The Fruit Garden and Orchard in August - 2017

August contents: Blackberry fields forever at the moment!.........Preserving the fruity joys of summer!......Magnificent Melons.........Raspberries all summer long?............'Tis the season of wasps!......Other fruit jobs
 
Huge ripe fruits of my 'Himalayan Giant' x wild bramble hybrid - always early, plump & delicious! 
 The huge ripe fruits of my 'Himalayan Giant' x wild bramble hybrid - always the earliest. So plump and delicious! 
 
" The sun being now in it's southern declination the Air begins to cool, and it is become very pleasant to walk after a thunder shower. Although the beauties of the Fields and Gardens begin to fade, yet the profits now flow in.... the Avenues and walks of your Gardens now furnish the most curious palates with the most delicate Fruits....Little is now to be done in a Garden, besides gathering in the Fruits of former Labours." 
 (From A calendar of Gardener's Lore - August, 1688)
 
I love some of those old gardening quotes - which echo the familiar fellow feelings we share with all the other gardeners that have preceded us overt the centuries. They valued the abundance of summer and autumn fruits just as much as we do now. They knew that fruit was healthy food - even though their knowledge was based on observations that didn't include using the benefits of magnetic resonance imaging or electron microscopy that we have now! 
 
 
Blackberry fields forever at the moment!
 
 
The heavy rain of the last few days has brought a bit of a damp chill in the evenings. It almost signals the end of summer and the beginning of autumn but it came just at the right time for this year's blackberry crop!  The first berries started to swell about three weeks ago but they were still a bit 'pippy'. They're starting to swell up nicely now and the plumptious, glossy black berries are ripening almost faster than we can pick them or the birds can eat them! The cultivated types like Himalayan Giant always start to ripen earlier - at least a month before the smaller wild species. One or two of the 'bird sown', bee cross-pollinated hybrids I've found here over the last few years tend to ripen even a few days earlier than those. One plant in particular has that real wild 'bramble' taste, combined with the depth of flavour, acidity and much larger size of the cultivated varieties. It's the best I've tasted and has a far better flavour than any of the hybrids you can currently buy. I've tried most of the varieties on offer and been very disappointed with their taste. Himalayan Giant - which I've often talked about before - is really the very best-tasting variety but it's a bit of a thug and can be an absolute nightmare in a small garden - or even a large one if left to it's own devices! Fine though, if you've got plenty of room and you want a productive, very effective vandal proof hedge!  A good alternative to Himalayan Giant for a small garden - not quite as deeply flavoured but still very nice - is the very new variety 'Reuben' which is a primocane variety. Being a primocane means that unlike other blackberries - it will fruit in it's first year of cane growth. I've been growing it for over 3 years now since it first became available commercially and have found that by growing it in a large tub in the polytunnel I can even get it to fruit twice a year - picking huge fresh juicy berries for much longer. 
 
 
Blackberries are a nutritional powerhouse and are a mainstay of breakfasts, muffins, puddings, salad dressings, ice cream and many other delights all year round here.  Combined with green leaves like spinach and kale and a handful of walnuts or almonds - they make the most delicious gut and brain-healthy smoothies too! Their rich taste makes them a healthy base for any number of things and they're also high in nutrients and fibre. In fact - blackberries have been shown to have one of the highest antioxidant contents of any food tested and studies have indicated that regular consumption of them may have a positive impact on health - lowering the risk of many diseases. Their high level of anthocyanin phytonutrients, which gives them their dark purple colour, have been shown to protect the brain from oxidative stress and may even reduce the effects of age-related conditions like Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Other studies have shown that they may also protect against cancers of the colon. They are high in potassium, ellagic acid (an immune-stimulating nutrient) as well as many other vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. 
 
 
As we don't tend to eat jam here - we freeze any berries not eaten immediately. They can then be thrown straight into yoghurt or kefir to make ice cream or half-frozen smoothies, if you have one of those powerful Nutribullet-type blenders. You can't buy frozen organic blackberries anywhere - at least I've never seen them. Even the chemically-laden ones - which I wouldn't touch - are incredibly expensive both fresh and frozen, so it makes sense to grow your own and they really couldn't be any easier!  Picking's the hardest thing - but any of the family who are around always get drafted in for that job - they want to eat them after all! Anyway who doesn't love a bit of leisurely blackberry picking in warm early autumn sunshine - and the delicious benefits are many! I certainly wouldn't agree with the "little is now to be done" - but "the profits are definitely now flowing in" - we're certainly enjoying "gathering in the fruits of former labours" right now, as the quote says! ....So far we've picked and frozen 12.5 kg of blackberries - that's €600 worth at current organic prices - and even the conventionally-grown ones which are sprayed with a lot of pesticides aren't much cheaper currently, because even though they're seasonal as they're mostly grown in huge polytunnels or greenhouses, being such a high value fruit. So it's well worth the sometimes uncomfortable effort of picking your own, to have such nutrient-rich organic fruit available all year round! When I finally ran out of the frozen berries about three weeks ago - I really missed them. Even the amount we already have would provide one person with one 'portion' of their five a day - every other day of the year - and there's loads more still to be picked!  Blackberries are even energy efficient!  Freezing them loose and then bagging them up into very large bags is best as it means that when loose frozen like that they'll fit very conveniently around all the bigger, lumpier things in the freezer - filling in any gaps and air pockets and therefore being as energy efficient as possible, as well as taking up less room. Important when there's so many goodies to try to fit in!
 
 
 
Anyone who has ever tried to clear brambles knows that blackberries will grow vigorously almost anywhere - but they particularly appreciate a heavy fertile soil and plenty of sun to ripen the berries and give them flavour.  I noticed the first blackberries were ripe on the early Himalayan Giant hybrid a couple of weeks ago, while I was mowing nearby. I meant to go out in the evening and pick them - but something happened as usual and by the time I remembered next morning and went out, our secretive fruit gourmet - Brock the badger - had paid us his regular visit - which he does nightly at this time of year. Everything that's ripe, from 'large Labrador nose height' down was gone!!  My dogs have always loved them too and even the hens love them! They know what's good for them! That blackberry is trained along a fence which backs onto a lawn, and is about 8 feet high so I find it impossible to cover. That means that the badgers, foxes and birds get a massive amount of fruit each year. Covering blackberries is extremely difficult - and fraught with danger due to the vicious thorns. It's also practically impossible to get the net off again too, as it gets caught on all the thorns, so I don't bother to even try any more. I would need an enormous fruit cage to contain just one plant of Himalayan Giant and as it grows at an exponential rate - it grows through any netting very quickly! We always have more than enough anyway! Badgers and foxes love all fruit - and on their night time forays help themselves to any juicy fruits conveniently growing at their level. I don't mind though - heaven knows they have a hard enough time surviving these days. Unfortunately though, badgers and foxes are also very partial to plums, which are not so plentiful! They obviously must stand on their hind legs to eat those - carefully hoovering off all they can reach in a neatly cropped circle all around the tree - not a lot I can do about that!  
 
 
 
Preserving the fruity joys of summer!
 
 
I always start to feel a bit like a squirrel at this hectic time of year - as while there's more than enough fruit to eat fresh now - it's very nice to know that there's also plenty of fruit preserved in different ways to add a bit of joy to the cold, dark winter months and to keep the colds at bay. This is the only time I miss the very hot, dry late summers of my childhood in the English shires, which seemed to last forever in hindsight. Our wonderful Victoria plums were as big as duck eggs from the huge old trees - and oh, the scent of the greengage walk in the kitchen garden! As soon as you walked anywhere near - you could smell when they were ripe!.....You never get that wonderful aromatic scent from greengages unless you grow them yourself because they're never left to ripen on the trees. They need to have a yellowish hue, be slightly soft and to be cracking slightly around the stem at the top. Then they taste like nectar for the Gods! The same goes for melons - most of the ones sold in shops are picked well before they're ripe or they wouldn't travel - but the taste of a properly ripe homegrown melon makes all the hard work worthwhile! The summer's been kind to us this year - and all the fruit in the garden is cropping really well. It certainly appreciated the bit of rain we've had recently - it came just at the right time - all the berry fruits are extra-large and juicy and the apples in the new orchard are swelling fast. 
 
 
There were so many early peaches again last year that I decided to try semi-dehydrating and freezing them, after dipping them first in lemon juice to stop the cut pieces browning because of oxidisation. It was a great success and they'll add some extra deliciousness to winter salads, smoothies and other dishes. The only problem I found was not eating them all immediately as they were so scrumptious - with a really concentrated peach flavour! When I was a child an uncle living in South Africa used to send us a huge box of candied glace fruits every Christmas as a present and they were such a delicious luxury then - though very high in sugar. These peach pieces have the same concentrated flavour but no sugar at all apart from that the fruit originally contained - so they're much healthier. Picking them very slightly under-ripe also means they contain a little less sugar and they're also firmer and easier to deal with. Another great use for the dehydrator!
 
 
 
Magnificent Melons
 
Melon 'Emir'
Melon 'Emir'
 
 
Melons for breakfast - so sweet that they are almost (but not quite) too sweet - are such a luxury! The best and most reliable varieties I've found for tunnel growing so far are Lidl's Charentais (great value seed), 'Emir' which last year produced an exceptional crop of dozens of incredibly deliciously aromatic fruits and Alvaro which is similar. They are definitely the best I have ever grown!  The fruits are just the right size for two people to halve for a starter, pudding or breakfast - but naturally, being us, we have one each! Well we have to - we couldn't possibly waste them as they go off so quickly when really ripe - and don't store other than freezing well as a sorbet (with the judicious addition of a little drop of 'Melone' liqueur too - yum!).  I never harvest melons until they come away from the stalk at the top of the fruit with the slightest touch - that's when they are at their luscious peak of maximum perfection. Do try these varieties - they're terrific in a polytunnel - and this year might have been good outside too, with the amount of sun we've had here, especially if one grew them under a cold frame or cloches.  In the UK - particularly in the south east which all summer is normally between 6-10 degrees warmer than we are here - it would definitely do very well outside.
 
 
 
If you want an easy watermelon, Sugar Baby is a good reliable one - and more like the size of a canteloupe. They do need a longer season that canteloupes to be successful - I always sow them in mid-late February. One or two are already looking very promising and won't be long before they're ripe! You can grow the huge ones from seed too if you start them early. About 30 years ago I grew them from seed saved from shop bought watermelons as it was hard to get seed then. They actually grew - I was astonished! I took a few slices to an organic conference - making some people envious and a couple of good friends very happy!
 
 
In the picture below I've raised some of the melon fruits up off the ground on 2 litre pots. This keeps them away from any possible slug damage and being raised up in the sun also helps them to ripen as the black pots also trap heat. 
 
 
The three melons you can see below are, from l-r - Charentais, Country Taste and Emir.
 
Melon 'Emir' ripening on an upturned 2litre pot 20.8.13 Melon 'Country Taste' climbing through grape 'Muscat Bleu' 21.8.13 2 'Lidl Charentais' & 'Emir' (at back) melons on 2.litre pots 20.8.13

 

 

Raspberries all summer long? 

 

A delicious bowl of Sugana raspberries Huge tasty fruit of raspberry 'Sugana'
A delicious bowl of Sugana raspberries Huge tasty fruit of raspberry 'Sugana'

 

I'm very pleased with my latest autumn raspberry experiment in the fruit tunnel. I potted up a couple of Sugana plants earlier 2 years ago to see how they would do grown under cover. Sugana is the very latest new autumn raspberry - supposedly 'twice fruiting' - but as you know if you've read this blog before - I originally discovered many years ago by accident that all autumn raspberries will do that, if you leave some of the previous year's older fruited canes on the plants to fruit again the following midsummer. This is a tip I've shared widely - and I now see it being repeated everywhere! Sugana does seem more vigorous than most though, it's producing the most magnificent huge berries with a wonderful flavour. I made the mistake of putting two plants into a huge 20 litre tub as they were quite small when they came and I was a bit short of room. They've grown massively since then - producing lots of new canes which they will be fruiting on for some weeks - so when they eventually stop I shall split them up into 6 and replant them as they need watering every 5 minutes! The flavour is almost as good as my favourite Joan J - and also seems just a tad earlier. Growing both varieties - both inside and outside could spread the season even more and possibly give a really good crop of raspberries for most of the summer. I love raspberries - and they freeze so well. I've frozen some of the Sugana for a healthy festive treat - but last year Joan J went on fruiting a bit right up until Christmas

 
 
Raspberry Joan J - size comparison with 1 euro coin
Raspberry Joan J - size comparison with 1 euro coin
Autumn raspberry 'Joan J' is a wonderful variety - so far removed from the old 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss' types that it's almost another fruit altogether. Joy Larkcom originally recommended it to me as she'd been given some to trial a few years ago and she loved it. When she was staying here some years ago for a talk she was doing locally, she tried another new one called 'Brice', which I had growing here which is another really good variety. Anyway, I'm so pleased with 'Joan J' that I took a photo to show you it's size. It tastes every bit as good as the summer ones and unlike them - it's another so-called 'primocane' variety - and it will actually crop again next year on the same canes which have fruited this autumn. It really earns its space in the garden even more do than summer ones - producing two crops rather than just the one in the same amount of space. The flavour of these three newer autumn varieties is fantastic and completely different to the older types which I think are mostly pretty insipid and tasteless. Although years ago I suppose one was glad of any late soft fruit - which was why I originally planted them, those older varieties are just complete weeds and are a real nuisance in the garden now, coming up literally everywhere. I really wish I'd never planted them! I keep persistently digging them out and replanting them down in my woodland for the birds - but I don't think I'll ever get rid of them. Being organic I don't use weedkillers - so digging them out constantly is the only option - and not an easy one with my bad back! Anyway, the wildlife is grateful - that's why there's so many birds here. Although that can be a curse too at times as blackbirds start pecking at the apples as soon as they show any colour - and that can destroy quite a lot!
 
 
Raspberry Black Jewel
Raspberry Black Jewel
 
 
The jury's really still out for me on the expensive summer raspberry 'Black Jewel' which some of the fruit catalogues have now. Their photographs look so enticing, and black raspberries are supposed to contain anti-cancer phytonutrient ellagic acid and anthocyanins like blackberries - but you'd need an awful lot of them to benefit. I planted some of them in large pots three years ago and they fruited for the first time 2 years ago. This year they produced what I presume would be a good crop for them - but sadly not for me! The small fruit were a nightmare to pick as the plants are very thorny - and when you get hold of the pippy little fruits to pick them - they just disintegrate between your fingers into the separate little globules containing the pips, or whatever they're called! The few you can actually get enough of to taste do have an unusual sort of sherbetty/fizzy flavour, like old fashioned raspberry sweets - but I think they may well be joining the older autumn raspberries down in the woodland fairly soon! Especially since they look alarmingly like rubus Cockburnianus - a decorative species rubus that is a complete nightmare here and has taken over half an acre! Naturally you see 'celebrity' gardeners or botanists retained by the big seed companies promoting them - they're paid to!  But frankly folks - they're an expensive oddity! Grow blackberries instead if it's health you want - and your pocket will be healthier too!
 
 
 
Black Jewel can go and do it's thing where it can't take over too much or do too much damage - in the woodland! I'll just eat lots more raspberries and blackberries together to get mostly the same nutrients and flavour - which I do already! This year I compared the taste as they all happened to be fruiting at the same time and actually - if you eat blackberries and raspberries together in the same mouthful - then they taste exactly like the black raspberries! They're expensive to buy and a bit too 'Emperors New Clothes for my liking! If you only have a small space though you want to make the very best use of it - and frankly despite their much-vaunted health claims - I think that black raspberries are not a value for money fruit since in addition - they only fruit once in summer!
 
This blog is not just about growing food but also about getting the best value for money. That's why I never take any advertisements or free offers of anything - and believe me I do get a lot of offers which I refuse! That's how you know I'm being totally honest and I'm not being paid to promote things!
 
 
 
'Tis the season of wasps!
 
Seedless grape 'Rose Dream'
 
 
When the first of the grapes are ripening I can always guarantee the first wasps suddenly appear - as if buy magic! Every year they time it to perfection! It's a good time now to hang wasp traps around the garden - I shall be doing that this week as I'm starting to notice a lot of young ones around so there must be a nest somewhere. The earliest tunnel grapes - the seedless Rose Dream pictured here is already completely smothered with wasps. They never touch them until the berries at the top on the shoulders of the bunch are starting to ripen - then they can destroy whole bunches incredibly quickly.  When they finish that one - they will move onto the other varieties as they ripen - so it's definitely time for the traps! I've tried all sorts of methods of protecting them - but short of putting individual bags around each bunch - which I could do if I had an army of gardeners like the walled gardens of old had - then there's very little I can do! I just try to get there before they do!  I might try vacuuming them off every day in the tunnels for a week or so - sounds daft I know - but it's very effective for many pests as I've mentioned before. I don't begrudge them a little fruit...... just not all of it!  It's a bit of a quandary really - I don't want to get rid of all of them - as wasps actually do a lot of good work controlling aphids, caterpillars and other pests in the garden - and they're also good pollinators. This is something many people don't know, thinking that they're only a nuisance. I remember about 20 years ago hearing a very loud buzzing beside me in the cabbage bed where I was kneeling down weeding at the time. I looked to where the sound was coming from, just in time to see a wasp desperately trying to take off and fly away with a very large green caterpillar in it's jaws - about twice as big as itself. The loud buzzing was it's wings beating as it made the huge effort! It eventually managed it - flying off to its nest to feed it's hard-won trophy to it's young grubs.

 
 
 
 
Other fruit jobs
 
 
When loganberries and summer raspberries have finished cropping, cut out all the old fruited canes, give a balanced high potash organic feed, water well and mulch. If you haven't done already, you can now cut out the old twice fruited (dark brown) canes of autumn raspberries as well, to give this autumn's new (pale green) canes more room light and air to grow.
 
 
As soon as stone fruits such as plums, cherries and peaches have finished cropping - get any pruning done as soon as possible. Do it on a dry day to prevent possible infection entering wounds before they heal. Remember when pruning that peaches tend to fruit mostly on the new green wood they've made this year - so prune back to that to keep them within bounds. Peaches and nectarines in particular can get out of control very quickly if you don't do this - especially if trained as fans (or what I call 'fushes' - fan/bushes in my case!) in greenhouses or tunnels. The late peach in the tunnel is starting to colour up now so I'll be watering very carefully from now on - not soaking them - so that they don't split. 
 
 
You may need to protect ripening late peaches and other fruit from the wasps now if they're a problem, as well as from the birds. Old net curtains, or something like 'Enviromesh', fixed securely with clothes pegs are good for this. Ordinary garden netting isn't fine enough.
 
 
I'm potting up the last of the strawberry runners for next year's plants this month - I like the early tunnel ones like 'Christine' (the best for early tunnel use) to get properly established in their 2 litre pots during the autumn - they'll crop far better next year then. In their first year, perpetual strawberries make a lot of runners too. You must propagate these in their first year, as in their second year most perpetuals tend not to produce as many - if any runners. That being so - it's very easy to lose them. Always choose really healthy looking runners - don't use anything with distorted, yellow spotted or twisted leaves - this can often be a sign of virus passed on by aphids. Alpine strawberries are different, and are propagated either by division or from seed. Clean up fruited summer strawberry beds now - cutting off any old tired foliage. Lift off protective netting so the birds can get in to clean up any pests like vine weevils that may be lurking around. The perpetual strawberry Albion is still fruiting steadily in the stepladder garden and elsewhere. If I only grew one strawberry it would be this one. It fruits prolifically from May until November if you give it the occasional feed of tomato food like Osmo organic, and it's firm and really delicious. I can't recommend it highly enough.  
 
 
 All fruit in containers needs careful and consistent watering now. If some are still developing fruits - add a high potash liquid feed such as the brilliant Osmo organic tomato feed. Remember that with fruits ripening - erratic watering often causes fruits to split - so consistency and a good moisture retaining mulch if they're growing in the ground is key to avoiding this problem!
 
 
 
 

Finally, if you're thinking of ordering fruit trees or other fruit this autumn - do it now - even though autumn still seems like ages away. Nurseries start lifting plants in late October - If you order now and get ahead of the posse - you will be first in the queue when the orders go out, things should arrive when the soil is still in a fit state to plant, and still warm from the summe. They will establish so much better than plants or trees planted in early spring when the soil is cold and wet and possibly even unworkable. They will also make bigger root systems, as they have more time to develop roots without having to support any new top growth for several months. Many nurseries have good offers on right now before the end of August. These are for pre-orders of bare-root trees which they then start lifting in November. 
 
 
Look up good mail order catalogues and online now. Even if you don't order anything, they are a valuable and free mine of information  - and I'm all for that!  Good catalogues are the stuff of dreams for most of us gardeners - and remember - dreams are free too!
 
 
Early apple George Cave
Early apple George Cave
I have a few apples in my old orchard again this year! Perhaps because of the strange weather patterns necessitating a different spraying regime on the next door farm again. Sod's law that the apples are on many of the early flowering and fruiting varieties like Katy - which is absolutely loaded - but which sadly don't keep. Anyway - I'm so grateful for small mercies and the wonderful early cooker Grenadier also has some fruit on it too - so I'm looking forward to some epic crumbles! There's quite a few on the lovely early dessert apple George Cave - one of the very best of the early apples and always the first to ripen here. Often ripe by he end of July - it's still got another couple of weeks to go yet until it's fully ripe, as it's seeds are still white, from looking at one of the fruits. When it's properly ripe apple seeds are brown. it has an almost Cox-like, crisply sharp and aromatic taste and I'm really looking forward to it. Now all I have to do is keep the birds off a few of them! 
 
