Topics for June: Strength in Diversity means strength in Adversity .... Keep Sowing Healthy Salads.... There's still time to sow flowers for pollinators.... Potato Blight - my way of dealing with it.... Keeping diseases and pests at bay..... Dealing with slugs and leatherjackets..... Watering & other jobs.... Keep the ground busy - don't waste an inch of growing space!.... Saving money by taking cuttings of veg plants.... Making high-rise, raised (or 'no-dig') beds.... What can you do about spray drift?
Flowers mixed with vegetables - in the diverse French 'Potager' style. Brassica bed planted with nasturtiums, tagetes and viola
Strength in Diversity means strength in Adversity
Growing a diverse range of flowers herbs and other crops in your potager or vegetable garden increases the range of biodiversity not just above ground, but also in the soil. This will become increasingly important if we want to be more self-sufficient in an uncertain world, where we can no longer rely on the weather and reliably predict what will grow well at any time of year. As we try to be as self-sufficient as possible here - growing a wide range of crops means that there's always something to pick no matter what happens. If one crop is a disaster - then usually there are several others to harvest, even in winter. Research also shows that having that broad range of biodiversity increases the chances of crops either not being attacked by pests or diseases, or recovering from them more easily. .
I'm a big fan of French potager-style gardens that mix flowers, fruit and herbs with vegetables. They have always seemed a far more natural way of growing things to me, because that's the way Nature grows things - all mixed up together. At the moment I'm seeing lots of lovely photographs of other people's vegetable gardens on Twitter. Many are incredibly neat, controlled and very tidy looking with their neat rows of vegetables, but to me some of them look incredibly sterile and bare - almost like mono-cultures - with bare soil everywhere! Now I know that some chaps tend to think that planting flowers with your veg is a bit 'girly' but it's not! There's actually a very good scientific reason behind it - quite apart from the fact that it looks beautiful! If you don't have flowers that produce nectar and pollen - then why would any self-respecting beneficial insect visit your plot to lay it's eggs? Nature isn't that stupid or altruistic - insects need food as much as we do!
The added extra of planting flowers for bees and other insects is that not only does this help with pest control - thereby making your garden more productive - but it also makes the vegetable garden look even more decorative. In my opinion, contrasting flowers make rows of delicious vegetables look even better! This is particularly important in a small garden where you may not have enough space for separate areas. I often used to visit the late Rosemary Verey's beautiful potager garden at Barnsley House, near Cirencester in Gloucestershire. It was an inspiration, as are dear Joy Larkcom's wonderfully delicious-looking books. One day I hope to make it to see the potager at Villandry. If only there were 48 hours in every day! I think that nothing looks prettier or more satisfying than a neat, productive garden full of good things to eat, interspersed with flowers and fruit trees! The trouble is - picking them spoils the nice patterns!
Keep Sowing Healthy Salads
I'm always saying that the most important thing you can do every day is to eat a green salad - picked as fresh as possible, early in the morning when all it's valuable phytonutrients are at their highest levels. I like to have a range of ingredients, so that I have the broadest range of nutrients possible. This year due to my broken ankle, I didn't get my early summer salads planted in the outside beds, as I couldn't stand to prepare the beds obviously! But - determined not to be defeated - while my daughter was here helping, I got her to bring what I call my stepladder garden around to the front door which I could just hobble to - so that I could plant some salads on it that I would be able to harvest every day after she was gone. I was amazed it's still holding together (famous last words!) as I bought it about 20 years ago now and have been growing stuff on it ever since! The two lettuces I planted - Lollo Rossa and Cosberg - have done really well. I'm picking a few individual leaves every day, that's the best way to get a long harvest from lettuces if you only have a small space. I still have to finish the planting either side yet - which may be herbs this year. My stepladder garden takes up less than 1/2 a square metre space, even with a couple of pots either side for tomatoes or other salad vegetables, it's something you could do even on a balcony, so it's well worth doing. I'm so glad I did! It's been through many variations over the years, and if you want to copy my idea - there's a link here to a blog post I wrote about it a few years ago, with lots more ideas : http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/516-whether-you-want-vertical-veg-high-rise-herbs-stellar-salads-or-even-strawberry-steps-the-sky-is-the-limit-with-my-stepladder-garden
There's still time to Sow Flowers for Pollinators
Don't forget that if you haven't yet sown annual flowers to attract beneficial insects andbees and other insects like hoverflies - you can still buy them in garden centres. Any nectar and pollen producing flowers will do, and perennials like Scabious, verbena Bonariensis and nepeta are also good, and especially herbs like Thyme and Marjoram. But don't forget theymust mostly be single-floweredor they're not much use to insects! It's also important to ask the garden centre if they've been grown using neonicotinoid insecticides in the compost. The garden centre staff may think you're a 'barmy green' as I was described recently - but if you explain that most of the food we eat is actually provided thanks to pollination by bees - and that they're seriously under threat from these poisonous insecticides - then they may start to listen. If you don't mention that - they will think that this issue is something they needn't concern themselves with, because the customer doesn't care.
Many plants have bee-friendly labels on them now - but there is actually no legal definition for 'bee -friendly' and the plants labelled as such can still be grown using bee-damaging pesticides! These pesticides can also transfer by leaching into the surrounding soil where you plant the flowers, killing a lot of beneficial soil life including useful ground beetles and centipedes. You don't want to kill them - and neither do you want to eat veg grown in soil which contains those chemicals! It's really good to know that by growing so many flowers with my veg - that I'm not just doing it because it looks pretty - but I'm helping bees and other beneficial insects to survive!
Potato Blight - my way of dealing with it
I keep a sharp eye out for potato blight now, as conditions will be ideal for it's development over the next few days, with warm weather following the recent torrential rain. If you got your seed tubers in early by starting off 1st and 2nd early varieties off in pots, as I do every year now - you should already have a decent crop under them already though. First and second earlies only need 10-12 weeks to develop a reasonable crop - and obviously after that any increase in the weight of the crop is a bonus. If we get a dry early summer, unless it's very humid we may not get blight until July - but after that it's mostly a given! I avoid early blight every year using my 'pot-planting' method. I know a lot of people just can't get their head around starting off potatoes in pots because it's not the way things were always done. But why not? It's easy enough to do on a garden scale, and no different to planting lilies or dahlias! Many other crops are started off this way and people don't have a problem with that! With climate change we will have to learn to 'think outside the box', be flexible and adapt our methods if we want to produce crops without harmful chemicals - although even those are becoming less effective now. Even permitted organic sprays such as copper sulphate can be harmful too, and build up in the soil if overused, particularly in clay soils. It's severely restricted now under organic standards. I've never used any sprays whatsoever here for blight on potatoes but still get good crops.
Planting potato plants with nice root balls and small developing tubers in April.
Even early blight doesn't bother me now though - because in a normal year, all my potatoes are already flowering and developing their tubers nicely. This year due to my broken ankle none got planted out from their pots! But another four weeks should see even the ones in pots give a reasonable crop. I normally plant the outside crop in mid April in the way you can see here. They were all started off in early March and by then were already well developed plants with a good root ball. After planting I always give them a good watering and then a heavy mulch of grass clippings which keeps the moisture in and weeds down - making sure to leave the stems clear of mulch which could rot them. After laying down the mulch I then water again - to ensure that no fumes are given off as the clippings don't heat up - which can burn leaves. The heavy mulch seals the surface, blocking out light so that weeds don't germinate and also stops the water evaporating too quickly - creating too humid an atmosphere around the plants and possibly encouraging blight. I then don't water again until the flowers are open - because this is the time when they start to develop their tubers. Less watering means less possibility of encouraging blight - so the best time to water is when you know plants will need it most.
Blight spores are in the air everywhere all the time, waiting for exactly the right conditions - warmth and high humidity Really good air circulation and low humidity conditions are the keys to avoiding it as long as possible. That, and growing more resistant varieties - like those pictured below - of which a few are being bred now. Sadly though they don't always have the wonderful flavour of the varieties I grow. There haven't been too many nights of frost since my potato plants were planted, so luckily I've only had to cover them a couple of times with a double layer of fleece to protect them from frost - there's no damage at all and they're growing really well. I always take fleeces off first thing in the morning as air circulation is so important to keep disease at bay. Despite hailstone the size of marbles in early May - there was no damage and they were looking really beautiful, but this morning are looking somewhat battered and bowed by the torrential rain overnight. They will recover though - but I shall now keep my eyes peeled for those first signs. Someone told me a couple of years ago about a really daft idea they had read somewhere - which was - "to cover the plants with polythene at the first sign of blight in order to stop it getting to the plants"! That's definitely the best way to reduce air circulation and the best recipe for encouraging blight as fast as possible that I've ever heard!! You can't shut blight out - any more than you can stop plants breathing!
Innovator flowering - a blight resistant cultivar called Albert Bartlett Russet in UK
Potato Tibet flowering - the most blight resistant potato I have ever grown.
As soon as I see any signs of blight on the Red Duke of York - always my best blight indicator, then I immediately cut the haulms (tops) off all the plants immediately and cover that part of the potato bed with black polythene to stop any of the fungal spores washing down through the soil and rotting the tubers. Red Duke of York is always my blight indicator, being more susceptible than most - so it's always the first to be hit. After that I shall keep a careful eye on the other varieties in the bed and as soon as I see any sign of the 'tell tale' black blotches on the leaves, I shall do the same with them. Using this method - I've been growing enough potatoes to feed the family for most of the winter every year for the the last 25 years or so - when I gave up direct planting of seed tubers at the traditional time of mid-March. Combining that method with my 'extra early' mid January planting of tunnel crops - which I wrote about earlier this year - it means that I usually have my own potatoes all year round, depending on how many of the family and friends there are here to eat them! If you're growing in raised beds as I do - you can even leave them in the ground for months then - they keep far better this way unless you have a massive slug or rodent problem. I don't normally lift the remainder of the crop until frost is a possibility, then I store them stacked in slatted plastic trays, in a cool frost-free shed, loosely covered with black material to keep the light out, but still maintaining good air circulation.
New strains of potato blight have developed over the last couple of decades and become far more resistant to the chemical fungicides used by conventional chemical farmers. This is why many non-organic, commercially grown crops are sprayed often 20 times or more with chemical fungicides - quite apart from all the toxic 'cocktail' of other chemicals they are treated with. These include 'dessicants' - like glyphosate-based weedkillers which are used to spray off the foliage before harvest in order to make it easier for machines to harvest the potatoes). Even blight sprays aren't effective enough some years though - in that case farmers often then don't even bother lifting the crops because it's not economic - and they just plough them back in. Sometimes not for months though - leaving them rotting in the ground, and this just leads to even more blight proliferating in our mild damp winter climate here in Ireland! That creates the perfect conditions for the evolution of blight resistance - and the smell of rotting crops is disgusting around here sometimes. I am convinced that this practice combined with increasing use of fungicidal sprays has contributed in a major way to the development of more resistant strains of blight over the last few decades.
I am also convinced that the amount of chemicals the general population is consuming now if they're eating these crops is going to cause a 'Tsunami' of health problems in years to come. Many scientists are beginning to worry about this issue too. Just this week some new evidence emerged about fungicides that are routinely used on many crops. Many think that fungicides are less harmful - but recent research has found that they induce changes in gene expression in mice similar to those in people with autism and neuro-degenerative conditions like Huntingdon's disease. This could explain the increasing incidence of such diseases. They're certainly not what I would want to eat - which is why I grow all mine organically with no sprays whatsoever - not even organic ones like copper that are allowed under some organic guidelines! Growing potatoes my way, I find that I can grow enough potatoes to see us through the year without using any sprays. It might be a little more trouble - but I believe it's worth it!
Keeping diseases and pests at bay in other crops
When it comes to diseases in other crops - constant vigilance and good housekeeping is the order of the day - especially so in salad crops like lettuce! Botrytis and downy mildew can spread like wildfire in if you're not vigilant. Keep an eye on crops and pick off any yellowing, rotting or otherwise diseased leaves immediately! This is especially important in wet weather. Conversely in dry weather - powdery mildew can often be a problem. If plants are not well-watered and mulched they may suffer this in dry conditions, as it is caused by dryness at the roots. Most of the questions at every year's Irish Garden advice stand at the Bord Bia Bloom garden festival in early June are about that, as it is normally very prevalent at this time of year. I don't think too many will have problems with it this year though - as we've been experiencing unusually cold and wet weather throughout the British Isles thanks to the erratic weather of climate change..
Dealing with Slugs and Leatherjackets
The scourge of wet weather - slugs - will be a problem this year! They can be dealt with in a number of ways. By picking off, slate or beer traps, keeping weeds down among crops and keeping any grass paths beside veg beds cut very closely so they have nowhere to hide! My preferred method is snipping with scissors on my nightly prowl and also using pieces of slate along rows where they hide and can easily be scooped up daily to feed to the hens! I know a lot of people find the scissor method difficult at first - but believe me it gets easier - particularly if you've had something nice destroyed by them! The other good thing about that method is that they are still available as food for all the wildlife in the garden who are reliant on them for food. As I often mention - this garden is not just managed for our benefit - but also for the benefit of as much wildlife as possible. There are so many birds in this garden that I really don't know how they all manage to feed themselves! I rarely see pests though - so I guess that encouraging the birds, as well as other methods really pays off. I don't just grow veg - and I never have holes in my Hostas either!
If you have any beds or ground you're not using - growing a green manure will discourage those other pests - leather jackets - which will proliferate if you let grass grow on beds when they're empty. Leather jackets are the larvae of the Daddy Longlegs or cranefly! Leaving beds vacant and forking over lightly a few times before putting in lettuce is good at getting rid of many. The starling population in particular love leather jackets and are very efficient at clearing them up.
Courgette bed mulched with grass clippings showing how it packs down and knits together after 10 days - keeping weeds down
Keeping plants well mulched after you've watered and the soil is moist is vitally important now, as crops are growing fast and will soon become stressed if they dry out, which reduces the length and amount of their crop and makes them run to seed early. A good heavy mulch reduces evaporation so you will need to water less often. It also keeps plant roots cool. Containers can often need watering twice a day in warm weather - a bit of a drag I know - but if you want to grow stuff and have no garden - it can still be done!
A good soaking and mulching with grass clippings, compost or other organic material really pays off. As I've said above - remember to keep any mulch a couple of inches away from the stems.Protecting all bare soil with an organic mulch helps to buffer it against drought, and as the worms gradually work it in, it naturally becomes humus, which acts like a sponge and absorbs more water. This is one of the reasons industrial chemical farming ruins soils, because it uses up soil carbon and humus, and doesn't return organic matter like straw-based manures and recycled plant wastes as farming did for hundreds of years, and as organic farmers still do now. The unnaturally chemically fed soil gradually becomes just a lifeless dust. Without any added humus it's carbon store is depleted and so it doesn't absorb water. More and more hedges and field margins have also been taken out which would have absorbed water. Heavy rain then just runs off quickly causing flooding problems, pollution of rivers etc. That's what we suffered in many places this spring. Plants then also become stressed and sick - needing even more chemicals to keep them alive!!
Effective watering at the roots where it's most needed is the key, rather than just aimlessly splashing it about on the surface where it just evaporates! Timing is everything too. As I've already mentioned - potatoes, for instance, benefit most from water just as they come into flower, as that's when the tubers are starting to swell.I always water everything by hand. It can be time consuming at times, but I prefer doing this because I grow so many different types of crops together, often 'catch-cropping', inter-planting or 'poly-cropping' (the latest 'buzz word'!) with salads or other fast-growing crops between rows of slower growing crops, which all need different amounts of water. I've tried various automatic systems over the years, but find they tend to waste water and never really do it as well as you would yourself. Doing it by hand also means you're really looking at your plants, getting to know them well and noticing any possible first signs of something going wrong - a few aphids perhaps, or a spot of mildew. Powdery mildew is often a sign that things are too dry at the roots. I find that courgettes in containers always suffer from this in particular - they tend to crop brilliantly for a few weeks - as my early ones in the west tunnel are doing right now. But then no matter how much you water, as the plants get bigger they will get mildew on the leaves. Those growing in the ground are far happier really - but again - if you have no garden - containers are the only option, so you can get around the problem by sowing another few, 3-4 weeks after the first ones, then when the first ones go beyond the point where they're still cropping well - the next ones should start cropping.
Water is a precious and valuable resource, not just for us humans but for all life, so don't waste it, save every drop you can. If you're recycling grey water, make sure you're not using chemicals like bleaches and disinfectants, and use it as soon as you collect it, as it can become a bit smelly if you store it! I prefer to use it for crops that are going to be cooked rather than salads! I think that all new houses should by law have to install rainwater harvesting systems, for uses such as flushing toilets etc. If you collect as much rainwater as possible like I do - Hoselock do a very useful and efficient water pump which you can use to pump water out of water butts and onto your garden, it saves a lot of back breaking work carrying water to where you want it as you can attach a lose to it. It comes out pretty fast though - so make sure you're aim is careful!
Keep the ground busy - don't waste an inch of growing space!
Have something ready to go in pots or modules so that you can plant it immediately any crop is finished and cleared. Things grow really fast at this time of year, so "gather ye rosebuds (or vegetables) while ye may"! - After the summer solstice, growth starts to slow up, in some cases quite dramatically! You should be starting to enjoy some of the rewards of your efforts this month - if you're lifting early potatoes, don't forget to save a few for a really early crop next year as it's difficult to buy them early enough in Ireland - and even if you order online they don't always come in time to get them sprouting before mid January. We've been eating new potatoes since mid April from the earliest plantings in the tunnel.
Virused 'Roseval surrounded by healthy plants
Make absolutely sure you only save seed potatoes from the very best, healthiest-looking plants. In case you don't know what a virused one looks like, here's a photo I took a couple of years ago - clearly showing the difference between a healthy looking plant and one obviously infected by virus. I would normally 'rogue' this one out as soon as I recognised it was virused, as it can be spread to other plants by aphids and I grow a lot of rare old varieties, which I want to keep healthy. I deliberately left this one just in order to take a picture of the example for you - very noble! Aphids can spread any virus to other plants. I often get problems with bought in so-called 'certified' seed, but very rarely on any that I save myself, as I am super-careful about what I save. Always wash the potatoes you're saving, dry them off gently with kitchen paper and leave them in a single layer somewhere cool where air can circulate around them.
I'm sowing pumpkins, squashes and sweetcorn this weekend. A bit late I know due to my accident - but I hate being without them - and the weather is so unpredictable nowadays. Usually by now any pumpkins have been potted on as small seedlings into 2 litre pots and are by now nice big plants, with the roots just starting to show through the bottom of the pot. Never let pumpkins become pot bound - they don't grow on well if they get a check. As usual I will give them all a heavy mulch of grass clippings to retain moisture and keep the weeds down. When 4 leaves have developed I shall pinch out the tip of the plants to encourage them to side shoot from each leaf axil. Each one of the subsequent shoots should then produce at least one pumpkin each. If you don't do this, the plant may set just one fruit and then later ones further along the shoot may not develop properly. I'll be planting my celery outside too, inter-planting between the sweetcorn plants for shade - which it likes.
Make sure you have seeds of winter crops like sugar loaf chicory 'crystal head', winter lettuces, lambs lettuce, land cress etc. - If you go to the garden centres next month looking for them - they won't be there - as I've learnt to my cost on several occasions. They seem to think that nobody sows anything after midsummer - so they send all their seeds back to the suppliers!! Or order them online. The Organic Gardening catalogue, among others, has a good range of winter cropping salads etc., most need sowing in July or early August at the latest. Jack Ice, Lattughino and Fristina are fantastic winter lettuces which are loose leaved, hardy and stand for a long time in spring. Jack Ice is a new one I discovered 3 years ago - from Real Seeds. It's grown really well in the tunnel for the last 3 winters and was quite hardy outside too. By the way, don't sow radicchio before midsummer as it can run to seed.
Keep up with successional sowing of salads - that's something that's so easy to forget when you're busy - but otherwise you can find you suddenly have a gap - particularly if we get a hot spell (I wish) and plants go to seed. Even at this time of year I still sow into modules - that way plants are bigger much more resistant to the odd nibble from pests. Please don't use slug pellets - they're the lazy gardener's option and kill so much helpful wildlife. Would you deliberately poison a blackbird or a hedgehog? No of course you wouldn't! But if you use slug pellets that's exactly what you're doing! An evening stroll with the scissors is far nicer! Don't forget to give slugs alternative places to hide too, like a slate or similar placed on beds, where they think they're safe during the day - then pick them up and dispose of by your preferred method! You all know mine now!
Keep your fleece on standby - don't put it away completely just yet! We often get the odd late frost in many parts of Ireland. The night before last it was only 2 deg. C on the bed where the potted potatoes are sitting - but at this stage mine were far too big to cover and as the beds are very raised and also on a slight slope I hoped any frost might slip down hill. Luckily no damage! Don't get caught out though if you're planting out tender things. Make sure they're well hardened off, watch the weather forecasts and get to know your particular local climate, as it varies hugely from the North to the South and South-West - and even in individual gardens in the same locality!
Saving money by taking cuttings of veg plants
You can save yourself a surprising amount of money by propagating some of your veg plants from cuttings - particularly those that can be expensive to buy in as plants or as seed - like F1 hybrid tomatoes. It's really easy once you know how, as you will see from the pictures here. Some things like overwintered chard can be cut down with a very sharp spade or loppers and will re-sprout from the base. This is particularly useful if they're just going up to seed and you don't have any to follow on for a while. You can still harvest some useful pickings from them in a week or so. I did an experiment a few years ago and kept some going for 2 years by doing this.
Even expensive tubers like Mashua, Yacon and Oca can be propagated by cuttings - just like dahlias. I first discovered this easy method of water rooting quite by accident many years ago on dahlias. I broke one and stuck it in a jar of water to see if the stem would flower - and it rooted! You just take the cutting about 6ins/15cm long with a very sharp knife like a craft knife (this is important to avoid bruising) cutting just below a leaf node. The stem must be solid not hollow - again to avoid rotting. It it's hollow then re-cut it further up where it's solid. Put it in a jar of water for a couple of weeks, making sure it doesn't dry out. A north-facing windowsill is good for this at this time of year, as you don't want them cooking. Some will start to root withing a few days and it's fascinating watching them develop. When you think they have enough roots, then pot them up in a small pot of seed compost and water well. The low nutrient in seed compost is a sort of half-way house between the water they were in and their future home and shouldn't burn the roots. The people who sell these tubers at vastly inflated prices won't like me for telling you this - but that's nothing new! Often the cost of buying plants puts people off trying the more exotic veg - and they can be great fun to grow!
Making high-rise, deep raised, (or 'no-dig') beds
New raised bed looking north
The re-development of the kitchen garden into a raised ornamental potager is ongoing and the new, higher raised beds are a complete joy to work! Made from two tiers of 7 inch planks, so that even when my back is dodgy, it means I don't have to bend and I can even sit on a stool or chair to garden if necessary. It makes my heavy clay soil so much easier to work, and will improve as more compost is added over the years. The plan is to hopefully complete half the garden this year - another four beds, depending on finances and my son's goodwill! (he barrowed about 3 tons of soil per bed, from the top paddock to the garden bless him!). Possibly a little ambitious - but one has to have goals! We used 7 x 2 inch planks, treated with an oil-based organic wood preservative from Fruit Hill Farm, with corner brackets and 3ft/1m lengths of rebar hammered in along the sides at intervals for support, which looks very neat and they won't rot in the wet ground. I'm now making a carrot fly frame to fit over the bed and looking for some nice finials for the corners. I'm always looking for some new way to improve the garden - I'll never be bored!
I used my own organic soil (for over 35 years) which we had after digging out my new bigger wildlife pond at the bottom of the field (one of the best things I've ever done). I didn't lash on tons of composts, manure or even mushroom compost as some advise! Doing that can seriously upset the balance of soil life and nutrients - and if non-organic, would also contain contaminants like pesticides used in both the production of the original straw and hay in the manure, and also any worm treatments or antibiotics used for treating animals. Mushroom compost is originally made from conventional, chemically-grown straw which is then dessicated with glyphosate pre-harvest. In addition - when being prepared for mushroom cultivation - the substrate is then also treated with soil sterilants like Methyl Bromide and organochlorine pesticides against destructive fungus gnats. I don't want those 'chemical cocktails' in any of the food we eat - combinations of which have been proven to be many times more toxic than the original chemicals individually! I prefer to be a little more patient and rely on nature's gentler less toxic way of doing things - mulching, composting and worms! It's much safer!
According to Garden Organic (formerly the HDRA) - the 'grow your own boom' has brought on a massive increase in the use of peat, weedkillers and other pesticides, and if you've been reading this blog for a while you will know as organic gardeners and people who care about the environment, that's something we don't want at any cost! It's not necessary for us to use pesticides in order to grow food! There are safer organic alternatives!
Keep up with hoeing the weeds if you have any bare soil. Mulching is better for soil though, and if you weed well first, and then put on a thick light excluding mulch - that will keep weeds down even after rain. Mulching also improves the soil - then making it much easier to get perennial weeds like docks out with all their roots intact - so they won't come back. If you're finding it hard to keep the weeds down on a new allotment or garden, as often happens a this busy time of year, then don't just give up and let them run to seed. Remember the old quote "one year's seeds - seven year's weeds!". Either cover the ground with black polythene or some other total light excluding mulch, or even better, keep mowing it and making compost which will improve the soil and save you money at the same time! The grass roots will break up the soil and if you sow some clover into it as well, this will fix 'free' atmospheric nitrogen, adding hugely to the soil's fertility when you cover it to start a 'no-dig' regime or dig it in.
Remember - it's always far better to cultivate a smaller patch really well, than take on too much and end up with an unproductive mess!
What can you do about spray drift?
This is becoming an increasing problem in many areas of Ireland and the UK where people living in rural areas are being directly affected and their air, gardens and even water polluted. Several people have contacted me to ask what they can do about it. At this time of year it's particularly bad. Two weeks ago there was spraying in a field to the north west of my boundary and there was some slight spray drift as the wind was in my direction, so I registered yet another complaint with the Dept. of Ag. here. A waste of time since they will not admit there is a problem - but at least I registered my complaint! Yesterday I'd just finished some work in the garden when I heard a tractor again in the next door field, and although it was still far too hot - I rushed to close the tunnels. Luckily for once the wind wasn't in my direction. I had a nasty incident a few years ago, when my garden and tunnels suffered serious spray drift contamination and I had to dump most of my crops - so if I hear a tractor these days I panic and rush out to see where it is. If there's any possible threat, I close the tunnels and cover all the outside salads with fleece. Currently that's all I can do - unless I'm prepared to have my produce privately tested at a cost of about 600 Euros and then take a court case personally against the farmer who is spraying - something that would take years to resolve, with enormous stress and at huge expense. In addition - as I no longer make my living from growing commercially - all I would be likely to recover would be the cost of the lost produce! They don't take into account any possible soil contamination as these products are currently approved for agricultural use.
One of the problems around here is some 'here today, gone tomorrow' farmers who rent land for just the year to grow a crop and then move on somewhere else. It's just rape and pillage of the soil! They obviously don't care about any chemical residues they leave behind, they don't care about the damage they do to soil or biodiversity and they don't even have to care even about being good neighbours as they don't live nearby! They certainly don't care about what state they leave the land in, because they have no investment in it's future. Their only interest is to make as much money as they can from it now and move on! It's almost got to the stage where I'm afraid to go out when the wind's in our direction - in case the spray-drift happens while I'm gone! I almost feel like I'm under siege here sometimes! It's all so different to how it was here over 35 years ago when we first moved here and were surrounded by species-rich old pasture abundantly full of wildflowers - now sadly all gone! Even our lovely crystal clear stream which used to support the young eels we often found has now been polluted and all life in it completely killed by agricultural effluent and all the uphill neighbour's grey water illegally being piped into it.
As I wrote this it was World Environment Day - do people not see the connection or do they really just not care? Sadly after my experience with our Dept of Agriculture a few years ago, frankly I wouldn't waste my time bothering with them again. They only came out here after 3 weeks of constant harassment, when they knew that I had already dumped most of the crops - and then said they couldn't find any traces of pesticides on the few bits that remained! They knew perfectly well that after 4-5 days it's difficult to find traces of the surfactants or adjuvants which make the pesticide coat the surface of the leaves more efficiently - despite the fact that at the time a friend & I still couldn't breathe in the tunnels or the garden 2 hours after the sprayers had gone from the field next door!. These adjuvants have never actually been safety tested at all as they were declared by the makers, Monsanto, to be 'non-active' constituents of the sprays. However there is a growing weight of scientific opinion now which believes that these chemicals are just as toxic individually, as the chemical which they are sticking to the plants - and that when combined, all the chemicals in the mix form 'cocktails' which are many times more toxic. The Department of Agriculture's waste of public money in paying a top official to visit here was purely a PR exercise because I was making such a fuss! However - I had registered my complaint.
Sadly there's very little you can do currently, exceptat least do what I did. Make a note of the wind direction and wind speed and log your complaint with your local environmental health officer and your Department of Agriculture. If some farmers are going to use chemicals then they should at least be used responsibly and to the absolute letter of the current law - whether I personally approve of them or not. Because the huge new sprayers are so expensive these days - many farmers don't have their own machines any more and use contractors to do the spraying instead. Those contract sprayers really don't give a damn when they do it - they still get paid for doing it! They and just do it when it suits their work schedule, and then walk away with no penalty, seemingly no matter what they do! You already know my opinion on the use of chemicals - but sadly we can't change the world overnight.
If some of us choose to grow or farm organically, we at least have a right not to have our gardens, produce, or even the air we breathe contaminated by chemicals which we don't wish to consume. If I was still a commercial grower I could have lost my organic certification and therefore my livelihood over such an incident - it is that serious. The sprays smell a bit like Jeyes fluid or creosote fence preservative. Remember - if you can smell it on the air - then that air you are breathing in is full of the particles of whatever is being sprayed - and you are being forced to breathe in cancer-causing poisons with no choice. Even when it comes to smoking we now have a choice not to frequent the same areas as a smoker - but we have no choice but to breathe in pesticide polluted air.Meanwhile the sprayer operator sits up high on his huge machine in an air conditioned cab - totally oblivious and uncaring!
I hope all your vegetable gardens are growing really well this mid-summer. Do savour every delicious mouthful and enjoy every single moment mindfully. The ups and downs of life over the years have taught me that you never know what's around the next corner.
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)
June contents: A rather unusual polytunnel crop!..... What do Scientists really Know about Life, the Universe and Everything?.... Hurrah - the Maskotka are ripe! Now we have 'Tomato Heaven' for the rest of the summer!... Dealing with aphids.... Heat Damage on Tomatoes.... Tomato feeding.... To side-shoot or not to side-shoot - that is the question?.... Keep encouraging tunnel wildlife to help you with pest control.
Roses surrounding rose petal syrup with kefir ice cream
A rather unusual polytunnel crop!
Most people think that polytunnels are purely for growing fruit and veg, but I grow quite a few rather more unusual crops in mine! Few people think of roses as being a crop - but they are actually a hugely important commercial crop in countries of the Middle East where they're used a lot in cooking.There they are used in all manner of sweet and savoury dishes. In English cookery they have also been used for millennia, and in medicines too. I have loved the scent of the old and hybrid perpetual roses since childhood, where I grew up in a garden full of them. Their scent instantly carries me back to those times. Summers then in the English shires, were invariably warm and dry, which suited them perfectly. Roses love the warm dry weather which they get in abundance in countries like Turkey - but sadly we don't get Middle Eastern weather here in Ireland. Also climate change is changing weather patterns, and at least 1 in 3 summers now seem to be predominantly wet. Rain ruins the flowers of all roses, turning the petals brown and mushy, and causing the flowers of many of the most beautiful ones into rotting brown balls. So - hence I grow some in the polytunnel, where they are never ruined by rain!
Of course - one of the most important reasons to grow your own organic roses for cooking either inside or out in the garden, is that they are totally safe to eat - whereas those bought from florists will have been sprayed with many toxic pesticides not approved for human consumption - even if you didn't mind eating then! And a recent study of children in flower growing areas showed that children's health is being seriously damaged by such pesticides - so growing your own isn't just better for your health - but better for others too!. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190522162713.htm
The most historic roses which have been traditionally grown in in the middle East for thousands of years are rosa Damascena, r. Centifolia and r. Gallica - but those only flower once in June and July.Probably my favourite of these is the old moss rose Henri Martin - which I call my Turkish Delight rose - for obvious reasons! Because these varieties only flower once though - for many years I've been experimenting with some of the most fragrant,more modern, repeat-flowering types. Grown in large tubs of peat-free compost mixed with some soil - to give the compost a bit more body - roses produce really well if they're regularly fed with a good, high-potash, organic tomato feed.. Even the most difficult and fussy of tender roses, like the exquisitely scented, almost black, hybrid tea rose Guinee, or the incredibly scented older roses Emporeur du Maroc and Souvenir du Dr. Jamain, all love polytunnel life. They repeat flower well, and their flowers are never ruined by rain. I tried for years to grow Guinee outside, but it struggled miserably and I almost gave up. But a couple of years ago I dug it up, planted it in a large tub, told it in no uncertain terms that this really was it's last chance - and since then it hasn't looked back! Some of the newer types of repeat-flowering 'English' roses, bred by the late David Austin, are also excellent. Among the darkest of those with a good scent are Falstaff, Munstead Wood, Othello and Shakespeare, and Young Lycidas is a very well-scented deep pink one.
