The Fruit Garden and Orchard in October - 2018


October contents: Blemishes on produce do not necessarily mean it's organic!.....Fruit production depends on pollinators......In praise of autumn raspberries, and my special way of pruning them for the best crops.....This time of year is a non-stop fruit fest!..... Dehydrating is a good way to preserve some fruits.....Time to think about planting bare-root fruit trees and bushes......What rootstocks are best for apples?... Do you homework first!....Choosing varieties.
Ashmead's Kernel - originated  Gloucestershire 1700. Pick Oct. ripens in Dec keeps until March Old Pearmain - one of the oldest varieties, known in UK & France since 1200. Picked Oct., ripens Dec, keeps until March Apple Court Pendu Plat perfect now but will keep in store until April or even May
Ashmead's Kernel - originated  Gloucestershire 1700. Pick Oct. ripens in Dec keeps until March Old Pearmain - one of the oldest varieties, known in UK & France since 1200. Picked Oct., ripens Dec, keeps until March Apple Court Pendu Plat perfect now but will keep in store until April or even May
Blemishes on produce do not necessarily mean it's organic! 
Joni Mitchell's song 'Big Yellow Taxi' has a lot to answer for! - Much as I love that song ( it's often one of my party pieces as an enthusiastic singer!) - it did rather give the impression that to be really organic - apples or any other fruit must have blemishes to prove it - which is total rubbish!  It doesn't - and blemishes are NOT proof that something is either certified organic, or even chemical-free! It's usually proof that whatever it is - be it apple, pear, strawberry or whatever - is perhaps the wrong variety, possibly being grown in the wrong climate, probably grown on the wrong rootstock in some cases, and also in the wrong way! 
We're often told that modern apples have been bred for flavour and disease-resistance, but I find many of them far too sweet and insipid - often with very tough skins. Most have been bred for ease of harvest, uniform size, cosmetic perfection, an ability to travel and be packaged conveniently in supermarkets packs without bruising, and longer shelf life! -  Absolutely none of those are qualities which impart flavour or healthy nutrients! Although those who say that only the most ancient ancestors of fruits have the nutrients we need are also wrong - but that is a theory widely propagated by many Paleo diet eaters or writers who know nothing whatsoever about growing fruit!  There are a few, relatively recently-bred and notable exceptions, which sadly one doesn't tend to find in shops. So the only way to taste these or the older varieties is to grow your own!  Although many old varieties have been lost through lack of cultivation - the wonderful (and cosmetically perfect!) heritage apples pictured above - Court Pendu Plat, Old Pearmain and Ashmead's Kernal are just three of the many scrumptious and nutrient-rich old varieties still available from nurseries which should be far more widely known and cultivated - and which I grow here. All of them keep until well after Christmas, and will produce perfect crisp fruits, with aromatic and deliciously complex individual flavours - if they are cultivated on the right soil, on the right rootstock, and in the right way!  
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about organic growing, and it's very sad that so many people seem to think that organic fruit or any other produce can't be perfect - but public perception is everything it seems. Proof of that are the 'Smart Alecs' I often still come across on my occasional farmer's market forays, who, when asked if their produce is organic, say "of course it is - can't you see the dirt on it and the bit of carrot root fly damage?" - I really despair sometimes!  When I was supplying supermarkets, the Dublin Food Coop and running my box scheme (the first in Dublin in the early 1980s) - I would have been ashamed of dirty and damaged produce!  Why do people still think that being so proves that produce is organic?  As I've often mentioned - if you're in any doubt that the produce being displayed may be organic or not, and the seller isn't displaying their certificate with it's certification number on it - which they should be proud to - then ask them to prove it by providing their certification number and the name of their certifying body - before you buy the produce! Unless you are buying seconds, at a reduced price, then there is no reason for any organic produce to have any blemishes or damage, if the grower is proficient at their job! .Rant over!!
Most fruit is pretty easy to grow and very rewarding if you choose the right varieties for your particular area of the country and it's climate, your particular local soil and your garden's micro- climate. Every garden is different. It's all about doing your homework first and planning and then finding out what to do when - and these days that's easy to do with so much information online.The first thing to do is to find out exactly what type of soil you have - for instance either heavy clay or free draining, and your local climate. Then look at your garden. See which way it faces, where the sun comes from for how long, whether it's windy or if there are any frost pockets in colder weather. Then look up suitable varieties of whatever type of fruit you want to grow that will suit your conditions. Then you have the exciting task of choosing your varieties - tha's the bit I love most - and still find it addictive even after over 40 years of growing!
Fruit nursery catalogues are a mine of free information - but don't forget that some of the bigger ones that are perhaps tied to seed catalogues will tell you that everything is marvelous! I've been caught out a few times by buying something that sounded wonderful which turned out to not to be! So it pays to be a bit sceptical and double, or even triple check on the variety you want. Fruit trees like apples, pears or plums in particular are a long term investment. If you choose well and take time to do your homework - it will pay off in spades. You may find for instance that only one catalogue may helpfully tell you that the particular variety you are looking up is suitable for northern gardens. The others may say nothing - leading you to believe that all varieties are suitable for all areas of the country. They're not!  A tree suitable for Northern gardens will tolerate both cold and wet with ease - but something like a Cox's Orange Pippin for instance will never do really well here in my part of Ireland unless in a very warm, well drained soil in a sunny walled-garden. It's far happier in the south-east of England where it will get those conditions, but there are plenty of other varieties just or almost as good, which are diseased-resistant and productive. The same goes for the rootstocks which the variety of tree is grafted onto. Many nurseries may tell you that an M9 rootstock will produce earlier crops - but what they won't tell you is that the tree will need staking all it's life otherwise it will fall over when it's carrying a heavy crop, and will ultimately never produce the volume of crop that trees grafted onto an M26 or MM106 rootstock will. Homework pays off. I never thought I'd say that when I was at school! But then it was rarely about my favourite topic - fruit! And of course if you want good crops of fruit - the next thing you have to take care of are the bees and other pollinators we depend on to pollinate the flowers - or you won't have any fruit!
Seems a long time since spring and the bees busily pollinating the peaches - and what a crop we had again thanks to them!
It seems a long time since spring and bees busily pollinating the peach trees - what a crop we had again thanks to them!
Fruit production depends on Pollinators! 

One of the many reasons I try to attract bees, butterflies and hoverflies into my garden, tunnels and orchards, by growing lots of single flowers for them all year round - is that pollinators and bees in particular, are vitally important to us. They pollinate almost all of our fruits. Without them there would be few of the most delicious and healthy foods we can eat!  There would be no apples, pears, plums, blackcurrants, luscious peaches, apricots, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, cape gooseberries, blackberries or even almonds. The list of food crops they pollinate are almost limitless, and while doing that they also produce fabulous honey. Not only would our diets be a lot more boring without them - but they would also be a lot less healthy. We can help bees by growing suitable flowers for them all year round and by not using pesticides.
We depend on bees so much than many people realise. They pollinate a huge amount of our food and yet they are being increasingly threatened by pesticides, a lack of habitat and a lack of uncontaminated wild food sources. They can't just buzz off and exist without any healthy food until we want them to appear again when it happens to suit us - and conveniently pollinate all our crops!  They are increasingly under threat and I simply cannot understand how so many farmers fail to think about what would happen if there were no bees to pollinate rapeseed, flax, sunflowers and so many other of the seed crops that we grow as well as our fruit. A few farmers are now growing wildflower margins in some fields because they get grants to do that. But while it may all look very impressive - it's no good if you're attracting the wonderful bees with nectar-rich flowers - only then to just poison them with pesticides in treated crops right beside them! Indeed there is also evidence now that even the wildflower margins are often actually contaminated by pesticides like neonicotinoids which are lethal to bees - and also weedkillers like Glyphosate - which is hugely damaging to all of the above and below ground biodiversity that we rely on for our own healthy food. There is scientific evidence now that are both carried over from one year to the next in contaminated soil - despite the fact that the makers predictably say that they are not!
In praise of autumn raspberries and my special way of pruning them for the best crops
Huge berries of autumn Raspberry Joan J
Looking back in my diaries - this time three years ago the ground was littered with raspberries in the fruit garden after a severe storm which did a lot of damage everywhere in the gardenThe autumn raspberries were just carrying a really huge crop, and it was so sad to see so much fruit lying around wasted the next day. The same happened again last year with Storm Ophelia and this year with even more storms. We live on a very windy hill - often with wind coming from different directions on successive days and our autumn is often very wet too. So a few years ago - I decided to experiment with growing my favourite variety 'Joan J' - pictured on the left here - in large,10 inch pots of peat-free compost in my fruit polytunnel. I'm happy to say it's been a huge success, with plenty picked every day from just 10 potted plants on grow bag trays. They're a long way from finished yet too - there's still a lot more flower buds on the canes and we may yet still be picking raspberries at Christmas - as we have done for a couple of years. After the autumn crop is finished - pruning is what most people think about - and many years ago, quite by accident, I discovered a new way of pruning them!
If you prune your autumn raspberries my way - leaving some of this autumn's newly fruited canes to continue to grow the next year, rather than cutting them out completely as recommended - those canes will actually fruit again in early summer the following year, slightly lower down on the canes! After those canes have finished producing their second crop - only then do you cut those twice-fruited canes right down to the ground. I prune all of my autumn raspberries this way now - only cutting down half the canes in spring, and feeding the plants well. It works perfectly with all of them. I really don't understand why so many of the fruit 'experts' are still recommending cutting them all right to the base in winter or early spring. It's a waste of potential fruit and means that the plants probably only produce about 2/3 of the crop which they potentially could!  It's amazing what you find out by chance sometimes - or by not having time to prune at the recommended 'right time'!  Autumn raspberries are always reliable croppers and even if they're relatively neglected, they'll go on cropping far longer than any of the summer varieties. If I only had a small garden - I would definitely grow autumn varieties rather than summer ones. They give you twice the value from the same space!
All of the autumn varieties are incredibly vigorous though - especially the older ones, and some can become a bit of an invasive nuisance in a small garden where space is at a premium. If you're prepared to feed and water regularly though - it's possible get very good crops from large pots or tubs and even to lengthen the season by growing some in the sunnier spots in the garden and others in a more shady place. This has the effect of holding the shaded ones back by a couple of weeks. This is how the gardeners in the great old country houses of the past used to lengthen the season of many fruits - they were masters at producing fruit and vegetables over as long a season as possible, their methods were often fascinating and many are still worth copying today. Growing fruit in pots in our modern polytunnels lengthens the season even more. I've tried many different varieties of autumn raspberries over the years - and I think the best two are still currently Joan J and Brice. Both are equally good. If you want a good yellow one - Fall Gold is very tasty, with large berries and that again will also fruit twice a year if it's pruned my way. This year I'm trying a new variety which is looking incredibly promising and has an even better flavour - I'm not revealing it's name yet until I'm sure that it's thoroughly reliable - so watch this space!
This time of year is a non-stop 'Fruit Fest'!
Some mid-October fruit

Pictured here are just some of the 'soft' fruits which you could be eating from your garden in October,  as well as orchard fruits like apples, pears etc.  I like to have as big a range as possible all year round as I don't buy any.  At the top of the picture is the authentic 'Black Hamburgh' grape - grown from a cutting from the original vine in Hampton Court Palace (no - not what you're thinking - wouldn't dream of it!!). Some years ago they were restoring the glasshouse which it grows in at Hampton Court, and they propagated some for sale at Hampton Court flower show, to help pay for the restoration. Clockwise next to that is grape Muscat of Alexandria - the berries would be bigger if thinned - but my life really is too short to thin grapes!) then a large fruited alpine strawberry 'Reugen', physalis (cape gooseberry), blueberries 'Darrow' and 'Brigitta Blue', raspberries 'Brice' and 'Joan J', strawberries 'Albion' and 'Everest' and an unknown fig in the middle, that has a heavenly honeyed flavour!  Figs are one of my passions - I've lost count of how many I grow at this stage - I must do a head count - but I think I have about 15 or so varieties now as I treated myself to two new ones recently. They grow really well and fruit best in large pots, so even the smallest garden could grow one. Brown Turkey is the most easily available and also one of the most reliable outside in a sunny spot. Under glass or polythene you can grow the more tender varieties like Sultane - which will crop twice in most years, in May/June and again in September/October.

Most people associate this time of year mainly with orchard fruits but as you can see - despite the fact that it's late-October there's still a huge range of other fruit that you can be eating now from the garden or polytunnel - quite apart from apples, pears and plums. Experts have been stressing for some time how important it is to get at least 'five-a-day'portions of fruit and vegetables. In addition to vegetables and other fruits - berries of every sort, either fresh or frozen are a vitally important part of a healthy diet. Now scientists say say that eight portions a day - or even more - is good, and that the more fresh fruit and veg you can eat the better. This is because all fruits contain a huge range of health-protecting phytonutrients like the polyphenols, flavonoids and anthocyanins. So it makes even more sense to grow your own organically - particularly when you hear about non-organic imported soft fruit possibly being sprayed with antibiotics like streptomycin - which some people are allergic to. Of course this will never be declared on the pack - in the same way that no other chemicals are! 
If you add in all the other pesticides, fungicides and weedkillers, used both on crops and on the surrounding soil ...... then basically - unless you buy organically grown fruit and veg, or grow your own - then you have no idea what you're eating!  Apart from that anyway - I certainly wouldn't want to be paying even non-organic shop prices for something which I can so easily grow myself for very little trouble. It's simply unbelievable that in autumn when they are so abundant even in hedgerows - blackberries in the shops can still cost as much as 3.99 for 200g!  It certainly makes my huge carrier bags full blackberries in the freezer look just like money in the bank - and it's money not spent. That's what I call genuinely 'Eating well for less' to quote that very inappropriately named TV programme!  My only problem here is trying to find space for so much fruit at this time of year - but at least all the free-flow frozen berries fill up all the gaps and air pockets in freezers, making them much more energy efficient! Freezing isn't the only option though....
Dehydrating is a great way to preserve some fruits
Grape 'Lakemont Seedless' - before dehydrating

This is something you can do with most fruits and lots of other things too. Blackberries are no good for dehydrating as they are horribly 'pippy' when dehydrated, but it works a treat with the grape Lamemont seedless which you can see in the picture here. They are absolute heaven dipped while still frozen, into some hot and deliciously runny baked Camembert or Brie - as I mentioned a few days ago on Twitter to some grape growers in the USA! 


Irish organically-grown sultanas - who would believe it!  Celebrity chefs please take note - if you're interested in buying these, they would cost at least 10 cent per sultana - but given the prices most still charge in their fancy restaurants even after the Celtic Tiger - I guess they could still afford them!!  6 lbs 8oz/ 2.95kg of seedless grapes reduced down to an intensely-flavoured 1lb 10oz/740gm! My son says they're such a luxury item that they should be covered with edible gold leaf in order to do them justice! They really are the most delectable thing in creation when semi-dried, but still slightly chewy. Grape sweeties!  I'm going to have to put a lock on the freezer! Just like the Rosada baby plum tomatoes - they're so high in natural sugars when semi-dried that they don't freeze solid, which means that they are far too deliciously edible straight from the freezer - just as they are! Loose-freezing dehydrated berries is a great way of reducing the amount of space that fruit takes up in the freezer - and space is always at a premium at this time of year. We don't tend to eat much jam in this house - and there's only so much fruit you can actually eat fresh, so dehydrating is a very good alternative because this way, fruit takes up far less space. Everything usually dehydrates down to less that a quarter of it's original volume.

Grapes into sultanas- after dehydrating overnight!

Here you can see the grapes after dehydrating overnight! My precious sultanas don't get buried anonymously in cakes though, except in the case of very special ones - they're way too tasty for that! They're used on top of breakfast muesli, on salads, as garnishes, dipped in melted dark chocolate (only healthy 75% plus naturally!) or re-hydrated in a desert wine to go with home made pates at Christmas, or perhaps with some ripe 'Stinking Bishop'- the legendary soft cheese of 'Wallace & Gromit' fame from artisan cheese maker Charles Martell - who sadly doesn't do mail order but who conveniently just happens to farm very close to my cousin in Herefordshire!  The Little Milk Company organic Irish Brie is a good alternative here in Ireland though - when really ripe. Fruity preserves, especially fruit cheeses, which are more like thick 'cuttable' jellies - rather like quince paste, are also lovely with all manner of rich pates, cheeses, cold meats and game, and are sold for that purpose in very up-market cheese shops. I made some great damson cheese a few years ago which was delicious with my duck pate. Just the right amount of tart, mouthwatering 'fruitiness' to contrast with the rich fattiness of the duck liver. It went down extremely well at my midwinter solstice party that year. Someone called in to LMFM Radio, after our 'Tips from the Tunnel' show a couple of years ago and said it was more like the 'Gerry Kelly eating' show! They were so right - we tend to munch our way round the tunnels trying everything! That's the truly great thing about growing your own.  I could never buy most of the things that I grow in my garden from shops even if I wanted to. I love trying to grow all sorts of unusual fruits as well as the more normal ones - and I love eating them too! After opening up the polytunnels most mornings I've had at least 3 of my '5 a day' before I even get near the breakfast table!  