 
For many years now I've had very few apples in the orchard I planted when we first came here, 35 years ago, and I've missed them so much. It was planned to give us a spread of fruit that ripened over a whole year, both freshly picked and then from storage - and I had wonderful crops for about 15 years until the farm next door was sold and all of the fields ploughed up to grow grain. Last year I finally gave up hope of ever having any again, so started planting a new orchard on the other side of the property - much further away from the horrible hormone weedkillers that abort the flowers on my fruit trees every year. Somewhat ironic eh! The young orchard is looking promising, and has a fair bit of fruit on this year with some of the trees planted from containers already carrying fruit which I thinned a few weeks ago. The trees that were bare-root planted the winter before last won't be allowed to fruit much this year - just one or two - but they've grown brilliantly and I'm very pleased with them. It's very noticeable that bare root trees always establish better. All of my trees are on the brilliant M26 root stock - which is semi-dwarfing, early-fruiting and productive - and suitable for all soils but particularly good on my heavy wet clay. 
 
I hope you will all have some apples to enjoy or can find an organic orchard near you where you can buy some or pick your own. Like blackberries - they're one of the healthiest fruits you can eat!
 
 
 (P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)
 

The Vegetable Garden in August - 2017

 

Saffron flowering in large container - 21.10.14  Thread-like stamens of saffron laid out to dry on paper towel - late October 
Saffron flowering in large container in late October                                                     The aromatic thread-like stamens of saffron laid out to dry on paper towel 
 

 

How to grow your own saffron. Or how to achieve the ultimate in 'grow your own one-upmanship' by growing the most valuable spice in the world!

 
 
Saffron is incredibly expensive to buy but is actually incredibly easy to grow!  As it's simply a type of crocus - you can grow saffron bulbs in exactly the same way as any other crocus. In fact in the Middle Ages - Saffron Waldon in Essex was the centre of saffron production in England - hence it's name. One of the reasons was the very dry, sunny climate there - which is a curse for many vegetables gardeners but is just perfect for saffron, as dry sunny conditions are exactly what it likes. Originating in the eastern Mediterranean - Saffron has been valued both for cooking and in medicine since the Bronze Age and is depicted in Minoan cave paintings in Crete. It is rich in carotenoid phytonutrients and recent research has shown that it may be therapeutic for many conditions including depression. I've certainly always though of it as an uplifting spice. I've always thought that a saffron-rich Paella is one of the most comforting dishes one can eat!
 
 
Saffron bulbs are available for planting now in some garden centres or you can easily get them online. They are very easy to grow - just like any other crocus bulb - but they are the only kind with edible stigmas! It is the stigmas - not the stamens as I heard one food 'expert' say - that produce the saffron!  (You can see them picture above).  Bulbs need planting as soon as possible now, as they are available from August onwards, but suppliers often have cheaper offers in September, when they may want to get rid of any leftover stock. They may have even cheaper offers once the correct planting time is over - but these bulbs are still worth planting, because they will actually flower in their first year. Then they may possibly take a year off, just producing leaves and building up the bulb's strength again for flowering. As they are perennial, they will then flower again the year after that and every year thereafter. If you're really kind and feed them well when they're in green leaf and still growing - they may even not take a year off at all!
 
 
They need planting at a depth of about 15 cm, and about 10 cm apart, in a very well-drained spot in full sun - either outdoors in the ground or in a well drained container. Or alternatively - you can grow them in a tub in a polytunnel where they enjoy the summer heat to ripen the bulbs.  Growing in containers is useful as you can bring them into the tunnel when flowering too, in order to keep the orange stigmas dry.  Alternatively they can be grown in the tunnel permanently, but as they don't like being shaded by other crops and are very hardy, I find a container in the tunnel is best, because then you can move it out if space is needed. The container can be put outside in full sun somewhere out of the way once their crop has been harvested in Nov., but don't let them get waterlogged or they will rot. The other very good reason for growing them in a tunnel is that the flowers don't get rained on when they're flowering. This is very important - because there's nothing worse than watching all that lovely saffron coloured liquid running down the flower stems after heavy rain!  In the tunnel or under a cloche they're completely protected and the valuable saffron won't be ruined!
 
 
Each flower will produce three orange stigmas from around mid-October through to November. Pick the stamens as early as possible in the morning by pulling them out of the flower by hand gently. I prefer to do this rather than picking the whole flower -  this can then die down as it naturally would afterwards - then returning it's nutrients to the bulb. You can lay the stigmas on kitchen paper on a cake tray or similar to dry them for a few days, then fold up the paper and store them on it in an envelope, or a glass jar, once they are thoroughly dry.
 
 
Just as with any other bulb - the thin leaves that appear with, or just after, the flowers should not be cut off - they will die down naturally the following spring. They are there to make food for the plant and build up the bulb for next year. While the bulb is still in leaf it's a good idea to give a liquid feed once or twice, in order to build up the bulb's energy for flowering the following year. As they originate in dry mountain ranges where they're baked in summer and very cold but very well drained in winter - give them conditions as near as possible to that and they will thrive - producing up to 3 offsets (baby bulbs) each year which increases your stock. You can lift the bulbs when the leaves have died down and replant the new offsets, which will take a couple of years to reach flowering size themselves. Alternatively, you can just leave the clumps of bulbs until they appear overcrowded, then just lift them and replant then.
 
 
The only pest I have experienced with growing saffron is mice - and they are an absolute curse! They will dig up the bulbs and eat them. Even covering with small mesh wire netting doesn't work as they can squeeze through - so mousetraps are sadly the only option! Put them down as soon as you plant the bulbs but make sure they won't kill small birds by covering them instead with some small mesh wire netting! I know it seems a lot of bother for what seems like a very small crop - but when you experience a luscious Risotto or Paella  made with your very own home-grown saffron - you'll know why you did it!
 
 

Planning ahead well is the best way to have healthy food all year round

  

Although this is a really hectic time for gathering and preserving of summer crops both outside and in polytunnels - thinking ahead is really key at this time of year. Good planning now will really pay off in late autumn and winter. If you don't have protected space like a tunnel or greenhouse - and haven't so far sown any winter crops - then this month is really the very last chance to sow many crops that you will get a decent return from in the open ground over the autumn and winter - perhaps given the extra protection of frames or cloches. There's plenty of suggestions in the sowing list for this month. I always try to make sure that all the ground in the vegetable garden is covered either with something that will give a crop in late autumn and over winter, or with a green manure which will improve it's fertility and structure. That may then later be covered with a rainproof dark cover of some kind to kill off the tops and let the worms begin to work the decomposing plant material in. Then all I'll have to do to prepare ground for early crops is just scratch over the surface which by then will be nice and crumbly - the worms having done most of the work! I know it's difficult to think about the winter when we still hope to enjoy some more summer - but if you don't think ahead now - then you'll be sorry later. I always start to sow my winter salads at the end of July - when the last thing one wants to think about is winter! The thing is though - a lot of winter crops like chicories, kales, pea shoots etc. all need a long growing season even for growing undercover. Just sowing a couple of weeks later means you'll get far later and smaller crops - or you may possibly not get a worthwhile crop at all. Faster growing things like oriental salads and other leafy veg like spinach and watercress can be left until the end of the month or even early September. 
 
 
 
At this time of year, sowing in modules is particularly valuable as things tend to germinate more easily since you can give them ideal conditions - something you can't always be sure of in the open ground.  Germination of some crops, particularly lettuce, can be inhibited by too high a temperature in the first 48 hours after sowing - so I tend to sow things like lettuce in particular, in the afternoons or evenings, and then keep the modules in the shade of a north facing wall for a few days until they're all well germinated. This is the main reason people find lettuce difficult at this time of year - and sowing in modules in the cool this way completely avoids that problem. After they're all well up - then I move them into better light, still shading from the sun a bit as it can be very strong at this time of year. Sowing into modules also means you can give plants more protection from slugs, which is the other major cause of seedling losses. Plants in modules or pots also tend to grow on a bit faster, which is useful if you're a bit behind with your seed sowing and they're also out of reach of slug damage if they're on a table or other structure raised off the ground!  Starting off your winter salads this way means that as soon as a summer crop is finished - you'll have lovely big plants in modules that you can plant into nice neat rows with no gaps and away you go! 
 
 
 
Lettuce 'Jack Ice' -  early Sept. Endive White Curled One  of the best overwintering lettuces - 'Lattughino'
Lettuce 'Jack Ice' - early Sept. Endive White Curled  Lattughino - one of the best winter lettuces
 
With the price of organic vegetable in the shops - and lack of availability of many crops - it really makes sense to grow all that you possibly can yourself.  One of the things I really don't like to be without is salads - because very few shops seem to have much in the way of lettuce or other salads now other than baby leaf spinach - even in summer - and even then they're at least two days old at best and already losing vital nutrients. Anyway - I could never bring myself to buy any sort of bagged salad. If I had no option - I would buy organic baby leaf spinach but only for cooking - never for eating raw! Growing your own is by far the best - zero food miles, fresher, cleaner and far cheaper too. Farmer's markets are the only other alternatives if you want to buy organic (but make sure they're genuinely certified organic by asking what organisation they are certified by - and checking if you have any doubts. (They should display their certification on their stand. They won't mind in the least if they're genuine organic producers, because checking the validity of produce is good for them as well. They pay a hefty licence fee to be inspected and verified every year - so the last thing they want is anyone trying to cheat and pass their stuff off as organic if it's not!)  As salads are so easy to grow yourself though - they are always my first priority for sowing all year round. As soon as one crop is planted from modules - another is sown in order to keep up the continuity - gradually changing over to sowing tunnel crops at the end of this month and throughout September.  I'd rather have too much than not enough - the hens are always grateful for any surplus and all the greens make for eggs with fabulous coloured yolks! 
 
 
 
My 'stepladder' garden beside the log bag raised beds - west tunnel - end March
My 'stepladder' garden beside the log bag raised beds - west tunnel - end March
There are some really good varieties of overwintering lettuce now - and you've still just got time to order them! Varieties like 'Fristina', 'Belize' and 'Lattughino' are excellent. The Organic Catalogue in the UK luckily has the wonderful winter lettuce Lattughino available again this year. It will crop for months - from late September until the following May, by just picking leaves from the outside every so often rather than the whole head and also watering well in spring as the weather warms up. Another terrific lettuce for winter growing is 'Jack Ice', which I discovered a few years ago, and is from Real Seeds. It's a really good-flavoured, crisply crunchy, loose-leaved lettuce with leaves like an 'Iceberg' but which don't make a heart - so you can go on picking the lovely crisp leaves all winter long. In addition to that, as the leaves are all green, they are far more nutritious than 'Iceberg'. So far I've found it to be very hardy both in the tunnel and outside - and I also find it doesn't bolt too easily all year round - so it's definitely at the top of my list now, along with Lattughino. Even the very cheap 'value' ranges of lettuce seeds are good for over winter. They're cheap because they're usually open-pollinated, easy to grow varieties that are tough, hardy and grow like weeds! I mean - where else could you potentially get 1200 lettuces for 60 cents - if all of them germinated? That's about 3 year's supply by my reckoning! I buy those to grow for my hens to supply some of their winter greens when grass is short - but we often end up eating them ourselves too! Those I tend to sow in a pinch of 5-6 seeds per module and don't bother to thin at all, planting them out just as they are, because they seem to mostly be the loose-leaf types which don't mind this treatment a bit. Endive is another great winter salad that crops all winter. White curled is a very good variety that will go on cropping well into early spring - under cloches, in a cold frame or a polytunnel.
 
 
 
Even if you don't have a garden it's easy to grow salads in pots, in a good peat-free organic compost. If you're short of space you could even try my 'stepladder garden' idea which produces an amazing amount of salads throughout the winter from plants growing in recycled mushroom boxes, again filled with peat-free organic compost, on each step! Recycled skip or log bags make great raised beds too. The picture here was taken in March but they're useful all year round, being warmer and more well drained than anything growing in the ground in winter, particularly if they're sited against a south-facing wall. Lamb's lettuce is another good hardy winter salad for outside - and even watercress can be grown from seed (Sutton's 'Aqua') or from cuttings. It's much hardier than many people think - it should overwinter well under cloches.  It does so brilliantly in the tunnel and you can keep picking it all winter.  Do try some Claytonia (also called miner's lettuce or Winter Purslane), if you haven't done before. It's higher in Vitamin C than anything else you can eat in the winter. It's also very hardy, very attractive in salads and if left to go to seed in the spring, you will have it forevermore, so you'll never have to buy seed again! Joy Larkcom said to me a few years ago that she thought it was an absolute nuisance - but I love it and any stray seedlings are easily hoed out.. If ground is bare it also sows itself around conveniently making an instant, well-behaved and quickly biodegradable green manure which worms absolutely adore! It's a really good-natured and adaptable plant that I would really hate to be without! 
 
 
 
Another staple here both in the tunnel and outside is chard - which is almost two vegetables in one, with delicious spinach-tasting leaves and crunchy coloured stems. Ruby, Silver or Golden stemmed Swiss chards are all easy to grow - I sow them two seeds to a module and then thin to leave three plants per module. My favourite is Ruby Chard which is more nutritious than the plain white variety, being higher in phytonutrients. Chard seeds are really clusters of seeds - so you may often get 3 or 4 plants from one seed but you can't always guarantee that - so that's why I always sow 2 as you can't afford to lose time by having to sow more at this time of year. When they're big enough, I plant out about 45cm/18ins apart both outside and in the tunnels and they produce a far bigger crop this way than thinned to one plant per spot. Although they're a very hardy crop - they really appreciate some protection from wind and cold and will crop reliably all winter. My other winter favourite that I'm never without is my own wonderful strain of Ragged Jack kale, which one of the most useful vegetables I grow. I multi-sow it in blocks at this time of year, plant the block out as they are - not thinning, and then pick it all winter, both in the tunnel and outside. First as baby salad leaves, then bigger leaves and then finally it bears wonderful flower buds in spring which we like better than sprouting broccoli. I's an absolute paragon of a vegetable!
 
 

Mulch well in summer and you'll need to water less 

 
 
August is also the month when many people are away for a week or two, especially if you're tied to school holiday times. The weather is so unpredictable that it's hard to know how much things will need watering - but if you water thoroughly and then give everything a really good mulch, with grass clippings (which I use a lot as you will know) or with compost, before you go away - this will help to stop water evaporating and also keep weeds down at the same time. Any weeds that do come up while you're away will be very easily pulled up later from the moist, friable soil under the mulch. Most things should be safe enough for a week or so. You may be frying if you're in the Med. - but I doubt we will be here! If French or runner bean plants dry out at all the flowers tend to drop off before setting - they need consistent moisture at the roots if they are not to drop their flowers before they set pods.  Mulch them well with grass clippings - keeping them about 6ins/10cm away from the bases of the stems to prevent possible rotting. The value of mulching can't be underestimated - bare soil loses both water and nutrients very quickly. Mulching also encourages worm activity. You can also probably persuade a friend or fellow allotmenteer to water if the weather's extremely dry and hot if you tell them to pick whatever crops need picking and keep them for themselves - that's normally a pretty good incentive! Always make sure that you water well before you mulch and then the mulch will stop the water evaporating and seal it in.
 
 
If crops aren't picked - as soon as the plants have set seed, a hormone signal is sent to the main part of the plant to say 'job done, seed set, so no need to produce any more'This is one of the reasons for picking things when they're young and tender rather than when they're older and would give a heavier crop. It's so easy to overdo that! They tend to taste far better when young anyway. If they're not picked, you will have to pick a lot of old pods bulging with set seed when you come home - they will be inedible unless you want to shell them for winter bean stews but the actual pods will only be fit for the compost heap at this stage, and it will take at least a couple of weeks for the plant to get back to producing more flowers. That means that you may not get many more beans before the colder autumn weather and reducing light stops growth. Keep picking and they'll keep coming. 
 
Much better to give away all of your crops for a week or so, while you're away - and keep your plants continually producing, so you can come back to some lovely home grown food. And it's always a useful way to perhaps cultivate some goodwill at the same time!!  
 
 

Look after your worms - they're fabulous fertiliser factories!

 
 
If soil is bare at this time of year your worms will also go much deeper to avoid dryness and high temperatures, which they don't like, so mulching to keep soil cool and moist is a must. You really want worms to stay in the upper layers of the soil, working through organic matter to make any plant foods available for your crops. Although there's an increasing awareness now about how vital bees are, which is excellent, worms - like bees, are absolutely vital to the whole ecology of the garden and in fact of the whole planet! Many people don't appreciate this. A friend rang me a while ago to say she had just read a book on pests and diseases which actually listed worms as a pest, because they make worm casts on lawns! Absolutely unbelievable.- When you think about it, after people kill all the worms in their croquet lawns or bowling greens (why else could you possibly want an immaculately smooth lawn?) they must have terrible drainage problems - having to scarify, to kill the moss growth caused by the lack of drainage, spike them to aerate and then add sand, then fertilise!  What a palaver and what an amount of chemicals - all just to get a smooth green lawn!  Worms would have done all that for free - if you let them!  Thereby saving an awful lot of man-hours, pollution and carbon! You can just sweep the worm casts in with a good stiff bristled yard brush - they're a free natural fertiliser of the very best kind. Ditto golf courses! These days one might describe the game of golf - ("a good walk spoiled" as someone once aptly described it) - as also coming with a massive carbon footprint - despite the fact that golf courses need grass which in theory absorbs carbon! 
 
 
When soil and plant debris have passed through worms and been processed, they are many times richer in nutrients than whatever the worms originally ate! So in essence your high-potash banana skin will produce at least 10 times as much potash after worms have eaten it than it would in your compost if you don't have worms!  Each worm is an amazing little fertiliser factory - imagine that! This incredible natural fertiliser is also rich in beneficial bacteria and other vital microorganisms. The gazillions of abundant microorganisms which live in a healthy soil are absolutely vital not just to plant health - but also to the health of the whole planet - but because we can't see them - many of us don't even know they exist - or we completely take them for granted!
 
 
Neonicotinoid pesticides and glyphosate weedkillers don't just kill bees! These toxic man-made chemicals also kill worms and other essential soil life - without which mankind won't be healthy for very long. Next time you walk on the earth - don't think of it as just so much dirt under your feet. Think of it as the living, breathing, complex, multi-layered world, full of life giving organism that it is - and give it the respect it truly deserves! We depend on the earth for our survival and abuse it at our peril! There's a lot of talk about vertical farms and hydroponics lately - but plants drip-fed with nutrient solutions can't produce healthy food as they by-pass all the vital soil-dwelling organisms that plants need to keep both themselves and us healthy and which also fix climate-changing carbon from the atmosphere.
 
 
The actions of worms make plant foods more available to all the gazillions of soil bacteria which then act like a digestive system in the 'gut' of the soil to make nutrients readily available for plant roots to absorb. A healthy range of bacteria in the soil helps the plant's immune system to function correctly in exactly the same way that a healthy gut is essential for our immune system. You may remember this is something I talked about in more depth a couple of months ago. It's a vitally important process. Without worms and their associated bacteria, and other soil organisms like micorrhizal funghi, plant debris does not break down into what is known as humus, which is gradually absorbed into the soil and fixes carbon. Without worms globally - we would all be literally buried under millions of tons of unrotted plant debris lying around everywhere in a very short time. Without worms working in your garden soil -when you put compost or a mulch onto the surface - it just stays there in exactly the same state, instead of gradually disappearing as it should. Nature worked out this perfect ecological balance - where everything works together.
 
 
 
My son caught me apparently talking to myself in the potting shed several years ago (I do it all the time!) I explained that I was talking to my new worms - Dendrobaenas - which work through food waste much faster than the more usual red tiger worms. He raised his eyes to heaven and said "OMG Mum, your obituary will be entitled "The Woman Who Talked To Worms"!  I replied that I would be delighted as there could actually be worse things to talk to! Anyway I love my worms - they're doing such a great job and I was just telling them so!!  Hey - I talk to plants, so what's wrong with talking to worms? I mean I can see them actually doing something! They do react suddenly to loud noises, so they can in effect hear or feel sound waves - so why might they not react to my positive and encouraging dulcet tones?!!  I've had those Dendrobaena worms for a few years now - they do a fantastic job of processing our kitchen waste with great gusto. I got them mail order from Finnis worms in the North of Ireland. Dendrobaena are in fact a type of earthworm, but not the 'deep tunnelling' type. They live in the top few centimetres of soil, processing plant wastes, a job at which they are the most efficient of all worms. Most municipal composting systems now use them exclusively. They will even eat mouldy bread and left over pasta, which you can't put onto the normal compost heap. 
 
 
You mustn't put meat scraps, fat or dairy leftovers into worm bins - so the dogs get those, but you can put ground eggshells into it as this is beneficial and provides calcium which worms need, as they prefer a soil pH of about 7. I dry them out in the range oven first and then put them in a tough plastic bag and stamp on them. Doing a bit of creative visualisation at the same time - which is very therapeutic - especially if someone's annoyed me! (*I'm particularly thinking here of the person who keeps lifting ideas and content from my blog, barely disguising it and presenting it as their own work with no attribution!). The only thing here that actually goes into the brown recycling bin now is bones - after stock making of course (or broth as some people now trendily call it!)!  I wonder if there's a sort of domestic scale grinder out there which would turn them into bonemeal fertiliser? (Sadly bones don't break down in the soil - which means I'm still finding bones in the garden which my old labrador Lara (the children's nanny for 14 years!) buried in her favourite spots more than thirty years ago! Those and the old half-eaten tennis balls I come across occasionally bring back so many happy memories and make me smile - so they're serving another purpose!)
 
 
Remember - love and respect your worms!  They make it possible for us to exist.  Don't kill them by using weedkillers, artificial fertilisers and pesticides which are death to all soil life - not just worms! Healthy soil life is vital for our health too. Perhaps we could instigate a 'Wonderful Worms Week' to make people more aware of their importance and celebrate them, instead of trying to get rid of them. Now there's an idea!
 
 

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

The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in August - 2017

 

 
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Some of my late July polytunnel produce including 11 varieties of tomatoes
Summer polytunnel produce - a sumptuous feast for the eyes and the body!
 