I tend to favour the really darkest maroon, or deep crimson-coloured kinds because they seem to make the strongest tasting syrup with a really rich dark colour, but occasionally I include lighter ones too, if they have a really good scent. If you make rose water from all pink roses, it tends to be brownish in colour. Rose water syrup is delicious poured over meringues or kefir ice cream, and lifts raspberries which are marinated in it into another dimension altogether! O pick the blooms early to mid-morning, after any moisture has gone from the petals, but before the scent starts to evaporate in the warmth of the polytunnel. They can be stored for 2-3 days in a box in the fridge if you don't have enough at the time for a recipe.
When making any kind of rose syrup the one thing you must remember is to cut off the white base of the rose petals as this has a bitter taste. The easiest and quickest way to do this is just to gather the whole bloom tightly in your left hand, pull off the stalk and sepals, and then cut off the whole base of the rose with sharp scissors. Pick out any bits of stamens you see after the petals have fallen into the bowl, as these can also be bitter. This may seem fiddly - but believe me once you have tasted the results - it's well worth it!
It is said that scent is the first sense which we develop, and the last one that we lose. If that's so - then the last scent I would want to experience would be roses. They bring back so many memories for me. The hybrid perpetual rose Ophelia was the first flower that I remember noticing the scent of, in the lovely garden where I grew up. I grow it here to remind me of that beautiful garden now long since gone - but still there in my memory. And my father always called me Rosebud when I was young. That's the wonderful thing about gardens - we're never really alone while we still have such memories.
Polytunnel Potager last June 2018 - looking hugely productive, full of abundant life - food, scented flowers and biodiversity.
If like me you've been delayed by unforeseen circumstances - there's still time to catch up!
We're never truly alone in a garden
In summer, my favourite time of the day in the garden is late evenings, as dusk falls and every sense seems magnified. In the slowly decreasing crepuscular light there is a magical stillness where you can hear a leaf drop. Standing still you can almost feel and hear everything growing.There's a tangible atmosphere. One feels some sort of 'vibe' - a definite feeling that one is not quite alone and that the garden has a soul of it's own - or Genius Loci. That feeling is noticeable even in the polytunnels, where the plants are growing urgently. I'm not the only person who feels this - many sensitive gardeners do - and I think to be a good gardener you have to be a sensitive person. I remember the wonderful old Harry Dodson saying the same thing in that lovely TV series the Victorian Kitchen Garden many years ago. At the time he said that some people might think him fanciful - but I didn't - that feeling is definitely there. He said that he felt it most particularly when shutting up his greenhouses at night - and I know what he meant - I feel it too. It's a strange sensation that's impossible to put into words. I think poets were often better at expressing this intangible but very definite 'something'. Yeats's line from his beautiful poem The Lake Isle of Inisfree always springs to mind......."Where peace comes dropping slow......."... I'm certainly at peace in my polytunnels in the evening - surrounded by all the quietly growing plants and with the company of all the bees and birds - just as Nature meant us to be. One can forget for a while the many cares of this world when surrounded by all the wonderfully abundant biodiversity. But I never forget that I'm just a tiny part of this intricately beautiful picture - and that I exist purely thanks to all the rest of Nature....... It's a very humbling thought.
What do Scientists really Know about Life, the Universe and Everything?
Science is beginning to discover so many amazing things about plants which we were not aware of before. Far from demystifying them - for me it makes them even more fascinating. It's now proving that plants can react to outside influences far more than we previously thought and that they can even communicate with each other - both above and below ground. They can talk to each other too - in a molecular language - by giving off chemical signals to warn each other of threats when another nearby plant is attacked by pests or damaged in some way. Science is even showing how plants may be aware of our presence too - but because we humans are conditioned to expect all other species to react to outside stimuli exactly as we do - we are incapable of recognising that they react in different ways to us. There is still so much more that we don't know about plants and how they live their lives, interacting with everything else in their environment. We need to listen more to them and learn their language - only then will we truly understand these miracles of Nature, that we totally depend upon for our healthy existence, within this interconnected web of life.
Scientists tend to reduce Nature and the food we eat to purely the sum of it's currently-known chemical constituents - but it is so much more than just that. They give all the various components of food names and values, placing them into the context within which they believe they belong given their still limited knowledge. Most of us trust that they are all-knowing......but they aren't - and never can be. Every new scientific discovery shows us very clearly that scientists don't know it all. They're often only guessing at how all the many and complex natural components of foods - some of which they still don't even know about - interact within our bodies. That is, until the next 'eureka moment' that reveals a little more of how Nature works. Even something as seemingly simple as water has properties that react in our bodies in ways that are still, as yet, little understood.
One of my most constantly inspirational heroes - the curious, incredibly brave and brilliant Nobel physicist Richard Feynman put it this way - "There is a difference between knowing the name of something and truly understanding it". How very true! The more we know - the more that the wiser among us realise that there is a huge amount that we still don't know! Those who try to convince us that GMOs are totally safe are only motivated by short-term commercial greed and by owning the patent on their particular method of genetic engineering. They cannot in all honesty assure us that they are safe - when they still don't even understand fully how organisms such as bacteria or viruses, for instance, can interact with each other within their natural environment! They didn't predict the development of Glyphosate-resistance in weeds did they, for instance?
Nature has a way of behaving in unpredictable ways and making fools of arrogant scientists! Remember that they are performing their experiments in laboratories. If you take bacteria or other organisms out of their natural environment, cultivate them in an agar or some other nutrient solution in a Petri dish and then study them under a microscope - they are most definitely NOT in their natural environment! As my scientist son says - Heisenberg's Principle - being that the very nature of laboratory experiments fundamentally changes the way things behave - particularly applies to natural organisms. This is one of the first things that all student scientists should learn. They are often limited by the ignorance of their tutors though. A bit more humility in many scientists wouldn't go astray - rather than arrogance and plain greed!
Our gut feeling is often far more reliable than the prevailing scientific opinion of the day - if we are prepared to listen to it. And that 'gut feeling is now an established fact! That's why I grow organically - because I've known in my gut for over 40 years now that it is the only way to grow the healthy real food which our bodies need. It's perfectly simple! Any scientist worth their salt should have the common sense to know that the way that nature evolved us to eat has to be the only healthy way for us to eat. It is a pity so few have the honesty to admit it!! Every time you Google anything about GMOs, pesticides or food these days, you are assaulted by a plethora of different articles by seemingly independent journalists - but in reality paid for by the vested interests of multinational chemical companies or huge food corporations. These first websites that come up are all trying to convince us that those of us who question if their products are safe are a lot of ignorant 'alternative' green idiots who know nothing - and that their 'true' science is all-knowing! They try to convince us that what they are doing is genuinely trying to feed the world - when actually they're only interested in profit - at any cost whatever to the planet!
The only way to sustainably feed a growing population is to restore the vital soil health which agricultural chemicals have been systematically destroying for the last many decades since the advent of agricultural chemicals! Chemicals don't feed the vital soil life which we depend on not just to produce healthy food but also to mitigate the current disastrously accelerating climate change.
I'd better stop now - but I could go on ranting about this forever! You can blame the current incumbent of the White House whose toxic name I can't even bring myself to utter! After selfishly dumping the Paris Accord on climate change, just to be popular with his American voters, I spent many sleepless night worrying about the future! Don't those voters who put him in The White House realise that what he is doing is destroying not just their children's future - but also that of everything else on this beautiful planet we call home? Are they really so brainwashed by all that stuff on Google - denying climate change and telling us that chemicals and GMOs are perfectly harmless - that they have lost all ability to reason, think for themselves and even use basic common sense? Or are they simply as selfish as he is and just don't want to face reality? He won't care - he's an old man and he'll be dead soon! He's just getting a final high right now on his enjoyment of all-powerful, ultimate control and doesn't give a toss about the future after he's gone! Even merely the fact that he is someone who would condone his children killing endangered African wildlife surely tells you all you need to know - doesn't it?
I know that like me you want hope - not gloom! And do you know what? There IS something every single one of us can do. We CAN fight for Nature in our own plots - whether those plots are just a window box or an acre! I started off here 35 years ago in a silent, barren field with no birds or bees anywhere. Now, despite being an island in the middle of otherwise intensively farmed land, I have a beautiful Nature- filled space that echoes with birdsong all day long - and that includes the polytunnel as you can see from the picture at the top which I took yesterday. Those growers with row upon row of sterile-looking crops (even some organic ones) who don't do everything they can to encourage Nature, are actually missing the point! They're only focusing selfishly on what they are getting out of it for themselves! Some never even mention Nature - but we CAN all make a difference to the future and to vital biodiversity....... and we CAN DO IT together!
Hurrah - the Maskotka are ripe! Now we have 'Tomato Heaven' - for the rest of the summer!!
First ripe Maskotka
Maskotka is such a reliable tomato that I would never be without it. It really is the earliest tomato I've ever grown - and I've tried lots! It's a bush variety though, and tends to spread out a bit over the summer, taking up a lot of ground space. I also grow many other plants of the Solanacae family (tomatoes, aubergines etc.) so I haven't got enough room to grow them all in the ground if I want to stick to a proper rotation plan, thereby cutting down on the risk of disease or nutrient deficiency problems. So for both those reasons, I'm growing 'Maskotka' in large pots again this year, which I've found very successful in the past. It's an excellent flavoured, heavy-cropping, large cherry type which is lovely in salads but also tastes really superb cooked in my 'roast ratatouille' that I tend to make in huge batches for freezing over the summer. Of course this year once again, I'm also growing more new varieties for The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival at The National Botanic Gardens Glasnevin so that also puts more pressure on space. I don't mind the extra work though, as I can never resist trying some new varieties! I never have any problems at all with fruit setting - tomatoes are generally self-fertile anyway and again because I also grow mini-gardens at the ends of the tunnels either side of the doors, full of flowers and herbs that bring in the bees and other beneficial insects. (Most people seem to fill that space with junk!)
Tomato Heaven! Insalata Caprese - with (from bottom) John Baer, Green Cherokee, Ananas Noir & luscious buffalo mozzarella.
Dealing with aphids in polytunnels
The first thing many people do when they see aphids is panic and reach for a spray of something - even some who consider themselves organic!Doing that is often the worst thing you can do! The first thing to understand about aphids is that feeding with artificial fertilisers or overfeeding with nitrogenous manures encourages exactly the sort of soft growth that all aphids enjoy. It also reduces the plant's own ability to make it's own defences by depressing soil bacteria and fungi. Overfeeding - even with organic manure - can have the same effect due to the high nitrogen content. You may get very impressive-looking plants by lashing on tons of manure or compost the way that some 'experts' advise - but you won't have healthy plants. They'll make soft and sappy growth that is far more attractive to pests and also to diseases. I so often see these 'experts' being asked later on in the summer how to deal with aphids! That sort of proves my point really - I never actually see any here at all!!
Tomatoes in recycled 10lt buckets on grow-bag trays in the west/fruit tunnel - potted flowers between plants attract beneficial insects
Aphids on any plant are a sure sign that the plant is stressed in some way - with a reduced immune response - and that's often the first time we actually notice it. Some people are having problems with aphids at the moment as many plants have been stressed by the extremes of weather this spring. An attack by pests is almost always a sure sign of that or some other stress such as the wrong conditions perhaps on a house windowsill, maybe too hot or too crowded. So keep an eye on your plants. Look at them closely every day, particularly any young plants still in propagators. The very hot days occasionally over the last week will have encouraged greenfly and other pests to multiply rapidly, which could be a problem unless there are plenty of predators around. Because I grow so many flowers in my polytunnels to attract beneficial insects - which in turn attract all sorts of insect-feeding birds and other wildlife - I have a permanent army of pest-controllers such as sparrows, robins, wrens and frogs, who hunt in the tunnels all year round. It's fascinating to watch them assiduously searching in every crevice of the plants looking for insects to feed their hungry babies. And there's certainly plenty of those judging from the loud demanding shrieks from every corner of the garden!
If you don't have a feathered army of pest controllers and you have an infestation building up on soft young shoots - don't panic and spray with anything! If there seems to be quite a lot then try just brushing them off gently first with a soft household paint brush or a pastry brush - particularly on plants like tomatoes where you don't want to wet the foliage - as that might encourage disease. Gently brushing with a small soft paintbrush often works well and buys you a bit more time while predators like hoverflies, ladybirds and wasps build up enough to deal with aphids. The gentle brushing also stimulates the plants to develop their own insect defences. Allow small birds like sparrows and wrens into your tunnels - they will help to gobble them up. Just hang large pea and bean netting on the doors & vents to keep pigeons or pheasants out. Put a peanut feeder near the open door of your greenhouse or tunnel as this will attract birds, and while they're waiting for their turn on the feeder they'll be encouraged to look for a few aphids as well. I know it's often quite hard to be patient and just trust nature - we've been so conditioned to believe that everything needs to be sprayed with something - even if it's only something natural!. I don't use any sprays of any sort whatsoever and haven't done for 40 years!
Nature doesn't always give you instant results - particularly in difficult weather - but try it and if it doesn't work you can always order a biological control like aphidius Colemanii - or ladybirds. They're not cheap though at about 40 euros for even the smallest amount you can buy! Whereas birds come free - with an additional entertainment factor!
The other great pest controllers are the members of the beneficial insect army. If you've got lots of insect-attracting flowers in your veg. garden and tunnel then they should attract plenty of predatory insects to deal with your pests. Flowering at the moment in the tunnel are borage, calendula (pot marigold), French marigold, feverfew, salad burnet, limnanthes (poached egg flower), phacelia, perennial Bowles wallflower, pansies, nicotiana, nepeta, scabious, sweet rocket and the herbs parsley and coriander which are flowering really well as well as Sweet Rocket and Nicotiana Affinis which smell heavenly at night - attracting lots of moths for the bats. I've seen quite a few wasps about this year too - and although they're aggressive little devils, they are voracious hunters of things like greenfly and caterpillars to feed their growing broods.
There are plenty of predators more than willing and able to do a good job of pest control for you given the chance - but if you spray with poisonous insecticides or even just an organic insecticidal soap spray - you will break the natural food chain by killing the good insects as well as the bad - including bees. And we all know how vital it is to help bees at the moment as they're so under threat of extinction from pesticides. Throwing the baby out with the bath water so to speak! I even use the organic soap spray for is for scale insect on my citrus trees if I get a very bad infestation - I discovered some time ago that melted coconut oil brushed onto the scale insects with a soft children's paintbrush works just as well as organic soap sprays and doesn't affect anything else. It stops them breathing - then they die and drop off.
Keep an eye out for the start of any diseases now. I try to run my eye over everything in the veg garden each day if I can and I pick off any fading or diseased leaves etc. immediately - before any disease can start or spreads. In the humid conditions of the tunnel this can happen very rapidly. With all the different varieties of tomatoes making a sudden spurt of growth after the hot weather they also need looking over for side shoots every day - so I take a bucket round with me and pick off any dodgy looking leaves at the same time. Sometimes a purplish colour and browning at the tips or bleaching between the ribs of leaves is actually damage caused by a nutrient deficiency - usually magnesium - which can happen if planting is delayed and things are kept waiting in their pots - this happened with some of my tomatoes this year despite extra feeding. These bits can become diseased later in damp conditions - so I always pick them off if they start to brown.
Heat Damage on Tomatoes
Every year some people ask me why all their tomatoes are curling up very tightly at the top - some looking quite 'ferny' with some of the leaf tips browning - almost as if they'd been sprayed with weedkiller! This isn't caused by a disease - it happens because of stress from very intense heat. Tunnels are generally wonderful but they are a bit more difficult to manage than greenhouses in really hot weather unless you also have side ventilation to reduce the heat build up. It's impossible to shade large tunnels unless you're a millionaire and have automatic outside shading. Shading inside is no good as it doesn't stop the heat and also stops air circulation. Greenhouses are easier as you can paint them with some stuff called 'Cool Glass' - it's a sort of whitewash paint which stops the heat getting through the glass. It goes clear in wet weather so doesn't stop light. My tunnels have been well over 40 deg C/100 deg F for the last couple of weeks when it's been really sunny. The best thing to do in that situation is to 'damp down' all surfaces like paths really well with water three or four times a day while it's so hot. The evaporation cools the air and keeps it moving and buoyant. Only the paths though - NEVER THE PLANTS - despite what I've seen some so-called 'experts' recommending! This just encourages diseases - particularly potato blight - especially in tunnels because they're so warm and humid - and this can attack tomatoes too.
The tops of many tomato plants curling up is always most obvious during the hottest part of the day - but if you look at them last thing at night - you will see some of them almost visibly relaxing and uncurling again - poor things! It's their only way to avoid some of the damage. Since they obviously can't run away, they have had to develop other methods. Although tomatoes like sun and bright light - they can't stand it if it's too intense - so they curl up to try to avoid leaf exposure and damage. As long as you keep damping down paths this will minimise damage as far as possible and it will have less effect. If you don't do this the overheating can cause serious long term damage. Leaves may turn brown and die back altogether, and flowers may drop - affecting potential crops and often killing plants completely. Some don't uncurl again though because they are irreversibly damaged.
Heat-damaged main tomato shoot on left with healthy undamaged side-shoot on right to be trained up as replacment main shoot
If you do have permanent heat damage to the tops of some tomato plants - this will become evident very quickly - within a few days or a week at this time of year. The leading shoot on the main stem can be so burnt, deformed and dwarfed that it will never recovers - although the rest of the plant may still be completely healthy. Often a side-shoot below the top will be unaffected by it and can quickly be trained up as an alternative leader - so although you may lose one truss of tomatoes close to the heat damage on the main stem - the rest will grow on fine later on and you won't lose too much cropping time. This is why if I suspect there may be any heat damage because of excessively high temperatures, I always leave one or two side shoots near the top and don't pinch them out until I can choose the strongest which can take over as the new 'leading' shoot. On the plant in the picture here you can clearly see that the original main shoot has become twisted and deformed - and I have left the next healthy-looking side shoot to train up. Some varieties seem to be more sensitive than other - not all seem to suffer as badly every year. This is a delicious small olive green plum/cherry tomato called Green Envy - which seems to be particularly prone to heat damage but is one of my son's favourites. So that's why I grow it - I have top keep the mower happy!
Don't over water tomato plants either - that doesn't help with heat damage - it just rots the roots! Keep the soil just nicely damp - always watering the surrounding area - never directly onto the base of plants - and mulch with grass clippings or comfrey if you can, to keep the roots cool. As I'm always saying - a little extra TLC, observation and attention to detail and you will be richly rewarded by your very grateful plants!
Cucumber 'Burpless Tasty Green' with courgette 'Atena' in side bed late May
Just as in 2017 & 2018 - it's been such a difficult year for young tomato plants.Wild swings in tunnel temperature from 100degF/40degC during the day to freezing nights. On many recent nights here it was only 2 deg C - at least 6 degrees below the basic minimum required for tomato growth. Only just a couple of weeks ago it was -3 deg C in the tunnels! Even under three layers of fleece the tomatoes were quite literally blue with cold! Since then they've been heat stressed too! I'm amazed they've recovered so well, but they're growing on again now and the weather forecast for the end of this week is for warmer nights. Let's hope so!
Bumble bee pollinating beefsteak tomato, with carrots under fleece behind
My tomatoes are always smothered in small bumble bees as soon as they're flowering - so I think that attracting pollinators is also one of the secrets, and also mulching well to keep the roots just evenly moist and to avoid wild swings in the root temperature which might otherwise stress the plants. It helps to grow flowers close to the tunnel doors on the outside of the tunnels too - a bit like a floral 'runway' or welcome sign to encourage bees to land inside the tunnels! All the tomato varieties are setting nicely now, and I can't wait to show you some of the new ones - they look really exciting - especially the new black varieties which are high in healthy anthocyanin phytochemicals.
As soon as the first complete truss is set on any variety, I start giving them a weekly liquid feed with either a home made comfrey/nettle/borage stew which provides potassium, nitrogen and magnesium - or a proprietary brand like 'Osmo' liquid organic tomato food which I've used for the several years now and found really excellent.You'll find it in most garden centres now and you can also buy it in White's Agri, Ballough Lusk Co. Dublin if you're anywhere near North County Dublin. They are the main importers for Osmo products and have the whole range there. In addition they sell the brilliant Klassman certified organic peat-free compost cheaper than most other places. I think that Osmo certified organic tomato feed is available in the UK - but if it's not available near you - then ask your garden centre to stock it. I find it a really excellent feed for everything both in the ground or in containers. With tomatoes in containers I tend to feed about 3 times a week when they get bigger as they're more dependent. I would never use a non-organic tomato food.
I also make a liquid feed if I only have a small amount of tomatoes, but it's very difficult to make enough for 90 or more plants - if I'm growing for Tomato Festivals!You just can't make it quickly enough! I'm not very scientific about exact amounts as a recipe for a home made liquid feed. I just stuff a large barrel with comfrey, borage and young fresh nettles. The nettles provide the nitrogen that really kick starts the whole breakdown process going, the borage provides magnesium that it's particularly good at extracting from the soil, and the comfrey provides potash. It really smells horrendous when it's really stewing! If you get it on your hands or clothes it's very hard to wash off! The most important thing is to use the comfrey variety Bocking 14 - as that's the one that was selected by the late Lawrence Hills of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (now re-named Garden Organic) as being the comfrey that's highest in potash. Other comfreys, including wild ones are far lower in potash. The one rule I use is to wait until it's really broken down and looks a bit like soup - and then dilute to about the colour of a weak herb tea. Don't use it too early as it may either be useless or possibly even burn roots. Wait until it looks like a green really smelly smoothie! I also give them a tonic of worm compost tea occasionally. It's all about keeping an eye on your crops, getting a feel for what they need, and feeding before they start to look hungry, otherwise it can take them a long time to pick up again. Don't overfeed them but let them become starved either - it's all about balance!
To side-shoot or not to side-shoot - that is the question! Especially with beefsteak tomatoes!
When it comes to removing side shoots, you obviously don't have to remove the side shoots of bush varieties, or you wouldn't get any fruit!. Most people know that you have to pinch out the little shoots growing in the leaf axils between the leaves and the stem on varieties of cordon or upright tomatoes, but I've never seen any of the 'experts' warning about how some of the continental beefsteaks behavethough- which makes me wonder if they've ever actually grown them!! Those types can be a bit of a law unto themselves - or try to be. You have to be firm and impose your will! I never pinch out the one or two shoots near the top of the stems until I can see a very definite main one which will continue the upward growth. From bitter experience I've found that many of them would really much prefer to be bushes which is their natural habit in the wild, and they will often make two or even three shoots at the very top which all look like leading shoots (very confusing), in which case you have to choose one which looks to be the strongest and most likely to grow on further and flower. Or maybe sometimes none at all - they'll just suddenly produce a flower truss instead, going 'blind' with no growing point at the top, in which case you have to be patient and just wait for another side shoot to begin to grow in a top leaf axil, or somewhere else, as it will do in a week or so, and then train that one up.
Beefsteaks really much prefer hotter, sunnier and drier Mediterranean or continental climate summers, like USA summers generally are, where they can be the bushes they obviously long to be, and sprawl about happily about in the sun doing do their own thing! But in our often dull, damp Irish 'summers' - if you're not strict with them - you can end up with a thoroughly unproductive, disease-ridden, slug eaten mess! Particularly with grafted ones which can be far to vigorous judging from the ones I was sent to trial a few years ago. Those were also tasteless which was a bit pointless really! They should produce four decent trusses at least though, if carefully trained. They do tend to be a bit prima-donna-ish, they ripen a lot later than the smaller tomatoes, but their flavour makes it well worth the trouble once you get the hang of them.
Many articles on growing tomatoes are written by experts living in the South East of England where their summers are so much hotter and drier than ours here or in the South West of the UK, so they don't tend to recommend varieties that are suitable for a damper climate. I've tried lots over the years, but in our damp climate with often poor light, I've found 'Pantano Romanesco' really is always the most reliable. 'Costuloto Fiorentino' and Costuloto Genovese also have a great flavour - but are a bit more disease prone in damp summers, as is Super Marmande. Black Krim and Black Sea Man both have supreme flavour but get every known disease far quicker than anything else in a polytunnel. The newer varieties which are being bred seem to be better behaved and less disease prone - but as they don't have even half the flavour - what's the point?! All tomatoes tend to prefer the much drier atmosphere of a greenhouse. I used to grow them in one every year when we lived nearer to the coast, but then greenhouses have their own unique problems too, those encouraged by a drier atmosphere, and all things being equal polytunnels are far better value for money, as you get a far bigger growing space. If I had oodles of money - I'd have a glasshouse just for tomatoes and aubergines - and polytunnels for everything else!
Reminder - Some 'experts' also fail to tell you that some varieties of tomatoes are actually meant to be bushes - and should NOT have their side shoots removed at all or you won't get any fruit! Amazingly - I saw that particular important information being completely ignored on a recent TV programme! Check your seed packet description of any variety before you start to remove side shoots!
The small cucumber Restina - seed of which I get from Lidl - is already producing fruit this year, as I sowed it in late Feb - much earlier than normal.It's a delicious gherkin or half-sized cucumber usually grown for pickling - but also scrumptious for eating fresh, with a really good 'old-fashioned' proper flavour! I can never wait for that first cucumber sandwich of the season! Despite the difficult weather - we've been eating baby courgettes and mangetout peas Oregon Sugar Pod from the tunnel for a couple of weeks now, The courgette is a delicious yellow one called 'Atena' (which will crop until Nov.) and later in the month we'll have French beans. I grow a climbing French bean called 'Cobra' which is brilliant in the tunnel - far more reliable than outside. Just one packet of 'Cobra will give you more than enough to eat for weeks on end if you keep them well picked over and watered - and will fill your freezer for the winter as well. It's an incredibly delicious, reliable and productive variety, DIY chain B&Q actually have the seed at half the price of anywhere else.
I don't bother with dwarf beans any more in the tunnel as they take up exactly the same amount of ground space, but only give you a fraction of the crop of the climbing ones - which make use of what I call 'upstairs space' to give you an enormous 'high-rise' crop. I'm sowing another late batch this week which will crop late into the autumn. The great thing about tunnels though is that they mostly protect crops from the worst extremes of the weather and all crops are far more productive under cover. In the winter this is particularly noticeable with hardier crops like chards and kales which could of course be grown outside.
I always plant basil when the chard has been cleared. I freeze masses of it to make lots of our vital 'medicinal' pesto during the winter months! There is a rule in this house which states 'you can never have too much garlic, or basil'! That first whiff of summer basil is wonderfully uplifting, but I must say that years ago when I was growing it commercially, after picking the first sixty foot row of a tunnel full of it, one did begin to feel more than a little nauseous! The aroma from the essential oil can be quite overpowering after a while. I prefer to grow basil on it's own in rows - giving it as much light and air as possible as it can be a bit disease prone in a humid tunnel atmosphere. Grown this way it's much more productive than when grown between tomato plants, which seems to be the fashion, as I see it recommended everywhere. Maybe because they go together on the plate?
Weeds shouldn't be too much of a problem now as crops will be shading them out, and you should also be mulching well, which excludes light, preserves soil moisture, keeps roots cool and encourages worm activity. If you don't mulch at this time of year the ground in the tunnel gets too hot and dry and the worms will disappear down into the lower layers of the soil where they're cooler and more comfortable. You want to keep them in the upper layers, pulling down mulches into the soil and working for you helping to feed your plants! Go round every day if possible pulling out the odd weed before it gets too big and goes to seed, and at the same time see what needs watering. If you're growing a wide variety of crops some may need water every day and others won't. This is why I dislike automatic watering systems - I think they're a complete waste of money! An automatic system can't tell if a plants waterlogged or too dry! It also can't tell what the weather is going to be later that day! There's no substitute for the personal touch and being observant - that's all having so-called'green fingers' is all about - no mystery! I have a friend who spends far more time fiddling around fixing her automatic system than I ever do with hand watering! It's always getting blocked - and ten to one they invariably let you down when you go away! If you've got room, put a barrel of water in your tunnel or greenhouse, so that you've got ambient temperature water always ready to use rather than chilling things with water from a hose. Water between plants rather than directly onto the roots, and if possible try to water well in the mornings, so that the surface has a chance to dry off before the evening when the doors are closed and the air is still.
Keep ventilating as much as possible now to keep disease at bay. Diseases proliferate in a 'muggy' damp atmosphere. If you've got a tunnel full of cucumbers on the other hand they won't mind! They love to grow in a bathroom atmosphere! Keep the soil moist for them, as the one thing that promotes cucumber powdery mildew more than anything is a damp humid atmosphere combined with dryness at the roots. All the cucurbit family should be growing quickly now, although they're not enjoying the last couple of really cold nights. Keep tying them in to their supports as they can quickly get out of hand. There's also more on planting and training cucumbers and melons, and also my method of planting on mounds to avoid common root rots.in last month's diary.
Keep encouraging tunnel wildlife
Mini-gardens under peach trees with herbs & flowers attract beneficial insects & bees
You've still got time to sow lots of flowers in your tunnel. You could also leave some of last winters herbs like coriander and parsley to flower and go to seed, or you could buy some buy flowers in modules from garden centres as a last resort. If you even have radishes bolting you can leave those too - they have pretty scented flowers that insects love! Insects also love the flowers of coriander and parsley. They definitely help to bring in insects for pollination and pest control, some can brighten up your salads and they look beautiful too. I always leave one or two chicory or endive plants too if I have room on the ends of rows - the flowers are so beautiful and the bees adore them! I've got enough seed to last me ten lifetimes now! I also keep a shallow saucer or tray full of water in the mini gardens somewhere - for the frogs which like to live in the shady damp areas of the tunnel and who are very efficient at eating those nasty damaging little grey slugs!
Itgives me so much pleasure to walk into my tunnels at this time of year and to anticipate the delights of all the wonderful crops to come - all the while knowing that I haven't poisoned or damaged anything else in order to do it!It's really so much more satisfying to grow your own food while at the same time encouraging and helping nature too. If you look after nature - it will look after you. We often tend to forget that we're only a small part of nature too. If we poison this lovely planet that we all call home - we will be leaving a terrible and painful legacy for our children.
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)
"Remember - always sow the seeds. You can catch up on everything else - but if you get behind on doing that, then there's nothing you can do about it." .......... (A great piece of advice I was given many years ago)
'Alvaro' is a fantastic melon which gave me my best polytunnel crop ever!
'Restina' mini-cucumber is a fantastic cropper- the perfect size for pickling
Sorry to mention this although it's not quite midsummer yet - but it's now time to think ahead to what crops you will want to grow over the winter, in the polytunnel or outside, and buy the seeds now if you haven't done so already! If you don'tthey may disappear off the shelves, when garden centres reorganise their stock for the autumn season which they tend to do before the end of June. Online seed companies may also be sold out of popular varieties by then.
Sow in gentle warmth in pots or modules for late summer tunnel/greenhouse cropping:
There's still time to sow French beans (dwarf and climbing), edamame (soy) beans, sweet corn, courgettes, pumpkins, summer squashes, marrows and melons. You can also still sow cucumbers & gherkins (Restina excellent variety) for late summer and early autumn cropping, also calabrese/Italian broccoli (Green Magic good) and self-blanching celery for later autumn crops.
Shade propagators and areas where you have young seedlings well from strong sun at all times now and make sure to turn off the propagators during the day, if it's warm enough. The temperature can rise dramatically in greenhouses and tunnels at this time of year, and if it's too hot - things can quite literally cook! Also remember to fill up spaces between plants in propagators with some fort of insulation like bubble wrap. This stops bare areas losing heat, stops overheating and also prevent energy waste. I save even tiny pieces of bubble wrap that comes in any packaging for this use.
Although in theory you could sow everything outside now - the nights can still be quite chilly, so it's still worth sowing tender crops like French and runner beans, sweetcorn, basil, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and squashes in pots or modules in a greenhouse, tunnel or propagator for planting outside in 2 - 3 weeks. These need reliable warmth and will germinate far more quickly undercover - often in 2-3 days - making them at least a week to to 10 days earlier than anything you might sow now outside. In addition, if the weather turns very wet - seeds can rot. Sowing in modules also avoids potential losses through slug damage, leather jackets and other pests - and it helps you to make better use of valuable growing space.
Sow some quick growing annuals now directly into the tunnel soil in odd corners and also among crops to attract bees, hoverflies and other beneficial insects which will help control pests and provide pollination. These and other flowers in return provide the insects with vital pollen and nectar.
It's also it's time to start to thinking about the slower developing winter tunnel crops. Self-blanching celery for winter tunnel cropping needs to be sown in cool conditions around mid - late June, for tunnel planting later, as it is quite a slow developer at first.