Dehydrators really make the most fabulous healthy crisps too - no oil is needed for most things. I only very lightly spray things like parsnips with a little oil or lemon juice just to prevent them from discolouring. The main problem with dehydrated fruit and veg is stopping yourself from eating them all at once - they're just so delicious! I have a large Sedona dehydrator - and the reason I went for that particular make is that it gives you the option of closing off half of the drying cabinet if you just want to do a small amount of produce. That means it saves energy. There are lots of cheaper options though - with some starting at around as little as £30.00. Good for dipping a toe in the water to see how you like dehydrating before you make a big investment - or if you only have a very small amount of produce. It's really not worth dehydrating some things though. For instance dehydrating black grapes into raisins as a snack is a bit ridiculous and not very cost effective if you only have one or two bunches - when even organic ones are readily available everywhere now. I have hundreds of bunches of grapes in a good year though - and I don't juice them as I'd be losing a lot of the precious nutrients in the skins and pips and I don't make wine either. I prefer preserving any that we can't eat immediately by dehydrating or just freezing them to throw straight into smoothies or eat as frozen treats. I would definitely recommend a dehydrator as a great Christmas present for anyone who grows a lot of fruit. (Sorry to mention that word!)
Preparing for planting bare root fruit trees and bushes
Autumn is the best time to get bare-root fruit trees or bushes of all types planted - while the still is still relatively warm they'll get a head start, and if the winter is another wet one or we get deep snow like this year - it may be your only chance to plant until well into next spring! If you've ordered any fruit, now is a good time to prepare the planting sites properly before the soil gets too wet. Dig over the soil well to improve it - you can't do no-dig here unless you have exceptionally good soil to start with. No fruit appreciates poor drainage, so you must prepare your planting site really well. For a young bare root tree - a single whip maiden tree (in other words a single stem with no side branches or just one or two very small ones) - I would prepare an area of about a metre or so square, gradually tapering my preparations into the surrounding soil so that it all seamlessly blends in. This may seem quite a lot of trouble to go to - but when you think that the tree will last for at least your lifetime and hopefully give you good crops every year - then it's well worth it. I started off with very badly degraded soil which was more akin to sub-soil - so believe me I'm speaking from experience when I say that preparing ground properly really pays off!
If I'm planting into new ground that has a covering of grass - I first strip off the top layer of grass, about the top 2-3 ins including the roots - over an area of about a metre for a small fruit tree. Then I set that to one side, dig out the top layer of soil, about 30-40cm, depending on the depth of the top soil, breaking it up as I go. You can see where top soil ends - the sub-soil is usually slightly lighter in colour as it's either less full or totally devoid of humus - although in many badly degraded soils on industrially farmed land, the topsoil and subsoil look exactly the same - as ours did when we first moved here! I then fork the bottom - pushing the fork in as far as possible several times around the base of the hole, wriggling it around a bit just to loosen it - without turning over the compacted sub-soil, so that roots will be able to penetrate down more deeply.
When preparing the planting hole I also scatter a couple of very small handfuls of bonemeal over the entire area (which supplies phosphates) and also some  seaweed meal (which supplies potash, soil-conditioning alginates and trace elements). These also encourage good root development, fruit bud formation and also stimulate biological activity in the soil. The microbial life in soil can be damaged by chemicals such as pesticides, artificial fertilisers and weedkillers and can take a while to recover - so it needs all the help it can get. Despite the manufacturer's claims - chemicals do kill soil life as I mentioned earlier this year, and also run off into the ground water killing a wide range of aquatic life too, including frogs. A well-fed and vitally alive organic soil, full of all of it's proper soil microorganisms and bacteria shouldn't need such additions - but if you're starting off on a new allotment site - particularly on possibly former agricultural land, then it definitely would.  Anyway - the more help your tree has to get established quickly the better - particularly in our now uncertain climate.
You'll only have the chance to do this once - so better to be safe than sorry and prepare your planting site really well. I can guarantee that it will pay off. It's a good idea to do a pH.test before you start too - if you don't already know the pH of your soil, as lack of calcium (lime) or poor calcium transport due to poor drainage and water-logging can cause bitter pit in apples. This looks like little black dots in the skin, penetrating just slightly into the flesh, which don't affect the flavour but mean that they won't keep well. If your soil is 5.8 or less - then it will definitely need some lime. I like to use Dolomite lime or calcified seaweed - which are more slowly released and gentler than ordinary garden lime. These also supply other trace minerals. Or conversely, you may be planting something like blueberries which need an acid soil - in which case do the pH test before you buy them unless you're prepared to grow them in containers, which I think is too much faffing around unless you're prepared to always water with rainwater. Most tap water has far too high a pH. Next I put the turves of grass I've stripped off, grass side down in the hole, replace some of the topsoil mixed with only a very small amount of good homemade compost to provide microorganisms like beneficial bacteria and fungi. 
As my soil is also very heavy clay, I also fork in a fair amount of pea gravel or grit over an area of about 5-6 times the width of the hole dug for the tree. This gives good permanent drainage - whereas compost will gradually disappear over the course of a few years. When it does the ground can sink and create a 'sump'. You may not have to use pea gravel if you're soil is reasonably well-drained. Always plant higher rather than lower to prevent a sump forming as the ground settles - and never use a lot of compost or manure which can promote soft sappy disease-prone growth.
Also at this point I then place the tree or bush on top of this mix and sprinkle some beneficial micorrhizae powder like 'Rootgrow' directly onto the roots. Research has shown that doing this really 'supercharges' the roots - encouraging them to make a lot more roots quickly which will reach further and the micorrhizhal powder also provides fungi which grow and form fungal threads - attaching to the roots and helping the tree to forage much further for nutrients to feed the tree and for water too. These beneficial microorganisms help to kick start the soil life, which firstly helps tree roots to establish and they also establish an ongoing symbiosis that enables trees to produce those healthy phytochemical compounds that both protect the trees from pests and diseases and which are also healthy for us. 'RootGrow' available now in most garden centres. You can buy it in small packets which will treat about 6 trees - or in larger amounts which works out better value. These supplements of micorrhizae are not cheap - but I think they're definitely worth it.  Any trees that I've used them on have always established amazingly fast and well. After I've sprinkled the powder directly onto the roots, I then work more of the topsoil/compost mix gently around them. 
It's vitally important not to overdo the compost in holes when planting trees as this has been show to discourage roots from foraging any further - this is particularly the case with container-grown trees, which I'm generally not keen on - although some potted in non-peat based composts are good. Container-grown trees from garden centres and nurseries have often sadly also been ignorantly planted with the root stock far too close to the top of the compost - or even buried altogether - which can cause endless problems and also negate any dwarfing effect of the root stock. For this reason you must make sure that the root stock is at least 4 inches/10cm above the eventual finished surface of the soil!  Measure the depth before you start, by putting a bamboo cane or piece of wood across the hole after digging the hole, allow for a little bit of sinkage that will happen as soil settles - and then constantly check the depth as you fill it back in. Then firm lightly.
Planting this way will leave a very slight mound which will settle just a bit gradually when firmed after planting. and it's no harm anyway as it helps water to drain away. Never plant anything into a hole lower than the surrounding area. Common sense, particularly in our increasingly wet climate -  as apple trees don't grow in ponds!. If I'm preparing the hole in advance - I then cover the entire planting area with something waterproof to keep rain out and the weeds down, while I'm waiting for the plants or trees to arrive. This may seem like an awful lot of bother - but believe me good preparation will ensure rich rewards for many years to come! Preparing the planting sites in advance in this way means that you're not delayed by unpredictable weather and can put plants in as soon as they arrive - even in bad weather.
What Rootstocks are best for Apples? Do your homework first!
I've talked about root stocks for Apple trees before - so all I'll repeat is that MM106 and M26 are without question the best semi-dwarfing rootstocks for healthy apple trees in our climate here in Ireland and in most of the UK too. They eventually grow to about 12-15ft, after 8-10 years, but can easily be pruned (particularly M26) to keep them small enough for training as smaller bush trees, spindles or even as cordons. The only exception to this are what is known as the 'triploid' varieties like Blenheim Orange, Bramley's Seedling, Jupiter, Ashmead's Kernal and Holstein Cox, which tend to be much more vigorous and are not really suitable for training as espaliers or cordons, unless you want to spend your entire time pruning!  Triploid is a bit of a technical term - but all you need to know is that a triploid is usually very vigorous, produces no good pollen of it's own and will not cross-pollinate other trees. It also needs two other compatible pollinating trees which are flowering at the same time - in order to produce fruit itself. Good nursery catalogues give lists of which varieties are compatible with each tree. Unlike the smaller more dwarfing root stocks, MM106 and M26 don't need staking after the first year or so once established. More dwarfing rootstocks such as M9 and Coronet will give you a few fruits a little bit sooner - perhaps only a year - but far smaller crops eventually than the others. In my experience they are a complete disaster in our wet climate here - unless they're in very well drained spot.  Even then trees the tree need to be permanently staked and never seem to be really healthy on them. The rootstock doesn't just dictate the size, but also the health and vigour of the tree as I mention later. As Jorrocks used to say about a horse's soundness a couple of centuries ago - "No foot - no 'oss!" - the same goes for fruit trees. No roots - no tree - for want of inventing a better quote! 
As the root stock affects the vigour of the tree - they naturally affect it's health also. Both MM106 and M26 root stocks will give you the healthiest trees. In addition - the specific variety which is grafted on to that rootstock also naturally has an effect on that. If you're planting a variety that's particularly susceptible to a disease like scab or canker in our damp climate - then it's possibly still going to be somewhat susceptible, no matter what rootstock it's on - but preparing the planting site properly and making sure it's well-drained, will go a long way to helping to prevent disease! 
To use another 'horsey' analogy too - always ask the garden centre what root stock their trees are on - NEVER tell them what you want - or they may say that's exactly what they are! If the tree doesn't have the particular root stock clearly printed on the label - if they're honest, the garden centre will say they don't know and in that case you can ask them to find out. But still don't tell them what you want. An apple tree is not cheap, it is a very long term investment. Don't just get palmed off with any old thing or you will be sorry - but you may not discover your mistake for several years!  Again I speak from extremely bitter experience of wasting years by planting one or two trees which with hindsight were definitely NOT on M26 rootsocks - but clearly on an M9! About 5-6 years after planting, when carrying a sizable crop - they both keeled over in autumn gales. Not an experience I would ever want to repeat!
Choosing varieties
I think in general it's much better to go to specialist nurseries who have good catalogues - although one or two nurseries, like Johnstown Garden Centre here buy from a very good UK supplier and also have their catalogue for you to choose from, if you make up your mind in late summer/early autumn. If you're buying from a catalogue - then look for varieties that do well on your type of soil, in your particular climate and on the right rootstock. That's particularly important here in Ireland with our often wet climate - and with weather predicted to become wetter with global warming/climate change then it's something we all need to think about. 
Next, you also need to ensure that they will pollinate each other - unless you have plenty of apple trees nearby in other gardens. A lot of garden centres sell totally unsuitable varieties like Golden Delicious or Cox's just because that's what people see in supermarkets and so are the only names they know to ask for. Varieties like those are only truly happy and productive in a dry, warm climate somewhere like Kent, the south east of the UK or further afield in Europe. You may get a few apples from a Cox tree here in a very warm spot on warm, well-drained soil - but if you've only got a small garden why give space to a tree that's at best only going to produce a few miserable scabby apples? A much better alternative is 'Queen Cox' or Holstein Cox) which have exactly the same fantastic flavour, apples 3 or 4 times as big and are very heavy croppers if you have other suitable pollinators (Discovery, James Grieve and Grenadier are good) or if there are apple trees close by in other gardens. Remember that Holstein is a triploid though and must have two other pollinators. It is not suitable for strict training. They can both make lovely bush-shaped trees though, up to 15ft/3m high and wide if kept under reasonable control, and are hugely productive with fruit that keeps for months, until well after Christmas. I've given Holstein to several friends over the years as a present if they have large gardens, and they all love it.

Bare root trees are definitely by far the best buy in the long run. It doesn't take nearly as long as you think it might to get fruit, even if you're planting what's known as a first year maiden whip (a single stick on roots in other words). These will start to fruit in their third year and is not only the cheapest but by far the best way to buy apple trees. That way you can be sure that not only are they on the exact root stock that you want (from reputable nurseries) but also - as I've said before - they will establish more quickly and far better than anything with it's roots going round in circles in a container - and they're much cheaper too. Often half the price. It's a no brainer!  Containerised trees often take several years to settle down and while you might get a few fruit immediately from planting a containerised tree -  they will never establish quite as well and be as good as a bare-root planted tree and may need staking all their life - this is particularly the case if they were growing in an unsuitable peat-based compost. In that case I would wait until the tree is dormant and then shake as much of the compost off the roots as possible without damaging them - then spread them out and plant it in a similar way as I've described above. If you compare a 3 year old container tree and a tree that has been planted as a bare root 1 or 2 year old, in about 5 years time, I can guarantee that the bare root one will win hands down in terms of development and cropping!

If you haven't already got a few catalogues - get them fast! Many of the good nurseries have pre-season offers right now. Popular varieties sell out very quickly, so order as soon as possible. Good catalogues are a great free source of expert information and increasingly nurseries are selling wonderful old heritage varieties. In addition the good ones also tell you what regional climate they are suitable for. Deacon's Nursery on the Isle of Wight is a terrific catalogue. - although for some reason they seem more expensive than many to send to Southern Ireland by mail order - but if you have a friend in the North - you can offer them some future fruit in return for taking delivery of your precious trees. I've done that several times. There's not much I wouldn't do to get my hands on new or tasty fruit varieties as you've probably guessed by now! (It's a bit like stamp collecting - it's addictive!)  Some nurseries will only send to UK addresses - so that gets round that problem too. R.V.Roger, of Yorkshire have the best range of blueberries I've seen - including 'Darrow' which I have and think is the best tasting ever - with huge tasty berries. Ken Muir's are great for strawberries, grapes and most other fruits - definitely the best quality plants by mail order I've ever bought (they have Albion strawberry - a brilliant perpetual variety) Dobies are good too - but a smaller range though. These are nurseries that I personally have experience of - but there are many more.
The range is sadly more limited from most Irish nurseries and many are still propagating apples on M9 root stocks which I would never buy again! They are a such disaster in our wet climate! At the risk of repeating myself - trees grafted onto M26 will fruit just as quickly, are far healthier and don't need permanent staking. MM106 is also good - especially if the variety being grafted onto the rootstock is a slightly weaker grower. It's just slightly more vigorous than M26 - but not hugely so, and also imparts good disease-resistance. There are masses of individual varieties of fruit trees available online, with many nurseries selling heritage trees. When you're buying those - you're buying historic varieties, preserving social history and genetic diversity too! Some of my apple varieties here go back at least as far as 1100 AD or earlier - and one pear that I have - The Black Pear of Worcester - is said to date back to the Romans, was taken on the Crusades and the 100 years war - due to it's long-keeping abilities, being hard and inedible for months until ripening, and has particular family connections for me, back to some of my ancestors.
It fascinates me that like old roses, people have kept particular apple varieties going for hundreds of years!  I always feel it's almost like holding the hand of someone going back over the centuries - because basically you're just touching the other end of the branch which that someone touched long ago! What an amazing continuous connection! How interesting to hear Monty Don quoting that in a recent Gardeners World in relation to roses - it's an expression I've often used here on my blog since 2010 - and one that my dear late father, a keen pomologist (fruit grower), often used!  There are still plenty of Apple Days on at the moment around the UK and Ireland - so get out there and see the huge variety there is to choose from. You'll be amazed at their diversity - and equally amazed at their long and fascinating history!
Apples don't just delight the eye or the palate - many other fruits hold history in their branches - often evoking fond memories, of other times, places and people.  My now 41 year old stock of 'Gento' strawberries, from the now long lost garden where I grew up, is still going strong here. I would hate to lose the plants, and that special connection after all these years. They are still just as productive and as delicious as ever. However, being a bit sentimental - I don't just love them for the incomparable flavour. I can still vividly remember my toddlers rambling through the strawberry bed in our first home - accompanied by Lara, our much loved, very greedy but very gentle labrador who was their constant companion!  It didn't take her long to learn precisely how to elicit the delighted chuckles as they fed her those strawberries and other garden delights! How they laughed as her tickly velvet muzzle gently and delicately picked the treasure from their vulnerable little fingers!  Peas were a great favourite of hers too. A gentle 'old soul' - Lara 'nannied' toddlers, puppies, kittens, chickens, ducks and lambs - all with equal love and caring tenderness for almost 15 years. Almost human some might say - but actually far better than most. That memory always makes me smile - and then brings a tear to my eye. As I sit here at my computer - I can see out over the half door of the kitchen, right down through the cherry walk to the willow trees to the very bottom of the garden where our dear Lara is buried, under the 'Rambling Rector' rose, planted on the banks of the stream that she used to love to wade in on hot days. Rather appropriate now I come to think of it! Always rambling - sometimes a bit undisciplined, and often slyly stealing food from the kitchen counter if no one was looking! But very much loved by all who knew her - for fifteen years......
Dreaming again! Where was I?..  Ah yes- fruit!! As soon as the fruits in your fruit cage have finished producing for this year - take the top netting off to let the birds in so they clear up any pests that may be lurking. If it's fox-proof, you could even put your hens in there if you have any - they work wonders! They are the very best way of getting rid of gooseberry sawfly if you've had it - as speaking from experience you often may do on first year, bought-in plants. Gooseberries and blackberries also greatly appreciate the extra nitrogen in the hen's droppings - but don't leave them in there more than four weeks or so - or they'll 'sour' and acidify the soil too much. It's wise to take off the top netting just in case we get snow too - (I hope not again!) - or the weight of it can actually collapse the whole fruit cage!
Accidental 'still life' - autumn colour in the polytunnel - figs and a grapevine intertwined
Autumn colour in the fruit polytunnel - late ripening figs and a grapevine intertwined
Make sure you take long enough now to really enjoy all the wonderful riches that Nature offers from the fruit garden at this time of year.  It's a feast for the eyes as well - there are potential  'still life' paintings everywhere one looks. I'm always longing to get my paintbrushes out, but never seem to have the time these days. Everywhere I look there is luscious beauty just waiting to be captured in paint forever. Somehow photos don't really have that almost tactile - 'certain something'. Maybe a painting enhances the 'essence' or personality of something in the same way that a really good sculpture does? 
After all the fruit harvest is gathered - I have to content myself with picking a beautiful daily apple out of my rather unconventional old freezer fruit store! The scent of ripening apples when I open the door is simply incredible.  Or I help myself to some of the delicious semi-dehydrated frozen peaches! I do wish you could smell them - it's pure aromatherapy!


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

The Vegetable Garden in October - 2018


October contents: Time to Plan your plot for Next Year - Planning Pays Off......Time to Take Stock......Keep a Weather Eye out Now!.....It Could Soon be Time for a Major Cover Up!.....Worms are My Co-workers.....To Bean or Not to Bean? - That is The Question!....Autumn Pests......There's a Permanent Hen Party in my Garden!....A Personal Harvest Festival and 'Thank You' to all of you!  

My scruffy old garden plans from 35 years ago showing the six 30ft x 4ft raised,  'deep' or 'no-dig' beds I started with in 1982

My well-worn old garden plans from 36 years ago showing on left the six 30ft x 4ft raised, 'deep'/'no-dig' beds I started with here in 1982


Time to Plan your Plot for Next Year - Planning Pays Off in Abundance!

 It's almost the start of another gardening year already! Next month all the seed catalogues will have arrived - some have already - and I never fail to find that exciting! What new excitements will they bring this year? While you can still remember - make a few notes now of what you want to grow less of, what you would like more of - or what you found difficult or expensive to buy that you didn't grow yourself but wished you had this year! 
Make a cropping plan for next year while you can still remember where everything was this year! This is much easier to do on graph paper - so that when the catalogues come - you will have a very good idea of exactly what you want to grow next year, where you're going to grow it and roughly how much seed you will need. That will help to stop you being tempted to buy too much - in theory - (Rarely works for me!)  Most catalogues calculate packets of things like peas and beans, for instance, for sowing a 15 ft or 4.5 m row. I find that sowing most seed into modules, rather than sowing direct in the ground, saves hugely on expensive seed. It's no more trouble and you use far less - and also lose far less seedlings, if any, to those slimy night-time visitors - or all the other disasters that can happen to seeds, like rotting in a cold wet soil! 
Working out exactly how much of anything you want to grow, knowing how many modules you need for a row or block of something - with a few to spare just in case - and approximately how long the crop will occupy the space is very useful. It allows you to calculate amounts, helps you to make the most efficient use of space, and consequently to get the best value out of your plot for the work you put in. With good planning and module sowing, even a very small plot can produce a surprising amount of good things to eat all year round, by overlapping crops and also inter-planting in succession as I've always done, surrounded by flowers and fruit, and keeping the plot full. That's how nature does it. Whatever - it's all about getting the very most out of your space - and also for me the aim always also been to save as much money as possible on the household budget!
The more you can grow yourself - the more you will save - and these days that's a big consideration!  After the long summer drought we've just had - many vegetables may be more expensive, scarce or even non-existent!  So even if you only grow your own fresh salads - this could easily save you €25 a week without any problem - and they would be far fresher, and far more nutritious and not washed and bagged! Add that up over a year and you could actually have the price of a small polytunnel or greenhouse! There's also nothing like the good feeling that comes from being even to a small extent self-sufficient and not having to buy expensive, travel-weary organic vegetables from the shops - that's if they're available. It's so much healthier and far more satisfying to have your own really fresh, organically grown produce! Making a good cropping plan also helps you to avoid growing things in the same place too often, which can attract pests and diseases. If you the plan well, you'll only have to do it once - you won't have to scratch your head and do it every year!. Divide your plot into four and after that you just move everything round one space every year - and that's a four course rotation, or divide it into six and then the same crop only hits the same space once every six years and so on. Planning a proper rotation and growing as wide a range of crops in soil as possible is the best way to improve it. Planning always pays off. I know we haven't even got this gardening year over with yet - but believe me your success next year starts now - with good planning and forethought! 
When we first came here in 1982 - 36 years ago now - I'd already had the (rather painful) benefit of having been bed and then chair bound for several months after a back injury and then subsequent viral meningitis, possibly transmitted by a visitor - probably due to my immune system being low after all the pain-killing and anti-inflammatory drugs I was prescribed at the time - which I have never taken since then - preferring natural methods. Luckily no other member of the family caught it but I discovered later that a woman living in the same road sadly died of it - so I was extremely lucky. Anyway I kept myself amused by planning the whole garden and orchard in minute detail on huge sheets of graph paper while I could do little else, and reading everything I could get my hands on. I was so determined that I would get better and be able to garden and grow all our own organic food again. Those hours spent dreaming, reading and planning were some of the best spent hours ever - they've been paying off in time saved ever since! The apple and cherry trees i planned have grown huge. You can only just about make out the writing on the very battered and scruffy old plans pictured above. They were often taken out into the garden with very hopeful and often very muddy hands - and even occasionally chewed by some puppy or other! There are a few bits missing - but these old plans that encapsulate so many hopes and memories are so precious!
To the bottom left of the plan,  you can just make out the words 'Deep Beds'. These were my first raised, 'no-dig' or 'deep' beds similar to those I'd seen the late Geoff Hamilton making on Gardener's World. They were made initially by throwing up all the soil onto the beds from the paths. This immediately gave me higher raised beds which needed far less bending - something I knew I would probably never be able to do comfortably again. They were also better drained and warmed up more quickly in spring. Making lots of compost and using green manures gradually improved the degraded and abused soil we'd inherited and brought it back to life. The six beds later became twelve, when I began growing commercially a couple of years on......... and the rest - as they say - is history! It was lovely to come across those old plans a couple of years ago - they bring back so many memories.
Early in 2017 I gave a talk at our National Botanic Gardens, in Glasnevin, Dublin, as part of the Irish launch of the 'European 'People for Soil' initiative. In it, I talked about how I restored my impoverished soil which had been impoverished by intensive farming, bringing it back to health and the abundant organic life that it is full of now. I also talked a bit about how I made my raised 'no-dig' deep beds. You can watch it here:

Time to Take Stock 

Many of the old gardener's 'Kalendars' of a couple of centuries ago made October the last month of their gardener's year. In a way I tend to agree with them. I always feel that when the most frost tender crops are safely gathered in and stored or preserved then the work winds down just a little. It's not so frantic trying to keep ahead of the weeds and the slugs - and everything is starting to grow quite a bit slower. This month is a really good time to take stock of the past year while we can still remember clearly any problems, any failures but hopefully too - the many successes. Even if you've had a few disasters (believe me we all have them) - there's always something new to learn from them, and maybe something else to feel good about. Perhaps it's a new variety that you've tried that was successful for you when you'd had none before - or a new vegetable you've grown for the very first time that you really love the taste of - like the lovely new Scarlette Chinese cabbage. Hopefully too - you have a freezer or larder filled to bursting with lots of stored goodies to see you through the autumn and winter! A gardener's work is never done - as all the books say. But take some time too, to enjoy and really savour the results of your labours. Give yourself a pat on the back for working so hard all summer - while you enjoy the beautiful, tasty and satisfying results of your labours - you've earned it!