 

 The polytunnel is a veritable fruit and veg jungle at the moment - stuffed with good things to eat in every corner! I thought I'd start off this month with a picture a selection of some the produce which I'm picking from my polytunnel right now - because trying to take a picture that shows you the whole polytunnel would be absolutely impossible - you wouldn't be able to see anything!  This shows just how much fabulous produce it's possible to grow in a polytunnel without using chemicals - and with just a bit of TLC - and this is only a small selection!  I love to take lots of pics at this time of year - it's so nice to have them to cheer myself up in the depths of a long wet Irish winter!  It's also nice to have lots of produce stored for the winter. Anything that doesn't get eaten fresh makes it's way either into the freezer or dehydrator. There are 11 varieties of tomatoes in the picture, most of which are either made into my 'Totally Terrific Tomato Sauce' and frozen in portions (recipe in that section) - or just frozen whole for saucing later, if I'm short of time. Only Rosada and Incas really dehydrate well. All the fruit makes a really special treat though when semi-dehydrated to soft 'leather' stage into chewy fruit sweeties!

 

Controlled Chaos (barely!)

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

 

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

 

The picture here provides a small 'vignette' of my polytunnel potager garden - which is repeated in various combinations all around it. I try to have a balanced ecology which echoes the garden outside and because of this it's almost impossible for anyone to get a true picture of what's really happening in the polytunnel - especially at this time of year. Unless one examined it inch by inch - it's so like a jungle that it's impossible to see it all! So many things are growing through things, around things, underneath and up and over things - just as Nature grows things. There's a riot of vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs, with happily buzzing bees and butterflies everywhere - and also sparrows and other small birds flitting around hunting for insects to feed their broods. There's even a few resident frogs. It's very hectic and really difficult to see anything too clearly, and to get a sense of just how much is going on. No neat rows of crops with wide uncultivated spaces in between as one sees in some polytunnels - I think the best term for it is 'controlled chaos'!  It's a fine line I know - and one has to take care that things don't sometimes get smothered or by reducing air circulation too much one encourages disease. Science is no proving what I always knew in my gut from observing Nature - and that is that communities of plants are actually much healthier than monocrops of just one type of plant. You can see what I mean from the picture of the sweet potato bed above! They actually have beautiful flowers too. So often the photos of my vegetable beds look more like flower borders - but then that's just how Nature loves to grow things - and that's why the plants are happy and healthy! Sadly though, it does make it rather difficult to take photos that don't just end up looking like one great big colourful blur! So as I've already said - this month, the tunnel looks like a very colourful jungle! But there's a very fine line between trying to make every possible inch productive, or the whole lot descending into total chaos - and believe me - it's not far from that right now!! Hardly any space to walk around the tunnel at all!

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

 

Aubergines, Peppers and Tomatoes 

Aubergine 'Bonica'
 
 
 
The peppers are a bit late this year - most are still green, but Aubergine 'Bonica' (pictured here) is as usual cropping really well. They look so beautiful it's almost a shame to pick them!. Each of the plants has already produced 5 or 6 fruits and has loads of babies developing. Sutton's and Simpsons sell the seed of this one and it's the best variety I've ever grown - it's thoroughly reliable and I now grow really good aubergines every year - despite our unreliable climate here in Ireland. 'Bonica' came out top of the Royal Horticultural Society trials about 10 years ago and it's easy to see why. It's currently producing huge, beautiful minimum 12-13oz plus aubergines faster than we can use them - some weigh over a pound or around 500g!  I freeze any that I don't use immediately. They're sliced - brushed with olive oil and frozen on sheets of grease-proof paper, then bagged for winter use. They can then be oven roasted straight from frozen.  By the way - I never salt them - it's not necessary with home grown ones and ruins their sweet, almost meaty flavour. Considering that even non-organic, chemically sprayed ones are over a euro each at least in some supermarkets - they're well worth the extra TLC and they're very happy in the recycled coleslaw buckets as you can see from the picture here! Aubergines need careful watering - never soaking them near the stem as they are very susceptible to stem rotting near the base.
 
 
 
 
 
Tomato art!
Tomato art! Some favourite delicious beefsteaks.
 
We always look forward to our first Caprese salad of the year with huge anticipation!  This year because of the hot weather in June we enjoyed it earlier than usual - and we've had several since. I discovered a lovely new variety of tomato last year, which I shall definitely grow again. A heritage variety called Moonglow - it came from Simpsons seeds and has a lovely fruity, quite unusual, almost 'apricotty' flavour. We really enjoyed it with Green Cherokee, Nyagous and with a huge slice of Ananas Noir in the centre of each plate - it looked almost too good to eat it looked so pretty - but we managed to force ourselves! Our classic Caprese though is usually thick slices of juicy beefsteak tomatoes Pantano Romanesco and John Baer (a wonderful very early tomato from Plants of Distinction with a split personality which produces some beefsteak-like and some classic medium tomatoes with a fabulous flavour). With it we have some really good yieldingly-soft buffalo mozzarella (pizza standard cow mozzarella just won't do!) - dressed with my pesto dressing (a frozen pesto cube dropped into in more olive oil which thaws and dilutes it), a few grinds of black pepper and prettified with some shredded basil.  Accompanied by some crusty ciabbatta still warm from the oven, to mop up the juices, it's heaven on earth. One is instantly in the Med.!  What more could you want?  You can close your eyes and feel that you're perhaps sitting in a little sun warmed piazza somewhere in Italy in late evening - and almost imagine that when you open them again you will see a gilded campanile silhouetted against a cloudless turquoise sky!............
 
 
 
Tomato 'Amish Paste' - the best for tomato sauce Tomato 'Green Cherokee' - great flavoured huge emerald green beefsteak - 4.8.13 Tomato 'Indigo Rose' growing  with tagetes, basil & red clover - 6.8.13
Tomatoes Amish Paste, Green Cherokee and Indigo Rose 
 
 
I can't believe that it's already time to 'stop' the tops of the tomato plants. This year seems to have flown. When the plants have reached the top of the 8ft bamboo canes which support them - normally when they have 7 or 8 trusses on them depending on the variety - I cut the tops off. I like to keep a bit of air circulating above the tops of the plants, so I don't like to let them grow right up to the roof of the tunnel, as many people do. Usually the plants won't ripen more than eight trusses anyway in a polytunnel in our climate here, because the air becomes more humid and the light much less as autumn approaches. In a tunnel which is only growing tomatoes, where you can keep the air much drier for them, you could allow them to carry more, by training them up twine which you let out, lowering the stem along diagonally - I used to do this when growing commercially. But most gardeners want to grow a wide range of different crops in their tunnels at the same time - this makes it more difficult to keep the air as dry as possible for crops like tomatoes, aubergines and peppers. Some other crops like cucumbers and melons need more watering - making the air much more humid, so it's really a bit of a juggling act. At this time of year it becomes even more important to be really careful with your watering - watering in the mornings if possible to allow the atmosphere to dry out a bit - rather than watering late in the evening - particularly when a cold night is forecast - as this will hasten the demise of most tender summer crops! Careful watering will ensure they last that bit longer without disease.
 
 
 
Pantano Romanesco - in my opinion the easiest and best tasting beefsteak
Pantano Romanesco - in my opinion the easiest and best tasting beefsteak
I walk round at least two or three times a week now with a large bucket, cutting off any damaged, diseased, or dead foliage (the 3 D's), or whenever I see something as I'm picking crops. Using a knife or scissors for a clean cut - or stems may tear and then let in disease. This is really important. Diseases, particularly grey mould (botrytis) can spread like wildfire on the muggy, gloomy grey days we often get in August here in Ireland, even with all possible ventilation. It's a particular problem where we live - where we can get a sort of low cloud/sea mist for days on end, which often only lifts for an hour or two around lunchtime, often descending again around 3pm. Tomatoes really hate that sort of weather! The continental beefsteak types are the most vulnerable, and must be watched really carefully. I actually pick them with secateurs to avoid tearing the truss stems. Take a look at them every day and pick off anything dodgy looking immediately. You'll often see the shrivelled dead flower petals still clinging to the end of the swelling fruit, it's a good idea to gently pick this off, it is a bit fiddly - but if you don't - disease can often start there and very quickly turn the whole fruit mouldy and rotting, then spread to the rest of the truss. The trusses need to be kept really clean and free of any detritus. As I've said before, they are not really that happy growing here in polytunnels, they'd really much prefer the hot summers and brilliant light of the Med. - but their wonderful flavour makes a bit of extra TLC worthwhile! That thought keeps me going through the winter. You can't buy a tomato that tastes anything like them anywhere in Ireland - but they do bruise incredibly easily when properly ripened.  The commercially grown types are bred for 'travel-ability' and shelf life - not tender, melting, luscious flavour! Basil is a bit fussy too, but if you're really careful with watering, pick off browning or diseased leaves immediately and keep pinching out the flower buds - it should keep going all summer.
 


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

Climbing French Beans 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Delicious white flowered runner bean Moonlight 
 
 
Three years ago I tried another bean experiment! As you'll know if you're a regular reader - I love experimenting with different ways of growing. I also love the taste of fresh runner beans, but I live in a windy spot here - and every year, when growing runner beans outside, as soon as they're carrying a full crop in August along come the early autumn gales and destroy them. Literally blowing them to bits - no matter how well-supported they are! So I decided to try some inside! As white-flowered runner beans tend to set pods more easily, and I always have a lot of bees in the tunnel anyway, I thought it might be worth trying what was then a new partially self-fertile variety called Moonlight - bred by crossing a French bean and a runner bean - thinking they might be amenable to growing in the tunnel. Lo and behold - I was right! I know most people grow them easily outside - but we seem to get particularly strong 'autumn' winds up here in August. Since there are always plenty of bees in the tunnels because I grow so many flowers in them - there is no problem with pollination and for the last 3 years I've had delicious runner beans. Moonlight is a stringless and really delicious variety - which I think has as good a flavour as Painted Lady which was always my favourite - but didn't really like tunnel cultivation. I also have another trick with these beans - but you'll have to wait for next month for that revelation, as I've just written about it for The Irish Garden magazine September issue - so sadly I'm not allowed to divulge it yet!
 
 
 
Time to think about winter now!
 
In the midst of all this glorious abundance though - it's time for a serious reality check!  You really have to start thinking really seriously NOW about winter tunnel crops- if you want any! This month is your last chance to sow many of them if you want a really good selection of salads and other crops throughout the winter.  Although there won't be room for some time yet to plant most in the tunnel and it may also be still much too hot for them on any warmer days, if you don't start sowing winter crops now - it will be too late by the time you actually have the polytunnel space clear for them. There is a marked difference between many crops sown now and the same ones sown in early September.  Sown now - most things will start to crop well in late autumn and be productive through the winter, but put it off for another month and they may not start cropping until well after Christmas. This particularly applies to calabrese (broccoli), Swiss chards, Sugar Loaf chicory and some types of lettuce. I generally do two sowings of all these veg. as a 'fail-safe' method to ensure I have them in case some disaster befalls the first lot I've sown.  If they all survive successfully - you'll find a space to fit them in somewhere and will be so glad of them in deepest winter! You can start sowing these in modules outside now (if you haven't done so already) then bring them in as their space becomes available as summer crops are cleared. 
 
 
Now is when good planning really pays off and it ensures that your polytunnel is as productive as it possibly can be all year round. To make the most of expensive tunnel space, you should always have something ready to plant as soon as a previous crop is cleared. There's a list of what you can sow now in the 'What to Sow in August' bit as usual. It's also a good idea to make a few notes now about this year's crops when things occur to you as you go round the tunnel - what's done well - what maybe needs a bit more space - or something you will do differently or maybe try next year, while it's still fresh in your mind. Keep a notebook and pencil in there - you'll forget by the time you get back to the house and something else interrupts your train of thought! This will help you to draw up an even better plan for next year's crops. You'll be ordering the seed for them this autumn if you want to get the best varieties as many quickly sell out.
 

Routine Jobs

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

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

What to Sow in August - 2017

Remember the golden rule - always sow the seeds - you can catch up on everything else later except that!  With day length shortening and decreasing light available to plants - it is vital that some are sown as soon as possible now if you want plenty of winter food!
 
 
Sow outdoors in pots or modules:
 
(For planting later in the tunnel or greenhouse, when summer crops are cleared. These will all crop in late autumn/early winter - some like chards & kales will crop steadily all winter.)
 
Calabrese* (Unwin's 'Green Magic' is a great variety that crops well all autumn and over the winter in the tunnel if picked regularly, and kept fed and watered well), 'Kaibroc' (Marshalls - fast cropping, delicious kale/broccoli hybrid) Cabbages 'Greyhound' & leafy non-hearting spring collard types, carrots (early 'Nantes' types, in long modules or pots), kales such as Cavalo Nero, dwarf green curled and Ragged Jack, lettuces** non-hearting leafy types (like Lattughino, Lollo Rossa, oak leaf & Jack Ice), winter 'Gem' & winter butterheads, endives, kohl rabi*, Swiss chards & leaf beets, beetroot 'Bull's Blood' and McGregor's favourite for salad leaves**, peas (for pea shoots), sugar loaf chicory* (Pain de Sucre), Claytonia**(miner's lettuce), American land cress**, watercress, leaf chicories (radicchio), rocket**, summer turnips**, coriander**, chervil**, plain leaved and curled parsley and sorrels. 
 
Covering seed trays while they are outdoors, with a fine mesh-covered frame or cloche, gives young seedlings protection from pests (like cabbage root fly and cabbage white butterflies), and also provides shelter from scorching sun, strong winds or heavy rain. 

You could also now plant a few early variety potato tubers in pots in mid-late August to bring inside later for a Christmas crop, 'autumn planting ready' types are available now in garden centres, if you haven't saved your own seed tubers from your first early crops, or held some back from spring planting.
 

 

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

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

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

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

If you don't get some things sown now they won't have enough time to develop to crop well over winter, as with the shortening days now all growth slows dramatically in a couple of weeks. And another thing! - Remember these are just suggestions - you don't have to sow them all! If I was forced to choose only 5 things to grow over the winter in my polytunnel they would be Ragged Jack Kale, ruby or silver Swiss chards, watercress, lettuce Lattughino and sugar loaf chicory. They are all incredibly productive all winter in a polytunnel.

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

The Wildlife and Flower Garden in July - 2017

 

Mr Jeremy Fisher is my latest NBF! This frog isn't bothered a bit by me - he's watching me as I'm watching him!
Mr Jeremy Fisher is my latest NBF! This frog isn't bothered a bit by me - he's watching me as I'm watching him!

 

Every day I get the chance to watch some aspect of wildlife in my garden - and I often find it's watching me back!  It's wonderful when wild creatures learn not to be afraid of you and to trust you. This young frog has been living in my polytunnels since early spring and although it could easily go outside if it wanted to - it's clearly enjoying tunnel life with plenty of woodlice, small slugs and insects for food. Although it's so hot in there at times, I also always leave saucers of water around the tunnels for any wildlife that may need it, as wildlife is vital to the properly balanced ecology that I try to create even in the tunnels - and I almost never see any pests because I do this. Mr (or Mrs!) Frog doesn't mind me in the least and seems quite interested in what I'm doing. It often hangs around when I'm moving pots or watering tomatoes and other things - it probably knows that there will be plentiful woodlice and other insects underneath! I've named him Mr. Jeremy Fisher - as any child who was raised on Beatrix Potter's wonderful books would - and when I see this valued member of Nature's pest control army up close - I become a child again and am as fascinated as ever!

 

Despite the cold and miserable wet weather of the last couple of days - yesterday was a great day for wildlife watching - even sitting here in my work space at the kitchen table! Trying to get some writing done - I was pleasantly distracted by a female gold crest busily hunting for insects among the shrubs and climbers in the courtyard just outside my back door. At this time of year the top half of the stable door out of the kitchen is never closed and I have a lovely view down through the cherry walk right down to the very end of the garden. It's a constant hive of activity - accompanied by a continuous soundtrack of noisy sparrow chatter, chirruping and arguing all day long, and swallows catching insects and cursing at the dogs. It echoes among the surrounding walls and always reminds me of the house where I grew up.  It's so evocative, bringing to mind summers long past in  my childhood, others now gone and the garden where I spent many happy summers playing with all my animals, dogs, pomies, chickens and a very special duck called Esemeralda - who used to 'groom' my cat - nibbling along his back while he arched it in ecstasy! That's where I learnt to love wildlife. Although I was  a bit of an 'afterthought' and much younger than my brother and sister - I never felt alone or bored as many children seem to these days. There was always far too much to do and so many new creatures to discover and watch. I wish all children could have that grounding in the natural world - it would make such a difference to how they value it.

 

At this time of year the sparrow's chatter is interspersed by the sound of swallows, as they swoop in and out of the stables in the yard hectically feeding their broods. They often fly into the kitchen to do a recce in case there could be a handy nesting spot in here as well - but even I draw the line at that!  I'm constantly having to rescue baby swallows and sparrows that venture in thinking they can fly straight through to the other side of the house and through the window in the adjoining sitting room behind me. As I sit here I'm still surrounded by wildlife - even though I'm inside the kitchen! I couldn't bear to live in a world without birds and all the other marvelous creatures that inhabit our shared world. Because it is a shared world. It isn't ours - it was theirs long before we happened along. We are just the latecomers to the party, and sadly now the party-poopers!

 

After shutting up the hens last night I stood for a long time in the yard watching the bats - Pipistrelles - I think. They were darting and swooping around me - zig-zagging crazily this way and that, after insects attracted by the light coming from the windows of the house. Wondrous creatures that can sense exactly how far away you are even though they can't really see. I had a 'no fly' zone - an invisible protective wall - all around me even though they came quite close at times. I regretted that I had no camera but mine probably isn't fast enough to catch them anyway! As I stood there I couldn't help wondering if the people who make insect and bee killing pesticides ever spent time any in the natural world as children - out there experiencing nature? And are they now permanently cocooned in their glitzy, air-conditioned boardrooms, hi-tech laboratories and offices - insulated from anything remotely natural and having no respect whatsoever for nature - perhaps only valuing it when they find they can manipulate and then patent a part of it to profit from?? 

 

Fewer and fewer people seem to spend time outdoors now, getting less exercise while stuffing industrially made processed foods full of sugar and chemicals, manufactured God knows where! A Tsunami of ill-health that is waiting to happen! People were often actually far healthier after the deprivations of the second world war than they are now - despite the so-called 'advantages' of a more modern society and the welfare state. Sugar was rationed for a start - and only a very occasional treat. Many more people grew and cooked their own food then - and if you do that you can't possibly be disconnected from nature. So many people now only see wildlife on TV from the comfort of their sofas, while eating plastic-wrapped ready meals loaded with sugar and other junk. Is it any wonder there's a total lack of understanding of the damage we're doing to the natural world in every possible way - and also by association - then doing to to ourselves as well? Even if people are gardeners - the publications and media aimed specifically at them don't inform them properly or help them to understand the damage that we're doing to the natural world. Either the publishers and editors are are selfish and ignorant of it themselves - or they rely so heavily on advertising revenue from companies either selling or using garden chemicals that they are afraid to tell the truth that needs to be told. Many TV  'celebrity' gardeners court popularity and won't tell the truth either - conveniently skirting around the facts even if they do actually know them. Purely in order not to upset some viewers!. 

 

So is there really a bee problem? Yes!

 
Bumble bee pollinating Himalayan Giant blackberry flowers 15th July
Bumble bee pollinating Himalayan Giant blackberry flowers 15th July

There seem to be few wild honey bees about again this year - but thankfully there's hundreds of bumble bees of almost every possible size and colour which have been enjoying the abundant harvest of pollen provided by many plants in the hot weather over the last few weeks.  It's a real joy to watch them working, collecting the precious cargo of pollen on their hind legs and then carrying it back to feed their larvae. As usual - they've done a fantastic job of pollinating the ultra vigorous Himalayan Giant blackberry at the top of the vegetable garden - there's going to be a huge crop again to freeze for delicious winter smoothies and crumbles etc. The first ones are ripe already. The sound of the bees busily working is like listening to a swarm, the buzz is so incredibly loud!  It's good to know that that I'm helping them to survive by growing organically without chemicals and by providing not just plenty of habitat - but also food by cultivating so many nectar and pollen rich plants, both wild and cultivated. We provide them with healthy organic food - so that they provides us with it in return!

 
Bees really are such incredible creatures - and the more you learn about them - the more fascinating they become! They're even quite comical at times. There's one really tiny, all black bumblebee that makes a huge buzzing sound when it's try to collect nectar from flowers where it obviously finds the nectar or pollen difficult to reach as it's so small. It makes such an effort and works so hard. It's far louder than the bigger bumbles - it sounds just like an angry wasp stuck in a jam jar! The sound is caused by the rapid beating of the wings trying to power it forward deep into the flower.
 
 
Bees are so precious. Not only for the fact that they pollinate at least one third of all the food we eat - and another one third indirectly by producing seed.  Bees are also the equivalent of the canaries in the coalmines of old. They give us a immediate indication of just how healthy our habitat and food is too. They don't just pollinate our food - but can now show us in a seemingly much smaller way how any chemicals in that food may also be affecting us at a genetic level. This is because although honey bees are insects - and as such are much less complex beings than mammals and humans - we share many important genes with them, as we evolved from a common ancestor many billions of years ago. Four years ago, scientists at Nottingham University, studying the effects of neonicotiniod pesticides on honey bees, published research proving that even minutely low exposure to the 'supposedly safe' (according to pesticide industry tests!) neonicotinoid pesticides - at levels of just 2 parts per billion - definitely has a serious impact on honey bee genes, causing their central nervous systems to be affected in many different ways.
 