Outdoors, sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop:
Amaranth (callaloo), beetroot, carrots, cabbages (leafy non-hearting and late stone head types), peas (early varieties such as Kelvedon Wonder from now to ensure cropping before early autumn frosts), calabrese and 'tenderstem' broccoli, courgettes & marrows, 'Witloof' chicory (for winter forcing), endives, salad onions, Florence fennel, French and runner beans, leeks (an early var. for baby leeks), land cress, lettuces, perilla, orach, kohl rabi, kales (early June for winter cropping), radishes, rocket, Swiss chards, spinach, summer squashes, sweet corn, white turnips and swedes, summer purslane, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes, soft herbs such as basil, oregano, parsley, coriander, dill, fennel etc. and perennial hardy herbs including sorrel.
Also sow some single, fast growing, annual flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), calendula, Californian poppies, convulvulus tricolour, nasturtiums, phacelia, sunflowers etc. to attract beneficial insects like hoverflies to help with pest control, and bees to help with crop pollination.
Sow fast-growing green manures like buckwheat, red clover, mustard (a brassica so watch rotations) and phacelia, to improve the soil, 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms (after digging in), on any empty patches of ground that won't be used for 6 weeks or more, or which needs improving. Red clover, buckwheat and phacelia in particular are also great for bees! (You can 'bulk buy' buckwheat seed very cheaply from your local health food shop - just don't get 'roasted' buckwheat - it obviously won't germinate!!)
In warm, well-drained soils outside, tubers of oca, mashua, sweet potatoes and yacon can all be planted now
(Although all of these will produce a better crop in a tunnel, particularly in Ireland, as they like warm soil, bulk up late, and are vulnerable to autumn frosts. They also prefer well-drained conditions) With yacon - you plant the small baby 'growing' tubers that cluster round the stem area at the top of the larger tubers. These all need a long growing season as they only begin forming their tubers in late autumn - in colder frost prone areas growing them in a greenhouse or tunnel is the best way to get a reliable crop, but be aware that Yacon in particular needs a lot of space!
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)
May topics:The Bet Autumn Raspberry yet! A new way to grow strawberries - my stepladder garden.... Other fruit jobs.... Thinning peaches and apricots....An urgent job for grapevines.... Time to plant tender fruit raised from seed.... Make your own fruit cage.... The best time to buy fruit trees?....
Delicious Raspberry Erika - first of the potted raspberries to ripen in May, will go on fruiting until at least mid-November!
The Best Autumn Raspberry Yet!
Erika is a new autumn-fruiting raspberry which I trialled for the first time last year and I think it's definitely the best ever!As a 'primocane' variety - it produces fruit in autumn on the new canes formed each year - as all autumn raspberries do. But if you leave those canes over winter until the following year, instead of cutting them right down to the ground as recommended, you can get twice the crop! This is because the old canes will flower and fruit again in early summer the following year, lower down, just below where they fruited the previous autumn, if you cut them off just below the dead flower trusses from last year in early spring and feed the plants with a high potash organic fertilser or compost. This is a trick I discovered aver 30 years ago quite by accident - by not pruning them down to the ground in winter - as currently recommended for all autumn-fruiting raspberries. After they have fruited for the second time - then cut down these canes and feed the plants well. This gives the newly forming canes that will fruit in autumn plenty of energy and room to grow.
Not only that - but they're also happy in large pots in the fruit tunnel - which means I stagger my raspberry crop even more by having the first of the second-year's crop ripe a few weeks earlier inside- well before outside ones are ripening. This year they ripened fruit on the 12th of this month, and last year those very same canes were still producing fruit on the 6th of November in the polytunnel - amazing! In addition - the berries are large, have the fabulous sweet acidity that any good raspberry should have, are firm, disease resistant and freeze exceptionally well. From now on I think this will definitely be my standard raspberry. I've tried all of the autumn raspberry varieties over the years, and this is without question the best so far! Just as good if not better than any of the supposedly better-tasting summer varieties. Not only that - but growing this raspberry both inside and out will give me delicious fruit for potentially from May until November or even early December. - So "what's not to like?" - as the say!
Polytunnel grown strawberries Albion, Gento & Christine in May
May, Chelsea Flower Show and the first strawberries and cream, are synonymous with the real start of summer aren't they? The strawberries they sell there aren't organic though, I'll bet! They'll have been grown using a lot of pesticides - as recent research shows that strawberries are one of the most-sprayed fruit crops. But it couldn't be easier to grow your own perfect, chemical-free, healthy and delicious fruits - or to extend the summer season from May until November even in the tiniest garden or courtyard - using the space-saving idea I came up with a few years ago! This year the strawberries won't be quite as early as those pictured above last year - the weather was so erratic last month and so cold earlier this year that the bulk of them are only just starting to ripen now - even in the polytunnel.
A new way to grow alpine strawberries? Success was mixed last year
Alpine strawberry Reugen initially cropping well early in my 'stepladder garden'
Not all of my experiments are successful - but experimenting is the way to learn new tricks - so I never stop! Alpine strawberries were the occupants of my stepladder garden last year. They're a wonderful variety called Reugen which I grew from seed I got from Chiltern Seeds many years ago. Every year they seemed to get a bit harder to pick due to my bad back. Last year it occurred to me that they'd be an awful lot easier to pick if they were growing on the rising tiers of my 'stepladder garden', instead of growing in a low raised bed. Even sitting on a stool to pick them still involved an awful lot of bending to pick a decent amount! So I took out the 2016 occupants - herbs - which made them parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme steps. I then refreshed my usual soil and organic peat-free compost mix then transplanted some of the alpine strawberry plants growing on the edges of the beds in the other polytunnel. They settled down very nicely into the recycled mushroom boxes - so much so that they became very overcrowded about half way through the year and were drying out too quickly in the hot sun in the polytunnel.
Sadly, because of that - they weren't as successful as the Albion perpetual strawberries - which loved the bright sunny conditions and good drainage. With hindsight - alpine strawberries are really woodland/hedgerow plants, and if the stepladder had been in the shade they might have been far happier. Still - it was worth a try and next time I do this I might put them on a stepladder in the shade, as they would be a great crop for a shady small garden, courtyard, or even a balcony. They're such a fiddle to bend and pick being smallish and much harder to find than normal-sized strawberries - so a ladder garden or raised bed is a much easier way of growing them. They do need watering a bit more frequently in the heat of the tunnel - but the bumblebees loved them and did a great job of pollinating their beautiful tiny flowers and they ripened a huge crop at first and they were a veritable waterfall of deliciously aromatic small strawberries early in the season. Alpine strawberries are heaven to eat - but hell to pick! Growing them this way would be perfect for them - but not in a very hot sunny spot! This year my stepladder is bush tomatoes - again trialling different varieties - so it will be interesting to see how they do. They'll love the sun for sure!
My 'Strawberry Steps' a few days after planting in 2015
Strawberries are a very obliging fruit that can be planted at this time of year and will establish very quickly.Perpetual or 'everbearing' strawberries will even start to give you good crops in just a few weeks - and will crop continuously for the rest of the year. Some specialist online fruit nurseries in the UK sell 'cold-stored' plants at this time of year. These take off like rockets as soon as they are planted - and all the perpetual varieties will fruit right up until November in a polytunnel, greenhouse or any sunny, sheltered spot. They will also fruit for much of the summer and autumn if just covered with cloches outside in the garden. If you love strawberries but simply don't have room for another soil bed in your garden, or perhaps don't even have any garden - only a courtyard, balcony or a path - then the stepladder growing method I invented many years ago could be the thing for you! It takes up so little space that you could grow a high-rise strawberry bed even in a well lit sunny porch. Imagine not even having to go outside on a wet day to pick fruit? Growing some inside as well as outside will spread the crop conveniently and also give you a longer season of fruit too.
Side view of the stepladder garden planted with strawberries, starting to ripen. The alyssum attracts pollinators
I've used this method to grow all sorts of crops over the last few years and they're very happy.
If you have a stepladder with nice wide steps - or can buy one cheaply - then that's an ideal start. To grow the plants in, those recycled plastic mushroom boxes from the local supermarket fit nicely onto the average step, they're deep enough to hold enough a good amount of compost, and are perfect for this. They don't have drainage holes in the bottom - only about half way down the sides, but that's not a problem - as you don't want water from one pouring down straight onto the next one down. There's generally about a couple of inches at the bottom with no drainage holes in those boxes - so that means there's always a small reserve of moisture at the bottom that will stop the boxes drying out completely on a hot day, as long as the compost is generally kept nice and moist most of the time. They're also nice and light even when filled with the compost mix.
If you can't get those - any sort of plastic box that would fit onto the steps would do, and if it has no drainage holes - then I would make some about a third of a way up the sides. If it does have holes on the bottom - then I would put a piece of polythene cut from a compost bag on the bottom, going about an inch or so up the sides - just to stop water and feed draining straight through if the compost gets very dry and is difficult to re-wet. Or you could use those rectangular cat litter trays as effective drip trays. You can put a box on each step, then on the ground in front of the last step you can put either a large pot or another box on a plant saucer or drip tray. Strawberries really seem to love growing this way - I think it's because they get more light, warmth and really good air circulation, so they don't get diseases caused by damp.
To fill the grow-boxes, I mix 1/3rd good garden soil and 2/3rds peat-free organic compost.(my favourite Klassman organic compost is ideal for this and not too heavy). The bit of soil is important to add as it gives the mix more moisture-holding capacity. I also add about a tablespoonful of seaweed meal to the mix for each box. This adds some potash and also alginates - which again helps with water retention and also encourages the good microbial activity which you want for healthy crops. I plant 2 strawberry plants into each box, this is plenty - as they'll be so happy if well looked-after that they grow into quite big plants. I plant them just 'proud' of the soil with the crown of the plant just at finished soil level. Strawberry plants should never be buried below crown level or they will quickly rot - they hate to be wet. When I've got the box nearly full I make a sort of pyramid shape in the compost with my hand on each side and then put one strawberry plant on top of each - fanning out the roots a bit like the spokes of an umbrella. I cover the roots with compost and then water gently in with the rose on the watering can. Two plants is plenty for each box or they'll be too crowded. I don't water them again until they're growing well and the compost is starting to dry out. A good 'Perpetual' or 'ever-bearing' variety like Albion will produce crops from mid May until November, given the warmth and shelter of a polytunnel. Being so productive - the plants will exhaust their food supply fairly quickly in their small boxes, so after they've been cropping for a month or so, I then feed about twice a week with a good tomato feed like Osmo organic which I find excellent. When the plants start to make runners - then you could hang some of those 'growing pockets' on the sides of the stepladder, so that you could root the runners into them to produce new plants. Or, alternatively, you could root them into small pots on top of each box - detaching each of the runners once they're well rooted. Never cut them off as some catalogues recommend - perpetual strawberries don't usually make runners after their first year - and if you don't root them - you'll have to buy more plants! Don't worry - they won't exhaust well-fed and well looked-after plants.
If you have a source of cheap stepladders - you could even have several and make a bank of them against a wall - giving you a lot more growing space! They're far cheaper than any of the specially designed and very expensive wooden structures you can buy for growing in - and also don't have any nasty wood preservatives! They may not look quite as beautiful but frankly - costing anything upwards of 200 euros they're too expensive! Once they're covered with plants - you can hardly see the structure anyway! My stepladder cost me 20 euros from Lidl about 8 years ago and the boxes cost nothing! Set that against the price of buying organic strawberries, if you can find them - or even non-organic, and the stepladder will be paid for in just a couple of weeks! One year I grew salads on it, with a tomato trained up one side, growing in a large 10 litre pot, and a cucumber in the same size pot up the other. Both pots were sitting on plant saucers, and they were tied to the frame and to canes as they grew. It worked really well. Basically anything that will grow in a window box will grow well this way if looked after well, and it really extends your growing space. OK - it does take a little bit of watering every couple of days depending on the weather - but it's very little trouble really. I grow my auriculas on a stepped staging of recycled planks resting on concrete block against a north wall and you could also grow other things in that way. If you don't have a stepladder - many people may have an old skip bag hanging around gathering dust - and these make another great raised growing space for many things! I'm now on the lookout for a couple more cheap ladders with nice wide steps!
Strawberry jobs outside
Put straw, strawberry mats or ground cover material under developing fruit of strawberry plants, to keep them off the damp ground - they may develop botrytis rot if resting on bare soil. Fruit of the early varieties is just starting to ripen now, so put netting over them to keep the birds away. Keep an eye out for slugs - look under straw and mats, pick them up and destroy - using your preferred method -don't use slug pellets! In containers, mulch strawberries with a thick layer of gravel or grit, this keeps them clean and deters vine weevil from laying it's grubs into the compost. If you're buying pot grown plants from nurseries and garden centres - make sure they're firmly rooted in their pots, if they are loose they may already have vine weevil munching away the roots! They are also very likely to have nasty chemicals in the soil too - so I wouldn't want to eat them! The vine weevil nematode - a biological control - works well instead of chemicals if the soil temperature is warm enough. It needs to be above about 10 deg C, so you can use it safely in summer.
Other jobs in the fruit garden
Mulching to conserve moisture and keep down weeds is a priority at the moment around any trees, bushes or canes, particularly around those newly planted. Letting the soil dry out or letting weeds get the upper hand will mean problems establishing roots and poor crops later. Hand weed between raspberry plants, don't hoe, or you may otherwise damage or even slice off the shoots of new canes as they emerge from the ground. If the spring is very dry it's important to keep apple trees well watered and mulched - if they are dry at the roots this will encourage powdery mildew to develop on the new shoots. Never mulch right up to the stem though - always keep any mulch about about 30cm/1ft away from the stem.
On blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries now, keep an eye out for gooseberry sawfly caterpillars - they eat the leaves and can reduce them to skeletons very quickly! If you find any squash them or pick them off and put them on the bird table! The birds are so hungry this year as there are so few insects about that they will be grateful! If you run a few hens in your fruit cage in winter and early spring - you won't have a problem with these as they hoover them up.
Tie in new growths of loganberries, Tayberries and blackberries, to stop them lashing around in wind and being damaged.
Blueberries are flowering now, so it's really important tomake sure they don't dry out - particularly if they're in containers - or the flowers will just drop off instead of setting fruit. Don't forget to use rainwater for watering, as they are ericaceous plants (in other words they are plants that like an acid soil like rhododendrons - or like the wild bilberry you can find growing in the mountainous and boggy areas all around Ireland. They don't like hard, calcium-rich tap water. If you're planting new bushes, make sure you plant at least two varieties, so that you get good pollination and fruit set. My favourites are 'Brigitta Blue' and 'Darrow' - the latter is the best flavoured variety I've found so far - some varieties are pretty tasteless in my opinion! If you're planting blueberries purely for their health properties - tests a couple of years ago showed that black berries are just as high in healthy antioxidant phytochemical compounds - they just haven't had an expensive PR campaign like blueberries have! They're an awful lot easier to grow though, will thrive in any garden and be productive - even on a north facing wall (see previous diaries). There are thorn-free varieties that will thrive in small gardens or even in containers - and they tend to be less vigorous that the thorny kind, so won't take over your garden and they're available in most garden centres. There are even 'primocane' varieties now like 'Reuben' that will fruit in their first year!
An urgent job for grapevines
Side shoot or fruiting spur of grapevine - showing end of shoot pinched out 2 leaf joints beyond prospective bunches
Grapevines are developing fast now. Pinch back the ends of all fruiting shoots now on the side-shoots or 'spurs' as they are known - two leaves beyond budding potential flowering trusses. These are easily recognisable and doing this concentrates all the vine's energy into developing the fruit rather than unproductive leafy growth. It also prevents it becoming the tangled, unproductive mess that I see in so many gardens! Occasionally if a vine is very vigorous - I may leave two bunches developing on every other side shoot to give me a bigger crop - but I wouldn't do this on newly planted or weak-growing vines. Don't pinch back the last two shoots on the main 'rod' or stem. The first will draw the sap along the stem and continue the leading shoot's growth. The second is insurance in case for some reason you happen to lose the first. That can then be pruned back in winter if the other remains undamaged then. You can have as many main 'rods' or stems carrying side shoots as you want or your space allows - but remember that air circulation is vital for preventing disease - especially when the fruit is ripening.
Time to plant tender fruit raised from seed this year
Cape gooseberries (Physalis Peruviana) in October
Plant Cape Gooseberries (golden or pichu berry) outside at the end of May, or earlier in polytunnels. These are a useful fruit as they don't need to be protected from any pests, which don't see the delicious orange fruit inside their little paper lanterns. They are a great crop to grow in containers against a sunny wall, where the extra protection helps the fruit to ripen in the autumn - you can also bring in the whole plant in its pot to a frost free place where they go on ripening over the winter. I grow mine in tubs in one of my tunnels. When they're picked in the autumn they keep for months in the fridge in their little packages.
Young Physalis (cape gooseberry) plants - ready for planting
My Cape gooseberry plants are just ready for planting into their tubs in the next few days, as you can see here. They're incredibly easy to grow, trouble free and delicious and very expensive to buy in shops - so do try them. They're unbelievably easy to grow.
You can plant melons out under cloches at the end of the month in milder areas, or in the tunnel now if you have space - where they really love the warmth and humidity. Plant on a mound of well prepared, fertile ground in a sunny spot and watch out for slugs! Water the soil and put slates down around the planting area to trap them prior to planting - then you should have less trouble with them. When melons have grown 4 or 5 leaves - pinch out the tip to encourage side shoots to form - then pinch these out at 5 leaves also. The fruit buds will then form on the sub-laterals from these, as I explained in last month's fruit diary.
Twinned or conjoined peach fruitlets won't develop
Peaches, nectarines and apricots outside should be about the size of a large pea and ready for their first thinning now. Polytunnel fruits are already having their second second thinning. Gently twist off any awkwardly placed. crowded, twinned (conjoined) or damaged fruitlets, leaving them about 2in/5cm apart, at the first thinning. At the next thinning, when they are the size of large walnuts, leave them spaced 4in/10 cm apart. I missed thinning these crowded peach fruitlets - 6
here will be thinned to one.
Early peaches in tunnels should have already been thinned as they will be at least three weeks ahead of any outside. If you don't do this then the tree may dump all it's fruit later on as it can't cope with developing them all! Keep them well watered and fed from now on too. This is the only time I give mine a liquid feed. I use Osmo tomato food about once a week - giving the roots a good soak. It is very good for strawberries too.
Prune and train all stone fruits and figs where necessary now. If you need to make large pruning cuts on something like cherries then do it on a sunny day when the cuts will have a good chance to dry out and promote healing so that disease has no chance to set in.
Feed, mulch and water rhubarb well - also tidy up any broken stems - we had a vicious wind one night last week, which smashed many people's rhubarb patches locally. Rhubarb leaves are so large that they behave just like sails in the wind! Don't worry though - they soon recover - it's hard to kill rhubarb! Break off any flowering shoots as soon as they start to emerge or they will drain energy from the plants.
Make your own fruit cage
Why not make your own fruit cage now?It's so much handier to be able to walk in and out - instead of grovelling on your hands and knees or bending double underneath netting! They are extremely expensive to buy ready made, with steel tubing etc. but I made one really cheaply a few years ago, which does exactly the same job for a fraction of the price, and looks just as good. I used 8ft.x 3in tree stakes, driven 18in into the ground about 8ft apart each way, tacking tying wire to the tops with staples, stretching the wire as tight as possible, and then hanging netting all around the sides, leaving a good overlap for getting in and out. I then used a separate piece of netting, draped over the top and down about a foot or so all around the sides, for the roof of the cage. I used clothes pegs to secure all the netting last year, but this year I shall use small wire ties - I think that will look neater!.
You will need to be able to take off the roof off the cage in the winter or it may be weighed down by snow and broken. You also want birds to be able to get in there for most of the winter, to clear up any pests which may be lurking. You can put the top back on again before the fruit starts ripening! The netting needs to be big enough to allow bumblebees in, but small enough to keep birds out. There were a lot of frustrated blackbirds in my garden for the last couple of years - they were cursing me all the time!! But I do plant a lot of fruit for them down in my little wood, seedlings I find around and any rooted pieces of my other bushes. If you're handy at carpentry, you could even make the cage structure look quite decorative, adding finials etc., and making a feature out of it - Oh for the time and energy!! I bought all my netting in the autumn a few years ago, when many of the garden centres and multiples had end of season clearance sales. Keep an eye out for cheap netting this autumn - it's often a third of the usual price!
The best time to buy fruit trees?
It's possible to plant most types of fruit all year round now from containers, but it really is the most expensive way to buy them, and the range available is actually very limited in most garden centres. While naturally it's much nicer to be able buy Irish-grown plants and trees, sadly enough choice of good flavoured, productive fruit that the average gardener needs simply isn't there at present. Many of the varieties I see for sale in garden centres - or even listed in 'so called' specialist fruit nurseries, are totally unsuitable for our climate, or for small back gardens. Either that or go to the other extreme of having a root stock so 'dwarfing' they are no more than the fruiting equivalent of garden gnomes, and will never produce more than one or two apples if you're lucky! The trees are generally not healthy in our damp climate here and are susceptible to scab, they are very difficult to grow well and also incredibly expensive. That's fine if you only want a bit of an ornament, but there are more suitable root stocks and plenty of tasty, productive varieties available out there which are far better - they're just not widely available here! You could actually get three good varieties by buying mail order bare root apple trees - for instance - for the price of just one of those potted, extra-dwarfing 'Coronet' varieties here! So if you want a really wide choice of fruit to give you a long season - you really have no option other than to buy from a specialist mail order supplier either in Ireland or the UK. I know the market isn't huge here - but there are times when I feel there's a 'that's good enough' attitude from some garden centres, who often know very little about fruit and have absolutely no interest in it. It's very short-sighted, as people won't come back and buy more if their first efforts are a waste of time. Usually the buyer thinks it's their fault - when often in fact it's a totally unsuitable varieties like Cox's Orange Pippin or Golden Delicious, both of which prefer a warmer drier climate - or it's on the wrong root stock for their soil and situation. Johnstown Garden Centre or Future Forests are two good nurseries here which will order specific varieties in for you if you give them plenty of notice - like now or soon! Both source excellent quality trees. Granted they are not as cheap as bare root trees, but are always well-grown and will carry a good crop the year after planting. So - as they say - "you pay your money and you make your choice" - it's up to you!
I'm not going to buy a bad variety just because it may be all that happens to be available here. Fruit trees are a major long-term investment! Imported mail order bare root trees and plants are usually much cheaper, and bare root trees will undoubtedly establish far better, so this is a good time of year to look online or send off for fruit catalogues - all are full of very useful information on taste, season of ripening, climate suitability, size and pruning techniques. In fact - all the information you don't get when you buy an apple or other fruit from a garden centre - and best of all - catalogues are free! It means you can really do your homework and choose the perfect variety for your garden or orchard. The next couple of months is a really good time to order trees etc. for autumn delivery from October. If you order over the summer - you will be first in line and get the best of what's available rather than if you leave it until the mood strikes you after Christmas - when all you will get is the tail end of what's left! If you plant fruit trees and bushes in the autumn, the soil is normally still warm and in a reasonable condition to work and prepare properly, so trees will have two or three months when the soil is still warm enough to encourage good root activity. That means they should establish well before they have to start supporting top growth. After December though, our Irish winters can become very wet, often making it impossible to touch the soil in many areas until well into early spring. Thinking ahead at least two or three months is just as important in the fruit garden as it is in the vegetable garden. The problem is that many people don't start to think about planting fruit until they see someone else's apple tree flowering or see them in garden centres - which is really nolt the best time to plant!
The other drawback of buying potted fruit from garden centres is that invariably the trees and bushes will have been potted using a peat compost - not a natural habitat for fruit trees! In fact not a natural growing medium for anything except bog plants! The chemical fertilisers which have to be added can promote a lot of soft, unhealthy growth, and the trees often aren't happy about establishing their roots outside into soil when planted, after getting used to the peat - particularly if they a bit pot-bound as they usually are! Before ordering any fruit - do your research well - plan the right varieties to will pollinate each other, order now for good bare root trees to plant in early autumn, and look forward to really good crops in years to come!
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)
May topics: Golden rule number one in life - always be flexible!.... It pays to be flexible at a moment's notice in the garden now too!.... The many advantages of 'raised', 'deep' or 'lazy' beds. Protecting early potatoes and other crops with fleece. Feeding your compost heap! Planting out tender crops in late May. Other jobs for May.
Broccoli Nine Star Perennial is delicious but looks almost too beautiful to eat!
Golden rule number one in life - always be flexible!
My May veg blog is a little later than usual this year - as I'm a bit behind with the work again here due to breaking my ankle badly on 16th March, so nothing has been done outside in the kitchen garden this spring! I've spent a lot of time in the last few weeks travelling to and from hospitals and doctors, but things are slowly beginning to mend so I hope to be back outside in the kitchen garden again before too long! My daughter has been over here helping me - but she's been concentrating mostly on the polytunnels, as I will find those much easier to manage when I'm able to resume doing a little bit of gentle gardening again. She and my son have also been looking after all the animals including the poultry, as they're the most important. I'm thinking of sowing some green manures on the raised beds in a couple of week's time - when I'm hopefully able to venture into the garden again. That will be very beneficial for the soil, and I may then later plant something fast growing things like pumpkins and squashed on one or two of the beds through the 'cover-crop' of green manure. At least that way I will have something to store through the winter, as it's too late to plant potatoes now. Then later on in early August I shall plant a late crop of potatoes to have at Christmas. Thinking sideways, adapting to circumstances and flexibility are definitely things one needs to be able to do when life throws challenges in the way!
As you know - I usually just stick to blogging about gardening - not about more personal stuff as many people do - but I'm sure that some of you know by now that I'm partially slightly disabled due to progressive degenerative disc disease, and also having from two arms that only half work due to various accidents over the years. Sometimes I think perhaps it's a good thing to show people that I'm not Superwoman, much as I would like to be - because too often people say - oh it's alright for you - but I couldn't because of X, Y, or Z reasons! So many times I hear things like - "I have a bad back/depression/am unfit/don't have space/time etc etc"... Believe me - just like anyone else - I can often feel like just sitting on the sofa and reading a good book (in my case recipe books!). But I know that if I can drag myself up and make the effort - even if at times it's even painful - I will feel so much better for it.
I like proving that if you really want to grow your own food, no matter what the problems - you can always find some way to overcome them if you really want to! That's as long as you can at least sit or stand upright! A great friend of mine was recently diagnosed with MS and can barely walk - but loves growing her own food - so her son has collected a few bathtubs that were about to be thrown out off building sites and made her a very idiosyncratic container garden! As at the moment standing upright holding onto a walking frame is just about all I can do until my ankle is better - I've decided to experiment with a bit more disabled gardening. So I got my daughter to carry my stepladder out from the polytunnel where is usually lives, to beside our front step, so that I can do some more experimenting with gardening in small spaces or with physical difficulties. This is something which I did a lot years ago after spinal surgery, and when living in a house with a tiny garden - so it's nothing new to me - although I now have lots of new ideas with more experience. It really keeps my spirits up to be able to pick even a small amount of healthy salad or other veg that I've grown myself.
I see so many people complaining on social media about feeling depressed and wish I could show them all that it's far better to focus on what you CAN do - not what you CAN'T! I also see many folk saying that they need cake or wine to cheer themselves up. Frankly - both are the last thing they need - and I speak from experience! Cake is full of sugar which gives you an instant high but then makes you feel even more depressed, not long after you've eaten it - and wine does exactly the same if you're drinking much it on a regular basis! Both are nice occasionally - but not as a regular salve for one's moods. Gardening is one of the best ways to cure depression - with many positive benefits for mental and physical health - so it's far better than trying to give your mood a temporary lift with junk food of alcohol. Even if you don't have a garden - or don't want to try gardening just going for a walk in the countryside, breathing fresh air and also inhaling the magic Mycobacterium vaccae in the air is proven to stimulate serotonin production in the brain and lift mood....then try having a glass of kefir which is full of 'good mood'-making, probiotic microbes! It works every time - I guarantee it!
More than ever this year in particular - I feel so blessed that I have my garden. I simply couldn't live without it. Not just because it grows so much wonderful produce which I couldn't buy in shops even if I wanted to - butIt's also my therapy and my sanctuary from the world and solace for any troubles. Although I have to admit there have been many days in the past when I really had to push myself to get out of the house and do something in the polytunnel - even if some days it was just sitting and planning, because I was in too much pain to do anything else. Even when when the weather is bad I can gently work in my polytunnel, but if I don't feel like it - then I can just sit feeling the blessing of the gentle early morning sun on my face and listen to the bumblebees buzzing happily while they enjoy the flowers and the birds singing their hearts out! Over the years I have had a couple of occasions when I stared possible paralysis, or even death, in the face - believe me it's so good to be alive, upright and out in the garden on a spring day! I always feel so much better after being out there doing something positive - no matter how small a thing it is.
It's truly wonderful to get your hands into the warm, vitally alive earth - to literally 'plug-into' the earths energy. I believe that it's a primal human need in all of us to have even a small patch of earth to connect with, to cultivate and to grow some food. It's a basic instinct which man has had since time immemorial - and despite our seeming 'modernity' - the effects of thousands of years of evolution can't be erased in what is relatively just a few decades. There is no doubt that humans are much healthier both mentally and physically if they have close contact with the earth and can eat food which is naturally-grown in it. Healthy food doesn't grow without a healthy soil. Growing food for our families is one of the most basic and satisfying things we can do - and no matter what happens I will go on gardening! I hope you will too.
It pays to be flexible at a moment's notice in the garden now too!
Once we thought that gardening rules would always be the same for ever - but our seasons are less reliable and predictable now. It pays to make sure that you've got plenty of fleeces available to cover vulnerable tender plants when necessary.Take care over the next few days - as frosts can still occur unexpectedly when the skies clear late at night. Temperatures have been plummeting here at night to -8 deg C on some nights. The potatoes in pots will have to be fleeced every night now as they're up about 12 inches or more in some cases and it's not worth taking the risk of losing them now. May weather can often see-saw back and forth between baking hot summer-like days and freezing cold wintry nights - so it's not a good time for a gardener to be away from the garden for very long if you grow all your own food!! I'm constantly obsessing about the weather in May and ready to run out with fleece at the slightest hint of a frost! But it really does pay off taking that extra bit of care - even if some evenings it's the last thing you feel like doing, after a long hard day! I console myself with the thought of all the delicious crops to come - many of which will see us all through next winter. Most of the crops that I grow I could never buy in the shops even if I wanted to - especially grown organically - and I wouldn't dream of eating anything else but organic!
If you're already panicking and feeling a bit behind with the work - then don't worry - so am I But there's still plenty of time to catch up this month. Pretty much everything can still be sown, especially things like French beans, pumpkins and squashes - which develop very fast and hate to be held up and get pot bound. I often find my May sowings actually do far better than earlier ones specifically for that reason. Don't forget though that if you use fleeces - take them off during the day and dry them out if possible - because wet fleece is worse than no fleece and offers no protection at all. The weight of it can do a lot of damage too - especially if it gets frozen to the plants. A good way to prevent this and also stop pigeons eating stuff is to suspend netting over the plants first, and then that will support the fleece too - which can be pegged to it with clothes pegs - especially worth doing if you live somewhere windy like I do! A lot of trouble some may think? But when I taste the wonderful early veg that I can't buy anywhere then believe me it's well-worth every bit of effort!
In the past, before climate change began, our weather seemed to be a little more predictable - but just as in other areas of life - there's no point thinking about the past except to learn from it and to be prepared for anything! We have to deal with the here and now - gardeners now have to think 'on the hoof' and be practical. We're going to have to be a lot more flexible with our gardening in the future, be adaptable and find new ways of doing many things - responding and adapting to the unreliable and fickle weather from week to week. You can pretty much throw the all old gardening advice books out of the window - that is when it comes to advice about exactly when and precisely how to do things. Flexibility is the key from now on. I've never slavishly followed the rule books anyway, being something of a rebel! I always asked 'why'? I read all the basic advice I could in my early days of gardening and then adapted it to my organic way of doing things and also to my particular local climate. That flexibility is vital, is something I've learnt from many years of practical experience in various changing gardening situations and locations. I call it 'seat of the pants' gardening!
Basic requirements like the need for proper rotations will never change though - in fact they will become even more necessary and relevant to how we can best utilise our precious soils in the future. I find that so many of the new 'experts' these days are giving advice obviously taken directly from often outdated books and not gained from their own practical experience - if they indeed have any! In so many cases that's just not relevant any more.Everything is changing now - and so must we - if we want to keep producing enough good, healthy food for ourselves.This year - with unexpected droughts, violent storms and floods happening once again all over the entire planet - it is predicted that food prices will rise even more. And that's apart from the undoubted effects which Brexit will have on food prices! So it's never been more important to grow our own food - and to do it organically - which is sustainable and helps to mitigate climate change, rather than accelerating it as conventional chemical farming does!