Keep a Weather Eye out Now!

We've had several frosts over the last few weeks - earlier than usual here, so I hurriedly planted out the very last of the hardy salads last week that were sown in modules last month, before the soil gets really sticky and cold. My soil is heavy clay - sticky when wet - so growing all my veg in raised beds is ideal. I've been doing that ever since I first came here, because they're not just easier to reach when working - they're also far better drained and warmer than the soaking wet lower ground surrounding them! They're easier to cover with fleece or cloches too. We often get one hard frost in the middle of October and then often no more serious ones until after December (I won't say the C word!). Unless your ground is prone to flooding or water-logging - things like parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, celeriac and leeks can stay in the ground quite happily and be used as you need them - I think they taste much better that way. I never start eating my parsnips until after the first frosts. Parsnips take a long time to grow and they need a good frost to develop their sweet flavour properly. I do hope that global warming won't mean warmer far wetter winters and tasteless parsnips! The Oriental veg outside will have appreciated the rain for the last two days even if we didn't. They were needing a good downpour in the raised potager beds. The Chinese cabbage are hearting up nicely, the Oriental radish Pink Dragon and Pak Choi Rubi are growing as satisfyingly fast as they always do - and I think we may even chance a stir-fry by the weekend, along with 'courgetti' noodles from the last of the gorgeous yellow Atena courgettes!

It Could Soon be Time for a Major Cover Up!

Lettuces in the well-drained raised beds are safe from pigeons under the netting and protected from frost on cold nights.


With weather so unpredictable in October it's best to be prepared - so I'm also checking over my fleece collection now. I will have to cut a few new ones as I generally stuff them into old compost bags over the summer when they're not needed - but the mice found some of them this year - they must have made a lovely soft nest - but now are totally wrecked! As usual the mice of course are thriving! I won't throw them away though - they'll still do for a top layer when the weather gets really cold and I may perhaps need two or three layers (I don't fancy 'mousey' fleece sitting on top of my salads!) - I'll just put the new clean ones on top of the lettuce or anything else that won't be cooked! I bought a huge roll of fleece from my local farm supply shop a few years ago and I cut off new bits as I need them.

I have a system that works very well now, of wire cloche hoops covered with netting secured with wooden clothes pegs.  Netting always has to be over anything green here or it would all be eaten by pigeons or pheasants! Then on cold nights I put fleece over that too - resting on top of the net - using the clothes pegs to secure it all, as you can see from the picture on the left. The plastic netting nicely stops any heavy dew or rain weighing the fleece down onto the crops where it would often freeze solid on cold nights after heavy rain - offering no protection at all to crops!  This works well for me. I'm also cleaning my plastic cloches at the moment, to remove any dirt that might block the light - it's surprising just how much grime and dust they can collect. 
Talking of covering things - make sure that if you have bags of seed or potting compost outside they are securely covered with something waterproof. They should be covered all the time - even in the summer - it's absolutely criminal to waste good organic compost, by leaving it open to the weather so that it deteriorates! And I've said before - I now use a really good peat-free, organic compost. I can't recommend Klassman peat-free compost which I use highly enough - It's just fantastic!  I've used many different composts over the years - but this is truly the best of any kind that I've ever found - and over the years I've tried them all!  Plants absolutely love it - making terrific root systems - and since using it, I've actually never had fewer losses in my autumn-sown seedlings. It's worth every cent when you think of it in terms of plant losses saved! This is always a dodgy time of year for seedlings as growth is slowing. Plants are like us - their immune systems don't always function as well when the light fades and it gets colder. Peat-free is not always the cheapest compost - but it's definitely the best from every other possible perspective! If you're careful with it and use module trays rather than more wasteful seed trays, you don't need that much anyway. 
Covering up is best for your compost heap too! That should always be covered to prevent leaching of nutrients!  As we have such wet winters here in Ireland - at this time of year, I like to spread a light dressing of good, well-rotted home-made compost on any empty beds that I will need for my earliest sowings next year - then I cover them with black polythene to keep out heavy rain and stop weed growth by excluding the light. Underneath the cosy cover the worms will go on working for most of the winter - pulling the compost down into the soil, making it even richer and leaving a beautifully clean, weed free 'tilth' on the surface of the beds which is absolute bliss to work lightly in late winter/early spring. I know a lot of people don't like using plastic - but mine is really heavy old recycled silage cover which I have been using for over 30 years now! It's surprising how long it will last if stored out of light when it's not in use - and using it has the benefits of causing far less pollution to ground water and loss of precious nutrients. Old polytunnel covers are also useful for covering beds - mine never get thrown away when I'm re-covering a tunnel!

Worms are My Co-workers

Worms already getting to work on the green manure mustard after cutting down & forking in.
I do 'minimum dig' or 'worm dig' here! That gives me the maximum return for minimum work! Let the worms do your work for you is my motto!  Completely 'no dig' is not actually possible if you take it literally - I mean, you do actually have to plant things!  Worms won't just cultivate your soil for you - they will also enrich it with their nutritious worm casts - actually estimated to be at least 9 times higher in nutrients than what went into the worms! This encourages all the soil life and microorganisms that will make plant foods available to your crops next year. Those billions of micro-organisms are the soil's digestive system - so you want to encourage all those flora and fauna as much as you can - they are like 'probiotics' for plants - and you'll be amazed at the difference they make. In the picture here you can see worms already getting to work on green manure mustard after cutting down and lightly forking into surface.
The thing about all the so called 'no dig' experiments I've seen - is that they were actually comparing double-digging with the 'no dig'. So of course the results of digging are bound to look like rubbish! What's happening in the 'dug' bit is that lifeless, microbe-free, sub-soil from two 'spits' down is being turned up to the top. Soil takes a long time to recover from this unnatural upheaval unless you're loading it with FYM or very good compost - so of course the results won't be comparable to soil just lightly forked over, fed with lovely compost and planted into! No wonder that 'No Dig' looks so good.
Nature doesn't do no dig' -  it's dirty little secret is that it employs an army of mini-diggers in birds, squirrels, rats, worms, beetles, fungi, you name it - that evolved to tunnel, burrow and scratch etc I suppose you could say I use the 'wildlife mini-dig' method - scratching the soil over with a three prong cultivator if I need a loose surface. The worms do all the rest - with the help and encouragement of additional mulches. That way all the soil life stays in the same place - although it does need oxygen too - and aerating just it a little actually stimulates the microbes a bit. But even doing that breaks up the huge webs of fungal threads that develop under the soil - so it's all about achieving a natural balance, and imitating nature as much as possible. Even if I grow a green manure - I try to disturb the soil as little as possible, then I chop it down, scratch the surface and leave the worms to do most of the work, which Nature evolved them to do. 

To Bean or Not to Bean? - That is The Question!

A lot of people sow their broad beans and early peas at the end of this month or in early November.  Although I've put them in the sowing list for this month and they may work for some people, who live in drier areas with better drained soil, over the years, time and again I've proved that outside in my garden anyway, they are much better sown early in the year in pots and planted out after hardening off. Try a comparison yourself and see what you think.  My soil is very heavy clay and their roots can often tend to rot in a very cold wet winter. We seem to get increasingly wetter winters now and I hate wasting time and seed. Those sown early next year always overtake and crop much better than any I've ever sown in the autumn. It's not worth risking expensive seed just to feel that something's happening out there! There's really nothing to gain and there are plenty of other positive things you can be doing instead. 
Sow green manures, or put some sort of cove, on any ground that won't be carrying a crop over the winter and which won't be needed too early next year. Don't forget that even these need to stick to your rotations. I find here that overwintered green manures don't work well on beds that will be needed for very early sowing or plantings as the weather is just too wet here in Ireland. The soil often doesn't dry out out enough to use until late March or early April - often even if it's covered early in the New Year. Most green manures need several weeks after covering to break down sufficiently and be pulled down into the soil by worms before you can successfully sow or plant into the beds. That can take quite a chunk out of the growing season. It works in the drier environment under cover in tunnels, but the growing space in there is so valuable, that most of it is covered with crops all year. So it's mulched and well fed with good compost to keep the worms happy and crops growing well - with occasional green manuring!  Soil is like life - you only get out what you put in!

Autumn Pests 

If you've had any pest problems such as aphids this year then sow a few hardy annuals into modules or pots now - like limnanthes, alyssum and calendula - or other single-flowered hardy annuals. These will flower really early next year, bringing in early bees for pollination and also attract any early hover flies to start the all important pest patrol. If you've grown alyssum in the garden this year - dig it up and transplant it into your polytunnel or greenhouse - it will flower all winter under cover.
Leave a patch of nettles somewhere too - for early ladybirds, whose larvae also voraciously eat early aphids, and also for butterflies to lay their eggs on later in spring. 
Start feeding garden birds now to attract them in - unless you've already been doing it all year like me - in which case they're in the garden already. Peanuts and fat balls are good (remember to take the nets off!) There's more info on encouraging helpful wildlife in those sections of the diary. Pests thrive in a garden full of juicy vegetables with no predators to bother them. With no food, flowers or habitat to attract both pollinating insects and other vital creatures which control pests - they have a field day!  I'm always amazed that some gardeners seem averse to growing flowers among their vegetables - particularly some men - who seem to think that flowers are a big girly! I honestly hardly ever see pests. Flowers are absolutely key to attracting beneficial insects. They look lovely too!  Interestingly - I've been saying this for many years here on the blog - and I am now beginning to see one or two other well-known male gardeners starting to grow flowers on their veg plots which is good.
Keep on tidying up any dead and decaying leaves now too - to keep diseases down. Mould and rots can spread like wildfire in the damp, cold autumn weather. Make compost but don't - as I heard one garden expert recommending recently - put any blighted potatoes or tomato foliage into your compost heap! Unless that is it's an absolutely enormous heap that's almost hot enough to cook eggs on! The disease spores can survive anything less and will infect your crops even earlier next year. Put anything like that into your council green waste bin if you don't have a huge heap. And don't compost any bought onion peelings either - put those in the green waste bin too, just in case they could be carrying onion white rot. It's always far better to be safe than sorry!
Keeping all weeds down on beds and keeping grass paths mown short is really important now - you don't want to give slugs and snails anywhere to hide from predators like birds, hedgehogs etc. over winter.  Slugs and snails can breed and multiply at an alarming rate in wet autumn weather before the ground gets too cold. In the autumn of 2013 when I had just broken my shoulder in September, I couldn't manage to keep the weeds and grass down on some beds - and believe me I paid for it!  Slugs were quite a problem in some of the outside beds the following year. Crane fly larvae or leather jackets were an even bigger problem. They love to lay their eggs in the lovely soft soil of raised beds if they have the shelter of a few grassy weedsThen the following spring the dirty little brown caterpillar-like grubs, or cutworms, will eat through stems of young lettuce plants and other seedlings just below the soil surface. One day they look fine - the next they wilt and collapse. You probably won't know you've got them until this happens, and there's sadly nothing you can do to repair the damage! You can find a few in spring by forking over and picking them out - but birds are much more efficient at finding them. If you have a couple of hens or bantams and have a small movable coop -  then let them onto your raised beds or put the coop and run onto your raised beds and let them at it. They'll scratch them up like crazy and have a whale of a time!  If you don't have hens - then scratch the surface over for a few days before planting in early spring - and let all the wild birds find any pests. They'll be so hungry and very grateful in late winter/early spring.
As I mentioned earlier - I always have to put nets on all my green leafy crops now - to keep the pigeons off - and they'll be starting to get interested in them as the weather turns colder and growth everywhere else slows up! I have enough clover to keep them happy all summer here - that's what they really love - and they never bother with most of the crops apart from lettuce or peas until the winter. All my 'lawns' are practically pure clover here now, as we've never used artificial nitrogen on them, or anything else come to that. Artificial nitrogen discourages clover and soil microbes. I also need to cover beds with nets in case the hens escape. Hens and ducks can destroy a bed of lettuce or cabbage faster than you can say "cluck" or "quack" - leafy greens are their favourite food. Mine are always trained to come to call if I have an armful of green stuff - very useful if they get out by mistake - it's always a race to see which one of them can get at them first!

There's a Permanent Hen Party in my Garden!

The girls enjoying purple Orach. They get all the scraps from the garden and turn it into beautiful eggs or compost materialThe girls enjoying purple Orach. They get all the scraps from the garden and turn it into beautiful eggs or compost material
Talking of hens - I think they really an integral part of any organic garden - they certainly are in mine. They clear up pests, scarify the moss and thatch from the grass, eat a lot of kitchen and garden waste and their droppings are a very valuable activator in the compost heaps!  In addition to that they then produce the most fabulous orange-yolked organic eggs so much better than I could ever buy! Sadly organic poultry farmers have to keep a lot more hens on their ground than back garden poultry keepers like me do - otherwise it would not be economically viable to produce the eggs. I know this because I used to keep a couple of hundred organic laying hens commercially. Many people simply won't pay the true cost of egg production as they're so used to cheap food. As I'm always saying - cheap food comes at a price! And all too often - it's the animals that pay that price in terms of poorer welfare!  Growing a lot of green food for them to eat in addition to their grazing, pays off not just in terms of a better colour and more nutrition in the eggs - but in terms of poultry health too. At this time of year I grow Sugar Loaf Chicory in my polytunnels to feed the hens and us!
Large organic egg producers are getting very little more for their eggs than I was getting for mine over 30 years ago - when I was producing organic eggs commercially!  Strange that people aren't prepared to pay a realistic price - when at the same time they want free-range and GMO-free eggs - with all the extra expense in organic feed which that entails. In addition to that, government rules mean that you have a dedicated packing house, and machines that can pack so many hundreds cases of eggs per hour! A massive investment and a bit daft when you perhaps only have a hundred or so hens! I don't believe that hens should ever be kept in large flocks. From my observations of hens over my lifetime - the more hens you have over 100 - the fewer will venture outside. So that rather defeats the object of free-range doesn't it? 
A really good orange-yolked organic egg is the most perfect of Nature's foods. They are absolutely the best meal in the world - and also one of the cheapest and most nutritious!  I only keep a few hens to provide eggs for our own use now since I gave up keeping them commercially,  and those have a lovely new house now.  It's a re-purposed child's 'Wendy house' which my son lined with wire netting so that the fox can't eat through the wood and get in to kill any hens - as has sadly happened once in the past!  I also designed a new system of runs that fan out from their house like the spokes of a wheel - so that they can be changed into another fresh run every couple of weeks while still being protected from hungry foxes! Rotating the runs keeps the ground healthy and also the hens. When I open their door in the mornings they leg it out as fast as possible so they're first to find any bugs - they look so funny with their soft 'tutu-like' feather trousers bouncing about as they run!  Apart from all the lovely greens they get from the garden - I also feed them on a certified organic layers pellet which I get from my local farm shop White's Agri - which of course is GMO-free and antibiotic-free, as all organic animal feeds have to be under EU law.
Organic layers rations are more expensive - but that's because they are the only ones which can be absolutely guaranteed not to contain GM soya or maize, or grain which has been grown with artificial fertilisers and sprayed with chemicals like Glyphosate. They must use all organic grain - and so naturally all the ingredients that make up the feed are more expensive. I wouldn't ever dream of using anything else though! They hens lay really well on those rations all through most of the winter and if you sell even just a dozen a week, or perhaps barter them for something else as I do now - then that more than pays for their feed - so your eggs after that are actually free! They also get any vegetables which are surplus from the kitchen but too good for the compost heap. Their favourite food in the entire world though is currently cucumbers and lettuce! They really pile into those - after all they're very sweet and we love them too. The system of seven permanent large runs in total now means they've always got lots of fresh grass to eat and new bugs to find. It's the only way I can keep poultry here. The greedy foxes are about keeping an eye out for any chance of a fast food takeaway all the time! 
Sadly I recently lost my last lot of hens to the fox which I'd had for three years - the fox found a chink in the fence netting that he could have been working away at over this summer while I had taken my eye off the ball a bit with the Tomato Festival etc, so I shall have to get some electric fencing to surround all the runs as a double insurance before I get any more hens. I shall get some more day-old chicks as soon as I'm less busy and have time to keep an eye on them.  These will start laying in a few months and until they do I shalljust have to buy eggs which I hate - as they're never as good as our own!  I've heard several more foxes very close by our back hedge in the last few days - so I could never risk their precious lives by just letting them wander around un-fenced. 
Frankly - just leaving hens to wander around, often because people can't be bothered to fence them in - or think it looks more romantic - is just hen abuse! In their lovely clean runs our girls always have shrubs and trees to shelter under from wind or rain, nice dry dusty spots to dust-bathe in which they love to do to keep their feathers in tip-top condition, and they have everything they would have in their natural habitat - which is originally South-East Asian jungle.There's more about keeping organic laying hens in the two podcast interviews I did with my From Tunnel to Table co-host Gerry Kelly on his Late Lunch show a couple of years ago - you'll find links to them in the contents panel. 
Well - as one book remarked on the month of October over 200 years ago - "The Gardener's year is a circle, for his labours are never at an end"..... But then another stated that - "There is more pleasure now in feeding on the fruits of your labour and industry, than in viewing the Ruines and Decays that this season hath made among Natures Glories" (la Quintinie - 1683)  - A sentiment I heartily agree with!!

A Personal Harvest Festival and 'Thank You' to all of you!

This is the month for celebrating harvest festivals - and I have the end of another kind of year to mark in some way. The end of another year on the website - and a very different but just as satisfying harvest of emails to warm the heart, to personally give thanks for and to celebrate. So thank you to all of you who have sent them in the past. Sadly I don't have time to reply to a lot of mail these days, or I'd never do all the work in the garden and polytunnels, write my blog, and also write for The Irish Garden magazine, keep up to date on research, experiment with new ideas for healthy recipes to try out on my family and you - and also do my 'From Tunnel to Table' radio feature on LMFM radio with Gerry Kelly which is fun - but still work!  You can still contact me very briefly on Twitter though - which takes a lot less time! 
When I first started this blog in 2010 on journalist Fionnuala Fallon's suggestion I barely knew how to use a computer - let alone what a blog was! I actually  hadn't read any - and now I don't have time anyway!  I could just about send an email in those days as long as I didn't press any of the wrong buttons! Hard to believe I know, to all you techies out there - but I've always been more into the practical side of growing plants and animals! It was a steep learning curve! I just wrote what I knew I would have wanted when I first started growing - and that was a few suggestions as to what to do in each part of the garden all year round and how to do it. The only problem with that is that it tied me to doing four blog posts every month!  As I'm always experimenting and learning though - it's not hard to come up with new things to write about - although finding the time can often be difficult - especially when you have things like hurricanes happening!
Anyway - thank you all for taking the time to read these ramblings from my garden. I've occasionally been told that I write too much! But as I've always replied - I don't believe in giving you only half the information - it's up to you how much you read!  When I had only just started gardening and growing our own food - I was so grateful for checklists of things to do and how to do them. Articles I see these days - in magazines for instance - often leave out vital pieces of information necessary for success, or in some cases are even totally incorrect!  Some of the information on blogs which people may have asked me to read, often seem to have been written using other people's articles, or from books - and not from direct personal experience - which I have always believed is the most valuable for other people. It's said that imitation is the best form of flattery though - and it's nice when kind people mention me. Thank you to those people for their generosity and good manners. 
I get a lot of emails and twitter comments thanking me for sharing my knowledge.  I can't begin to tell you how thrilled I am that by sharing my 40 plus years of hard-won experience of growing for my family, I may have inspired some of you to grow even a few things organically in your gardens, without harming Nature, to encourage wildlife and also to enjoy using some of your produce in my tried and trusted healthy recipes. No matter how long one has been gardening, there is always something new to learn - and I must say that I never stop learning from you people out there too. So here's a very big THANK YOU to all of you! x
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard-won experience. Thank you.)