 
The problem is that many pesticides are tested from a baseline of sub-lethal doses - in other words - go beyond that dose and you kill something! They're never tested long term either individually or in 'cocktail' combinations with other pesticides. As I've often mentioned before - these 'cocktails' can have an amplifying effect of making each individual pesticide or fungicide many times more toxic than it would be on it's own, because it's combined with others. I don't think it's just a coincidence that there's been a huge increase in many diseases of the central nervous system in humans. Human trials can't be carried out as that would obviously be unethical - but there is still increasing evidence that this indeed may be the case. Supporting organic farming, gardening organically and buying organic foods you can't grow yourself are all ways you can help to preserve bees and other wildlife - and be healthier yourself too. Supporting the products of conventional chemical farming will hasten the decline of all biodiversity - including bees. There's more info about how organic farming helps bees on the UK Soil Association website - 

 
Neonicotinoids - so what's the problem?
 
 
These aren't just dangerous to pollinators! Many studies have recently been published which show they also kill soil life - in particular ground beetles which are a natural predator of slugs. This then leads to more use of metaldehyde slug pellets - since there is then a far bigger slug problem! Killing beetles and other insects then has an effect on the birds and other creatures higher up the food chain which eat them! In fact the study showed that neonicotinoid pesticides actually caused crop losses of 5% because of the dramatic increase in slug activity! What's the point in poisoning wildlife and everything else, including the food we eat, when there's so little if anything gained? The only people really gaining are, as always, the pesticide manufacturers - so naturally they'll keep up the pressure for these poisons to be used!  Can farmers not stand back and see the bigger picture? When they hear of the exponential rise in the incidence of various cancers, leukaemia, Parkinson's, motor neuron disease etc. both in fellow farmers and the wider population - do they never stop to question if there may perhaps be some connection?

  

Wonderful Wayward Weeds

 

There's  not so many butterflies around again this year, after erratic weather.  Encouraging wild plants - particularly clumps of nettles in various places around the garden will help them.  I just hope the huge bird population here don't eat all the emerging caterpillars when the eggs hatch! This morning in a corner of one of the tunnels in which I leave specifically for growing nettles for butterflies - I found that the sparrows have already started clearing up some caterpillars I think I'm going to have to put the nettles in that particular corner into a nettle cage to keep the birds out - then the non-organic visitors really will think I've lost the plot! 

 

 Most non-organic gardeners and farmers seem to think that weeds are a nuisance and should be eradicated totally. They don't understand, or even perhaps care, that so-called weeds (wild plants) are an important part of our whole ecosystem, vital for the survival of wildlife and the preservation of natural biodiversity. There's been a huge decline in all wildlife since the second world war, particularly birds, butterflies and moths, bees and other invertebrates, and so many other animals higher up the food chain which depend on them in their turn for food. Many plants and animals are in serious danger of extinction - some have sadly already been lost forever. The intensification of agriculture, with its associated loss of habitat, artificial fertilisers, pesticides, weedkillers etc. is mostly to blame. Development and sadly now also climate change are contributing factors too. Someone once famously coined the phrase "A weed is a plant in the wrong place" - who decides what is actually a weed?  I prefer Ralph Waldo Emerson's definition - "A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered"

 

Many wild plants do make very good eating not just for wildlife but for us too - that's how our vegetables and fruits gradually developed over millennia since man first foraged to survive. I have a much treasured and very well thumbed copy of Richard Mabey's wonderful book "Food for Free", which I bought in 1972 when it was first published. It's the one book I never lend to anyone - it's far too precious - and so many books never come back! It's a terrific book. It will hopefully always be available - unlike many of our native plants, which I've watched disappearing with increasing rapidity during my lifetime. Wild plants are a precious genetic resource which should be more valued - not just for preserving our wildlife - but for preserving ourselves too - as what we do to nature - we ultimately do to ourselves. We are part of nature too. I hear a lot about foraging here in Ireland these days - it's become very fashionable all of a sudden.  (Apparently one famous 'rock star' has his own personal forager! He would do better to support organic farming!)  Sadly I don't hear anyone mention anything about what I call 'responsible foraging' though - making sure that we never take all of anything and that we leaves plants to reproduce and multiply. It isn't our exclusive right to plunder the natural world as ,much as we like for whatever we want. Nature's resources are there not just for our benefit - but for that of wildlife and all the other creatures that we share this planet with.

 

I grow a great many plants which most people would consider to be weeds all over the garden, but particularly in my 'B's' border - for bees, bugs, butterflies and birds - which has been planted specifically to encourage them. My garden is not a neat strictly controlled 'show garden' where everything is arranged in neat rows in it's proper place - many people are often surprised when they first see it- they obviously expected something rather different, think I've just been idle and haven't done any weeding! There's a huge difference between a weed-smothered, un-cared for mess and an abundant and productive organic garden that's also managed for wildlife! If a wild plant sows itself somewhere, is looking happy and isn't in the way of anything else - then it's left to do it's own thing here. Plants generally choose to put themselves where they're most happy. Consequently, the garden is a glorious jumble of insect-attracting flowers all over the place in no particular order - to the extent that it can at times look a bit chaotic! But as a result it's always full of birds and other wildlife too, which help to control the pests which would otherwise eat my vegetables! 
 
 
I prefer to share my garden with Nature - and feel that I am richly rewarded for doing so. I hate to see the dead brown 'tell tale' signs of weedkillers sprayed around peoples gates, along road verges and on paths when I'm out driving round the country. I often feel that people are afraid that nature will take over completely if they don't strictly control it - I feel it's a sign of insecurity and ignorance.  In a garden, as in life - a little give and take can be so much more rewarding! If you're trying to garden with Nature it's often best to let Nature show you what it wants you to grow, and where, within reason! Nothing looks worse than a garden full of tortured, unhealthy looking plants, growing in a bare, lifeless soil and usually full of pests. That's what using chemicals does for you! 
 
 
No - not the latest 'must have' plant from Chelsea - but a wild carrot flower!
No - not the latest 'must have' plant from Chelsea - but a wild carrot flower!
 
 
 
Because I don't use weedkillers - Nature often leaves me lovely surprises around the garden - in a corner of the courtyard that I hadn't got round to weeding yet last year I found something beautiful that very closely resembled the latest 'must have' plant which everyone, including the undoubtedly learned presenters, were ooh-ing and aah-ing over at Chelsea flower show - mine has a different Latin name though - Daucus Carota - (actually, wild carrot!!) - I left it there for fun, just to see how many of my 'expert' friends could guess it's name!! Do you know - not one did!!
 
 
 
Every time I walk up to the top end of the garden nowclouds of sparrows fly up from the Stipa - they're already eating the ripening seeds - it's not a plant people many people would think of planting for wildllife, but it seems to be a great success with them. It's also incredibly graceful and airy - moving gently in even the lightest breeze and mixing with everything else, like verbena bonariensis and nicotiana beautifully. The east facing side of the bank curves round making a well sheltered and cosy place to sit late on a summer's evening. There's an old weathered bench there, which fits perfectly into the curve, facing south, which warms up in the sun during the day. Memories surround me as I sit on that bench - their presence is almost tangible. 
Butterflies also enjoy resting for a while in the sun on the warm bench, by the border planted especially for them and bees.
Butterflies also enjoy resting for a while in the sun on the warm bench, by the border planted especially for them and bees. 
I've sat there enjoying the company of so many friends. It's my favourite spot to rest for a while on my way back from shutting up the hens at dusk - watching the last light fading through the stems of Stipa and Verbena on top of the bank, while swallows swoop overhead, their white breast feathers turning to pink in the fading light of the setting sun. A moment to hold in one's memory.......Not long after the swallows go to bed, the bats come out, rushing frantically backwards and forwards, zig-zagging low over the border and bank, hunting the early moths already fluttering among the scented tall white Nicotiana Affinis flowers. A 'stillness' descends,. "Where peace comes dropping slow..." as W.B. Yeats so famously penned.  It's hard to tear oneself away until it's almost too dark to see the path back to the house! ...........This is my Garden of Eden! 
 
 
 
 
 
Long live weeds!
 
 
Oreganum vulgare - wild marjoram.
Oreganum vulgare - wild marjoram.
Two of the other plants which I find sow themselves generously around are teasels and wild oregano (marjoram). Now called 'weeds' - both were once considered to be useful plants and are really beautiful when enjoying themselves in fertile ground, rather than barely surviving on the poor waste ground where they are often seen. Teasels are a biennial - which means their seedlings develop huge handsome silvery leaves in their first year and then develop their tall statuesque flowering stems the next, setting their seed, then afterwards dying. Bees, butterflies and moths adore the pale pink prickly flowers, and when they go to seed they are a great favourite with goldfinches - what more could you ask? There's always plenty of spare seedlings dotted around the garden. Another favourite plant that seeds madly is wild marjoram - oreganum vulgare - a 'weed' that you often see on poor soil on the sides of new motorways. It's actually a very useful and delicious herb, which historically was often used in meat dishes, and which can be dried for winter use. When well grown it's around 2ft/60cm or so high, with hairy, very aromatic leaves and attractive, deep purple flower buds which turn into heads of small, fluffy pink flowers at this time of year - again loved by bees etc. Both plants are looking really lovely at the moment, and combine well with several plants of Stipa Gigantea (the giant oat grass), Verbena Bonariensis, Geranium Palmatum, Nicotiana affinis. feverfew, purple Fennel, with a carpet of pink and white variegated thyme, viola Labradorica and chamomile, on the east facing inner curve of the 'B's' bank.
 
 
Buddleia 'Lochinch'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the plants which sows itself with gay abandon all around the garden is Buddleia - which some people actually consider to be a weed! I love it's honey-scented beauty! I planted several different coloured cultivars 30 years ago, when we first moved here. I come across many different coloured seedlings now, in the most unlikely of places, and they're all lovely.  Buddleia fallowiana alba and Buddleia 'Lochinch Blue' seem to be the most dominant colours. 'Lochinch' is a lovely blue-mauve, with silvery felted leaves, which seems to go with everything. I spent a couple of years wondering what was best to do with the west facing, very steep bank on the curve at the back of the 'B's border -  which is a sort of long '?'  shape. It's impossible to dig because the second you disturb any soil, either it falls down immediately or heavy rain washes it down to the bottom. The border was originally developed six years ago, from a heap of subsoil and rubbish left over from a building job, and the poor gravelly subsoil is ideal for wildflowers and perfect too, for nesting solitary bees. A couple of years ago I spotted a lovely white buddleia that had sown itself in just the right spot, and that immediately gave me the idea of planting along with it some of the many other seedlings I can never resist potting up for some possible use later. I hate wasting them! Their roots are now very efficiently retaining the soil on the steep bank, and since then I've been able to plant lots more wildflowers around underneath them. 

 

Nature is so clever and never leaves ground empty for long unless it is so toxic that no life exists there. Driving into Dublin this time last last year, (something I avoid like the plague unless I absolutely have to) I noticed that all over the empty unfinished and disused building sites that are still evidence of the 'economic crash' - there are now prolific Buddleia gardens! These are wonderful for bees, moths and butterflies. Some of the sites were also smothered in rosebay willow herb - a favourite with hawk moths - huge and beautiful moths which almost resemble a hummingbird as it hovers to collect nectar from flowers in broad daylight.  These 'wastelands' are a beautiful greening of such an appalling and obscene waste. It's an ill wind! The more weeds that grow on those sites the better, as far as I'm concerned - Dublin's strictly controlled and poisoned parks are not planted with our native wildlife in mind - and not even our children in most cases! The nectar, pollen and seeds of weeds and garden escapees are a rich resource for wildlife. LONG LIVE WEEDS I SAY!


 
Weedkillers kill more than weeds 

 
Talking of which - a friend who was doing a course in a church hall was horrified 2 years ago to see men spraying between the paving stones in the playground during the lunch break. When she asked the men - from a local firm of landscapers - they said they weren't spraying with anything - just water! As if!!! That's utter nonsense - otherwise why else would they be wasting time doing that!  They would hardly be watering the weeds would they?! As a farmer's daughter - my friend immediately recognised that horrible 'creosotey/phenol' smell of pesticides/weedkillers, which many people who were not brought up in the country might not have done. In addition to her classes, there were also a mother/toddler groups there on weekday mornings too, and some of the mothers were pregnant. It was possibly either a total weedkiller like Glyphosate/Roundup, or a pre-emergence weedkiller that was being used to stop weeds germinating between the paving stones. That would be more cost effective for any landscape maintenance company rather than actually having to hand weed. Pesticides and weedkillers, especially in pregnant mothers, have recently been recognised in several scientific studies to possibly be one of the major causes of autism, childhood cancers etc. They should not be allowed anywhere near places where children may be playing, sitting on the ground, putting hands in their mouths etc. as toddlers do. Of course when she contacted the County Council to complain and later received a reply - the landscape company lied and totally denied that they were using weedkiller!
 
 
A few years ago while sitting in a Dublin supermarket car park at midday - I also watched men in white protective suits and masks spraying in the car park. Unbelievably - there were no warning signs anywhere. Children and dogs were running around. If they thought that what they were spraying was so innocuous that it was not necessary to warn people - then why were they themselves dressed in protective clothing? This is something we should all be aware of - people are getting being paid to do this! I doubt very much if any supermarket would even think to ask what the landscape maintenance companies involved are spraying in order to keep their premises looking tidy!! And frankly they probably don't care either - since many of the shops in question are selling Roundup/glyphosate on their shelves close to food and children's toys - often even at levels where children can actually reach it! The stink of it was appalling in one supermarket - so bad that it was obviously leaking and being inhaled by everyone walking past it. That totally contravenes even the manufacturer's own Materials Safety Data Sheet or MSDS - which clearly stipulates how their products should be handled!
     
 
I asked a member of staff in my local Tesco last year if she had any idea what the green & red bottles placed on the bottom shelf in the 'seasonal' aisle were. No - was the wide eyed innocent answer. I asked if it would bother her if she knew it contained highly toxic chemical weedkiller - Glyphosate/Roundup - now branded as possibly cancer-causing by none other than The World Health Organisation. She appeared horrified - so I asked her if staff had been given any instructions and knowledge on how to handle it or even gloves with which to do so - despite the fact that some was quite obviously leaking. She said that they had not! All those ignore the 'MSDS' - the Materials Safety Data Sheet /or instructions for storage and handling, which are the recommended safety guidelines issued by Dow Agrichemicals one of the makers of Glyphosate weedkiller products themselves! Elsewhere - in a Sainsburys store - I found it being sold only a few inches from children's birthday cakes - and leaking fumes so badly that you could smell it over two aisles away!! 
 
 
How many people had bought those cakes for children? How many children may have already been affected at a genetic level by these chemicals? It shows a total lack of concern and utter contempt for customers. We are just cash cows for them! Despite my constant complaints - I've had no reaction other than to say "We've logged your complaint"! The PR spin machine of the big chemical companies is so efficient at branding all of us organic gardeners as extremists and nutcases - and the media generally are so terrified of them that they get away with it. And since governments are also clearly in their pockets - then what hope have we of getting anyone to listen? But listen they must - sooner or later. They have no right to destroy our children's future for profit! 
 
 
What has changed since 'Silent Spring' - other than the names of the chemcials? Meanwhile people's lives are affected and the natural world continues to be irreversibly damaged or destroyed altogether.
 
 
 
A few things you can do to help wildlife in the garden this month
 
 
Make sure that there are drinking spots in various places around the garden for birds and other wildlife if it's dry.  Upturned dustbin lids filled with water on the ground are good, as they're not too deep and creatures like hedgehogs won't drown in them. Tip it out every couple of days to freshen the water. Keep your bird feeders filled up - all the young fledglings are learning where they are - they're often very tame and you can get quite close to watch them. Many will stay with you throughout the winter. Leave your lawn to grow a bit longer and let clover and other plants flower - the bees and moths love them. If you have a lot of clover in your lawn it always looks green even in the driest of weather. If you leave it a bit longer still and let dandelions flower and seed - just see how the goldfinches will flock to it! 
 
Remember to leave seed heads on plants that will not flower again even if you remove them - they may be valuable winter food. Start thinking about making wildlife hibernation sites around the garden - bug boxes, hedgehog boxes, bee hotels, log piles etc. - children love to hlep doing that and it's a great way for them to pass the time in the holidays.
 
 
If you teach children to love wildlife you will be giving a priceless gift that lasts forever
 
 
While it is the school holidays - take some time out of the busy tasks of everyday life to really watch wildlife with your children. Teach them to love wildlife - our children are the only hope for it's future!  Get them a pair of cheap binoculars, a bug catching net and a magnifying glass, have snail races, catch crickets - mine used to get endless hours of fun from that!  Making dens, tree houses, having small barbecues and 'camping' (which usually lasted about half an hour until they wanted to come back into the house) were all great favourites too. Every minute was filled and hours passed unnoticed without me ever hearing the phrase - "I'm bored" - that I hear so many Nature-deficient, screen-addicted children say now. Don't worry about them getting their hands dirty - science has recently proved that it's actually good for them!  Their skin and lungs need to absorb some of the natural mycobacteria and fungi that are present in a healthy soil and in the air. 
 
 
While opening children's innocent eyes to the wonders of nature you will also find that you begin see it with their fresh eyes and appreciate it anew.  Make some memories for them to treasure while you still have the time - before they grow up and leave home. I'm so glad I did - because you never know what may be around the corner - as life can so often cruelly teach us. One day they will realise how valuable that time and those memories are - and will thank you. These may sustain them through difficult times. Nature can instil a sense of calmness and peace that nothing else can and it is their rightful natural inheritance. Give them them the most valuable and precious gifts of all - time, love and an abiding delight in the wonders of the the natural world. Those are without price and are so very precious! 
 

Dahlia with hoverflies & butterfly - even non-native plants are good for pollinating insects

 Dahlia with hoverflies & a butterfly - even non-native plants are good for pollinating insects

 
Enjoy this holiday time with your children - treasure every moment. You will never be able to have this precious time again.
 
 

(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.)

Whether you want Vertical Veg, High Rise Herbs, Stellar Salads or even Strawberry Steps - the Sky is the Limit with my Stepladder Garden!

My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds - 2014
My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds - 2014
 
Have you ever thought that you might like to grow a little bit of your own food - but thought you couldn't because you don't have a garden? Or perhaps you want to grow some healthy salads so you can have them super-fresh all year round, instead of buying expensive bagged salads already several days old - saving on the household budget at the same time? Do you think you don't have enough space? Well guess what? If you have a stepladder you're not using - then you have loads of space! 
 
 
Even if all you have is a path to your door with just room to walk - or only a balcony - then you do have room to grow something! Using the space-saving stepladder method I invented years ago, when I didn't have a garden - you could have a very attractive and productive small vertical garden for growing salads, herbs, strawberries and other good things to eat all year round. If the stepladder's rather practical looks bother you - believe me - when it's covered with abundantly growing plants it's virtually invisible and you will hardly be able to see it! The pictures of my stepladder garden have always been so popular whenever I've tweeted about them on Twitter, and so many people have asked me about it, that I thought I would write about it to tell you exactly how I made it and what you can grow.
 
 
First - you need a stepladder with broad enough treads to be able to hold suitably sized boxes for growing the plants in.  Any box or pot that fits onto the treads and is deep enough to hold a minimum depth of 15 cm of compost is perfect. I find those large, loose mushroom boxes from the local supermarket are just the right size. They recycle those - so you can do it for them free if you ask nicely! If there are drainage holes in the bottom of your box - place a drip tray underneath, or failing that - put a piece of polythene inside the bottom, extending about 5 cm up the inside, to prevent water from draining down onto the plants below. Those rectangular cat litter trays available cheaply in the pet section of most supermarkets make very effective drip trays, which fit neatly on the average stepladder tread. You can put a box with a drip tray on each step, and then on the ground in front of the last step you can put either a large pot, or another box, on a plant saucer or drip tray.
 
 
To fill the boxes I use a mix of 1/3 soil and 2/3rds organic, peat-free compost. The soil helps to retain moisture and also provides soil life like microbes which are important for keeping the plants healthy. After initial planting and watering in, most Mediterranean-type, hot-weather herbs like thyme and marjoram won't need too much attention other than occasional watering - but other plants such as salads may need watering daily, or even twice daily, in hot weather as they can dry out quickly. It's easy to remember to water them though, when you're picking delicious food from them daily.  As they are so productive grown this way - the plants will exhaust their food supply fairly quickly in the small boxes - so after they've been cropping for a month or so - I then feed them about twice a week with a good organic plant food like Osmo, which provides naturally-made nutrients and I find excellent.
 
 
You will be amazed at the amount of healthy food that you can grow like this and just how much money you can save!  It's so flexible and easy that you can change what you're growing every year - or several times a year - whenever you like. Many plants are more than happy to grow this way as they have better light and good air circulation. Along with another large pot in front at the base - perhaps growing a few edible flowers like Nasturtiums or Calendulas - it can look really stunning and provides a lot of growing space. It's also a very convenient, 'no-bend' way for those with back or other problems to harvest produce - because the plants are always within easy reach for you to pick them. If you have a source of cheap stepladders - you could even have several and make a bank of them against a wall - giving you heaps more vertical growing space than you would have by growing just on the flat, in the same amount of space as the small stepladder footprint!  
 
 
Most stepladders are far cheaper than any of the undoubtedly smart but very expensive wooden structures you can buy for growing in. These can cost anything upwards of 200 euros and may also be treated with toxic wood preservatives! My re-purposed stepladder method is easy, cheap and productive - and if you need the stepladder for anything else - just remove the boxes for a few hours! If you don't already own one - you can buy a budget stepladder quite cheaply and the recycled boxes cost nothing! Set that against the price of buying any organic strawberries or salads (or even non-organic) - and the stepladder will be paid for in only a few weeks!  
 
 
Side view of the stepladder garden planted with strawberries, starting to ripen. The alyssum attracts pollinators
Side view of the stepladder garden in 2015. planted with Albion strawberries, starting to ripen. The alyssum flowers attracts pollinators
 
So what sort of things can you grow?
 