After a very dry spring here again - later on in the year we may well have to cope with even worse drought again like last year - but organic soils are much more resistant to the stresses of extreme weather conditions due to their high humus content, so they tend to cope much better. The humus organic soils contain acts as a buffer almost like a sponge - absorbing water and cushioning plant roots against extremes of both floods and drought. Humus also fixes carbon in the soil which helps to offset climate change. In areas where soils have been degraded and topsoil lost through many years of chemical farming, rainfall just runs off the compacted dead mineral dust that passes for soil - causing flooding - instead of soaking into the humus-rich, moisture retentive sponge that a good organic soil should be. All plants grow far more healthily, withstand stress far better and are more naturally disease-resistant in a living, well-nurtured and properly structured, organic soil.
The many advantages of 'raised', 'deep' or 'lazy' (aka no-dig) beds
Potatoes mulched with grass clippings in one of the newer raised beds
Every spring I am so grateful for my raised beds. I've grown in raised or 'deep' beds for over 38 years now. That's the basis on which I originally planned the whole vegetable garden here - as I lay in my hospital bed after spinal surgery and later for a few months at home, unable to walk after a bad fall from a horse. I already knew then that gardening in the conventional way, on the flat was going to be completely out of the question for me in the future.
On re-reading my treasured collection of old Soil Association 'Mother Earth' magazines going back to the late 1930s, I found that there were some very interesting results from so-called 'no-dig' growing then - especially on lighter soils. Others were growing in 'raised' or 'deep beds' or even 'lazy beds' as they are called here in Ireland. So I decided to combine all three methods of growing to suit my capabilities - by making 'raised/no-dig/lazy beds'! Planning the garden gave me hope and kept me going at what was one of the very lowest times in my life. I've never regretted the work of making them. Originally they were just made by simply throwing the soil up from the paths to give more depth and drainage and afterwards mulched - just as the old 'lazy beds' were made for growing potatoes, in pre-famine days, in the West of Ireland. Luckily I had some help do that hard job in those days - and until my relative fitness returned, all I had to do was to mulch and plant! The beds weren't made by lashing on tons of bought in non-organic manure or mushroom compost, their fertility evolved gradually and naturally over time.
After over 30 years of mulching, green manuring and adding as much home-made compost as possible - they've become so raised that they're more than double the height they were when I started. It's only rarely now that I have to do any gardening on the flat - when planting trees for instance - and when I do I am so thankful for my raised beds and so is my back!! The beds are so much easier to work, and are an absolute godsend now that I'm partially disabled with one half-working arm since I broke my right shoulder very badly over 3 years ago. When I was growing commercially, I used to have 12 un-dug, raised or 'deep' beds, roughly 10m/30 feet long and 1.3 m/4 feet wide. I made the raised deep (or no dig) beds about 4 ft/1.3 m or less wide so that I could reach comfortably to the middle from both sides. On a 4 ft bed I can just plant 3 rows of potatoes across - then space them out a bit more along the length of the bed - about 2 ft/60 cm apart down the bed or 90 cm/3 ft for main crops. That works very well for me. Now I've cut down and am planning to have only the 6 closest to the house. I'm gradually raising all of these even higher using planks, so that I shall always be able to grow my own veg - even if I have to just sit on a chair. I have no intention of ever giving up veg growing! The other half of the old deep beds will gradually be planted with even more fruit so hopefully will be far less labour-intensive - but still very productive. That will still give us plenty of room for vegetable growing along with the tunnels, which I find much easier to manage. The tunnels are always workable no matter what the weather conditions outside, in our often very wet climate. I also have to take into account that the family around the table is often smaller at times now too - so I don't need quite as much.
My new, higher level raised beds were made with planks treated with an organic wood preservative (very important where you're growing food) and filled with soil dug from the wildlife pond which I created a few years ago at the bottom of the wildlife meadow. Although unfortunately I couldn't persuade the chap who dug the pond to separate and sort the soil into topsoil and subsoil, I've found over the years that by using compost, green manures, organic mulches, cover crops and proper rotations to create humus and encourage beneficial microbial life, it only takes about 3 or 4 years to convert even the very worst of soil into a really nice medium to grow plants in. It never has to be dug. At the very most it's lightly forked if necessary to remove crops. I can use my fingers to plant small modules and a small trowel to plant bigger modules things like cabbage plants. You don't need tons of compost or manure, it's like junk food for plants and very little better than force-feeding with chemical fertilisers! It's far better to encourage and work with nature and to do things gradually, allowing all the microbes and soil life to develop in nature's own time, if you want to grow really healthy and nutritious crops. If you pile on the tons of nitrogen-rich manure advocated by some - firstly there's potential for massive run-off and pollution of groundwater in our increasingly wet climate. Secondly, any excess nutrients that don't run off are taken up by plants, promoting soft sappy growth that is far more vulnerable to pests and diseases in exactly the same way as artificially-fed crops.
Overfed plants are just like overfed people - unhealthy! In addition, quite apart from that it's virtually impossible to find an organic farmer with manure for sale - and any non-organic you buy will contain many pesticides, weedkillers and antibiotic residues which are extremely damaging to all soil life. I'm planning to gradually convert all my old deep beds in my now downsized vegetable garden into these higher level beds over the next couple of years, using my sub/topsoil mix and proper organic methods of gradual soil improvement the way Nature does it. No 'quick-fix' methods for me - that's not Nature's way!
If you haven't yet seen it - here's the video of the talk I gave in December 2016 at The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, for the Irish Launch of the 'European People for Soil' campaign. It was entitled 'There is life after soil abuse'. In my talk I showed how I gradually restored the natural health of my badly degraded soil here using organic methods: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjN30StFsf0&feature=youtu.be
Protecting early potatoes and other crops with fleece
The most vulnerablethings that really need to be looked after outside now are the sappy new shoots of potato plants - they can't stand even the slightest whiff of frost or they'll turn to black mush, so they must be covered with fleece if frost threatens. They are too big now to earth up, as I get them going early. Some of the early varieties already have flower buds this year as they've been so delayed, but I don't worry about that, as long as they're watered and fed if necessary they'll be fine. I planted out about 2/3rd of my pot-raised potatoes only last week due to the late cold season. Last year - 2017 - I had already planted them out 3 weeks ago. Some are still sitting in pots outside on the polythene covering their designated raised bed. That's where they sit for a couple of weeks to 'harden-off' and acclimatise to outside after being started in the polytunnel - and I covered them at night with cloches and fleece for protection. They'll be ready after the tunnel potatoes are finished which were started off in pots in January. I start all of my potatoes off in pots these days, in order to both get far earlier crops and to avoid blight and spraying - even with organic sprays such as copper. I am astonished about how inflexible some people are - they are amazed that I would go to such trouble for potatoes - which have always been planted a certain way! Yet they would think absolutely nothing of starting off half-hardy plants or bulbs that way! And you can't even eat those!! We live in a particularly blight-prone area here - with farmers often not bothering to lift blighted crops - just ploughing them back into the ground, which means that we can often get blight very early.
I always make sure I have at least two lots of fleece to cover each of my beds, just to be on the safe side. The fleece comes very cheaply on a big roll so I can conveniently cut off exactly what I need to cover everything securely. I get a huge roll every few years from our local farm supply shop - it's massively cheaper to buy it that way than in small pieces from garden centres and DIY stores! If it's windy I also cover the fleece with Enviromesh or netting to hold it down, or use cloche hoops. I fix the fleece to them with wooden clothes pegs which are needed as it's very windy here, and what can often happen is that fleece will tear and blow away in the sudden gusts we get just before a rainstorm - then the wind drops after midnight and there's a frost! As I'm lucky to have a big enough garden at home to grow my veg., it's easy to run out and put fleeces on in the evening after watching the weather forecast! It takes me about half an hour to cover everything that needs it, including anything in the tunnel. Then I take off the fleeces again in the morning, which only takes about five minutes, in order to dry them and have them ready for the next cold night. As I've said before - wet fleece is worse than none at all! And several layers are far more effective - 2 or 3 layers of dry light fleece will trap air just as layers of clothing do for us - and protect even quite soft things from anything but the very hardest of spring frosts.
If you have an allotment it's obviously a bit more difficult -as obviously you're not there all the time. In that case I think I would make up a frame or hoops to drape the fleece over, perhaps then securing it with netting as it can blow off very easily being so light. Or you could make your own cheap polythene covered frames as I described a couple of months ago, maybe even putting fleece underneath them, where it will stay dry, as double insurance. It's amazing how much water fleece will collect on a cold night, it offers less frost protection if it's actually resting on plants, particularly if it's wet, and it's also then surprisingly heavy. You may think all this is an awful fiddle - and at 8 pm in the evening, trying to cover a bed on my own with an aching back and fleece that insists on blowing off in even the slightest breath of air - I'd be inclined to agree! However, I know I'll get my reward in many different varieties - some extremely rare - of wonderful tasting, completely chemical-free, un-sprayed organic potatoes for most of the year! I also grow some potatoes in large pots too, if I'm trying new varieties or growing rare ones. I normally grow around 12-16 different varieties - and if you think that's barmy - Dave Langford, the potato expert who lives in Leitrim, and who often came to the potato day at Sonairte, grows around 150 varieties every year! As someone remarked, I do use a lot of 2 litre pots for starting them off, which could be expensive, but as one of my best friends is a garden designer, I can always get plenty of free pots in whatever size I need. They would otherwise just be dumped, probably not recycled, and I've been re-using most of them for at least 20 years now! Make friends with your local landscaper or nursery - offer them some free veg. in return for pots which they don't want anyway and they may be glad to get rid of them cluttering up the place!
Potato Mayan Gold flowers are pretty enough for any herbaceous border!
Most of the varieties I grow are early or second early cultivars, whichneed a shorter growing season than maincrops, so tend to bulk up faster. This means that they're early enough to have a really good crop underneath them before blight strikes here - often in late June in most years. There are quite enough different variety for anyone's needs. Some are waxy, some floury, some salad potatoes or unusually-coloured ones. I like to use different types for different culinary purposes, enjoying the variety. I'd get bored with the same one for everything - variety is the spice....etc.
If I were really forced to choose just one single variety for taste however,it would probably be the Mayan Goldwhich is a second early/early maincrop. It is very versatile, being waxy if lightly cooked, or very floury if cooked for longer. It looks every bit as beautiful as it tastes, is very ornamental with quite unusual foliage and gorgeous deep purple flowers. It also fascinatingly folds up it's leaves at night, a bit like a Maranta (the prayer plant). I've grown it for many years since it first became available, both in the tunnel and outside, and I've seen it recover quite well from late frosts, and even blight - growing on again healthily when the weather became drier. It's fantastic for every use in the kitchen, and the top chefs in London go mad for it to make saute potatoes. It's only problem is that it soaks up an awful lot of melted butter!! A deep gold, almost sweet potato-like colour - it even increases in vitamin A during storage! Although it's actually quite a difficult potato to store, as it starts to sprout like mad in November, but I discovered why, on reading Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix's great vegetable book again.
Apparently the Phureja potatoes, from which Mayan Gold is descended, do not have a proper dormant period, being more adapted to growing conditions in the Caribbean! Which definitely explains why dear old MG enjoys itself thoroughly in the tunnel. It's just flowering now - and it always looks so beautiful! The other advantage of not being day-length sensitive is that it's quite happy to grow at any time of year - so I often use it for growing Christmas new potatoes, planting it at the end of August or beginning of September. It's one I wouldn't want to be without!.......But then......there's so many others too - like the deliciously healthy, purple-fleshed, high-anthocyanin varieties. I've got several different varieties of those now - the first of which - Truffe de Chine I obtained in Harrods Food Hall in Knightstbridge well over 30 years ago and which started an undending passion for them! I can just never resist anything different - so it's absolutely impossible to just pick just one favourite!!
The potatoes in pots which I start off at the conventional time of mid-March are planted out when they're about 6ins. high. I water them in after planting and then mulch them thickly with grass clippings, keeping the mulch 3 or 4 inches or 10cm away from the base of the stems to avoid rotting. Then I water again immediately, otherwise the strong vapour given off by the nitrogen in the freshly cut grass clippings can burn the stems and leaves. This is really important whatever crop you are using a grass mulch on. Always water immediately - even if the ground was already moist beforehand. A lot of 'experts' forget to tell you this - then you wonder why your plants turn yellow and the leaves curl up - voice of experience! Doing this also 'seals' the grass mulch into a mat quite nicely, sort of knitting it together, which helps to keep moisture in, cutting down on watering, and also keeps the weeds down. After a few days it goes brown and looks very neat and tidy. It's also a very handy take-away nest material for blackbirds - yesterday I surprised a blackbird in a potato bed - it flew off with a huge beak full of mulch - at a distance it looked as if it was carrying a small hedgehog almost as big as itself - then I realised it was helping itself to ready chopped, nicely dried grass bedding! Delighted to be of service in return for the pest control and the lovely music! The gratitude won't extend to free raspberries however!! There's plenty of berries planted exclusively for them down in the woodland!
By the way - if you're thinking of saving a few of your own early potato tubers for seedtubersfor next spring - then make sure that youmark one or two of the very best, most healthy-looking plants, as soon as the foliage has fully emerged. Those must have perfectly green, really healthy-looking leaves with absolutely no yellow blotches, no twisting or odd-looking crinkling - as these could possibly be carrying viruses. Again many 'experts' tell you only to save sound looking tubers - but they don't tell you to look at the plants when they're growing - which is what you should actually be doing! Tubers which are in fact carrying a virus can look perfectly sound and OK, - and it's only when they grow foliage that you can see if they are unhealthy and virused, by which time it's too late. Check their health again when lifting - more on that in a couple of months. As I've mentioned before - Lady Christl is the very fastest if you want to produce extra-earlies in the way that I do (planting in Jan.), Duke of York (which has a slightly better flavour) is the next fastest - only about a couple of weeks behind and Apache has now been a great success for the last few years. Mayan Gold is also definitely worth trying, though it's about another week or so after them until it has a worthwhile crop. Sharpe's Express and Annabelle are also good for 'extra-earlies'.
Other jobs for May
Brassicas safely tucked up under Enviromesh
Planting out brassica plants such as cabbages and calabrese - these must be protected with brassica collars fitted snugly around the stem against cabbage root fly. Seedlings must also be protected from now on too - as the fly is becoming active. As you obviously can't yet use brassica collars on them because they're too small, it's best to completely cover them with fleece or 'Enviromesh'. I prefer 'Enviromesh' as it gives better air circulation and light transmission. This will stop cabbage white butterfly too, and I saw several of those in the tunnel a month ago!
If you're starting off in a new allotment, where previously grass has been growing, there may be plenty of wire-worms, cutworms and leather-jackets (daddy long legs larvae) in the soil. It's a good idea to turn over the soil a few times before planting and let the eager birds scratch them up. Starlings are particularly good at this! These can otherwise devastate newly planted out lettuces, cabbages, etc., slicing neatly through the stem, causing the plants to collapse, by which time it's too late. If you see that happening to one, then dig around the base of the others - you may find the grey-brown caterpillar-like grubs there before they kill other plants. Destroy! Chickens are also brilliant for putting onto newly cultivated ground for a while specifically for this purpose - nothing escapes their searching sharp eyes and eager beaks!
For the fourth year running, we're enjoying again what was a new brassica crop to me until 2 years ago, although it's something that I'd meant to try for many years. The luscious broccoli Nine Star Perennial which you can see above - so good with a little butter or Hollandaise sauce (or in my case - rather a lot!) It does take up a lot of room though and it's hard to fit in everything - even into a large garden - especially when there's only one gardener - just me! With only very occasional help mowing etc. from other members of the family! I don't ever remember less slug damage to the lush new shoots of plants fast emerging in the borders - that just proves one of the many benefits of having the a very hungry population of birds and other wildlife that I encourage in the garden!
Carrots also need covering completely now with Enviromesh. It's better to sow them in a row, rather than broadcast in a wide band - as I saw someone recommending recently, unless you've got an extremely weed-free soil, otherwise they'll just get smothered by weeds. It's much easier to see where a distinct row is. You really don't want to weed unless you absolutely have to, as the smell of bruised carrot foliage will attract every carrot fly for 10 miles! In a row you can see exactly where the carrots are much more easily, then you can just hoe either side of the row and leave the few weeds in the middle without bruising the foliage and causing the release of scent. Do this very early in the morning - carrot flies only become active around 8 am-ish as the day warms up - so the earlier you can do this the better. Then water the row and cover securely again - carrot flies will get through even the slightest gap. I find that this way I get great crops with no damage. I mostly grow the larger Nantes type carrot all year round now as I think they have by far the best flavour.
Feed your compost heap!
Remember - making compost isn't rocket science - so don't get in a state about it! Many people think it has to be absolutely perfect - it doesn't. Nature does it gradually all on it's own! Weeds can grow incredibly fast at this time of year but all annual weeds can go into the compost heap, so there'll be plenty of material around to make it now! Just make sure you have a good varied mix of soft green material and more fibrous brown and stemmy stuff. If it's going a bit slimy, perhaps because you've added too much cut grass or sappy green stuff, then turn it and mix in more carbon. Material like well shredded newspapers, un-sprayed straw, hay or dried up plant stems and chipped woody prunings will all balance the wet stuff and introduce some air, so that the heap will work better. A shredder is really useful in a large garden, it conveniently chops up things like woody prunings and brassica stems into an ideal size for mixing into the compost heap. Put all your perennial weeds like docks and nettles into a barrel of water - many are deep rooting and bring up very valuable minerals from lower down in the soil profile. Rotted in water they'll make a really good liquid feed combined perhaps with comfrey or nettles. Then when they're totally rotted in a few months - they can then be added to the compost heap along with everything else. I put anything which might attract rodents, like fruit and vegetable scraps, into one of those municipal grey tumbler bins, along with some shredded newspaper and chicken bedding of manure and shavings, to start their decomposing - they can then go onto the heap or the garden if they're well enough rotted. I put a deep tray underneath to catch the drips - there's a surprising amount. I bottle the fluid which runs off, and after storing for a while it makes a good liquid feed diluted to the colour of weak tea. Alternatively you can also add those things to your worm bin if you have one, although worms aren't that keen on tomatoes and really hate citrus fruit skins as they're too acid!
New material is added to the compost heap before it's re-covered to retain heat
Unless you cover compost heaps - then mostly all you're making is a soil conditioner - and all the valuable nutrients will be lost! It will also be emitting greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide. So don't forget to keep compost heaps covered with something waterproof - whatever the time of year. This argument also applies to my deep mulching with manure comments earlier! Covering it also helps to keep the heat in, which makes the heap rot much faster, keeping in the steaming fumes, which then condense back into the heap, stopping possible nitrogen loss into the air. There's no point going to all the trouble to make lovely compost if you then leave it open to all the weather, so that the rain pours through it and washes out all the valuable nutrients, which leach out, run off and are lost, also polluting groundwater. In order to catch any possible run off from heaps it's a good idea to plant comfrey beds beside them, or let nettles grow there - which usually plant themselves! These will capture any nutrients which run off and will then recycle them into a liquid feed or onto the heap again when their leaves are cut.
If you've just started gardening and you don't have enough good compost available yet, or want to 'top up' nutrients for hungry crops, then Osmo Organic Universal granular fertiliser, fish, blood and bonemeal, and seaweed meal are all useful. There are more and more good compound organic fertilisers available now, so don't let fast growing crops go hungry, as if starved they may run quickly to seed. Don't let them be thirsty either - keep them well watered - mulching with things like grass clippings from lawns not treated with chemicals (I hope you wouldn't!) to conserve water wherever possible. Plants can't make use of food without water. Don't just rely on these alone however - you also need the humus that soil microbes make from decomposing plant remains and carbon, found in manures, compost or mulches, in order to protect the structure of the soil and to feed worms and all the billions of microorganisms which live there and make nutrients available to plants, in what's known as a symbiotic relationship - mutually beneficial in other words.
Even if you can get well rotted organic manure - it shouldn't be lashed on. As I said previously - too much can be just as damaging to beneficial soil life as chemical fertilisers. Moderation is the key. You can make up for a shortage of humus by mulching with grass clippings and other plant wastes, making worm compost, growing green manures or cover crops to incorporate into the soil surface and making as much garden compost as you can. Everything helps - the more varied the better. Mushroom compost is highly undesirable though, as if it's non-organic it will almost certainly contain very persistent toxic chemicals which kill vital soil life and may contaminate crops - and apart from that it also has a very high pH, which can again unbalance soil nutrient availability - causing chlorosis and yellowing of leaves. With no large livestock now, I only have hen manure and with only 6 hens there is little enough of that - so I tend to use a lot of mulches and green manures - which are more that way that nature does things anyway!
Planting out tender crops in late May
At the end of the month, or the beginning of June, depending on where you live, you can start to plant out more tender crops like celeriac, celery, sweet corn, courgettes, French and runner beans etc. after properly 'hardening off' (see April). I don't like to put up a fixed structure for beans, as I find individual 8 ft canes work much better on my sometimes extremely windy site. They can then move individually in the wind and when fully-grown don't present a 'fixed wall' or wigwam of beans - which may well all blow over completely, as has happened several times over the years! We often have very strong winds here in our summers! If only one cane blows over, the plants suffer less damage and are far less likely to break,. It's also more easily pick up and supported again than trying to resurrect a whole row! I sow two beans to a 500 ml plastic yogurt pot - I find those an ideal size. Each pot full is then tipped out and planted beside it's own cane. There's still time to sow things like French and runner Beans, sweet corn and squashes. Squashes courgettes and pumpkins in particular grow really fast!
My pumpkin display photographed by Joy Larkcom in 1991
If pumpkins and summer squashes are developing fast, and the weather is not warm enough to plant them out - don't risk planting them too early. If the roots are filling the pots - feed them - pot them on into bigger pots and wait until the weather is warmer. They hate being checked and never crop as well if you allow them to become pot-bound. When you're ready to plant them out - plant them into a nicely prepared, really fertile, sunny spot and stand well back! They grow very quickly, and are wonderful winter food. If ripened properly they will keep for months - in fact I'm usually using the last of my stored ones when I'm sowing the next year's! I've still got some of last year's that are perfect!
When the wonderful garden writer Joy Larkcom was staying here in 1991, she took this terrific photo of some of my squashes on the table in my hall. I love to see them all arranged there in the autumn. They keep really well there for ages as it's dry but quite cool. I almost can't bear to use them as they look so sculptural and decorative! Greed always manages to win over art in the end though! My pumpkin and basil soup is one of the best midwinter 'cheerer-uppers' I know - real comfort food. My kids used to call it 'sunshine soup' - it really reminds one of all the colour and warmth of high summer in the middle of winter. The ones best for storing are not the watery easily carved, over-sized 'Halloween' ones though. You want the really hard, deep orange fleshed, high dry matter varieties like Blue Hubbard, Crown Prince, Marina di Chioggia, Queensland Blue, Hokkaido, Golden Hubbard, Pink Banana and Buttercup. These will store for at least six months if ripened well and are another vegetable which ripens more and increases in Vitamin A with storage. The ones that start off blue all turn pink as they ripen more with age. They can be used in exactly the same way as 'butternut' squashes, but are much tastier! These are all available from The Organic Catalogue, Suttons, Simpsons, Real Seeds, Mr. Fothergill's etc. and grow so quickly that you've still got time to sow them even in June in pots, when their germination will be more reliable and slug proof than outside! My tips on sowing all the cucurbit family are in this month's polytunnel diary.
In early May there's so much to look forward to!
Now at last winter is over - but we haven't quite said goodbye to Spring. Don't be in too much of a hurry to plant out tender crops yet or to sow into soil that may still be cold and wet. Despite the gloriously sunny weather of last weekend's Bank Holiday - we're not quite into summer yet - so it's back to jeans and wellies - it's definitely not shorts weather! This morning there's a freezing south-easterly gale blowing in from the Irish Sea with blossom and leaves lying everywhere! The garden looks a bit like the aftermath of a wedding! We're in that sort of halfway time now - the ante-room for real summer. This morning's gales will do a lot of damage to the blossom in the orchard and to any outside crops. There won't be too many bees flying today either!
Every day now there's something new, fresh and green to enjoy in the garden and fruit bursting into promisingly beautiful flower.Luckily, despite some cold nights over the last couple of weeks, there are now plenty of insects around for birds to eat and many beneficial ones like hoverflies that will deal with any aphids.Despite the cold nights we've had some lovely warm sunny days too. Suddenly everything is lush and burstingly green and you can almost hear things growing! It's so good to feel that urgent sense of regeneration and hope in Nature again, after months of winter.
Don't worry about the stuff you haven't done - if like me you're behind either because of the difficult weather, or for some other reason - life getting in the way as it does, be realistic - it doesn't have to be perfect! Remember that the most important thing of all to do in your garden is to enjoy it! Even the smallest bit of home grown produce is a real achievement - so celebrate it!
Happy gardening.....and Happy Eating! We've got an exciting summer of delicious produce to look forward to - aren't we so lucky!
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)
May contents:The Joy of Seasonal Eating.... Make more Wonderful Watercress.....There's a Growing Excitement again about Tomatoes!.....There's a lot more to Polytunnels than just growing Tomatoes!.....Cucumbers, Melons and Courgettes - the Cucurbitaceae family - propagating and planting.....Planting Aubergines and Sweet Peppers.....Climbing French Beans, early Broad Beans and Peas.....Sweetcorn - inter-cropping or cover cropping, with late Celery or Squashes.....Sweet Potatoes, Oca, Yacon and Mashua.....Other crops - Figs, Grapes and Strawberries.
My Polytunnel Potager on May day 2018 - Couldn't get up there to take one this year with my broken ankle, but it's always summer in here no matter how grey the day!
Goodbye Summer (at Easter) and hello again Winter! Did anyone happen to see where Spring went?
Some people dance around Maypoles on May Day - I usually dance for joy around my Polytunnel Potager - except this year I couldn't even walk up to sit in there with my broken ankle! It's always such a privilege to be in there working and listening to happily buzzing, busy bees and all the birds singing for joy.The polytunnel is an indispensable aid to producing our own food all year round - especially in what has so far been a really erratic year weather-wise outside. The soil even in the raised beds is still far too wet to work as for most of the winter they've been looking more like floating islands! This bank holiday weekend has so far been freezing - unlike the record high Easter temperatures only a couple of weeks ago!
After the winter weather - which seemed to keep coming back for another bite, just when we thought it was gone and summer had arrived - the seasons seemed to have been condensed somehow- getting all mixed up!Many of the winter vegetables like lettuces, chicories and chards have hung on much later than usual as you can see from the photo above which I took on May Day. Lovely to still have all these lush crops available in what is traditionally known as the 'Hungry Gap' - but it means that that they're still taking up space in the tunnel, when in theory they should be gone. I should now be getting beds ready for planting summer crops like tomatoes, French beans and early courgettes. The winter leaf crops are only just starting to bolt and run up to flower now, and will still be tender and usable for at least another couple of weeks yet, if well-watered, so it would be a sin to take them out - especially since outside crops are non-existent now after the bitter winter!
Jack Ice - finally starting to bolt after cropping since last October!
The bolting lettuce will also be used up to make one of my favourite early summer soups - lettuce and lovage - an annual treat that uses up fast-bolting tunnel lettuce in May.Many people would just throw it onto the compost heap at this stage - but it's still perfectly edible - even if a little stronger tasting. I have three large lovage plants growing in large pots for bringing into the polytunnel early, specifically for making this divine soup. It starts growing too late outside and would otherwise be too late for the bolting tunnel lettuce. So every March I bring them into the tunnel early to force them into growth in time to make the soup - plants growing outside would be far too late for the bolting tunnel lettuce. I really look forward to this soup every year. Oddly enough - I never make it at any other time of year - probably because the rest of the year there's just so much else to eat! My soup (recipe below) is great for using up the last of the stronger-flavoured, bolting overwintered lettuce that is no longer nice in salads, and it avoids wasting precious healthy nutrients at a time of year when any fresh veg are welcome! Green lettuce is best for this soup I think - the red ones tend to look a bit of an unattractive 'mud'-colour! The last of the spinach is mostly frozen - making handy 'ready-prepared' veg for super-fast meals and also for throwing into soups and smoothies. I just wash it if necessary, dry it in the salad spinner to get rid of any excess water and then freeze it as fast as possible! The bolting chicory is enjoyed by the hens and I always transplant a few chicories outside into the bee and butterfly border for the
beautiful blue flowers that bees and other insects love - and then later on the plants produce seeds which birds like Goldfinches enjoy. Nothing is ever wasted here!
We try to be as self-sufficient in both veg and fruit as possible here and rarely buy anything - I can't bear to waste any part of nutritious vegetables - so I try to make a point of using everything - even bolting veg which many people would just throw onto their compost heap. It's a sin to waste anything when it's still so full of healthy nutrients. If I can't use things immediately I usually freeze them for quick meals later. Recently I've been busy until late at night in the kitchen dealing with the spinach and chard mountain by washing and freezing it as fast as I can! Spinach is such a useful veg to have in the freezer as a standby for quick meals and can be thrown straight into the saucepan from frozen to make a great soup or side veg.
Eating seasonally is what humans always did until relatively recently and I believe that we don't need summer vegetables in winter - otherwise what on earth is there to look forward to? Recently in Dublin I was appalled to see 200g bags of baby spinach, imported from Italy, in a supermarket for €3 - when wilted down that would be about a tablespoon after cooking - barely a portion! That is a shocking price for something that's so easy to grow here all year round even without any additional heat. Imports of such crops are driven by supermarkets looking for the lowest price possible from suppliers all year round! That is a practise which really needs to stop if we are genuine about reducing our carbon footprint, and trying to tackle climate change in a meaningful way! The only difference in terms of carbon footprint, between that spinach grown in Italy and spinach grown here is the distance it has to travel, from where it is grown to where it is consumed. The other important difference is that it is actually not as nutritious - having not just travelled further, but from a different time zone, which will have upset it's circadian rhythm. Yes - plants obey circadian rhythms just like we do - and they can get jet lag too, believe it or not! That means that the phytonutrients in that plant will have been affected, and they are linked to flavour.
That imported, out of season, cosmetically perfect produce often looks as tempting and attractive as 'Snow White's' poisonous apple! But that apple is almost always a huge disappointment in terms of flavour - often with bitter, tough, inedible skin and over-sweet flesh. It's the same story with so much other produce that's imported. It's a pointless waste of money - usually full of chemicals if not organic, and often grown with chemicals which are banned in the EU!. Again it will have a massive carbon footprint in terms of travel air miles alone!. Even when it''s organic - imported shop-bought, or even locally-grown organic food can never compare with the flavour, freshness or nutritional content of your very own fresh-picked, home-grown organic produce! The often poorer nutritional content of produce imported from the other side of the world, or even from closer to us in Southern Europe is something I talk about in this blog post here:
Is there ever anything to compare with the very first taste of anything, each year? How boring would our annual food supply be f it was hardly ever punctuated by the season's first of anything - but instead we just had the same continuous diet of what the supermarkets want to sell us all year round? Year-round availability of the most common fruits and vegetables, out of their normal season here, imported from God-knows-where, has actually ruined the seasonal anticipation of crops. That anticipation and then childlike enjoyment of the very first, mouthwatering burst of each new flavour in each season is so exciting! That first furry peach, aromatic melon - or the first asparagus! People who are limited to the range of what is now available now in supermarkets don't know what they're missing. No wonder so many children will only eat frozen peas, carrots and broccoli - when most of the time that's all that is available in supermarkets! Children need to get used to a wide range of different tastes at an early age - or they may remain 'picky', perhaps refusing to eat only the veg they know - or none at all - all their lives. This can have serious consequences for their health later on in life. Even farmers markets are often little better in the UK or Ireland - although to be fair, many of the organic growers are more adventurous, as most of the growers would be alternative thinkers in the first place! H
ow lucky we are as gardeners - that we are able to have so many 'first taste this year' of so many treats at so many different times, during every single year?
There is no doubt that buying something which is tired and already several days old from your supermarket can never rival the enormous sense of achievement and satisfaction you can get from enjoying the well-earned fruits of your own labours - especially if the produce been grown in an organic, sustainable and nature-friendly way. There is simply nothing like the satisfying crunchy sweetness of that first mangetout, the first May strawberry or the first apple of autumn. There are so many mouthfuls of summer delights we have to look forward to at this time of year. The first of the cherry tomatoes in June, a sun-warmed juicy peach in July, or that August morning when you open the tunnel door and the scent of a ripe warm melon hits you - and you cradle it in your hand, the fruit slightly cracking where it joins the stem in readiness to drop off the vine. It doesn't get the chance here - the pruning knife slices into a juicy ripe melon in a very satisfying way! Simply nectar for the Gods - and the ultimate in take-away breakfasts! I have to admit that the very first of anything in this garden very rarely reaches the kitchen - that's the gardener's extra special reward!!