The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in October - 2018


October Contents:  Organic polytunnels are a great resource for winter wildlife.......Pot on seedlings if planting is delayed ........Peat-free compost and protecting winter salads.......Planting winter lettuce to avoid the common problem of stem rot.......Growing winter salads in containers......A few seeds saved now means a lot of money saved on seed later.....Saving seeds may even give you your own new variety!
As it gets colder - the polytunnel is a great resource for many insects and the birds like Blue Tits which hunt them. Intricately-marked and beautiful Shield Bug hiding under a leaf!
As it gets colder - the polytunnel is a great resource for many insects and the birds like Blue Tits which hunt them. Intricately-marked and beautiful Shield Bug hiding under a leaf!
Organic Polytunnels (or greenhouses) are a great resource for Winter Wildlife
At this time of year, when late summer runs into early autumn in the polytunnels, and the weather outside gets colder, it becomes very obvious that polytunnels are not just a great resource for us but also a wonderful resource for wildlife. That's one of the reasons that I always grow so many flowers among my crops as I mentioned to Gerry Kelly in our From Tunnel to Table radio series last week (which you can hear on the 'listen' button). Growing flowers and a wide variety of crops - rather than just one or two - attracts many insects which help with pest control and then those naturally attract the other wildlife which preys on them. In this way it helps to make the polytunnel almost an entire functioning ecosystem in miniature - with everything naturally connected just as it is outside. That's why I almost never see any pests. I've barely seen any Blue Tits except briefly for months as they've been busy finding plenty of food in the garden outside - but yesterday as I was clearing up the last scruffy bits of the tomato plants which have finished cropping - there was a pair eagerly hunting for any insects they could find wherever I was disturbing the leaves. Luckily the beautiful shield bug pictured above had the good sense to keep moving under the leaves when it sensed me trying to photograph it - so it was quite difficult to get a good picture! I do hope the Blue Tit didn't get eventually it - it was so intricately marked, incredibly beautiful and almost jewel-like!
Wild birds become surprisingly tame once they realise that you're not a threat - and that in fact you're even helping them by moving plants and uncovering potential food sources. There were loudly cursing Wrens in the polytunnel too, emitting their sharply staccato  "Don't come near, don't come near" cries (incredibly loud for such small birds) and a very friendly Robin closely following my every move in case I produced a worm or two while pulling up the plants. They are so entrancing that I never lose my joy in watching them all. They so clearly enjoy being in my 'Narnia' as much as I do - their antics were such a distraction that I spent a lot of time time just watching them all instead of getting on with my work. but I don't mind!  It gives me so much satisfaction to feel accepted as part of their world and to know that I'm helping all of them to thrive by gardening organically. 
 A young plant of Chinese Cabbage 'Scarlette' contrasts beautifully with lemon Pak Choi from Real Seeds 'Vibrant Joy' mix
A young plant of Chinese Cabbage 'Scarlette' contrasts beautifully with lemon Pak Choi from Real Seeds 'Vibrant Joy' mix
There are some very exciting new Oriental vegetables

Oriental vegetables are becoming much more popular and well known now - mainly thanks to the wonderful books written by Joy Larkcom - who I mention again later. I've always found them very useful for fast-growing autumn and early spring cropping. One very new Oriental vegetable that I trialled in the polytunnel two years ago is this stunning Chinese cabbage Scarlette pictured above growing alongside a beautiful lemon Pak Choi from the new Pak Choi mix called 'Vibrant Joy' from Real Seeds. 'Scarlette' was only released in 2015 and is the first red Chinese cabbage. Actually 'red' really doesn't do it justice - and neither does a photo. The outside leaves are actually an incredibly deep crimson shading to cherry-pink which is almost neon-like in sunlight - and the hearts with the tightly-wrapped inside leaves are also a gorgeous shade of ;paler pink as you can see below. It has the most fantastically sweet, 'more-ish' taste too - delicious in salads or lightly stir-fried and of course a very unusual colour - a first for Chinese cabbage. The deep crimson colour means it's obviously higher in beneficial phytonutrients so even better for our health than the more normal green Chinese cabbage and is definitely one of the most exciting vegetables I've found in years. I've been experimenting with growing it in various ways over the last two years.
I grew three crops of it last year - a spring one, a late summer crop outside and a late autumn one in the tunnel - although it's only actually recommended for sowing outside in May. The late autumn on got attacked by late cabbage root fly sadly and I lost about half of them - although I was still able to use the younger un-hearted plants that had been attacked in salads. Wilting in sunshine is always a dead give-away for root fly - but it's always too late then. Chinese cabbage can't be lifted and replanted which can work with some winter brassicas - because they would bolt. So rather than waste them I used them as small leaves before they died.This year I kept them covered with enviromesh to keep the root fly out - which seems to have worked - although somehow a fat green cabbage white caterpillar appeared on a leaf this morning! Easily spotted against the dark red background as it did rather stand out though and was quickly dispatched!  I love to experiment with different crops and it's fun tryjng to push the boundaries with all kinds of crops in the polytunnel. Every year the weather can be different and as long as we have fairly even temperatures, with not too many wild swings or hard frosts - I'm hoping that Scarlette will give me a decent crop again before Christmas and avoid the worst of the weather. It stores quite well for 2-3 weeks in a cool place once it's picked, which is useful - although this year I may try covering it with fleece if the weather is cold in December. 
Chinese cabbage Scarlette halved - showing it's stunning heart New Chinese cabbage Scarlette
Chinese cabbage Scarlette halved - showing it's stunning heart New Chinese cabbage Scarlette outside in late spring 2016


I'm also hoping that this year I'll have far fewer slug problems inside the hearts! Unfortunately they seem to love Scarlette just as much as we do! If even only one of those little grey ones gets inside a head of Chinese cabbage - it can sit there undiscovered for weeks and do a lot of damage! This means that I end up have to do a lot of leaf washing - but I'd far rather do that than ever use slug pellets. Although I try to control slugs as much as possible by trapping them using various methods - I do occasionally get the odd messed up cabbage that needs more leaf washing! Those small grey slugs can be a problem in damp autumns both outside and in the tunnel - but my method of putting pieces of slate around the base of things is a good way to trap them before things like cabbage and lettuce start to heart up. After that they tend to hide in the hearts and it's much more difficult to get the little blighters before they do damage!  Remember though - a few slug holes won't kill you and won't affect the taste of the cabbage - but metaldehyde slug pellets kill many creatures indiscriminately! They also pollute our groundwater, so that we may eventually end up drinking it! Interestingly though - veg that have been attacked by pests often produce more phytochemicals in order to protect themselves. So who knows - perhaps those with a few slug holes may be even more nutritious! Now there's a thought - maybe we should encourage them??... No - I'm only joking!  Anyway - unless you're showing your veg - do a few holes in them really matter that much?  Wildlife matters far more - and I'd rather have a few slug holes and keep my lovely blackbirds and hedgehogs than be without them forever - which may happen soon if we son't stop poisoning the things they eat!  Remember that Joni Mitchel song "Big Yellow Taxi " went? "Give me a hole in my apple - but leave me the birds and the bees!"............

Pot on plants if planting is delayed

I would normally have planted all my winter salads in the polytunnel by now, but have had to pot on some of them, as they're still waiting for the courgettes to come out which are currently still cropping - albeit a bit more slowly. Although some might think this is a lot of trouble - it's well worth it because it means that plants keep growing well and don't get a set back. If they're checked at this time of year they don't recover as well due to the lack of light - but on the other hand - if we get an unseasonable warm sunny spell many things like spinach and Oriental veg could even bolt and run up to flower if they get checked, and they'll certainly never crop as well.  I always try to plan any autumn planting for early mornings, so that I have a whole day with the tunnel doors open after watering them in. Doing that gives the air a chance to circulate and gives any sun a chance warm up the soil and dry off the soil surface a bit before night time. This avoids damp air hanging around the plants and helps to prevent diseases. After the end of October growth slows up so much that they're mostly just 'ticking over' then.


I'm still sowing some fast-growing Oriental veg at the moment - they germinate gratifyingly fast considering the time of year - especially if you germinate them in the house and then put them out into the polytunnels as soon as they're up and need light, as I do. The Oriental salad mixes are all great for adding a bit of colour and variety to winter salads - adding a bit of zing to the more usual winter lettuce. They're fast-growing, great value and more hardy than most people think. They even survived the really cold spell earlier this year when we were snowed in for about 10 days, just covered with a bit of fleece on the coldest nights!  All those brassicas are great food for bees in late winter/early spring - and if you like one plant in particular you can save seed from it if it's not an F1 hybrid (see below). I always sow a few modules or small pots of these useful vegetables for tucking into odd corners in the winter brassica rotation.


Talking of Oriental veg always reminds me of the wonderful Joy Larkcom - the Oriental veg queen.  Given the season that's in it - I thought you might enjoy her picture of my pumpkin display below, from the early 1990's. I make an arrangement of them every year as they are so beautiful to look at and very photogenic! This photo of pumpkins in my hall was taken by her when she stayed here to give a talk on oriental vegetables in 1991, which I organised at The National Botanic Gardens. She's been the acknowledged expert on Oriental vegetables and salad plants for many years - her brilliantly comprehensive book 'Oriental Vegetables' is still very relevant now and well worth seeking out.  Many of you will have met Joy and enjoyed her inspiring talks more recently, as she now lives in Ireland - very happily for us. 


Anyway the pumpkins pictured are so unlike the usual 'Halloween'-type carving pumpkins - the flesh of those is pretty watery and tasteless.These wonderful varieties of pumpkins and squashes are dry and rock hard, keeping for months, often for a year! But beware - you'll need a machete or an axe to break into them! When you do though, they make all sorts of delicious and nutritious meals. I haven't grown nearly as many in the tunnel this year as I was growing so many tomatoes again for the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival - and I must say I miss the wonderful variety of them. I normally grow at least a dozen varieties but this year only grew five. There just isn't room for everything though - and sadly they are one of the few plants that really hate container growing and also takes up a lot of room! They like plenty of root room, or they tend to become unhappy and get powdery mildew very quickly. I usually grow a few in one of the tunnel beds because our 'summers' can be so unreliable here in Ireland and they really don't do well in wet weather. They're one veg I would hate to be without for the winter months. They look so cheerful and full of summer sunshine sitting on the recycled butcher's block in the hall, that I hate using them! They're always a terrific standby though. One slice just baked on its own with a few herbs and garlic, with butter or olive oil makes an easy filling meal - and they make the most wonderful soups and stews.  


My display of long keeping pumpkins and winter squashes grown here in 1991 (photo by Joy Larkcom)My display of long keeping pumpkins and Winter pumpkins and squashes grown here in 1991 (photo by Joy Larkcom)


 Pak Choi 'colour and Crunch' -shoots on lemon coloured plants flowering soonest - 2.10.14One fast-growing oriental veg that I'm sure that Joy would love is the multi-coloured Pak Choi 'Colour and Crunch' - pictured here. The young leaves are really tender and delicious in salads, and the older leaves in stir fries. I love the acid lemon-coloured leaves of one of the mixed varieties - but sadly, that one seems to want to be the first one to flower first out of all of the plants in the mix, so probably won't crop as long as the other varieties. As they're very fast growing - I'm going to make another sowing now and hope for a relatively mild late autumn, when they should still develop well under cover, in the shelter of the tunnel. They did exceptionally well last year in the tunnel, cropping for months, by picking individual leaves, not cutting the whole plant. They were really delicious in salads and stir fries. They need to go in the brassica bed though - not with the lettuces. Another thing I've just planted in one of the brassica beds is calabrese Green Magic - which produces lovely tender shoots steadily all winter which are lovely lightly steamed or raw in winter salads.

The leaves of radish Pink Dragon are also tender & tasty enough for salads

Oriental radishes and all other brassicas are very good for our health and another recent new favourite of mine is the lovely Pink Dragon (from Marshalls seeds, pictured below). It will grow in deep containers as well as in the ground, and if kept well-watered, it's really tender and crisp, not at all woody and not too fiery. Delicious fermented as pickles or in Kimchi too!  The leaves of radish Pink Dragon are also tender & tasty enough for salads. You can still sow other Oriental winter radishes like Pink Dragon in the tunnel now (see 'What to sow in Oct list). They won't be as large but will still be useful and the leaves are delicious and very nutritious too.  
While you're sowing seeds - remember to sow or plant a few winter flowering plants for bees and other pollinators too. The non-hibernating bumblebee are so grateful for the pollen and nectar these plants provide. On mild days in winter the tunnels are absolutely buzzing with them. If you leave radishes or some of the Oriental veg to bolt in late winter/ early spring and let them flower, you can eat those flowers in salads and they also provide early pollen and nectar for other important pollinating insects like early hoverflies. Then you may even get the present of a naturally occurring hybrid of some sort - as I did a few years ago. You can see the beautiful results of that event at the end of the article. Winter flowering violas, pansies, calendulas are all favourites with bees and will go on flowering for months, providing flowers for bees which are also edible and brighten up winter salads. Even nasturtiums are worth a try if you germinate them in the warm first now - mine provide flowers and leaves for salads all winter as long as we don't get a very hard frost. 

 Using peat-free composts

Winter salads following tomatoes - strawberries, 'Flame' grapes and yellow courgettes in side bedWinter salads following tomatoes
All the different winter salad seedlings have done really well in the peat free organic compost again as usual - even the multi-sown ones with groups of seedlings in each module. Since I started using the peat-free - I've never lost so few autumn-sown plants. In fact, I haven't actually lost even one tiny seedling this autumn. In a peat compost I would have expected to lose anything up to 30% through damping off in cool, damp autumn weather. Seedlings don't have as much disease-resistance in peat composts as it's not a natural growing medium and the chemical fertilisers in them seem to make plants far more disease prone. I know that the organic peat-free one costs a bit more than the peat based ones - but if you get healthier plants with far fewer losses any - then it makes the compost look a lot cheaper! When you think how expensive seed is these days, or buying-in plants because yours have failed - it's more than worth it - quite apart from any environmental considerations! Peat bogs are precious habitats which trap carbon. Digging them up for fuel or gardeners' use can release more carbon than cutting down rain forests! That never seems to get much publicity though! They also support a massive range of biodiversity. Many bogs have specialised plant, insect and bird life that you won't find anywhere else. When the bogs go - they go too! There is absolutely no excuse for using peat composts because you just can't be bothered to think about the damage to wildlife and our climate! There are plenty of good alternatives now!
Planting winter lettuce to avoid the common problem of stem rot
Keeping wet soil away from the base of the stems of lettuces, endives, chicory and other soft salad plants is absolutely key now to avoid stem rots, which can often happen at this time of year. When planting lettuce in particular, I'm very careful not to plan too deeply and completely bury the modules. I make sure that the top of the module is just level with the soil surface, and I only firm them in very gently before watering in. After that I only water between plants if necessary - not directly onto, or very close to the plant. It's not so much of a problem with spring plantings - as plants are growing far more quickly with the increasing light at that time of year. The opposite happens in autumn.
Pictured above are several different types of hardy winter lettuce, claytonia and lamb's lettuce, inter-planted with quick growing summer spinach for late baby leaves and also some winter-flowering violas which provide nectar for any late beneficial insects, which look really attractive and are edible. I can never understand those people who think that tunnels should be utilitarian and boring in the winter - or even summer come to that!  I always make an effort to make them look ornamental as well as being full of useful vegetables. I try to achieve a sort of'Polytunnel Potager' effect as I've mentioned many times before, by growing lots of flowers all around the tunnels among the crops to attract pollinating and pest-controlling insects! The varied colours really lift one's spirits in late winter, when you begin to wonder if spring will ever arrive. A few years ago, in the depths of winter, Irish Times journalist Fionnuala Fallon kindly wrote that my tunnels were "Not quite Narnia - but definitely a very different universe to that outside"!   


Protecting winter salads  

After planting I put wire cloche hoops at intervals along the newly planted beds, so that they're in place and ready for suspending fleece just above the plants on cold nights. This traps warmer air - giving much more effective frost-protection than having fleece resting on the plants which can also stop air circulation and cause rots in very cold weather. I uncover the plants in the mornings - and dry off the fleece which can become quite wet and heavy in the damp atmosphere of a polytunnel. I hang it up on the crop support bars to dry ut. Fleece is invaluable for protecting winter salads and other tender things in the tunnel. Buying a big roll and splitting it with friends is a good way to reduce the cost. You can buy a huge role of light fleece in your local farm supply shop for less than the price of two miserable lengths in any of the DIY multiples or garden centres!  I cut some new pieces each year for the salad beds so that they're absolutely clean. Then I use the older bits for other crops like potatoes etc. that don't need clean fleece. It really is worth taking the trouble to use it - there's nothing like walking into your polytunnel on a cold winter day and seeing lush, almost summer-like growth!
Always have some fleece at the ready from now on - cut to the size of your beds - in case we get hard frosts. It really can make the difference between having or losing crops and is well worth what some might say is a lot of bother - only 5 mins in fact! Although just now I was out just now in the tunnels trying to plant stuff and the heat was so unbearable in there at 11.30 am in the brilliant sunshine - the nights can be really cold now. All plants will benefit then from the extra protection of some fleece if the weather gets much colder. It can often actually be colder inside a polytunnel than outside on late autumn and winter nights. Greenhouses aren't as cold - something to do with thermal radiation.  

