weather changes. March is the serious start of major production in the garden - up to now anything sown indoors has just been the rehearsal!  Anything we can do to get ahead now, despite the weather, will save a lot of time and hassle later - and lay the foundations for good crops. Otherwise work starts to pile up - and if it does gardening can become a bit of a stressful chore if you're trying to grow all your own food, as we like to do here. It's meant to be enjoyable as well as productive!  The birds are already gearing up for the breeding season though. The sparrows are all chasing each other round and arguing over nesting sites as usual and it's almost impossible to concentrate on writing, because the starlings are performing their noisy morning ablutions in the gutter just above the back door, accompanied by much splashing, cat calling and 'wolf-whistles'! I can see them from my kitchen table 'desk' beside the kitchen window and they are so entertaining! 
 
 

How to get ahead with your veg gardening even if it's too wet outside

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

Time to Sow Leeks 

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

My rather unconventional method of sowing onions and leeks in modules to cheat the weather!

 
Onions from seed are always far more successful than sets, particularly in a bad year - and of course they don't run the risk of bringing in onion white rot disease which sets may sometimes do. That can be even more likely in a wet year - and as it can survive for up to 20 years in the soil, destroying all your onion crops - you really don't want it!. The good news is - it's still not too late to sow them, if you get a move on and sow them now! I have a neat trick up my sleeve for onions - and this one is really worth trying if you are ever delayed when anything sensitive needs planting out from modules. I sow them in module trays and as soon as the roots start to show through the bottom of the modules - in a week or so - I then sit the module tray into a larger tray of peat-free potting compost. This means that instead of wrapping around and around inside the modules - the roots will immediately start to explore a bit further. I find that even though this obviously involves lifting them gently later in order to plant - I still get far fewer 'bolters' this way. I also sow leeks this way too.


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

Dealing with slugs and snails - some organic suggestions

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

No hiding place for slugs! 

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

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

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

My foolproof slug-proof 'Moat Method' of keeping slugs out of propagation areas!

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

Over the next week or so - whenever it's dry - I'll be uncovering the empty beds in my kitchen garden and, letting the air in to dry them out even more. Doing that also lets the birds clear pests like millipedes, wood lice etc. They'll be grateful for anything they can find as food is very scarce right now. Cover the beds up again before any rain is forecast - and if the cover excludes light - like black polythene - this will also help to stop weeds seeds germinating. So no need to panic if the soil's too wet to work. If you can see plenty of weed seeds germinating, when the soil outside has dried up a bit - that will show the soil should be warm enough to sow the hardier things outside - no need for expensive soil thermometers - Nature shows you exactly when the soil's warmed up enough for growth.
 


Improving difficult soil 

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

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

 

Soil Matters!

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

 
 
 

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

You could plant well chitted early varieties of potatoes in well drained soil this month (is there any after this winter?) That's if you've had covers on the soil to warm it up. Remember - these will take at least 10-12 weeks from planting to cropping but you may have to cover with fleece once they're above ground, if frost is forecast. I now grow all my outdoor potatoes by starting them off in pots, as it guarantees that I will miss early blight and it's really useful if the ground is still too wet and cold. It's well worth it, as we've had early blight here at the end of May once or twice over the last few years. Some of the potatoes I grow are extremely rare and hard to replace varieties, so doing this guarantees that I won't lose them.  OK - so it may be a bit of a 'faff' starting them off in pots and then planting them out - but no more so than planting out bedding plants - and few people have a problem with that! It just requires a change of mindset that's all! They may occasionally have to be covered with fleece if frost is forecast - but doing this it means that I never have to spray with anything - even copper based organic fungicides.  My soil is heavy clay and copper can build up in soil creating imbalances and causing other problems. I'm also in an area which grows a lot of horticultural crops including potatoes, and these are often left in the ground and sometimes not even lifted if it's not financially worth it - with the result that there is more and more early blight around here now. There are also more aggressive new 'super-strains' emerging, which are resistant to chemical fungicides (as always happens eventually with most chemicals) - so planting early before the weather warms up enough for blight is the only way to avoid itand absolutely guarantees a crop. As you may know - I don't like the 'Sarpo' varieties, as in my experience here, they're really not much more blight-resistant than many of the other varieties I grow. I also happen to think that the Sarpo's are tasteless anyway, so really what's the point? We don't eat potatoes every day as they're very high in carbs, so I'd sooner go to the extra trouble of just starting off my potatoes in pots a bit earlier.  I grow about 20 different varieties of great flavoured potatoes each year, some very rare - especially the purple ones. I'llh I'll be starting off in pots in the next week or so.

 

People often think that the difference between the earlies, second earlies and maincrops is the time that you plant them - it isn't. The name is what tells you how long it will take them to crop.

Earlies and second earlies are the fastest growing and need the shortest time to produce a useful crop, but many will keep just as well as the maincrop varieties. Many become floury and mash well too - particularly Red Duke of York. I start my maincrops off now as well - because they take longer to produce a decent harvest.  

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

For those of you who may be new readers - this blog isn't just about ways to garden organically. It's also about sharing with you many practical tips for making food healthier and also cheaper, which I've learnt over the 40 plus years that I've been growing for my family! 

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

The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in March 2017

Excitement is growing - The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival is happening again this September!

 
Some of the almost 100 varieties on display at the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2012. At the back in pots are plants of the famous 'Indigo Rose' black tomato.

Some of the almost 100 varieties that were on display at the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2012. At the back in pots are plants of the famous 'Indigo Rose' black tomato which gave me the inspiration for the first Tomato Festival. - (photo courtesy of Kathryn Marsh)

 
After the great success of it's move last year to one of the most wonderful locations in Ireland - the very beautiful Killruddery Estate in County Wicklow - aka the"garden of Ireland" -  The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival is happening once again this September 2017! If you love tomatoes - either growing them or eating them - this is THE late summer destination for you! The exact date will be announced this month - but it's definitely happening - so get those fab tomatoes growing now!  I'm so excited - I can't wait to see them all!
 
 
If you live anywhere within reach of Co. Wicklow - or even abroad for that matter - but feel like a nice little 'end of summer break' to come and see us over here in Ireland - do try to make it - and bring some tomatoes too if you grow them. There will be a great welcome for you! Don't miss it - I'm so looking forward to it - and to meeting lots more tomatophiles like me!
 
 
I'm incredibly grateful once again to Sunday Times Gardening Correspondent Jane Powers, who came to the second TTTFest in 2013.  It was her brilliant idea to try resurrect it last year and she was so passionate about not letting it wither and die altogether that she enthused me again too. Jane was utterly determined that what she termed "This joyous celebration of tomatoes" should happen again, and the abundant enthusiasm, hard work and energy of both Jane and everyone at Killruddery made last year's event a huge success, as you can see from the pictures below. This year we're hoping that it will go on to even bigger and better things!  I'm hoping that some of you may take up the unusual toms mantle from me and try a few more unusual ones this year. I won't be able to grow the 35+ varieties I grew last year, as I'm trying to find time to work on another project which is close to my heart in addition to still growing most of my own food and writing. 
 
 
 

Why is genetic diversity in tomatoes so important? Well - whether we grow them or not - we nearly all eat them! 

'Ebony and Ivory' - the contrasting colours of tomatoes Indigo Rose & White Queen
'Ebony and Ivory' - the contrasting colours of tomatoes Indigo Rose & White Queen
The fact that we eat them means that genetic diversity in not just tomatoes but all food crops is a hugely important issue that potentially affects all of us.  It's daily becoming even more vitally important - with climate change, soil loss, destruction of habitats with subsequent loss of wild crop relatives. It's a subject which I've always cared passionately about. Tomatoes are a wonderfully colourful and joyous celebration of nature's abundance - in fact they're a really 'Terrific' (!) way to illustrate genetic diversity in all it's surprising and eye-popping abundance, to a public who often only know the plastic-wrapped, plastic-tasting imposters that pass for tomatoes on today's supermarket shelves! 
 
 
To the best of my knowledge - the variety Indigo Rose, pictured here, was grown and also seen for the very first time in the British Isles at the 2012 Tomato Festival! I was browsing the internet looking for tomato seeds in early 2012 - as you do - and came across this stunning variety. It immediately sowed the idea of the TomFest as a brilliant way to show the wider public the importance of genetic diversity! It was originally bred by Oregon State University while seeking to breed tomatoes with naturally higher levels of health-promoting antioxidants and was released in the US for the very first time in 2012.  It's not a Genetically Modified variety (or GMO). It was naturally bred from a wild tomato growing in the Andes with very high levels of the purple-coloured anthocyanin phytochemicals in it's leaves and fruit, and it is now the forerunner of many other black tomatoes that have been naturally bred since then. 
 
 
Anthocyanin antioxidants help to give plants protection against many diseases and also protect their skins from sun damage. They do exactly the same for us too when we eat them! Anthocyanin antioxidants are found in many purple vegetables and fruits and have been scientifically proven to boost our circulation and our immune system. This is why it's so important to include plenty of them in our diets. They are clearly very effective because it's definitely one of the healthiest tomatoes I've ever grown - so I can forgive it's 'less than fabulous' flavour!  Above is a photograph of some of the tomato display at the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2012. (My thanks to Kathryn Marsh for the photo - I was far too busy on the day running around like a headless chicken and organising stuff to remember to take photographs as well!) There were two other tables of tomato displays too. In all we had almost 100 varieties, and I'd forgotten how fabulous they all looked! People were amazed by the unusual look of the Indigo Rose tomatoes and even asked if they were blackcurrants! It looks stunning contrasted here with the beefsteak White Queen. Celebrity chefs eat your hearts out!  I must say I found it irresistible when I saw it - it was what gave me the initial idea for the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2012. I would be the first to admit that it's not the most tasty tomato - but what it lacks in flavour it more than makes up for in looks! It does improve on dehydrating though, which concentrates the flavour and of course it's main attribute is that it is naturally so high in anthocyanins.
 
 
It's always such fun showing people the amazing genetic diversity that there is to choose from - and watching their faces when they realise that what they're looking at are actually tomatoes! It's also vital to convey how important it is for our future food security that we preserve the genetic heritage in all our food plants. If we only grow the commercial varieties that we see in supermarkets - before long we could be in serious trouble. Just one of their genes could be vital for future natural breeding programmes and could possibly even be the saviour of all tomatoes or other crops, if they were to be threatened in the future by some as yet unknown disease. Who could imagine a future without tomatoes? Impossible eh? I simply couldn't imagine my summer without them! Journalist Fionnuala Fallon asked me a couple of years ago to name my absolute favourite variety for an article that she was writing for the Irish Times magazine. But as I said to her - it's a bit like asking someone to name their favourite child - impossible, as they all have their different qualities and I love them all!  Anyway - someone once said my epitaph should be "She never did anything by halves"!  Hmm.... They may have a point there!  I think there could be a happy medium somewhere! I really am a hopeless case! But being a tomatoholic/tomatophile isn't really such a bad thing is it? Given that there's about 12,000 varieties of tomatoes out there - I'll definitely never run out of new ones to try!
 
 
The importance of genetic diversity is something that I've been trying hard to make people more aware of for over 35 years now, by running various events - tomato, pumpkin and potato festivals - and also by giving talks at various venues like our wonderful National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, the Dublin Food Co-op, farm walks and open days etc.  I had great support in the 1980s from the HDRA in this - now Garden Organic - and was given seed of many unusual varieties by the Heritage Seed Library to help in this effort. Potatoes, pumpkins and tomatoes are such colourful, attractive and easy subjects to grow for festivals. They're so well-known and almost everyone grows them. People can also easily understand how important they are to our diet - as everyone eats them. But genetic diversity is important in other food crops too and it's really vital to grow the old, so-called Heritage varieties, always being careful to keep them true to type. We don't know when we made need any of the qualities in them, like frost or heat resistance, what changes and challenges climate change may bring about in our weather patterns - or what new pests or diseases it may bring. Everything has evolved to grow somewhere - so there will always be some varieties of staple food crops that are suitable to grow somewhere as long as we make sure we keep them all. Not only that, they are part of our social history too. We owe a debt of gratitude to all those who went before and saved these seeds to pass them on down to us. We have an obligation to them to keep their precious legacy going and growing for future generations.
 
 
 

Excitement is growing in the polytunnel too.  Believe it or not - it's now officially spring! 

 
 
Except nobody told the weather gods! It's lashing freezing rain this morning - and it still feels more like winter.  March is always an exciting month in the polytunnel though - it's my horticultural Narnia!  In there it's a very different story, spring is already everywhere. As Fionnuala Fallon once remarked - it's a very different world to the one outside!  Primulas, narcissi, violas, feverfew and wallflowers flowering at both ends, and in the little gardens planted around the foot of the grapevines halfway along the sides.There were even a couple of bumblebees in there over the last few weeks, anytime there was a rare mild day and the sun warmed the tunnel!  I'm so glad that as always, I'd planted some early flowers in there to attract them in - the scent of primulas and wallflowers is wonderful when I open the door. In three or four weeks the peaches will be in full flower. The dwarf potted ones are already flowering as they're always a bit earlier. Encouraging bees to visit the tunnel to do some of the pollination will mean plenty of juicily delicious peaches come July! 
 
 
The stunning & delicious Orychophragma Violaceus
The stunning & delicious Orychophragma Violaceus
The very pretty Orychophragma Violaceus - the Chinese February orchid, which the generous Joy Larkcom gave me seed of a few years ago, is also in full flower now.  It doesn't have any scent but it's very beautiful to look at and really delicious to eat in salads. It's not an orchid at all but a brassica with a lovely cress and cucumber-like taste. It's a brilliant salad vegetable for the winter too as it's very hardy and has edible leaves, with flowers that bees and other insects love too. It's a particular favourite of the Orange Tip butterfly which will be around next month. 
 
 
The soil temperature outside in the open garden is still very low and it's still so wet that there's very little you can usefully do outside at the moment - but to get ahead you can start lots of things off in modules and pots inside for planting out in the garden later. Even if you don't have a greenhouse or tunnel and are only dreaming about one at the moment - there's still a lot of things you could sow on your windowsill that could go out into a cold frame or in a protected propagating area outside, once they've germinated in a week or so. I describe how to organise one made from an old table in this month's Vegetable Garden Diary. That's how I used to do all my seed sowing before I had my first tiny polytunnel - a 6ft x 8ft. Yes, Iive been there - and it encourages you to use your space very efficiently and inventively. Something I've never forgotten! I still don't waste an inch in my polytunnel. You can't afford to - they're not cheap items. I worked out a few years ago though, that any polytunnel, if it's well organised and properly cultivated all year round, should easily pay for itself within 3 years! Even if you only saved yourself £20 or 25 euros a week on fruit and veg. - within a year you'd have enough for quite a decent tunnel. Think about that!
 
 

This is how I'll be sowing my TTTomFest '17 Tomatoes - and other tender crops

 

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

Buying peat-free seed composts

I can't stress enough just how important it is to use a really reliable SEED compost. Don't use a 'multi-purpose' compost as they may contain far too much fertiliser which may burn the young roots. Many seeds are very sensitive to a high nutrient level in the compost - and seed is expensive so you can't afford to waste it!  I always try to share my money saving tips here in my blog - but compost is one example where trying to save money is false economy. In my experience - you get what you pay for!  There are a few peat-free composts available now from DIY multiples, but I've tried most of them and they were all dreadful! They weren't organic either! I personally prefer organic as artificial fertilisers discourage soil life - something that organic gardeners always try to encourage.Several garden centres here are now stocking my favourite organic peat-free composts  - made by Klassman, botht the seed and the potting composts. They are by a very long way the very best composts of any sort that I've ever used!  In Ireland, Klassman composts are available by mail order from Fruit Hill Farm -  https://www.fruithillfarm.com/  (the Irish importers) but the postage is quite expensive and will cost you as much as just one bag of the compost!  If your local garden centre doesn't stock it then ask them to! If you're anywhere near north Dublin,  White's Agri at Ballough, Lusk, Co Dublin (on the old main Dublin-Belfast road) also stock it now too - http://www.whitesagri.ie/Products/GardenAllot.aspx. The compost is a bit more expensive than some of the others I'll grant you - but believe me it's worth every single cent. I wouldn't sow valuable seed into anything else. Seed is so expensive now that you only have to lose a couple of packets and that would have paid for a bag of decent compost!  Being peat-free you can also feel good about not destroying peat bogs and preserving biodiversity too! (See my Feb. Wildlife Garden article elsewhere) And before you say that making it miles away in Germany isn't very environmentally friendly - making it in bulk, from organically grown plant material, is actually a carbon-friendly activity - and shipping it in bulk to the UK and Ireland is many times less destructive, less carbon-emitting and so much better than digging up our precious, biodiversity-rich peat bogs!
 
 
If the bag of seed compost is too big you can split it with a friend - but personally I find it doesn't go 'off' like other composts either,and will last for a long time as long as you keep it dry and cool I've even used 3 year old compost and it gave perfect results. Make sure that wherever you buy the compost that they have also kept it dry and cool. Never ever buy saturated composts that have been sitting out in winter weather without being covered! If the compost hasn't been stored properly - the natural ingredients in it will have changed and plants may either be starved or get diseased. White's Agri are also the Irish agents for my favourite organic plant foods - the 'Osmo' range. The liquid tomato feed is brilliant and thoroughly reliable, as are the other products. 
 
 

Potting on tomato seedlings 



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

Protecting seedlings while providing good air circulation is key

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

 

Shading small seedlings is also important from now on

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

From Tunnel to Table is back again for a Spring edition again this month!

 
After a short break - it will be great fun welcoming Gerry Kelly back here again this year to continue our 'From Tunnel to Table' series on his 'Late Lunch Show' for LMFM Radio.  Once again, we'll be spending some time in the polytunnel again looking at what's going on and what's growing in there - and then we'll be heading back into the nice warm kitchen, to cook something using seasonal crops. (It's usually on on the third Friday of the month at 2.00pm - but this may change so keep an eye out). It's always fun showing other keen gardeners like Gerry around - the only problem I find is that there's always so much to talk about that it's impossible to fit everything into the time! We could literally spend all afternoon talking!  In my experience - when most gardeners get together they could literally talk the hind leg off a donkey! They're always dying to compare notes and top each other's stories - just as fishermen do!  It's horticultural 'one-upmanship' of the nicest possible kind though, where gardeners generously share ideas with each other without feeling that anyone's competing. There's always something new to learn about gardening from others and most gardeners tend to be generous folk. Every garden is different - no one ever knows it all! 
 
 
Don't forget that a polytunnel isn't just full of vegetables and seedlings at this time of year though - it's also full of hope too. That priceless thing we all need plenty of!  
 