Make more Wonderful Watercress
Thinking seasonally - one of my other winter standby veg that needs attention right now is watercress. Although watercress is a perennial plant - it needs renewing each year or it becomes tough, peppery and not nice to eat! It's just starting to flower now after a few hot sunny days in the polytunnel - so now is the time that I take 'Irishman's cuttings'. That term means with a few roots attached - for further rooting in a jar of water, and then planting in a damp, shady spot outside for the summer. It will continue to provide lush crops there throughout the summer and then in August I will take more cuttings which will provide a polytunnel crop throughout next winter. Contrary to what many people say - it doesn't need running water or even a pond to grow. It just needs a constantly moist soil that doesn't dry out. In fact growing it at home is far safer than watercress growing beside or in streams - as that can provide habitat for a nasty little snail that carries the dangerous liver fluke pest - especially if there are sheep or cattle grazing nearby or upstream. So it's far safer to grow it in garden soil! I will leave the old plants in the tunnel for as long as I can, until I need that spot for another crop - because the bees adore the flowers.
If you don't have plants already - there's no need to sow watercress from seed. You can easily root it in just a few days in a jar of water, if you buy some watercress salad leaves in a bag - or find some in a bag of mixed salad leaves. Just pinch off any yellowing leaves at the bottom ends of the shoots and put them in a jar of water. When they have formed roots in 3-4 days - either plant them in garden soil or in pots of organic peat-free compost and keep them moist in a shady place where they won't dry out. In August you can then take more new shoots from those plants to root for planting in early September. Those plants will crop really well throughout the winter. I've kept the same plants going for about 12 years now by taking new cuttings twice a year. It's as easy as falling off a log! The only pests of watercress are slugs and cabbage white butterflies - whose caterpillars can decimate plants entirely almost overnight - because they're very difficult to see until it's too late! So keep an eye out for them!
(My easy recipe for the cream of spinach soup shown below - or any other greens such as watercress or lettuce can be found here:
Cream of spring spinach, lettuce or watercress soup - so delicious and easy
There's so much to do in the tunnel in this season that the pace of work is really hectic - but there's also much to look forward to! My mouth's already watering at the prospect of that first fabulous tasting tomato - will it be Maskotka, Sungold, Chiquito or John Baer? This year they're a bit later due to the cold weather. but some of their first flowers are already open while they're still in small pots! I'm growing a couple of new varieties this year which are supposedly very early but I expect it will probably be the wonderful Maskotka first as usual, particularly since it already has tiny green fruit on it the size of small marbles. But John Baer won't be far behind - and they both have wonderful flavour. After those earliest tomatoes, in a few weeks the beefsteaks will start to crop - and there truly is nothing like the taste of that first Caprese salad of buffalo mozzarella and a good beefsteak like Pantano Romanesco with an aromatic basil dressing, accompanied by some home-baked crispy warm ciabatta bread! Mmm - I can almost taste and smell it just thinking abut it!
At this time of year, I've usually had at least two of my five-a-day before I even have 'proper' breakfast! Unless there's a howling gale - then breakfast or brunch in the tunnel accompanied by birdsong is a must. Even on a dull day at this time of year the tunnel is warm. Most normal people put decking outside in their gardens - but I have some inside one of my tunnels so that I can sit in there at a table whatever the weather! Even when I was growing commercially, I always had a small table and chair to sit in one of my tunnels. It's a great place to plan and think. Pre-breakfast snacks at this time of year and for the rest of the summer mostly consist of 'grazing' my way around the tunnels on whatever happens to be good at the time and within arm's reach as I do my morning watering! I'm really missing being able to get up to the tunnels at the moment due to my broken ankle - but luckily my son and daughter between them have managed to keep everything alive in relays, and in another couple of weeks I may be able to hobble up there and potter!
There's a growing excitement about tomatoes again!
Exciting new tomato 'Indigo Rose'- naturally high in cancer- fighting plant phytochemicals
The lure of finding a good new tomato variety is always totally irresistible for me. I'm growing a few new varieties again this year for the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival 2019 - which is again being held at The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, in August this year! (For more info see my Polytunnel & Greenhouse diary for March). The best news for me of course is that once again - it's not me who is organising it!! So I have all the excuse I needed to try a few exciting new varieties (new to me anyway) - and to get all the fun and flavour, but without the hassle! The reason I came up with the idea of holding the very first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival back in 2012 was to demonstrate and celebrate the remarkable beauty and genetic diversity of tomatoes - and to make people aware of just how vitally important it is that we preserve all of their valuable genes. Not to mention the wonderfully healthy nutrients they contain - and also the fact that they're one of the most versatile fruits or vegetables there is! Just imagine if some deadly disease were to strike tomatoes, that there was no organic, or even (God forbid!) chemical way of dealing with - so no more tomatoes? Can you imagine a life without tomatoes and all the wonderful things we can do with them? If that were to happen - there could just be one tomato hidden away somewhere, that might possibly hold the only genetic key to resisting that disease. Plant breeders could then use it's genes to produce new strains of tomatoes resistant to the disease. This is true of so many other food crops too. Preserving all genetic diversity is vitally important. Tomatoes were just a really great way to show that to people. Plant breeders are busy now using wild and Heritage varieties to produce new strains which are even more full of healthy nutrients too.
The tomato pictured here - Indigo Rose - was one of the first of a new breed of naturally-bred tomatoes that are high in the healthy plant phytochemicals called anthocyanins.These nutrients are brilliant for our health - boosting our immune and circulatory systems and protecting us from a number of major diseases. Seed of Indigo Rose was first released to gardeners in the USA in early 2012 - it's stunning looks were what gave me the idea of holding the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival. I first held a tomato day back in the late 80's - but sadly Indigo Rose wasn't around then. Diversity isn't just about saving old heritage varieties - although that's vitally important. It's also about preserving good, modern, naturally-bred varieties too. If you grow tomatoes at all - do come along to the Festival, bring your tomatoes to show off too and join in the fun!
There's a lot more to Polytunnels than just growing Tomatoes!
Me in the big polytunnel behind what I call the 'Emperor's New Clothes Plant' - Yacon. The latest fashionable 'must-have' plant!
Cucumbers, Melons and Courgettes - the Cucurbitaceae family
7 cucumbers ready to pick on this Burpless Tasty Green plant in large tub!
I think the next most common tunnel or greenhouse crop to tomatoes that people grow is probably cucumbers - because you really can't beat the taste of homegrown ones - especially the older varieties which I personally think have more flavour. I've been growing Burpless Tasty green for around 35 years now - and I still think it can't be beaten for easiness of growing, flavour or productivity for home gardeners. Seed of BTG is also incredibly cheap compared to the more 'prima donna-ish' newer hybrids - you'll get about 20 seeds for the price of just one seed of those expensive F1 varieties! I always plant cucumber and melon plants on a slight mound, watering them in carefully with tepid water -never cold. After that I NEVER water very close to their stems again, as they can be very prone to root rots just where the stem meets the soil. I always use tunnel temperature water to water them around their outer root area - using water from the water butt kept in the tunnel specifically for that purpose. I never use cold water from a hose! I tend to give them a slightly richer soil than I would give tomatoes, again preparing the soil in the same way a few days beforehand but also forking in a nice bucketful of good compost or well-rotted manure per planting spot. I then water the prospective planting site thoroughly and leave it for a couple of days for the soil to settle and warm up. If I'm growing more than one plant I plant them roughly 3ft/1m apart. I plant my early tunnel courgettes in exactly the same way. Doing this ensures that I never have any root problems.
For those of you who are buying plants from garden centres rather than using plants you have grown from seed - make sure you inspect them very carefully! If there's any sign of browning, cracking or other damage on on the stem anywhere, particularly where it meets the compost at the top of the root ball - then DON'T BUY THE PLANT! That's always the first sign of root rots setting in. Very often these plants reach the nursery or garden centre from the suppliers perfectly fine - then they might get watered with a cold spray from a garden centre hose, very often by someone untrained, who wouldn't know a cucumber from a cabbage. That means that plants can be well on the way to root rots before you even buy them - but you won't know that, and think when they wilt and collapse a week or two later that it was your fault! Another tell-tale sign of this is wilting - even though the compost feels damp. That is always an indicator of root problems. A mistake many beginners often make is that because they see something wilting - they think the plants need more water (I can't tell you how many plants I lost that way when I first started growing things!) but it almost always means that there is a problem with the roots and the last thing they need is even more water, which will make things even worse! That's why it's generally safer to grow them from seed yourself, in a good, free-draining, peat-free compost, and once they have started growing well and need water - always water them from the bottom by sitting them in tepid water for a couple of minutes, so they can drink what they need, rather than giving them too much.
The other thing which may affect cucumbers is Sciarid fly maggots in the compost - these flies are attracted to peat composts, and their tiny larvae or maggots will eat away at fine roots. So that's another reason why we shouldn't be using peat composts (apart from the fact that using them is destroying bogs and adding hugely to climate change)! Once those flies are in the compost - you won't get rid of them, so you're better off taking them right out of your greenhouse or propagating frame, so they can't migrate to any other plants, and dumping them! Luckily cucumbers and courgettes are very fast-growing plants, so unless it's very late in the summer - you can always sow some more. When I have sown my cucumber seed, I always top the peat-free compost with vermiculite or sharp sand, and never over water them. If you follow this rule - you won';t have problems with Sciarid flies laying eggs into the compost.
There's still plenty of time to sow them now for a mid - late summer (or even an autumn crop with the small gherkin types). It's best not to start them off too early anyway, as it can be difficult to give them enough warmth at the roots early on to keep them growing on really well, because another thing that all the cucurbit family hates is being pot-bound and getting checked. Pumpkins in particular really hate this as they make huge root systems - and if they get 'pot-bound' before planting out they never really do as well afterwards. Some years ago I was sent some half-sized grafted cucumbers for trialling. To be honest I wasn't that impressed with them compared to my usual varieties and they also brought in red spider mite - which didn't please me, as I then had to go to the expense of buying a biological control! A very good half-sized cucumber, ideal if the larger ones go off before you use all of them is Restina - the seed of which I got from Lidl of all places! It's a gherkin type which is useful for pickling or grows to make a very nice half-sized tasty cucumber too - and it's incredibly productive, as many of the gherkin types are.
While I'm on the subject of peat use - I'm always trying to think of ways that I can lower my personal carbon footprint, and not using peat in our gardens can make a huge difference to carbon emissions. No gardener who is concerned about climate change and loss of Nature should be using it. Not using peat is something which all gardeners can do now that there are plenty of excellent peat-free alternatives available. Peatlands form only 3% of the planet's land surface - but they are massive 'carbon sinks' - storing twice as much carbon as all currently standing forests. That's a pretty mind-boggling statistic! We must stop digging them up now! In their natural wet, un-drained state - peatlands also sequester huge amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere through all the native plants which grow in them, especially Spaghnum mosses - trapping it underground as carbon. Their capacity for regulating climate is actually far greater than that of forests.
Pumpkins and Squashes
The sword in the stone! Attacking an 8 month-stored 2.8kg (6lb 3ozs) Queensland Blue in late April.
Pumpkins and squashes are one of my most important staple crops,which I start off from seed in late April to mid-May in the propagator. If ripened properly, they store incredibly well through the winter, and I always expect any I have left to keep well until I am sowing the next year's ones. I grow the really dense fleshed ones - and these actually increase in beta-carotene, as they ripen even more while they are stored over the winter. You don't think of vegetable crops as being alive after they have been harvested - but they actually are. After they've been harvested a lot is still going on inside the cells of the plant - whatever type of plant it is! It always fascinates me how a pumpkin that starts off with a turquoise blue skin at harvesting time in late autumn can gradually change over the winter to an even more beautiful deep orange pink, like the Queensland Blue pictured here, which is a fantastic keeper.
I usually grow at least six varieties of long-keeping squashes or pumpkins - and they are all so beautiful to look at, that being an artist I hate to cut them up for cooking! But the really good varieties also taste fantastic too, just like sweet potatoes but much firmer - so I get over it! The giant pumpkins sold for Halloween are totally useless for storing - and also cooking - they are utterly tasteless and watery compared to the ones I grow. Some of the best varieties to grow are Golden Hubbard, Blue Hubbard, Invincible, Crown Prince, Hokkaido, Giant Pink Banana, Buttercup, Marina di Chioggia and Queensland Blue. Cutting up a well-ripened Queensland Blue is a bit like breaking and entering! You need a really stout knife or hatchet to safely cut into those babies! We roast wedges in the oven with garlic and a little butter and oil - and they are absolutely delicious! They're also fantastic for the best ever pumpkin pies and soups (recipe elsewhere) and you can even use their flesh in cakes and smoothies too. A friend who was here yesterday said she made the most fabulous curry with one I gave her a couple of weeks ago - I must get that recipe!
Advice for propagating and planting all the cucumber family
I propagate all my cucurbitaceae family (courgettes, pumpkins, melons etc..) in exactly the same way. I sow them in 3 inch pots singly, on their sides, edge of the seed up, about 1/2 in deep, covering with vermiculite, and water in with tepid water. After this, I cover the pot with a polythene bag and germinate them in a propagator at approx 20 deg C plus/68degF. After this - I never water from the top again - always from underneath by sitting them in water for a couple of minutes. I keep them steadily growing well, even potting on if necessary, before it's warm enough to plant in the soil either in the tunnel or outside.
Cucumbers in particular need night time temperatures of at least 20 deg.C to grow on really well after planting out. Unlike tomatoes, cucumbers and melons love sauna-like conditions - humidity and warmth, so the place to grow them is in the middle of your tunnel or greenhouse where they won't be in a draught and it will be a bit more humid. Or if you have more than one tunnel - then give them a tunnel to themselves. I must say I miss the four tunnels I used to have when I was growing commercially - my rotations were just so much easier. After planting, always water at the base of the mound they're planted on - not against the stem - and with tunnel temperature water, as I said previously. You shouldn't have a problem with rot if you do this. Don't over water, but never let them dry out either, or you may encourage powdery mildew to develop on the leaves, which is caused by dryness at the roots combined with high humidity. This is a particular problem in the autumn as cooler nights encourage it. Then a good moisture-retaining mulch of grass clippings or compost after planting (again kept well away - about 10 cm or 4 inches away from the stem) will help to keep mildew at bay by keeping the outer roots moist. With cucumbers - stop (pinch out) the main stem once it reaches the top of whatever support you're training it up, then stop any lateral (side) shoots at the fourth leaf joint and any sub-laterals (side shoots from the side shoots!) at the second leaf joint beyond the first good fruit. If you're growing an 'all female' variety of cucumber, take out any male flowers immediately if any appear - this sometime happens if the plant is stressed in some way. Female flowers have a tiny cucumber behind the flower, male ones just have a plain stem behind the flower. I let my pumpkins and squashes trail along the beds, stopping the main shoot at 4-6 leaf joints, and then stopping any side shoots that develop fruits 3-4 leaves beyond the fruits. Doin this stops them becoming too rampant, and concentrates their energy into developing their fruits.
I plant my melons on a mound in exactly the same way, but I prefer to grow them trailing on the ground, rather than climbing, using a side bed, rather than training them up a string or net, which I basically don't have time for as it's so fiddly. Again, I pinch out the main stem when five leaves have developed. The plant should then develop four or five side shoots, which will bear the fruits. Pinch these out when they reach the extent of their space, or at five leaves - these will then develop the lateral shoots which will bear more fruits. Bees will often pollinate these for you if there are lots around, but to ensure pollination, you can pick a male flower and push it gently into a female flower when they develop. The best time to do this is around midday when it's warm enough for the pollen to develop and the atmosphere isn't too humid. Careful watering of these in the same way as cucumbers is again absolutely key. When the fruits have formed - put each developing fruit on something like a piece of wood, slate or an upturned pot to stop any chance of them rotting where they're in contact with the soil and where there's less likelihood of slugs nibbling them. This also attracts warmth which helps to ripen them. (This is something I was asked about at a talk last year in respect of pumpkins - this is a good way stop them rotting outside in the garden too) You'll know when melons are starting to ripen by keeping an eye on the stem - when a crack start to develop just around where the stalk joins the fruit - and you also get that unmistakable scent - you can be sure they're ripe. I promise you that when you taste your first home grown, perfectly ripe, sweet and aromatic melon - you will be totally hooked!
Ridiculously productive Atena courgette in late May
There's still plenty of time to sow pumpkins, courgettes etc. for planting outside, or better still in the polytunnel if you have space. You are guaranteed a really good crop in the tunnel in our often unreliable wet summers! My courgettes always crop until November in the tunnel, making them really worth the space - those outside give up much earlier. I don't bother with green courgettes much now - maybe one or two plants - I grow the yellow one 'Atena Polka', a firm, deliciously sweet variety, not at all 'cabbagey tasting' like most yellow ones - and also far more productive than any of the other yellow ones I've ever tried. Everyone loves it's sweet flavour. It's very like the variety 'Eldorado' that Suttons sold in the early 1990's. I saved seed for several years, but then sadly lost it. It was quite variable though, as it had originally been an F1 hybrid. I prefer to sow all my courgettes in pots too. Although in theory all the books say you can sow courgettes etc. outside from the beginning of June, in my experience those sown inside now (or inside anytime for that matter) will still be miles ahead, far less likely to be eaten by slugs or other pests, and will crop far more quickly than any sown directly outside. I often think that most seed sowing instructions are written by companies mostly located in the south or west of the UK. In our part of Ireland or the north of the UK, and the growing season is considerably colder and shorter than other places, so use every aid possible to speed things up! Sow them in exactly the same way as the pumpkins etc.above. I usually grow a couple of Atena in large tubs in the fruit tunnel for some early courgettes, then pull these out as soon as those outside, or planted in the ground in the other tunnel are cropping. After a while in tubs they tend to get mildew aa they hate the root restriction, but they provide a really useful early crop this way.
Planting Aubergines and Sweet Peppers
Aubergine 'Bonica' in July You can plant out Aubergines and sweet peppers towards the middle/end of the month too if it's warm enough - these like a really warm soil. If you have too many Solanacae (tomato family) to fit in with your rotations these will grow well in large pots on grow bags trays or sitting on plastic. I grow them in 10lt. pots, 3 pots to each grow bag tray. This means I can water into the tray rather than the pots, when plants are bigger and need more watering or feeding. I like to plant both aubergines and peppers on slight mounds - with the soil sloping away from the stem - towards the sides of the pot, as this prevents root rotting - to which they are both particularly susceptible. Don't let the plants root through the bottom of the pots into the tunnel soil, or it will mess up your rotation plan in just the same way as if they were in the ground! They require the same careful watering as most other things, never against the base of the stem - always around the outside of the pot if necessary. Be careful never to over water in case the weather then turns cold.
Aubergines are the only one of this family that I would be inclined to mist over - but only if the weather is very hot and the atmosphere very dry in your greenhouse or tunnel, as they can be very susceptible to red spider mite. By the way - if you can actually see tiny very fast moving red spiders, these are usually the predatory mite - Phytoseilius Persimilis. This means you are lucky, as this is what you would normally have to buy to control red spider. Many people confuse it with spider mite but it is very fast moving and visibly red. I often see them in the tunnel and the conservatory. The red spider mite pest you actually can't actually see without a hand lens, it shows itself by a sort of dusty, dry, silvering of the leaves, and if it is a very bad infestation, by dusty fine webs on young shoots as well. Red spider hates humidity, so misting over any affected plants a couple of times a day with a fine mister spray is a good idea. If you get a bad infestation you will have to buy the predatory Phytoseilius. It is very effective - but as it costs around 40 euros for a decent sized greenhouse - you obviously want to avoid it if you can!
Climbing French Beans, early Broad Beans and Peas
Climbing French beansare a fantastically productive tunnel crop. You can always be sure of a good crop inside - even in a miserable summer. I grow the variety 'Cobra' (very cheap seed in B&Q) it's a round-podded stringless bean - actually an improved form of 'Blue Lake' and is fantastically reliable - both indoors and outside in the garden. I always grow a lot as it also freezes exceptionally well and it's nice to have a bit of a change from cabbages, leeks and chard in the winter! I sow two or three seeds (pre-sprouted on damp kitchen paper) into a recycled 500ml plastic yogurt pot or milk cartons, gently pulling out the weakest if three germinate, leaving two, planting them out when they have a good root-ball but just before they get too friendly and start winding round each other! Again, always watering from underneath by sitting the whole tray of seedlings in water for a few minutes rather than pouring water into their tops. They are also extremely susceptible to root rots at soil level. Milk cartons unzip very conveniently along the join in the carton and then I plant the whole pot out about a foot/30cm apart on a very slight mound made by making a depression between each set of plants. After that I always water between plants - again never against the base of the stem. Follow these instructions and I can promise you that you will not only fill your freezer but be giving away beans! The flat podded French beans don't freeze as well as the round ones, but have a very good flavour fresh and are very productive. I don't bother with dwarf beans in the tunnel as they take up exactly the same ground space but don't crop anything like as well. What I term 'high-rise' crops are much better value for the space they take up in a tunnel, cropping skywards as they do - just as long as you stop them at the top of their canes or supports, leaving enough room for air to circulate well.
The flat-podded mangetout pea Oregon Sugar Pod will be cropping in about four weeks. The mangetout 'Delikett' won't be far behind those. Delikett is a deliciously sweet sugar snap (round podded) variety which never gets stringy, and goes on cropping for ages. When it gets really huge it can also be podded and the peas used separately. It crops really well in the tunnel from an early February sowing, as does Shiraz. I sow these quite thickly in large recycled plastic fruit punnets, I never bother spacing them out too well. about 8-10 punnets gives me a 10 foot row from a whole packet of seed. That works well, as I usually then give the 'Crimson Flowered' broad bean - pictured here - the other half of the row.
Originally from the HDRA seed library - now known as the Garden Organic Heritage Seed Library - I've been re-selecting and saving seed of this fabulous flavoured one for well over 30 years now. Re-selecting for traits like taller, heavier cropping plants. At one time it was extremely rare and one couldn't buy it - but several seed companies are selling it now - although I don't think they are as good as my selection which is quite improved from the one I originally got. It's not the biggest cropper, only four or five seeds to a pod, but it does produce a lot of pods on the now taller plants and has an incredible flavour - the best of any broad bean. The small undeveloped pods are nice too if picked early and cooked whole - they have the same flavour as the broad bean seeds. It's also extremely decorative and worth growing just for the flowers and perfume alone, which really hits you when you walk into the tunnel in the evenings. The best thing for me though - is that when it's flowering it's full of deliriously happy bees all day long! They love it just as much as I do!
Sweetcorn - inter-cropping (or cover cropping) with late celery or squashes
If you've got a large tunnel and have room for a small block or row of sweetcorn plants, they're much more reliable in the tunnel than outdoors in our wet summers, as a dry atmosphere at pollination time is vital. In Ireland we often get a wet spell just when the outside ones are producing their pollen - resulting either in very disappointing cobs or none at all! Although they do take up a lot of space, I often sow late self blanching celery now or in mid June - to plant between the sweetcorn plants for a late autumn/Christmas crop. Celery appreciates the shade of the sweetcorn as long as you don't let the soil dry out and will crop well all winter if you just snap off one or two stalks at a time rather than cutting the whole head. Celery is one of the things I can't do without in the kitchen, so I like to have my own available for as long as I can. Sweet corn can also be sown now in a deep pot, again removing the weakest to leave two in the pot, then planting them out into the tunnel bed when they're about 6-8in/15cm high, about 18in - 2ft./45-60cm each way, that leaves room for the celery. Sweetcorn hates root disturbance so be careful not to break up the root ball when planting. They're a great crop to follow on after my extra early potatoes, the bed should have been well composted or manured for the potatoes, so both the sweet corn and the celery will be very happy with just a light dressing of a general organic fertiliser such as 'Osmo Universal' certified organic fertiliser granules. The celery is slower growing, and after the sweet corn has cropped, I just chop the stems off at the base with secateurs and let the celery grow on into the autumn. It should keep well until at least Christmas, and you can always leave some of the bare sweet corn stems cut at about 2ft/40cm if you like - to act as support for the fleece which you may need to cover the celery with in late autumn! By the way - when the sweetcorn is pollinating - make sure to go along the row and shake some of them - around midday if possible, to spread the pollen, as they're normally wind pollinated. This way you are guaranteed great crops.
You could alternatively grow pumpkins or squashes with your sweetcorn as long as they can trail outside the rows to get plenty of light - thus again ensuring two crops that need dry weather - in case we get another awful summer! In my experience, the famous '3 sisters' Native American way of combining them both with climbing beans as well, doesn't work here in Ireland! Amusingly trendy right now, and a great talking point for those who want to try - but frankly not a productive way to grow them here, either inside or outside. We don't have the same hot, dry summers and intense continental light that they have in the USA. Low cloud and warm grey mist can often be the best part of our summers here. At the end of the day - productivity is the whole point for me - as we aim to be as self-sufficient as possible and don't have space or energy to waste on unproductive crops just to be trendy and talk about!
Sweet Potatoes, Oca, Yacon and Mashua
Another great crop which makes a good break in the tunnel rotation is sweet potatoes. These aren't related to anything else so make a really good 'break' in the tunnel rotation and can be very productive if you know how to grow them. Some of the 'so-called experts' obviously don't however - as they tell you to plant them in very fertile soil! If you do that - all you'll get is a great crop of enormous leaves!! Ignore their advice and plant them in a deep, well-drained soil used by a previous crop - and only add a light dusting of seaweed meal before planting - then mulch with grass clippings or comfrey to keep any weeds down and water just to keep the soil moist after that. Never over-water or they can start to rot. I plant mine about 2 ft/60 cm apart and just leave them to ramble along the ground. They are quite happy there - forming extra roots along the stems which you can use for 'slips' - or cuttings later on. I've seen people train them up trellises - but those seem far too lusciously leafy to me to be very productive tuber-wise! I've tried them in large pots before but they weren't very happy - but a few years ago I tried them in my new 'skip bag' raised beds. They were incredibly happy - I think they loved the great depth of soil. I planted them following on from some 'extra-early' normal potatoes that I'd grown in the skip bag. Again planting them and adding only a little seaweed meal until starting to feed in August in the same way as those planted in the ground. They produced a huge crop and it's something I do every year now.
Now for my top sweet potato tip! In early August I start to feed the plants with a high potash tomato feed like Osmo liquid Tomato feed whenever I need to water them. This is because it's only after then that they start to develop their tubers, triggered by the shortening days, as they are 'day length sensitive' sub-tropical plants. They will they go on developing the tubers until the soil begins to cool or there is frost, so usually early November here. Outside in most areas of the UK and Ireland they would be pretty much a waste of time as it's usually far too cold and wet in the autumn and they stop growing too soon to give a really worthwhile crop. A few years ago, I successfully overwintered late autumn 'slips' in well drained, barely watered pots in the house. Last year I thought I would try to overwinter some in very well drained soil in the cold tunnel but lost the lot. They seem to be very prone to rotting under about 50degF/10degC. and won't even keep after harvesting unless I keep them in the house somewhere over that temperature. Some of the garden centres and multiples may have plants of 'Beauregarde' fairly soon - which is a good variety to grow. It has delicious deep orange flesh and is the most reliable for home gardeners. Johnstown Garden Centre had one called Bonita for the last two years, a white-fleshed variety which did very well and produced even bigger tubers than Beauregarde, and also one called Murusaki which was similar. Orleans is an improved form of Beauregarde - giving bigger tubers but less of them. Two years ago I tried a purple one which I don't know the name of sadly - I bought tubers from organic grower friend Denis Healy's farmers market stall and managed to root cuttings of it. I thought they were worth trying as I love the purple ones - they were from Spain, rather than further afield, and they did well in a polytunnel here.
Oca is another tender-ish crop which forms it's delicious lemony flavoured tubers in the late autumn- but beware - once you have grown it in the tunnel you will always have it as even the tiniest tubers will grow again the following year! That said - it's not really a thug, is easy to grow and like sweet potatoes is a good break crop. The small tubers are like floury lemon flavoured new potatoes - nice steamed and served with fish. You can also eat the delicious sharp flavoured leaves and pretty, small star-shaped yellow flowers in salads in moderation. Moderation is the key though - you don't want too much of it!
Something that again some 'experts' fail to tell you - or may not even know, is that Oca is actually a member of the sorrel family and so is extremely high in oxalic acid - too much of which could give you kidney stones, if you are susceptible!Some garden writers who should know better, are now even suggesting it as the new alternative to potatoes - as a staple root crop that won't get blight. Even those who write about 'healthy eating' - which is quite astonishing! They clearly haven't done their research properly! I've done a lot of research over the years into the nutritional qualities of crops, as it's something I've always been interested in - especially with growing all of my family's food and also being fascinated by plants. Apart from the fact that you'd really never get big enough crops here outside - I would suggest that they are a rather dangerous 'staple' crop to eat every day instead of potatoes! A nice alternative occasionally - as an interesting side dish - but not worth risking on an every day basis!
Now for another of what I love to call the 'Emperor's New Clothes' plant -Yacon - that I'm pictured with above!! It is undoubtedly an extremely handsome plant - but as the old saying goes - looks aren't everything!It's the very latest 'must have' plant - even what I would call a garden 'fashion statement'! Everyone professes to love it and to get great crops from it - but frankly I don't believe them and I have no problem saying so! Particularly if they live in the British Isles! I suppose it depends what you call great crops though? A few years ago I tried Yacon plants in the tunnel. I've tried them outside before - but never got much of a crop as they also don't develop their tubers until the days shorten so they need a long warm autumn - not something we usually get here! At €28 per potted plant as seen in garden centres over the last few years - it would need to be an awful lot more than just good looking for me! Plants in my polytunnels have to really earn their space! It did produce a good bunch of tubers per plant and even flowered with small sunflower like blooms - but quite frankly it's a waste of time unless you have acres of spare tunnel space - and who has, except a botanic garden? I certainly don't - for me it's a waste of valuable tunnel space (a minimum 2/3 sq.metres per plant) and outside won't produce a worthwhile crop in our cold damp autumns anyway!
In addition to that - all the' experts' (there I go again) say it tastes of 'Granny Smith' crossed with mild pear(copying each other - having obviously read each others articles!) - now come on please! I reckon I have very good unspoiled taste buds, loving as I do on a totally organic, low salt diet and being a non-smoker, I can usually taste the most delicate flavours - but apple and pear? I don't think so!! At best - weak water chestnut - but yes, a lovely crunchy texture, I'll give you that! It's also being promoted as a less 'windy' alternative pre-biotic vegetable to Jerusalem artichokes. Now there's a veg with attitude - it certainly makes it's presence felt - or otherwise! It's cheap to buy, overwinters outside because it's as hardy as old boots and it's almost impossible to lose. What's not to like - apart from the fact that it's just not as fashionable!? And it also has a most fantastic nutty flavour - valuable and versatile in countless winter recipes. Give me Jerusalem Artichokes any time over Yacon! This year Yacon will be relegated to my Jungle garden - with all the other interesting foliage plants. It will look absolutely splendid there, and I will just appreciate it's admittedly exotic looks!! By the way - you can reduce the bloating or aerating (to put it politely!) effects of Jerusalem artichokes by cooking them with a little lemon juice, and also by getting your gut used to them gradually, by not eating a lot at first!
Beautiful but hot - tubers of Mashua or Anu
Mashua or Anu - this is another crop that's suddenly become fashionable - although it's very much an acquired taste for most to say the least! If you like Wasabi - then you'll love it! It's actually a type of climbing nasturtium - Tropaeolum tuberosum - so the leaves and flowers can be eaten in salads and are just as tasty as it's cousin the more ordinary annual nasturtium that we all know and love. The roots are the real crop though - and are far higher in some cancer-fighting phytochemicals than any other members of the wider cabbage, or brassica family, to which they belong.
The very strong, if not to say explosively hot, radish-tasting tubers are beautiful but not for the faint hearted! Not bad grated very sparingly raw in salads or even fermented in Kimchi - and in South America they are greatly prized when dried, stored and later cooked. I haven't tried doing that with them yet!
Tropaeolum tuberosum aka Anu or Mashua in flower -
Other Crops - Figs, Grapes and Strawberries
Ever-bearing or perpetual strawberries are another great tunnel crop. They will of course produce good crops outside - but they will crop for far longer and more heavily in a polytunnel! The biggest problem with them is the blackbirds, if I put up netting fine enough to keep the birds out - it keeps out the bees as well, which pollinate them! I try to find netting which is about a 1/4 the size of pea and bean netting, as that will only deter pigeons and pheasants. The blackbirds have perfected a 'hobby-like' last minute wing-folding dash as they aim at the squares of pea and bean netting - I've watched them do it countless times - and I have to admire their ingenuity, but not their greed! If they get into the tunnel they will try nearly every single one - pecking at them all until they find the very ripest. I think they must be the avian equivalent of 'Goldilocks'! Encouraging wildlife is all very well - but it has does have it's limits!! Albion, Mara de Bois and Everest are great-flavoured, heavy cropping varieties that all do well for me - cropping from May until November - and you can't ask more than that!