Growing winter salads in containers

You don't just have to grow in the ground in polytunnels - you can grow all sorts of vegetables in containers very successfully too. In fact it can often be a lot easier to grow some organic crops this way rather than growing them in the ground, a growing leafy salads in containers almost completely avoids problems with pests like slugs and snails, as the pots are well above the ground. All you need is a container which is big enough to support the roots and has drainage holes in the bottom. There is almost nothing that you can't grow this way given a big enough pot or container.The sky is quite literally the limit - and so-called 'vertical gardening'  works well in a polytunnel too. It's something I've done since I had my first small garden over 40 years ago long before we moved here - and I still do it! It's so useful for cramming plants into small spaces and even in big ones - can extend the range of what you grow.
It's important not to forget that container-grown plants are completely dependent on you though - so even in the winter you will need to make sure that they never dry out or they won't crop for long. You could even grow a few winter flowers for salads too. Winter flowering pansies or calendula look really pretty mixed in with your veg and things like trailing nasturtiums which will go on flowering for much of the winter too as long as it's not too cold. And again they will attract beneficial insects to help with pest control and pollination of other crops. Anyone, even those without a garden, can have their very own beautiful and productive potted mini 'potager' as long as they even just have path to their front door! If you have a well lit glass porch, or one of those tiny lean-to greenhouses on a balcony - you can have some crops inside even if you don't have a polytunnel! The winter radish Pink Dragon that I mentioned earlier is very happy in a large tub and can be ready to eat quickly at this time of year. In the picture here it's growing with Kohl Rabi which will go on growing up to tennis ball size when the radish have been harvested. They're both useful crops for containers that can still be sown now. 
Radish Pink Dragon & Kohl Rabi Azur Star growing in large tub (slightly drunken angle!)Radish Pink Dragon & Kohl Rabi Azur Star growing in large tub (slightly drunken angle!)
I needed some extra growing space when I grew so many tomatoes (46 varieties!) for my Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2012 and 2013 - so I grew a lot of the tomato plants in 10 litre buckets - 3 to a 'grow bag' tray. It was the first time I'd tried so many different varieties. It worked really well - far better than grow bags due to the greater depth of compost. Even beefsteaks ripened at least 6 trusses on all of the plants - and eight huge trusses ripened on the cherry plum variety Rosada (but then - that tomato always outdoes anything else!). They actually did far better and were earlier than those planted in the ground - possibly because the roots were warmer. There's no need to immediately ditch all the compost from the buckets afterwards - you can re-use it for different crops with a little bit of re-charging. When the tomatoes were finished I cut them off at the base, cutting out the toughest bit of the stem and roots with an old bread knife. I then forked over and recharged the soil/compost mixture with a little worm compost and Osmo general organic fertiliser - adding a bit more soil/compost mix where necessary and then planted them up again with things like salad mixes, lettuces, spinach, broccoli and kale plants. For potatoes I would use home made garden compost in the bottom of the pot - or if you don't have any then a little well-rotted manure would do. I then make up a half and half mix of soil/organic potting compost plus a very small handful of a general organic fertiliser like Osmo to fill up the container. For plants that need well-drained conditions, I use broken up polystyrene for drainage in the bottom of the larger heavy pots - this is a really great way of using this otherwise non-recyclable material that bedding plants are often sold in. It's free - and also makes the pots a lot lighter than the stones or gravel usually recommended - so you don't hurt your back moving them! Very important for me, as I've had degenerative disc disease for over 30 years but absolutely refuse to give up gardening - it keeps me fit! 
My 'stepladder' garden beside the log bag raised beds - west tunnel - end MarchThe stepladder garden I invented a few years ago is a terrific way to grow salads in a very small space and even a convenient way to have healthy salads right by your back door all year round, even if you don't have a garden. The same salads growing on the ground would take up about four times the amount of space!  Here it is beside the log bag raised beds in the west tunnel, at the end of March. Many years ago while expecting to move house at any moment - over the course of a year I grew an entire veg. garden in various containers! I even grew over 40 lbs of runner beans in M&S carrier bags! (They were a lot stronger in those days!) Even though I have a big garden now - I still grow lots of things in containers of one sort or another. It's a very flexible way to maximize space in the greenhouse - for instance planting a few very early potatoes in pots rather than in the ground - which can then be moved outside later to make room for other crops when any danger of frost has passed. On the other hand - in the autumn you can do the reverse - lengthening the season by bringing container crops in again to protect them from cold weather. I've got a terrific late crop of basil in containers at the moment - it loves the drainage and warmer root run of the buckets. Even onion sets and garlic can be grown in pots - that way you can get really early onions and also avoid any possibility of bringing diseases like white rot into the garden. If you have onion white rot disease in your garden soil - containers are a great way to still be able to grow them, as long as you don't use infected garden soil. It also avoids growing crops in the same place too often and causing a build up of diseases.
Apart from pumpkins which I've already mentioned - most crops are quite happy with a depth of only 30cm to grow in - perhaps a bit more for very tall crops. The only exception to this are sweet potatoes - which need a minimum of 18in/45cm depth of compost under them. Although I have a big bed of them in the east tunnel, this year I've also grown them again in the recycled log/skip bags that I get the logs in for our wood burning stove. They loved them! The skip bags make fantastic home made grow bags and two fit onto a large grow bag tray very conveniently. As they're so deep I filled up the bottom with all sorts of garden rubbish to save using good compost - old pot plants and used potting compost, newspapers, prunings, grass clippings etc. and topped them with a layer of garden soil mixed with good organic potting compost, about 30 - 45 cm deep. I planted 'extra early' Sharpe's Express potatoes, kale, beans and peas in these very early on in spring - and then followed them with the sweet potatoes. They took off like rockets - obviously thoroughly happy, and grew luxuriantly in all directions, so much so that I had to keep cutting back the trailing foliage, something I would never normally do for fear of weakening the plants. Many crops grow well in 10 litre recycled mayo/coleslaw buckets begged from the local deli. They only last about 3 years before they start getting brittle from exposure to light - but since they're free who's complaining?!  Start collecting your buckets and containers now, ready for next year! Below are examples of just some of the crops you can grow in them. 

A few seeds saved now means a lot of money saved on seed later!

Saving seed of tomato 'Doctor Carolyn'Saving seed of tomato 'Doctor Carolyn' in 2012
One of the other things I've been doing over the last few weeks is saving tomato seed. I always keep one or two of the best, really ripe fruits from any non hybrid (non F1) varieties I will want to grow again as this saves a lot of money. Also the best examples of those that have done here well may become gradually more acclimatised to my garden climate. I came up with a new way to rot them a few years ago! Instead of putting the fruits in small trays or plastic cups to rot as I used to - I now put them into freezer bags with the name written on them straight away so they can't lose their labels! You'll be amazed how similar all tomatoes look when they're rotting and starting to nicely decompose - they really stink too! Nature doesn't put them into jars of water  - it just rots them where they drop! When they're nicely rotted, I squish them up (technical term!) to a smelly fleshy pulp which I then push through a small fine sieve and just rinse briefly then. When I've pushed out as much flesh as I can I smear the seed that's left in the sieve onto a couple of layers of kitchen paper to dry - immediately writing the name in one corner with an indelible marker, as in the example here! I've lost count of the number of times I forgot to do that one particular vital thing and ended up with lots of unnamed seeds!  I'm afraid I'm not always the most organised person in the world, always have at least two jobs on the go at once, and often get called away when I'm in the middle of doing something! (Cake burning in the oven etc. - you know - usual thing!!) Last year I sowed what I thought were the black tomato Indigo Rose, and ended up with John Baer - a very good, early middle sized tomato with a great flavour - luckily for me! This year I sowed what I thought were John Baer and most of them were, But I got a huge surprise when just one plant produced a deliciously meaty, orange egg-shaped medium sized tomato . Luckily it wasn't one that I gave away as I always do with my excess plants. I gave a huge amount of spare plants again this spring to someone to distribute among local allotment gardeners. So I'm saving seed of that one for sure. I will have to keep sowing it for 
4-5 years to see whether it will keep reproducing the same tomatoes though. If it does I will have bred a new tomato quite by accident - which brings me nicely onto the next topic!

Saving seeds may even give you your own new variety!

I've been saving seed of all sorts of plants for many years. It's such a satisfying and fun thing to do - and I'm always so surprised and delighted when they germinate the following year - even after all these years of gardening!  Nature is wonderful!  Over the years I've saved some varieties that would otherwise have been lost altogether, and that's even more satisfying. Why not try doing it yourself - if you don't already. It's great fun! You can save seed from anything that's not an F1 hybrid - whether vegetables or flowers. Who knows - Nature may even give you the gift of a new variety - as happened in the case of the several new kales I have grown which are descended from an interesting looking seedling that I was too curious to weed out a few years ago while hand-weeding. I dislike hoeing for this very reason and always weed by hand. You're not close enough to recognise what you may be losing when you're hoeing!  Anyway - that original seedling was almost certainly a cross between my Ragged Jack Kale - which I've been saving my own seed of for around 30 years now - and a frilly leaved purple mustard, which the bees must have cross-pollinated.
I always leave my overwintered brassicas and Chinese leaves to flower in late winter early spring to provide early food for all the nectar loving early insects and vital pollinators.In return - Nature gave me a most welcome and beautiful present. Although I isolated it, pollinated it and saved seed from the original seedling when it grew up, it set very few seeds being a 'mule' - a millions-to-one chance as a very rare cross. I also tried to take cuttings but it wouldn't come from those as it's DNA was obviously leaning too much towards the mustard end of the spectrum, and mustard is determinedly biennial, whereas kale can come from cuttings. It tasted horrible too - really hotly 'mustardy' which I don't like. I sowed some of the resultant seeds and you can see some the incredibly diverse and beautiful results below. 12 sown, 10 germinated, and every single one was different!  Last year I sowed the last few seeds and got 12 more beauties. I was hoping that these would come from cuttings, as they had a much more pronounced kale taste and were perhaps leaning more towards the kale end of the DNA spectrum but sadly gave the plants away to a well-known plant breeder who promised to raise them from cuttings but didn't!  However - I still have some saved seed from those original hybrids and will sow them next year.
Perhaps I was far too trusting and naive? I certainly rue that decision now - although I'd hate to become too cynical. The sad moral of that tale is - that if you have something very special - don't just trustingly give it away. Similarly - although many ideas in gardening have been handed down for countless centuries - some may be new - perhaps discovered through individual circumstances, gardens or climate. I always credit others if I use their original ideas - but sadly not everyone does. It's a lesson I've learnt over the last few years of writing my blog and from being on Twitter in particular - so you will understand the copyright notice I put at the end of each blog page.
The pictures below of three of my lovely kale hybrids really don't do them justice!
Kale hybrid 1. contrasts stunningly with Anthemis E.C.Buxton - worthy of a place in any herbaceous border! 2.10.14

Kale hybrid 1. contrasts stunningly with Anthemis  worthy of a place in any herbaceous border!

Kale hybrid 2. the colour of one of it's grandparents, Ragged Jack but the finely cut leaves of the other - frilly mustard!

Kale hybrid 2. the colour of one of it's grandparents, Ragged Jack but the finely cut leaves of the other frilly mustard!

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

What to sow in October - 2018


"Remember - always sow the seeds. You can catch up on everything else - but if you get behind on that, there's nothing you can do about it."  .... Do it now.... Every day the light is getting shorter and growth is slowing.
 Growing home-saved seed & supporting independent organic seed companies ensures diversity in seed supply & future food security
Growing home-saved seed, and supporting small, independent and organic seed companies ensures diversity and choice in our seed supply.
Preserving crop plant genetic diversity by saving our own non-F1 hybrid seeds is becoming increasingly important to future food security.
You can still sow these directly into the ground - covering with cloches later in the month in cold gardens. Alternatively you could sown into modules of peat free compost.  I always sow do this at this time of year - germination is much quicker, there's less chance of seed rotting in cold, wet ground if we get a hard frost before the end of October and less chance of pest damage. It's more economical with expensive seed, avoids possible slug damage or even total destruction! Modules can be grown on and then be planted into the ground when they're ready if conditions are suitable:  
Winter types of lettuce such as 'Arctic King', 'Winter Gem', 'Rougette du Midi', 'Winter Density', 'Valdor', 'Rosetta' (greenhouse/tunnel type), Jack Ice. Also Broad Beans 'Aquadulce Claudia'** or 'The Sutton'**, round seeded peas like 'Meteor', 'Feltham First', 'Pilot' etc.(protecting from mice!), some varieties of non-hearting leafy cabbage greens such as  'Greensleeves', claytonia* (miner's lettuce), corn salad*, landcress*, spinach*, winter & Oriental radishes, salad onions (scallions), overwintering onions such as 'Hi-Keeper' (growing onions from seed avoids possibly introducing onion white rot, which may be brought in on sets).
On well drained warmer soils in mild areas, it's still worth chancing a sowing of a fast-growing early carrot variety* such as 'Early Nantes' or 'Amsterdam Forcing' - particularly in southern areas - covered with cloches these may produce finger-sized roots by Christmas or certainly in very early spring. You can also try oriental greens* like Mizuna, Mustards like 'Red and Green Frills', rocket, and fast growing salad mixes* for baby leaves - all to crop this autumn if the weather is mild. All of these will benefit from being covered with cloches or fleece suspended over hoops later in the month to protect from heavy rain, or potential frost and wind damage.
You can still sow green manures on any empty ground not covered with a crop, these will protect and improve the structure of the soil, adding vital carbon, holding onto nutrients and preventing possible leaching that can occur in heavy rain. Field beans and winter tares (both legumes which will also fix 'free' nitrogen from the air). Mustard is another useful, fast-growing green manure but isa brassica so make sure it fits into your rotations, and Hungarian winter grazing rye (covering the latter on heavy soils with a light excluding mulch in late winter to kill off the top growth, which makes it much easier to dig in)

In a Greenhouse, Polytunnel or in a large cold frame:

You can also sow all of the above undercover, in a polytunnel or frame. They will grow much more quickly in the warmer and more protected environment. You can also sow mangetout pea 'Oregon Giant' and sugar peas such as 'Delikett' and 'Delikata' - directly into tunnel soil if you have space, or in large pots and containers - all for pea shoots now, taking two or three cuts of shoots then leaving to grow on in spring to produce pods. With a little warmth you can also still sow Italian giant flat leaf parsley which is hardier and has far better flavour than the curled varieties. 
Sow all seeds into modules thinly to avoid overcrowding, ensure good air circulation and good drainage in order to avoid possible 'damping off' diseases in the cooler autumn weather. Lettuce in particular can be very prone to disease now, so either sow individually - or thin carefully to the one strongest seedling without damaging others, as soon as they are big enough to handle. You can also sow directly into containers under cover. Be very careful not to over-water seedlings now, always water modules from underneath by sitting in water just for a few seconds if necessary, until you can feel the compost beginning to absorb it.  Watering modules from the top may also possibly encourage disease and damage vulnerable seedlings.
(* Sow early Oct.  ** Sow late Oct.)
You can also still plant rooted watercress cuttings in rich soil in a damp shady spot in the tunnel or outside under cloches - watercress is actually a perennial and will crop for a year or longer if fed, watered and picked regularly to prevent flowering. I take fresh cuttings of healthy plants every year in early autumn to provide my winter crops - removing it from the polytunnel and planting it elsewhere in a shady spot for summer. My current plants have been producing well for at least 10 years now!
Garlic cloves can be sown/planted now both outside and also in tunnels 
For a really early crop of big bulbs next year - choose firm, plump and healthy outside cloves from your this year's crop, or buy certified virus-free ones from garden centres - not supermarket bought bulbs which will most likely be unsuitable for this climate or may bring in diseases. Be careful to go through the packs in garden centres and choose the really plump firm ones. Don't buy any that feel soft, sunken or squashy as these have rotted and may be diseased. 'Christo' is weather resistant, reliable, a very good keeper and very hardy both inside and out which can also be spring planted, 'Thermidrome' and 'Marco are 'autumn planting' varieties which are both excellent for growing in the tunnel, where they produce huge bulbs planted now. Both have excellent flavour and are good keepers. All three are good in tunnels - whereas some varieties prefer outside only. The very centre cloves from the bulbs, which do not produce good bulbs later on, can be planted into pots to provide leafy green garlic shoots for cutting for salads etc. - rather than wasting them.
Saffron bulbs can still be planted - many companies have good value offers now as this is late to be planting them. Bulbs will flower this year and like many other bulbs may then take a year off - but if well-fed when in green leaf after flowering, they may not do this and will then flower as normal next year.
None of these are hard and fast rules, as the weather is so unpredictable now. Climates can vary widely in individual gardens and different parts of the country. You have to play it by ear depending on the conditions and you may need to adapt these instructions in order to take into account your particular garden micro-climate - it's aspect and soil, as well as current weather forecasts. Conditions can deteriorate suddenly at this time of year, and every garden is different.

Note on compost
I always use an organic peat-free seed compost for sowing all my seeds - Klasmann which is available from Fruit Hill Farm or from White's Agri in Lusk, here in Ireland.  It's an excellent, free draining compost for seedlings - I never lose any to 'damping-off' disease. Using peat composts causes the release of large amounts of carbon, which contributes to climate change, and destroys many plants which bees, insects and other creatures depend upon - thereby causing loss of biodiversity. Destroying peat bogs also leads to more flooding as bogs act like a giant sponge - absorbing water and then releasing it much more slowly into the environment.
Make a cropping plan and start to make rough drafts of your seed orders as soon as the catalogues arrive or are available online. Go through this year's remaining seeds to see what will still be good for sowing next year. This avoids duplication, over-buying and prevents potential waste.
Growing tips for October - as well as more information on seed varieties, growing fruit, wildlife gardening etc. can be found under the relevant diary entries for each month as they are added to the diary.
 (P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard-won experience. Thank you.)

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in September - 2018

 September contents: The joy of seasonal eating....."To everything there is a season".....Storing rich history!.....Why can't we buy a variety of fresh, local apples in shops - now and all year round?.....The fruits of memory.....It's time to order new apples and other tree fruits now!

Basket of mid-September windfalls shows  the diversity of some of the over 60 varieties of apples just starting to ripen here
The season of harvests! Mid-September windfall apples showing the amazing diversity of some of over 60 varieties of apples here


The joy of seasonal eating -"To everything there is a season"

 .... Autumn is such a gloriously fruitful season - full of Nature's abundant riches. "Mellow fruitfulness" to quote the poet - surrounds us everywhere!

As the seasons go round, they're punctuated by many firsts and lasts - some joys and also perhaps some regrets. But I have always been of the opinion that eating in tune with the seasons re-awakens our taste buds with each fresh delight - and makes us truly appreciate our food in a way that a year-round availability of everything never can. The height of summer gluts may be over and early autumn already here - but there's still an abundance of fruit in the garden, with apples and other tree fruits to pick and store for the winter - and also still soft fruit both outside and in the tunnels. There are plenty of autumn raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, cape gooseberries, grapes, late peaches, melons and figs again this year. In the polytunnel most of these will go on far longer than they would outside. In the tunnel they're also less at risk from the weather and they're more protected from birds - which naturally have the urge to gorge on fruit in order to store up as much energy as possible for the lean winter months ahead. Some fruits such as melons have such a brief season compared to many other fruits - but that makes them all the more longed for and valued for it!  Seasonal eating is the way Nature designed us to eat, really tasting and savouring every precious mouthful while it's at it's most nutritious best. Eating anything, in it's proper season and at it's very best, is one of life's most enriching experiences. 
I get enormous satisfaction from knowing that the food we eat here is grown completely without chemicals and without harming anything else that we share this planet with. I truly appreciate the multi-dimensional effort that Nature puts in - the bees, other pollinators and the multitude of biodiversity both above and below ground which make all of our food possible. There's a lot of talk about 'Food Empathy' lately and I'm not exactly sure what that actually means to some people. To me real food empathy is taking into account all the incredibly complex biodiversity that we share this earth with - at the same time as enjoying eating with the seasons. That's even more rewarding when I have the huge satisfaction of growing it organically myself and quite naturally eating seasonally!  
Very few people now seem to be strict about seasonal eating - which I prefer - unlike our forbears who had little choice but to eat what was available at the time!  Along with that though there's an increasing awareness of the nutritional, logistical, environmental and aesthetic problems of fruit and vegetable storage. I've seen many articles recently - on apples in particular - probably as it's the season for them. All year round consumption of imported, out of season, denatured, environmentally destructive chemically-grown apples is not for me. Or even organically grown ones come to that -  if they're flown in from all over the world!  (see my article on this here:  Apples imported from thousands of miles away can never be as healthy for us as they should be and they're certainly not healthy for the planet either, in terms of their carbon footprint - even if they're organic! Non-organic apples are sprayed with many synthetic systemic pesticides and fungicides, industrially-grown, picked when they're immature, often long before their proper season, washed and disinfected to be free of any naturally occurring bacteria on their skins, benign or otherwise and then often treated with a preservative fungicidal wax. This is purely in order that they survive longer in industrial, climate-controlled cold stores and subsequently on supermarket shelves. The early picking, denaturing post-harvest treatments and long storage, often before being flown halfway across the world, means that even the organically-grown ones are nutritionally depleted to start with - but it also means that they're virtually tasteless! 
Mid-morning snack on my daily walk around the new orchard - Scrumptious truly living up to it's name!
Those apples on supermarket shelves look so glossy and attractive - with their perfectly selected uniformity and convenient plastic packaging. Sadly though, the non-organic ones are hiding the dark secrets of their chemical carbon footprint beneath an blemish-free, cosmetically perfect exterior, just like Snow White's poisonous apple!  Too often even the organic ones are also imported from far away - even at this time of year when they should be easily available locally. We should be demanding more locally-grown, organic apples - or our choice will become even more restricted as orchards are grubbed out everywhere in favour of housing estates! The only alternative is to grow one or two trees ourselves. As I mention later - the kitchen gardeners of past centuries, who bred many of the apples still available today, were masters at producing and storing fruit in order to have a variety of tasty fruit for as long as possible - and we can still benefit from that wisdom and their skill - by preserving the varieties they bred and by asking for them or growing them today. But we don't have to just grow old varieties - many of the modern ones are excellent too and have been specifically bred for flavour, nutrients and disease resistance.  As I walked round the new orchard this morning I snacked on a delicious apple called Scrumptious - bred in the 1980s and high in antioxidant nutrients. Surely people would remember that name?! Perfectly ripe fruit, each kind eaten in it's own proper season, is one of life's greatest joys and Nature's greatest gifts to us - so let's enjoy our apples fresh, local and organically-grown while we can! 
My 'Scrumptious' mid morning snack - its name describes it
Storing rich history!
Most people are so far removed from their country origins now that very few consumers understand the reason why there are times when apples actually have to be stored - let alone know what a ripe apple picked straight off the tree tastes like!  Although absolutely nothing beats a perfectly-ripe apple picked straight off the tree - sadly apples don't grow all year round. If we want apples available all year - then even if they're locally grown, we do have to accept that some will be stored. Climate-controlled mass storage however, is as different to natural seasonal storage as supermarket shopping is to shopping at a local farmers market!  This morning as I walked around the orchard, I wished that many of you could be with me. I would so love to see your eyes light up at the colourful picture of genetic diversity and amazing history that all the trees represent - in just the same way that I saw people's faces alight with interest at the recent Totally Terrific Tomato Festival!  They are all different, each one with individual histories and fascinating stories to tell. In my new orchard - on the other side of our land well away from the hormone weedkiller spray drift that often affects my old orchard now - the trees are growing apace. Many of them are old friends which I remember from my childhood - growing up with 6 acres of orchards on the edge of the Vale of Evesham. That was definitely the roots of my apple addiction!  Of those sadly now long gone trees, many were also the same varieties which I planted here 35 years ago - in order to give us a good selection of apples for for as much of the year as possible. I only have about a month or so every year without some fesh or stored home-grown apples. That gap I fill with those preserved either by dehydrating or freezing. I have apples from the end of July until the following May in most years. Some of those that ripen in October will keep until until April or even mid-May. If these are carefully picked and stored like the treasures they are - they can then be eaten later on in winter along with comforting memories of balmy autumn weather! 