There's always something good to look forward to in a well-tended polytunnel. Most importantly of all - there's always something good to eat too - whatever the weather, s you can see from the salads pictured above. I really couldn't garden without such a valuable space now, particularly after injuring my right shoulder badly over 3 yrs ago. It's always possible to have the soil in perfect condition whatever the weather's doing outside - that makes it so much easier to sow or plant into it. I can even garden when it's dark if I want to - with a light on! The thing one must remember at all times though - is that YOU have complete control and also of course, you have total responsibility. If you really take the trouble to look after things properly though - you will get great results. 
 
I always say that a tunnel is like life - you only get out what you put inAnd like life - with just a little bit of thought and effort you will be more than handsomely repaid!
 
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......but if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you!)

What to sow in March - 2017

What you can sow this month outside - or inside now for planting outside later:
 
In modules under cover without heat, or in a cold frame - (covering with fleece on frosty nights) or under cloches - or when the soil is dry enough and has warmed up later in the month, unprotected in the open, you can sow:
 
Beetroot, broad beans, carrots, mangetout and early peas, parsnips, late spring and summer cabbages, red cabbage, early Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers, calabrese and summer sprouting broccoli, onions (plant onion sets in pots for an early crop), leeks, spring onions, lettuces, kohl rabi, Ragged Jack and Cavolo Nero kales for baby leaves, radishes, Swiss chard, summer spinach, white turnips, American land cress, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes, 'soft' herbs like borage, parsley, dill, fennel, greek oregano and coriander. There's a lot of nonsense talked about germinating parsley, but it just likes to be warm and usually takes about 3 weeks to germinate anytime of year - it always appears just when you think it's not going to! 
 
It's also worth sowing some single, early flowering annuals in the open ground or in modules - such as limnanthes (poached egg plant), calendula, cerinthe, convulvulus tricolor, borage, red clover and phacelia. They'll attract beneficial insects to help with pest control, encourage bees into the garden for pollination and also look beautiful - which is very important too.


What you can sow now for growing in the polytunnel or greenhouse - In a heated propagator 
(for growing later in the tunnel) 
 
Aubergines (early in the month - Bonica F1 is best - top of RHS trials & AGM several years ago), alpine strawberries (Reugen a great var.), globe artichokes, (if sown early in the month, they'll crop outside in autumn this year), dwarf French beans for cropping in pots or in tunnel beds later (choose a fast growing, disease-resistant variety suitable for early sowing), asparagus, celery, celeriac (early in month) tomatoes, chillis and other peppers, physalis (Cape gooseberries), from mid-March on early courgettes and then later in the month melons and cucumbers for warm tunnel cropping. Don't forget melons and cucumbers need to be grown on in consistently warmer conditions than tomatoes to be successful - they grow very fast and hate to be checked (this applies to pumpkins & squashes too - wait until next month to sow them in pots for outside). Also sow some single-flowered more tender annuals now like Tagetes, French marigolds (T&M 'Tall Citrus Mixed' is good), etc.- these attract many beneficial insects which will help with pest control and pollination. It's really important that they are SINGLE flowered, as bees, hoverflies and other insects can't get at the nectaries of double flowers to feed - so they are completely useless to them - they then have to fly elsewhere to find food. When their energy supplies are low, wasting time trying to get nectar from useless flowers can make the difference between life and death for many small insects!
 
 
In modules in the tunnel without heat, or direct in tunnel soil as soon as you feel it's warm enough 
(if weed seeds are germinating - it is for most things that don't need very high temperatures for germination) - you can sow:
 
Beetroot, broad beans and peas, spring and summer cabbage, calabrese, carrots, white turnips and radishes (in the soil for an early tunnel crop), onions, chives, Welsh (perennial salad) onions, scallions, leeks, lettuces and salad mixes early in the month, kales, rocket, spinach and coloured Swiss chards etc for baby leaves, fennel and 'soft herbs' like borage, parsley, dill, Greek oregano, salad burnet and coriander. 
Other single flowered annuals like limnanthes, convulvulus tricolour and calendula can also be sown direct into the soil in beds now. Keep an eye out for hungry mice - they love pea and bean seeds - it's a good idea to put down a trap - but be careful to avoid trapping small birds like wrens and robins.
 
If you have space now in the tunnel or greenhouse where you'll be planting tomatoes in May - then you just have time to sow a useful green manure mustard called Caliente (see my article in The Irish Garden magazine - March 2016)
 
The best variety is 'Caliente' (generally available now, or from Marshalls and Unwins seeds - one packet will easily sow a bed about 20ft x 4ft.) This mustard acts as a 'biofumigant' by releasing a natural plant phytochemical as a gas - isothiocyanate. This suppresses a range of soil borne diseases and harmful nematodes - it also encourages beneficial bacteria and soil micro-organisms, adds nutrients and really encourages worm activity. It's particularly helpful where the soil has previously grown tomatoes before. A couple of weeks before planting the tomatoes - cut it down - chopping it up as finely as possible in order to release all it's beneficial compounds and dig it in immediately - before the resulting gases escape. Then cover it with black polythene to seal gases in. (see this month's polytunnel section) As it's a brassica - make sure it fits into your minimum 4-course rotation even though it will only be there for a short time. Phacelia is another fast growing 'soft' green manure worth sowing now if you have space - this can also be dug in after just one months growth, will break down quickly and it isn't rotation sensitive, so it can be used anywhere. Leaving one or two plants to produce their pretty blue flowers later on will really bring in the insects too!  Red clover is also useful, it fixes 'free' atmospheric nitrogen which it concentrates in nodules on it's roots made by beneficial microbes, then releases it for the following crop (leave a few to flower for bees - they adore them!). Borage also makes a good, very fast growing green manure with a long tap root which draws up valuable minerals such as magnesium from lower down in the soil profile - it breaks down easily when dug in and encourages good worm activity, as does claytonia (winter purslane).
 
There's still just time to plant garlic early in the month. Only plant varieties clearly labelled as 'suitable for spring planting''now - such as 'Cristo'. 
 
Plant Jerusalem artichokes and also early potatoes in warm well drained soils protecting from frost with fleece later (see veg. garden section). These will crop early enough to completely avoid blight. If your ground conditions aren't suitable - you could alternatively start them off in pots for an early crop - I do this with all of mine now. You can also start off Yacon, Oca and Ulluco tubers inside in pots now for planting outside or inside later - protect carefully from frost!
 
Don't forget that these are just suggestions for what you could sow now - not what you must! I found a checklist like this invaluable when I was just starting many years ago. (Someone once complained that I give too much information!) So I thought I'd make that quite clear! You can't please everyone - and all the information is free!
 
 
AND REMEMBER MY ADVICE. IF YOU'RE SHORT OF TIME - JUST GET THE SEEDS SOWN! YOU CAN CATCH UP WITH EVERYTHING ELSE LATER BUT NOT THAT! TIME WAITS FOR NO MAN! (Or woman!) 
Funny that we spend our time wishing away winter - then wishing everything would happen more slowly in spring - gardeners are never happy!
 
                                    
 
(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 Wildlife and Flower Garden in February - 2016

(including small scale organic poultry keeping)

Hens enjoying a fresh new run last year before the bird-flu restrictions - heads down & busy looking for bugs!

 Hens enjoying a fresh new run last year before the bird-flu restrictions - heads down & busy looking for bugs!
 

An 'Eggsistential' Crisis for Free-Range and Organic Egg Production?

 
Many of you will be aware by now that there have recently been bird-flu outbreaks in several parts of Europe. Due to this, for the time being, all free-range poultry must by law be kept confined in their houses and not allowed to roam outside, where they could potentially have contact with wild birds. I feel desperately sorry for all the organic and free-range poultry that are currently having to be kept completely shut in. Being permanently housed upsets laying hens when they are used to having the freedom to go outside whenever they wish. The restriction and abnormal overcrowding could eventually cause them to go into an early moult, if it continues for much longer. Moulting is something hens would normally do around midsummer. That's the time they usually drop their feathers in order to grow new ones, take a bit of a holiday and go 'out of lay' for a few weeks - or in other words completely stop laying eggs. The restrictions are already causing problems for both commercial conventional free-range and organic producers - but it could also have very serious implications for the long-term viability of their businesses if the ban lasts for much longer. There's been some debate among consumers in recent weeks as to whether free-range and organic producers may continue to label their eggs as such in the light of these restrictions. Some consumers have even suggested that they should be made to change their packaging - as it is now to all intents and purposes misleading! This is an unrealistic demand! As a former commercial organic poultry producer, I am acutely aware that producers are already working on very tight margins and such a requirement could be a potential game-changer for many. 
 
 
So what's to be done about this? Firstly I think that the all the departments of agriculture in affected countries should fund the production of labels explaining the reason for the current restrictions - something which could temporarily be stuck onto existing packaging at no expense to producers. Secondly - we all need to get behind organic or free-range producers, whichever type of eggs we prefer to buy - by buying their produce regardless of our feelings about the current ban. The egg yolks may possibly be lighter in colour, due to the hens being able to eat less green food, if they are on truly extensive free-range - but in most cases there will very little difference, if any, in the eggs. If we stop buying free-range eggs altogether, then their businesses may go to the wall. Then not only will consumer choice become more restricted - but so will many more hens! It will be the perfect excuse for intensive poultry farmers to argue that keeping poultry indoors in typically overcrowded, unhealthy and inhumane conditions is the only way to produce both eggs and chicken meat!
 
 
My hens have a large scratching pen adjoining their house,  with a roof of clear polycarbonate sheeting to keep it dry, which they normally walk through en route to their various different runs. It's a bit like a large covered loggia or porch! Currently their scratching pen is also completely covered with fine-meshed fruit netting - this very effectively keeps any wild birds out. Luckily they're quite used to this as wild birds can be an awful nuisance, stealing their expensive organic hen food - so the majority of their pen is normally kept covered, with just a small entrance and exit for them to access their runs. This means that they don't have to be completely shut up in their house currently - but can go in and out of the covered scratching pen whenever they want too. They're not upset by being a bit more restricted than usual, as I often shut them into it when changing them over to a new run. When I used to produce organic chickens for meat - I allowed my broilers to range into one of the four large polytunnels which I then had for growing vegetables. They absolutely loved it in there and spent most of their time stretched out, luxuriating in the warm sun - when they weren't scratching around for grubs and worms in the tunnel soil! They had a pretty good life! They were the usual commercial broiler breed which the uninformed say can't be reared to larger than about 1.5kg - but I could rear them to 4kg plus - almost as big as turkeys - without any of them having heart attacks or any leg problems! They were fit and healthy, organic birds that's why! 
 
 
After I gave up commercial production I kept my few hens in a movable small run attached to a house on wheels which was moved every day. In 2013 I broke my shoulder very badly, so I could no longer move that heavy run. They're now kept in a 'des res' spacious new house (a re-purposed Wendy house, complete with a smart front door and windows!) and we built a permanent system of runs radiating out from it like the spokes of a wheel - which can be constantly rotated to give them fresh ground. This is vitally important for keeping hens healthy and free from any parasites or diseases. It's a system that works very well for me. Their old movable pen was then re-purposed to become their new 'scratching pen'/loggia and in there they have plenty of room to do everything that they normally would. They can dust bathe, scratch around in plant remains and litter, flap their wings, eat their daily ration of the greens which I grow specially for them and even sunbathe - which they really love! Although they would normally much rather be ranging completely outside in the runs when the weather is dry - they're also used to being in the scratching pen a lot because they always dash in there at the slightest hint of any rain and it rains quite a lot here! Hens prefer to keep their feathers dry! They are originally descended from jungle fowl in the far east and in their natural habitat would spend most of their time foraging and scratching around under dense shrubs in forests, for grubs, seeds and the like, so there they naturally always had the ability and instinct to dash under bushes or trees to keep dry in any tropical downpours. 
 
 
All poultry still have that deep-rooted, instinctive need to be able to exhibit their natural behaviour.  I think that my 'scratching pen' arrangement is an example which could easily be adopted by commercial free-range or organic producers - even those with movable houses. Polytunnel-like structures would be equally effective as 'scratching pens'. I can't understand why the many free-range poultry farmers who are currently complaining about having to shut up hens, don't have a similar arrangement but just on a larger scale. I suppose once again it comes down to the cost. It would otherwise be easy enough to do and far more humane. Their hens would be far happier, warmer and more likely to go outside the houses too, if they had a covered and sheltered 'half-way house', where it was dry. Surely informed consumers would support this and be prepared to pay a little extra for their eggs? Some organic free-range producers are at least starting to 'enrich' their runs as they call it, with a few trees for shelter. Having kept poultry all my life and observed their behaviour - I believe that this lack of shelter is why, when very large numbers of free-range hens are kept in a house together, often 90% of them will never go outside at all! This even applies to organic hens, if too many are kept in large flocks with hundreds or even thousands in a house. When I kept organic free range hens commercially, I never kept more than around a 100 in a house because I found that if I went over that number - increasingly fewer hens would venture outside. I'm totally appalled that in the USA - even organic laying hens are allowed to be kept in huge barns full of thousands of birds, with no outside access whatsoever! This is clearly due to pressure from big agri-business interests wanting to jump onto the organic bandwagon, due to the rapidly increasing demand - but it is a total disgrace and eggs from those systems should never be allowed to be certified organic! That would never be allowed in the UK or Ireland under our organic standards. Organic free-range is not just about what the poultry are fed or not fed! It's also about ethics and allowing all poultry the most natural life possible, whether they are being kept for egg laying or reared for meat.
 
 
To be really healthy, ideally all poultry should be kept in fairly small numbers, with the houses and runs moved regularly to fresh ground. This is naturally a far more expensive way to produce both eggs and poultry meat though and currently is not economically viable even for many organic producers. For some reason many people seem to believe that eggs should be dirt-cheap - even organic ones! This is encouraged by the relatively cheap organic eggs available in some of the discount supermarkets. However - the quality of both eggs and chickens for meat really suffers when producers are forced to keep them at the highest stocking density allowed in order to be profitable. Producers have no choice but to cut corners in order to cut costs - even in some organic flocks. The inability to behave in their instinctive natural way is why it's so cruel that most of the poultry kept for food production are now kept in such unnaturally overcrowded, cramped and stressful conditions. This is also true of many of the conventional so-called 'free-range' units I've seen. This overcrowding can lead to serious injuries from cannibalism, due to the close proximity of so many others, when they in the wild they would normally range widely in small family groups, getting plenty of interest and exercise. Overcrowding is also the reason why they can be more prone to diseases which can spread rapidly. As a result many are constantly medicated with antibiotics, purely as a preventative measure. Routine use of antibiotics in intensive farming is one of the major reasons for the increasing rise in the incidence of antibiotic resistance. 
 
 
People complain about wild animals kept in zoos but somehow poultry often seem to be exempt from many peoples compassion! Hens are essentially wild animals too and far more intelligent creatures than most people give them credit for. I always believed and was told by my customers that our eggs were the best available anywhere. 25 years ago I was actually getting the same price for my organic eggs that most producers still are now! Frankly I would have to be very hard-pushed to buy any commercially produced eggs - even from organic flocks which are fed on organic, non-GMO feed. I would sooner go without eggs altogether than buy non-organic, even free-range ones. I'm sorry to say that most so-called free-range hens are just wandering around on sour and lifeless, faeces-ridden mud patches! In addition to that - non-organic, free-range laying hens or chickens for meat are still fed exactly the same ration containing the GMOs and pesticide-treated grains that caged hens are and are still treated with additional pesticides and antibiotics when necessary! 
 
The best quality eggs should be valued for the wonderfully healthy, complete meal that they are. Customers should demand the very best and be prepared to pay for it! Then all poultry might have a far healthier and happier life!
 

Here are some basic precautions you can take to avoid backyard poultry catching avian influenza (or bird 'flu.)

As the virus can survive in any bird droppings or manure from hen houses for up to 105 days - good basic hygiene at all levels is absolutely essential.
These are mostly common sense guidelines which should always be followed when keeping any poultry - whether you have hundreds or just one or two! 
 
Make sure they have warm, weather-proof housing, with plenty of ventilation but no draughts if possible. I am constantly horrified at the filthy conditions in which I see some backyard flocks kept - even some 'rescued' ex-battery hens. Being 'rescued' to live in a dark airless shed with only a small filthy mud-patch to walk round in is NOT being 'rescued' - it's just exchanging one kind of hellish prison for another - and frankly they'd be better off dead! Some people actually seem proud of showing off their hens living in this way! If you're not prepared to give them the best conditions you possibly can - then you shouldn't be keeping them at all!
 
 
Keeping hens away from any contact with wild birds which may be carrying the virus is essential for as long as the the Dept of Agriculture restrictions apply.
 
As this can stress poultry and also restrict their movement and fresh air - it's a good idea to make a small enclosure outside their run which is completely covered on top with something like polycarbonate corrugated sheeting or even just heavy clear plastic sheeting as I suggest above. This stops any wild birds sitting on top and depositing droppings. Putting wire netting on top first and then the plastic sheeting over the top gives it some support. The sides should be left open for fresh air movement. My hens' scratching pen is covered with wire netting as a base, a polycarbonate roof and and then fruit netting over the top of everything including the sides. This completely prevents even small birds getting in and also stops the plastic sheeting flapping and frightening the hens.
 
 

Keep housing regularly cleaned out to avoid build up of droppings which can give off damaging ammonia fumes. 

 
These can damage their lungs and cause respiratory infections even without contracting any virus! I find wood shavings far more absorbent than straw or even shredded paper. I buy large bales from my local farm supplies store. I top up the shavings every day to absorb any dampness and ammonia and then the whole house is cleaned out completely - hay in nest boxes and all - once a week.
 
 
Make sure that all feeders and drinkers are kept scrupulously cleaned - if possible every day. 
 
Even in a covered run I find it useful to raise the drinker on a brick or similar to avoid any contamination by the hens' own faeces or mud. A couple of cloves of crushed garlic can be put into a small muslin or net bag and put inside the drinker is good for the hens. Putting it in a bag stops it blocking the holes where the water goes out. An old washing-up bowl, which I saw in one acquaintance's hen run will not do! (Not only that - it was empty on one occasion when I visited! That person considers that they are an 'expert' and should have known better!) I've always used garlic as a preventative measure for the hen's health. I've never found that it affects the eggs or the taste of the flesh sadly - although some green foods like red cabbage can affect the taste of eggs. (Many years ago an organic acquaintance looked sceptical after I told him this - he called in unexpectedly to see my broilers one day, no doubt thinking that he could catch me out! When I opened the door of the polytunnel they were enjoying ranging in at the time he reeled back in shock at the smell of the garlic and was thereafter forever silenced!)
 
Keeping feeders inside the house will discourage any wild birds from trying to get in. Feeding your wild birds somewhere well away from your poultry areas is also a good idea.
 
If rats or other vermin are a problem set metal cage traps 
 
Don't use poison. Crunchy peanut butter makes excellent bait - works a treat!
 
Feed your hens the best compound feed you can if you want the best eggs. 
 