'Lakemont Seedless' grape - September ripening
All of the grapes are producing plenty of flower buds now, and on both seedless and seeded grapes the main work is pinching out shoots two leaves beyond potential bunches, leaving only one bunch per shoot if you want decent bunches or if the vine is young, or two bunches if they are seedless and you don't necessarily want huge grapes. Be careful not to pinch out the last two shoots needed for any extension growth of the main rod or stem. Keep roots moist, but don't over water.
In a normal year I'd be doing the second thinning of peach fruitlets this week - when they're already the size of large walnuts. At the moment they're only the size of large peas my son says - about 3 weeks behind due to the weather - that's when I normally do their first thinning now - to 2 ins apart. At the end of the month or when they're walnut sized - I'll thin them to 4ins/10cm apart. It's a fiddly job I really hate - taking off all that potential fruit! But if you don't thin - either the whole lot could drop off because the tree has too much to cope with, or you'll just get very small stony fruits. I want big luscious ones - so I thin them! Keeping them well watered now is important too.
The figs in pots are also developing fast and are being fed a high potash tomato feed, as they kept their embryo fruitlets well over the winter. The 'brega' crop (the term for the overwintered early crop) looks like being really good this year on all of the figs. Brogiotto Nero is looking the best - it's a black fig with deep violet coloured flesh and has the very best flavour I think - but they're all delicious if you're into figs as I am! I've got about 20 varieties now. Figs are very easy to propagate from cuttings or suckers as they aren't grafted and so are much easier to grow than many people think - as long as you're very strict with them! They must be kept under 'house arrest' and restricted in large pots. In the ground - particularly outside - they will just produce masses of leaves and no fruit unless you have them on a very sunny wall with their roots severely restricted in some way. Nice foliage plants in a jungle - but not very productive! 'Violetta', 'Brown Turkey', 'Brunswick', Califfo Blue, Sultane and Rouge de Bordeaux are some that all have a fast-developing 'breba' crop of baby figs currently. They will need to be kept moist and feeding at every other watering - particularly as I want another later crop in the autumn.
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)
"Remember - always sow the seeds - you can catch up on everything else, but if you get behind on that, then there's nothing you can do about it." .......... (A great piece of advice I was given many years ago)
French bean Cobra and Sweet Corn Lark are just two of the reliable and delicious crops you can sow now directly into polytunnel soil.
Sow in a heated propagator, or in a warm place, or directly in tunnel soil when it's warm enough. For polytunnel or greenhouse cropping, or for planting outside under cloches or fleece at the end of May you can now sow:
French beans, runner beans, sweet corn, courgettes, edamame (soy) beans, cucamelons, gherkins, pumpkins, summer squashes, marrows and melons. You can still sow cucumbers and tomatoes for late tunnel/greenhouse crops. Also 'soft' herbs such as basil, coriander, dill, Greek oregano (best for flavour), lovage, mints, parsley (giant flat leaf Italian best flavour) Perilla (Japanese beefsteak plant) and fennel, Alpine strawberries (Reugen good variety) Florence fennel and half-hardy single flowers such as Tagetes, single French marigolds, nasturtiums etc. for bees and butterflies - and to attract other beneficial insects like hoverflies etc. to help with pest control and pollination, both under cover and out in the garden.
It's really important to shade propagators and young seedlingsfrom strong sun at all times now to stop seedlings from cooking! - You can also switch off propagators during the day to save energy - even if shaded, on sunny days they will be plenty warm enough - but do make sure you remember to turn them on again well before it gets chilly in the evening.
Sow in modules if the weather is still too cold, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in the ground where they are to crop - if the weather and your ground conditions are suitable:
Asparagus, globe artichokes, beetroot, broad beans, carrots, all varieties of peas, savoy and other autumn/winter cabbages, all varieties of sprouting broccoli including calabrese and purple sprouting, cauliflowers, salad onions, Hamburg parsley, landcress, lettuces, perilla, orache, chicory, kohl-rabi, kales (those for cropping overwinter outside from the middle of May onwards), parsnips (early May) radishes, rocket, salsify, Swiss chards, spinach, turnips and swedes, summer purslane, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes and perennial hardy herbs including sorrel. Asparagus peas, cardoons, Good King Henry and New Zealand spinach can be sown outside under cloches now, and also from the middle of May, if the soil is warm enough, sweet corn, French and runner beans. Marrows, courgettes, pumpkins, ridge cucumbers and squashes can all be sown outside under cloches at the end of May, in warm areas. Also sow some single annual flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), cosmos, calendula, Californian poppies, convulvulus tricolour, nasturtiums, phacelia, sunflowers etc. to attract beneficial insects like hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds which will help with pest control, and also to attract bees which help with crop pollination. Sow fast growing green manures like buckwheat, mustard (a brassica so watch rotations), lupins & red clover (legumes) and phacelia, to improve the soil by adding humus, to encourage beneficial microbes, 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms (after digging in), on any empty patches of ground that won't be used for 6 weeks or more.
Although in theory you could sow almost everything outside in the garden now - except tender veg. like cucumbers etc. - our weather is so variable now that you must keep an eye on soil temperature and weather conditions!
Unless you've had ground covered with cloches or polythene so that soil is dry and really warm - then it's always much safer to sow in modules undercover to be sure of guaranteed results and to save wasting expensive seed. The soil in some areas is still cold after recent frosts & heavy rain. A late frost could destroy newly emerged seedlings of tender crops like French beans even under cloches. Seed is expensive and you can't afford to waste it. You can't afford to waste time now either, by possibly losing any sowings made at this time of year. Too many important staple winter and storage crops need to be sown this month - and if they fail it may well be too late to sow them again. Even though the sun is strong now and sunny days are warm, there can still be serious frosts at beginning of this month.
In the tunnel you can plant tender veg like sweet potato 'slips' in pots this month - or in the ground if it's reliably warm enough, but I always prefer to get mine growing really well in pots first, as it gives them a better start. They need a long season as they don't bulk up until late, very frost tender and hate cold, wet ground. You can also plant Oca and Mashua tubers in pots now - again to plant out later, at the end of May or early June - or to plant directly into tunnel soil. The small growing tubers of Yacon can also be planted now in the tunnel or in pots to plant outside later. They are just starting into growth now.
(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. It's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)
April contents: An Historic Treasure rediscovered! Pyrus communis 'Blood Pear'..... The importance of pollinators......Thinning peaches and apricots vital for good crops......Dwarf Cherries?- I don't think so!..... What kinds of fruit can you grow in a north-facing site?.... Tunnel fruits - grapes, strawberries and figs.... Other fruit jobs.....
Pyrus communis 'Blood Pear' - an historic treasure rediscovered!
"In this Month your Garden appears in it's greatest Beauty, the Blossoms of the Fruit-trees prognosticate the plenty of Fruits for all the succeeding Summer Months, unless prevented by untimely Frosts or Blights. The bees now buzz in every corner.... to seek for food: the Birds sing in every Bush and the sweet Nightingale tunes her warbling Notes in your solitary Walks, whilst the other Birds are at their rest..... The air is Wholesome, and the Earth pleasant, beginning now to be clothed with Nature's best Array, exceeding all Art's Glory." - (Worlidge, 1688)
How I love the quote above! How pristine and beautiful that relatively unspoiled countryside must have been. What a stark contrast to our countryside now! How much I would love to have seen it. I long for a time machine, so that I could go back and see the abundant unspoiled beauty of that world before we modern humans destroyed so much of it in our ignorance. I was lucky to see perhaps what were some of the last remnants of it as a child growing up in the country in the 50's and 60's. There are no nightingales here sadly - but one of the most wonderful things about growing fruit, especially tree-fruits which have to be propagated from descendants of the original trees, is that we can all grow that continuing history in our gardens. We can all touch what in fact are merely extensions of the branches of those many original apple, pear or plum varieties which gardeners down through the centuries have tended lovingly - bequeathing them to us - to pass on in turn to our descendants. And fruit doesn't get much more historic or special than the beautiful Blood Pear pictured above!
An Historic Treasure Rediscovered! - Pyrus communis 'Blood Pear'
A couple of years ago I was wandering around Orchard Garden Centre in Celbridge, somewhere I go occasionally if I'm n that area, as they always have an excellent range of plants, and often some of the less 'run of the mill' fruits. I really wasn't looking for any more tree fruits, as I have more than enough - being a 'pomoholic' - with over a 100 varieties of apples and a dozen pears here at this stage, which I've collected gradually over the years! As I walked past the apples and pears though, something in the periphery of my vision caught my attention. I don't really know why - as the trees I was looking at seemed pretty similar at first to all the other pear trees they were standing among - but there was just 'something' about them. When I looked closer - I spotted that two, slightly taller trees, had several smallish fruits on - unusual for standard garden centre stock, as normally they're sold as one or two-year old trees which haven't started fruiting yet. I asked Adrian, the manager, if they had been sprayed recently, and he said that no - that they never spray the trees themselves, and that they'd had these trees in stock for at least a couple of years, as no one seemed interested in them. He didn't know anything about them, but thought that they were an ornamental variety, as they had beautiful autumn colour. I asked if I could just pick one fruit to try it.......... Well folks - they were obviously waiting just for me!
Let me tell you - bigger is not always necessarily better! Biting into what I expected might be a hard, bitter, dry fruit of an ornamental or perry pear, I was astonished when my rather tentative bite revealed the most beautiful crimson-flushed flesh, with a deliciously sweet flavour! In fact I was completely stunned - it was like no pear I'd ever seen before! Adrian said that it was called 'Blood Pear', and that he'd got it a few years ago from a small Irish grower who was into unusual ornamental trees, whose name he couldn't remember at the time, and who had got it from another nursery! Not very helpful!
I thought that the pear's name 'Blood Pear' seemed possibly either very unlikely - or very ancient, so when I got home I looked in all my old fruit books and catalogues - of which I have many! That search drew a complete blank. But thank heavens for the internet - despite it's drawbacks - it is a real blessing sometimes! The more I researched this unusually-named variety - the more excited I became! Lo and behold, I found it listed in 'The Perry Pears of Gloucestershire' - an enthusiast's book written by none other than the incredibly knowledgeable Charles Martell (of Stinking Bishop' cheese fame) - who recently featured on BBC's Countryfile TV series - and who I knew also just happens to be a very close neighbour of my favourite cousin in Herefordshire! So I emailed the always-helpful Charles to ask if he knew of anyone who was propagating it, as at that stage I still didn't know the name of the Irish grower who Orchard Garden centre had obtained it from..
Charle's beautiful book and my own further exhaustive research revealed that this incredibly rare Heritage pear was first recorded in 1675 in France - then 1684 in Germany - before Worlidge uttered those wonderful words which I've quoted above - but it may quite possibly be Medieval or even earlier. It is, as I suspected, an ancient variety, with it's origins lost in the mists of time, which was recently rediscovered in Hasfield, in Gloucestershire. Hasfield is just a few miles away from where my cousin farms on the edge of the Forest of Dean - an area where I spent a lot of time in my youth and am very fond of. Apparently now a favourite in the National Pear collection, it bears slightly smaller than average fruits that have a rose-flushed skin when fully ripe, but the really exciting thing about this absolute treasure is the meltingly sweet, ruby-flushed flesh revealed when biting into the conveniently child-sized fruits. Their complex flavour is very hard to describe - the one or two European nurseries which have it listed describe it as being fragrant, with almost muscat or watermelon-flavoured fruits, having overtones of cinnamon. The colour and those complex flavours clearly show it's high content of aromatic, antioxidant polyphenols, something which regular readers will know I've been interested in for many years.
It ripens in early August, ahead of many dessert pears, which is useful, and is absolutely delicious eaten fresh straight from the tree. It can be stored for 3-4 weeks in cool storage, can also be cooked, and the fruits dehydrate exceptionally well into deliciously-flavoured pear sweetmeats, which I discovered are especially good with a Brie-type cheese - like 'Stinking Bishop' oddly enough! I recently heard of someone even making a pink sparkling Perry from this pear - I would really love to try doing that! I could be wrong, but I think one might need to combine it with a perry pear which has a bit more sharpness, to make a really good balanced Perry - if making Perry is anything like making cider? It certainly would be an interesting drink to try though. Perry is not something I've ever tried making - but I think I may just be ordering one or two Perry pear trees in the autumn. Pears will take a bit more of a damp climate than apples - so they should be happy enough here in Ireland! My Blood Pears certainly seem to be very happy anyway!
This beautiful pear is a real find - and an absolute treasure for lovers of unusual fruit. It is hardy, disease-resistant and crops prolifically. It is self-fertile, but will crop even better with another pear such as 'Conference' nearby to aid pollination. The large flowers are very ornamental in spring, and it has beautiful autumn colour - which is a reason I would certainly grow it even if it didn't have such unusual fruit! I know some of you may laugh at me for saying this, as normally I'm a very practical person and don't often talk about my more fanciful imaginings - but I swear that those trees - which originated so close to where my family's roots go back hundreds of years, might have been connecting or communicating with me in some way through the ether - who knows? My late very 'fey' aunt - the eldest of my father's 6 sisters, my favourite cousin's mother and more like a mother to me also - could have put it into words so eloquently. She could read my mind which was pretty scary at times! But all I can say is - "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" - to quote Shakespeare's Hamlet. It is so true - there is still so much left to discover which is as yet unexplained, given the inadequate scientific knowledge or indeed language which we currently have. I often go and talk to my new trees, which came from that area of countryside which I love so much. When I stroke them - I almost imagine I can feel that connection to the soil where I know my roots still are.......... If anyone's interested - as I had written about them in the March issue of The Irish Garden magazine, I asked Adrian at Orchard if he could get in some more of these trees, which he did. They may well still be available from Orchard Home and Garden, in Celbridge County Kildare.
One of the very few positives about my recent broken ankle has been a bit more time to do research into what interests me. Microbiology has always fascinated me, and now is a rapidly-emerging field of science. More evidence of the complexity of bacterial communication is being discovered daily - and the more I learn about it - the more utterly astonishing things I discover! Gut feeling has already been well-documented and scientifically proven as valid. Which one of us hasn't at some time experienced those tell-tale 'butterflies' in the stomach when worried or excited by something? Or that 'flip' in the pit of the stomach when attracted to someone (- not always a good thing)! Recently a lot more science is emerging not just about how our gut microbes can also actually control our emotions, by direct communication with our brain - but also how our diet can influence that for good or bad. So perhaps our gut bacteria may even be able to recognise some kind of familiarity in other individuals of a similar bacterial heritage or background? I know that there is definitely evidence of that in birds.
Recently I was researching why it was, that despite the fact that the 3 different hybrid breeds of day old chicks I bought in December had been hatched on the same day, in the same hatchery, traveled home here in the same box and lived altogether in the very same quarters from day one - the 3 different hybrid strains have from the very beginning tended to gravitate towards their own breed in very distinct groups! It's quite uncanny! There is definitely something which they somehow inherently recognise in each other. This is something which I've found astonishing in creatures that one normally thinks of as just 'chickens' - and not something that I would have ever noticed before in chickens. Naturally that is because I would normally have bought all the same breed when I reared them for commercial laying-hens years ago. I got the 3 different breed this time, as I though they would be a more attractive and entertaining flock - not something one would worry about when keeping a large commercial flock. This is the first time I've raised three different hybrids all hatched on the same day. So that proves that it's not all about scent - if it is at all. Is it possible that they sense some kind of recognisable, inherited bacterial signature? Scientists aren't quite sure yet - again it's a very new idea that they are only just beginning to research. One thing is for certain - we all originally came from microbes - we are still full of them, and enveloped by them. How many more fascinating things there are still to discover! Anyway - before I ramble off into more 'what if's' and bore the pants off you all - back to the more practical matters of fruit! Although, come to think of it - microbes are relevant to fruit too - just as they are to everything other living thing on the planet, including precious pollinating insects!
The importance of pollinators
Back in Worlidge's time of the 17th century, one could take the predictability of the seasons for granted. Gardeners back then could also take for granted that there would always be plenty of bees and other pollinators every year to pollinate our fruit trees and other important crops. Sadly our seasons are becoming quite unpredictable now and bee numbers are declining rapidly everywhere, mainly due to insect damaging pesticides and habitat loss but also erratic weather due to climate change. It's in our interests to do everything we can to help all pollinators right now, to try to halt this decline, by providing different habitats for overwintering and breeding, with flowers for nectar and pollen - and by not using any pesticides whatsoever. I haven't used any in over 40 years of organic food growing - they are totally unnecessary. Correct growing conditions and encouraging biodiversity, in an environment with a good balance of pest and predator is the key to growing without pesticides.
If bees and other vitally important pollinating insects disappear - so will all of the food crops which are pollinated by them - including the peaches pictured above. That's an awful lot of our everyday foods - and we wouldn't last too long without them!
Thankfully, some frosty nights, over the last few sunny days there seem to be quite a few different species of both bumblebees and solitary bees around in the garden and the tunnels. Yesterday, the tunnels were bee central! There were masses of them in there, pollinating the last of the dwarf peaches, apricots and nectarines in the west (fruit) tunnel, and enjoying all the flowers in both tunnels, some of which I grow specifically just for them. Last summer's warm dry weather was a good one for them again and despite the fact that we're surrounded by intensive agriculture and so much habitat destruction, I like to think that all the work I've done here over the last 30 or so years to provide lots of different habitat for bees and insects is now paying off. Particularly the well-drained B&B bank as I call it - that seems to have been a great success, with so many bee nests in it that I had to stop tidying it the other day. Agitated bumblebees were flying around me everywhere as I tried to tidy the roughest of the grasses up a bit. So I left them to it and resigned myself to it looking what some very tidy gardeners would consider to be a mess. Essentially my garden was planted over 30 years ago with wildlife in mind - because insects, wasps and bees are the organic gardener's best friends. They don't just carry out valuable pollination but also vital pest control - just as nature intended.
Apple blossom - 'James Grieve'
Many people don't know that bees, moths and other pollinating insects don't just need flowers for food, but also grasses, dry banks, leaves and woodpilesto nest in and to shelter overwinter. A friend told me the other day that the 'Glas' scheme for farmers here includes a module on attracting pollinating insects and solitary bees - so that's very good news. Although we left it as late as we could, to allow for hibernating bees, I felt rather guilty when we were mowing the strips across the wildlife meadow at this time three years ago, prior to planting the new orchard. Quite a few bees crawled out from the tall clumps of grasses - but the strips are only about a metre and a half wide - I'm leaving the rest of the rough grass with it's wildflowers o so there is plenty of habitat for them to crawl back into. I'll also be planting lots more meadow wildflowers between the trees to provide even more food for them and to attract plenty of pollinators, so that our trees are well-pollinated. So far the new orchard is doing well and we got a good crop again last year.
There are lots of bumblebees but still very few native black honeybees around at the moment though - usually the pussy willow catkins are smothered with them at this time of year. I seem to see fewer every year which is really worrying. I've noticed on or two on the dandelions on the drive, which I can see from my chair on the front step, which as currently far as I can venture yet into the garden yet with my broken and still mending ankle! I was thrilled to see them. I know there will plenty of flowers in the tunnel for them right now though too. The scent when I open the polytunnel doors in the morning at this time of year is always amazing - it smells like a perfume shop! There are also plenty of hoverflies around in the last few days. Hoverflies aren't just brilliant pest controllers - really gobbling up the aphids - but they're also great pollinators. Once again this shows the enormous value of growing flowers in your tunnel - in case anyone thought it was a waste of space, or a bit 'girly'! Growing flowers outside around your fruit areas or in orchards is important too. That way pollinating bees and other insects get to know where there is food for them and they so clever that they remember it's location - so then they'll keep returning to do their job and then there'll more fruit for you too! Hopefully we can look forward to another summer full of a wide range of delicious fruit. The bees and hoverflies have done a good job of pollinating the early peaches and apricots too, and they must be swelling fast! I hope I may be able to hobble up to the polytunnels in a couple of weeks to try to thin the lower ones that I can reach - as thinning is vital if you want decent sized fruits.
Thinning peaches and apricots is vital for good crops
The peach and apricot fruitlets shown here, which are about the size of large peas, will have to be thinned as soon as they reach pea size, and thinned again in a few weeks when walnut-sized, leaving them at least 4-6 ins/10cm apart eventually - a fiddly job I really hate - especially now I only have one arm which will reach above shoulder height since breaking my right shoulder 5 years ago! I also can't bear picking off all those furry little babies - that potential fruit - but I have to steel myself, because otherwise I know that they won't develop properly! Most will turn yellow and drop off as the tree can't cope with that many. By thinning you stop that fruit drop and those left will develop properly to full size. It's hard fiddly work doing all that thinning but I congratulate myself when I bite into that first delicious really ripe peach and the juice runs down my chin. It will be peaches for breakfast for several weeks in the summer! The outside ones are two or three weeks behind, so if you have any flowering now, protect them at night with fleece if severe frost is forecast.
Dwarf cherries? I don't think so!
Most years the cherries come into flower later this month. The dwarf (ha-ha!) 'Stella' cherries were the first fruit trees to be planted in the garden 36 years ago, as small sticks less than 2 feet high, in an otherwise bare field. Now when they're in full flower they resemble a beautiful arching cathedral of blossom and are as tall as the house! Not dwarf sadly - but still worth growing for the blossom - and the birds naturally appreciate all the fruit! They can reach it - I can't! Sitting at my computer, I can see over the half door out of the kitchen, through the courtyard gate and straight down what I rather grandly called the 'cherry walk'. The trees should be literally dripping with blossom in another couple of weeks. They're under-planted with bulbs, hellebores, primroses and a multitude of other shade loving spring flowers, so they're a wonderful sight every year! They fruit prolifically, but I hardly ever get more than one or two delicious cherries, the birds get the lot, as they're far too high to cover. Even if I could - the blackbirds in this garden seem to be a particularly ingenious and determined lot, no matter what I try to do to deter them. I've even tried covering some lower branches with old tights before the cherries start to colour (not the most attractive garden ornament!), but my blackbirds aren't fooled by a bit of old hosiery, they just peck at them through the tights and still ruin them anyway! Some people say it's because they could be thirsty - but there's always plenty of water around here for them to drink and that doesn't stop them. So I have to be content with just one or two of my favourite fruit - if I'm very lucky. However, I suppose there is a little compensation in the form of melodious bird song for much of the year. Right now I can hear them competing with the thrushes, goldfinches and chaffinches for 'best spring song of 2018'! A joyous concert - although a pretty expensive one thanks to some of them - if you count the cost of the cherries!!
Eight years ago I had another try, buying more sweet cherry trees on a new, much-vaunted 'extra-dwarfing rootstock' - Gisela. Sadly it doesn't seem any more dwarf than the others but perhaps with constant attention and pruning, which I don't have time for - it might possibly work? They're showing every sign of being just as vigorous as the others! 3 years ago - I invested in some more really dwarf fruit trees - this time to grow permanently in pots. I'm growing those in my fruit tunnel, so they'll get more attention while watering etc. and they'll also be protected from hungry birds - so I'm hoping that I may finally enjoy more than one or two cherries! A few years ago I had the idea of putting empty netting log bags around many of the fruiting branches of the trees outside with some success but they're too difficult to reach now! The only cherries I will really be sure of getting outside are the Morellos which I planted 8 years ago on the back wall of the stables, which faces north. I can net them there. Their blossom won't be out for another week or so, but the buds promise a big crop on what are still quite small trees.
What kinds of fruit can you grow in a north facing site?
On the subject of cherries - Morellos are a very good, reliable crop trained as fans on a north-facing wall. They are much more easily kept within bounds than sweet cherries, as like peaches, they fruit on the previous year's growth, so a certain amount of the old wood must be pruned out each year to keep them productive. Against a wall it's much easier to keep the birds off by putting netting over them at the right time. I'm anticipating all sorts of future cherry deliciousness, not the least of which is what I call my 'Vodkatopf' - my corruption of the traditional Austrian 'Rumtopf' - which an Austrian friend of mine makes. Being tasteless - vodka doesn't detract from the flavour of the fruit and I think it's much nicer. I just pile cherries (after pricking each a few times with a cocktail stick) into a large old glass sweet jar with a lid, fill about half way up with sugar, depending on the sweetness of the fruit, and then just top up with Vodka. Sainsbury's used to do a very good, cheap, organic Vodka - I still have a couple of bottles, so I can still feel almost virtuous when I'm enjoying a shot or two! Not forgetting of course all those wonderfully healthy phytochemicals too - perhaps they cancel the alcohol out hopefully? Cherry juice is an acknowledged natural preventative and cure for gout and arthritis. My method works well for all fruit, especially peaches, damsons, strawberries - particularly alpine strawberries if you have enough - blackberries and blackcurrants, everything really. Then the 'alcholholised' fruit makes great sorbets too! - Yum!
There are plenty of different fruits that will grow very well trained against a north wall or in a north facing garden. Good light is essential,so you don't want a site overhung by trees,but direct sunlight is not essential - so don't despair if you have a small sunless back garden. Even if you have a sunny garden, using a north facing site for some of your fruit is a really good way of spreading or lengthening the season of many fruits, as it delays their cropping by a couple of weeks - so that they're not all ready at once. That's what they used to do in the big old walled gardens, often covering ripe fruit like currants and gooseberries with straw matting to keep them hanging on the bushes until late autumn! A north wall is potentially a great food producing space which is often wasted, because people think it's useless for fruit growing, so it's usually only occupied by ivy or something similar. I remember vividly the wonderfully productive Morello cherries trained against the high, north facing wall of the mews at the end of the late dress designer Sybil Connolly's beautiful small garden, off Merrion Square in Dublin - one of Dublin's best kept horticultural secrets many years ago. It was a real gem of a garden - where I used to really enjoy helping Sybil out occasionally with pruning etc.
As well as Morello cherries - loganberries and Tayberries, currants, gooseberries, and blackberries will all fruit very well facing north, but just a couple of weeks later than in a sunnier part of the garden. They all actually make great 'Vodkatopf' too - I've tried them all! Blackberry is particularly good. If you're planting blackberries though, do be very careful that you don't plant a very vigorous variety if you only have a small space.Although 'Himalayan Giant' is probably the best-tasting variety, it really does live up to its name - and more!! It should come with a health warning, as it's territorial ambitions know no bounds! It will grow at least 30ft/10m annually in every direction if allowed to, and if the birds can get to the ripe berries, after digesting them they will drop the resulting undigested seeds in every corner of the garden, which you may not notice until a vigorous shoot, taller than you and as thick as your wrist, is suddenly waving at you happily, having planted itself in a lovely fertile spot, under something particularly precious which hates being moved! It's enormous thorns can easily pierce even the toughest of leather gardening gloves or wellington boots and if it gets out of hand it is an extreme pruning nightmare. It can be a menace - you have been warned! I will admit it that it really tastes fabulous though, and carries huge crops! For all it's faults and vicious habits - I wouldn't be without it! Every year I fill my freezers with huge carrier bags full to enjoy in smoothies and everything else you can think of all winter long! The great thing about freezing berries too - is that the phytonutrients in them become more available to our bodies when they've been frozen as this breaks down the skins.
Himalayan Giant really tastes fantastic, better than any other blackberry. It never needs feeding (very foolhardy - don't encourage it!) it's reliable even when all else fails and is amazingly productive. The bees really love the blossom too. Although I curse it for most of the year - I love it is when I'm loading the freezer with countless bags full of fruit for winter smoothies, crumbles etc., especially when I've just been looking at their price of about 4 or 5 euros for 250gm little plastic punnets in the supermarket (unbelievable)! It makes wonderful ice cream and sorbets, the berries' gelatinous qualities making them extra smooth, they're full of heart-healthy ellagic acid and many other phytochemicals, and are far more nutritious than blueberries, according to recent scientific studies. They're certainly a hell of a lot easier to grow! Blackberries just haven't had the same expensive PR campaign, since many people just pick them from hedgerows! Although having said that - Himalayan Giant has a far better flavour than most hedge-picked brambles. The loose frozen fruit is great for filling air pockets in the freezer too, as it fits nicely around everything else. So it even saves energy and money! However, when it started to take over the neglected old hen run (own fault - too busy), and I had to get a man with a digger to remove about 1/4 acre of it - I was awfully tempted to get rid of the lot. Now I now keep it under very strict house arrest, never taking my eye off it for very long - severely trained along a fence! Gerry Kelly begged me for a root of it some years ago after tasting it. I'm never short of a root or two as any end of a shoot that touches the ground for longer than ten seconds will root - so if you hear that Drogheda has been taken over by a rampant thorny nightmare - I did warn him!!
Other fruit jobs
You can plant all types of fruit from containers now, as it's too late for bare-root planting. Make sure they're nice young plants, not 'pot-bound' as they are more difficult to establish well. Gently tease a few roots loose around the bottom when planting, so they get the idea. Be careful to make sure that any graft union on fruit trees is at least 3-4 ins/10cm above ground level. I often see potted trees in garden centres with the graft union practically in the compost - those are a disaster waiting to happen for the unaware. If the fruiting top part of the tree roots past the dwarfing rootstock, as can happen if it's too close to soil level, then the dwarfing effect of the root stock is lost altogether! Don't forget if space is short that you can also plant all sorts of fruit in containers too! If you have a high 'pH' (limey) soil, this is in fact the best way to grow fussy acid-loving blueberries, always watering with rainwater - never tap water if you're in a hard water area. This is where many people go wrong
You can also prune to shape young and trained trees of stone fruits like plums and cherries now that the sap is rising. If pruned in the winter, they may possibly develop 'silver leaf' or bacterial canker disease.
Keep a eye out for any blackcurrant, redcurrant and gooseberry leaves which start to appear like lace - small holes appearing between the leaf veins. This is caused by gooseberry sawfly caterpillars. It's often a problem on young bushes just recently bought from nurseries, as it seems to be endemic in them! The best way to cope with these is not to spray! Just squash any caterpillars you find as soon as possible, and if you have space, put a temporary chicken wire fence around your currant patch and get a couple of chickens or even bantams to scratch around over the winter and pick up the eggs and grubs - that's how I got rid of it. A bit more protein to produce some nice eggs for you! The blackcurrants in particular will appreciate the extra nitrogen that the chicken's droppings will provide - and I can guarantee you won't have any more trouble with sawfly. Just make sure you move the chickens somewhere else in the spring, before the bushes start to fruit, or you won't have any fruit either!!
Feed and mulch all fruit trees and bushes if you haven't already done so. If you have wood ash available from a wood burning stove - all fruits particularly apples and pears, will appreciate the highly soluble, fruit inducing potash it provides - except blueberries, as it raises the 'ph' of the soil - use seaweed meal and/or comfrey mulch on these. Fruit trees and bushes in containers would also appreciate a feed of an organic general purpose fruit fertiliser and a nice mulch to preserve moisture at the roots if you have room.
Don't forget that any fruit grown in containers is totally dependent on you for it's food and water, so from now on keep an eye on watering too. If short of water, most fruit will immediately drop their fruits if allowed to wilt at all. Don't over water either - or the roots may rot unless the compost is free draining. Keep on top of weeds, but be careful hoeing raspberry beds, better to hand weed, as there may be new shoots appearing from ground level. Prune out some of the older fruited canes of autumn fruiting varieties (see March).
Tunnel fruits - grapes, early strawberries and figs
Inside the tunnel - grapes will be producing nice juicy looking shoots on the spurs now, with the flower bunches clearly visible. By the end of the month or before, you should pinch out the tips of all the shoots on the spurs (side shoots) after they have produced two leaves beyond the developing flower bunch. That is all except the very end two shoots, on grapes grown on a permanent rod (stem) system. These will draw the sap along the branch system and provide extension growth if necessary. Always leave two shoots in case one gets damaged or broken. In the case of 'Guyot' pruned grapes, also leave two shoots to develop at the base of the current fruiting branch to develop fully, those will make replacement flowering branches which will fruit next year. Next winter you will cut out this year's fruited branch completely, leaving the stems which developed from those two shoots at the base which grew this spring. I think the permanent rod system works best for amateur gardeners though - it's easier and less work.
Side shoot or 'spur', off the main rod of seedless grape 'Rose Dream' - showing the end of the shoot pinched out 2 leaf joints beyond 2 prospective bunches
Grapes are very amenable to training and are also easy to grow in large bucket-sized pots grown as a small bush. Allowing several branches to develop rather than just one main branch. They take up very little room this way and most people could grow them. You can get a surprising amount of different varieties into quite a small space this way and have a good spread of cropping time from July to November or even later. I experiment a lot with different varieties of grapes and various methods of pruning and training. Seedless grapes don't need the bunches thinning - whereas if you don't thin some of the seeded ones - the bunches can become crowded and diseased prone.