People often ask me "Why on earth do you grow so many varieties of apples?" -  My reply is that every year is different - and every apple variety is different too. A variety that does well one year, may not do so well in another due to the weather when they are flowering, or developing their small fruitlets later. The new orchard, which I started planting three years ago,  is also my insurance and investment for the future, as the old orchard on the other side of the property often gets hormone weedkiller spray drift in spring from my lovely chemical farmer neighbour - which causes all the flowers on the trees to abort and drop off before they flower in March and April. So hopefully having the two orchards on opposite sides of my 5 acres will ensure that I get a decent amount of apple each year - and apples are one fruit that I simply can't be without, having grown up among wonderful orchards. This year due to the hot weather and drought many of the young trees in the new orchard dropped their developing fruits - but the 35 year old trees, with far deeper roots, have still produced a decent enough crop. The normal 'June Drop' as it is known - sadly became a July drop as well on the younger trees - but I was determined not to water them, as they have to adapt and develop the root system they need to forage for themselves. That way they will be far hardier and more self-sustaining in the long run. It takes a few years for a new orchard to settle down - and next year we will hopefully get a better crop, as the hot weather also acted as a natural growth inhibitor and will have ripened the fruiting wood early - which will encourage flower and fruit production. 
In non-organic commercial orchards trees are often sprayed with chemical growth inhibitors like Cycocel to produce the same growth inhibiting effect! Yet another delightful additive to add to the long list of chemicals in the non-organic apple of consumers who think that they're eating something healthy!  Cycocel is the trade name for the chemical Chlormequat Chloride - a growth inhibitor used on cereals like wheat to shorten straw growth and prevent 'lodging'. It's also used on tomatoes, apples and other crops to encourage better fruiting. It is a known developmental and reproductive toxin in mammals! Would you really want to give your child a so-called healthy apple grown with such chemicals?
It's the apple season - so why can't we buy a variety of fresh, local apples in shops - now and all year round?
Tickled Pink apple, on tree - mid Sept.Tickled Pink, almost ripe, on the tree mid Sept.


Nowadays the only apples available in supermarkets are almost without exception tough-skinned, tasteless, sugary sweet varieties like Gala or Pink Lady. These bear so little resemblance to the apples I grew up eating from our own orchard that they might as well been grown on the moon! And frankly most taste like they have been!! Primarily this has a lot to do with new breeding programmes, often in the USA, and promotion of patented varieties - which I won't go into here or you'd be reading this for a month! They're bred for high production, uniformity of shape, disease-resistance and consumer 'eye appeal'! They're rarely for flavour! Very few have the complex, aromatic flavours and character of the older varieties - or even some of the newer, less popular ones. Even Braeburn - a new, very tasty variety from New Zealand - has very little flavour when grown non-organically, picked immature before it is properly ripe, purely in order to meet supermarket specifications, then stored for months or even years in climate-controlled warehouses in an almost cryogenic-like suspension!   
 Tickled Pink apple, has fabulous crimson flesh colour & tastes of cherries!Tickled Pink has flesh of a fabulous crimson colour & tastes of sour cherries!
Occasionally, one of the supermarkets may have an English Apple promotion for a week or so in the autumn and you may find the odd russet if you're lucky. So many people are put off by the rough brownish colour and have no idea what they taste like, that you often see them lingering on the shelves. And anyway - as I've already mentioned  - these won't have developed their proper, very distinctive flavours because they're picked well before they're ripe. Yet when eaten in their natural season and fully ripe - varieties like Egremont Russett or Ashmead's Kernel have some of the most complex, richly-aromatic flavours imaginable!  With no doubt the complex phytochemicals to match - since that's where their aromatic flavours originate. My mouth waters just thinking of them! It will be another couple of weeks before the first of my russets - Egremont Russet is properly ripe - and yet only yesterday I read on Twitter that some supermarkets are selling them already. What an abomination! No wonder they taste bitter and foul - with nothing like the sun-warmed, sweet spiciness that they should have! Luckily some of these older varieties are still available in a few farmer's markets - and trees are also increasingly available from good fruit tree nurseries and a few of the better garden centres. 
With that I'm not saying that all new varieties are bad - they're not. There are some really terrific new, non-GM varieties being naturally bred now for specific qualities like higher amounts of desirable antioxidant phytonutrients and disease-resistance. The new high-anthocyanin phytochemical variety Tickled Pink is one such example. It has delicious crimson flesh which tastes amazingly of sour cherries!  For those like me - who like a more tart and less sweet apple - it is delicious when really ripe but it also makes an excellent cooker - it makes spectacular Tarte Tatins!  Red Devil is another high antioxidant variety with red stained creamy crisp flesh and is a fabulous-tasting, heavy-cropping, disease-resistant variety which picked in early October will keep in normal cold home storage until Christmas most years and is perfect for organic growing. It's also an excellent pollinator for other varieties, as being a flowering group 3 cultivar, it will pollinate those varieties which are in the groups either side of it's flowering season and will overlap with it's flowering time. What more could you ask? 

Another complaint is about about apples being stored. People want them fresh-picked and local all year round - an unrealistic expectation that shows just how far removed many are now from understanding food plants as our ancestors did.  All year round availability of everything has destroyed so much valuable  knowledge of seasonal food. Apples have been stored since humans first discovered they could be - there's archaeological evidence of that up to 10,000 years old. Animals have also always stored apples and other fruit for the winter - and since we're basically animals, we've probably always done that too!  There are literally thousands of varieties of apples suitable for growing in various parts of the UK, with fruit that can be picked from July to the end of October and stored, or which have to be eaten immediately. Later maturing varieties of apples have to be stored in order to preserve them. Many varieties that are picked in late October go on developing slowly in storage and are only at their best after Christmas or even later. In the old walled kitchen gardens of great houses the gardeners were artists at knowing when each of the hundreds of varieties they grew would be at it's individual unique and perfect stage for picking and storage. Something which one only learns from experience They had to be experts - for their masters demanded a selection of perfectly preserved fruit to be available all year round. In Victorian times great pride was taken in growing many different varieties of fruit. No dinner party in a great house would be complete without a display and discussion of the various merits of particular apple varieties. They were treated as the delicacies which they are - not thoughtlessly taken for granted like so much mass produced fodder - as they are now. Apples have individual characters. Every variety is different - just like people. That's what makes them so fascinating and varied. That difference also means that they're not all suitable for certain climates or particular soils and may even behave and taste differently in different years.
There may perhaps be some people who want apples to predictably taste the same all year round or they may only ask for one particular apple because perhaps that's the only variety they know the name of.  That is another reason why named varieties can tend to disappear - but that is to lose so much of the joy of their fantastic diversity. Even our grandparents knew far more varieties by name than people do now. Just in the same way that you can have cheap mass-produced, processed food that will sit on your shelf for months and still taste exactly the same - you can have cheap, mass-produced apples, stored for months or even years!  And they'll be just about as nutritious! Apples don't come off assembly lines and don't grow to order. They don't 'die' when they're picked - depending on the temperature and humidity at which they're stored, their cells go on functioning normally, powered by energy which they have stored from the sun, so that they continue developing slowly - they go on breathing and changing. They're also affected by prevailing weather conditions - which are different every year and becoming more so with the uncertainties of climate change. In a poor year weather-wise, some varieties may not fruit at all, if the weather is bad when they're flowering - tough if that's your favourite variety!  Another recent problem can be the proximity of orchards to spray drift from neighbouring fields. With modern more efficient vapourising sprayers this is an increasing problem and one I often suffer from here. The vapour can carry a very long way and can badly affect any flowering plants like fruit trees at flowering time. Hormone weedkiller sprays make sensitive blossom abort and drop off - that's how it's designed to work - so again no apples! Yet another and even more worrying problem is the accelerating decline of bees and other insects so vital for fruit tree pollination. Again this is mainly due to the chemicals used in industrial agriculture and also destruction of habitat. In China they are already having to individually pollinate blossom on thousands of trees by hand! Perhaps OK for them - since they've got plenty of cheap labour - but how much would such apples cost here? How many people would be prepared to pay the price for that fruit? 
One of the last Thomas Rivers Nursery cataloguesOne of the last Thomas Rivers Nursery catalogues which I have here
The consumer does have to bear some responsibility for for less choice of local varieties, along with the demise of old orchards with their far more varied and tastier fruits that were never sole in supermarkets! Many have disappeared along with all their old varieties - often locally discovered and named. This has been caused by the rise in supermarket shopping, the demand for ever cheaper food, the requirement for uniform shapes and sizes for packing and for varieties that look more attractive and appealing as I've already mentioned!  Many of the old orchards were in traditional market-gardening areas supplying large cities like London - and as surrounding land became increasingly valuable, it was more worthwhile selling it than to try to keep uneconomic old orchards going! The same thing happened to many of the large fruit tree nurseries. A famous, relatively recent case was Thomas Rivers Nursery of Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire. Founded in 1725 - the nursery only closed it's doors for the very last time in 1986. I have one of their last catalogues pictured here from 1980/81 - which I got when I was ordering trees and planning for what I now call the 'old orchard'. (I read fruit catalogues like others read novels!)  Another reason for orchards and old varieties disappearing is that labour became far more expensive after the two World Wars - so that many of the newer varieties that have been developed since are bred to grow more uniformly and to be more suitable for growing in different ways which facilitate mechanical harvesting. Some old varieties like the small, aromatically perfumed Cornish Gillyflower for instance - which was discovered in a Cornish cottage garden in 1800 - would be totally unsuitable for this kind of production. It's what is known as a 'tip-bearing' apple, fruiting only on the very end tips of branches. If it was pruned in the more labour-saving, mechanical way as modern orchards, then it would hardly ever produce any apples at all! Added to that if you saw it in a shop - unless you knew what an absolute jewel you were looking at - you wouldn't buy it! It's quite knobbly and unattractive compared to some more modern varieties - but it's flavour is absolutely incomparable!   
As you can see then - it's not quite as simple as 'an apple is just an apple'! Like everything else in nature - it's a little bit more complicated than that. I've only outlined a few of the reasons here for the tasteless apples available in shops now. There is an awful lot more involved than just picking an apple off a tree! 
So what can we do about it?  Here's some suggestions. Support local community orchards, volunteer in, or start, community orchards. Find organic growers and see if you can buy direct from them or at farmers markets. Plant a tree or two yourself. You could grow one in even the smallest garden, if you have any outside space at all. You don't even need soil - trees can be grown on the highly productive M26 rootstock in large containers. Visit the National apple collection at Brogdale and try a few varieties - their apple day and many others are coming up soon. You could even buy traditional storing varieties in bulk from pick-your-own orchards and store them. Now there's an ideal opportunity for an enterprising organic grower! A lovely, tasty apple day out - learning how to correctly pick and store your own apples!


The fruits of memory

Really good fruit of all kinds has always been a great passion for me - but especially orchard fruits like apples, pears and plums. My father was a keen pomologist (or fruit enthusiast) and a bit of an expert on apple varieties in particular. He loved his orchards and passed his great love of all fruit on to me. Where I was lucky enough to grow up, we had a large garden where every conceivable kind of fruit was grown - much of it planted in the late 19th century. We were also surrounded by it - living close to the famous fruit growing area of the Vale of Evesham. In addition we had wider family with Cider apple and Perry pear orchards - farming on the Welsh borders in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. So I am steeped fruit-growing history and apples are in my DNA! The names of some of those apples were probably some of the first words I ever learnt!  I have vivid memories of my father up at the very top of a huge old wooden ladder picking crisp Conference pears, or Victoria plums as big as duck eggs from trees that seemed as tall as a house to a small girl. I remember him lifting me up to look at the nest a robin had made under the lid of an old iron pump by some dilapidated old farm buildings, down in the dip where the ancient damson trees grew. The Worcester Pearmain tree where my pet spaniel jumped over a fence onto a sharp scythe and cut her paw deeply - my father instantly finding cobwebs in the old stable to staunch the blood flow temporarily, before rushing her to the vets to get it stitched. The huge old Blenheim Orange apple tree that grew beside the beautiful brick pig sties - it's orange and yellow striped, crisply aromatic apples so enormous that I had to hold them with both hands to try to bite into them, while watching November 5th bonfires! - So many colourful and fruitful memories!  It's lovely to know that the Blenheim Orange tree growing in my orchard now is actually carrying fruit growing on branches from that very same tree. It has to be - since named varieties can only be propagated using wood from that precise variety!
Sadly the orchards where I played as a child - during sunny and warm autumn days that seemed to last forever - are all gone forever, like so many of the great orchards of England. I can still picture it all in my mind though - still grow those varieties and enjoy those precious memories. I love carrying on that tradition and passing it on in turn to my children. They don't mind helping to harvest - when they can enjoy eating it too! I was especially thrilled a few days ago when my son remarked that my apple cake tasted so good - and asked me if the 'Grenadier' cooking apple that we'd recently picked together was in it?  Like me- they've absorbed the names of them without even realising it - and are also beginning to know something of their history and origins too, just as I did. Like many other ancient food crops - there is so much history in apples. From the earliest varieties that would have been brought from Eastern Europe by the Romans - the first to discover the art of budding and grafting specific varieties - down through countless generations. Monks in Medieval monasteries who brought 'new' improved varieties like the Old Pearmain, brought from France in the early 13th century and those skilled kitchen gardeners of the great houses, or self-sufficient cottagers, who thought a particular apple that they might have grown from a pip was so good that it was worth propagating. All of these people passed down so many wonderful varieties to us, their heirs, in the present day. I am so grateful that they did! 
 Walking in my orchards I feel surrounded by history. I really love that by growing old heritage varieties of apple - I am almost touching hands with that history and connecting with those former apple lovers throughout the centuries and even the trees I used to climb as a child! Fanciful you may think? No - their DNA is exactly the same! This is because any specific named variety of apple can only be propagated by grafting a shoot from that tree onto a new rootstock. That means that all of the apples that we picking today from any variety are from branches that are simply long continuations of the same branches that former gardeners nurtured and enjoyed, just as we do! It's vitally important that we preserve what's left of our old orchards and preserve the wonderful history and also genetic diversity in them all. At some point in the future - given the challenges we may face with increasing climate change, the genes in some variety may be useful in breeding programmes as it may have resistance to some as yet unknown pest or disease. 
Old Pearmain - one of the oldest known varieties. Grown in the UK & France since 1200. Picked in October, it ripens in December and keeps until March.
Old Pearmain - one of the oldest known varieties. Grown in UK & France since 1200. Picked in Oct, ripening in Dec - keeping until March. 
It's time to order new apples and other tree fruits now!
This year has been a fantastic year for most fruit despite the drought which in some areas was worse than others, so you should have plenty if you have fruit trees. If not - then you may decide you'd like to grow one?  If you're not busy picking and storing all your fruit right now - then get busy with ordering fruit catalogues - or doing orders so you'll have some next year. It's all incredibly good for you and so expensive in the shops - most of which is disappointingly inedible! There's still plenty of time to get fruit planted which will crop next year - but the sooner you do it the better. If you can't find good varieties in garden centres on the right rootstock - then look up good fruit nurseries online. Their catalogues are a mine of good, free information and if you order now when many have pre-season offers - you'll be at the front of the queue when it comes to early autumn lifted fruit trees like apples and plums.That way you'll get better bare-root trees etc. which will be sent out starting at the end of next month and throughout the winter. If you get them early you'll have time to get them planted while the soil is still warm and hopefully in good condition. 
Getting fruit trees planted early means they'll get a real head start on anything planted into cold wet soil in late winter or early next spring. The young trees will have a few months then when they can just concentrate on their root development without trying to support new top growth too - and I can't tell you what a difference that will make to them and their future cropping potential - particularly if you're planting on a difficult or windy site like mine, or on a new allotment for example. If you start them off in spring, life will be a constant battle for them - in effect they'll be trying to run way before they can walk!  It's almost like the difference between starting a child at school for the first time with all the others at the beginning of the autumn term - or starting them at the beginning of January - it can take them a very long time to catch up!
If you don't want to plant bare-root trees, some nurseries and garden centres may have a good selection of varieties on M26 rootstocks.....Warning! If the rootstock isn't stated - then don't buy the trees or they may be a complete disaster!  In Ireland I find Johnstown Garden Centre particularly good - excellent, informative and knowledgeable customer service from Jim and Oliver there and it's not too far from me as it's in County Kildare. Their trees are grown in peat-free compost and are excellent quality. They also do mail order and have a very good (sadly far too tempting!) website. I also found Deacons Nursery on the Isle of Wight good for sourcing old varieties mail order - that's where I got the trees for my original orchard - but sadly they have closed down lately - another casualty of people not choosing to grow the older, lesser- known but valuable varieties. I also find Ken Muir relaible in the UK. I only recommend nurseries which I know and have had good service from. I don't recommend Nurseries that I don't know or have had bad experiences with! There are naturally many other reputable and reliable suppliers - but also a few duds with poor customer service and trees which are often not the varieties they are supposed to be - despite surprisingly glossy websites! One or two also have very pushy emailing habits!  I won't elaborate!
Remember - growing anything that you can for yourself, especially something which you can store, will give some food security. And with headlines in the Guardian newspaper today warning of possible food shortages - especially of fresh foods, in the event of a no deal Brexit - this is fast becoming an increasingly likely possibility. And asnyway - no matter on how small a scale you grow - whether it's just in a window box or on an allotment - it's always cheaper, far better and far fresher than buying it!
 - Right now I'm off to tackle some more of the apple mountain battered and thrown down by Storm Alli.  Even though many are bruised and have been torn far too early from the trees, so they won't store - they can still be used by processing in many ways and freezing. Good organic cooking apples are very difficult to find any time - let alone in late winter - so they are still valuable and I'll be very glad I made the effort!
 (P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard-won experience. Thank you.)

The Vegetable Garden in September - 2018

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel ....................

....Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
(John Keats)
September contents:   'Winter-proof' soil NOW - before bad weather!.....The secret to growing healthy vegetables or healthy flowers isn't a secret!.....Heavy manure rant!......More seeds to save before other creatures help themselves!.....Out with the old...... And in with the new - Potatoes for Christmas and New Year crops......Colourful crops bursting with health!.....Beware of bringing in the dreaded onion white rot!
Leeks interplanted with lettuce. In the foreground are Oriental radishes & Chinese cabbage Scarlette
Leeks inter-planted with lettuce. In the foreground Oriental radishes & Chinese cabbage Scarlette - keeping the soil well-covered.
The hot summer seems to have left us in a hurry again - it's quite cold this morning and feeling very 'autumn-y'! The misty evenings also suddenly seem to have drawn in quickly. The robins are already singing their sweet winter songs quietly as I work in the garden, just as in Keats evocative poem. Around these parts, there is also still a more modern sound - the constant drone of combine harvesters and tractors working frantically day and night - and there's an air of urgency to get the last of the crops in. Now that the Tomato Festival is over, frantic harvesting of crops and storing some of them for less abundant winter times is the main priority here too! Potatoes are the priority currently - as every year, as soon as the last of the crops in the fields surrounding us are harvested - creatures that were out there all summer start looking for alternative sources of food and can decimate root crops left in the ground. Every rodent in the neighbourhood seems to move en-masse into the garden to picnic as soon as all the wheat fields behind us are harvested - so time is of the essence! 
Chinese cabbage Scarlette halved - showing it's stunning heart
Chinese cabbage Scarlette halved - showing it's stunning heart
Most of the winter tunnel crops have been sown now and are growing on steadily. Soon the darker evenings will bring time to sit down with the seed catalogues and plan new and exciting things to grow for next year - like the Chinese cabbage 'Scarlette' pictured here. There's a few slug holes in the outside of these due to me being very busy with the tomato festival stuff and not checking for slugs - but anyway slug holes don't affect the nutrition, and the unusual, deep pink, sweetly delicious hearts are unaffected. It was an experimental crop for me a couple of years ago ear and it's a real find! Like most Chinese cabbage - it's a bit of a martyr to cabbage root-fly if you don't keep it tightly under fine netting all the time - but it's worth the trouble! And it's so beautiful and delicious raw in salads that it seems almost a shame to cook it!
The main priority now is to get the remains of the summer crops cleared and finish planting any autumn and winter crops not yet in, while the soil is still in good enough condition to work. Even in my newer raised beds, my heavy clay soil has taken a couple of years to become really humus-rich and workable most of the time. It must not be worked if it's wet and sticky, so time is of the essence! Winter salads in the two new beds being planted now just get a very light dressing of well rotted compost. Before growth slows up too much the plants will take up those nutrients so that they can't wash away in heavy winter rain. My original soil is a neutral to acid very heavy County Meath clay, with a pH of about 6-6.5, but it quickly improves with mulching in the summer to protect the structure and light dressings of good compost before planting. Once a year it gets a light dressing of calcified seaweed to provide a slow acting calcium to raise the pH slightly - doing this encourages worms and helps plants to access all the nutrients they need. It also supplies valuable trace elements and is gentle on all soil organisms and plants  


'Winter-proof' Soil NOW - before bad weather!

If you have winter crops in the vegetable garden with a lot of bare soil between them - why not grow a cover crop between them? Perhaps inter-crop with something fast-growing like lettuce, Oriental salad mixes, baby leaf spinach or even radishes.  This protects and covers soil - studies show that doing this helps to stop nutrients leaching and being lost in heavy autumn rains and may also give you a useful crop from your space instead of just hoeing to keep weeds down. I always grow lettuce or spinach between leeks as you can see in the picture above. Until the leeks are quite large they have a very upright habit - so the two crops don't interfere with each other in any way by competing or grabbing each other's light. 
At this time of year - most people are starting to clear and compost remains of crops which have finished. They then often tend to leave ground bare all winter - which is not how Nature does it!  Nature knows better - and will already be trying to grow lots of weed cover to replace what was there. The soil is so warm now after the summer that if you have any empty space in vegetable beds which won't be used over the winter - it's a very good idea to sow some fast growing green manures now wherever you can - there's still plenty of time for them to grow well before growth slows up dramatically at the end of next month. A cover crop like clover will also add valuable nutrients to the soil via the nitrogen-fixing nodules on it's roots. Other green manures take up any nutrients left in the soil after crops, and hold onto these - stopping nutrient loss and possible leaching. Green manures will feed worms too, which are still very active, and as they're broken down by worms they'll add humus to the soil. Humus is the sticky 'glue' of decaying plant materials which feeds the billions of vital soil microorganisms and prevents soil erosion by literally 'sticking' soil together. Adding soluble chemical fertilisers to soil doesn't do this and also adversely affect soil dwelling microbes. Chemical fertilisers and also pesticides kill some of the microbial life that turns plant remains into humus and by doing that cause the soil to become impoverished - with crops 'mining' of any remaining humus in the soil until there's no longer any left. Then the soil becomes lifeless and devoid of all the vital microorganisms needed to interact with plant roots and feed healthy plants. The absence of humus also gradually causes soil erosion, as the lifeless mineral dust that remains no longer has humus to hold it together - so it washes away more easily - eventually ending up in rivers and seas. In dry climates this can even cause the dry soil dust to be blown literally thousands of miles around the globe - possibly carrying a cargo of pesticides too. Remember the Sahara dust many years ago that appeared in Ireland? 
All around the world now you can see the increasingly disastrous effects of of this type of 'soil abuse' - the world is losing fertile, carbon-fixing topsoil at an extremely dangerous rate, due mainly to the soil damage caused by intensive chemical agriculture.  In the hotter countries of the world the effects can be seen even more quickly - where ground is cleared of native forest and precious biodiversity is lost in order to produce food for a greedy, developed world wanting more and more meat or other crops like palm oil. A world that wastes so much unwanted food without a thought - since almost half of all food currently produced in the world is actually wasted!! 
Long before we run out of oil or even clean water - we will run out of soil to grow food crops. If we keep pouring on artificial man made chemicals - what is left will be devoid of all the essential life it needs to sustain healthy crops!  Soil health is vital to human health - that's how Nature designed it. Hydroponic farms where crops are fed with solutions of chemicals are not the answer - they can't produce the naturally healthy food that nature intended us to eat. But in our own gardens - there IS something we can each personally do about it! 
A healthy soil which has all the right nutrients for the plant to choose from, with the right structure and pH to enable the plant to use them will produce a healthy plant - whether it's a vegetable or any other type of plant. And healthy plants makes healthy food for healthy people! I often hear people say things like "Oh I don't grow vegetables - I don't know anything abut them - I just grow herbs or flowers".  Vegetables are just plants - like any other plant - they just happen to be plants that we like to eat!  Growing them well is no different to growing any other plant well. It's just purely a matter of learning the environment that each type of plant needs in order to be happy and healthy - and that includes what particular type of soil each prefers. Healthy, naturally-grown plants feed healthy animals and people and they also don't attract as many pests!  Organic gardeners need to understand what plants need in order to grow them successfully. And organic gardening isn't just about growing vegetables - it's about growing everything naturally - working with nature and trying to achieve a healthy ecologically balanced environment within your soil as well as above ground in the wider garden. 
The secret to growing healthy vegetables or healthy flowers isn't a secret! 
Just feed your soil and it's microbial community naturally - as Nature would. If you feed your plants directly with man made chemicals - at the same time you're both poisoning soil microbes and starving them to death!  Green manures are an easy and valuable way to do this. Make sure that you do your homework though, and consult your garden plan (you should have one!) to decide on the green manure you might want to use - in order to ensure that it fits into your minimum 4 year rotations. The 'Caliente' mustard, for instance - so helpful in improving the soil after tomatoes - and which I've mentioned several times when talking about green manures is a brassica - so this must be taken into account when deciding where to use it. It is a very effective way to clean up soil after tomato crops - but you wouldn't for instance want to use it where you're planning to grow other brassicas (cabbage family) next year, as I unbelievably saw one organic gardening 'expert' recommending!  Red clover, lupins and winter tares are nitrogen fixing legumes which 'fix', or absorb, 'free' nitrogen out of the air - so they would actually be a far better choice. But again - don't use those where you want to grow peas and beans next year - do you get the picture? Otherwise you will have potential pests and diseases all 'tee'd up' (in 'golfspeak'), already 'on the starting blocks' and ready to go early next year! There's plenty of catalogues online if you 'Google' green manure seeds - and they're full of really good free information - so I won't go into it all here.
All it takes to grow green manures is a minimal bit of planning. They are well worth the very little trouble they are to grow and they increase biological activity hugely in your soil. The populations of worms and smaller microbial life will massively increase, making soil much healthier. Contrary to what many people think - worms like green food to eat - just like us. The reason you see so many in manure and compost is because they've already been there for a while at that stage, chomping away on any edible green bits and breeding like mad! When plant remains have been processed by worms, they are full of beneficial bacteria and something like 9 times richer in nutrients like potash than they were before - which is a stunning statistic! So worms are really your best friends - do all you can to encourage and feed them. If you're continuously using your soil for food crops and won't be leaving any 'fallow' just to grow green manures, then having a home worm bin is a very valuable adjunct to the garden. What it produces is so much richer in nutrients than the contents of your compost heap - and it also adds beneficial microbes, fungi and enzymes to the soil.
Green manures also increase carbon in the soil - sequestering  (holding onto) soil carbon as opposed to releasing it into the atmosphere as bare soil does. They protect the mineral surface of the soil and stop it washing away in heavy rain.  If you cover the softer green manures like mustard after they get hit by the first frosts - the worms will gradually draw the rotting plant material down into the soil over the winter - leaving a lovely 'tilth' as it's called. Tilth is 'garden speak' for a nice crumbly surface and just the sort of place that if you were a seed - you'd really like to be sown! This fine tilth is perfect for sowing the root crops which would naturally follow brassicas in the classic four course rotation. Get your worms to do free work for you in return for their food - it's a win/win situation!  Some people advocate covering soil with heavy layers of wood chips but unless your soil is already very rich in soluble nitrogen, or you mix them with a high nitrogen manure like chicken litter, they can rob your soil of nitrogen as the wood chips need it in order to break down - and this can unbalance the soil environment. Dumping loads of compost or manure on top of the soil and leaving it is equally as bad! Nature doesn't dump loads of anything in one go - it does things very gradually over time. There are no 'quick fixes' in Nature - but there are some very quick ways to ruin precious soil - so take care of yours!  
Heavy manure rant! 
The other thing I've seen some people advocating is to dump heavy loads of manure or compost onto your garden and just leaving it uncovered over the winter. This is so totally irresponsible and selfish that it makes me extremely angry! The last thing you should ever do is to cover your soil with farmyard manure, or a heavy layer of compost and leave it open to the elements for any length of time - let alone all winter!  This time last year I was contacted by someone who said that I was completely wrong to tell people that they shouldn't cover ground with manure or compost at this time of year and leave it uncovered all winter!  This was because a particular 'expert', who does it had, said that it was perfectly OK to do so, as leaching of nutrients did not actually happen, and that a lot of organic people had got it wrong! (And presumably all the many scientific studies which have also found the same to be the case!) 
The 'expert' also apparently stated that if nutrients were lost by leaching, then the earth would never have grown anything, would be completely barren and life wouldn't exist - so that proved that leaching didn't happen.  Sorry to disagree - but that's complete rubbish! That attempt at justification really does not hold water!! (sorry for the pun!)  Leaching of nutrients, whether they are natural or chemical, will happen over time if there's nothing growing to 'mop up' the nutrients and if the soil, or surface of the manure covering it, is left open to the weather. The fact that the expert's crops apparently still grew well the following year, without adding more nutrients as apparently stated - even though compost and manure had been left uncovered - is perhaps more a testament to the horrendous amount of compost/manure probably used in the first place!  In other words - that in spite of the undoubted leaching into groundwater which would definitely have taken place - there were still enough nutrients left in the underlying soil to sustain crops. That however is NOT proof that leaching doesn't happen - as stated!  I personally worry about the waste of valuable nutrients, the wider environment, pollution of groundwater, water courses, rivers and of course wells - which many of us have in Ireland. This is happening all over the world and the pollution is destroying life in the oceans too with algal blooms etc! The Great Barrier Reef is dying and experts now think that it is mainly due to artificial fertilisers - phosphates in particular - leaching and eventually polluting seawater. We may not think that our little bit makes any difference - but all those little bits add up to a lot of pollution on a larger scale! Think globally but act locally as the Greens mantra has always said.
organic growing tries in every way possible to work along with Nature, to grow crops in a sustainable way,  damaging the earth and all the precious life that inhabits it as little as possible.  We shouldn't just selfishly focus on how well my own crops grow now, without giving a damn about the health of the wider environment - because that eventually affects us anyway - perhaps in the lack of availability of certain species of fish for instance. As I'm always saying - everything is connected! I think that the majority of organic gardeners care about biodiversity and the wider environment too - and don't just care about not eating chemicals in their food. Growing crops and gardening generally is not a totally natural activity anyway - man invented it many thousands of years ago. 
It's man that causes soil disturbance, damage and degradation - erosion, nutrient loss and pollution. Only man that takes more than he needs, causing food waste, carbon loss, leaching of nutrients and also methane emissions when food waste is dumped. Nature doesn't pollute and thoughtlessly dump rubbish everywhere like humans - it continually recycles everything quite naturally - but gradually. Have you ever watched how a cowpat changes quickly over time? - a classic example. Along comes a whole community of creatures to start on the recycling job immediately!  That Nature abhors a vacuum is a very true saying. It has evolved a perfect system, which never leaves soil bare where there is even the minutest amount of nutrient - Nature covers soil with plants if it can - not manure or compost! Even when it covers the soil with leaves in the autumn - the trees have withdrawn the nutrients from the leaves before they fall - that is why we have autumn colour. It is also why leaf mould is high in carbon but lacking in nutrients - as that is how Nature ensures that leaf mould doesn't pollute or leach nutrients. 
So Nature has it all beautifully worked out because Nature invented it  - or rather - evolved it - so that's no surprise!  Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of ecology surely knows that! They also know that something will grow in even the most unlikely or impossible of niches. Look at environments such as the limestone pavement of the Burren in the West of Ireland for instance, or the Arctic, where even the tiniest amount of soil will have something growing in it. Even apparently barren deserts will spring to abundant colourful life after rain. The only places on this planet that are completely barren are where pollution and soil degradation have been caused by the activities of man.  Anyone can see how leaching happens after heavy rain - in Ireland we have plenty of opportunity to observe that - with fish kills happening regularly in rivers and the water in some places so undrinkable that people are now having to rely on bottled water! So I will continue to cover my soil either with a green manure or crop, or even compost covered with polythene - (if I will need that bed early in the year). I have seen with my own eyes precious nutrients leaching out of it if compost or manure is left uncovered for any length of time. 
The old fashioned way of leaving bare ground open to the weather may undoubtedly give you a very nice frost-induced tilth in the spring, but is that any justification for selfishly ignoring possible pollution worries? I think not!  Frost here is becoming more rare and wetter winters are becoming the norm with increasing climate change. I rest my case! 

More seeds to save before other creatures help themselves!

Another thing that needs to be done at this time of year is seed saving, before dried out seeds get damp again and possibly go mouldy -  or little furry creatures help themselves to them!  You can save seeds of any non-F1 hybrid varieties of anything - it's fun to try and enormously satisfying to grow things from your home saved seed. Always store seed in envelopes or paper bags. I never put seeds in the fridge as recommended by some books - mine is far too damp! I've always had great success with just keeping them in a very cool room.  I find that my home-saved seed lasts for years, far longer than commercially produced seed, and it saves a lot of money. Don't do what I did though a few years ago - and put them in a safe place - then promptly forget where that is!
Mouse damage of precious Purple Podded peas - the joys of seed saving...Mouse damage of precious Purple Podded peas - the joys of seed saving!
A few years ago I finally managed to find the 'Duke of Albany' Victorian pea seeds which I'd put in a safe place (fatal in my case as I've mentioned!)  It's an old-fashioned very tall and tasty, main-crop pea - an incredibly rare variety and not available anywhere. I grew it in the tunnel a few years ago and when I went to collect the seed, all the mice had left me was just one pod, containing 6 seeds! Anyway, when I eventually found those 6 in the 'safe place'!  I sowed them - this time into a large pot which I then brought into the tunnel to ripen safely. From those 6 seeds - I had 122.  I was thrilled!  Enough for a 15ft/5m row in the garden this year (about 70 seeds) while making sure I have enough to carry over to next year if any of next year's seed gets robbed!  I now never sow all of any very rare variety, as an insurance against total loss. This winter I shall put the D of A with the rest of my rare seed, in an old cake tin with holes punched in - rather than in that safe place where mice got them before!!    


Out with the old -

The next job is to finish lifting all the potatoes that were covered after blight hit. It was almost 2 months later than the last couple of years due to the hot dry summer - so despite not being able to water them much there's a good crop underneath what's left of them that we haven't yet eaten!. The tops or haulms were taken off, and they were covered with black polythene to stop the blight spores washing down through the soil onto the tubers, which is what actually rots them. Since then I've just been digging them as needed. They won't survive the rodents though and will just encourage slugs now - so I'll lift them all over the next few days, wash them, dry them well and then store them in black plastic dustbins in the feed shed. Over the years I've found this much the best way of keeping them, first putting either an old brown feed bag or a thick wodge of newspaper in the bottom to absorb any moisture and more on top under the lid to catch condensation. Being in the shed keeps the light and frost out of them - much easier and more reliable than an earth clamp - though not as evocative I grant you! Over the winter I'll lift the lids every so often and inspect them - even early varieties will keep well all winter this way. Always make sure they're well dried off first though, and have absolutely no damp clay on them. 

And in with the new! Potatoes for Christmas and New Year crops 

We're looking forward to a festive treat for the taste buds! Over the years I've found the old-fashioned Duke of York and Sharpe's Express to be the best for producing Christmas new potatoes - but I've also had great success with Mayan gold - which is delicious-flavoured and also Lady Christl too.  I love experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what's possible. They were all tubers held back from last year's crops that were not planted in spring. I kept them very cool - though not in the fridge, in an unused room with no heating, and just lightly covered a the crate they were in with cloth - rather than polythene which would sweat. I think the seed companies who have potato tubers for Christmas planting probably keep them in cold storage - but they look nearly as wrinkled as mine, so they're definitely last year's crop! No matter - as long as they're alive - potatoes are always mad keen to grow. I planted some on 22nd August, and a few more a couple of weeks later. 
All an early or second early potato needs to have some sort of crop underneath it is no frost and 10-12 weeks of growing, and at this time of year after that they'll just be 'ticking over' anyway. As soon as frost threatens I'll bring them in to the coolest end of the tunnel, where they'll be covered with fleece if it's very cold. Last year It tried Violetta which I grew for the first time 3 years ago and saved seed from this spring. After lifting the spring crop, I'd put them in a pot ready to take into the shed an then promptly forgot them! The other day I discovered them in their pot still sitting waiting for me on a seat in the garden bless them - but now sprouting because of the rain! Not wanting to disappoint them - I've now potted them up! I think they should do well. I grow several different types of purple potatoes now as they have so many health benefits due to the anthocyanins they contain which gives them their wonderful colour. They're also delicious!
Other crops