 
Fresh strawberries are always a firm favourite. If you grow alpine, 'perpetual', or 'ever-bearing' types which fruit for months, you could be picking delicious fruit from early May to the end of November in a warm spot against a sunny wall or in a glass porch. This year - I have Alpine strawberries on my stepladder garden - they've been producing their beautiful tiny flowers, which bees and butterflies love, since mid-March and they have been producing delicious fruit since early May. There's been a veritable waterfall of deliciously aromatic, small strawberries that smell of scented strawberry jam and taste like Heaven!  
Alpine strawberries can be grown easily and cheaply from seed sown in early spring and will start to produce their exquisite-tasting fruit in mid-summer from seed, but you would be able to pick fruit from the larger 'perpetual' varieties of strawberries much sooner. Many good online fruit nurseries such as Ken Muir now supply cold stored 'plug' plants of excellent perpetual varieties like Albion by post for most of the year. These arrive well-rooted in small convenient containers - ready to romp away as soon as they are planted. You could be eating these within just a few weeks! 
Strawberries really seem to love growing this way - because they get more light, warmth and really good air circulation, so they tend not to get moulds or diseases caused by damp. They also hang down very conveniently to pick and are naturally totally free from any possible slug damage!
 
 
 
I've experimented with this method of growing all sorts of crops successfully over the years - so here are a few more ideas.
 
 
The smaller culinary herbs are all happy growing this way - last year I had parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme steps. You could even grow your own tomato salad, with small varieties of bush cherry tomatoes on each step and a large pot of basil the base! Baby cucumbers and chili peppers also enjoy the extra warmth and light - producing a huge amount of fruits if you can sit the stepladder in a sunny porch. If you have enough space either side - you could also grow taller upright varieties of tomato in containers pushed half underneath the steps, and tying them up to the sides of the stepladder for support. 
 
 
Spinach, Oriental salad mixes, Mizuna, rocket, baby leaf kales and chicory, pea shoots, radishes and other salads can all be sown directly into the stepped boxes, or you could buy a few module-grown plants to plant if you don't want the hassle of sowing seed. These are all very happy - producing huge crops if kept well-watered. Super-healthy, nutrient-dense watercress can easily be grown from shoots gleaned from mixed salad bags and rooted in a jar of water. Planted into a deep box watercress grows extremely well if kept constantly damp. You could even grow smaller varieties of carrots which I tried successfully one year. (You can see some old scanned-in photos of those from over 30 years ago at the bottom of the article) It's a fantastic and fun way to grow lots of healthy food - whether you just have a tiny patch or no garden at all!
 
Why not try growing something this way? If you do - you'll find the only way is up - for your health and your savings! The sky is quite literally the only limit - or your imagination! What are you waiting for?
 
Alpine strawberry Reugen already cropping well on my 'stepladder garden' Stepladder garden on path many years ago! High Rise Herbs!
Alpine strawberry Reugen - cropping well on this year's version of the 'stepladder garden' Stepladder garden on path many years ago! High Rise Herbs!
Rocket, red veined sorrel, celery leaf in stepladder garden with lettuce on next step above & pea shoots on step below 24.4.14 Carrots growing in a recycled mushroom box on one of the steps Watercress is very happy and productive in a large box in consistently damp soil
Rocket, red veined sorrel, celery leaf in stepladder garden with lettuce on next step above & pea shoots on step below 24.4.14 Carrots growing in a recycled mushroom box on one of the steps Watercress is very happy and productive in a large box in consistently damp soil
 
 
 (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 July - 2017

July contents:    How to Grow Fabulous Figs.....Polytunnels are an all-weather Playground and Larder for Small Birds!.....Give thanks every time you see a bee!.....Nature could easily live without us - but we can't live without Nature!....Raspberries.....Summer Pruning and The 'June Drop'.....Strawberry Fields Over and Over Again!....Grapes.....Other General Fruit Care

 
A lovely summer picture. The young apple trees in the new orchard weighed down with fruit. It will need thinning now the 'June Drop' is over

 A lovely summer picture. The young apple trees in the new orchard weighed down with fruit. It will need thinning now the 'June Drop' is over

It looks like being another fantastic fruit year!

 

Melons place on upturned pots in order to stop them rotting on damp ground or being eaten by slugs - and also to help ripen them
Melons place on upturned pots in order to stop them rotting on damp ground or being eaten by slugs - and also to help ripen them

Last year's warm autumn ripened the fruiting shoots and wood really well on pretty much everything - so there's been masses of blossom on all kinds of fruit.  We're already enjoying an abundance! Strawberries, gooseberries, currants and raspberries both in the tunnels and outside - with figs, apricots, cherries and peaches undercover in the tunnels and cape gooseberries just starting to ripen on last year's over wintered plants in tubs.  The early seedless grapes Vanessa in the tunnel are almost ripe too. Although it may seem a bit of a luxury to some people, using a tunnel mainly for growing fruit, it ensures that I get good crops here in my windy often cold spot and we can enjoy all of our harvest. The blackbirds can't reach them since I finally discovered how to keep them out but still let the all the bees in! The only fruit that any pests haven't discovered yet is Chinese gooseberries - and there's only so many of those you can grow as they take up so much room!  I like to have the broadest range of fruit possible all year round. Variety stops you getting bored with too much of the same thing. In many fruit growing areas like Herefordshire - fruit like cherries that birds love is all grown in tunnels now - which have sides that can be lifted for ventilation and pollination when necessary. This ensures good crops. 

Dry warm conditions are essential for pollination so polytunnels are vital in wetter areas. If I ever win the Lotto - I shall put up a couple of extra dedicated fruit tunnels! One can dream!....The melons which are about to start ripening are now are raised up on pots to get the maximum sunlight and also to keep them away from any hungry slugs! My '4x4 method' - as I call it - has worked well again. Nipping out every shoot after four leaf joints no matter where they come from - promotes more flowers and fruit to form - and the bees have clearly done a great job. I didn't hand pollinate one! I've never found them to be nearly as productive trained as a single stem up trellis as I see some people do. At least figs don't need pollination and as they're something I'm asked about a lot - my 'all you need to know' guide (I hope!) is below.

 

Fig Rouge de Bordeaux laden with fruit
Fig Rouge de Bordeaux laden with fruit

 

 

How to Grow Fabulous Figs!

 

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

 

Figs are always expensive fruit to buy - even the non-organic figs in most shops here are around €1 each! They are really easy to grow though, if you have a very warm spot in the garden - or even better a polytunnel or greenhouse.  I don't grow them in the ground, as they can become too vigorous and produce little if any fruit. They will fruit well in relatively small tubs. I grow all my figs in tubs of various sizes - gradually moving them on in size every couple of years depending on how old they are and how congested the roots.  It's really important at this time of year to keep all figs in containers constantly moist - never saturated but never drying out completely either! It's also important to feed them regularly so that they can develop all of their fruits. If you let them dry out completely they will drop small fruits about 3 weeks later when you've already forgotten that you may have let them dry out at some point! If you water erratically, letting them dry out too much and then later drenching them - any fruits that have already developed may split and be ruined before they ripen. Remember - evenly moist is key - and they need both regular watering and feeding now, to develop this year's crop. They depend on you for their food supply if they're in pots. I feed them with Osmo certified organic tomato food at every other watering now - but stop feeding once the fruit is ripening. 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 
 
 

My polytunnels are an all-weather Playground and Larder for Small Birds! 

 

The sparrows and other small birds that are constantly in my polytunnels never bother any fruits. I'm always glad to see them, as they are terrific at clearing up all kinds of pests like bugs and spiders etc. I never see any pests at all in the tunnels thanks to the sparrows and wrens hunting all day in there.  They bring all their babies in too - it's fun watching and listening to the adults teaching them how to hunt.  I'm rather sad that they also chase butterflies and moths though - despite how amusing their frantic 'keystone cops' chases can be at times! This year in particular there seems to be a bit of a shortage of them. I keep finding detached wings - like discarded and crumpled ball gowns the morning after a dance - all around the tunnels.  It can be a difficult balance making sure all the creatures that you want to encourage like bees and sparrows can get in - and yet managing to keep blackbirds out! I leave just enough room for them to squeeze in - but not enough for any enterprising blackbirds! Many other birds are an even worse nuisance this year - magpies and crows are also attacking fruit as soon as they see any colour - especially apples - and it's impossible to net everything, particularly orchard fruits. It's not that they're thirsty as some people suggest - we have a stream, a large wildlife pond and drinking water at various spots all around the gardens.

 
 

Give thanks every time you see a bee!

 

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

 

As I write this today is Pollinator Day.  Most people by now appreciate that bees pollinate about 2/3rds of the food we eat either directly or indirectly - so without them we would be very hungry! But not only would life be so much poorer without this amazing insect that we actually share 40% of our DNA with - now, because the genes they use for cognition (or thinking to you and me), are so similar to ours - they are even being used for research into the causes of Alzheimer's and other human diseases. Bees they have been found to provide so many valuable insights into the causes of many human diseases - that they are now being used in a lot of medical research!  If you're an organic advocate like me - it doesn't take Einstein to work out that this means that anything that affects a bee's well being also will affect ours - perhaps not as quickly - but definitely eventually!  You know of course that I'm talking about pesticides here! Sadly there is a huge amount of money invested in producing and promoting pesticides by the multinational chemical companies - so this causes bitter divisions between those who believe that we can't possibly produce food without them - patently rubbish since humanity ate and evolved long before they were invented - and those who believe they are destroying not just bees but endangering all of biodiversity. This has become so bitter recently that even genuinely neutral but extremely concerned scientists such as Dave Goulson - professor of biology at the University of Sussex are being attacked by the pro-pesticide lobby who naturally want to continue profiting from their bee-killing poisons! Dave specialises in the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and has written a number of terrifically informative books on bees.  Of course their natural reaction to anyone questioning the safety of their pesticides is that 'attack is the best form of defence' - just like the poisons that they peddle! Here's a link to an article which demonstrates this very thing -  https://energydesk.greenpeace.org/2017/07/17/syngenta-bayer-ceh-study-neonicotinoids/ 

 

 
Nature could easily live without us - but we can't live without Nature!
 
Nature doesn't have the big PR budgets that must be paying for the multitude of seemingly innocuous/impartial (not!) journalists to write the endless 'pro-pesticide/anti-organic ignorance' articles I'm seeing so much of on Google right now! Nor does it pay for certain minor celebrities - (indirectly paid by those same chemical companies) who also say they are 'pro-science' - unlike 'organic ignoramuses' like me!  Nature relies on us folks - ordinary people like you and me - to spread the word that we MUST protect it with every fibre of our being. Nature is vital to the future for our children and their children - just as much as it was vital to our past. 
I hope that makes it quite clear why I don't allow anyone else access to write any articles for my blog despite the continuing number of email requests I'm getting - and I also refuse advertisements. Some may well be innocent - but some - especially the more flatteringly admiring ones - may well be Trojan horses. And quite apart from that - the fact is that I don't know anyone else who can write about organic growing from more years of practical experience than me - whatever you may think about my ideas! 
 
 
The summer fruit season is in full swing now, mostly thanks to the good offices of said bees, and it's really difficult to keep up with all the picking and preserving as well as the watering and the rest of the garden work, but I'll be so glad I did during the long cold winter months when we all need plenty of vitamin C and other health promoting antioxidants to keep winter colds at bay! Freezing fruit is by far the best way to preserve all that freshness. Making jams adds a lot of unnecessary sugar to fruits and the cooking destroys much of their nutrients, so we eat very little jam here - hardly ever in fact. We prefer our fruit straight and fresh mostly. Taste buds get used to the natural flavours of fruit without sugar very quickly.  Anyway - if you're a jam maker and can't live without it - you can freeze the fruit to make jam in the winter when there's more time - a nice job for a cold day!  
 
 
A mixed fruit and kefir smoothie made from either fresh or frozen fruit is just the way we like to start the day any time of year. A handful of mixed berries, some kefir and full fat milk, blitzed in the blender with a little raw unfiltered organic honey if necessary and anything else you like to throw in. That is an ambrosial breakfast - fit for the Gods! It looks like there'll be a huge blackberry crop this year - the bushes are absolutely smothered with several different sorts of bumble bees right now - everything from really tiny to huge! All carrying huge orange pollen sacks on their hind legs. I'm so thrilled to see them. The loud sound of buzzing is amazing when you walk up the garden to the tunnels at midday currently. There's already a huge crop developing, and a couple of the Himalayan Giant x wild bramble hybrids I've developed for earliness and flavour over the years are already starting to turn colour and ripen very early due to the warm weather.  There are also masses of bees in the tunnel right now - pollinating the Cape gooseberry (golden berry/physalis) flowers on the plants grown from seed this year, and we're already eating the ripe fruits on last year's overwintered plants. I'm so grateful for bees - and we all should be - as without them we would have no fruit crops or indeed many other healthy foods like almonds. There are quite a few nests in various places in the long tufts of grass around in our wildlife meadow and new orchard now - as well as solitary bee nests in the dry raised bank of the bee and butterfly border at the north end of the polytunnels.  Last year a swarm of native honey bees moved into the roof of my late mother's old cottage opposite my back door. I was so thrilled to see them - and they must think this is a pretty good spot with all the fruit blossom and other flowers. They do a great job of pollinating everything. I feel we've been given the 'beeswax seal of approval' 
 
 
So much of the intensive agriculture all around us has wiped out the habitats that they naturally depend on like hedges - and food plants they need like wildflowers.  Bees really need our help to survive - and it's in our interests to make sure that they do! We tend to take them for granted - but without all of their hard work - there would be very little fruit or many other crops for us to eat. Nuts like almonds, and fruit like oranges and lemons for instance entirely depend on pollinators. That more than ever proves that we must do all we can to help them. We certainly do everything we possibly can to help them here - by growing everything organically without sprays of any kind - organic or otherwise, by providing lots of nesting sites like dry sand and gravel mounds, piles of dry logs under hedges and bee hotels for overwintering habitat, and also by growing lots of flowers that provide both nectar and pollen all year round - even in the tunnels. It's especially important to provide flowers in winter for bees that don't hibernate. They will often come out to forage on mild winter days - and if they don't find some food - they may use all their energy  and  die. There are lots of winter flowering shrubs and flowers you can plant to help bees, but in wet weather it helps to grow some winter flowers in greenhouses and tunnels too - where they can forage in the dry. That way they remember where the food sources are - and will keep coming back time after time - helping to pollinate your crops.
 
 
They're all industrious workers,  so there's already a great crop on the earlier fruits - and there promises to be an enormous crop on all the varieties of cultivated blackberry - which are the proverbial 'hive of activity' at the moment! Blackberries are one of my most valuable staple fruit crops, as they freeze fantastically well and are so useful. I froze about 80lbs last year, and we should have enough for smoothies and puddings until the next crop starts to ripen in August. We already have the earliest ones ripening in the fruit tunnel now, where I allow just a few to grow at the edge - keeping them under strict control! My late mother brought her Himalayan Giant blackberry with her when she came to live with us in the late 1980's. It's the very best flavoured blackberry if you have the space for it - and the time to keep a very close eye on it! The small cutting she brought with her now covers about 1/8th of an acre! It's hybridised over the years with the native ones in our hedges thanks to the bees, and has produced some very good new varieties, some earlier, some with a more 'bramble'-like flavour. Gerry Kelly my co-host on our 'Tunnel to Table' feature on his Late Lunch radio show begged one off me a couple of years ago - I did warn him that it would look very innocuous for about a year until it got it's feet under the table and felt safe - and that then it would take off! Being kind-hearted though, he planted it in a choice south facing spot in his lovely fertile veg garden - some people don't listen. When he was here for our last programme he told me I was right - that it had started looking just a wee bit scary! It has a habit of creeping up on you quietly while your back's turned! I told him to move it even right now and not to leave one scrap of root behind - even a tiny thread. 
 
 
Raspberries 
 
Talking of fruit in tunnels - the raspberries on pots are doing incredibly well and are already ripening their second crop of fruits this year! Last year they kept repeating and gave us tasty ripe raspberries up until Christmas! I also have some pots of black raspberries in there too, to keep them away from birds, as I didn't have any room left in the fruit cage! The fruit I got from them last year had a really intense flavour - rather like the raspberry boiled sweets I used to be able to get as a child. They're supposed to be exceptionally high in good phytochemicals - but they're a bit pippy though - and mine tend to fall to pieces when they're picked. I still have an open mind about them, which is why I have them in pots - as in addition to the pips - they're looking dangerously like the invasive Rubus Cockburnianus which is taking over the place wherever I haven't go time to control it by cutting it down!  There are 'celebrity gardeners' endorsing them - but then they're paid to do that! That's again why I don't take ads of any kind on this blog - then I can be totally honest and tell it like it is! I think that's what people really want - not expensive celebrity endorsed stuff that's a complete waste of space? I would never use weedkillers of any sort to try to control them even if they did work - and I doubt they would on the aforementioned rubus! A non-organic friend of mine - who still uses Roundup/glyphosate despite my pleas - can't control it at all either - even with an absolute arsenal of chemicals! 
 
 
Raspberries can often need picking over twice a day on hot days - at this time of year they can ripen astonishingly fast.  When summer varieties have finished fruiting, I cut down the fruited stems to ground level immediately, give them a general purpose organic feed, water it in well and mulch with something like grass clippings, to encourage new stems to grow for next years production and to keep weeds down and moisture in. Autumn 'primocane' varieties, which will carry another early crop on last autumn's fruited canes, have started cropping now. When those canes have finished producing fruit, cut them down immediately to give the young stems already growing which will carry this autumn's fruits more room to grow. The previously widely available varieties - 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss' can become invasive weeds and don't have half the flavour of newer variety Brice, and another which I planted on on Joy Larkcom's recommendation - 'Joan J' . They both have a wonderful flavour - Joan J in particular seems to have a little more acidity, which you really need for that 'full on' raspberry flavour that's lacking in the older rather insipid autumn varieties. The berries are huge too and it's very vigorous and productive. I started them off in pots when they arrived and left the newly planted canes about 18ins/45cm high so that I could try just a few early fruits to see what the flavour was like and also to see if they were worth planting -  they were!
 
 
Raspberry Joan J size comparison with 1 euro coin
Raspberry Joan J size comparison with 1 euro coin
 
 
This autumn I'm looking forward again to a plentiful autumn crop of the really huge, mouthwatering 'Joan J' berries you can see pictured here - both in the tunnels and outside. It's definitely the best flavoured of any of the autumn ones I've tried yet and I can't recommend them highly enough. 'Joan J' also freezes exceptionally well. 'Brice' would be a very close second though. In general the autumn fruiters are much more healthy, vigorous and productive than the summer fruiting varieties, and also much less fussy about soils, so if you don't have a lot of room - grow the autumn fruiters which will crop well twice pretty much anywhere - giving you twice tha value from your space. They'll even grow well in containers as I do in the tunnel - but are thirsty and need regular watering and TLC. Definitely a possibility though if you don't have much space in the garden.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Tayberries and loganberries are also ripening now. Tayberries have a wonderfully rich, almost scented 'raspberryish' flavour and grow like weeds. Both of these two and also blackberries will grow in a shady place or on a north wall - a very useful attribute which means that even if you don't have a sunny garden - you can still produce lots of your own fruit. Or if you want to extend the season by a few weeks, put one plant in a sunny spot and another on a north wall or shady spot, as long as it has good soil and good top light and is not overhung by trees. I get a lot questions these days from people living on housing estates with ever-decreasing sized gardens - but if you're really determined to grow your own food - nothing will stop you!  I lived in a house with a tiny garden for a couple of years, more than 30 years ago, but still managed to produce masses of fruit and veg. in containers. Currants, gooseberries and Morello cherries will also all grow in a north facing spot, as well as 'Conference' pears and some apples. Again, any good fruit catalogue should tell you which varieties are most suitable for particular spots.

 
Summer Pruning and The 'June Drop'

 
Apples should by now have done their 'June drop' - a self-thinning which often doesn't normally happen until early July in Ireland, due to our damper climate - but this year the dry weather in June meant that many have dropped some fruits early. If the fruits are still overcrowded, thin them out, taking off any misshapen, scabby or damaged ones first. In some cases where they have enough soil moisture available, trees will still have up to five fruits on each spur - thin these to just one or two every 3-4ins/10cm. Don't let young, newly planted trees crop too heavily - as this can encourage some to start 'biennial bearing' where the tree may only crop well every two years. Some varieties are more prone to this than others. 
 
 
When the bottom third of lateral/side shoots from branches has really firmed up, feels 'woody' and is no longer easily bent, then you can summer prune - which encourages the wood to ripen more and produce flower buds for next year's crop. Make a cut slanting down and away from the leaf joint about two or three buds above the basal leaf cluster.  I don't normally summer prune here until the end of July , as with our often wet summers wood isn't usually ripe enough until then. Don't prune the main branch leader(end) shoots, that's a job that's done in the winter, in order to stimulate growth. Keep trees watered well in this dry weather we're currently experiencing and also mulched to retain moisture and discourage mildew.
 
 
Earlier this year I recommended a book called "Pruning and Training"  by Alan Titchmarsh. It's an excellent and comprehensive book with plenty of good photographs and diagrams, if you want information on pruning a wide variety of fruit as well as trees and shrubs. I wish there had been a book like this when I was first learning about gardening - it would have saved a lot of trial and error! Alan Titchmarsh is a Kew trained, qualified horticulturist, who really knows his stuff - unlike some of the unqualified presenters of current gardening programmes, who often broadcast totally incorrect information without even bothering to research what it is glaringly obvious they don't actually know!  I think that people presenting gardening programmes should have a really 'in depth' horticultural knowledge if they are advising people what to do - not just be visually attractive, confident TV presenters!  There is an old saying - "It is a wise man who knows what he doesn't know - and a brave one who admits it" - they should have the humility to go and learn what they don't know! Anyway if you don't want to buy a book on pruning - fruit catalogues can often be a mine of free information - the one from Deacons nursery on the Isle of Wight has particularly good illustrations! But they also have lots of incredibly temptingly named, wonderful old varieties - so keep the credit card locked up - and that's good advice from one who really knows all about those particular pitfalls!!
 