I don't juice them any more because what you're left with is just a lot of sugary water in most cases, without all the valuable natural fibre and nutrients in the whole fruit. I blitz the whole lot in a food processor or powerful Nutribullet blender now if I want a smoothie - so that I get all the skins, pips and important fibre from the fruit too. Grape pips and skins in particular are very high in a phytochemical called Resveratrol - which studies show is extremely good for blood vessel health and circulation. This especially high in black or dark red grapes. My favourite black grape is Muscat Hamburgh, which has the same fabulous taste as those huge Moscatel raisins that are only available before Christmas. Another very good black grape is Muscat Bleu, it has the same delicious flavour as Muscat Hamburg but also has the advantage of self-spacing bunches - with the individual grapes slightly further apart, which promotes good air circulation - so it is ideal for growing in polytunnels where the atmosphere is more humid. A new seedless one I planted a few years ago is 'Rose Dream'. It fruits extremely well, is very early in the tunnel and very sweet. 'Lakemont Seedless' - is a deliciously sweet early green dessert grape that carries large bunches and is a really good variety for organic gardeners as it's very disease-resistant. It's available from many suppliers now. That's the one I use for making scrumptious sultanas in my dehydrator! It makes a lovely decorative feature climbing over the door at the south end of my large tunnel in space that would normally otherwise be wasted. Growing them in a tunnel also means that it's far easier to keep the birds away from them!
Perpetual Strawberry 'Albion' in the tunnel
All the varieties of perpetual strawberriesin the tunnel are starting to flower well now. They rarely produce runners after their first year, so if you want to increase your stock - let some runners develop. The catalogues or labels never tell you this of course, they tell you to cut them all off. Well, they want to sell more don't they? As long as the plants are strong and well fed - it won't affect them at all - and after all that's how they naturally grow. Many of the more modern summer-fruiting varieties seem to behave the same way, 'Christine' is an early, great-flavoured one I grow, which does the same, so it's safer to take one good runner from each plant in it's first year, that way you're sure of keeping them. Cut off any which develop after those, to avoid weakening the plant.
Protect flowers of early fruiting varieties from frost with fleece at night - remove during the day for bees to pollinate. Liquid feed weekly once the fruits are developing, with a high potash organic food like comfrey liquid, or the excellent 'Osmo' organic tomato food (available from White's Agri at Lusk, Co. Dublin and many garden centres). If you're just planting a new bed of more than one variety, make sure you just grow one variety per bed, to keep them distinctly separated. I find an early one like 'Christine', grown both inside and outside, with another one or two perpetual varieties, like 'Everest' and 'Albion' again grown both inside and outside, and an alpine one provide plenty of delicious strawberries to eat fresh and to freeze, from May until November. I've also brought pots of 'Gariguette' into the tunnel this year. I've grown it for years but never tried forcing it before. It's the French version of the famous old 'Royal Sovereign' - so I'm looking forward to supreme flavour. Why on earth would anybody want to buy the tasteless, disgusting, chemically-grown ones grown out of season, imported from half way across the world - when it's so nice to look forward to them in their proper season - just helped along a little in a polytunnel? By the way 'Albion' freezes particularly well too - not going quite as mushy as some other varieties.
The Physalis (golden berry, Pichu berry or Cape Gooseberry - whatever you like to call it!) will have to be potted on this week into larger pots as they've grown well. They'll be fruiting by late August/September and will go on until December. After that the fruits will keep for literally months in the salad drawer of the fridge - so they're well worth growing from seed and are a really easy fruit to grow. They have a delicious citrussy-sherbetty taste (even writing about them makes my mouth water!) - and they're very high in antioxidants lutein and vitamin C. They're even easier to grow than bush tomatoes, do really well in tubs or large pots, seem not to be bothered by any pests at all, the bees really love the flowers and the birds haven't sussed them yet! What's not to like? I've seen the dwarf version for sale in garden centres - but they produce so little fruit they're a complete waste of space - and I don't know anyone who's been successful with them. Some of last year's plants have overwintered well in the tunnel due to the mild winter, I gave them a feed about a month ago and they are now producing lots of nice new shoots at the bottom, and even flowering already on the few long branches which didn't die back. As a result I'm hopeful of some really early, very welcome fruits.
Frosty nights can be particularly difficult for any tender fruit growing in the tunnels. On the very bright sunny days after a clear night's frost the temperatures can rise at an alarming rate - so I have to watch the ventilation very carefully - trying as far as possible to even out the day/night temperatures - not always easy! There's a good crop of early figs developing fast on all the trees - many of the figlets overwintered without any damage. Those that are in any way damaged won't develop and eventually will turn brown and drop off. It's a good idea to take those off now so that they don't develop rots and spread diseases to the healthy younger ones. In the picture you can see the early figs on last year's darker coloured growth - the late summer's crop will develop on the new growth made this spring and summer. I'm being very careful to keep them evenly moist now too - if they dry out and wilt even the slightest bit - figs will ditch all their fruit without fail - usually about two weeks later - when you've completely forgotten that you possibly neglected them on just one occasion! The same goes for all potted fruit. Figs also like good drainage too, hating to be too wet - so they're temperamental devils in pots but well worth it, when even non-organic fresh figs are about a euro each in the smart fruit and veg. shops! I should have my first ripe figs in mid June and will then have a second, bigger autumn crop on this years new green growth, on most of the varieties I grow.
The scent of the citrus flowers is apparently filling the tunnel now even though there's only a couple of trees flowering! A real scent of approaching summer. I must ask my son to pick the last of the fruits on the lemons, oranges and grapefruit - I always hate doing it as they look so beautiful. Daft really isn't it? If I leave them on though - they stop the new fruits developing even if the flowers are pollinated. They're also being protected at night as the dark red young growth is very soft and vulnerable to frost. They're getting a low strength 'Osmo' liquid feed mixed with tunnel temperature rainwater at every watering now - they hate limey, high pH tap water! I do wish garden centres wouldn't water them with a hose! If they are in the garden centres for too long - the leaves start to turn yellow and drop off, as the staff don't know that they prefer the 'gentle rain' that 'droppeth mercifully from Heaven'! Talking of which - I really had such a laugh on one of my much dreaded twice yearly ventures into Dublin last year! I wonder what on earth would Shakespeare have said at being quoted on an M&S food carrier bag? - "If music be the food of love play on"! writ large on a bright purple, recyclable bag - Whatever next!?
Twelfth Night - Act 1, scene 1.- Duke Orsino:
If music be the food of love, play on, Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die.
Music and food would certainly be pretty high on my list of priorities. And I really love all kinds of fruit. I wonder if Shakespeare liked figs? 'Duke Orsino' would certainly have prized them as a Mediterranean man. I don't think you could ever die from eating them - but too many could possibly be a little uncomfortable! I find half a dozen just enough per day, any more is too many - but they're so delicious that they're very hard to resist. Anyway, I could never fall out of love with figs - they're one of my favourite fruits. Problem is - so is almost everything - each in it's own season! Though sometimes it almost seems that the more fussily difficult things are to grow - the better they taste. But then isn't that the real joy of gardening - that you can actually taste the achievement a little too?!
Early figs forming from the overwintered buds on last year's darker 'woody' growth. New shoots will carry a later crop on most varieties of figs in tunnels.
Strong red-flushed young growth, overwintered fruit and flowers on lemons in the tunnel
Sorry for the fruit blog being late this month! To be honest, writing and updating the blog has been a struggle for the last few weeks, as my fractured ankle has made it really difficult to sit for long at the computer. But it's healing well now - so I hope all will be back to normal in a few weeks!
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you.)
April Topics:Sow Super-fast Seeds now for salad greens!.... Early Spring Aphid Problems?.... My 'loo roll' method of sowing parsnips and carrots.....Growing on onion seedlings to cheat the weather!.....'Hardening off' early vegetables.....Stop weeds and slugs before they start!..... When growing your own - you can choose the best varieties for flavour and nutrients......Get your seeds sown!..... Another great thing about growing your own food is that you don't even need a garden! ....Last but not least - my thoughts on some 'so-called' scientists!
The beautiful, delicately marked Rocket flowers taste deliciously of vanilla!
Sow some super-fast seeds now if you're desperate for fresh salad greens!
I can see the wind bending the trees double behind the stables, and rain is beating against the windows as I sit here at my computer writing - but I wouldn't mind being outside in it - if only I could be!Some of you may know that I broke my ankle badly on 16th March - so I've been housebound for almost 5 weeks now - just as things are starting to get busy in the garden! This means that I haven't been able to do anything at all outside - but the raised beds are covered for now and in the next couple of weeks I'm hoping to be able to sow a few fast-growing veg in modules on the kitchen table in anticipation of being able to do at least a little planting in the not too distant future - all being well. If my doctor says that I still can't go outside even then - I shall just grow them in pots or in a stepladder garden on my front step! Having had a few injuries over my gardening lifetime, I've found plenty of alternative ways to grow things. Determination will always find a way - and I'm getting really desperate now to be able to pick some fresh green food and breathe in fresh Spring air - even if it's only on my front step sitting on a chair!
The weather so far this 'spring' (if you can call it that!) has been so erratic, and we've had so much rain in the last few days, that many gardens are still far too wet and cold at the moment to do anything - especially sowing any seeds direct into the soil. Many soils have been flooded and are saturated if they weren't covered or carrying a crop over winter - and even if not they will have lost a lot of nutrients. So if you're craving something fresh and green - sowing some fast-growing veg like spinach, baby leaf lettuce, pea shoots, rocket and Oriental veg into modules will gain you at least 2-3 weeks on anything you could sow outside now - that is if you could! You will be eating all of these within 4-6 weeks! If you plant them out on the ends of your veg beds where they won't be in the way of any subsequent crops - then after you've picked their leaves for a few weeks - later on you can leave one or two plants to flower. Doing this provides very welcome early food for bees and other beneficial insects that help with pest control. Many of their flowers are also delicious in our summer salads - especially the rocket flowers above - which actually taste of vanilla believe it or not! They look really pretty on salads or even on chocolate desserts due to the beautiful dark-brown veining on their flowers! A double or triple whammy!
Early Spring Aphid problems?
The insects that help with pest control love these early flowers as much as we do - they rely on them for food to kick-start the breeding seasonand also like to feed their growing offspring a little protein on the side too! So while they're shopping for nectar and pollen - they'll also pick up a few greenfly or some early caterpillars! The most likely time you'll see any pests like greenfly in an organic garden is on the very young and succulent emerging shoots of some plants at this time of year - roses in particular seem prone to them. If you've been attracting beneficial insects into the garden by growing lots of early flowers though - and also feeding your garden birds all winter - then you'll already have a willing army of pest controllers ready and waiting to help you dispose of them! All forms of gardening are to some extent disturbing Nature - but organic gardening tries to do this as little as possible and tries to encourage the most natural environment possible. Very often if you do see a large infestation of aphids - it means that plants are under some sort of stress, which makes them much more vulnerable to pests. This can often be because people have used too much manure, causing a lot of soft, sappy growth in the plants, which disrupts the plant's self-defences and makes them much more attractive to pests.
I see so many people using home-made concoctions like garlic sprays, washing up liquid etc for 'killing' aphids at this time of year in particular - but many washing-up liquids contain chemicals like formaldehyde, hormone-disrupting artificial scents, detergents etc - and there is no such thing as an environmentally-friendly detergent! If these sprays kill aphids - then they must surely kill or harm other small insects like hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds - which are vitally important in controlling aphids. If there are too many greenfly for your resident predatory insects and birds to cope with, because their numbers haven't yet built up enough to deal with them all - then a quick spray with a jet of water from a garden hose, with your finger over the end, does the job just as effectively, and water doesn't kill anything! They won't climb back onto the plants, and most importantly, using only plain water renders any dead aphids still safe to eat, as they are uncontaminated with anything else, so that birds and insects can pick them up to feed to their young later! I have never had an aphid infestation that I couldn't cope with just by using my water method - ably assisted by the army of Dunnocks, Wrens, Robins, Sparrows and willow warblers here! When you think about it - isn't it timely that Nature seems to organise a glut of aphids just as baby birds need feeding? Nature never does anything without reason - as I'm always saying - truly 'everything is connected'!
My 'loo roll' method of sowing parsnips and carrots for guaranteed success!
My 'loo roll' sown parsnips are already hardened off and begging to be planted, they have two nice first 'true' leaves and they're waiting impatiently now - first in the queue. They don't appreciate being delayed at all! There's still plenty of time to sow them in long modules like loo rolls though - if you haven't sown any yet. If you don't have a propagator - they'll germinate far quicker at room temperature in the house than they will in cold, wet ground. Then as soon as they're up and need light you can put them out into the greenhouse or a cold frame for a couple of weeks before planting out. They'll be way ahead of anything sown in the ground even 2-3 weeks ago - which may well have rotted due to the cold wet conditions - and they won't have been eaten by the slugs which are sadly still really active now despite the cold!
If the soil is still too sticky in the raised beds, I'll do what the show vegetable people like the wonderful Medwyn Williams do - and take out a trowel-full or so of soil, mix it with some organic peat-free potting compost to dry it out a bit, replace it and then plant into that. They'll really take off like rockets then. Nothing likes being planted into cold, sticky clay, as firming them into it compacts and squashes the air out of it. Roots need a certain amount of air. The very first 'module' will need easing out very carefully from the corner of the mushroom boxthat's been their home for the last two months. I use two narrow trowels for doing this - either side of the first loo-roll module - in a sort of 'pincer' movement which lifts the loo roll with it's precious package out very gently. Then I lower it into it's hole - pushing the soil gently towards the sides rather than pushing down from the top, which would squash the loo roll down and disturb the contents. Lots of TLC is the secret - but it's worth it to get those lovely straight parsnips later!
In over 40 years of organic gardening - I've learnt a great many things from bitter experience! One of them is that when anything has been grown either in loo roll 'modules' or in paper pots - It's really important that the hole is deeper than the loo roll module. I can't stress enough that it must be buried well under the surface and not exposed to the air - otherwise it will dry out at the top and act like a wick! Moisture will be drawn out of the module as the weather warms up and the soil dries out. The module will then also dry out and shrink - which can be a complete disaster! When well-buried under the surface, damp loo roll or paper modules will just rot away slowly, adding valuable carbon to the soil with no problems at all.
After you've extracted the first module from the box or tray of seedlings - you'll find that they're then much easier to carefully remove intact. I just take them out of the mushroom box with one long narrow trowel at a slight angle so the already rotting loo roll is supported and doesn't fall apart. Then I plant in the same way, about a foot apart, as there's three plants to a module. After that they'll only need a minor weeding once, mulching afterwards (I use grass clippings) then the light excluding leaves will close over the soil and I won't need to touch them again at all, until they're ready to eat after the first frost in the autumn!
Over the years I've found that my 'loo roll' module method is much the easiest way to get parsnips sown early enoughto reach a really decent size - small ones never have the same flavour or usefulness. The ground is usually far too wet and cold with my heavy soil here in early spring for them to germinate well - even under cloches. We don't get much early warmth in this part of Ireland - it's different in the south east of England or even in the midlands there, where most of the books that give gardening advice tend to be written! They've been nearly 10 deg C warmer there for most of this last week! Parsnips take about 3 weeks to germinate even in a warmish soil. That leaves them far more vulnerable to damage by slugs etc. before they're big enough to withstand the odd nibble. That's if they don't rot in the cold soil. I always get fabulous parsnips this way, three to a module planted like that in each planting spot - with only one or two that are a bit odd shaped or curled around the others! Who knows, I may even grow show standard parsnips this year! Even if they're not - with parsnips at almost a euro each for decent sized organic ones that have any flavour - they're well worth that extra little bit of trouble.
After planting they're pretty much trouble-free, apart from keeping them well-watered in the raised beds. They just get on with growing themselves until the autumn frosts, when they develop their sweet flavour and I lift them as I need them for the kitchen. You can raise carrots just like this too, sowing a tiny pinch into each module, again eventually getting nice clumps a foot or so apart - just right for lifting a perfect bunch for each meal. A lot of people find carrots a problem because again they take ages to germinate, and they're tiny 'grassy' seed leaves are very vulnerable to slug damage just as they're germinating. This totally avoids the problem - and is a great way to raise the very expensive seed of the new purple ones. After they've reached a decent size in the modules you can plant into clean, weed free soil, so you won't have to weed, which attracts carrot fly. All you need to do after that is to keep them permanently covered with a fine mesh like 'Enviromesh' to keep carrot flies out.
My rather unconventional method of growing on onion seedlings also cheats the weather!
Onions from seed are always far more successful than sets, particularly in a bad year - and of course they don't run the risk of bringing in any disease which sets can do. That can be even more likely in a wet year. The good news is - it's still not too late to sow them if you get a move on and sow them now!
I also have a neat trick up my sleeve for onions - and this one is really worth trying if you are ever delayed when something sensitive needs planting out from modules. I first thought of this when I was behind for some reason (weather, or back problems probably!) so that I couldn't plant out my onions and leeks at the right time - which meant they were in serious danger of becoming starved and root bound - which they hate and can cause bolting. The trick I use now is to sit the module tray on top of roughly an inch of fairly loose compost in a large plant tray. I put something like a sheet of newspaper on the bottom first - just to stop the compost falling through, then I put in 2-3cm of organic peat free potting compost - which I water well - and just sit the module tray on top. This completely avoids the fiddly and time consuming job of having to pot on over 100 modules just for the sake of a couple of weeks or so - and means that the onions, leeks or whatever get absolutely no check at all to their growth. They keep on growing - sending their roots out exploring downwards, happily unawares, and not being the least bit bothered at all. When I'm finally ready to plant them into the ground - I give them a good watering, very gently ease the tray up out of the compost - taking each plug of plants out of the module tray and plant as normal. I may get only one or two 'bolters' out of 3-400 onions - so it obviously doesn't bother them in the least! They will usually have put on a couple of centimetres or so of root into the compost underneath in this time - but by easing them very gently out they never even know they've been moved and don't receive any check at all. This was a great success four years ago, when the weather was so wet that many people's onions were a complete disaster. I had a terrific crop as a result of this trick, most of which ripened well and kept all winter long.
OK. Like so many of things I do - it's perhaps not the most conventional way of doing things - but it works! Being 'conventional' has never bothered me much anyway having been an organic gardener for 40 years! I've always felt that 'conventional' was always there to be challenged - (not a trait my school teachers appreciated though)! The onion trick is something which I've learned works really well from experience - and experience is always the best teacher. Otherwise I would have to go to a lot of bother and time potting on - using a lot more compost. Saving time is often just as important as saving money for me! If you don't sit them on compost, or don't pot them on and just leave them sitting on a hard surface, getting starved if their planting is delayed - then the roots will start going round and round inside the modules, becoming very congested. They will then be far less efficient, the plants won't grow as well as they should when you plant them out and they may be more inclined to 'bolt'. If they're sitting on capillary matting - the effects can be even worse! This is because they start to root into the matting - then roots get broken off when you try to lift them up off the matting - and this can cause them to get such a shock that many of them will 'bolt' - running straight up to flower instead of producing a nice firm ripe bulb - which is a waste of all your work!
Leeks aren't quite as sensitive as onions - so if you have to go away at short notice or are held up in some other way - you could just row them out in a small patch of a veg. bed instead of doing this - and plant them out as usual later - but this trick works fantastically well for them as well. I actually do this every year now with my onions - I like to sow them early to get nice big plants so that I eventually get nice big well-ripened onions! I'm still using the last of last year's 'Golden Bear' and 'Red Baron' onions (Organic Catalogue) - and they are as firm as ever! It's really worth keeping this trick in mind nowadays, when we can't always rely on the weather to behave in the predictable way it always has done - and we are all so busy! Following the same advice given in old gardening manuals, just because that's how things were always done, is always worth challenging. And as I often say - that's the only way science progresses too - but more on that later!
'Hardening off' early vegetables sown under cover
'Hardening off' is a term which first time gardeners often find difficult to understand. It's just a gradual acclimatising of plants to the outside world - after being raised in nice warm conditions inside. At this time of year I tend to operate a kind of airport style 'holding pattern' with plants in various stages of hardening off - gradually moving closer and closer to being completely outside. Gradually is the key though!Always be prepared to put them back under cover quickly if severe weather is forecast. I use this method for everything that's sown early under cover - including my onions. The weather's so bad here today that the gales would have battered and destroyed anything like tender lettuces in trays. Typical April weather! It really is worth taking that little bit of extra trouble to properly harden off module grown plants. If it's well done, in a few weeks time you will have perfect beds full of beautiful, healthy salads and other veg to start harvesting.
Normally at this time of year I'm running in and out of the tunnels morning and evening - putting stuff out during the day that needs to begin the 'hardening off' process - bringing everything in again at night in case of a sudden unexpected frost. I have trays raised off the ground on upturned plant crates, so any slugs can't get them - or sneak underneath and be brought unintentionally into the tunnel at night. When weather improves - I shall leave them out day and night at the side of the tunnels just covered with some fleece at night for a few days. After that they can be planted into the raised beds - which are looking like a very inviting (but very cold and wet) blank canvas right now - most of the winter crops having been cleared. The surplus late leek seedlings 'Bandit' which I couldn't bear to waste last year I planted out pencil thin - 3 in a clump in August or early Sept. - mulching them with grass clippings to keep the weeds down and the moisture in. Pictured here you can see lettuces, onions, parsnips and mangetout peas - hardening off outside tunnel, raised on upturned plant crates, to keep any hungry slugs at bay!
Stop weeds and slugs before they start!
If you're an all year round gardenerlike me, then you'll probably have already covered any ground vacated by any late winter crops lifted last month. If you haven't done that - then do it fastnow!This is important to stop the weeds merrily growing away while your back's turned doing something else!Otherwise you'll seriously regret it in a few weeks time - when trying to get a bed ready for sowing or planting takes a couple of hours because there's a jungle of weeds to remove - instead of the few minutes it would have taken if you'd covered it before they start growing! Don't forget that weeds tend to encourage slugs as well because they give them more places to hide! You can use the time that the ground's covered to lift the cover every so often and pick up any slugs - or just cut them in half if you really can't bear the slime! Any light-excluding and also preferably rain-proof covering will do, to stop the weeds growing and keep the soil dry and in good condition until you can get round to preparing it for a new crop. As soon as we get better weather the weeds will simply leap out of the ground practically overnight! They're always the first to germinate at lower temperatures - that's why they're so successful!
Remember - Nature has strategies that can outwit even the best-laid plans of gardeners - that's why organic gardeners work with rather than against it. Nature is always wisest in the long run and no matter how clever we may think we are - Nature will always have the last word!
With growth fast now - plots can quickly become an unmanageable mess if weeds are not dealt with promptly!
If that happens - then it's often the time when many first-time gardeners give up - thinking that this gardening lark's just far too difficult! Either that or turn to weedkillers on the advice of chemical-minded gardeners! This is a disaster for all the soil life and also for your health if you eat vegetables grown in chemically weed-killed soil! Recently I bumped into a friend who opened some allotments on his farm - he said that several people had taken on far too much and ended up with a mess - so they've abandoned their allotments completely this year. That's a shame - with the right advice they wouldn't have been so disappointed. If that's happened to you in the past - but you're going to have another shot - then good for you but don't take on too much - a little bit of forward planning really pays off.
You're farbetter to get just one small area perfectly under controland cover the rest or just mow it for the time being. You can use the clippings to start a compost heap or for mulching potatoes to keep weeds down. They love the acidifying effect on the soil. While on the subject - only grow potatoes on one quarter of the plot in the first year - not everywhere as some 'know-it-all' people may advise!You could even grow some pumpkins, courgettes or even sweetcorn through any light-excluding cover later on too - or sit tubs on top to grow in this year.
If you spread manure or compost on the surface and just cover it until next year - you won't believe how much the soil will improve without you doing another thing - but it must be covered - not left open to the weather! Don't make it hard for yourself and attempt to be self-sufficient in fruit and veg if you've only got a couple of hours a week to spare. Grow just a few things that are easy - or perhaps are expensive and hard to find fresh in the shops - or things that are better picked fresh just before you eat them like salads. Don't bother trying to grow bulk crops like main crop carrots, onions or potatoes if you haven't got much room or time - organically grown ones are easy to buy almost everywhere now. Grow some permanent fruit bushes which aren't as much trouble and as time-consuming as vegetables. And most importantly - and this sounds obvious - grow what you know you like and will actually eat!!
Growing your own means you can grow the best varieties for flavour and nutrients
Commercial growers often have to use varieties that crop heavily, travel well and have a long shelf life - which usually means far less flavour! I find that the most difficult thing of all for me is restricting myself to things which I know I will realistically have time to grow! I want to grow everything - including many of the more unusual and exotic things. But surely one does have to have a little bit of gardening fun sometimes - otherwise life could be very boring. I also like to experiment with growing new varieties of old favourites, it's an interesting and useful way of discovering better varieties. The great thing about gardening is you never stop learning - and doing it is the very best way to learn!
Another great thing about growing your own is that you can try more unusual crops which are never available in the shops. I've tried many unusual crops over the years - some successful - others not so! One of them was Oca - (oxalis tuberosa) - an ancient Andean crop. The steamed tubers taste rather like a lemony/buttery floury new potato. You can also use the delicious, sharp lemony-tasting leaves and pretty yellow flowers sparingly in summer salads. Sparingly though - as like sorrel they have a high oxalic acid content which can cause kidney stones if eaten in excess! That's something that many experts fail to mention - or perhaps don't know? There are several different coloured ocas - but I'm interested in the more highly-coloured ones for their possible higher antioxidant content. They're fascinating little tubers and very pretty plants - but I found they made masses of tiny tubers wherever the stems touched the soil as well as bigger ones - and I have a funny feeling they may become as invasive and hard to get rid of as Jerusalem artichokes! They're popping up everywhere now, wherever they've been grown previously, despite being cleared up thoroughly - or so I thought! They don't form their tubers until really late in the season - November or so - but they make an interesting alternative break crop in the tunnel rotation where they were obviously very happy in 2012, and also outside for the last few years!
Get your seeds sown on time!
You can get on with lots of seed sowing now - the list is elsewhere in the blog. If you're short of time - (and who isn't these days?) then sow your seeds before you do anything else. As I've mentioned before - you can catch up with everything else when you have time - but seeds must always be sown at the right time otherwise you'll miss the boat! It can be a fine balance - I often make two sowings of a really important staple crop as an insurance policy. If sown too early some things may get a check if we get a sudden cold spell - then run up to flower and seed almost straight away instead of cropping properly. Alternatively if sown too late - they may often never have time to develop a crop at all - especially if we have a really poor summer. In Ireland, we're lucky enough to live in a climate where it's possible to grow most things in most years given a little care.
Seeds of some food plants like spinach and lettuce which grow best in cooler temperatures have a built in germination inhibitor that is triggered by high temperatures - so it's best to keep them fairly cool for the first 24 hours or so after sowing. Don't try to hurry them more by putting them in a heated propagator as they may not germinate at all. At 30 deg C the seed actually becomes dormant - this is nature's clever way of ensuring that they don't germinate in unsuitable
conditions and have the best possible chance of growing on to adulthood and producing seeds themselves.
I know they look lovely, and we'd all love one - but the perfect picture book, 'Country Living' style old brick potting shed(as beautifully seen on Gardener's World) isn't really necessary, or even standing outside in a freezing cold greenhouse, with numb fingers trying to sow tiny seeds! I prefer to sow mine in comfort! I keep a large tray under my kitchen table at this time of year, with a few module trays and small pots, a bowl of seed compost, some vermiculite and a few labels, ready to snatch a few minutes between other jobs, whenever I can, to sow some seeds. The tray is actually a 'grow bag' tray - about 1m long by 45cm wide (a standard seed tray width) which I find is the ideal size. It has deep sides, conveniently keeps all the messy stuff together, is waterproof, and can be whipped off out of the way and shoved under the table at a moment's notice if someone arrives, or at mealtimes! I use a new cat litter tray to sit seed trays in for watering seedlings from below. You may think that sounds a bit scruffy but it's actually quite tidy, very convenient, and at least it stays where it's put - unlike the lambs, chicks or ducklings that often in the past frequented a snug cardboard box under the table in my nice warm kitchen, whenever they required a bit of TLC! I do rather miss those days now - and the children's delight with all our various little fluffy babies! It was a bit frantic sometimes though! Hey ho - life moves on.......
Yes - I knowthe books all tell us to sow seeds in a perfect 'friable seedbed'! But like a lot of you I suspect, when I first moved here I spent endless fruitless hours and energy, making an already bad back worse, struggling to break up the compacted, concrete-like, clods of clay that passed for soil! I was desperate to make 'the perfect seedbed' as recommended. That was before I discovered, more or less by accident, the more convenient and sure results that come from sowing seeds in modules, which I do most of the time now, even for many early root veg as I described earlier. Then I just made 'planting pockets' in the soil of the beds later, as I described in an earlier blog post. After years of cultivation my soil does now make a good seedbed - but I actually still sow most things in modules now because you can be more sure of the temperature, the weather and importantly - the absence of slugs!. Seeds are so expensive now that one can't afford to waste them - and the one thing that is totally beyond our control is the weather. The earliest sowings are inside in my polytunnel, and later outside sowing is done in modules in a raised, slug proof, outside propagating area. You could also make a raised seedbed, if you wanted to but I still find that sowing in modules avoids the setbacks and occasional damage which can be caused by 'pricking out', uprooting and transplanting. Plants establish so much better, far more quickly and more reliably if they already have a really good root ball.
Another great thing about growing your own food is that you don't even need a garden to do it!
As my stepladder garden and containers prove in the polytunnel diary this month, growing some of your own food is easy, really satisfying and can save you a lot of money. There's a lot of information here I know - but you don't have to do everything here! I just try to give the advice and encouragement that I know I would have found really useful when I was starting my gardening life. I hope that you can benefit from my 40 years experience of growing food for my family and for my veg box and co-op customers years ago (can't believe it!).Many customers became friends for life - because an interest in healthy food is something we have in common - as indeed so have you!
No matter how busy you are in the garden - I hope you'll take time to enjoy every moment of this wonderful spring time - it's such a joyous and hopeful time of year! The garden is bursting with hope. Planting a garden is really planting hope! That's something we all need plenty of - and it's something that we can renew afresh each year. Aren't we gardeners lucky?!
Last but not least! My thoughts on some so-called 'scientists' - after all, if science hadn't been challenged centuries ago - then we'd all still think the earth was flat wouldn't we?
Sadly too many so-called scientists refuse to accept that something they may have been taught in college may actually now have been proved wrong. This can particularly be the case if their science is biased by having a financial vested interest in maintaining the current status quo - as many of those scientists employed (either openly or covertly) by the globally-dominant, multinational seed and pesticide manufacturers have. In fact - today some science is for sale to the highest bidder and does not have the integrity it should! It's a case of "Give me the money - and I'll give you the results you want" - rather than what may be the actual truth! Some scientists on social media may not always be what they appear to be - their often entertaining, amusing and seemingly innocent public faces may disguise a much darker, self-interested side.
Saying such things obviously doesn't make me popular in some quarters - but that's never bothered me! In fact I was even threatened by DM - (a private direct message) on Twitter 18 months ago by one extremely arrogant but very popular and well-known proponent of industrial chemical agriculture and GMOs. This was despite the fact that I had only mentioned "some scientists" - in a tweet referring to my feelings about such obvious financially motivated bias - and had not mentioned their particular scientific discipline! This proved to me that particular person had a vested interest at the time - and events since then have proved me to be quite correct!
To such people - using the hashtags #organic, #wholefood, #processedfood or #realfood - seems to be like waving a red rag at a bull - they become almost apoplectic with rage! Their tweets infer that the proponents of sustainable organic agriculture are ignorant Luddites and hippies - using such hashtags as #SenseAboutScience, or #FactsNotFear - which are real favourites of the biased, pro-chemical farming brigade! Some pro-chemical journalists even say that we are suffering from 'orthorexia' - a curious one that - since if you look at the Greek etymology of that word it actually means 'right diet'! They're clearly not fans of evolutionary science - since if we weren't eating the 'right diet' - surely humans wouldn't have got as far as the 20th century, when artificial fertilisers and pesticides were invented?
It was only in the 20th century that the chemicalswhichare now being used as pesticides
were invented. They were originally used as poisonous nerve agents - weapons of warfare just like those being used in Syria and other regions where there are wars now
! If scientists are so confident that their way is the right way and that their chemicals don't harm biodiversity or people's health - you would think that advocates of organic farming wouldn't bother them in the slightest!.... ............ Wouldn't you?
As I've said - it doesn't make me too popular to question them - and those who prefer a quiet life probably wouldn't. But it's too easy to look the other way and allow another Silent Spring to happen. Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of good scientists out there who are as deeply worried as I am about the future. What makes me so unpopular is questioning those who only appear to care about amassing as much money as possible now - regardless of what harm it may do to Nature and our children's future! But I don't care about being popular - what I care about is the future of our children, their health and also that of Nature and the planet. Surely anyone who has children must care about such things?
Nature and my children are the only vested interests I have to declare. And I don't keep those hidden - unlike some people!
(Please note.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you.)
April Topics: The many proven health benefits of growing your own..... What can you grow if you don't have a polytunnel or even a garden?.... What you could be eating now from the polytunnel if you've planned well..... Not planted any potatoes outside yet?- Don't panic there's still time my way!.... Managing your polytunnel environment....Dealing with pest problems in spring polytunnels.... Polytunnels as an integral part of the whole garden ecosystem.