I feed mine Organic Layers Pellets. These are all organic, free of GMOs and contain a nutritionally balanced ration with all the essential nutrients they require. They can't obtain everything they need if they are enclosed in a small pen - and neither can they when free-ranging, as any worms and grubs etc quickly get disposed of. Just throwing them a handful of corn occasionally is false economy and won't produce the bet eggs or many of them!
 
Finally - I think that feeding fresh green food is essential. 
 
In addition to any waste from the tunnels or the kitchen - I grow chicory and kale specifically for them. This is particularly important in the winter when grass growth is slow. When they're shut in they won't even be able to eat any grass - so it's even more important then. This gives the eggs a lovely colour - the hens love their greens and look forward to them every day. If they see me coming their way from the polytunnels there's a general stampede to the side of the run to be there first!
 
 

A quick checklist of symptoms just in case you're worried.

Coughing, sneezing, runny noses, runny eyes - just like us when we have a cold. A build up of ammonia in a dirty house can also cause these symptoms.
 
Hunched up, lethargic and depressed looking, feathers ruffled and standing up. 
 
Decrease egg production and any a lot of shelled eggs (be careful not to get confused here as keeping them shut in if they not used to it may stop them laying for a while).
 
Severe & smelly greenish diarrhoea - very serious if accompanied by other symptoms but can also be caused sometime by greedily eating too much green food!
 
 
If you suddenly see a lot of dead birds anywhere - especially waterfowl - inform the Dept of Ag immediately! One or two is natural. Do NOT handle dead birds. If your own poultry are affected do not handle them without gloves and put any dead birds into a bin bag immediately to avoid other birds scavenging.
 
 
There's a link to further information together with some frequently asked questions and answers here:
 
"Compulsory housing of poultry and captive birds in Ireland from the Department of Agriculture."  - 
http://www.agriculture.gov.ie/media/migration/animalhealthwelfare/diseasecontrols/avianinfluenzabirdflu/contingencyplanning/QandADAFMCompulsoryHousing231216.pdf
 

 

In the Wildlife Garden - Nature is Slowly Awakening

 
Iris Lazica bejewelled with raindrops. It flowers all winter and was a much treasured gift from dear friend & wonderful botanical artist, the late Wendy Walsh.
Iris Lazica bejewelled with raindrops. It flowers all winter and was a much treasured gift from dear friend & wonderful botanical artist, the late Wendy Walsh.
The birds are starting their dawn chorus about 6.30 am now.  It's really beginning to sound almost like spring all of a sudden, despite the weather! The chaffinches are parading around in their spring finery and singing their hearts out. The blackbirds and thrushes are really tuning up. It does our hearts good to hear them, making up a bit for the alternating storms, freezing gales and wet weather that have been so depressing. The blackbirds have done a great job clearing up slugs and snails over the winter, earning their pay of seeds, rotting apples and fruit scraps. This morning I found this perfect, untouched bloom of Iris Lazica on the B&B bank (bee and butterfly bank). It's a rare sight without holes, as they're usually reduced to miserable lacy shreds whilst still in bud in a bad slug year - but the huge population of birds here have definitely been out doing their job this year!  The increasing light is encouraging a lot of early spring flowers now, despite the cold. Every day there's something new to look at and everything is waking up for another year. It's so lovely to see those first signs of spring again - especially the flowers given by old friends, some now gone. The brighter daylight hours are noticeably approaching an even amount of daylight to dark now. By the end of next month there will be almost two more hours of daylight in every day and that's when growth really starts to accelerate. The spring equinox is less than a month away now. In only two months our swallows will be back - bringing summer on their wings. One swallow may not make a summer - but it certainly makes my spring perfect!  Let's hope we've got a warm dry summer to look forward to, with abundant insects for them to raise their precious broods once again.
 
 
The garden is already full of busy activity - with birds thronging around the feeders eager to build up their energy to breed. Food has become so scarce now that feeding them is vital for their survival - and will continue to be for a couple more months yet. A friend remarked the other day that we have sparrows in industrial quantities here - so any stray garden seeds have long since been hoovered up as efficiently as usual. The 'charms' of goldfinches are constantly clustered around the Nyjer feeders now - more like noisy swarms of bees. They're amazingly aggressive and argumentative for such tiny delicate-looking birds. If you can manage it - feeding birds all year round is a good idea these days. It not only feeds them reliably, but also means they may eat fewer hoverflies, butterflies and bees which are finding it harder to survive too. I love sparrows but can't bear it when I find a beautiful pair of satin butterfly's wings left from some sparrow's lunch, like an unwanted ball gown cast off after a disappointing dance! I know that's nature's way but it's so sad sometimes to see it. Peanuts and fat balls are fine for the smaller birds and even blackbirds - but the shy thrush that's singing so beautifully at the top of the bee and butterfly border behind the polytunnels right now won't come too close to the tunnel or the house - so I put some damaged and rotting fruit or other scraps out for him further away from the feeders. Most of last autumn's fruits are long gone - and they are so grateful for any fruit you can spare now in freezing weather. Avocados are a great favourite - and it's  often possible to buy these cheaply from the 'reduced' sections of the local supermarkets. Unlike more fussy humans - they don't mind a few bruises on their fruit!
 
 

Not so bird-brained after all!

 
I recently read some research from scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden, who published a study in the Journal of Behaviour Ecology and Sociobiology which showed that Great Tits actually spy on other birds to see where they hide their reserves of seeds and nuts. Biologists found that great tits can remember the position of the hideaways up to 24 hours after seeing it being hidden! (Amazing - I often forget after five minutes where I've put something!) Interestingly, even though great tits share this mental ability with well known hoarders such as crows and jays - they don't store up food for themselves. They're too lazy I presume - or too darn clever. It's far easier to steal it from others than to waste energy doing all that hard work yourself!  So that's why they're always the most abundant bird on the bird feeders! Another less than charming habit they've developed was noticed by researchers in caves in Hungary. In harsh conditions of freezing snow cover when food is scarce - they will even eat Pipistrelle bats! No wonder the 'free-for-alls' on the bird feeders are so vicious and noisy - the little thugs! I suppose they have to survive though, like everything else it's the survival of the fittest - and I hate to think of what may happen among all of nature as climate change inevitably puts more pressure on everything. I think it will be an increasingly hard fight to survive for many.
 
 
The importance of shelter
 
Any creatures that didn't settle down for a proper winter hibernation, due to the milder weather in late autumn, will already be desperate for food. With loss of habitat, pesticides etc. - food is something that's becoming harder for them to find every day. Many farmers now cut their hedges down to the bone, and some - like my neighbour - take most of them out altogether. They obviously don't know of the research a few years ago which showed that the small amount they may gain in extra room for crops, by ripping out their hedges, is actually far more than cancelled out by the lack of shelter afforded to their crops by a decent wind-proof hedge. A hedge can give wind shelter up to as far away as a distance of 20 times it's height. Even the most inexperienced gardener knows that plants won't grow well without shelter from strong winds. It can be a big problem in new gardens. I wouldn't have a garden here at all without the shelter belt of trees I planted well over 30 years ago. The shelter provided by growing hedges and trees in gardens also means plenty of habitat for all the creatures and plants that used to live in our rapidly vanishing woodlands and forest margins. When many of those were cut down, their flora and fauna then had to take refuge in the only strips of remaining woodland they could find - which were hedges and field edges. Now - with those disappearing - everything we can do in our gardens to provide a home for nature is vitally important for them.
 
 

There is really nothing that looks more sad than a hedge which has been vandalised to shreds - torn down to ugly stumps by those powerful flailing machines. It's of little use for anything except to mark a field boundary, and certainly does nothing to prevent flooding, as the more abundant hedges and trees years ago did. A hedge that's been reduced to stumps provides no shelter for crops or animals - doesn't make a stock-proof fence and provides virtually no cover or habitat for wildlife. It also doesn't slow water flow during heavy rainstorms - something which is becoming more of a problem everywhere. For 35 years now here, I've been trying to develop as many different kinds of habitat as possible on my five acres, in order to attract the widest diversity of native flora and fauna as I possibly can. It's been very successful, with my wildlife meadow, gardens and woodland beginning to feel more and more like a small sanctuary among the ever-increasing spread of chemical farming 'desert' all around us here. It's becoming daily more difficult for all wildlife to survive, not just in this area but all over the country and in fact the world. It's really important that us gardeners do everything we can to help wildlife and to protect it's biodiversity by providing the right habitat and by not using pesticides - particularly slug pellets - which slowly poison many of the creatures like hedgehogs, frogs and birds whose diet consists of slugs which may have consumed them....and which also - by the way - are fast becoming one of the biggest pollutants of our ground water everywhere! So much so that the EU issued strict guidelines on their use a couple of years ago - but who is out there policing their use? No one - is the answer to that I'm afraid!

 

Habitat decline is becoming worse here in Ireland - driven by the constant ongoing intensification of agriculture. It's about 15 years since I heard an owl here at night. I think I've only seen one or two flying overhead at dusk since then. They used to be abundant until the wildflower-rich old pasture surrounding us was ploughed up to grow cereals. Naturally, the crops were huge over the first few years because of the abundant humus, fertility and biological activity in the soil which had built up over countless generations. Since then the crops have gradually declined - which happens when chemical fertilisers are used instead of compost and manures. The soil and crops look increasingly sick and my neighbour was complaining recently that there's no drainage in the soil any more. There was just no point me saying anything - he thinks I'm barmy because I'm organic! A popular view among certain sections of the sadly uninformed farming community! He doesn't make the connection between the increasing amount of poisons he's pouring onto the land and the fact that there are no worms or soil life left! It looks like an open sewer after rain! Compacted and with green algae-filled puddles everywhere.  He might as well be trying to grow crops on the road! It's so terribly sad.

 

Why I don't use peat anymore

Another major contributor to habitat decline, loss of biodiversity and increased flooding is the destruction of peat bogs to mine peat - both for generating power and for use in gardens. 'Mining' peat releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere - as peatlands are a major global carbon sink. This adds to global warming and climate change:
 
 
In terms of biodiversity - there are many plants, insects and other creatures that are totally dependent on bogland habitats and can't live anywhere else - many of these will die out if bogs are destroyed. We've recently suffered floods all over Ireland - but few people understand that our bogs act like giant sponges - absorbing any rainfall and then releasing it again very gradually - in amounts that waterways can naturally cope with. See how a large bath sponge absorbs water - scale it up - and you get the idea. We're increasingly seeing the results of removing such natural flood protection - at a huge cost to the environment, to agriculture and to peoples homes. 
 
 
Gardeners really don't need to use peat - these days there are plenty of alternatives. There are several excellent peat-free composts on the market now - both organic and non-organic. Organic gardeners try to encourage microbial activity in their soil because this enhances plants immune systems and helps them to grow. Peat is a naturally anti-microbial product - so why on earth would you choose to use it? In fact spaghnum moss - which most peat is made up of - was actually used for making anti-bacterial dressings in World War One!  I stopped using peat and peat composts many years ago - with varying success from the peat-free products available then. But I now get excellent results from the Klassman peat-free, organic seed and potting composts which I personally use. I never lose seedlings in them as they are so healthy - so any additional cost is offset by far fewer plant losses. They may cost a bit more than cheaper peat composts - but I promise you if you try them you won't be disappointed!  Despite what some may say - peat bogs can never be restored. Re-planted perhaps - but you can't restore millions of years of accumulated carbon just by planting a few trees! Once they're gone - they're really gone! Our peat bogs are precious - diminishing them diminishes both us and the nature that needs them.
 
 
There's more on peat-free gardening on the Garden Organic UK website herehttp://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/peat-free-growing There's also information on peat bogs in Ireland from The Irish Peatland Conservation Council - who do great work and also have lots of fun and educational activities: http://www.ipcc.ie/ 
 
 

The birds and the bees in the polytunnel

 
So many people don't understand just how very dependent on pollinating insects us larger creatures higher up the food chain are!  I think it was Darwin that said that if pollinating insects were to disappear - then we would be 3 years away from mass starvation! I wonder if my chemically-dependent neighbour ever gives a thought to what would possibly pollinate his oil seed rape if he sprays everything out of existence? I doubt it! Hopefully the generation of children now at school are being taught just how vitally important the survival of seemingly insignificant insects is for our own survival! The latest really sick thing is that Chemical giant Syngenta are now investing millions on research into farming bumble bees - they can see a huge market worth billions of dollars in the future when their pesticide sprays have killed off all the natural pollinators! A study in the science press recently reported that although those bees are supposed to be healthy when imported for pollinating crops - DNA tests showed that many are actually carrying viruses and bacteria that are already starting to endanger our native bees - as if they weren't under enough pressure already!  It's a bit like selling us chemically laden foods and antibiotics that destroy our gut bacteria - then selling a few of them back to us in the form of expensive probiotic drinks. Such drinks with fancy named bacteria actually do nothing for you anyway because they have to be pasteurised - which kills the beneficial bacteria!!  And that's quite apart from the fact of all the sugar and rubbish they contain too. An expensive six pack of that stuff can't make up for an unhealthy diet - although perhaps it might make the buyer feel better about themselves! You're far better off eating some home made yoghurt, or kefir - which is even better.
 
 
My polytunnels are a great food source for smaller birds - and many spend a lot of time in there. After lunch yesterday the temperature on the thermometer in there registered almost 20 deg. in the frosty sunshine!  A wren and a robin were hunting busily along the sides for any small insects that might be lurking around. I spent an hour weeding one of my favourite bits -  the small herb and flower beds under the two peach trees at the north end. Not a moment too soon - I hadn't noticed the Greek oregano had already put on so much young growth (I love some of the young soft leaves in early salads) and the lemon thyme in the other bed has such a wonderful scent - almost as good as lemon verbena - it's an instant aromatherapy lift and deliciously soothing to weed. I was surprised to see borage already flowering in there. All those herbs and flowers in the end beds bring in masses of insects and bees both on mild days in winter and later on in spring - which help to pollinate those crops like peaches and strawberries which need it. Their industrious hard work saves me a lot of arm-aching pollination with a paint brush.
 
At this time of year, even if it's cold, I usually try to take some time out every day just sitting in the garden listening to the birdsong - such soothing music for the soul. I have a bench at the top end of the orchard, which nestles cosily under an old, thick hedge of hawthorn and blackthorn, facing south. I've put bird feeders close by because birds love to have a bit of cover which they can hop into between snacks. Whenever I sit there I'm instantly joined by a bevy of blue tits, robins and sparrows etc. waiting for me to produce more food.  I'm beginning to think that they see me as some sort of giant mobile bird feeder!  Everywhere I go around the garden in winter, I have a cloud of little feathered followers, their wings fluttering and whirring as they hop from twig to twig, waiting to see what's in my pockets. When I first came here, there were very few trees, only those along the perimeter hedges, and no birdsong at all that very first spring - it was a real 'Silent Spring'. And thus it might have stayed - but over the intervening years since then I've planted hundreds of trees, under-planting them with many kinds of fruiting shrubs and wildflowers for the birds, butterflies, moths and other insects. Now every year the dawn chorus grows louder and more varied. Sound is really important in the garden - and so often it's something which is completely overlooked. Trees can make a wonderfully soothing sound - as they sigh and whisper in a breeze. It's almost like meditation to stop for a few minutes in the midst of a busy life and really listen sometimes - you will be amazed at what you can hear - even seed pods popping on the Euphorbia Mellifera in late summer!  I heard a tree's heartbeat once -  it was utterly magical!..........The peace to be able to hear those small elusive sounds is truly beyond price! As the poet G K Chesterton said - "To truly learn how to value something - imagine losing it."

 

As the birds are so hungry now, they're really grateful for any food, and there will be hardly any insect activity for weeks yet, until some warmer weather. Good news for some gardeners - but very bad news for birds - so do keep feeding them high protein foods like seeds, peanuts and meal worms. Fat balls are a favourite but they're  quite an expensive item. You can make your own though - as I've described before - by getting free bones and scraps from your butcher - cooking them to render off the fat and then mixing that when cooled with seeds, grated cheese, brown breadcrumbs, currants etc. Old yogurt pots or something similar are great for molding them in - grown up seed castles instead of sandcastles!  They're much cheaper and the birds love them. They're only a bit of bother - and really valuable to the birds. The antics and the birdsong are well worth it anyway!  Nature's free entertainment - and cheap at the price!

 
According to a recent surveyblackbird and song thrush numbers are seriously declining. Numbers of starlings, tree sparrows, yellow wagtails and many other woodland and farmland species have plummeted too. All mostly due to habitat loss, weedkillers, slug pellets and pesticides - so our gardens are becoming ever more important to their survival. Especially chemical-free organic gardens. 
 
There's so much you can do to help them. There's still just time to plant bare root fruiting and berrying trees like crab apples, and shrubs like elder, cotoneaster, hawthorn and pyracantha to feed birds, insects and other wildlife. These provide cover and nesting places too. Willow cuttings will also root very easily at this time of year too - just bury them about 2/3rds in the soil in a damp spot. You also only have a couple more weeks to put up nest boxes for the early broods. Nearly all the 'des res's' will be bagged by now, but there's always room for a few more. Make sure that old ones are clean and ready for action too. The sparrows and blue tits in particular have already been busily house-hunting for several weeks now.
 
Teasels and Geranium Maderense on the 'Bee and Butterfly' bank behind the tunnels
Teasels and Geranium Maderense on the 'Bee and Butterfly' bank behind the tunnels
There's also lots of things like sunflowers and teasels that you can easily grow for the birds. If you just grow teasels just once - you will always have them - as they tend to sow themselves around or the birds drop them. They make really handsome, tough and statuesque plants in a wild corner or even in a flower border - where their huge silvery-green leaves make a wonderful contrast with smaller leaf shapes. Bees, butterflies and moths love them in summer. Then bats come out in the dusk to eat the moths they attract. In winter, birds like goldfinches and the tit family love their seeds too. They're a wonderful plant for wildlife. If you've grown chicory or endive over the winter in the vegetable garden - you could transplant one or two plants to a sunny corner - they have incredibly beautiful blue flowers, also much loved by bees etc. and then afterwards, useful seeds for birds like goldfinches too. This year I'll also be sowing more nectar and pollen producing annuals in the garden, as well as hedgerow and woodland wildflower mixes for the meadow and down by the pond. Bees, butterflies, moths and bats need all the help they can get - they too are disappearing alarmingly fast. By the way - if you're thinking of growing wildflowers this year - don't just scatter seed into your lawn - they'll just get lost or eaten. Sow some in seed trays or plugs instead and plant them out when they're bigger - they're far easier to establish that way.
 