 
Strawberry Fields Over and Over Again!
 
 
Victorian white strawberry - name of the variety lost in the mists of time sadly - but possibly a Chiloense hybrid.
Old white strawberry - name lost in the mists of time - possibly Chiloense hybrid?
The last of the summer-fruiting strawberries
 
 
 
Another old variety I grow was given to me many years ago by my dear and very much missed friend the late Dr. Wendy Walsh - the well known botanical artist - who used to live nearby and had a lovely old walled garden. It has a completely white berry, similar in size and shape to other regular strawberries, with a delicious 'pineappley' flavour. She didn't know it's name - just said it had always been there in the garden - so I'm guessing from looking at old fruit books and botanical plates that it is Victorian, or even possibly slightly earlier. The Victorians bred a great many varieties as they had a fascination for endless variety in all fruits - so have I. That's why I've kept it going for many years - and I would hate to lose it, so I gave some runners several years ago to a friend who I knew would also treasure and keep it, just in case. Josef Finke of Ballybrado House in Co. Tipperary had a similar looking variety, which I remembered seeing in the old Victorian walled garden there, but he grubbed it out many years ago, saying it was like a weed everywhere. It is very vigorous though, seems disease and virus-resistant and is obviously a great survivor. A living relic of the past - I wonder who bred it and where? I would dearly love to discover it's name if anyone out there knows anything about the old white varieties, of which there were once many. As you can see from the picture taken a couple of weeks ago, when very ripe and almost falling off it turns the very palest, most delicate pink and is very attractive mixed with other varieties. For the time being, I shall just go on calling it 'Antique White', until I discover it's true identity. A fragarian mystery if ever there was one! A few years ago - one of the fruit catalogues announced a NEW strawberry and called it Snow White - but it looks identical to this one I've had for over 30 years! 
 
 
Grapes
 
 
Grape 'Bianca'
Grape 'Bianca'
Grapes need regular feeding and watering now too as the bunches are developing fast. Never let them dry out too much or the skins may split if you then go and drench them! You can grow them easily in large bucket sized containers, training them on a single stem or rod, around a framework, in a spiral fashion works very well, and being containerised means that you can protect them from the birds and bring them inside to ripen if they are late varieties like 'Muscat of Alexandria' - a fantastically flavoured, very heavy cropper, but very late so it won't ripen outside here in Ireland, even against a south facing wall. Grapes in containers need watering almost every day now while they are swelling their fruits, particularly if they are in a greenhouse or tunnel. I'm also feeding these at every other watering now - with the high potash Osmo tomato feed - as all the vines are carrying huge crops. Promising lots of lovely fruit for eating fresh , dehydrating and freezing! Grapes grow really well in containers, and growing them this way allows you to grow many different varieties to spread the season in quite a small space. It's very hard to find organically grown, unsprayed grapes for sale anywhere - and even if you can - they'll cost an absolute fortune! In the picture here - the seeded grape 'Bianca' - growing in a large pot, is trained around supports in a spiral but with so much foliage and fruit it's difficult to see the support! 'Bianca' is an early variety, ready in mid-late August, and is one the first of my grapes to ripen. 
 
 
Lakemont seedless grape climbing over south door
Lakemont seedless grape climbing over south door
 
The grape Lakemont Seedless is now taking off even more and venturing up over the door at the south end of the larger tunnel. As this is space which is normally  wasted in most tunnels I'm delighted to encourage it! I like to have every possible inch of my polytunnels filled with fruit flowers or veg! When Gerry Kelly and I were in the tunnel yesterday to record 'Tunnel To Table' which goes on Thursday 28th - we were met by an incredible curtain of grapes - a lovely sight - especially since they are so delicious dehydrated! Yummy scattered over winter salads and irresistible straight from the freezer in snatched handfuls! I freeze them because they son't keep well semi-dehydrated and I don't want to dry them out completely. It's an excellent variety - totally fuss-free and if you only have enough space for one - it's happy everywhere, easy to grow, doesn't need any tedious thinning and above all - is utterly scrumptious!
 
 
Other General Fruit Care
 

There shouldn't be too many greenfly and other pests around in the garden if you've carried on feeding your birds to keep them around - the sparrows and blue tits deal with most of them here - they're always busily hunting around the garden. If you do find a lot of greenfly - it's often a sign that either you are overfeeding your plants, leading to a lot of soft sappy growth, or that the plants are stressed in some other way - perhaps the growing conditions aren't quite right. Healthy, happy, organically grown plants are rarely bothered by any pests in my experience they can produce their own defences. The secret of organic gardening is to achieve a balance of everything - both pest and predator. In the healthy ecosystem that you are trying to achieve in an organic garden, you should always see a little bit of everything - but never enough of any one thing to seriously damage crops. Growing lots of flowers among crops helps by attracting beneficial insects - looks wonderful - and also attracts pollinators. Correct growing conditions and thorough housekeeping - removing diseased or dodgy looking growth as soon as possible should cope with most problems and prevent it spreading if you do have any.
 
 
The main thing to remember with all fruit at this time of year, apart from picking (which I'm sure you don't need any advice on!) - is to keep everything watered in dry spells and keep mulching to reduce competition from weeds, reduce evaporation and keep roots cool and moist which all fruits appreciate. And also to keep the birds out! Check fruit netting regularly to make sure there are no holes in it - I caught next door's cat climbing up my fruit cage the other day, and found some of the netting pulled down leaving a gap which birds could easily have got in. If there's even the tiniest chink in your fruit cage armour - those crafty blackbirds never miss a trick and don't wait for an invitation! Today I spent ages chasing a particularly persistent young one out of the polytunnel - as soon as my back was turned - it was in again! There's plenty of fruit for them outside - but some - like some humans (not you dear readers) are just plain greedy! 
 
 
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)

The Vegetable Garden in July - 2017

July contents: Eat a seasonal healthy 'rainbow'......Pretty Powerful Purple Potatoes!.....It's the season of firsts....but also gluts!....Splendid spiralisers!....
Think about next year's 'Hungry Gap' now!...Potato blight arrived.....Carry on composting!...Drown perennial weeds...Keep mulching....Soil is more precious than gold
 
 
Salad Blue Purple Majesty
Violetta Peru Purple
 
 
 
Eating a seasonal 'rainbow' is healthy, delicious and easy if you grow it yourself!
 
 
One of the greatest joys of growing your own organic vegetables is being able to eat seasonally and rediscover how really fresh organic vegetables untainted by chemicals, should taste.  I believe that this satisfies a very deep-seated need in us - and that's not surprising since humans evolved to eat food grown by nature in it's purest form possible in an unpolluted world - each type of food in it's proper season. I think that all year round availability of everything has ruined many people's anticipation and enjoyment of food.  It's lost much of it's excitement and become almost boring!  These days you can find vegetables and fruits from the furthest corners of the globe on supermarket shelves which are all particular varieties chosen for productivity, uniform appearance, ability to travel without bruising and for long shelf life. They're sadly not chosen to taste fantastic and to be as nutritious as those you can pick fresh from your own garden. They are often picked before they are ready, and are devoid of most of their natural taste and nutrients. They are mere commodities, conveniently packaged into whatever form makes them the most commercially profitable for the 'pile it high and sell it cheap' supermarkets. Low cost seems more important than quality. It's definitely worth growing a few vegetables yourself if you possiblycan - even if you only have the smallest patch or a window box. 
 
 
 Increasing numbers of scientific studies suggest that long-term consumption of a diet high in a wide variety of  colourful plant phytonutrients - or  'eating the rainbow'  in other words - offers protection against the development of cancers, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases. The healthy exercise and fresh air that gardening entails is also good for us - both physically and mentally!  Only organic food free of man made synthetic chemicals, grown in it's natural season and then harvested at it's peak, can ever have all the properly developed nutrients our bodies need to be healthy.  I would also suggest that chemically-grown produce and processed foods have also ruined people's taste buds - so that they have become less sensitive and discriminating. Taste is very often tied to nutrition in most fruits and vegetables. Many of the aromatic compounds which actually give fruit and vegetables their wonderful array of flavours are in many cases the same ones that give them their health-protecting phytonutrients.  
 
 
Just how wonderful is it that you can eat so many things that are not just delicious but are actually good for you?  We vegetable gardeners are so lucky!  Far luckier than unfortunate people who are restricted purely to buying and eating the often days or weeks old produce they can find in shops!
 
 
Pretty Powerful Purple Potatoes! 
 
 
Potatoes are just one example of a colourful veg that pack a very powerful punch in terms of both nutrition and health benefits.  In the last few years, scientific studies have found that the antioxidant anthocyanin phytonutrients in purple potatoes like those picture above, combined with other compounds they contain, can lower blood pressure and actually even kill cancer cells! That's not the only reason I'm such a big fan of them though! They look utterly fabulous and taste fantastic too!  What's not to love as they say?  Happily a lot more people now seem to be interested in the stunning looks and health benefits of the blue and purple potato varieties. This was very much shown by the huge reaction on Twitter a few days ago when I posted a tweet about the very attractive but rare variety Peru Purple. That's why I decided to write an article about a few of the ones which I have personal experience of. As you will know if you're a regular reader - I never write about anything unless I can write from my own personal experience.
 
 
I found my very first purple potato tubers over 30 years ago in Harrods Food Hall in London of all places - they were such an exciting find!  Since then I've discovered that upmarket veg shops are always well worth investigating for interesting things to grow if you're in London or any other ethnically diverse city.  It's amazing what you may find!  My very rare holidays or short trips anywhere have always included visits to the local food emporiums, to see what treats I can find to save seeds or tubers from!  If my children are on holidays they are always instructed to do the same!  To me such shops are just like sweet shops are to children or handbag shops are to some 'fashionistas'!!  I can never resist that childlike urge to try to grow anything different from pips, seeds or tubers. I grew Cucamelons and Kiwanos that way many years ago - long  before anyone had even heard of them. I find it hugely amusing that certain 'celeb veg writers' have apparently only just now 'discovered' them! I've been growing them since before many of them were born - as I've been a 'food tourist' for years! 
 
 
I've always grown for taste and nutrients rather than bulk - and being an artist, looks are also important for me.  As I've already mentioned, both looks and taste are often linked with nutrients. We don't need to eat potatoes 365 days a year - in fact they could become boring if we ate them every day - rather than the treat we feel they are. Food should never be boring - it should be a joy!  I like eating tasty potatoes but we don't eat them more than twice a week at most - another reason being their high carbohydrate content.  By the way - I never, ever boil potatoes!  Doing this means that you are pouring many of their valuable nutrients straight down the sink! That means they're also losing much of their flavour - which you can see very clearly if you boil the purple ones as the water turns blue!  In addition to this, I nearly always steam or bake them the night before we eat them - then then cool and chill them.  Chilling them overnight in the fridge for a minimum of 8 hours reduces their carbohydrate content, by turning more of the starch they contain into what's known as 'resistant starch'. Doing this makes them much healthier. Oddly enough, although this has only fairly recently become known - I've always done this. I've always preferred potatoes either cold in salads, or re-cooked as re-baked, fried or roasted scalloped potatoes - especially with a couple of fried eggs. They beat traditional deep fried chips with eggs any day - that's been one of my favourite meals since I was a small child. Some potatoes are better for doing this than others. It's a very handy and healthy way to prepare quick meals in advance, if you always keep a few cooked potatoes in the fridge - perhaps cooking them at the beginning of the week. Mashed potatoes freeze extremely well too. We always leave the skins on when eating any potatoes. Not only are many of the nutrients actually in or just beneath the skin - but there's lots of gut-healthy and filling fibre in them too - so it's incredibly wasteful not to eat them!
 
 
One of the best potatoes for cooking and cooling this way is Purple Majesty.  Interestingly, this is also the particular potato that featured in the blood pressure reduction study. Unfortunately a problem with plant breeders rights means that you can't get Purple Majesty seed tubers here in Ireland. So I'm afraid that being a bit of a rebel - I've always ignored that legal restriction! I've saved my own seed tubers for several years from some which I originally bought in a Northern Ireland supermarket about 8 years ago, and I have grown them ever since.  As long as you don't sell them - that is a perfectly legal!  And as long as you always only save tubers from the healthiest plants - you can keep your stock healthy so you won't have problems.  Purple Majesty is a maincrop variety which really benefits from my method of starting tubers off early in pots. This gives them the longest season possible before the dreaded potato blight hits. As soon as I see evidence of blight I take off the tops, cover the bed with something waterproof and they keep really well for months that way. They also keep well in normal cool storage if you suffer from slug problems. Purple Majesty retains it's colour and phytonutrients well when cooked, has a lovely floury texture and a fantastic, 'nutty', sort of 'baked potato' flavour - despite being a relatively new introduction compared to some. It's proven to be the highest in antioxidants of all purple potatoes and is one of the best tasting varieties too - and I've grown dozens of them over the years. I'm happy to say that now you can getobtain it by mail order from some UK seed companies. It bakes, fries and steams well - and makes a lovely fluffy mash.
 
 
Salad Blue is another potato which is great masher and baker too. It is an early maincrop heritage variety, thought to have been bred in Victorian times.  It's recently become very popular again and well deservedly, and is fairly widely available online. It also keeps very well in storage, after growing my particular way. Since I invented my method of starting potatoes off early in pots to give them a long season - I have all the potatoes I need all year round using this method and I never need to use any spray for blight - even copper sulphate.
 
 
Violetta is a newly-introduced deep purple, second-early variety. It's the earliest of the purple varieties to be ready, and it crops well both in the polytunnel and outside. I wasn't that impressed with the flavour of some of the non-organically grown Violetta which I tried three years ago from a well-known Dublin food shop - but I've since found that growing them organically for the last two years, without chemicals that make them absorb more water, really makes a huge difference to the taste! I got my original seed tubers from Tuckers Seeds in Devon, who sell a lot of different varieties of organic seed potatoes and were good about sending to Ireland - but sadly they no longer sell online and are now only open to customers at their shop in Devon.  Violetta is delicious steamed and eaten with lashings of butter - when it has a nice 'waxy' texture. Sadly it doesn't mash well or make good scalloped potatoes either, as it absorbs a lot of oil when cooking and doesn't crisp up well. It's not a bad baker though. 
Attractive Vitelotte Noire after steaming
Attractive Vitelotte Noire after steaming
 
 
 
 
Vitelotte Noire - (otherwise known as Negresse or Truffe de Chine) is a very old variety which was first recorded as being sold in the early 19th century in Paris markets - but is thought to be originally far older than that. Also a maincrop variety which is fairly late to bulk up - it is salad type with a similar long shape to 'Pink Fir Apple' but not as knobbly. It has very dark purple flesh marbled with a lighter colour and has a great flavour. You can sometimes find it in upmarket vegetable shops. Vitelotte is more resistant to blight and other diseases than many potatoes - so it is well-suited to organic growing. This was that first potato that I found among the tempting exotic-looking displays in Harrods Food Hall all those years ago. I've been growing it ever since and have passed it on to many people.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Peru Purple, steamed, chilled overnight & scalloped.
Peru Purple, steamed, chilled overnight & scalloped.
 
Peru Purple is extremely rare and currently only available from seed banks such as The Irish Seed Savers Association or possibly other keen potatophiles - which is where I obtained mine. It's well worth growing if you can find it!  It is very pretty with a deep red-purple skin, and is a slightly lighter colour, marbled with white inside. Although I've found virtually nothing about this particular variety online - (only that purple potatoes originally come from Peru!) - it seems from my first season of growing it that it's a maincrop cultivar. I can certainly vouch for the fact that it makes the most deliciously fluffy, pale mauve mash. It also makes absolutely THE most fabulous scalloped potatoes ever! It quickly crisps and browns on the outside while staying light and fluffy on the inside. This is an aspect of their cooking qualities that I'm sure you'll understand I naturally felt I had an obligation to research extensively on your behalf! It will definitely make fabulous oven fries or crisps......but more research will undoubtedly be necessary to investigate this! It definitely deserves to be far more widely known and grown! If you have it - share it - that will ensure that it not only survives but thrives!
 
 
On that note - if anyone has any other purple-fleshed varieties I'd love to know about them and possibly swap some tubers? I'd like to collect as many as possible.
 
 
 
 
It's the season of 'firsts' now for many - but also gluts!
 
 
Nothing ever tastes quite like that very first bite of seasonal produce at it's best - whether you're a new gardener or if you've been growing you're own food for many years! The first strawberries, courgettes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas...etc. One of the simplest, most satisfying and most joyous pleasures in life is to be able to cultivate a garden, and to produce as much of your own food as possible - while at the same time helping all of the other creatures that are part of Nature, just as we are. Our garden here has not just been a source of sustenance for many years - but also a source of great joy, health and peace. This picture here was taken in 1981, of some of my first summer's produce here at Springmount. It was proudly displayed on the kitchen table. It gave me such a great a sense of achievement back then - and a feeling that no matter what life threw at us - we would survive it all and feed ourselves well! The soil was so bad here in those days - it's a lot better now after 35 years of organic husbandry. There have been many changes here since those days. The children have grown up, various people, some much loved family, assortments of animals, and momentous life events have all come and gone, but one thing never changes. That is that the enthusiasm and desire to learn from mistakes and successes, to constantly look for good new varieties or better selections of old ones - to do things even better and to keep improving the soil with every year that passes. Also to find easier ways of growing that will allow me to continue my gardening even after a couple of accidents have left me less able to do many things. Experiments continue. That's the wonderful thing about gardening - and why it holds such a continuing fascination for me. You never stop learning and you never know it all.
 
 
 
....But it's also the season of the gluts!
 
 
There is no more delightful and satisfying sight than a really well organised and productive vegetable garden at this time of year.  It's so satisfying to stand back and look at everything after a hard day's work. The whole garden has a summer carnival atmosphere about it - like a glorious celebration of Nature's abundant generosity.  We're surrounded by masses of delicious vegetables - so many luscious things to choose from that we could have several different ones in gluttonous portions every day! Mother Nature has pressed the 'fast forward' button and everything is growing so incredibly fast that it's hard to choose what to eat next! 
 

Of course with seasonal growing and eating - gluts of many fruits and vegetables can naturally sometimes become a problem. It's always a feast or a famine! One minute you're dying for that very first taste of something - then all of a sudden there's far too many! It's a good problem to have though. In these times of fast rising prices for so many things - it's a good feeling to be as self-sufficient as possible in most things. (Particularly with the uncertainty brought about by the Brexit decision - but I won't start on politics. When under pressure I tend to try to find positive, practical side ways to cope!) This is when it's so useful to have a freezer - particularly since we're not that into chutneys - or jams being high in sugar!  Priority for eating fresh has to be given to those that perhaps don't tend freeze quite as well as some others. Most things freeze well, but some veg need cooking first. 
 
 
Courgettes, which we've now been eating for 2 months from the tunnel and outside, don't freeze well raw but do freeze very well as a component of my caramelised roast red onion ratatouille, which is totally addictive, incredibly useful, and a brilliant standby to have in the freezer (if it makes it that far - because it's so delicious cold it's hard to resist! You can find it in the recipe section). It's a terrific way to use up too many courgettes - something which always happens! They freeze very well cooked like this and are so useful to have put by to use as a side vegetable or to throw into sauces. 
 
 
Broccoli is another brilliant freezer candidate which always seems to be all ready at once - particularly the more productive F1 varieties like 'Green Magic' from Unwins - my all year round favourite. I pack the small individual florets into recycled plastic take away boxes. Other people's I hasten to add!  We don't eat them - but it's amazing how many so-called healthy eaters do! I'm not complaining though, I'm only too happy to do their recycling for them - one box holds two portions of broccoli very nicely. That way they don't get smashed up in the freezer. There's no need to blanch them before freezing quickly either - it just wastes nutrients! They are perfect if tipped straight into fast boiling water from frozen when you want to use them.   I always sow a late crop of 'Green Magic' calabrese now for planting in the tunnel in September - which will give us pickings all through the winter if covered with a bit of fleece when a very hard frost threatens.
 
 
Some crops like climbing French beans, broad beans and peas I tend to grow specifically for freezing - firstly because they obviously don't grow over winter in the polytunnels but also because they are mostly unaffected by several months in the freezer, and make a very welcome change during the darkest months of the year. So they are 'squirrelled' away for winter suppers, after enjoying the novelty of the first few platefuls of fresh ones. It can be hard to keep up with filling the freezer as well doing all the garden jobs that all seem to need doing at once, but it will be so welcome during the long winter months when organic vegetables and fruits are scarce, expensive, depleted of nutrients and without much variety unless they've come from God knows where, along with a massive carbon footprint too!. It feels so good in the depths of winter to enjoy a bit of the summer's sunshine captured in the harvest from your own garden!
 
 
Things like pumpkins or winter squashes that will store for a long time overwinter are also a major priority crop now. They don't need valuable freezer space either, just a cool dry place. With careful ripening they can often be stored right up until next year's are sown or even later - increasing in vitamin A while in storage. So they are a very valuable winter staple. On the subject of pumpkins and squashes - unless you're entering giant pumpkin competitions you don't want huge ones, so encourage fruiting side shoots to form by pinching out the main shoot after 4-5 leaf joints. Then each of the side shoots produces flowers and that way instead of just one huge pumpkin - I get 3 or four good sized ones which store very well for the winter. Last week I had my first major basil harvest of the year, grown in the tunnel as it's far too windy here to do well. To me - my vegetable garden is far more important than money in the bank. It's so comforting knowing that I have a really good range of foods preserved for the winter.  In fact - even if I had oodles of money - I could never buy most of the things that I grow.
 