Spring Equinox polytunnel at dawn last year - full of good things to eat & flowers for bees and beneficial insects.
The list of health benefits from growing your own veg grows longer every day!
In fact - some very recent science has just proved that you don't even need to grow anything! Apparently, just walking gently around the garden for twenty minutes, or anywhere else in the countryside will give you some of those benefits! A new study, just published in the journal 'Frontiers in Psychology', proves that taking at least 20 - 30 minutes out of each day, to walk gently, or just sit in a place that makes our senses feel in contact with Nature can have a real and measurable effect on our health - significantly lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol which can contribute to such health problems as high blood pressure. Scientists say that healthcare practitioners will now be able to prescribe what they are calling 'the nature pill', in the knowledge that it has proven benefits. One stipulation was that while taking 'the nature pill' we should be outside in daylight. The other requirements were that we should at the same time minimize other factors known to influence stress, such as aerobic exercise (so heavy digging's out!), or social media use - such as internet, phone calls, conversations and reading, in order to maximise the benefits - or in other words - get a bit of peace!
This is fascinating proof that, as I'm always saying, the further we move away from the natural world which we humans evolved to inhabit - the more damaging it can be for our health! But at the same time it happily also proves just how easy it is to reverse that damage with this easy, free and all-natural stress-relieving remedy. Growing up in a pretty frantic and stressful household, with two much older siblings, an adored father who was away often and a mother who suffered from mental health problems - I must say that I found spending my days mostly outside very calming when at home, wandering around in our large garden investigating 'jungly' green places, with my dogs and pony in tow. I still find such green spaces calming to this day - especially at this time of year when all the fresh green buds of spring are bursting in woodlands and birds are singing for joy. Perhaps that's why one of my good friends said years ago that I'd faithfully recreated an overgrown old garden - when in fact at that time my garden was barely 20 years old!
You can imagine just how delighted I was to have found this study this morning - as currently I'm beginning to feel very nature-deprived and actually a bit stressed, at being unable to go outside in the garden or even walk up to my polytunnel! Right now I'm unableto even sit among the flowers and veg, listening to the sounds and smelling the scents all around me, due to being under 'house arrest' since I fractured my ankle badly 3 weeks ago. In another 2 weeks I will have more X-rays and then I'm hoping that my consultant will say that I will at least be able to walk gently up to my polytunnel with my splint on - using a walking frame or crutches, and sit on my 'meditation chair' for 20 minutes a day, getting a good dose of daylight and perhaps even nibbling a few crisply fresh greens on the way! Although whether I will find it stressful just sitting, and not being able to do anything that I can see needs doing, remains to be seen! Right now though - I would be so grateful just to be able to be able to go outside and breathe some fresh air! Even before this study there was already ample evidence that exercise, spending time out of doors in the natural environment and having contact with the soil are the keys to good physical and mental health.That's not a problem if you're a gardener - unless you're a housebound one like me at present! Sadly I can't sit at my computer for very long either - hence this blog post is a little bit later than usual - my apologies!
Overwintered spinach Viroflex cropping nicely
April is one of the busiest months of the gardening year, with so much work to do both inside and outside but ultimately it will all be worth it - because what you're doing is actually growing your own health! Although we're completely unaware of it - when we're gardening we also absorb vital healthy Mycobacterium vaccae from our soil and environment. Studies have shown that when M.vaccae is inhaled it triggers the release of the 'happy hormone' serotonin in the brain, and that this is significant enough for it to be referred to as an antidepressant! This benefit, as well as the fresh clean air we're breathing, is something people who spend their lives mostly indoors miss out on. So us organic gardeners have it right don't we? We're saving money while at the same time growing our own health, and getting a huge sense of achievement, with enjoyable, stress-reducing healthy exercise! No wonder organic gardeners are such contented folk!
Given that a recent Newcastle University study also found that organically grown fruit and veg are at least 60% higher in antioxidants, with far fewer residues of neurotoxins like heavy metals and pesticides - then growing them ourselves organically, or buying organic is surely an complete 'no-brainer' and a winner from every point of view! After all - why on earth would you buy chemically-grown. pesticide sprayed, veg when it's so easy to grow even just a little bit of luscious veg like the spinach like you can see pictured here? Not only that - you're getting the freshest food possible and you can eat it when it's healthy nutrients are at their absolute peak! If you haven't read my blog post about when is the best time to harvest your produce - here's a link to it:
Even more great news for all of us keen gardeners who grow lots of our own food is that a recent study by University College London in the 'Journal of Epidemiology and Health' stated that the more veg and fruit you can eat, the more beneficial it is for your health. As I reported a couple of years ago - most experts think now that 7 or even 9 a day - rather than 5 a day is the very best total to eat. That's no problem if you grow your own - and it couldn't be fresher picked straight from your own garden! The only dressing that home-grown, deliciously fresh veg requires is a little olive oil or butter - or quite a lot in my case - which scientists also now say isn't bad for you either. But be sure to use a good oil, like organic extra virgin olive oil, or nut oils - not industrially-processed, chemically-extracted GMO seed oils! Thank heavens finally for some commonsense about fat! We never ate anything but organic butter and natural, cold-pressed organic oils here! For salads we mostly use olive, avocado and nut oils - all delicious - and which all help your body to absorb all the healthy nutrients from your salads.
Filling up on veg also means you can cut down a bit on expensive organic meat too and you don't need the carbs from loads of potatoes to make you feel satisfied after meals! Much better for our health. In our house - actually finding room on the plate for the meat is often a problem, so we have side plates for extra veg too if necessary. We're so greedy for our lovely fresh veg here and for most of the year there's always plenty of choice. We still eat potatoes occasionally - but we eat far fewer heavy carbs like bread, potatoes and pasta here now than we used to, since we started on mostly LCHF - or low carbohydrate high healthy fat eating. We still very occasionally enjoy the odd healthy cake or pud made from wholegrain flours as we always have done - but not every day! We don't go overboard and we don't exclude anything forever more - but we do all agree that we feel much better for it. The one thing that I am absolutist about however - is that absolutely everything must be organic! After 40 years of research into how to feed my family the healthiest food possible - believe me I know far too much about the chemicals used on non-organic crops and the health effects of them on the animals and animal products that we eat! Never forget that what they eat - we are ultimately eating too! In fact - we are what they eat!
Growing your own is not just healthier for you but your budget too!
Thank heavens for polytunnels - where we can make a start on growing crops destined for outside by starting them off undercover to plant out later - and they'll be all the healthier and stronger for it! The weather here's been so wet on and off all winter and early spring - every time it looked as if it was drying up - then we had yet another deluge! Even though things have really started growing in the last couple of weeks outside - it's still far too wet to do any useful gardening. But in the polytunnel - spring is already well and truly underway, growth is accelerating and no matter what the weather outside - there's always something good to eat - for us and the many bees that have been constant visitors to all the flowers in there over the last few weeks!
Despite the recent snow and freezing weather - there is still a glorious profusion of healthy salads to eat in the polytunnel right now. If I only picked just one leaf from each different type of plant there would still be too much to fit onto a plate! It really shows the benefit of planning well now for winter salads this time next year. All the overwintered plants are cropping really well, producing a final burst of growth encouraged by the increasing light, before they try to flower in order to reproduce themselves. When they finally do - I shall leave many of the flowers for the bees and hoverflies which are already busy helping to pollinate my fruit crops and control insects. Even in a polytunnel - organic gardening is all about doing everything possible to encourage Nature to work with you - and it's happy to do so if given the chance! In fact it's getting hard to keep up with eating all the lovely salads - but the hens enjoy helping out too and all the healthy greens supercharge their eggs with all that captured sunshine!
I never cease to be grateful for my lovely polytunnels that I worked so hard for - they were worth all the effort and they certainly save me a lot of money all year round! Why do so many people lose interest in their polytunnels over the winter and then only start to use them again in spring? They could be saving an absolute fortune on the household budget - and eating a far healthier diet too! When I see the tired and miserable-looking, increasingly nutrient-depleted selection of imported salad leaves which are available in supermarkets - usually just spinach or rocket which is probably 2-3 days old at least - I feel so sorry for people who have no choice but to buy them! (see earlier link). They're expensive too - most packs are around €3 and they would barely feed two people! Last week when, browsing in M&S to see what they had in their organic section, I came across bagged organic spinach grown in Italy - only about 250g for €3 per bag! That is positively criminal! There is absolutely no good reason whatsoever why that couldn't have been grown here in the British Isles in a cold greenhouse - saving carbon and being far fresher! And there's no reason why you couldn't grow your own even if you only have a tiny outside space - as my stepladder garden pictured below proves - and that's even better for your budget!
But what if you don't have a polytunnel - or even a garden - can you grow anything?
This is something which I'm asked a lot and the answer, perhaps surprisingly, is YES - quite a lot! Anything that you can grow in a polytunnel, you can grow in containers - but just on a smaller scale. If you're short of space and think you can't grow your own veg - then think again! You'll be amazed at what will grow even in quite small containers. I know that not everyone is lucky enough to have a polytunnel or sometimes even a garden - but many people have a path outside their house - and if they have - then perhaps there's space for a tub or two? So often I hear people saying "I don't have an allotment - so I can't grow anything". Many people have tiny gardens now - especially in new housing schemes where space is expensive. Even if you don't have a garden at all - perhaps only a balcony - there's still no excuse not to grow at least something which will be fresher, healthier and save you some money for very little effort. And I don't mean just an unhappy pot of herbs on your kitchen windowsill! If you've got a path with room to walk on it, then you've got room for at least some veg in containers. For instance, there's my stepladder/mushroom box garden which I invented a few years ago (much copied since!). This will fit into anyone's front porch or on a balcony. It takes up less than a half a square metre and you'd be absolutely amazed just how much produce I got from it last year! I picked up the used mushroom boxes, which are nice and deep, in the veg dept. of my local supermarket and they happened to be an ideal size to fit on each step, but still not too heavy to move - even with a soil/compost mix in them.
I grew lettuce, herbs, chilies, Maskotka bush tomatoes, radishes, celery leaves, rocket, spinach etc. in those boxes on the steps 2 years ago. I also put a couple of large 10l buckets either side of the stepladder, each fitted half-way underneath, one was planted with a Sungold tomato and the other with a watermelon Sugar Baby. I got terrific crops from both by training them up either side of the stepladder, tying them up to it as they grew! Next to it in the picture here there's also some recycled skip-bag raised beds which are equally space-saving. The two bags fitted onto a large 'grow-bag' tray, but grew far more than you would ever be able to grow in a normal sized grow bag -and of course they were organic. I grew a fantastic crop of early potatoes, broad beans, Swiss chard, spinach, mangetout peas and then sweet potatoes in those last year - multi-planting so that there were two or three things growing in the bags all at the same time, apart from the very early potatoes in one bag which were on their own - as they were obviously going to be dug up, which would have disturbed the roots of anything else with them. I got several crops of fast growing radishes by 'catch-cropping' between slower growing things before they grew too big and shaded them. The sweet potatoes were the last crop of the autumn and they really appreciated the depth of soil in the bags - producing an incredible crop in November.
My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds in late March shows what you can do in a very small space, with lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs.Large attractive pots, if you can afford them, are very nice to look at - but if you're trying to save money, then 10 litre recycled mayo or coleslaw buckets from the local supermarket deli are good too, and they always have those at every deli counter. Ask nicely and you'll be amazed at what they have. Once you start on the "What can I fit some soil into?" route - then frankly the only limit is your imagination - and of course any desire for tidiness! That's not something that bothers me greatly, I have to say, if I'm getting wonderful veg - and you can always hide the bucket by growing something trailing in it! In fact you can grow in anything that you can fit soil or compost into! If containers are large you don't have to fill the whole thing up with good compost. You can fill up the bottom with any kind of garden rubbish that you would normally put on the compost heap, to bring up the level. Things like soft prunings, old pot plants (only organic ones as others may contain nasty chemicals), last year's container soil/compost etc. perhaps mixed up with cardboard and newspapers - and if you mix in some garden soil as well this will all compost down nicely at the same time!
As long as you have about 30 cm or a 1 ft or so of depth of a nice soil/organic compost mix as the top layer, then anything will be delighted to grow in that. If containers are tall I find it useful for the sake of stability to also mix the lower layer with garden soil which is heavier. This is particularly important if the containers are in a windy spot or you're going to grow tall crops like runner beans or tall peas. The advantage of tall containers like skip bags is that not only do deeper rooting crops like chard etc have more room - but also dwarf mangetout peas or trailing courgettes can also drape attractively down the sides, making them more attractive - maybe mixed with a few trailing nasturtiums to attract bees and beneficial insects. The sky's the limit as my article on stepladder gardening here in the link below shows!
Many years ago, I did a lot of experiments with growing in all sorts of containers, even using dustbins, old sinks and recycled carrier bags! The reason mainly was because we were in the process of moving to where we live now, but I still wanted to continue growing organic veg as I couldn't buy any then. Over the course of 2 years I grew an entire vegetable garden in various containers of one sort or another. Some were a bit 'Heath Robinson' - but it all worked and I got great crops! I even filled the freezer with 40 lbs of French beans! You can grow in pretty much anything as long as there's enough room for the roots and some drainage holes. Be inventive! Of course they do need a little more watering, looking after and feeding occasionally - but picking your daily salad should remind you to water them anyway! Containers tend to be a bit warmer too - particularly if they're sited in the sun, so crops are often earlier, meaning that you'll get more out of them over the course of a spring and summer, although they can freeze in the winter if you're in a very cold area. I've even protected containers in winter by wrapping them up with old duvets - but that's going a bit far for some people and can tend to look a bit untidy!
You don't need a tunnel for container growing - but you can now get small, cheap mini-tunnel/greenhouses in most garden/DIY stores and in the discount supermarkets for upwards of £20 or €25. They can really increase the range of things you can grow over the year and allow you to grow more tender crops like tomatoes and aubergines. Or you could make your own - as I did years ago out of 2 x 1 inch wooden laths and recycled polythene, begged off a mattress from a furniture store! They often have loads stashed in skips around the back if you ask nicely - the ones off the double beds are best and last for years if you're careful! Anything you can grow in a large polytunnel, you can grow in one of these, allowing for the head space needed. They do need anchoring down well though in any wind but apart from that they're very effective. The really big plus with containers for most people is that slugs and snails are usually are far less of a problem - you may get the odd adventurous one - but there are plenty of organic ways and means of dealing with them!
What you could be eating now from the polytunnel if you've planned well
'Equinox Celebration Salad' 34 different leaves plus edible flowers all picked from the polytunnel
You wouldn't think that tunnel could be incredibly productive at this time of year would you? I decided last year to take a walk round the tunnel one morning to see what variety there was available to eat, at what is normally a pretty meagre time of year outside in the veg garden.I took this pictureabove on the morning of the Equinox on the 21st March! Believe me - it really tasted just as good as it looks!Here's the list from my large east tunnel in no particular order - but just as I happen to walk past it! Calabrese, curly parsley, Ruby and silver Swiss chards, giant scallion 'Shimonita', pea shoots, 4 different kinds of radishes, coriander, Giant Italian flat-leaf parsley, 3 kinds of spinach, salad/spring onions, rhubarb, 'Sugar Loaf' chicory, red-veined sorrel, celery leaves, rocket, lamb's lettuce, claytonia, thyme, oregano, salad burnet, curly endive, 5 different kinds of lettuce, watercress, mizuna, pak choi leaves and flower buds (delicious and something few people think of because normally they cut the whole thing whereas if you pick individual leaves carefully they'll crop all winter), other assorted mixed oriental salad mixes, red stemmed leaf radish, frilly purple kale, Orychophragma Violaceus (Joy Larkcom's Chinese Feb. orchid) for salad leaves and beautiful flowers, Ragged Jack kale for baby salad leaves, then larger leaves and now also flowering shoots (like broccoli but better) beet leaves - 'Bull's Blood and McGregor's favourite - baby beetroot, and delicious giant garlic chives - a treasured gift again from Joy Larkcom when she came to stay here a few years ago.
In the West (fruit) tunnel there's also the Sutton's loose leaf lettuce mix planted in recycled containers, along with pea shoots and spinach. The lettuce seeds are fantastic value at just 60 cents for 1300 seeds - and are a good mix of colours and leaf shapes. Lettuce all summer long for half of nothing! In another couple of weeks there will be the first new potatoes - although I still have a handful of 'Mayan Gold' left in a pot from the Christmas grown ones which I saved up and may eat this week!. So there's plenty to choose from. Actually I must tell you that radish 'Rudi' from unbelievably cheap Lidl seed was a real find a few years ago! Not usually a fan of radishes, I decided to train my palate on the basis that if something tastes foul - then it must be good for you! I did that with rocket a few years ago - and while not a huge fan I'm getting better about eating it, and in fact the flowers are absolutely delicious in salads - tasting of vanilla! I sowed the first radishes in modules in the propagator in late January and they've been cropping for about 3 weeks now, getting bigger every day. With regular watering radishes don't tend to taste as hot, although it also depends on variety, and 'Rudi' - pictured here, is crunchy, delicious and easy to grow and isn't hot at all - even at almost golf ball size which some now are - I promise you! Chopped into 4 or even 8 in salads it's sweet, tender and crunchily delicious. I've just had some for lunch. I think that variety of texture as well as flavour is so important in vegetables, particularly salads. Then you don't get bored by eating the same old thing every day. Oh! I nearly forgot the other edible flowers of course - pansies, violas, primroses and borage - all delicious and flowering right now!
The above list doesn't include all the stored veg we still have availablenow - a few red onions which are still crisp and firm, the last of the potatoes left over from those kept for seed - and also fruit and veg in the freezer, French beans, peas, broccoli, broad beans, sweet corn, basil & parsley (in copious amounts!), peaches, strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, damsons and blackberries. We also still have a few leeks and parsnips still in the ground outside in the vegetable garden. Spoiled for choice really - all easily home-grown organically without toxic chemicals. They would cost a fortune in the shops if you could buy them but you wouldn't find even a fraction of these in any shop! I would go without veg if I couldn't grow them or buy them organically, so I make sure we always have plenty all year round. (Many people aren't aware that we share up to 40% of our genes with many insects, worms and even slugs - so anything that kills or affects them also eventually has an effect on us, especially since science is now proving that they have a cumulative 'cocktail' effect!). Most of the time we almost have too much choice - but the hens are always most grateful for any that we can't eat - they then produce those delicious eggs!
If you haven't yet planted any potatoes outside because of wet soil don't panic!
You can still cheat the weather, gain a few weeks and catch up by planting into pots now inside in the tunnel, which will bring them on quickly, then hardening off gradually and planting outside later, as I described last month - protecting them from frost with fleece. These will still be much earlier than any planted on the traditional St. Patrick's day outside into cold wet ground - especially with such cold soil temperatures after the recent snow and freezing weather. If you don't get round to planting them then - they will actually be quite happy in a 2 litre pot for their whole lifetime until you eat them, or you can pot them on into larger ones. They obviously won't have as big a crop in pots and the tubers may be smaller - but I grow all the ones I keep for seed in 2 litre pots. That way they stay together, and don't get mixed up or stolen by hungry rodents in the autumn. When blight eventually strikes - I just take off the tops immediately, turn them on their sides so the blight spores don't wash down onto the tubers and let them dry out. They'll keep well all winter like that somewhere frost (& rodent!) free. Then I have them ready to plant the following spring.
April is one of the most difficult months for managing the polytunnel environment.
Gerry Kelly - my co-host on our 'Tunnel to Table' radio series on LMFM Radio's 'Late Lunch Show' - helping to pollinate the peach trees a few years ago.
It really feels like spring now on sunny days in the tunnels - in fact it almost feels like summer on some days at noon! The scent of all the flowers blooming in there when I open the doors is amazing. Even on frosty days it's lovely to work or sit in there. Brilliantly sunny days are lovely but temperatures can shoot up alarmingly high very quickly though. Then the sudden violent showers and gales gusting around in every direction can make ventilation a nightmare. I shouldn't complain though, I know how lucky I am to have my tunnels at home here - where I can dash out to open or shut doors in between bursts of writing. I ran up just now to open the doors again and spotted two new species of hoverfly on the early potato leaves. Yesterday there were masses of them on the flowers of the peach trees - along with a couple of bumblebees too - so I won't need to do much if any pollinating. All the oriental veg flowers look like a natural firework display and also smell divine! I always leave the oriental salad mixes to run up to flower now as the early hoverflies, bees and other insects really go mad for them. When was in the tunnel three weeks ago before my accident, there were a couple of bumblebees in there, as there are most days, and many of the flowers on the dwarf peaches, nectarines and apricots in pots, and also the peach tress planted in the ground, have been pollinated already. Bees love to come into the tunnels where they're sheltered from strong winds. Happily they seemed to have already done a pretty thorough job - lots of the flowers have turned dark pink already - so we're looking forward to lots of lovely juicy peaches again. Pollinating peach trees is a job all visitors love doing - and of course eating the odd fruit later on! In truth though - the ever-wonderful bees do most of it!
Dealing with spring pest problems in polytunnels
I've already covered propagation over the last two months so there's no need to repeat that here. The first thing to say about pests is that if you see them in any numbers - it usually means that plants aren't healthy and happy and are stressed in some way, which weakens them and make them more attractive to pests. It can also mean that you don't have a healthy balanced ecology in the environment wherever the plant is growing - whether it's inside or outside. This can often be because they're in a hot dry conservatory or greenhouse, perhaps with no flowers - or that the soil isn't healthy. I always make sure that I have as much variety of flowers and plants as possible, growing in a healthy, living, microbe rich soil with plenty of fresh air. If plants have those conditions, they rarely suffer from pests and diseases. Plants are like us - if they're being fed too much or too little and are shut up in an unnatural environment without fresh air - they are far more likely to be unhealthy! Wherever you're growing plants, if you have lots of single flowers to attract insect predators like hoverflies, ladybirds, lacewings and wasps, and if you also have open vents, windows and doors where they can get in - then they will generally deal with any pests. The insects in their turn will also attract small birds like wrens, sparrows, blue tits and robins - which are only too delighted to help with pest control - particularly at this time of year when they're feeding babies. Aphids are ideal small baby bird food! Polytunnels are basically an unnatural environment, so doing all you can to create as natural and varied an environment as possible, with a balance of pest and predator, is the key to happy pest-free plants.
There's so many birds here in this garden now and so much competition for food that I almost never see a pest - but unfortunately that also means they eat caterpillars of in some cases increasingly rare butterflies - so I have to protect those by covering the clumps of nettles I grow in the tunnels with netting! Yes! I do grow nettles in my tunnels in out of the way spots - they're ideal habitat for butterfly caterpillars and early ladybird larvae. Most of the year I have the tunnel doors open, as long as it's not too windy, so small birds are grateful to hunt in there for insects - particularly in winter. I have large pea and bean netting up at the doors to keep hungry pigeons and pheasants out! The larger netting also allows bees in to do their vital job of pollination.
Although last summer was a good one for some butterflies -one of the most worrying effects of the last few year's wet summers, and the increasing use of pesticides, is the lack of bees and other vitally important pollinating insects in our gardens. This is something many people may not even give a thought to - until there aren't any and they have no fruit for instance! If the climate continues to be as erratic and wildly unpredictable in the future - then I believe that this is the single most important factor that we will have to learn to deal with if we want to continue to grow food - whether we are organic or not. You may be able to kill pests with poisonous chemicals - but if you do so you will also kill vital pollinating insects. You can't then manufacture bees and hoverflies out of thin air! (Although I read this week that Monsanto are now trying to produce GM bees - another money-making idea! Their stupidity and irresponsibility knows no bounds!) Although it's hard work, you may be able to pollinate some fruit trees by hand on a small scale - but not huge fields of oil seed rape. I think some farmers tend to forget that fact when they're thoughtlessly sloshing around the pesticides! All insect populations have plummeted over the last few years, due to the recent disastrously wet summers when they needed good weather and plenty of food for breeding, erratic winters seesawing wildly back and forth from unusually mild spells to severe cold - and of course increasing use of pesticides. Consequently bird populations have also dropped. Coming on top of all the pesticides used by farmers, decreasing habitats, hedges, wildflowers and sheltered breeding places - the changing climate could prove to be the last straw for some pollinators - and bees in particular. Without them there won't be much to eat! Many people aren't aware that we share up to 40% of our genes with many insects, worms and even slugs - so anything that kills or affects them also eventually has an effect on us, especially since science is now proving that they have a cumulative 'cocktail' effect!
Polytunnels are an integral part of the whole garden ecosystem.
My B&B border as I call it - made specifically for bees, butterflies, bats and birds, is a large question mark shaped border I put in a few years ago that wraps around the north end of both of my tunnels! I planted it specifically for wildlife, and I think that the insects, birds and bats that it encourages must deal with a lot of pests - both outside and inside the tunnels. The bank's also an ideal nesting site for solitary bees too, as it's south facing and well drained, being made mostly of gravel and bark chip mixed with sub-soil, so as it's just at the top end of the polytunnels - I'm never short of pollinators. On any mild day in winter there's always a few bumble bees in the tunnels foraging for pollen and nectar for their broods. You could build a bee and insect hotel or make a well-drained soil mound topped by an evergreen shrub even in the smallest garden, and this will provide shelter for hibernation and nesting sites for insects. In front of the border is a 'lawn' made mostly of perennial white cover, which is alive with bees when it's in flower and has the most fabulous scent. It's a lovely place to sit in the evenings in summer when it's planted with scented Nicotiana and Verbena Bonariensis, especially when bats are flying just overhead to catch the moths and insects that the flowers attract. My little Eden!
The first insect pests you may see in any numbers in a tunnel or greenhouse at this time of year may well be aphids (this is even more likely if your neighbours aren't organic!). You can easily deal with these by just brushing off with a soft paintbrush if the numbers aren't too high, or by washing off with a hose or under the tap for pot plants. If the winter's been a hard one and the predator population hasn't recovered enough in time to deal with them - then you may end up having to buy in biological controls like ladybirds. These aren't cheap, but the good news is that you will probably only have to do this once, because if you do as I suggest and grow lots of flowers in your tunnel - some beneficial insects will breed and stay in there permanently then. I don't like to use even organic insecticidal soap sprays as these affect all insects. You couldn't use them on anything you are going to eat anyway and even on things like lemons they can actually damage the young shoots in spring. As I said in an earlier article this year though - soap sprays are the only way to deal with scale insect on citrus trees.
There seem to be a lot of people putting up new polytunnels at the moment and I've had quite a few questions about them. All advice naturally also applies to cold frames or outside too - but new polytunnels in particular can be a problem for a little while - before they 'settle down' and develop a balanced ecology of pest and predator, because any pests multiply far more rapidly in the warmer, more protected environment. So here's a bit more about pests that I wrote in the blog a couple of years ago. Some of it I may have already covered, but hopefully it may deal with anything else you might be looking for that I haven't already mentioned. Can you believe that someone recently complained that I actually write too much?? Ungrateful since this is free! You can't please everyone can you?
Using chemical pesticides would prevent any chance of the ecological balance of the tunnel recovering for years. We need to do everything we can in our gardens to encourage and help all insects - whether you consider them good or bad - because they are all vital links in the natural food chain - and everything is connected. Birds, frogs, hedgehogs, bats etc. all the gardener's friends - all depend on insects For the organic polytunnel or greenhouse gardener this is even more important - pests can multiply at an alarming rate in the warm, sheltered conditions of a tunnel. Just in case there are a few predatory beneficial insects around in a week or so - it's a good idea to let some overwintered salads like mizuna and rocket run up to flower now and also to sow a few annual flowers like calendula, Virginian stock etc for later on. You could also perhaps plant a few perennials like Bowles mauve wallflower, nepeta or scabious. They've been a huge success with hoverflies, butterflies and bees over the years in my tunnels - and they're flowering really well now.
Scientists are warning there's even more compelling evidence now linking the collapse of bee colonies to the widespread use of systemic pesticides. These nerve poisons affect foraging bee's navigation system - making them unable to find their way home, feed their colonies properly or to produce queens to breed new healthy colonies. Any surviving bees gradually become underweight, weakened, more vulnerable to virus diseases and die. Beekeepers say we're running out of time to halt the bee's decline and we're all being used as guinea pigs. Amen to that! It's no coincidence that global chemical giant Syngenta are also currently investing huge sums of money into farming bumblebees - they see it as the next multi-billion dollar business opportunity. Neat eh? Killing off all the competition would leave the field clear for their farmed bees - quite literally! Of course I doubt if it's occurred to many farmers yet that if they kill off pollinating insects by using pesticides - that they won't have any bees left to pollinate crops like oil seed rape etc. - so then they'll have to buy bees instead! Many butterflies, moths, bees and other insects are becoming increasingly rare due to pesticide use.
It certainly doesn't seem to have occurred to a neighbour of mine - who keeps complaining that he's got no bees, no worms and no drainage! He also blames my trees and hedges for harbouring birds that eat his crops and thinks organic people are all completely barmy - a myth deliberately propagated by pro-chemical and GM interests! Now more vigorously than ever! Of course they're now getting worried that more people might actually start thinking for themselves instead of blindly accepting the deliberately packaged, misleading and often downright untrue information put out by the pro GM lobbyists! Like many others - I've been convinced for years that the various combinations and 'cocktails' of nerve poisons and other pesticides being used in industrial agriculture may build up in our own systems, causing the cancers and other diseases which seem to be ever more prevalent - but who is going to prove that - when the chemical companies in most cases are the ones who are producing their own safety data - and constantly lobbying government scientific committees to pass their products as safe for sale? That's if their products have been tested at all - and many chemicals used in everyday household products have never been tested. Profits and shareholders are the only things that concern the chemical companies - not our future - whatever they may say. Would you let them pour their pesticides straight onto your doorstep? That is in essence what they're doing - our planet is our home address - and also our children's future!! What was it the visionary Chief Seattle said ? "Whatever befalls the earth - befalls the sons of the earth. - If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves".
The WHO and The United Nations are now seriously worried enough about some pesticides in every day use and also possible 'chemical cocktails' that two years ago that they called for re-testing of many products - it's taken them long enough! But it keeps being delayed. Will it happen? - Who will do it? - Will the data be transparent? And how long will it take? As a result of this re-evaluation - Monsanto/Bayer have really stepped up their lobbying campaign in favour of Glyphosate/Roundup. Reading their website you would think it was totally innocuous and completely harmless! Forgive me if I'm just a little sceptical - I've read the research and even know personally of cases where people were made severely ill by being careless! Everyday now there is mounting evidence that it probably the most noxious chemicals ever invented - some scientists now even consider it to be worse than DDT!
In the meantime - the safest thing you can do if you're concerned, is to grow your own food organically or buy organic if you can't grow it. OK - I do personally know how hard it can be to remember the bigger picture when we're all so understandably concerned about how to make ends meet - but some things are more important than money, and health is one of them. Money can't buy health - and growing our own healthy chemical-free food - fresh and burstingly full of vital nutrients - is such a positive thing we can all do for our families which also makes a huge contribution to the household budget in these more cost conscious times. I enjoy giving advice to people about how to grow clean and healthy organic food - and it's something I can personally do to help more people to be just that bit more independent of big business and the supermarkets! But who knows what's next? Maybe governments will start taxing the veg. we grow in our gardens - on the grounds that it deprives the supermarkets and chemical companies of profits and therefore deprives the taxman too!! Who knows? The one thing that we can be sure of though is that by growing as much food as we can ourselves - we can be more self-sufficient and much less dependent on imported produce. Many experts are now warning that when or if Brexit happens - a lot of imported produce will become more expensive due to import costs and tariffs - but I for one won't be worrying about that!
Talking of which - here's some pics of the wonderfully luscious salads we've been enjoying since last autumn all winter long, from the tunnel.The salads are lettuces Lattughino, Fristina, Cherokee, claytonia, mizuna, lamb's lettuce, landcress, Bull's Blood beet leaves, spinach, vegetable mallow, parsley coriander etc. You could be enjoying crops like this too - even if you only have a large cold frame or two. It takes very little effort really - but saves an absolute fortune!
If you're getting short of warm space in the tunnel this month and any really early tomatoes are looking like they need potting on again - as mine are now - then just give them a half strength general liquid feed of something like the certified organic 'Universal Plant Food' from Osmo - available now in most garden centres. It's still far too early to plant out in the tunnel at the moment - the night temperature needs to be a constant minimum average of about 50deF/10degC - so mine will be staying on the gently heated mat for a bit longer, ensuring they have good air circulation around them to prevent disease and not allowing them to get starved. That way they can wait another week or so in their small pots while the weather's still cold at night. If delayed I'll pot them on again into larger pots - my recycled milk cartons which are easy to label individually with an indelible marker pen so they don't get mixed up! Then I'll leave them on the heated mat for another week or so - I won't risk them in any unheated space until the weather improves a lot. I always like to have really early tomatoes - so I don't want them to get a check. Planting out too early often means they'll get a severe check and be delayed.
(I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)