 
 
In the borders and woodland garden - Hellebores are one of the best pollen-producing plants at the moment - they're very popular with bees on any mild days. Some of the Helleborus Orientalis hybrids flowering in the garden now:
 
 
Green spotted

Green spotted Helleborus Orientalis hybrid

Anenome centred hellebore - 21.2.12

     Anenome centred 

Hellebore 'Old Tapestry' 21.2.12

Hellebore 'Old Tapestry' - my own hybrid

   

      Hellebore 'Taffeta Velvet'

Hellebore 'Taffeta Velvet' -       and another home-bred

Lemon yellow

Lemon yellow


The Hellebores really lift one's spirits now after a long winter. The small voles that used to mince up all the flower buds to get at the pollen, just before they flowered, seem to have disappeared. Perhaps killed by the cats or plentiful local buzzards! Their graceful drooping flowers really are stunning - but they bashfully hide their beauty so you have to turn them face up to really appreciate them fully - or pick individual flowers and float them in a bowl of water. Nature is truly wonderful - how can something so utterly beautiful be so incredibly tough? They can be completely bowed down and frozen solid, early on a frosty morning - but a couple of hours later they will look as perky and pristine as ever!  The poisonous alkaloids they contain in their sap must be some sort of anti-freeze. Some of the dark ones have really gorgeous young foliage - of the very deepest bronze. Those hellebores in particular look beautiful well into May - many of the others look rather ugly as they fade though, particularly the pink ones, which tend to look dirty. The bronze ones look lovely contrasted with snowdrops and later on pale lemon narcissus (daffodil) W.P. Milner and lemon and gold-laced primulas. I never get tired of looking into their beautiful faces and marveling at the endless variations of colour and form. The bees love all of them too - they provide valuable early nectar and pollen.

 

Some more flowers - you can never have too many Hellebores!:

 

Pink double

Pink double

Red double

Red double

   

s

 

 

 

Slate black double

Slate black double

White & crimson picotee

White & crimson picotee

White with claret stained base

White with claret nectaries

 
More jobs in the wildlife garden!
 
If you haven't done so already - rake dead rotting leaves off borders and remove dead and untidy leaves from things like stachys lanata (lambs ears) epimediums etc. this makes room for any new growth or flower buds coming through. It also exposes any slug hiding places! The birds are so hungry and eager for food at the moment they won't be too long about clearing up any lurking pests!  After tidying - give border plants a general, slow release, organic feed like fish, blood and bone and a mulch of home made compost - that is if you can spare it from your vegetable garden. Don't get too enthusiastic about tidying everywhere in the garden though and do be careful just in case there's still something asleep under dry piles of leaves! 
 
Leave a few untidy corners where last autumn's gales blew in piles of twigs and leaves, otherwise you might still disturb creatures like hedgehogs. Some may still be hibernating and it's really too early for them to come out yet. They need to sleep peacefully for just a bit longer - their bodies barely 'ticking over'- until the much milder days of spring, when there will be more food about. 
 
Remember - wildlife loves an untidy garden - and that's really the best excuse in the world if - like me - you're not the tidiest anyway!!  It's always good to leave some long grass somewhere with maybe a berrying shrub or two and a tree. Everyone should have a little wildlife corner - no matter how small their garden - you can even do it in a tub! It provides much needed habitat for all sorts of creatures.
 
My biomass willows at the bottom of the field are just starting to come into flower now. Their glittering silver 'pussy willow' catkins catch the light as the trees sway in the breeze - they almost look like flowering cherries from the top of the hill. If we get a few mild days there'll soon be early bees collecting their pollen. The willows don't just provide great carbon neutral fuel, but look beautiful, provide shelter and encourage wildlife while they're growing!  What a paragon of a tree! They'll be coppiced to burn in our wood burning stove in another couple of years, leaving the stumps to re-grow. They grow really well, making the very best use of a difficult wet spot if you have room to plant them, some putting on as much as ten feet or more of growth every year on our heavy County Meath clay soil. There ought to be a lot more of them planted downhill of many rural domestic sewage systems, to deal with the problem of nutrient run-off into the water table!
I wonder if we could possibly try something like offsetting  'willow - nutrient & carbon capture points' against any septic tank charge? Now there's a thought............On the other hand - they might decide to tax the willows too - though they haven't thought of that one yet!!
 
The sun's just come out brilliantly - I'm off to eat my lunch in the tunnel, listen to the bird song, enjoy the moment and make plans for summer!
 
(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 February - 2017

Exciting New Beginnings to Another New Fruit Growing Year!

 
Beautifully packed apple trees with proper documentation sent by Blackmoors Nursery. Apple trees from Blackmoors on left  and others on right.

Beautifully packed apple trees sent by Blackmoors Nursery.

Trees heeled into pots of old compost until ground dries up.
 
I'm always so excited by new fruit trees! I'm planting more trees into the new orchard again this year, to add to those initial plantings of last year. I decided to start planting a new orchard last year because the 35 year old orchard of 55 heritage varieties, which I planted just after we moved here, had almost completely stopped producing fruit because my neighbour ploughed up all the old pasture behind us and started growing grain crops every year.  His spraying with hormone weedkillers in spring makes virtually all the flower buds drop off the apple and plum trees. Very little escapes depending on the timing of the spraying! Sp last year - fed up with no decent apples - I started planting a new orchard on the other side of the property, on the eastern side, as far away from danger as possible! The first dozen trees have established very well and I'm hoping that in time, with the shelter of the now tall garden trees, the strip of maturing woodland I planted 26 years ago and the house and outbuildings as well - that I may finally get enough fruit again. Sod's law though! With the strange weather in spring last year and also my neighbour growing different crops immediately behind us - the spraying for once didn't coincide with the trees being in bud, it was also a good apple year everywhere - and luckily we got quite a lot of apples! Some of the old trees only produced a few but several, including Katy, Bramley's Seedling, Discovery, Laxton's Fortune and Ashmead's Kernal produced absolutely masses! 
 
 
We're still eating the wonderfully crisp russett Ashmead's Kernal from my rather unconventional, re-purposed old freezer apple store - we've also got plenty of the wonderful cooking apple Bramley's Seedling stored too. Every day I thank the weather Gods for allowing us to enjoy such a treat once again - and 
Dr. Ashmead who bred what I think is the supreme, late-keeping eating apple way back in the 1700s. This year some of the trees in the new orchard may carry some fruit too - something I'm really looking forward to as I planted a few more heritage varieties which I haven't tasted before. That's a delicious treat to really look forward to!  In the home where I grew up, we had lovely old orchards and a large kitchen garden full of every kind of fruit - so I really miss the all the variety. As far as apples go - it's very difficult to get anything more than Gala (tasteless), Pink Lady (too sweet) or Braeburn (picked unripe) grown organically - either in shops or farmer's markets-  and organically grown Bramley's are non-existent. I've never seen any on sale anywhere!
 
Ashmead's Kernal in my very effective apple store - a re-purposed old broken freezer! A deliciously crunchy & aromatic  Ashmead's Kernal for an after lunch treat - 22.2.17
Ashmead's Kernal in my very effective apple store - a re-purposed old broken freezer! A deliciously crunchy & aromatic  Ashmead's Kernal for an after lunch treat - 22.2.17
 
 
All the apples I bought from nurseries are on the root stocks M26 and MM106 which are the best ones for early fruiting in less than ideal conditions, like on my heavy clay soil. They grow to mostly about 15 ft/ 3 metres high and wide, they're productive and are fairly easily controlled by pruning. After arrival they all got tucked into large tubs of recycled organic peat-free potting compost in the shed where they're frost free - to await drier weather - hopefully before they start shooting in March!  I'm planting some of the trees, along with other fruit bushes like Jostaberries and gooseberries, around the perimeter of the hen runs as the hens appreciate shelter from the wind and a bit of shade in summer. Trees around their runs will provide the ideal habitat for them - as hens are jungle fowl originally and don't like to be out in the open too much. Despite that -  on a calm sunny day they really enjoy a
 
 

Planting fruit trees on mounds may have to be the norm in the future

 
I invented a new way of planting all of the trees and bushes on slight mounds a few years ago - which I haven't seen anyone else do. All of the new orchard will be planted in that way. I think that there is no doubt that on average our winters are becoming far wetter thanks to climate change - and that they will continue to do so.  I have a large pile of soil left from when I dug out the new wildlife pond a few years ago - and this made good use of it.  When the ground finally dries out again - I don't think it will be much drier than it was this time last year looking back at my diary. I certainly won't be going anywhere near the old orchard or cane fruits until it dries up enough to walk on the ground without even slightly causing a depression in the soil to avoid possibly compacting it and damaging the drainage, which is vitally important for fruit. I wouldn't attempt to plant any tree or bush fruit in soil like it is at the moment - it would never do well and will suffer for the rest of it's life even if it survives. If you have bare-root plants or trees waiting to be planted - then you could plant them in containers, and either leave them in those for this year or plant them out later on in late spring. They'll be fine, and far happier than if they'd been put into wet muddy soil, which could cause roots to rot. 


Baby 'Livingstone' I presume - promisingly pink!
Baby 'Livingstone' I presume - promisingly pink!
In autumn 2012 I bought a new variety of rhubarb - 'Livingstone' (new to me anyway but an old Victorian variety I believe) which is supposed to produce lots of really red stalks in the autumn - unlike other varieties which are only producing green ones by then. Traditionally in old gardens rhubarb was never pulled after Derby day - which in the UK is in early June. This wasn't just because the plants needed a rest - but was also because when the stalks are mostly green they are full of oxalic acid which is very bitter and could give you kidneys stones if you are susceptible!  You should never eat green rhubarb for this reason. 
 
 
I'm amazed that shops still sell it all summer and autumn - even when it's bright green - and unsuspecting people buy it. It probably needs about half a ton of sugar to make it palatable! But then - thinking about it - since when did shops ever worry about our health?! The health of their balance sheets is all that concerns them! Oxalic acid from rhubarb's green stalks and leaves can actually be made into a very effective pesticide - although don't tell the EU - because it's illegal to make your own! Odd that isn't it - when shops can actually sell it to us as a food?! And they also sell us food laced with other legal pesticides, many of which are so old that they've never even been properly tested for safety!  Anyway, as the ground was already far too wet to plant my new rhubarb - I planted it into one of those 10lt. recycled buckets I've used for growing tomatoes in for the last couple of years and put it in the tunnel. Pictured here last Feb it's looking quite perky and already has about 6in/10cm of juicy looking red stalks on it - but I resisted temptation and kept my hands off it - putting it outside for the rest of the year - to give it a chance to build up a nice crown. I brought it into the tunnel 2 weeks ago and put a large pot over the crown to encourage it. It's already making some small, mouth-wateringly deep pink shoots which I shall allow myself to sample this year. Not too many, as I shall pot it on soon into a larger tub to give it more root room, and feed it well - then it may crop well in the autumn, after a summer holiday. I'm not sure how long it will be happy in a tub - but it should be fine in a large tub in shady corner if kept well watered. Anything that makes use of difficult corners in a tunnel is very valuable - and it will hopefully stretch the fruit season at either end just that little bit further.
 
 
If you're just starting off a new fruit garden - there's still just time to plant bare root fruit trees and bushes into the ground, if soil conditions aren't too wet.  Never attempt to plant anything - particularly fruit trees - into a wet sticky soil! Instead you could pot them up for now in a soil/compost mix. Make sure the pot is a lot larger than the roots to give them room to spread out instead of winding round. If you've read my blog before you'll know that I use large plastic carrier or bin bags for this - making drainage holes in the bottom. Don't use a pure peat compost - apart from destroying bogs by using peat (and you know my opinion on that!) the roots of large trees often never move out into the surrounding soil properly if they've been potted into peat composts - something you may not discover for a few years until they're carrying a heavy crop and the wind blows so hard it causes them to keel over! 
 
 

What are the Best 'autumn fruiting' Raspberry Varieties? 

 
Some fruit like autumn raspberries will even give you a good crop this year - if planted in really well prepared, fertile ground in a sunny spot. If your soil's still too wet to plant for the next few weeks - then you can pot them up for now and plant them later when conditions are better and they will still fruit well.  'Allgold', 'Brice' and 'Joan J' all have a fabulous flavour, and will fruit twice a year if you leave about half of the previous year's canes on the plants when you're doing your spring pruning. Those will crops in June, then you cut those right down. You'll then have a longer autumn cropping period from August to Nov. on all the new canes grown in the current year. Although vigorous - they are reasonably well-behaved varieties. They are called 'primocane' varieties - and seem to concentrate their energies a bit more into the fruit - unlike two of the older type of autumn varieties which I planted years ago - 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss'. Those two have much smaller fruit which doesn't have nearly such a good flavour. They also have territorial ambitions and seem to enjoy trying to run all over the garden, popping up in all sorts of unexpected places and becoming an absolute nuisance. I wouldn't dream of giving them away to friends though - knowing how much of a pest they can become. As I hate wasting anything I dig them up and plant them down in my small patch of woodland for the wildlife. There they can go back to their original woodland roots - running around and doing exactly what they really like - and while doing it they provide natural cover and food for the birds - who really enjoy them! Sadly though - it was a vain hope that if the birds have their very own fruit patch they'll leave mine alone!  Dream on - they just bring all their friends along to party as well!!
 
 

Woodland gardening? Or feeding wildlife? 

 
For many years now I've been planting all sorts of stray seedlings of fruit bushes and trees in my little patch of woodland here. I'm always finding blackcurrant or other seedlings when I'm weeding - particularly where the birds have been sitting on branches and digesting their breakfast!  I hate wasting them! Perhaps one day I may even be rewarded by finding a new hybrid variety - that's if I ever get to see any of the fruit before the birds eat it all. "Forest Gardening" is a new term for this habit of mine which has been coined by a man who recently claimed to have invented it - well he invented the name - but not the practice. But apparently it's the very latest fashion!  Anyone into wildlife gardening or permaculture like me has been doing it for years - but we just didn't call it a fancy name!  Anyway - I actually plant them for the birds - in the vain hope that they'll leave mine alone! 
 
It's always amusing how different these ideas are in practice! I have to say I'm wondering if the guy who invented the term has ever actually even done it - since unless fruit is covered with netting, the birds eat it all!  Well - they do here - because I have so many - instead of leaving my fruit alone they just invite their pals to dinner as well!  Once again - it's an extremely attractive sounding idea that doesn't really work in practice - not if you actually want a crop!  It's a sort of  'fuzzy and warm' idea in a very 'Country Living- ish' kind of way!  It's hard enough to keep the birds off the fruit in the garden - apple trees are far too big to net and my blackbirds go for them the second they can see a bit of colour! The little dears! Nature, by the way, has been doing it for millennia - the birds drop all sorts of interesting varieties of berrying shrubs in the garden when they're having an after dinner snooze on any handy branch. - A few years ago I found a very pretty scented berberis which I'd never planted - the nearest that could have come from was at least a mile away!! And 3 years ago I discovered a new blackberry hybrid which every one was sampling eagerly and asking for cuttings of. Obviously it is a wild bramble/Himalayan Giant cross from the flavour and it's obviously very vigorous habit. It's been given away to several grateful gardeners (including my 'Tunnel to Table' co-presenter Gerry Kelly) with a severe health warning!
 
 

Have you ever thought about growing a grapevine?


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

Pests on grapes. 

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

Don't Prune Grapevines now!

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

There's still time to plant Grapes 

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


Which varieties are the best - seedless or seeded?

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

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

 
 
I like to visit garden centres to compare value - (strictly in the interests of research you understand - although I have been known to purchase the odd little thing occasionally!!)  It's amazing how much prices can differ for exactly the same plants - and the quality too. These days value for money is all important - and one of the things I have always tried to do here is to let you know about anything I think is good value! It's surprising the amount of savings you can make if you shop around.......Aldi had great value fruit bushes last week - so cheap you really could plant them just for the birds if you were feeling generous! They're all good, reliable varieties well worth planting in your fruit garden - and a fraction of the price you will find them elsewhere! Lidl always seem to get theirs usually around a week or so later - so keep your eyes open in the next couple of weeks. They also usually have very good value bare root fruit trees at this time of year. As I've said before - their peach trees are exceptionally good value and I had a huge crop on the 6 year old trees last summer in the tunnel (approximately 200 fruits on both trees!!) That's why I invested in a dehydrator - I adore dried peaches and there are only so many you can eat fresh - even though they do ripen over a couple of weeks! In the summer, time is always at a premium, bottling takes ages of 'faffing around' when you have least time - and freezer space is never plentiful enough here!
 
 
The peach Aldi had last year - was  'Red Haven' - which is hardy, disease resistant variety and very productive. If you don't have tunnel you can grow them as a fan against a south or west-facing wall and cover with a polythene frame in late winter/early spring to keep away peach leaf curl, and they will produce loads of fruit!  The ALDI price last year (bare root so you have to pot up or plant) - was just €4.99.  For comparison - in Homebase for exactly the same variety - a similar sized but potted tree - the price was €11.98, and in a well known garden centre - same again - €55!! They'll probably be even more this year as everything seems to have gone up in price! - Funny how things never seem to go the other way isn't it?? Anyway - If you see them in Aldi or Lidl - do buy them as soon as possible or they'll start to shoot in the warm shops - unpack them as soon as you get them home and pot up or plant immediately as they start into growth early - mine are already swelling their buds now. Make sure you immediately prune the branches back by at least two thirds after planting - so that the tree will start to form a good shaped branch system - don't be tempted to leave the branches alone and try to let it fruit this year as one friend of mine did a couple of years ago.  If you do that it may well flower on the growth it made last year and you may think it's going to fruit - but in a couple of months it will drop any flowers that have 'set' as it doesn't have enough established roots to support fruit. By doing that you may permanently weaken and damage the tree. Pruning it back in it's first year will give it a chance to develop a good root system before it's asked to bear fruit, so that next year you should get a good crop. Peaches always fruit on the new 'green' growth made the previous year - so you have to cut some of the fruited branches back every year to encourage new growth.(See last month's fruit diary)
 
 

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

 
 
The sap's starting to rise, and although things like apple trees don't bleed like grapes - you don't want to waste the plant's energy by letting it make shoots you will cut off later - concentrate it into the ones you want to grow. Don't prune any stone fruits like plums and damsons now - wait until late spring to do this - before then they are very susceptible to silver leaf infection. Keep any twiggy prunings somewhere dry until you can burn them later in the year - they are rich in valuable, very highly soluble potash and can be used for feeding all fruit and veg. The same goes for the ash from wood burning stoves, although ash from bigger logs is not as high in potash as twiggy prunings but it's still valuable.  Bear in mind that all wood ash will raise the soil  'pH' slightly, so acid lovers won't like too much - use seaweed meal for them. The best way to use it is to mix it through the material you are putting onto the compost heap - I keep the ash from my stove in a bin to keep it dry and then sprinkle it one as I'm adding stuff to the heap. I get my properly seasoned 2 yr.old ash logs - cut to whatever size I specify - delivered in handy reusable skip bags from Peter Barry at www.logonfirewood.ie - much easier than having them dumped and having to stack them - saves a lot of time and backache!  It also means they arrive totally dry and ready to go - and they don't mess up your stove or chimney. Buying them in bulk means they're a lot cheaper than in small bags bought a few at a time - which are usually not dry, are unsuitable wood and not properly seasoned either - messing up your stove. The skip bags are then great for re-using to make leaf mould, compost, or even better as extra large grow bags/raised beds.
 