  
Spiralised courgettes
Spiralised courgettes - aka courgetti or zuchetti!
Splendid spiralisers!
 
A few years ago I discovered another fantastic way to use courgettes - and I promise that I could never have believed that their taste could be so utterly transformed, just by the way they are prepared! I first read about them in Domini Kemp's column in the Irish Times Magazine a couple of years ago. They looked fun so I bought a cheap 'Lurch' model just to try it - half expecting it to be rubbish! I couldn't have been more wrong!  Fabulous 'courgetti spaghetti' in an instant - but watch your fingers!!  Three years ago year my June 'Tunnel to Table recipe was Spaghetti Courgetti with Pestoand it was really delicious (in the recipe and 'listen' sections if you want to try it). The courgetti are also delicious just very simply stir fried with a clove of garlic and some soy sauce - you would think you were eating a whole Chinese stir fry - just fantastic!  The very best way to cook them in my opinion though is in my Creamy Courgette and red onion Gratin - also in the recipe section. It's my most popular recipe ever! Everyone loves it and now we don't have enough - something that's never usually a problem at this time of year!!  My most recent recipe is my Lemon Courgette Cake which I think is my best cake ever! It keeps brilliantly, getting better over three or four days (if it lasts!) days and also freezes fantastically well. I don't know why some people make fun of them - they're brilliant - I wouldn't be without mine now! They clearly haven't tried them!
 
 
 
Think about next year's 'Hungry Gap' now!
 
 
Talking of the winter months - it's now that we need to think about next year's 'hungry gap'!  Difficult I know - with everything growing so quickly and so much staking, watering, weeding and mulching etc. to be done!  It can be difficult to remember that a great many winter and late spring crops take almost a whole year to grow. Some, like Brussels sprouts and leeks, should have been sown a couple of months agoSo at the same time as storing some of the tender vegetables for a bit of winter variety - we have to think about planting the hardy ones that will be the mainstay of our diet then. This may seem an odd time of year to be thinking about winter veg. when we hope we still have a lot more summer to enjoy - but it's just a reminder that if you don't think about them now, then come winter or next year's spring 'hungry gap' you won't have any! You need to plan now for what's going to follow on after your summer crops - both outside and undercover - and then make sure you have the seeds or the plants that you will need. 
 
 
From mid-June to the end of August is when most of the seeds need to be sown for many things like chicory, oriental veg., winter lettuces etc. If you sow them from now on in modules using organic seed compost - you will have them ready to plant as soon as early summer crops are over - thereby making the best use of your growing space. If you haven't already sown things like leeks, kale and purple sprouting broccoli for growing outside - then garden centres should still have good plants at the moment - but get them as soon as you can because plants that are still hanging around in a month or so may have become starved or root bound in their modules and won't produce good crops. There's lots more info. on what to sow now and next month for winter and also quick growing crops to mature this autumn in the sowing list for this month. There's also still some sowings to be done of vegetables that will mature in the autumn. Some, like Chinese cabbages and radicchio actually prefer the shortening, post-solstice days. If sown before then they'll often run straight up to seed in the late summer heat (we hope!). Again there's a lot more suggestions in my 'What to Sow' section of the blog. 


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

 

 

Potato blight has arrived


I cut all the tops off my potatoes last week as they were showing the first signs of blight. I then covered the bed afterwards with black polythene to stop any blight spores washing down through the soil and infecting the tubers. There's already a very good crop under them though as they were started so early. I developed my own particular method of growing them over 30 years ago - starting off in pots early and then planting out under fleece, because I like to grow a lot of unusual and old varieties, some of which are a bit more fussy and more blight susceptible but they all have really fantastic flavour.  It's a bit more trouble I grant you - but no more than planting out any other vegetable or indeed bedding plant from pots - and well worth it!  I cut off the haulms (stems) of the plants straight away, take them off the bed and dispose of them (not on the compost heap) and then cover the bed with polythene to stop rain washing the blight spores down through the soil onto the tubers - as that is what rots them. Don't leave them until the stems are all blackened and collapse - as it's far too late by then - the blight will have travelled down the stems and the tubers will have been infected too. 
 
 
Getting my potatoes in early by starting them off in pots means that my potatoes have a really good crop under them by the time blight strikes. Potatoes all need at least 12-15 weeks of good growth to have even a small crop so growing them this way means I don't have to grow the tasteless 'so-called' blight-resistant ones. Taking off the stems and covering at the first sign of blight means that they always keep well and as long as there's no slug problem then I don't lift them until the autumn when I have more time. I never spray even with an organic copper spray as I have a heavy clay soil where copper could build up and become a problem.  I naturally wouldn't dream of using the fungicide 'Dithane' - I don't want to eat any poisonous sprays when there's absolutely no need to! Not spraying is far cheaper too and easily avoided by taking a little trouble and forethought. Some potato crops may be sprayed with fungicide every week! Then the tops are sprayed off with a weedkiller such as glyphosate/Roundup to 'dessicate' kill them off - making them easier to harvest - and then after that the tubers are treated with an anti-sprouting chemical so that they keep better in bulk storage. Yuck! - The potatoes are then afterwards sold to unsuspecting public as fit to eat!  Usually with a very misleading and suitably pretty picture of bucolic bliss on the packaging! OMG! I don't want to horrify people - but you do have a clear choice - which you can only make if you have the information!  If you don't grow your own spuds - even Lidl sell extremely good value organic potatoes all year round now - and they're usually far better varieties than Tesco's!
 
 
I believe that ALL chemical use - fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers - should have to be declared on all food crops and even on container grown plants in exactly the same way that all ingredients/additives now legally have to be in processed foods - at least that way people could be informed and then choose whether or not they wanted to eat those chemicals - which are in effect less tested, more unknown and even more toxic additives than those in some processed foods! Up until very recently no tests had been done to determine the combined 'cocktail effect' of all these chemicals in the body - particularly when they are combined with all the other chemicals we are exposed to daily in the environment. The EU finally instigated a study on this in 2012 as they're now getting seriously worried about the public health implications of it - but that only issued a 'preliminary report'  in July 2014 and it won't be completed for another few years.That of course is assuming that lobbying by the huge multinational chemical companies doesn't make sure that the report never surfaces, or is watered down!
 

 

Carry on composting!

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The value of mulching

 

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

 

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

 
 
Don't use massive mulches of manure - doing that promotes soft growth that's far more vulnerable to both diseases and slugs! It also buries too deeply and suffocates many of the vital organisms that live in the top few centimetres of the soil which plants need to be healthy. The majority of soil-dwelling bacteria need oxygen to survive and do their job of interacting with plant roots - if you make life hard for them you make it much harder for them to do their job - if they do it all. Lashing on tons of manure can also unbalance the population of soil bacteria. This is something many people don't know. In every layer of soil there is something that specifically evolved to live in that particular place. Leave it where it evolved to be!
 
 
Take care of your soil - it is more precious than gold! 
 
 
Gold can't grow food either! We didn't evolve to eat commodities grown with chemicals in the poisoned, impoverished and lifeless medium that conventionally farmed soils have become. Neither did we evolve to eat foods grown in hydroponic situations with artificial light where the plants are fed with fertiliser (and often fungicide) solutions and deprived of all the vital symbiotic bacteria & funghi that are present in a living soil that they need to produce their proper nutrients!  To be healthy and productive - soil and all it's microbial life needs to be replenished and protected constantly. That's what Nature does. We cannot keep taking crops from soil without helping it to regenerate all those natural things it needs. Soil is a living entity - or it should be. In some parts of the planet soil has just become a lifeless, depleted dust which simply holds up plants while they're fed with chemicals. It has so little organic matter left in it that it erodes, washes away or blows away easily. We can't keep taking crops from the soil and not replacing all those elements that made them - any more than we could give up real food and just live on vitamin and protein supplements!  Soil loss is also becoming more and more important from an environmental, as well as from a food growing perspective, as it traps carbon dioxide and is a massive carbon sink - so it is absolutely vital to mitigating climate change. Only a healthy, living organic soil can do this!
 
 
The soil gave us our past and nurtured us - we now hold it's future in our hands.  We must use it more wisely.  If we keep taking more and more from it without giving anything back, what we are actually doing is robbing our own future - and so are the multinational manufacturers of these planet-polluting chemicals which are destroying it! They don't care about the future of our children - or even apparently theirs! They only care about big profits now!
 
 
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)

The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in July - 2017

Topics for July: Holiday time and watering plants.....Rough guide to watering Tomatoes in containers & in the ground.....Side shoots on Tomatoes....Pollination of Tomatoes.....Other Tunnel Crops.....Free Watercress for Healthy Winter Salads......Think ahead to other late autumn and winter crops 

 

A Polytunnel is your own personal 'Mediterranean Feast' at this time of year!

 
 
Protection from the elements and warmth, even on cloudy days in summer, means that with the almost Mediterranean climate in a polytunnel at this time of year - you get so much more in return for the work you put in compared to growing fruit and vegetables outside. They're a great 'uplifter' on a grey gloomy day and also an incredibly cost-effective method of food production - no matter what size they are - if every inch inside is used as efficiently as it should be. They're also a way of keeping us gardeners sane when the weather's against us!  Inside a polytunnel it can feel more like southern Europe - especially on a sunny day or even when it's so foul that you wouldn't even put a cat out - which can often happen in our Irish 'summers'!  Mine certainly feels like that right now - a Mediterranean banquet!  It's a real feast of colours, scents and tastes - of tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, courgettes, French beans, melons, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, figs, lemons, oranges, blackberries, cherries, cape gooseberries and grapevines literally dripping with fast-swelling, emerald bunches. The list goes on - with scarlet geraniums, nasturtiums, feverfew, orange marigolds and many valuable herbs dotted about wherever they can be tucked in, attracting insects like butterflies and the constant hum of happy bees. With the scent of the citrus blossom filling the air too - it's really like being in another country altogether!  Who needs Mediterranean holidays? I think the money's better spent on a polytunnel where you can grow healthy food and enjoy relaxing in all year round! It's absolute heaven - and I can't bear to be away from mine for very long!
 
 
Things grow so incredibly fast in the almost tropical atmosphere that it can be all too easy to let yourself become a 'polytunnel slave' (a willing one in my case!) and rush round all the time watering, tending and harvesting. There just seems to be so much to do and so little time - even if you're up well before 6am and working until it's dark!  It's definitely necessary to relax in a deckchair in the sun occasionally though, admire it all and just enjoy the moment - something I try to do for least few minutes to do each day no matter how busy I am. I've never seen organic peaches or grapes for sale anywhere other than on very rare occasions in farmer's markets and even then they're imported from a long way away and a horrendous price - but they're easy to grow once you know how. At this time of year if you have a tunnel - you can bite into gloriously mouthwatering, properly ripe tomatoes warmed by the midsummer sun, with just a hint of a basil leaf. Or perhaps pick a few cherries and raspberries for a pre-breakfast snack, then sink your teeth into a lusciously yielding peach running with juice. I feel really sorry for all those poor souls who have to buy their fruit laced with chemicals, plastic wrapped, picked half ripe, bred to have skins tough enough to withstand the rigours of travelling hundreds of miles across Europe or further afield to reach the customer's plates days or even weeks later! 
 
 
I'm lucky enough to have two large polytunnels now to enjoy gardening in - I used to have four when I was producing organic crops commercially. Now it's a bit of a luxury to be able to grow whatever I want and to have fun experimenting with exciting new crops - rather then being tied to the same old purely commercial crops. But do you know something - they're still not big enough - I could fill at least four more polytunnels and still need more covered space! I would love to have a dedicated vine tunnel for instance. Just as the old walled gardens had their vine houses many decades ago - and a fig tunnel and a citrus tunnel and.................! The problem is - I could do with a few assistant gardeners as well! A polytunnel is also a place to dream in!
 
 
They may not be the most beautiful structures in the world from the outside - but polytunnels are like people - it's what's on the inside that really counts! The more traditional greenhouses are very beautiful things I'll grant you - and who wouldn't want to own one? But they're also an expensive luxury item! Not only that - being on a windy site here - I lost three before I gave up and decided that the only way I woulds ever be able to grow anything in the teeth of year round south-westerly gales was in polytunnels! They may be slightly less attractive - but they're around half the price. Still not a cheap item - but I've proved over many years that any decent sized tunnel, if used properly all year round, will pay for itself in about 2-3 years.  There's quite a lot you can do inside to improve their rather utilitarian looks, that will also attract in all sorts of beneficial insects and bees, to keep pests away and pollinate your crops. If the many treats inside are eye-catching enough - you tend to overlook the surrounding structure. 
 
 
What I like to call my 'polytunnel potager' can look really stunning inside all year round with the many flowers and herbs growing alongside the vegetables!  Not only that - it's a far more natural way to grow anything. In a polytunnel - just as in Nature - diversity is strength! I've always studied and tried to reproduce the way that Nature grows things as closely as possible - giving each plant the conditions it needs to grow as well as it can and accompanying it with other plants that it might grow with naturally. The latest soil science is now proving that just as I had always believed - plants are far healthier when they're grown as communities with different plant families all growing all mixed together, using the soil in different ways - instead of as long rows of isolated monocrops. The plants are healthier because growing them like this encourages different the bacteria and fungi in the soil which help the plants to grow better and to produce the compounds they need to protect themselves from pests and diseases. As many of those same phytochemical compounds also help to protect us from disease too - why would any sane person grow any other way? Surely it's only common sense? Why would anyone use chemicals that destroy all the vital soil life which Nature specifically evolved plants to work with - in a beautifully designed symbiotic relationship? It never mad any sense to me - but perhaps in the short term it makes sense to those selling chemicals!
 
 
At this time of year, if the voluptuous abundance of your polytunnel doesn't make you feel smugly satisfied, or if seeing a friend's productive one doesn't make you long to own one yourself so that you too can grow all manner of good things - then you are a totally lost cause as far as vegetable gardening goes! There really is no hope for you!! If you don't have one, but are just thinking about it - then do go and have a look at one owned by a good gardener now and just imagine how much money it could save you. A polytunnel can fill your freezer and keep you in salads and a huge variety of other super-fresh, super-healthy vegetables, fruits and herbs all year round!
 
 
Holiday time and watering plants
 
 
Granted - polytunnels can be a huge amount of work - but they're really what you make of them - it's up to you.  You could just grow perennial crops instead of changing them 3-4 times a year with the seasons as I do - although this way you do get less out of them. This year is hectic again - as I'm once again growing a lot more different varieties of tomatoes for the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival that's being held at Killruddery House and Gardens in County Wicklow, in September. For a 'tomatoholic' like me - it's the perfect excuse to go a bit over the top a bit on the tomato front! It's also a great way to trial new varieties and compare them with my tried and trusted 'old reliables'. When one's sowing tomatoes in March it's impossible to know what the summer will bring in terms of weather - some may hate cold nights - while others may be less fussy. In May again this year, temperatures were so hot that the developing plants were quite literally 'fried' at the top - looking as if someone had blasted them with a blow-torch! They were curling up their top leaves and looking 'fern like' - almost as if they had been sprayed with weedkiller. A lot of people have asked me about this leaf curling. It's the extremes of temperatures affecting the plants. Unfortunately in a polytunnel you have less control than in a greenhouse where you can apply shading paint to the glass. Even if you have one of those expensive, side opening tunnels, the sun can still scorch the tops of plants when it's at it's most intense. If any tomato variety can withstand those extremes and still produce a really good-tasting and worthwhile crop - then it's a pretty good one in my book! I'm growing most varieties both in the ground and in pots so that I can compare which do better in one or the other, or both. The ones in pots do need quite a lot of watering at this time of year or they can get stressed pretty quickly. 

 
Talking of watering crops - that reminds me! If you must go away on holiday - I've always found mid-October to be the very best time for a polytunnel owner. By then you've had the best of the summer and early autumn crops, and your tunnel should already be fully planted with crops to see you through the winter. These crops won't need too much tending or watering in October unless you're going away for weeks - as the weather's cooling down a bit. The tunnel needs much less fussing over at that time of year, and instead of the usual deflated feeling when you return from holidays - because of nothing to look forward to except long, cold, miserable grey days - it's nice to be able to look forward to continuous all-weather gardening, eating fresh salads and other delicious treats every day throughout the grey winter days! On the other hand - watering can be a huge problem if you go away in high summer. A few years ago I had a query from someone who'd spent a fortune on an automatic watering system for his polytunnel, got it all properly set up and went away with the family for a couple of weeks. He came back to find all the tomatoes blighted and everything dead poor man! I honestly think they're a complete waste of time and money for home gardeners, who want to grow a broad range of different crops in their tunnels, all with differing requirements. Even if you have the same one crop throughout your tunnel - there's still no guarantee it will work properly anyway. I have a friend who hates watering and spends ages fiddling about with hers! She could have watered her tunnel ten times over in the time she spends faffing around with all the bits and pieces!
 
 
I always think it's rather unfair of people to expect non-gardening neighbours, or even experienced gardening friends or family, to attempt to look after their polytunnel or greenhouse in the height of summer unless it's very small. Things can go badly wrong so very quickly. You've lost a whole summer's crops if they do - and perhaps good friends too!  It's far too much of a responsibility. In the autumn most holidays are far cheaper anyway. If you can't afford one because you've just spent hundreds of euros or even a thousand on a new polytunnel - then instead of feeling deprived - just congratulate yourself instead for making a clever investment that will give you huge returns for many years to come!  Most holidays cost far more than a small polytunnel - which unlike a holiday will bring you joy and good health every single day, all year round for many years - and also a comfortable place to sit in warm sunshine even on a frosty day in midwinter. (You won't believe this - but I promise you I have a friend who even has an old sofa in hers!)
 
 
I made a decision years ago to not fly anywhere any more - but only to go to places where I could go by car.  It's far more carbon-friendly than flying to some noisy, garish and utterly pointless holiday resort! I love the quieter parts of the Mediterranean, where I pick up lots of ideas for food and planting - but even those are far less quiet nowadays. I have a confession to make here - my very rare holidays now are usually spent taking off in the car for just a couple of days and visiting gardens - or the best nurseries either here or in the UK - hunting for unusual fruits or 'jungle' plants - my secret addiction! I used to manage sometimes to combine this with work, in the form of my portrait sculpture - but sadly I can no longer do that now since smashing my right shoulder! Although my right arm's still ok for not too heavy gardening - I now no longer have the perfect control and reach necessary for very finely detailed portrait work. Luckily my gardening, especially in the polytunnels, more than satisfies my creative urges now. 
 
 
At this time of year, I usually get up around 5.30 and do all the watering, feeding and side-shooting etc. of tomatoes before 9 am - as then it can become far too hot to hang around for long in the tunnels. Then mid-morning and mid-afternoon I damp down the tunnel paths with plenty of water so that it's evaporation helps to lower the temperature a little and keeps the air moving. I'm having to water the tomatoes and aubergines in containers twice a day at the moment. They're doing well though - and the aubergines in particular thoroughly enjoyed the recent very hot days of last week. 'Bonica F1' is the variety I always grow now, after trying many other varieties over the years. It's always the best performer whatever the weather does in our 'summers'. We often get low grey cloud for days on end here up on a hill not far from the coast. That is death to most aubergines - but no this one. As long as you're careful to gently pull fading petals away from the end of the developing flowers just as they start to fade to brown after the fruit has set - it always produces it's huge fruits. If you don't do this - they often start to rot. Do try it next year if you haven't tried aubergines before, or had no luck with them It's thoroughly reliable and came top in the RHS trials of aubergines a few years ago.
 
 
As tomato crops everywhere are starting to develop their fruits now - I'm getting a lot of questions about feeding and watering them. People always want to know how often you should water but there's no absolute formula.  It's impossible to say - because you should only water when they need it - and every tomato plant and situation is different.  It's something you just have to learn to 'play by ear'. Every garden situation is different depending on how you're growing things, whether they're in the ground or in containers of commercial potting compost or in the soil. It also depends where your greenhouse or tunnel is situated - whether it's in a very sunny spot or partly shaded and even how big it is, especially with a tunnel - as smaller tunnels can tend to have less air circulation. So these are just very general guidelines. Every year is different too -the weather obviously has a huge influence on how often things need watering - and as with most gardening - it's all about common sense and observation really - getting to know your plants, playing it by ear and noticing their needs daily in order to get the very best crops. Oddly enough - even different varieties vary in how you can get away with watering them. Sungold for instance, will split immediately if you water it just a bit too much when it has already 'set' it's skin and is ripening - but Rosada won't - unless you absolutely flood it!  It's much more good-natured and far less temperamental. Individual varieties can all vary in their water requirements. Just like people - they're all different! You can't possibly make hard and fast rules - every tunnel, greenhouse or garden varies. Never just water a bit every day as a matter of course - that can lead to over-watering, and also cause roots to stay far too close to the surface, rather than going deeper to search for water and nutrients. Give plants a good soaking at night when watering in warm weather, so that it doesn't evaporate quickly as it would if watering during the day. And in the autumn do the reverse - if plants really need watering - then do it in the mornings - so that damp cold air isn't hanging around at night which can cause disease.
 
 
Rough guide to watering Tomatoes in containers.


I get a lot of questions about this. I grow some of my my tomatoes, peppers and aubergines in 10lt containers on grow bag trays. This is because I only ever use a quarter of the 'in the ground' ground space in my tunnel for the tomato family - which also  naturally includes peppers and aubergines. In the tunnel - just as in the outside garden - I always operate a strict minimum four course rotation. Many people say there's no need to and don't bother for a few years, getting away with it for a while - but without doing that you can encounter soil problems like diseases and nematodes sooner or later. The containers I use are either recycled empty coleslaw buckets from the local deli, which I cut drainage holes in around the base - or sometimes 12 litre containers which I get from the local horticultural supply shop very cheaply compare to the DIY multiples!  They are a similar size to the average large bucket. I start to feed with the brilliant Osmo organic Tomato Food (which is high potash and encourages fruit production) as soon as the first truss has set. Why is Osmo so brilliant? Because you will never get magnesium or any other sort of deficiency when using this feed - and as it's also organic, it's safe to use and totally naturalWhen Dermot O'Neill came out to look at my tomatoes a few years ago for RTE's Mooney Show - he was amazed at how healthy my tomatoes in containers looked and how much fruit they were producing!
 
 
When plants are in containers - the roots are restricted and they can't forage far to find their own food, so they're obviously totally dependent on you. I start feeding when the first truss has set, I then use the tomato feed at every other watering - half strength (i.e. at one watering I feed at half strength, and at the other watering - I just use plain water.) I keep a water butt at tunnel temperature in the tunnel for watering the tomatoes - so that I don't use freezing cold water directly from the hose. Plants don't enjoy cold showers any more than people do!  I don't water automatically - I play it by ear depending on how dry the growing medium is. I use a fifty/fifty peat-free and garden soil mix which I find best cushions the plants against heat or any variations in watering - I'm only human! Consistently just moist is they key - neither being permanently soaked and sitting in water - nor alternatively bone dry with the compost shrinking away from the side of the containers. I don't like to feed at full strength all the time as I feel the roots are more vulnerable but if I think something is looking just a little hungry - I will sometimes feed at full strength once or twice. The Osmo feeds are very gentle as they don't contain synthetic chemicals but just natural safe plant foods and won't burn plant roots - so you can feed at full strength if necessary, just as long as the compost is moist first.
 
 
It's fine to water into the top of the container top as long as you don't do it right against the base of the stem. This avoids possibly causing rots where the base of the stem joins the roots especially in cold weather. This is always a vulnerable spot - particularly with aubergines and peppers. Always water around the edge of the container if possible - letting it drain through into whatever the plants are sitting in or on - they should usually soak this up over the next couple of hours if it's not too much. I sit my buckets on grow bag trays and if the plants haven't soaked up all the water after a few hours - I would tip it out. I never leave them sitting in water in the trays more than overnight - and only then if the plants have dried out a bit too much - but I try to prevent that. As I've already said - you sort of have to 'play it by ear' and get a 'feel' for it. I will often lift the edge of the container to feel it's weight before the plants get too big - over-watering is death to all plants in containers. If the top looks dry-ish but it still feels quite heavy, then it's probably ok for water but don't forget that the plants will make it feel heavier as they get bigger. If I'm not sure, I'll sometimes just scratch the surface of the compost to feel it. If the top is dry and the container feels a bit light then I know that water is needed immediately. Sometimes the compost will look a bit lighter in colour too - depending on the make. I never let plants get really parched to the point of almost wilting with the compost shrinking away from the sides of the container - this makes it far harder to re-wet any compost and can also make them drop their flowers or fruit. Drying out too much or erratic watering can stress the plants very badly and makes them far more vulnerable to physiological problems like 'blossom end rot' - which is caused by poor calcium transport in the plant tissues due to lack of consistent watering. Erratic watering also makes them much more attractive to pests like aphids and red spider. Stressed plants are always more vulnerable. Just like you and I - their immune systems are affected too, and they may not always be able to mobilise their defences as fast as they can when growing in ideal conditions in soil in the ground.
 
 
I know it does seems like a lot of trouble but when you get used to it, it becomes routine and is well worth it. You will have terrifically healthy crops of delicious tomatoes this way. Last year I grew about 70 plants in containers - mostly getting 8 fabulous trusses of fruit per plant. They certainly repaid all the TLC! All the expert books say you can only get 4 trusses from tomatoes when growing in containers. I do love to prove all those so-called 'experts' wrong!  Successful organic growing is all about understanding your plants' needs, anticipating and preventing any possible problems. Proper old fashioned good gardening in other words! There's no substitute for knowing your plants!
 
 
Last year's Tomato Report 2016 gives information on the soil/organic potting compost mix I use in my containers. Many Garden Centres now stock all the Osmo organic feeds etc. and Klasmann Deilmann organic seed and potting composts - they're also available from Whites Agri, Lusk. Co. Dublin and Fruithill Farm in Cork. I wouldn't use anything else now - even for ornamental plants - all plants love it and grow very healthily. It's worth every cent of the extra expense! It's also well-worth knowing that I'm not destroying all the wonderful biodiversity in bogs in order to grow my plants - which is what peat users are doing!
 
 
Tomato plants growing in the ground

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

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

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

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

 

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

 
Unlike conventional chemical growers, organic gardeners don't use systemic chemical fungicides, only occasionally surface, copper-based ones (I don't).  I am amazed that anyone would still recommend spraying tomato plants with water - apparently in order to help pollination! That's rubbish!  I'e also seen people recommending that you spray with garlic if you see aphids! It's totally unnecessary and as I mentioned again later - wetting tomato foliage in particular encourages disease. Aphids are again a sign of stressed plants probably grown with too much manure or other chemical fertiliser. Now I know some of the old 'conventional' text books used to recommend spraying with water many years ago - but they also used to recommend all sorts of nasty fungicides too! Things have moved on a bit since then, and cultivating plants organically means first and foremost giving plants the optimum conditions they need to promote healthy growth - that can mean taking a little bit more trouble occasionally but it really works.  The old-fashioned 'fire brigade' mentality - of reaching for the sprayer for a quick fix whenever something goes wrong - instead of preventing it in the first place - doesn't have any place in an organic garden. I know it's a bit challenging trying to give everything the best conditions you can when you're growing so many different crops in one tunnel - but it is achievable with a little thought and care
 
 
"Tomato

 

Pollination of Tomatoes 

 
Don't mist over tomato plants as I've already said! Tomatoes don't like the humid conditions that cucumbers do. Misting them frequently with water produces just the sort of damp conditions which are ideal for encouraging blight. Blight and other fungal spores ideally need a fine film of moisture on the leaves in order to germinate and multiply rapidly! All that is really required for good pollination is the right temperature, with even moisture at the roots, and encouraging pollinating insects into the tunnel to do their job, by growing flowers to attract them. Many of the more enlightened big commercial growers now use bees and even flies to pollinate crops in their vast greenhouses - something that crop research stations have always done. As I'm constantly saying -just grow lots of single, nectar producing flowers among your crops, both inside and outside, and you won't have any pollination problems. 
 
 
Tomato 'Maskotka' in a 10 litre bucket
 
 
 
 
Other Tunnel Crops
 
 
Cucumbers and melons are also growing really well in large containers now. Again, fruiting much earlier than those in the ground - by a couple of weeks. I'm experimenting a lot more again this year with containers, I have far more growing experience now than I had 37 years ago when my whole vegetable garden was grown in containers for two years, while renting a house en route to where we live now! That year I grew 45 lb of Runner beans on wigwams in recycled Marks and Spencer carrier bags (they were the strongest!). The other cucumbers are doing nicely in the ground, they're at the side of the tunnel where they don't get draughts and it's a bit more humid - they and melons are just about the only plants that really love sauna-like conditions! But even though they like warmth - they must be kept evenly moist at the roots - if they dry out at all at the roots and the air is humid they'll get powdery mildew very quickly - particularly as the air gets colder at night in autumn. 
 
 
Aubergine 'Bonica', first fruits just set, in 10litre buckets on staging mid June
Aubergine 'Bonica', first fruits just set, in 10litre buckets on staging mid June
 
 
 
 
 
 
Aubergine 'Bonica' is growing in the same 10 litre buckets in a well-drained compost mix and have just set their first fruits. I'm always careful to watch the flowers after they are just set - and when they start to fade I gently pull the browning flower downwards away from the calyx as that's where rots can set in- which is one of the main problem with aubergines in our climate. The other problem is stem rot where the stem joins the roots at the top of the compost. I avoid this by planting them slightly mounded up in the buckets and never watering against the stem but always around the outside of the bucket. 
 
 
 
Pumpkins planted either side sweet corn, trying to take over tunnel
Pumpkins planted either side sweet corn, trying to take over tunnel
 
 
 
The yellow courgette Atena which I always grow as part of the cucurbitaceae rotation in the tunnel is already producing well. They will go on until early November with luck, the last few weeks under fleece. French bean 'Cobra' is as delicious and reliable as ever, and also Calabrese 'Green Magic'. It's really important to keep on top of picking all of these, and also watering regularly. If the plants dry out for too long in hot weather or if the pods, fruit or shoots get too big, that sends a hormone message back to the plant to say 'job done - we're on course to produce seed' and the plants will stop producing any more. 
 
 
If you're growing early sweetcorn in the tunnel, when the plants start producing pollen give them a bit of a shake every day - wait until about midday if possible when the atmosphere has dried out a bit - so that the pollen dusts around nicely - it's often too humid first thing in the morning just after the doors are opened. Even if you've only got one plant in your greenhouse as one questioner at one of my recent talks said she had - it will still pollinate better if you do this. I always shake the outside plants too if there's no breeze to do the job - but that's rarely the case here on my very windy hill! 
 

My tunnel sweetcorn 'Lark F1' is planted between pumpkins as usual - Queensland Blue, Jumbo Pink Banana, Golden and Blue Hubbards, Hokkaido etc. They are some of the best dense, deep orange fleshed ones for really long term storage and I won't ever risk the entire crop outside again in case we get yet another poor summer. They are too valuable for the winter larder. I will at least be assured of some then whatever the weather. I am being really strict with them though - and keeping them under severe 'house arrest' - pinching out all the shoots at four leaves or they would take over the entire tunnel. I've planted more outside too. The sweet corn is sown 2   or 3 to a pot and not thinned, then planted out 60cm/2ft intervals in a row. That way they pollinate each other well even though they're in a row rather than a block and produce at least 2 delicious cobs per plant. 
 

If you're growing sweet potatoes, they don't want too rich a soil starting off otherwise they just produce masses of foliage - not tubers.  They need similar soil to carrots, deep and well drained. They just get a light dusting of seaweed meal when planting and mulching with moisture retaining grass clippings to prevent weed growth. After that they only need watering occasionally to prevent them drying out.  Like Oca and Yacon they don't start to produce their tubers until August - so from then on they get fed weekly with a high potash tomato feed - I use the Osmo food for them too. If you want to try growing them it's still worthwhile planting them now - and if they're a bit hungry in their pots by now just give them a liquid feed just to encourage them, then plant as above. Once you have good varieties you can keep tubers from your own crop each year and propagate slips from them.  
 
 
Luscious looking - but not quite ripe yet. 28th June
Luscious looking - but not quite ripe just yet. 
 
The early peach on the north-east side at the end of the tunnel is covered with a fleece curtain, fixed with clothes pegs, once the fruit starts to change colour - as the rapidly ripening fruit screams 'eat me' at every blackbird within ten miles! There's always one or two in there doing a 'recce' - but no matter how gorgeous they look, they never touch them until they are just ripe - just when I say to myself "I'll pick them tomorrow" - I can almost guarantee they'll have a go at them. They seem to have a radar for ripening fruit! It doesn't seem to matter what netting I put up at the doors either - they always manage to ruin a few if I don't do this, but hiding them hiding them generally does the trick! The peach on the other side of the door doesn't ripen until early September. I bought both trees from Lidl - one just marked 'peach' and the other 'nectarine' from Lidl seven years ago. Magically one turned out to be a yellow-fleshed early peach and the other a late white-fleshed one - serendipity at work! Couldn't have planned it better! They're due for their summer pruning now. Leaving one or two good shoots to develop at the base of each branch to bear fruit next year, one shoot at the top to draw up the sap to the ripening fruit, and pruning other shoots two leaves beyond any ripening peaches.  All other new shoots will be removed completely to let in air and light.
 
Buried treasure - ripening peaches under wraps away from birds!
Buried treasure - ripening peaches under wraps away from birds! 
 
 
 
It's really important to prune tunnel-grown peaches properly, otherwise they quickly become an unproductive mess, taking over the entire tunnel, as they can make five or six feet of growth in a year. That happened to me many years ago when I didn't know how to prune them properly and the tree almost went through the roof!  Practical experience is always the best teacher - you never forget your mistakes! The most important thing to remember is that they always fruit on the new green shoots made the previous year. Mine are trained as sort of half fan/half bushes or 'fushes' at the north end of the tunnel either side of the door, with roughly 9ft or 2 & 3/4m of width each, a space which is often wasted or full of rubbish in many tunnels. There, they are in full sun, but don't cast any shade on anything else, don't get peach leaf curl as they are protected from rain, and produce over 100 peaches every year!  With my mini-gardens of flowers and perennial herbs like thyme and oregano at their feet they look good all year round and not an inch of space is wasted.
 
 

 
Some of the figs are ripening their early crop now - the necks of the fruit have weakened and fruits have started to 'flop', now drooping downwards, they will need another few days yet. Brogiotto Nero is the earliest - but Rouge de Bordeaux won't be far behind and then all the others will follow. I wait until I can see the first fruits starting to crack at the 'navel' end - that means they're really ripe. There is nothing more disappointing or wasteful than picking an unripe fig - they are so precious. It's what the Italians call the 'Breba' (overwintered) crop that's ripening now, and this autumn's main crop is just developing as smaller figlets on this year's new green shoots. Figs are very reliable in large containers - withstanding even really low temperatures in winter for short periods. I've got over a dozen varieties now with a range of ripening times. With even non-organic figs around one euro each in shops - they're well worth growing, very nutritious and dead easy. They are much more productive in a tunnel - really appreciating the extra warmth and shelter. Many varieties will crop twice a year.
 
 
 
While I'm on the subject of fruit - don't be tempted as I very stupidly was a couple of years ago by those lovely juicy-looking grapes trained as bushes in containers, which some of the garden retailers have at this time of year - the dead give away if you look at the label is that they usually have Italian wine names on them! They are grown in massive nurseries somewhere like Sardinia or southern Italy, and are totally unsuitable varieties for growing in Irish gardens - or even Irish greenhouses - we just don't get enough light and sun. If you only want vine leaves for 'Dolmadas' that's fine - but they won't ripen their wood enough to produce decent grapes in our climate! I've also seen 'Muscat of Alexandria' for sale everywhere recently - that will do well in a warm greenhouse here - but not outside. Even in a greenhouse or tunnel it won't ripen until mid-late October or even November and is completely useless outside - but the labels don't mention that - if the importers even actually know! Mine is in a large tub, which I think hurries it up a bit - and it is utterly delicious, with a juicy muscat taste - in late OCTOBER! You could possibly ripen it in a warm porch too. Keep grapes under control (see June). I'm feeding all my grapes and figs in containers with every other watering now as the bunches of grapes are developing very fast. Never letting them dry out completely, or the grapes shrivel and stop developing. The vines in the ground are all fed with tomato food once a week.

 

Free Watercress for Healthy Winter Salads

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

Think ahead to late autumn and winter crops

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

Book review - The Salt Fix by Dr. James DiNicolantonio

 
 Book review - The Salt Fix by Dr. James DiNicolantonio Book review - The Salt Fix by Dr. James DiNicolantonio

 

As you know, I rarely recommend books on my blog - but this is a really exceptional book which makes so much sense that I felt I must share it with you. This review is a slightly longer version of the one which I posted on Amazon UK recently.
 

Having spent over 40 years reading literally hundreds of healthy-eating books, due to my daughter's serious allergies (who as regular readers of my blog already know is now a healthy 41 year old!) - I must be honest and say that I rarely get beyond flicking through them briefly and reading the first few pages. So many don’t live up to their publisher’s hype and tend to be just another re-hash of whatever the current diet bandwagon happens to be.

Rarely do I find these books to be a real page-turner - but I was unable to put this book down! It's already littered with bookmarks everywhere & I've ordered a copy for my GP! It is a readable, informative, exceptionally well-written, well-researched and eminently sensible book, written by an author who is not afraid to go out on a limb and has the courage to genuinely think for himself - instead of just slavishly following the prevailing fashion.

I’ve seen dozens of diet trends and myths come and go over the years and frankly always ignored the low fat/low salt advice completely, since it was invariably dished out by those same ‘experts’ who were also advising that chemically-processed, unnatural and foul-tasting industrial fats such as margarine are what we should be eating to be healthy! If that were the case - then wouldn’t Nature surely have invented them and designed our bodies to use them – instead of the many delicious-tasting, natural ones now finally being scientifically proven to be far healthier? Not only that - but those ghastly spreads weren't organic anyway - which has always been of paramount importance to me.

Healthy food was meant to actually taste good! Sea salt and natural fats like butter add to the flavour of food and also help our bodies cells to absorb all of the nutrients it contains. Basic biology in school taught us that all life on earth evolved in the saline ocean – so naturally isn't it only common sense therefore that our cells need salt to function? This book is full of common-sense that you don't have to be a scientist to understand. As the author himself puts it - “the similarity between the mineral content and concentration of our own blood and seawater has been known for decades”.

As someone who has always, as far as possible, followed the way that Nature evolved us to eat, I believe that eating natural, whole, organic ‘real’ food is the only way to true, long-term good health. That being so, yet another aspect of this book that I found exceptional, and for me personally most engaging, is that unlike a great many doctors, this one clearly advocates organic food. The benefits of eating organic are often either ignored altogether by many in the the medical profession, or even more astonishingly, discounted as being quite irrelevant. That’s usually the point when I when I stop reading their books - because how can anyone possibly presume to tell people how they should be eating when they don’t even understand what 'real food' is, or how the way that food is produced can affect it's nutrient content and health benefits? How can anyone seriously believe they know better than us, if they don't even understand what Nature actually evolved humans to eat? Organic food is so often ridiculed by the media (heavily influenced by the misleading PR of the agri-chemical industry) as being either an elitist, hippy-like ‘celebrity fad’ or some kind of neurotic ‘orthorexia’. Sadly many doctors seem to accept this misinformation unquestioningly! This particular doctor doesn’t!

As a former organic farmer, now retired, who has for many years extensively researched the health effects of pesticides and other chemicals, used either on or in food, I never feed my family anything that isn’t organic, so I found Dr DiNicolantonio’s open-minded, thoughtful approach in this book refreshing. I've developed my own ideas on what constitutes a healthy natural diet since I first started to really think about it in the early 1970's - and it seems to have served me pretty well up until now - fingers crossed! Synthetic, man-made agricultural chemicals can have many negative effects on the finely-tuned physiology of the human body, as well as on the rest of the biodiversity which we are just one small part of and our environment. Most of these effects have either never been investigated at all or very little - especially the possible effects when several are either combined in food (in what's called a 'chemical cocktail'), already present in the body, or in our immediate environment. This is because most of the research is done by the same companies producing those chemicals. Only the specific chemical is tested in isolation and the company's frequently less than 100% open and unbiased research results are usually just rubber-stamped by regulators!

 
It's only common sense after all that naturally-grown, whole, organic foods are quite simply what humans evolved to eat over millions of years! We did not evolve to eat food grown with the toxic cocktail of endocrine-disrupting, made-made chemicals that it has been laced with for well over 60 years now. Such chemicals were in many cases originally developed as nerve gas weapons during World War 2! Food is then later stuffed with even more synthetic chemicals by food manufacturers when processing it into high sugar, long shelf-life, ‘convenience’ foods! Convenient for manufacturer's high profits – but not for our health! It’s surely no coincidence that the alarming rise in so many chronic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes and even illnesses like cancers seem to directly correlate with the seriously misleading dietary advice dished out over the last 60+ years. Another factor is also the enormous increase in processed foods containing dangerously high amounts of carbohydrates such as high fructose corn syrup and highly processed flours. 

There is excellent information in this book on the damaging effects of the many different types of sugar, both added and invisible, in high carbohydrate diets. I wish I’d had this book 4 years ago when my son and I both started following strict, low-carbohydrate diets, after we both separately had serious accidents which made it impossible for either of us to exercise for several months. (I lost 2 stones almost without trying and my 6ft 4 ins son lost 4!) There is also advice on how to deal with problems such as the muscle cramps that we both encountered initially when first eating a very low-carb diet, especially when exercising vigorously. Dr DiNicolantonio explains how easy it is to avoid these - simply by eating enough salt!

My son spent several weeks recovering in an orthopaedic ward after major surgery following his accident, and was extremely shocked to see the heart-breaking number of diabetic amputees whose suffering could have been completely avoided simply by avoiding all forms of sugar, including alcohol. I would thoroughly recommend this book not just to anyone trying to cut carbohydrates, but also to anyone cooking for schools and hospitals etc. or trying to generally improve public health. From my experience, most hospital diets seem mainly consist of high-carbohydrate, cheap, processed foods such as white sliced bread and high-sugar ready meals prepared in bulk by outside caterers, in order to keep budgets down. Hospital shops and vending machines are also full of junk food like chocolate bars, crisps and cans of high sugar sodas. Often the only healthy item one can find is plain bottled water! This meant that I had to take some healthy food to my son every day during his 6 week stay in hospital because there was no healthy choice even if you wanted one! A round trip of about 40 miles - but I felt I had no option, as I knew how vital food was to his recovery and health. It is so frustrating that condoning and encouraging patients to eat that kind of mass produced rubbish, instead of healthy real food, just for the sake of saving money - not only delays their healing but also does nothing to re-educate those eating habits which in many cases often caused their illness in the first place, and ultimately costs health services even more money in the long run!

The manufacturers of profit driven, high sugar, low fat, reduced salt, processed foods won't thank Dr. DiNicolantonio for this - but thank heavens for the sake of future public health that the era of all doctors and dieticians unquestioningly accepting industry-sponsored dogma seems at last to be disappearing! Science and health knowledge can only move forward and improve if current accepted norms are constantly being questioned. This thought-provoking, ground-breaking book does it in spades. 
 
I heartily recommend 'The Salt Fix' as essential reading for anyone who wants to finally know the definitive truth about salt and to improve their overall health. In years to come, I believe that Dr. DiNicolantonio's brilliant book will be seen as having been a real game-changer.

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