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

 
Cape gooseberry - a comparison with €1 coin 
Cape gooseberry - a comparison with €1 coin 
This is a fruit that must be sown now in a warm propagator if they're to fruit early enough to give a decent crop this autumn. I grow some from seed every year. They're dead easy and grow like weeds from seed. Someone said recently that they're difficult to germinate - they're not - just slow! They take about 3 weeks to come up and then do it all at once!  I was also reading somewhere recently that apparently they are the very latest Peruvian so-called 'super fruit'!  I've been growing them for at least 30 years! You're not going to believe this - but we're still eating those I picked last November - stored in the fridge! They're being strictly rationed now though!  They're a waste of time outside as they won't fruit early enough to bother with. I grow them in tubs in the tunnel, as this restricts root growth a bit which makes them fruit even earlier. Each year I overwinter some of the previous year's plants in the tunnel under fleece as they're actually half-hardy perennials. They fruit much earlier than those sown in February, and in that way I get a longer crop of these delicious, 'sherbetty'/'pineappley' tasting fruits. They're very high in Vitamin C and the phytochemical lutein (good for eyesight & which we can only obtain from plants) among many other good things - they grow like weeds, are really delicious and fruit generously for months. 
 
 
Although they're quite soft and sappy they are hardier than their tomato cousins and each year I leave a few in their tubs, overwintering them in the dry in a tunnel so that they fruit earlier the following year. They start to produce new shoots from the base around now, so I cut back the protecting, now defunct, older shoots and they'll start to fruit in July, instead of September, when the ones sown this year do. A good tomato feed like Osmo* when they show signs of growth and away they go - but after their second autumn I compost the two year old plants, as they tend to go downhill with age!  Although the leaves are reputed to be a folk remedy for diabetes in Africa - like other members of the Solanaceae (tomato) family - all parts of the plant, apart from the fruits, are highly toxic and dangerous if consumed! 
 
 
I read a very funny article a couple of years ago by the food writer Susan Jane White - who likened the fruits to Victoria Beckham: "bright orange and deluded" (her words!). She may just possibly have been confusing their looks with the ornamental (inedible) type, as these are shown when you 'Google' them. At the same time, if you don't grow them yourself - they are definitely extremely expensive and highly fashionable! The similarity ends there however, as they're really easy, good-natured, generous and not the least bit sulky, difficult or 'Prima Donna-ish'! They are one of the most productive annual fruits you can grow, and when you grow them yourself, not only are the fruits chemical free - but are usually larger than those you'll find as a garnish on your plate in fancy restaurants, as you can see from the picture here. By the way - I thought it was most unfair on the Big Allotment Challenge that growers were asked to grow something that the 'vegetable expert' judge plainly did not know anything about! If he'd ever grown them he would know that they are extremely unripe when green on the outside and there was no point cutting them in half to look as if he knew what he was talking about! To me he just looked rather silly! I would have had far more respect for him if he had admitted he knew nothing about them!
 
  
NOTE - DO NOT CONFUSE THESE WITH THE ORNAMENTAL CHINESE LANTERNS WHICH ARE A VERY PRETTY DEEP ORANGE, and fruit in the autumn - harvest festival flower arrangements are all these are good for!  If you grow them yourself from seed, rather than buying them in a garden centre where the assistants sometimes don't know one plant from another, you will be sure that you're getting the edible one! When the edible ones are ripe - the outer husk is a pale straw colour and the fruit inside is the ONLY thing that's bright orange.
 
 
Have a look for scale insect now on the undersides of citrus or bay trees. Black sooty mould is a good sign that there may well be some. If you do find any - spraying them with an organic insecticidal soap works like a treat. This is an approved organic remedy which is perfectly safe for any food plants. It works by covering the insect's pores with fatty acids so that they suffocate.  Do it now. Don't spray it on lemons or other citrus when they're making the very tender little new pink shoots in a few weeks time - as it can burn them - particularly in strong sunshine. If you don't do it now - then wait until the new shoots firm up a bit - although by then you may have a real infestation which may have weakened the plant!  It's much better done now. Don't ask advice at your local garden centre - in my experience they know nothing about citrus trees and also they'll just recommend some very nasty organophosphorus insecticide for use on house plants which will actually make your lemons poisonous. I think that anyone selling pesticides to people should first have to pass an exam to prove they actually know something about what they're selling, other than just from the instructions on the back of the bottle!
 
 
I simply could not believe my ears last year to hear someone who was supposed to be a gardening 'expert' (here I go again - but really!!) on the radio. He recommended that for scale insect on bay trees people should either use a systemic insecticide (scream!) - or that if they 'were organic' (weird in so many words) then they could use methylated spirits! OMG!!  Not only is that not remotely organic - but does he not know that people actually eat bay leaves??  I wouldn't fancy meths. in my stew thank you!  So called 'experts' who don't know anything about organic growing shouldn't pretend to - someone could be made seriously ill!  They should be honest and admit that they don't actually know if that's the case!  But so few of these 'experts' do. There's an old saying isn't there........?......"It's a wise man who knows what he doesn't know"!
 
 
Pot grown lemons beside climbing French beans and calabrese in spring
Pot grown lemons beside climbing French beans and calabrese in spring
Don't feed citrus trees yet - unless they're in a heated conservatory in which case they may be making new growth. I like to use a good high nitrogen fertiliser for citrus which also very slightly lowers the pH - just what they like. A couple of years ago I discovered the Osmo range of certified organic fertilisers*, I use them all the time for my citrus trees now, they are really good, and I use rain water (no shortage of that!) to make them up. Citrus plants are actually acid loving plants like rhododendrons - so never water them with tap water either. Always use rainwater. If they're looking sickly and yellow - it's something called 'chlorosis' - which they get if given tap water. If that's a problem - wait until they're starting to grow again and give them a dose of sequestered iron, mixed into rain water. That fixes the problem miraculously - greening them up again in no time. You'll find a product called 'Sequestrene' being sold in sachets in good garden centres. I'll be giving my lemons in the tunnel a very light watering of rainwater this week - not saturating them - as just like grapes they really hate sitting in wet soil. In another month or so they'll really start to growth - then I'll start to feed and water them a bit more. They won't go outside until at least the end of May though - the young shoots and flowers are vulnerable to frosts.

Fig 'Violetta' - a tasty variety

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig 'Violetta' - a tasty variety

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

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

The Vegetable Garden in February - 2017

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


It helps to be a bit more resilient in uncertain times.

It's good to see now that a lot more people than ever are interested in organic gardening and growing some of their own food without harming nature. Many more people are also thinking about buying organic food, for both environmental and health reasons. That's something I've been trying to help promote for over 40 years now, since I first became aware of how damaging chemicals can be not just for our health but also that of the rest of nature and the whole planet. That's why I started organic gardening - and then a few years later became a commercial organic grower. Even if you only have a tiny garden or perhaps no garden at all - it's always possible to find ways to grow some healthy organic food for yourself - even if one often has to be a little inventive! My stepladder garden, recycled skip bags or containers can even fit on an average-sized path. You don't need to use masses of expensive compost either - filling up the bottom of containers with some general garden rubbish, twiggy prunings and other carbon-rich material such as cardboard or newspaper, and adding a bit of soil provides extra carbon which encourages soil microbes to multiply and make humus - producing healthier, more resilient plants. 

Container gardening's a bit easier on the back too - less bending! I found lots of ways to grow things when I only had a tiny garden years ago, because I needed to grow healthy organic food for my family which was virtually impossible to buy back then. I soon realised that even if I didn't have a lot of ground space - I could always grow upwards! Even though I now have all the space I could possibly want - I'm still experimenting with lots of different methods because I enjoy it! It also makes me feel that bit more resilient and a little less insecure too - knowing that with the lovely organic eggs from our hens as well - we could almost survive a siege here! With the uncertain times we're currently living in - that's a very good feeling. The recent shortages of imported vegetables due to the unseasonably cold weather in Southern Europe has more than amply shown just how valuable growing even a small bit of your own food can be!

 

Keeping soil covered and protected from the weather is still very important

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

At the moment, soil is still saturated outside in most places - either having been snow covered or even flooded, that it's impossible to touch any vegetable beds, whether raised or not, without ruining the soil structure, apart from the other reasons below. Nothing likes growing in a compacted soil except the odd weed!  As a consequence - all the gardening action here is taking place on the propagating bench in the polytunnel - where there's lots of things which were germinated on the back of the range in the kitchen and are now growing on, to be planted outside or in the tunnel later. On the bench I have two cheap Lidl cold frames sitting on a roll-out heated mat - a bit like an electric blanket. It keeps things at a 'just warm enough' 50 degF. The mat sits on a recycled door supported by trestles. To cover then at night I roll out double fleece and a large piece of recycled bubble wrap. So as you can see - it's not very hi-tech but it's very effective! It will be at least another month before I can touch my raised beds as the garden's been flooded for most of the winter despite being on a slope! Anywhere with no current crop is securely covered to stop weeds growing so they'll be weed free, warming up, drying out and ready when I need them. It's amazing how quickly ground will dry out once the early March winds get to work, particularly in a raised bed! Soil should always be covered with something - either a crop, a green manure or something waterproof and light excluding like black polythene if you're trying to keep weeds down and be ready for sowing or planting an early crop. 

 

If you leave soil bare for long you risk causing loss of nutrients, pollution, carbon loss, soil erosion and degradation, and also loss of vital soil life. The old-fashioned way of leaving soil uncovered for weeks in winter, for frost to break it down to a fine tilth, has now been scientifically proven to be extremely harmful both to soil health and to the wider environment. Of course, in times past, there was a lot more carbon in the soil, which would hold onto nutrients and prevent erosion. The advent of synthetic chemical fertilisers changed all that, gradually depleting carbon and adversely affecting the structure and life in the soil. Nature doesn't do bare soil - except in deserts - and you know what grows in deserts! You can get the same lovely 'tilth' on the soil surface as frost does by putting a light dressing of compost on vacant beds before the winter, covering with polythene and just leaving all the soil life and worms to do the rest of the work! Believe me it works every time. Soil life thrives on being usefully occupied and well fed - just like the rest of us! Piling manure or compost onto empty beds and then leaving them open to winter weather is not just incredibly wasteful of precious nutrients, but also extremely selfish when you think about the amount of pollution it causes.

General advice on seed sowing (more details in Polytunnel and Greenhouse diary) 

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

General Advice for Seed Sowing in Modules

(This applies to all vegetables, herbs and flowers, whether they're for planting outside later, or for under cover - whatever the time of year.)
 
It may seem a bit fiddly sowing things into modules like plug trays, pots, or seed trays, but it's what I call my 'guaranteed one-step method to perfect plants'! This method of sowing means you don't have to handle them again until you actually plant them out. Seed germination is far more reliable in the better conditions. I do most of my sowing into modules all year round now. It means I'm not waiting for a patch to be free before I can sow seeds - and I can have something ready to go straight into the ground the minute any crop is cleared - that way I get loads more veg. out of my space. In essence what I'm doing is continuously overlapping crops. By not taking up ground just waiting for seeds to germinate - over the course of a year I gain several extra weeks of growing time out of my ground space and I can fit in another quick growing crop. I've been doing this for years since I first started off in a small garden and it's even more valuable if you only have a small space. Module sowing also involves far less handling of the seedlings and avoids the risks of 'pricking out' seedlings from large seed trays - the less you handle them, the less chance there is of wasting seed through possible damage, which can cause setbacks, fungal diseases or even death. The only time when I would sow a few seeds into pots or small seed trays might be when seeds need a much higher temperature for germination - things like aubergines or tomatoes. I otherwise wouldn't have enough space for everything in the small heated propagator - because I grow so many. The other really great thing about module sowing is that I can do all my seed sowing inside on the kitchen table - in the warm! I just keep all the 'doings' neatly on a grow bag tray under the table - then whenever I have five minutes - I just pull it out and sow something! For me, this also means that things are far more likely to get sown at the right time. I don't have to plan to set aside a whole day to do it all at once - making it much easier to fit into a very busy life! Remember - you can catch up on everything else - but if you don't sow the seeds at the right time - there's no catching up on that. Time waits for no man! (or woman!)
 
Carrots sown in loo roll middles - early Feb.
Carrots sown in loo roll middles - early Feb.
Planting out modules when they're ready also means that the plants are already growing strongly, are bigger and as a result better able to withstand the occasional nibble from any slugs or other pests without being completely destroyed. And there's always one or two that escape my early scissor forays!  I often get questions from people who think they bought bad seed and it didn't germinate - but usually the reason seeds don't appear is because either the soil was too cold and wet in early spring so they rotted, or they dried out in summer, or slugs ate them as they came up! Sowing into modules avoids all those problems. Bad seed that doesn't germinate at all is thankfully extremely rare. Whatever pot or module you choose to sow in is up to you, there are masses of things which can be recycled for this purpose, and as usual the choice is only limited by one's imagination!  The important thing is to make sure they're clean, have good drainage holes in the bottom and that the young plants will come out quite easily, without disturbing the root ball if you gently push them up from the bottom - otherwise you lose the whole point of modules - which is to avoid any disturbance which causes setbacks! 
 
 
A word on loo roll middles - I do find these brilliant for long rooted things like very early carrots and parsnips as they can be planted out intact as they are - completely avoiding root disturbance - but I don't find them good for other things like lettuce or other leafy crops which have a fine root ball - I think this is because the cardboard rolls are so high in carbon - which needs nitrogen to break down naturally - so it tends to rob this from the surrounding soil or compost as it does so - and also therefore any young plant that's growing in them. The other thing about these is that they must be planted with the loo roll below soil level - if exposed to the air they'll act like a wick - drying out and shrinking - evaporating moisture from around the young plants with disastrous results! I know it does take extra compost sowing like this, but sowing in modules also means I don't waste expensive seed - which pretty much balances out the small cost of the extra compost used, and means I have larger plants ready to go without losses. That also means I can plan the use of space much better - planting out neat, attractive-looking rows, instead of perhaps having unsightly gaps!  I really love that kind of instant potager gardening. It's very satisfying to stand back and look at the results!
 
 

The importance of using a good peat-free seed compost

 
It makes sense to use a good proprietary organic peat-free seed compost. These will have been specially formulated to be suitable for tiny seedlings for their first few weeks when their tiny hair-like roots are very sensitive. Many seedlings dislike a high nutrient content in a compost, so using one specifically for seed sowing is really important - otherwise too much nutrient could inhibit germination giving disappointing results. I never found those 'seed & potting' multi-purpose peat composts good for that particular reason. They also tend to attract root-eating soil pests too!  I haven't used them for many years as I only use an organic peat-free compost now.  Peat is only a natural medium for plants that grow in bogs - and it should stay in the bogs where it supports enormous biodiversity and acts a very effective carbon sink. It shouldn't be be dug up for thoughtless gardeners who are just looking for the cheapest option - especially when growing your own food actually saves one so much money! In terms of damage to the planet and accelerating climate change - using peat certainly isn't cheap! 
 
As I've mentioned previously - I use a really good, peat free, certified organic compost. This is available in Ireland from Fruit Hill Farm - (call them for local stockists - getting one bag by post is expensive!). It's also available from White's Agri, at Ballough, Lusk. The compost is produced by Klasmann Deilmann in Germany, from composted organic green waste. It's utterly brilliant and is the very best compost of any sort that I've found in over 40 years of growing. It's also available in the UK, and it's worth investigating if you live there. There are a quite a few other peat-free organic composts available there now too - but I haven't tried them, so can't recommend them. I would always prefer an organic compost as those containing artificial fertilisers don't produce the most healthy plants in my experience. They are far more likely to attract aphids and other pests as their immune systems aren't as healthy. Once you've used the Klasmann - I promise you won't use anything else! (I wish I had shares in it!).It's the best compost of any sort that I've ever used. Whether you're organic or not - believe me - this compost is worth every cent! Plants really thrive in it - I think possibly because it contains a good range of beneficial bacteria, having been made with organically grown green waste, composted specifically for this purpose. But whichever brand you choose, don't use a potting compost - which will be far too high in nutrients that inhibit germination and burn the roots of the tiny seedlings as soon as they emerge. They will then be sickly, or possibly even keel over and die!  I grow a lot of rare plants - many of which are fussy and the seed expensive. I can't afford to risk wasting seed. These days no one can - so go for a good reliable seed compost. 
 
Make sure it's this year's freshly delivered batch of compost tooNot old, wet compost that's been sitting around outside in the garden centre all winter since last year!  That would be stale, will have lost many of it's nutrients and may well harbour moulds and diseases. I always make sure I have a couple of spare bags put by in a dry place so that I have plenty for early sowings. Also don't use garden soil - it's false economy - it will contain weed seeds and perhaps pests too, and the texture is unlikely to be suitable for sowing small seeds in pots or modules. I know good compost isn't cheap - but actually most bags these days cost no more than two or three packets of seeds and you won't need a huge amount. If you're careful a little will go a very long way, and you'll get far better results. You'll avoid wasting expensive seed and precious time too. 
 
Another point I'd like to mention here is that although some gardeners in the UK don't like using British produced peat composts - some of them don't seem have a problem using Irish extracted peat. I just don't understand that 'NIMBY' attitude, because it's every bit as damaging to the environment and to biodiversity, and releases just as much climate- changing carbon which affects the whole planet. So please have a re-think if that applies to you! I think it's a bit like thoughtlessly throwing away your rubbish out of the car window and ensuring that it becomes someone else's problem!
 
  
Remember the piece of advice "Whatever else you don't get time for - always sow the seed - you can catch up on everything else except that". - One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given - well worth remembering - and another good reason for sowing in modules so that you're not delayed by the weather or by waiting for another crop to be finished. Something that's often really hard to remember in the middle of summer, when you're enjoying an abundance of glorious veg. - is that if you don't sow many things then - you'll have nothing to eat in the winter!  Don't spend ages waiting around to get ground perfectly ready either, particularly in a wet year, or  you may find it's then too late to sow the seed. Sow the seed first, in modules if necessary, and then catch up with all the rest later while your seedlings are growing on nicely somewhere else - until they're big enough for planting.
 
 

Now I want to talk a bit about how I actually sow my seed.

(I get a lot of requests from first time gardeners for this information.)
 
It's stating the obvious to repeat that most seed these days is expensive - a little care will make your seed go a lot further and therefore your money too! My apologies to all you 'old timers' out there like me who know all this stuff - but maybe you may actually do it differently - and there's no harm in reassessing the way we do things occasionally is there? Gardening is an occupation where you never stop learning, that's what makes it so interesting.
 

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

Improving Soil for Planting - Particularly in New Gardens

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

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


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

Don't be tempted to use non-organic mushroom compost where you're growing food - it may seem like a nice easy option but it will almost certainly contain very nasty and extremely persistent pesticide residues, which can last for many years in the soil. It also has a very high pH - so it can be really bad for low pH plants like Rhododendrons or blueberries causing 'chlorosis', 'locking up' of vital nutrients and stunted yellowing growth.  Use mulches of grass clippings or leaf mould instead.

 

Other general February advice

 
If you buy things like rhubarb, asparagus or Seakale roots in those plastic packs in garden centres - pot them up in a nice free draining compost immediately you get them home as they're expensive and may well rot in the packets if you wait until outside conditions are suitable. Then you can plant them out in a few weeks when the soil is warmer.

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

My 'Ad-Free' Blog Policy



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

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

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

If you're a new reader you may have noticed that I can be pretty outspoken at times too - but I do my research!  If I recommend any product then you can be assured that it's always something that I've found useful myself - usually over several years. I don't accept 'freebies' or discounts of any sort in order to promote other people's products either - so please don't send me any - or you'll be disappointed! Another reason I don't accept ads. is that I personally find them intensely annoying popping up all over the place, often totally unrelated to the content of the site. I also hate to read something that may look interesting and then find out halfway through that actually it's actually promoting a product!  It's impossible to know then whether what you're reading is actually an honest impartial opinion, so I'm afraid I tend to be a little cynical about that and usually leave those sites immediately!  Perhaps I'm a little old-fashioned - but to me, my integrity is worth far more than money. I think that useful information garnered from long experience, and truly objective, honest opinion are important. That is what I try to give readers of my blog and I hope you will continue to enjoy it. I want to say a big thank you to all the people who have emailed or tweeted on Twitter to thank me for my advice!  I'm sorry if I don't always have the time to answer you all individually - but it does makes all the work really worthwhile. Your gratitude is so very much appreciated - and is great motivation to do even better!

Thank you for paying me the great compliment of reading it!

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

The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in February - 2017

Sunrise in early February - the welcome light heralding longer days to come 
Sunrise in early February - the welcome light heralding longer days to come 

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

 
 
The 2nd of February is Candlemas Day "If Candlemas Day be fair and bright - winter will have another flight".  Very sage old country lore.  Be warned - don't put all that fleece away just yet - we could still get some bitter weather or even snow! The 2nd of February is also 'Groundhog Day' in the USA - when the groundhog traditionally peeps out - but if he can see his own shadow - he reckons it's going to be cold for a few more weeks yet. So he pops back into his snug winter quarters for some more 'duvet' time until the weather warms up - wise creature!  My two late 'rescue' dogs - Flotsam and Jetsam - always did exactly the opposite. Immediately even the weakest rays of sun showed they would rush outside and arrange themselves to maximum effect against a south facing wall. Just like eager tourists dashing for the sunbeds - in order to catch every available scrap of precious sunlight!  Our two new rescue pups do just the same - at the moment they're still both small enough to sit together on a straw bale in the sun - but at the rate they're growing it won't be long until neither of them fit onto it! They love to be outside all day if the weather's fine - occasionally tearing around playing and then flopping down onto their bale again! I hate to think of all the poor creatures that are left on their own all day, shut in up houses away from sunlight. All animals have a desperate need for light and an innate sense of just how important the sun is. This particular animal (me!) makes a point of spending some time every day outside in the light, no matter how busy I am in the house. The sun feels surprisingly warm on your face sitting in the polytunnel even at this time of year and it's so welcome - but I find I can rarely sit for very long as there's always some needy job that catches my eye!
 
 
I'm currently having to sit a bit more - having only very recently had a minor procedure which unfortunately required a general anaesthetic - something which I react rather badly to. It was wonderful yesterday to be able to go outside for the first time in a week, breathe fresh air and have a brief sit in the polytunnel. Amid life's many stresses and troubles - I try never to forget how very lucky I am to be able to do that. Thirty-five years ago I vividly remember returning home from hospital after spinal surgery. I had been bluntly warned beforehand by my brilliant neurosurgeon, Prof. Jack Phillips, that after my surgery I could wake up better, perhaps the same and no better, might possibly be paralysed from the neck down - or that there was even the slight possibility that I might not wake up at all! I asked for the true prognosis so I got it - with two young children I needed to know! My philosophy has always been to hope for the best - but prepare for the worst just in case! Anyway, after 18 months of severe pain including some months a couple of years previously being unable to walk (which also included viral meningitis!) - to then be able to walk to my back door and breathe fresh air was just like being re-born! It sounds funny I know - but I'm so grateful for having gone through that experience. It made me determined to make the very best use I possibly could of every minute for the rest of my life. 
 
 
I truly believe that the healthy organic diet, which we'd already been living on since my severely allergic, then 7 year old, daughter was born, really helped to repair my health. That and my precious kefir - which I'll be posting an article about sometime in the next week or so - when I eventually manage to catch up with all my work! And I'm even grateful to be able to do that too! You may wonder why I'm telling you about this - which I've never mentioned it much before? It's mainly because when I give talks I often meet people who say "Oh I couldn't do that - (I've got this, that or the other wrong with me)" when I give talks - but I am proof that if you want to garden - you often can with a bit of determination and a little ingenuity! My GP long ago gave up trying to make me take it easy! In my opinion doing nothing is the fast route to becoming even more unfit, more unhealthy and even less able to enjoy doing anything! 
 
 
Anyway - walking into the tunnel again after even that short break, I was amazed at the surge in the growth of some of the plants despite the cold weather! They had really responded to the increased light! The Oriental salads were positively burgeoning - and the watercress in particular hadn't at all minded the fact that I wasn't there opening the doors every day - growing at least six inches in a week! It's such a wonderfully reliable salad all year round, just needs regular watering - not running water - contrary to what many 'experts' say. The only thing that makes it unhappy is being very short of water, which makes it flower. Then it becomes stringy, tough and very peppery. The bees love the flowers though! If you only grow one salad - then do try growing it! It grows like a weed from just a bit of stem stuck in a jar of water, comes top of the list for healthy nutrients and is chock full of immune boosting, cancer-fighting phytonutrients. My watercress, like my kefir, is something I rely on and have kept gong for many years. I was so thrilled to be able to gather lots of it's luscious leaves yesterday for a lovely fresh-tasting salad. My hens also really enjoyed disposing of the last of the week-old salads that were lingering in the fridge. There's never any food waste here!
 
 

Fruit trees suitable for polytunnel growing.  

 
This morning I noticed there's a tiny hint of movement in the buds on the peach trees already. I'm so looking forward to their luscious fruits again and carefully eking out the last of the frozen and dehydrated ones. Peaches, along with grapes, strawberries and of course figs are very easy to grow in polytunnels if you have enough space. My two 7 year old peach trees provide masses of fruit every summer now. I love peaches and it's well nigh impossible to get organically grown ones.  I always cut up the excess and freeze or dehydrate them for smoothies, sorbets or other treats. I think that peaches are the very best fruit tree to plant in a tunnel if you have space for only one tree - they're usually self-fertile and are easily kept within bounds by correct pruning. If you forget for a year, you can hack the hell out of them and they'll still come back for more - but if you aren't brave enough and don't prune them - they'll quickly outgrow any polytunnel or greenhouse!  
 
 
Other trees, particularly cherries, can be an absolute disaster, unless  you have a lot of time to fuss over them - particularly in the usually damp-ish atmosphere of the average tunnel. They really only work well grown on very dwarfing root stocks in the specialist fruit tunnels which I've seen in Herefordshire/Welsh border - where many of my family live. Even then they need a lot of regular pruning to keep them under control. Specialised fruit tunnels have sides which can slide up, and tops that open up too - so that you get maximum air circulation and also pollination when you need it. I'd love a specialist fruit tunnel - but sadly the finances won't stretch that far - so like most people I try to do as much as I can in one! It's so windy here that one might not be successful anyway! Over the last 35 years, I've tried all the latest dwarfing root-stocks for cherries, even the 'minarette' ones, and none of them really work unless you are constantly pruning, snipping and fussing - something I really don't have time for. It's also difficult as you can only prune cherries at certain times of year - and this also happens to be the busiest time elsewhere in the garden. So take your eye off the ball at all and you'll find the cherry has lifted the roof off your polytunnel. Believe me - I've tried!. I would never recommend planting one in a tunnel. They seem quite innocuous for a year or so - and you might think - what's she talking about? But believe me - when they think you've taken your eye off them - they can take off like rockets! I've tried them in tubs too - and they're not that happy in those either for very long. Morello cherries, which are pruned in a similar way to peaches can work fairly well in pots for a few years - but you'll never get huge crops from cherries in pots - and huge crops are what I always aim for! I'm a greedy fruit fanatic!
 
 
The really great thing about growing peaches in a tunnel is they don't get peach leaf curl - so don't have to be sprayed with any nasty fungicides. One of the other great things about peaches is that because of the way they are pruned - you can keep them to what ever height and width you want. So as long as you have roughly 15ft or 3m of width - you've got room for a productive peach tree. It's vital to prune them properly though - and remember that they mostly fruit on the previous year's new green growth, as I described in this January's Fruit Garden Diary. Soon both Lidl and Aldi will have bare root fruit trees on sale again. At around a fiver each - they're fantastic value and in my experience are very good quality. Bare-root planting is always best with any fruit tree and I talked about that last month too. They always establish far better than anything bought in a container. The vital thing to remember is to always leave a minimum of 4 in. or 10cm between the bulge of the graft union on the stem and the top of the soil. If you don't do that you will lose the dwarfing properties of the root stock.
 
 

The 'darling buds' of February!

 
Spring is fast approaching to cheer us all up - isn't it exciting? I can already see all of  Nature responding to the lengthening days. Already weed seeds are germinating in the tunnel soil. Plants still want to grow and seeds want to sprout! Buds are beginning to move already everywhere. Every day more of the early spring bulbs are beginning to peep out of the chilly wet ground and the robin's loud singing starts at least ten minutes earlier each week. But winter isn't done with us quite yet - so take care - and don't be fooled into thinking Spring's arrived just yet!  Don't be too impatient to start planting stuff outside though, however tempting it may be on the milder days. There's a lot we can get on with indoors - enjoying the anticipation before the work becomes too urgent! 
 
 
Some people get their buzz from gambling - or finding the latest designer handbag on Ebay!  I'm different - I get mine from the dry rattling sound of those large padded brown envelopes the postman brings!  Those sounds are so full of the promise of new and exciting plants to grow - wonderful new flavours and satisfying meals to look forward to. They always bring a smile to my face! 


Orange tip butterfly on Orychophragma in early spring
Orange tip butterfly on Orychophragma in early spring
Despite the cold nights things are already starting to put on a surprising amount of growth. Joy Larkcom's beautiful Chinese brassica, Orychophragmus Violaceus (bit of a mouthful!), which the Chinese call the 'February Orchid' (much nicer), is living up to it's name and opening it's first flowers. Seeing that in her Co. Cork greenhouse a few years ago completely stopped me in my tracks - it was absolutely stunning in early March! I just had to have it - and Joy was kind enough to give me some. It has quite large flowers for a brassica, that lovely soft lilac-pink colour of sweet rocket. Sadly no scent though - but nevertheless the bees love it and it's already become a firm favourite with orange tip butterflies, as this photograph from spring 2011 shows. It would certainly be worthy of a place in any flower border.  I've picked lots of leaves over the winter, and they're pleasant tasting in a salad, with a slightly 'cucumbery/cressy' flavour - not very strong and have quite an interesting texture. The flowers are really pretty in a salad too, again they have a slightly 'cress-y' taste but they look so lovely it's almost a shame to eat them. I'll be saving seed again this year as it's very hard to obtain, but I do know that currently, Brown Envelope Seeds in Cork may have them.  
 

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

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

How to afford protected cropping?

 
Several people have said to me in the past - "It's all right for you - I don't have a tunnel - I can't afford one - so I don't bother reading the bit about greenhouses and tunnels, because I can't do it!".  Well for a start - you could grow many of the lower growing crops in a large polythene cold frame. If you actually work out how much you spend all year round on vegetables and fruit - particularly now with food prices rising - and then compare that against the price of a small tunnel, where you could grow a huge amount of it yourself - I think you would be surprised at just how quickly it would pay for itself!  Not to mention the convenience and added health benefits of absolute freshness, or being able to garden in any weather - even at night after work to de-stress!!  Some of the DIY stores sell plastic covered greenhouse frames very cheaply now - for less than €100. But if you really don't have the space for a greenhouse or polytunnel, or can't afford one, you may have a large glass porch, or you could make a polythene frame easily and very cheaply, sit it on a concrete path and grow in containers if you don't have any soil to grow in - so there's really no reason why you can't grow even a few winter salads at the very least!  In something that size you could also grow bush tomatoes, peppers or aubergines in the summer. I did that very successfully when I first started gardening years ago, making up my own frame from recycled timber and polythene, and I promise you that if I can do it - anyone can!  DIY is most definitely not my thing!  I grew my best peppers and aubergines ever in that rickety frame! It lasted several years too - I was very proud of myself! So don't use the "I can't" excuse - that is, unless you don't even have a path to your front door! 
 
 
Winter salad beds in the tunnel - Endives, land cress, ragged Jack Kale, lettuce etc.
Winter salad beds in the tunnel - Endives, land cress, ragged Jack Kale, lettuce etc.
One thing I can absolutely guarantee, is that when it comes to polytunnels or greenhouses - what I call my 'law of handbags'applies. That is - no matter how big your handbag, greenhouse, or freezer - it will NEVER be big enough for everything you want to put in it, once you've experienced it's delights!! So always buy the biggest one you can possibly afford - you will bless every inch of it I promise you! I'll be making a new 'grow frame' this year, for hardening-off veg seedlings to be planted outside later. More protected cropping space is always useful here because it's so windy - and in late spring, when the tunnel is literally bursting at the seams, it's a great halfway-house for hardening off plants to grow completely unprotected outside later on.
 
 
Extra early potatoes for Easter?
 
Your extra early potatoes could already be up about an inch or so if you planted them as I described last month in pots. Make sure they're covered every night with fleece - even if you're not expecting frost - just in case. In the middle of this month, they may be about 10cm/4-5in. high, then you can plant them out carefully, keeping the root ball together, into a tunnel bed, covering with a double or even treble layer of fleece if severely cold nights are forecast. Or you can leave them in their pots. You'll be eating these in mid-late April!  You can also plant well sprouted seed potatoes directly into a tunnel bed any time now, again covering if necessary. These should be ready to eat in May, roughly in about 10-12 weeks, depending on the variety. As mentioned in previous diaries -  I've always found 'Lady Christl' to be the very best for really earlies in the tunnel, good flavoured, it's by far the quickest to 'bulk up' - one can often find usable potatoes underneath it after just 8 weeks - if you're impatient like me and do a gentle, exploratory 'finger-dig', leaving the rest to grow on undisturbed!  'Duke of York' or 'Red Duke of York' is next best for earliness (and also the best flavour of the lot), 'Mayan Gold' is only a few days after them - planted at the same time - and of course has an unsurpassed flavour - 'Apache' is a delicious early too and then 'Sharpe's Express' - 'Annabelle' is also not bad. I've tried all of the other earlies - including 'Rocket',Swift and 'Premiere' and quite frankly they were utterly tasteless compared to any of the ones I grow. Flavour is a very subjective thing however - and let's face it - given enough butter almost anything tastes good!! 'Mayan Gold' seems to be generally available now in Ireland (I smuggled mine in via my daughter's backpack years ago)! Try it and I can guarantee you will be as rapturous in singing it's praises as I am!! Never boil it or it falls apart because it's so floury - steam or roast it instead. Mayan Gold is also energy saving as it actually cooks far more quickly than normal varieties - in about half the time!
 
 
 

Pollination if you're growing peaches, nectarines and apricots in the tunnel

 

As I mentioned earlier, I noticed only yesterday that the tiny fruit buds are already swelling.  They may well start to come into flower at the end of this month or early next - depending on where in Ireland or the UK you may live and how warm the weather is. Although you may see one or two non-hibernating bumblebees about on fine days, there may not be enough about just yet to ensure that they reliably pollinate all the flowers properly under cover in a tunnel. So do this yourself with a small dry soft paintbrush, at midday if possible, when the tunnel is warmest and the pollen dry. Just gently go from flower to flower - lightly brushing the stamens on each one. Do this every day if possible while they're flowering- it's easy to miss a few. It's not obligatory to buzz when you're doing this....but if it amuses you....who's to say it doesn't help?!  (Sound waves and all that!! - There are more things in Heaven and Earth as I always say!)  After a few days you'll see that a few start to look a slightly darker pink at the base of the petals - this means they've pollinated and 'set' fruit - so no need to re-do those particular flowers. Keep an eye out for the peach trees in Lidl and Aldi in the next week or so - they're fantastic value! Both of mine in the tunnel came from there a few years ago for a fiver each - they're now 6 years old and both produced well over 200 peaches last year.
 
 

Attracting bees and other beneficial insects to help 

 
The other things which really helps pollination is growing flowers!  As I mentioned in last month's wildlife garden diary - flowers are vital for attracting bees into your garden - as well as many other beneficial insects which help with both pollination and pest control. I've often mentioned the little permanent ,mini gardens, which I grow at the end of the tunnels - in the corners either side of the doors - where space is so often wasted or taken up with junk. I also have flowers planted in the middle at the sides too - and anywhere else I can tuck them in. These little 'mini gardens' have flowers all year round to attract bees etc. and mini pond habitat to attract frogs. They also have piles of large stones - little mini cairns - for ground beetles etc to hide in. Ground beetles are voracious predators of slugs.These little mini ecosystems are vital in helping to achieve a natural ecological balance within the tunnels which ensures that I never have any pest problems. I also allow clumps of nettles to grow here and there - these play host to an early appearing aphid - specific just to nettles - which are the favourite prey of ladybirds that are just waking up in spring. Growing row upon row of green juicy vegetables - without a flower in sight either inside or outside - is not a natural environment. They make your crops a target for every hungry pest in sight!
 
Why would any self-respecting pollinating bee or pest controlling hoverfly visit your vegetable garden if there are none of their favourite flowers and food plants there to attract them? They have to go wherever they can find nectar and pollen or they may die. It's only common sense that if you're starving hungry and have to find food for energy within a few hours or die - you'll head for somewhere there's plenty of food on offer - you won't go to the gym or the solicitors will you?!!  If you don't have anything flowering in your tunnel - you can bring some in in pots - hellebores, perennial wallflowers (like 'Bowles' mauve'), miniature narcissus, crocus, primroses etc are all good attractants. Feverfew and Hesperis (dames violet) are also flowering now. In fact anything that flowers now is useful - the only requirement is that they must be single flowered -  It's impossible for bees and hoverflies etc. to reach the nectaries and pollen in double flowered plants and at this time of year in particular - they may waste precious energy trying to find food and then may die if they can't.
 
 

Pesticides and pollinators

 
Pesticides are definitely one of the causes for the recent huge decline of bees and other pollinators. Neonicotinoids in particular as they affect the bees sense of direction and ability to forage. I won't bore you with explaining - there's enough information about them out there now. They should be banned altogether!  We need our bees - they are vital to crop pollination and ultimately - to mankind's survival. The multinational chemical companies don't care - they're already putting millions of dollars into farming bumble bees - their latest sick business opportunity!! The pro-chemical people promote the idea that organic farming couldn't possibly feed the world's growing population. The reality is that because organic farming protects and improves soils - it's far more likely to be sustainable and also helps to cut global carbon emissions!  I read some interesting research the other day that said that if we cut out all food waste - now almost 50% of all the food now produced globally, we could feed another billion people tomorrow. But even if we stopped all food waste now - if we destroy our soils and our pollinating insects with pesticides there would be mass starvation anyway - as there would be no soil left to grow in and many valuable crops like fruit, nuts and oil seeds need to be pollinated. Healthy crops need a healthy, humus rich soil to grow in otherwise they are more susceptible to pests, diseases and the increasing fluctuations of the weather.
 

Winter watering

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

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

I've already started sowing seeds in modules

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

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

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

Sowing early peas and broad beans in pots

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

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

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

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

 
Do you know someone actually complained to me a couple of years ago that there's too much information in my blog?? I suppose these days everything is presented in small bites - which often leaves one with not enough information to do things properly thenyou thnk it's your fault when it doesn't work! Luckily many others disagree and really appreciate it - so for it's for those people that I write it. I try to put on new, better and relevant stuff each year, leaving on other relevant content. There's no substitute for experience - and you never stop learning in gardening - every year is different. I hope you find my experience useful. I can remember only too well what it was like many years ago - trying to find out how to grow chemical-free food for my very sick child!  You couldn't buy it then. Although there is much more availability of organic produce now - it's much cheaper, more satisfying and far fresher if you can grow it yourself - even if it's only salads. If you want to grow a lot of stuff you need all the information to be successful. Very often gardening advice seems to have been written by people who haven't actually done what they're talking about or are complete novices and are just repeating stuff from old gardening books almost verbatim! 
 
 
It's truly wonderful to be able to walk into the tunnel and feel the gentle background warmth and dryness when the sun shines at this time of year - it's so full of hope. Every time I open the door and walk into that other world, I thank the Garden Gods once again for the blessing of such a snug and richly productive space to grow things in. As Fionnuala Fallon so beautifully put it in her Irish Times article about my polytunnel in November 2010 - "....it was a bit like walking into the wardrobe of C S Lewis - not quite Narnia perhaps, but definitely a very different universe..." - Indeed it is!
 
 
Early spring has already arrived in the tunnel - and I couldn't possibly garden without one now! As I've been saying ever since I got my very first one - about 35 years ago - 'If I only had a small garden I would cover the entire space with a polytunnel'.  I definitely think there should be government grants for back-gardeners to put them up - think of how much they'd save the health service with all that gentle exercise, fresh air and healthy chemical-free food! It's just what the doctor ordered!
 
(Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. Thank you.)

What to Sow Now - February 2017

This month, in a heated propagator you can sow:
(Most propagators on the market are set to approximately 20 deg.C - or slightly warmer, unless they have adjustable thermostats):
 
 
For tunnel/greenhouse growing later - Early tomatoes, aubergines, sweet and chilli peppers, calabrese/broccoli, celery, celeriac, physalis (Chinese gooseberries) and dwarf French beans (for very early cropping in pots). Also half-hardy annual flowers like nicotiana, which need a long growing season. 
 
 
Early sowing in warmth will gain you a couple of weeks in most cases - but bear in mind that all of these will need warmth for some time yet though - After the initial higher temperature germination in a heated propagator, they will then need growing on with a minimum bottom heat of around 50deg.F/10deg.C - in a draught-free space, perhaps on a hotbed or a roll-out heated mat, protecting with fleece if frost is forecast and potting on when necessary to avoid any setbacks, then gradually hardening off and finally planting out in the tunnel as soon as the late winter/early spring crops are cleared from late April/early May onwards. 
 
 
In more gentle warmth 
(At approx 10deg.C - either on a roll out heated mat with adjustable thermostat or in your house, putting out into greenhouse or cold frame after germination when good light will be needed. 
 
 
For planting out in the tunnel or outdoors under cloches later - you can sow brassicas such as early summer cauliflowers, summer cabbages, red cabbage, early Brussels sprouts and the new varieties of 'summer purple sprouting' broccoli, lettuces, perennial veg. like Welsh onions, globe artichokes and seakale, spinach, spring onions(scallions), early leeks and bulb onions, shallots, early peas, broad beans, kohl rabi, white turnips, land cress, rocket, salad mixes, watercress. 
 
 
Now is also a good time to sow bee-friendly, fast-growing hardy annuals like limnanthes, calendulas, convulvulus tricolour, borage etc. - to provide early flowers for attracting beneficial insects like hoverflies into the tunnel to help with pest control. Early flowers will also provide a welcome early meal for bees - which are vital for pollination of early flowering polytunnel fruit trees like peaches. Provide the food they need and they'll keep coming back, as bees quickly learn where reliable sources of food are and communicate this knowledge to the rest of their fellow bees, clever things - a mutually beneficial relationship for them and us!
 
 
Directly into soil pre-warmed with cloches or in pots/modules in the tunnel without heat 
(covering on very cold nights with fleece):
 
 
You can sow more hardy crops like broad beans, carrots, 'Ragged Jack' , Black Tuscan and other kales for baby leaves, Ruby chard and 'Bull's Blood' or McGregor's favourite beetroot for beet leaves, pre-sprouted mangetout and early peas, for both pea shoots and podded peas -(pre-sprouting in warmth ensures faster germination which means seeds are less prone to rotting), lettuces, herbs, (not basil yet - it's too cold) mixed leaf salads, oriental mustards and salad mixes, rocket, summer spinach etc. These will all crop before June in the tunnel or greenhouse. 
 
 
Planting half the modules inside and the other half outside under cloches is a good way to spread cropping times. Other hardy crops like beetroot, kales and chards can also be sown in modules now for planting outside under cloches later. Remember - most seeds won't germinate below a soil temperature of about 45degF or 7degC. 
 
 
Another tip - lettuce and spinach seeds prefer to be fairly cool for the first 24-48 hours, as higher temperature can trigger dormancy- so don't sow these in too much heat. I always sow them at normal house temperature, there I can also keep an eye on them and uncover as soon as they start to germinate. I then transfer them out to the polytunnel so that they have really good light, protecting at night if frost is forecast. 
 
 
Small seedlings will also need protecting from frost with fleece if it's very cold. If you can provide these conditions then almost everything but the most tender crops can be sown in suitable modules in mid-late February for planting out under cloches later - but don't grow them on in too much warmth or they will be too soft and 'leggy' as light levels are still relatively low.
 
 
Keep an eye out for mice which are very partial to pea and bean seeds and will even dig up and eat the seeds when the plants are already a couple of inches high, as I know to my cost!
 
 
All of these things could be germinated anywhere warm and then grown on in very good light on a windowsill if you have room - but do bring them inside the room at night if you close the curtains, or they may get chilled on cold nights. And remember that a south facing window may be too hot even at this time of year. One well known journalist in the west of Ireland told me he puts his tomatoes under his Velux office window in good light after germinating them in the warm - a great idea! I couldn't work out how he'd got them so early when he wrote complaining that my advice on side shooting tomatoes was far too late for his plants -  his Pantano Romanesco had already gone completely bonkers by May!! That particular beefsteak variety needs even more severe discipline than most - but the exceptional flavour makes it well worth the extra trouble!
 
 
It's much too early yet to sow most melons and cucumbers. These are very fast growing - taking only about 12 weeks from sowing to harvest. The only exception is watermelons - the larger types of which need starting off in mid-late Feb. as they need a long growing season to be successful. The small 'Sugar Baby' will still crop well in a warm polytunnel if sown in March. Watermelons are also very tender, susceptible to even the slightest frost and are actually damaged below 50deg.F/10degC. - so unless you have a heated greenhouse, (and who has in these carbon-conscious days?) they'll be far too big before it's warm enough to plant them out in the tunnel or before their allotted tunnel space is vacant. Potting them on into larger pots and placing on a 'roll out' heated mat to provide bottom warmth is a much more energy efficient option. I find it's best to wait until at least mid March for sowing most of the cucurbitaceae family - they can then grow on quickly without any check. Five years ago I tried sowing the delicious yellow courgette 'Atena' very early as an experiment - sown on 23rd Feb. and grown on in gentle warmth, it was planted into large pots in the west tunnel in early April and was given extra protection with fleece on cold nights. It gave a really early crop in mid May. I now do this every year as it's definitely well worth doing to get some delicious early courgettes!

 
As soon as the ground is in reasonable condition you can plant Jerusalem Artichokes. If it's still too wet you can plant them in 2 litre pots for planting out in a few weeks. You can also plant shallots, onion sets and garlic either in the ground or again in pots if it's too wet - but you must choose varieties of garlic which are labelled as suitable for spring planting - such as 'Christo'. If you plant 'autumn planting' varieties now they will just produce one single bulb rather that splitting into individual cloves which is what you want. If you have well sprouted seed of any variety of potato you can plant some in large pots or directly into the tunnel soil now. These will need protecting from frost at all times. First early varieties are obviously best as these will bulk up quickly - giving a crop in about 10-12 weeks in late April or early May depending on variety - those grown on in pots from planting to harvest will also be slightly earlier than those planted out in the tunnel borders.
 
 
Don't attempt to sow anything outside into cold wet ground yet! If you haven't done so already - get cloches or a polythene cover out onto vegetable beds outside now to dry them out and start them warming it up. If your ground hasn't been covered all winter - it could take weeks to dry out after all the wet weather we've had. Another reason why ground should always be covered in winter - apart from the soil-loss, damage and possible pollution aspect!
 
 
I always use a good, well drained, organic peat-free seed compost for all my seed sowing. If you're not using organic peat-free then make sure you use a seed compost - rather than an multi-purpose compost. These may contain far too much fertiliser if not organic which may either inhibit germination of seedlings or even burn and kill emerging roots! 
 
 
*JUST ONE MORE THING - Always open seed packets with clean dry hands - not 'garden muddy' hands! Most seed will last for ages if kept really dry and cool at all times. I find that a dry cool room is usually far better than most domestic refrigerators which can be too damp. (the exception is celery, carrots and parsnips, which tend to have reduced germination when more than 1 year old) Sow seed little and often - preferably in modules if you have room - it's far more time and cost-effective than sowing in rows and transplanting.  It also avoids wasting seeds as it avoids root disturbance and possible damage or setback when 'pricking out' from seed trays - or from slugs eating vulnerable tiny seedlings. 
 
 
P.S. IGNORE THE SEED PACKET'S ADVICE WHICH TELL YOU TO SOW THE SEEDS ALL AT ONCE IN A ROW OR IN A SEED TRAY as this can waste seed - REMEMBER - THEY WANT YOU TO BUY MORE!
 
 
Happy seed sowing everyone! May all your seeds be successful!
 
 
(Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. Thank you.)

The Wildlife and Flower Garden in January - 2017

To own a bit of ground . to scratch it with a hoe, to plant seeds and watch the renewal of life - this is the commonest delight of the race, the most satisfactory thing a man can do" -   Charles Dudley Warner (1829 - 1900)
 
 

Beautiful Troubadours

Song Thrush
Song Thrush

We certainly can't do any "scratching with a hoe" at the moment except in the polytunelll! The soil's far too wet - even the paths between the raised beds are like walking around in half frozen mud soup!  As there's not that much to do outside in the garden - later on I talk about some of my favourite garden tools - and also tell you about a couple of real gems I've discovered in the last few years - which look like making my life a bit easier!  The main thing I seem to do in the garden right now is feed the birds! They are so hungry that all the feeders need filling up every day - and since I think I must be the only person feeding birds around here - there are flocks of them on the feeders all day long. It's not cheap but I don't begrudge them one bit - the birds give me so much pleasure every day and provide permanent free pest-control all year round, both outside and in the tunnels - in addition to their uplifting song!  The Song Thrush in particular gives me so much pleasure. It was my late Father's favourite bird and I think of him whenever I hear it. Their echoing song is the soundtrack of my childhood - and brings back wonderful memories of the primrose and bluebell-filled woodlands of springtime in the English Cotswolds. You can always tell a thrush from a blackbird because the Thrush "sings his song twice over" as Robert Browning said in his lovely poem 'Home thoughts from abroad': Just lately a thrush has begun to sing up in the hedge behind the polytunnel and it's such a joy to hear it. I never want to live in a world without birdsong! Or bees without the buzzing either for that matter - which I write about later on.

 

Birds and bees are increasingly threatened at the moment - they are 'the canaries in the coal mine' which we must take heed of - because if they are lost, then the our species we will not be long for this world either! What affect them affects us also - as science in increasingly beginning to prove if anyone ever doubted it! We must do all we can to make sure that their numbers increase - not decrease by doing all we can to help them. Not using pesticides and other chemicals is one of the first things we can and must do. Growing plenty of plants which provide food for them is the next thing. Lots of fruiting shrubs and trees for the Thrushes and Blackbirds, and throw out any rotting fruit for them too. 

 

Luckily there's no near neighbours to hear when I call my garden birds - "Here, birdie, birdie"!  (Although they probably think I'm mad anyway!) I love the way when I let them know I'm coming with food there's a fluttering all around the garden and they all descend on the feeders to see what new treats I'm bringing today. When I have time I love to stand and watch them - it must be a very sad person who isn't enchanted by their beauty. The goldfinches are so tame now that they will come to the Nyger seed feeders when I'm only a couple of feet away, and they really are stunning to look at, when one is at close quarters. Sadly they won't allow me to photograph when I'm near them though - I think they're camera shy! The blue tits that come to the small see through feeder on the kitchen window are so cute too - they're not a bit shy and if it's empty they tap loudly on the window (probably trying to get the very last crumbs) which reminds me to fill it up. Their colours are so vivid at close quarters that they look just like toy birds!

 

Beautiful Vandals! 

The birds I'm a bit ambivalent about are the herons - although admittedly they are magnificent birds. A couple of days ago I heard the most awful racket outside and went out to see what was going on. There was one Heron sitting on top of the house roof and another in the shelter belt of fir trees at the bottom of the garden - and they were screaming raucously at each other. They're sitting around waiting to spot any signs of frogs laying eggs in the pond at the bottom of the field as it's getting close to that time of year - some people even have frog spawn already. I hate the way herons greedily hoover up any eggs and tadpoles they can find. I want lots of frogs in my garden because they're great slug eaters. Nothing puts the herons off though, and the pond's far too big to completely cover with netting - the only thing that would really work. Their razor sharp bills have punctured the shallow edges of the liner so many times that the pond now leaks like a sieve. Sadly I haven't been able to afford to re-line it and completely cover it yet, so unless the weather's very wet only the deepest bit in the middle is full of water. 
 
 
Don't believe those people who tell you that only one heron will ever come to your pond because they're territorial and won't allow any others near - that's complete rubbish! I often see three or four loafing around on the edges of my pond for hours, just like the well-known Irish village 'corner boys' who hang around all day waiting for something to happen or for some mischief to get into. So if you have a fish pond you're trying to protect, don't waste your money on those expensive life-sized plastic herons! They are beautiful birds and a magnificent sight in full flight though, I must admit. In the last few years I've even seen beautifully pristine Little Egrets near here, one flew across the road in front of me only yesterday - they're obviously attracted by the local reservoir and also the Rogerstown and Broadmeadow estuary bird reserves close by. Although it's lovely to see such beautiful birds - I'm sure the local fishing club aren't too thrilled! I remember seeing them first in Ireland over 20 years ago in the estuary down at Shanagarry, near the famous Ballymaloe Cookery School run by Darina Allen. I believe a lot more have arrived there since. The sight of them always reminds me of those pictures of Africa - with egrets so often in them.
 
 

The Joy of Raised Beds  

Now one thing I don't often mention - is that I've had serious back problems for many years after falling off an awful lot of horses when I was younger! When we moved here 35 years ago I'd already been forced to give up riding due to my back problems. After a bad fall I suffered lower body paralysis and nerve damage in my neck which resulted in subsequent spinal surgery. Happily this was successful - but with increasing degenerative disc disease I was aware that things would get progressively worse sooner or later. So as a result - I specifically designed the whole vegetable garden as a series of twelve 4ft wide raised (or deep) beds, with paths in between. This kept me focused on my recovery and occupied my brain while I was unable to do anything else. The late Geoff Hamilton was a keen proponent of 'deep' or raised beds in those days. I originally made them not by deep double digging, as many do, which I always felt was totally wrong and against nature - but by throwing the soil from each of the paths in between up onto the beds - instantly raising their level and creating good drainage which is badly needed on my heavy clay soil. Mulches and compost followed. The paths were then surfaced with wood chips.
 
 
My raised beds require a lot less bending than gardening on the flat, are 4 feet wide so that I can reach from either side with one arm if necessary to plant or hoe - which is very useful and makes life a lot easier. Originally they were just about 30 cm high, raised with boards which gradually rotted and eventually crumbled over the years. Now I'm gradually renewing them all and making the beds even higher - with possibly a less able future in mind, particularly since my argument with a trailing bramble 3 years ago - which resulted in me being catapulted several yards and smashing my shoulder into several pieces! That extra height means that now even on bad days - if I can walk, then I can garden - even if I have to do it sitting on a chair!  I'm still recovering from breaking my right shoulder in September 2013, and after surgery I can now luckily use my right hand on the computer again, I can sow seeds and garden in the raised beds very comfortably, despite not being able to reach quite as far now with my right arm. I've always said that gardening in raised beds is so easy that anyone can do it with one hand tied behind their back! Now I have to prove it - because I have no intention of giving up! 


To dig or not to dig - that is the question. I prefer not digging too much - it's an easier, more relaxed and far more natural way to garden - and much better for soil life too! All of the herbaceous borders have matured into permanent wildlife borders now - with survival of the fittest being the rule!  Hellebores, snowdrops, primroses and spring bulbs early on - meadow geraniums etc. and old shrub roses later - the kinds of things that bees and butterflies love and that will survive in grass without getting eaten by slugs!  It's a far easier, more labour saving way to have flowers in your garden than endless, pointless weeding - it's far better for wildlife too as there's far more habitat for them. The vegetable garden is the only thing that really requires much actual work - and with doing it in raised beds, after initially making the beds - the only sort of digging ever needed is when you're lifting root vegetables or potatoes - and that's really more forking - not digging. Perhaps I should name my sort of gardening 'Forking Gardening' - for want of a better name - just to keep up with the 'No Dig' (so called - but not actually!!) people. 'Forking Gardening' sounds slightly "Two Ronnies-ish" though - and vaguely tongue-in-cheek - so I avoid trying to use a catchy name! You can mostly plant into the raised beds with your fingers, as the soil's in really good condition after a few years of cultivation and plenty of organic mulches - you don't even need a trowel! I don't do any digging - except when I'm planting a new tree or shrub. How do you think the so-called  'No Dig' people plant trees?  Well of course they have to dig holes - just like I do!  Lots of mulching takes care of the weeds - so I only ever have a few that are easily pulled out by hand. I aim just to do as little work as necessary to grow all my own vegetables and fruit, that way I can fit it into my very busy life.

 

My Favourite Garden Tools 

Some of my favourite tools - Wolf Garten 'cultiweeder ' (top'), with interchangeable hoe, a  stainless steel border fork and my father's old spade
Some of my favourite tools - Wolf Garten 'cultiweeder ' (top'), with interchangeable hoe, a  stainless steel border fork and my father's old spade

So - what tools do I actually use? After the first few months on a new raised bed - when I've begun improving the soil and getting the top few inches into fairly good condition - all I really need to do is just scratch over the surface then with a hand held 3 pronged cultivator. The one I use is made by Wolf Garten - they call it the 'Cultiweeder' - and it has a stirrup hoe on the reverse. Used with a 'push-pull-push' action - it's probably the most used tool in the garden - I certainly couldn't do without it. It opens up the surface of my heavy, stony clay soil - aerating it (soil needs air too) and breaking up any crust or small lumps - to get it ready for sowing or planting. It's also good for incorporating things like a light dressing of well rotted compost, seaweed meal or calcified seaweed etc. into the top couple of inches. I've had mine for about thirty years or more - first with a wooden handle - then when that finally fell apart a couple of years ago - I bought the more up-to-date metal handle for it. It's very versatile and you just push the button to click another tool onto the handle for doing various jobs - so although initially not cheap - it's actually a jolly good investment. Irish Times journalist Fionnuala Fallon tells me it's her favourite tool too. There's a huge range of different heads for it - but I really only use the other individual hoe head for it - pictured here - which has two wavy profile edges and is razor sharp - ideal for quickly slicing weeds. Because it's lower and flatter that the 'Cultiweeder' - it's good for hoeing among larger established crops like lettuces when they've grown quite close together - where the three prongs might catch and tear the leaves. You can buy a shorter handle too - which fits all the interchangeable tools - and which I also find very useful on the higher level raised beds.



I also use a small stainless steel ladies border fork - being smaller it's much lighter than most conventional large garden forks and it's useful for lifting root crops if necessary, levering up any deeper rooted weeds like docks and also breaking up larger clods of soil on newer beds - using a sideways 'bashing' (note - technical term!) action. This fork wouldn't be much use for growing on the flat as I would need to bend far too much to use it with it's shorter handle - but it's ideal for using on the beds. I do have a larger stainless steel fork which is fairly light and occasionally useful - but these days I use it very little in the veg. garden. The fork I would really love to try is the American 'broadfork' - 30 inches wide with 10 inch long tines. It penetrates well below the topsoil to lift and loosen the soil slightly without turning it over. This would help to improve drainage and loosen any compaction in permanent plantings when necessary or on compacted lawn areas which are walked on a lot. This allows plant roots to penetrate really deeply - even among established perennials or shrubs. It might be useful on border soils or vegetable garden areas that are compacted too - either by too much use of rotovators producing a hard 'pan' - or through lack of worms.


As I've often mentioned - the spade I use is the old one that belonged to my late father - it has an old fashioned carbon steel blade that somehow 'self-sharpens' as you use it. You could almost shave yourself with it - and it glides easily through practically anything - like the proverbial knife through butter. I often use it for skimming off green manures or surface weeds if necessary - rather like a giant hoe. As far as I know there's only one company making similar spades now - I saw them on TV in the north of the UK - and they cost well in excess of £100!  I've no idea how old my spade is - my father died over 40 years ago - so it's at least 50!  No modern spade can compare with it - and I have a lovely feeling that when I'm using it - he's somehow at my elbow helping me!  From the picture - you can see that it's blade has worn down with use by at least a third to a half over the years - helped by my stony and very heavy clay soil - but I wouldn't be without it for the world!  Nobody is ever allowed to use it but me! If you can find one of these old spades in a sale of garden tools - there is nothing else like them - they are literally worth their weight in gold!

 
My new 'Garton' shovel - huge and light as a feather!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My new 'Garton' shovel - huge and light as a feather!
While I'm on the subject of spades - one ridiculous item that I would never dream of wasting money on is one of those expensive so-called 'back-saver' spades (ha!) which have a lever action that sort of flips the soil over.You often see them recommended in magazines for people with bad backs - it would help if the magazines actually had someone with a genuinely bad back reviewing those types of garden tools! I tried just to pick up one of those spades once and it was so incredibly heavy I couldn't even lift it, let alone attempt to dig!  You'd have to be really fit and healthy to do so!  It would almost have given you a slipped disc even if you didn't already have a bad back! They certainly would be utterly useless for making a planting hole for fruit trees or bushes. I think there must be literally thousands of them sitting once-used and rusting in garden sheds everywhere! Far easier to make raised 'deep' beds instead - you'll only ever have to do it once!  I found a brilliant large shovel a couple of years ago. I went into B&Q looking for a snow shovel - on the premise that if I actually had one then hopefully I wouldn't need it!  I found this absolute gem!  I really couldn't believe it when I picked it up -  it was even lighter than the plastic ones - and being aluminium it's far more durable. It's made by 'Garten' and is as wide as my large wheelbarrow - ideal for raking up leaves etc. with my fan rake which is exactly the same width. Again unbelievably - it was only 20 euros!  What a find - it's going to be really useful for all sorts of jobs! Oh - and I forgot the plastic wheelbarrow also pictured - which I've had for years and again is incredibly light - as long as I'm not tempted to put too much in it! Now, if I could only find one with four wheels and a motor that went along under it's own steam!! Anyone know a cheap one?
 
Although I mainly use my fingers for planting things like lettuces etc. in the beds - I do use a trowel for planting things which needs a slightly deeper hole. I found a really comfortable cheap one a few years ago in a garden centre - for less a fiver - I bought a couple as I'm always losing them! It's important to have one that fits your hand and is comfortable if you're doing a lot of planting - or you could end up with a very sore wrist. I also find a small diamond shaped bricklayer's trowel quite useful for fiddly jobs. The only rake I use is a fan rake. I have two of those - one large and one small. I use both mostly for clearing leaves etc off paths and flower beds in the spring. They both have soft-ish 'tines' so not to damage spring bulbs and other emerging plants. I always have a fleet of robins following me round the garden when I'm doing this - eager to grab any insects which the blackbirds might have missed during their daily winter scratchings! I often use the back of the big fan rake for breaking up small lumps of soil very finely if I'm making a seedbed for sowing something like carrots. I don't use it for 'scarifying' the lawn - the hens do that! 
 
 
Apart from these - the end of a handle of anything that's handy is used like a 'draw' hoe to make seed drills for carrots etc. and a broken old hand brush used to lightly back-fill the soil along the drill after sowing - and cleaning mud off the top of the planks along the sides of the raised beds to discourage rotting. A line of old baler twine is used for marking out straight lines and a 'ruler' of 2in x 1inch rough timber is marked with permanent marker every 6inches so that I can space plants correctly - I hate higgledy-piggledy planting and like to plant in patterns! (yes - control-freakish I know - but each to his own!). One thing I never economise on - but try to buy in sales - is a good strong pair of leather gloves for pruning thorny fruit bushes like gooseberries. I just wish they would make them in three's - with two right hands - as I'm always taking off the right hand one to use the secateurs more easily - shoving them in my pocket and then losing them somewhere in the garden! I swear there's a garden gremlin down in the wood somewhere with a stash of right-handed expensive leather gloves - either that or the dogs have eaten them!


My 'toy' mower!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My 'toy' mower!
Easy mowing! The grass has been growing almost all winter so far - it grows at a much lower temperature than most things - so I actually did some one handed mowing a few days ago as it had dried out really well in the cold wind. Someone very kindly broke the key start on my mower the year before last - and since then I'd been getting more and more frustrated having to wait until someone was around who could do the pull start for me. My neck and back problems just won't allow me to do this any more - it's really asking for serious trouble - so it's one of the very few occasions l when I do actually have to admit defeat and give in (which I really hate)!  As you know I use grass clippings for mulching quite a lot - I also have quite a lot of grass to mow - so I need to be able to do it when I have time and the weather's suitable - not when there just happens to be someone about to start the mower for me! I was actually beginning to get quite stressed by the thought that I might not be able to manage the garden on my own for much longer.- when three years ago - looking up the price of new key start mowers on the web (horrifying!) - I came across the most wonderful little battery powered machine. The Bosch Rotak 34 LI. It's a push button start with a rechargeable battery - rather than nasty polluting petrol which inevitably runs out and I then have to drive down to the village to get more!  It really appealed to me - so I went ahead and ordered one knowing I could always send it back if necessary! When it arrived and was unpacked there were very sceptical looks from my family - it really looked more like a 'Fisher Price' toy mower!  Well - it was a total revelation! For me is the find of a lifetime! I absolutely love it. Light as a feather - I can push it with one hand just like a hoover - in fact it's lighter and quieter than a hoover! I didn't get the wider biggest model because the details said it could mow very close to edges - so I though it might be ideal for my grass paths between the raised beds which are only about 20ins wide - and it does a  perfectly neat job - right up to the plank edges. (In an organic garden it's important to keep grass paths very short if you have them so that you don't provide places for slugs to hide!)


It's also the very first thing I've found in over 35 years that will mow quite safely and very neatly right up close to the sides of a polytunnel as you can see here. Over the years I've tried all sorts of ways of keeping grass and weeds down along the outside of the tunnel but strimming was too dangerous, flame gunning obviously out and clipping by hand laborious and back breaking. Now it takes me just 15 minutes to go round the outside edges of both tunnels - letting more light in, looking really tidy and giving slugs nowhere to hide! Although it's not self-propelled so doesn't go along on it's own - I don't find it difficult to push despite my dodgy neck and back - it's more a knack you get used to - you can always push with your midriff and just steer with your hands when necessary. The only time it feels a little heavy is when the grass box is really full - as despite what the makers say - it will actually cut and pick up quite wet grass! It will also tackle really long stuff with the box off - particularly if it's dry - and I'm afraid I've often used it more like a strimmer with wheels - something I'm always wishing I had!  It will mow really fine grass very low - leaving it almost like a billiard table - and it even does stripes with it's permanent little roller behind!  I've never had a striped lawn before!! Some people might complain that it will only do 25 mins before it needs recharging - for an hour and a half - but that's ideal for me any more would be too much. As it is - it gives me a nice walking workout and then tells me when to stop - which I wouldn't otherwise do and then would overdo it!  I can then go off and do something else while it recharges and it's ready to use again in an hour and a half. I just wish Bosch would invent a really big one that would go under it's own steam - then I could mow the meadow and orchard paths as well!  It's definitely not the cheapest mower you can find - but it's by far the lightest and easiest ever to use - and for me it's utterly brilliant. The poor little thing's certainly survived the ultimate testing from hell here!!  It's stood up to endless abuse! If you're thinking of getting a new mower - I really can't recommend it highly enough.
 
 
Dealing with weeds on paths without weedkillers.  
 
One tool I'm desperately missing right now is my flame weeder which I've had for 30 years. It's brilliant for keeping paths tidy as long as you remember to protect box edging etc. with a board or something similar. The same (mower) person broke it!! They just couldn't get the idea of simply passing over weeds to wilt them - before going over again in a couple of days to finish the job - despite lengthy instructions!  I won't be sexist here - but why do some 'people' always think they know better? With the result that they melted the head off it!  Flame weeders are brilliant because they kill weed seeds as well - leaving ground really clean. If there is the odd dock or two in a path - I find that chopping it's head off down low to the root with an old kitchen knife and then putting some salt on top a couple of times works. What many people don't realise when they're spending money on dangerous and expensive so-called 'kill all' chemical weedkillers like 'Roundup' (Glyphosate) etc .is that weedkillers don't actually kill weed seeds! So the minute you turn over the soil more just come up again! Weedkillers also pollute groundwater, kill soil life and also aquatic life like tadpoles, frogs and fish etc. Someone working on a friend's farm 2 years ago was badly affected when stupidly spraying without wearing protection - and ended up very seriously ill in hospital. All of these weedkillers are very serious EDC's (endocrine disrupting chemicals) which interfere with the hormones that regulate all our body's functions, causing cancer and many other illnesses. That person will doubtless have ongoing effects on his central nervous system and possibly his major organs for the rest of his life! Those poisons aren't safe just because the makers and the people selling them tell you they are! Many of them were inadequately tested when they were originally approved back in the 1970's in some cases - and yet they continue to be sold. Remember - they are designed to kill other forms of life that we share many of our genes with - forget that at your peril! Even the vapour coming off them on the shelves in garden centres is dangerous. If you can smell it - then you're breathing it in, whether you like it or not. If garden centres have to sell the stuff then they should store it in their coolest places away from direct sunlight - but I've seen it in several places on shelves in the heat of full sunlight. You shouldn't be forced to walk past it to get to plants or other things - you can smell it a mile away!! Complain if you see this - or just don't visit those garden centres in future if they ignore requests to move it elsewhere!

 
New Year's day posy
New Year's day posy
A New Year's Day posy. On the first of January every year I always take a walk round the garden whatever the weather and pick a tiny posy to put in my little bud vase (an old ink bottle) to put on my kitchen table to cheer me up - the rose - 'Bengal crimson' - was given to me by the late Rosemary Brown - who had a beautiful garden near Bray in Co. Wicklow. Every time I see a robin I'm reminded of her. She always had one that would trustingly come and eat out of your hand if you held up a few peanuts. A quite magical experience that I was lucky enough to enjoy when visiting her!  Last winter was the very first time that I had ever seen 'Bengal Crimson' without a flower. I thought I'd lost it - but it recovered after a while. All summer long it's elegant single flowers are a deep, rich, velvety crimson which contrasts beautifully with the inner boss of gold dusted stamens. During most winters it will go on flowering in all but the very coldest weather - but tends to be paler. It's an old China rose hybrid - the China roses were bred with our native wild roses and others centuries ago to produce the first repeat flowering hybrid roses - the forerunners of many of our modern garden roses today. The iris pictured here is Iris Lazica - given to me by my dear friend the late Wendy Walsh - a well known botanical artist. She gave me some of it when she was painting it for the Kew magazine. Plants are such lovely living memories to treasure. There are a lot of flowers scenting the garden on milder days at the moment, things like Daphne and lily-of-the-valley scented Mahonias, which are already tempting one or two adventurous bees out to forage. It's lovely to hear their buzz again - it makes spring feel just that little bit closer.
 
 

Bee-friendly flowers for winter.  

As bumble bees don't hibernate - on mild days they'll come out looking for a midwinter snack - so it's really important to have some flowers which produce pollen and nectar for them. On 11th Jan. as I walking back into the house after sitting up in the tunnel with my morning coffee - I heard that distinctive bumble buzz and saw my very first one of the year on a flower of Clematis Armandii over the back door. I hadn't actually noticed that a few of it's first flowers were already open - but the bees had! Clematis Armandii has a beautiful almond scent which wafts all round the garden on mild days. In the courtyard outside the back door there are witch hazels, the beautiful lemon/cinnamony scented shrubs Daphne bholua and Lonicera purpusii (the winter flowering honeysuckle) and also the slightly more tender but deliciously coconut-scented coronilla. Appropriate scents for plants growing outside the kitchen door!  Winter flowers aren't just important for bees - they're important for us too - they really cheer us up just when we need it most. My walled south west facing courtyard is what I call my 'winter garden' with lots of things like Hellebores flowering right opposite the kitchen window where I can see them without venturing out into the cold. Hellebores produce masses of pollen and bees really love them. The great thing about most winter flowering plants is that so many of them flower for quite a long time - depending on the weather - and there are a surprising number of perennial plants and shrubs which normally flower at this time of year, even in quite hard winters. Even late last night - despite the frost - the witch hazels in the courtyard were scenting the surrounding air. In the tunnel, I find that Bowles perennial wallflower is the most reliable all winter long - there's always a few flowers on it. Feverfew is good - early narcissi and primroses flower even earlier in the tunnel too. If you plan well - it's quite possible to have flowers in your garden to delight you and to produce food for bees and other insects all year round - in even the coldest of weather!

 

Why flowers are important in an organic garden 

For those of you who think that perhaps flowers aren't relevant in a serious food-producing garden - or that you have to be a bit 'girly' or a 'garden geek' to grow them - you couldn't be more wrong! They are just important as the vegetables!  By providing pollen, nectar and seeds - flowers actually help to establish a more naturally balanced and diverse ecosystem - attracting all sorts of bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects vital for pollination and pest control. Those insects then bring in other associated wildlife, like birds, hedgehogs and frogs - which also help to control garden pests. Right now bees in particular really need our help - they're in serious decline - due mainly to habitat loss and chemical pesticides. It's absolutely crucial to look after all of our native bee species - particularly those that don't hibernate in the winter, and as such are even more vulnerable. Flowers are actually a vital part of a whole balanced ecosystem in a properly working and successful organic garden. You don't have to be a 'garden geek' to take pleasure in growing beautiful things in your garden either - or to enjoy watching the bees and butterflies that also love them. They have a definite psychological effect on us - something important which is very often underestimated or even overlooked completely!


The value of pollinators.

The latest research at East Malling Research station in Kent (experts for many years in fruit growing) showed that fruit set was up to 40% higher where bumblebee nest boxes were used in the 'flight cages' where they were monitoring the pollination of blackcurrants. They counted 13 different species of solitary bees and bumblebees foraging for pollen and nectar - none of which were honeybees! They say this proves to growers just how crucial it is to provide more 'wild bee-friendly' habitats. Sadly they didn't however go so far as to say that it's not a good idea to use chemical sprays either!!  There's not much point in providing habitats to attract bees if you're then going to use pesticides which may quite possibly kill them!


Keep feeding your resident birds now - and making sure they have clean water to bathe and drink. They're already gearing up now for the busy breeding season ahead - establishing their territories and scouting for the best nest sites. I watched two sparrows playing tug of war with a long piece of hay the other day, it was very comical. They were obviously trying to grab the best nesting material already! Take the dangerous nets off fat balls if you use them as birds can get their legs caught in them and die. REMEMBER - HELPING WILDLIFE HELPS YOUR GARDEN TO WORK MUCH BETTER- and adds to your quality of life too!



In the last few weeks a song thrush has taken up residence again on the tallest ash tree at the top end of the tunnels - his joyous and beautiful liquid notes are an echo of my past - like the music of the Pied Piper to me. They are an increasingly rare treat. 
 
"That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over, 
Lest you should think he never could recapture 
The first fine careless rapture!" 
 
Robert Browning - "Home thoughts from abroad"
 
I'm off outside to see if I can catch a brief glimpse of that shy, sleekly-spotted, melodic troubadour now - before dusk falls!

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