I lifted the last of the garlic a couple of weeks ago. The variety 'Cristo' is one which I always grow every year as I find it the most reliable, even in a very wet year. You can plant Cristo in autumn or spring - but I find late October/November best for the biggest bulbs. 'Thermidrome' is another very good variety for autumn planting - but that seems to prefer the warmth of the tunnel - where it makes absolutely massive bulbs. Both of them are really good strong flavoured bulbs. I really can't see any point in growing mild garlic - just use less! The house rule here is you can never have too much garlic in anything - except when the pesto is so strong it burns your mouth - which has been known to happen just occasionally! I shall save the biggest outside cloves from the outside of the largest, healthiest looking bulbs to plant in a few weeks time - and so the cycle begins again. They'll be in the shops soon - so keep an eye out for them!
Lettuce planted after cabbage cleared - garlic will be planted in OctoberLettuce planted after cabbage cleared - garlic will be planted in October
I've planted several different varieties of lettuce over the last couple of weeks. I like to have lots of different salads all year round - I get bored with just one variety. I always tend to plant alternate 'heading' and 'loose leaf' lettuces so that I can pick the heads, leaving the others to keep on producing for as long as possible. In this bed are 'Little Gem', a good crispy loose leaf variety called 'Fristina', a butterhead and good old 'Lollo Rossa' - which I always find is quite hardy. When any heading ones have been cut, next year's garlic crop will be planted between the remaining loose-leaf lettuce which crops for longer. This makes continuous use of the space in a way that I call 'layered cropping'. 'Inter-cropping' or 'catch cropping' doesn't really describe it well enough for me. It's a bit like layering bulbs with a continuity of herbaceous plants in a border. There's usually a 2,3 or 4 variety continuity of overlapping crops in all my beds if possible. It isn't really as complicated as it sounds, once you've planned it the first time - you just keep moving it all around your veg plot as part of your normal rotation. Things like growing together - as long as they have the space each one needs to develop properly - and making sure you don't plant 'thugs' with more timid crops! It's a far more natural way of growing - again just as Nature does it. It also means there's less of one particular crop for any pests to aim at - a problem faced by some of the huge monoculture farms one sees now. This particularly happens if all the hedges have been removed so that pest-controlling beneficial insects have no habitat left, or have all been wiped out by pesticides!  My way of planting the raised beds keeps them looking nice and full too, and what I aim for is a 'raised ornamental potager' effect - just as I do in the polytunnel. It's much easier to achieve when you're not actually eating any of it though! As I always say to visitors - this isn't a show garden - it's a working garden which hopes to make us as self-sufficient as possible all year round.
It's still not too late to sow some fast-growing salads - there's a good variety available from seed now which will crop in late autumn and overwinter, particularly if you can give them the shelter of some cloches. Also make sure you have a few good pieces of fleece on standby for the first frosts.  For most of the last few years, we seem to have got one sharp frost around 6th October - and then not much more frost before Christmas. But it pays to be prepared. A couple of layers of fleece if it's really bad, then covered with clear polythene or cloches, will do a lot to save your crops even if we have a very hard frost.
Colourful crops - bursting with health!  
 Cabbage 'Kalibos'
                                                                                                                                                       Cabbage 'Kalibos' 
A cabbage I grew for the first time a few years ago was an old Eastern European variety 'Kalibos' - pictured here - which has huge beautifully perfect, pointed heads which have a gorgeous deep colour.  It was really delicious, slightly milder-flavoured than many of the round varieties like the old Red Drumhead and with slightly thinner leaves.  It's only drawback is that it takes up a huge amount of room - a bit more than usual. It's one worth putting on your seed list for 2019 though - if you're a red cabbage fan like me. Another excellent new variety of red cabbage which I tried a couple of years ago is 'Red Rookie'. Cropping now, it makes lovely tight heads with no sign of splitting so far - but I'll have to keep an eye on it if we get a lot of rain which can cause that to happen.
Cabbage 'Red Rookie' on right - 2 euro coin sitting on top for comparison.Cabbage 'Red Rookie' on right - 2 euro coin sitting on top for comparison.
We ate the first of the red cabbage a few nights ago -'Red Rookie' is certainly is very early, already having made huge, tightly wrapped heads of crisp, easy to slice leaves. Like Kalibos - it's really delicious made into a coleslaw or just gently sauteed in a little apple juice and butter - a lovely fresh taste and not too overpowering. I didn't do the 'full on' spice thing yet - that's for later on - for cold late November and December evenings when we feel the need for some warming spices and richer meals. Last year it stood really well without splitting, gradually getting larger but we harvested it before we got a deluge of autumn rain and it stored well on into winter. Red cabbage is actually more nutritious than green cabbage - especially raw which preserves all it's vitamin C and anthocyanin phytonutrients intact. A very recent programme in the 'Trust Me I'm A Doctor' series on the BBC - presented by Dr Michael Moseley - showed that the vitamin C in cabbage also helps us to absorb its iron - so eating it raw regularly is important too.
For late autumn meals there's some impressive 'loo roll sown' parsnips coming on too - a good size, they're already looking very tempting - but they're always so much better left in the ground until after the first frosts, when their flavours sweeten and they are wonderful roasted. Delayed gratification - but worth waiting for such a winter treat! Anyway - there's so many yummy things to eat everywhere - we're really spoiled for choice! Lots of work to do at the moment - it's a bit of a panic, harvesting, storing, freezing, preserving, dehydrating. Someone said to me a few years ago "Wouldn't it just be easier to go and buy it all in Tesco?" .........My answer was unprintable as you can imagine!! Apart from anything else - no supermarket or any other store sells the wonderful variety of veg that we grow here - especially in a soil which has been organic for well over 35 years!
I love unusual veg and particularly unusually-coloured potatoes. There's a lot more unusual varieties of potatoes available to buy online now. Many years ago I use to trawl through upmarket veg departments like Harrods Food Hall when visiting London - pouncing on any unusual and different tubers or seeds which might potentially grow with great delight! I love coloured potatoes, I've been growing them for well over 30 years now, as I think food should be a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach! I've always thought they just have to be good for you with all that fabulous colour - and some recent research from Washington State University has now proved just that! Their results showed that both the yellow and purple (but in particular purple) varieties of potato are extremely rich in carotenoids, flavonoids, anthocyanins and polyphenols, and their antioxidant properties equalled that of top so-called 'superfoods' like kale, spinach and Brussels sprouts. They also say that the potatoes retained 75% of their antioxidant activity when cooked. Their tests showed that eating purple potatoes significantly reduced inflammation in their trials of people with chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, arthritis and cancer-  and concluded that "the potential physical benefits of consuming pigmented potatoes should be explored more in persons with chronic disease." 
'Purple Majesty' was one of those that came out tops for that antioxidant activity - although perhaps that was sponsored by the breeders! The new and easier for gardeners to get variety Violetta is just as purple-coloured - so must have similar benefits.  If you're worried about the carbohydrates that potatoes contain - then you can read about my clever trick for reducing the carb-content of them and also increasing the gut-healthy, so-called 'resistant-starch' - using a scientifically-proven process known as 'Retrogradation',  here:  
Knowing now that butter is just very recently considered to be a health food and no longer bad for us - I don't feel guilty about smothering them with butter either -so I enjoy them even more!  For my part I never doubted for a minute that natural organic butter had to be far better than revolting factory-made low-fat spreads!  Thank heavens we never ate them here - after all - they're unnatural!  Organic butter is much higher in good Omega-3 fats than non-organic butter though - as I'm always saying, and it's naturally also lower in pesticides. Recent research is now showing that it's not butter that raises bad cholesterol after all. It's those unnatural artificially-hardened, hydrogenated, originally GMO-derived fats like margarine which cause inflammation in the circulatory system. I'm delighted I never ate them - they taste absolutely disgusting too - like axle grease!! 
A very colourful salad full of healthy nutrientsA very colourful salad full of healthy nutrients
Here's a photo I took a few years ago of a very colourful salad full of health-promoting phytochemicals. On the plate you can see 3 different tomatoes - 'Sungold', 'Rosada' and 'Apero'. Lettuces - red Batavian and Lollo Rossa 'Falballa', salmon and 'Vitelotte' potatoes, (another old purple variety I grow - in fact the oldest purple variety recorded as being sold in the markets in France and also known as Truffe de Chine). Truly a delicious plateful. An absolute rainbow of antioxidants and also a feast for the eyes! At least I can feel virtuous about eating some things - instead of just plain greedy because I enjoy my food so much!  Hair shirts were never my style and I have to justify it somehow!  I find Vitelotte is quite blight-resistant too - so it's good for organic growing. Potatoes are a great way to store nutrients without having to freeze, dehydrate etc. which I'm doing a lot of right now! 
Another delicious way to preserve nutrients from the summer crops is one of our favourite seasonal treats at this time of year - roasted Mediterranean vegetables - a sort of roast ratatouille. Along with my courgette gratin and pizza recipes, which you'll find in the recipe section - it's great way of using up over-large escaped courgettes! With red onions, red and yellow peppers and sometimes aubergines as well - it's the most delicious treat on earth and even freezes very well after cooking. If you can bear to leave it to get cold, cover it with a lid or foil overnight, it's even more delicious scattered over some crunchy green salad, or more naughtily - topping a home made pizza. Nectar from the Gods! There's an easy recipe for making the roast veg in my recipe section. So much to do and so little time!


Beware of bringing in dreaded onion white rot!

I won't be tempted to plant autumn onions sets which I saw someone mention on Twitter recently. I don't want to take the chance of bringing in onion white rot!  A couple of years ago I was very cross with a particular TV presenter, when he said rotations didn't matter and he didn't bother with them! Last year though  - he was actually honest enough at the end of the year to admit that he now had onion white rot (a couple of Brownie points for that) . The only problem was though that after he admitted that - he then went on to say that it would be fine to plant onions again in 3 years! Sorry but that's complete rubbish!  IT WILL DEFINITELY NOT BE OK!  Onion white rot can survive for up to 20 years in the soil, during which time you cannot grow ANY of the allium (onion) family in that spot or they will die, and it can actually be carried all around your garden on your boots and tools too - so I never risk it. 
Onion sets can carry onion white rot - particularly non-organic ones - as chemical growers rarely bother to be so strict about their rotations as organic growers are required to be.  Wet winter weather after planting also encourages it. Growing onions from seed in early spring is so easy that I think it's simply not worth the risk! I always sow mine in March in modules, multi-sown 5 or 7 seeds to each block of compost, planting the blocks out in April. I get great crops growing them this way every year - which keep very well.
Onions ripening in late August Onions ripened, harvested and drying off well in the polytunnel.
Onions ripening in late August Onions ripened, harvested and drying off well in the polytunnel.
Now's the time to start planning your veg garden for next year - while this year's successes or failures are still fresh in your mind.  Get your seeds ordered early - don't wait until next March! 
One of the many wonderful things about gardening as I've said so often, is that unlike in many areas of life - each fresh year brings you another chance to get it just right!  And if there's only one thing more satisfying or beautiful than a garden full of gorgeously-coloured organic vegetables - then that is sitting down to a delicious plateful of them, smug with the satisfying knowledge that you have all of the summer's goodness stored up for the leaner months ahead! With that in mind - I'd better get out and do some more harvesting on this lovely sunny day!
My earlier comment about time being so short reminded me that many people have asked me if I ever open the garden to visitors. I don't want to seem like an anti-social grouch.....but sadly I'm not able to - and if I did - I think visitors might well be very disappointed! This isn't a 'show garden' run purely as a perfectly-groomed example of organic growing - as I said earlier!  If it was it would be an awful lot tidier!  It's a proper working garden that produces most of our food all year round. Combined with cooking everything from scratch, looking after various livestock and also storing produce - that's a full time job in itself! That's without writing detailed blog posts 4-5 times a month, doing my radio programme 'From Tunnel to Table' and other features, writing a monthly column for The Irish Garden magazine, doing talks, inventing and testing new recipes, putting daily organic gardening tips on Twitter and time-consuming extras like Tomato Festivals! 
I don't have any help here - apart from my son who does all the mowing now since I broke my right shoulder very badly a few years ago. Also because of that injury, many gardening jobs take me quite a bit longer now - like tying up tomatoes!  Much as I really love meeting other gardeners and exchanging ideas - there simply aren't enough hours in the day, or days in the week, to open the garden as well and to show people round in addition to all of the other things I do. So I'm really sorry - thank you so much for your interest - but please no more emails asking me if you can visit - as that entails me having to use up more very precious and very limited time in having to reply. While I'm on the subject by the way - I also don't sell plants either as one emailer recently asked me. All of the varieties I talk about on Twitter and here on my blog are available online if you search for them.
 (P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard-won experience. Thank you.)

The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in September - 2018

September contents:   Tomatoes without borders!......Why I started the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival and why it's needed now more than ever!.......Future Food Security isn't just about Tomatoes! It depends on us all helping to preserve Genetic Diversity......Polytunnels come into their own even more now......Last chance for some serious seed sowing!......Why it's well worth using a good quality peat-free compost......My top crops for winter productivity in the tunnel.....Brassicas undercover..... Sweet potatoes.....Feeding Soil for Winter Crops......Save money by saving Seed......Tunnel fruits......Don't forget bees need winter food too!

View of both sides of the World Record-Breaking Exhibition of Tomatoes for this year's Totally Terrific Tomato Festival held in The National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin in Dublin

Tomatoes without borders!
This year at The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival 2018 - we didn't just have one great day - but a fantastic 2 weeks thanks to our wonderful National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, their dynamic director Dr. Matthew Jebb and his great staff. On the day, Irish Sunday Times columnist and garden writer Jane Powers - who had coordinated the tomato display at Killruddery so efficiently for the last two years - was once again drafted in and worked incredibly hard logging in the tomatoes as each grower arrived with theirs. It was a stunning sight all beautifully displayed in terracotta pots. A world record of 258 varieties was set, with an incredible diversity of almost every possible combination of shape, size and colour of the rainbow! It was beyond my wildest dreams that we could ever have achieved this when I conceived the idea of holding the first TTTomFest, as it is known, back in 2012! 
For me - the most wonderful thing of all was watching the faces of people from all over the world, full of wonder as they gazed at the fantastically diverse array of colours, shapes and sizes of tomatoes! Just like children looking at Christmas trees!  I met interested people from places as far apart as Big Island Hawaii and County Donegal - all who loved tomatoes! And the truly great thing about tomatoes, as I've so often said, is that almost everyone eats them and cooks with them - and almost anyone who has a garden also grows them. So we all have instant common ground! The really encouraging thing was that people were all so interested and grateful when I explained that the reason why I started the original Tomato Festival was to highlight the issue of the loss of vital crop genetic diversity - not only in tomatoes. Tomatoes just happen to be a very visually appealing way to demonstrate that rich and valuable diversity.  After all - different varieties of wheat, for instance, all look pretty much the same don't they? So they wouldn't be much fun - unlike these gorgeous beauties!  The wonderful thing about tomatoes is that it doesn't matter where people are from - most people eat some tomatoes occasionally (or a lot in our case!). As Dr Matthew Jebb said a couple of years ago in his Tomato Talk at Killruderry - the entire human race eats half its own weight in tomatoes every single year. A staggering statistic - and if that doesn't give us something in common with practically every other person on the planet - I don't know what does!  
Everyone eats - and what is most relevant is that whatever 'diet' we eat - whether it's healthy or not - completely depends on the original seeds needed to grow a particular crop. This is of course the major reason why the huge multinational agri-chemical/seed giants want to gain control over the supply our seeds. Forget money, forget oil and forget politics. Controlling the supply of seeds which produces all our food globally is the surest way to ultimate power over the human race!
(You can hear why and how it all originally came about and why - here in this interview which Dr. Matthew Jebb and I did with my Tunnel to Table co-host Gerry Kelly - on his LMFM Late Lunch Show here:
As always - I also very much enjoyed meeting so many avid tomato lovers, growers and old friends before and after my talk - this time from all over the world!  If any of you didn't make it to The National Botanic Gardens - I will be posting much of the information contained in my talk, here on the blog, in a week or so when I've caught up just a little!  I was sorry that I didn't manage to get down again to the gardens in Glasnevin during the final few days of the Festival - but I was so busy trying to catch up here. Although I did spend a lot of the first week of the exhibition there doing my talk, taking photos, doing interviews etc. and just enjoying the sight of it!  It was a fantastic demonstration of just what a lot of keen growers can do when they get together to work towards one goal - and such a delight that it was hard to tear my eyes away from such a gloriously colourful panorama! Coming down to earth again after such huge elation and emotion might be a bit difficult!
I truly feel that 'The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' is now in the safest possible hands - that my baby has now returned home to the original place where it was first conceived.  I am thrilled and confident that it's future is assured..... and I can't tell you what a good feeling that is!
Why I started the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival and why it's needed now more than ever!
I'll just explain very briefly here, as I will be doing a much longer article including my talk at TTTomFest18 later this month. I first organised what I then called a 'Tomato Day' back in 1993 at the National Botanic Gardens, at Glasnevin in Dublin.  Many of us organic growers and gardeners had already been aware for some time of the loss of 1000s of seed varieties since the mid 70's when Lawrence Hill first established the Heritage Seed Library of the HDRA -  and were aware even then of the urgency of preserving as many older varieties of seed as possible, but after the original tomato day I held at The National Botanic Gardens in 1993 - although there was some interest - it wasn't really enough to bring it to the attention of the wider public. So there it rested for a couple of decades. 
Fast forward to 2012 - and I began to feel that people here were beginning to become far more interested not just in where their food came from, but also in the different flavours, culinary and health-promoting qualities of the many Heritage varieties that were still in existence. By a stroke of pure luck - that year the amazing high-anthocyanin black tomato Indigo Rose also became available to amateur gardeners for the very first time. I knew as soon as I saw it that it would be an instant attention grabber!  I also knew that by then, preserving genetic diversity was becoming ever more urgent. With increasing climate change and the attempted takeover of global food systems by huge and aggressive multinational chemical corporations - it's now more vital than ever to preserve genetic diversity in all food crops - not just tomatoes - despite their undoubtedly huge economic and dietary relevance. Anyway - I knew I could no longer stand idly by and watch this happening without feeling I was doing something. I am only one person and can only do so much - but if each individual does one small something then that can add up to a very positive BIG something! I don't know who actually first said "that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness" - but I believe that to be very true. I felt I had to have another try to help raise awareness of how important genetic diversity was - and so the 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' was re-born under it's current name!
Future Food Security isn't just about Tomatoes! It depends on us all helping to preserve Genetic Diversity
Genetic diversity should not be entrusted to a few large multinational chemical/seed corporations who have been gobbling up smaller seed companies systematically since the 1970s. They are only interested in profit and selling the varieties which they have bred or happen to own patents to! We have already lost far too many crop varieties because of this. Profit for the privileged few who control our food system could mean starvation for the many.  We have no idea what the future may bring and we each need to do our bit - however small that may be - if we care about future generations.
But food security isn't just about tomatoes - useful and delicious as they are! Last Saturday the first of September I posted this tweet on Twitter:
"If you're buying to sow try to support small & seed companies if you can - helps to ensure foodsecurity - Global multinational / companies are buying up smaller seed companies - closing them & dropping varieties!"
Judging from the amount of re-tweets - it seems that perhaps people may finally be waking up to the fact that we cannot trust the security of the future of our food supply to the avaricious clutches of a few, self-seeking giant multinational seed/chemical companies. We have no idea what challenges the future may hold in terms of pests and diseases - especially with a changing climate - so it is extremely dangerous to narrow the choice of genes (or characteristics) - present in different varieties of any one crop which is vital to the future of human health, or possibly even survival. If we allow that to happen by doing nothing, we are gradually allowing what is essentially our own life-support system of crop varieties to be eroded. 
As I have highlighted so often in the past - our choice of varieties in the various crops we grow is now being continually eroded by these companies. Their motivation if profit now - not the future of humanity! They are continually buying up smaller seed companies, taking over their seed lists, then closing them down and gradually dropping older varieties of important crops which are perhaps genetically more valuable in favour of their one patented F1 Hybrid or GMO/GE varieties. They can't patent old varieties - so they plunder them for a few genes or characteristics which are useful for breeding newer varieties to which they can then own the patent. That's where the money is - not in selling much loved and reliable old varieties which have been grown in some cases for centuries!
Polytunnels come into their own even more now 
After the excitement of the Festival it's certainly back to earth with a bump - but earth is where I like to be!!  Now I've recovered a bit I need to catch up on some of the work here that was more than a bit neglected over the last week or so. It very urgently needs doing now - if we're going to eat any homegrown food this winter!  
September is when us tough, 'all weather' polytunnelers really get going! If you put the thought, work and care in now, you'll be enjoying the delights of abundant crops from the polytunnel not just in summer - but all winter long too - harvesting far more than the 'fair weather, summer only'  gardeners ever thought possible! Even in winter - not an inch of valuable polytunnel space should be wasted. Every inch should be growing something delicious either for us - or valuable food for non-hibernating bees - and it's quite possible to do both!
Ananas Noir

Green Cherokee 

Ananas Noir not easy but delicious!

 Green Cherokee another favourite beefsteak with great taste.

 Nyagous  Pantano Romanesco
 Nyagous - unusual rich smoky flavour.  Pantano Romanesco my 'desert island' beefsteak if forced to choose only one!

Last chance for some serious seed sowing!

The weather over the last week of August and the first few days of September have been by turns wet, windy, chilly and autumn-like - and it feels as if it's already well and truly arrived!  At this time of year so many people are content to just wind down and enjoy the last delights of the summer crops. Here we're also still doing that, as you can see from the deliciousness pictured above. These tantalising beefy beauties always seem to have a last glorious flourish at this time of year - just so their mouthwatering flavour is unforgettable until we plan next year's tomatoes. It's very easy among all this abundance to forget that winter is literally only just around the corner! The light is visibly decreasing rapidly now though - especially in the evenings with the hens now going to roost well before 8.30 pm. Growth is also winding down a lot from the hectic pace of summer. With so much of summer's bounty still to be harvested, it's easy to forget that winter crops need attention right now - or we won't have any!
Any veg you sow now is like money in the bank!
There's still time early this month to sow winter lettuce, oriental salads, and many other fast developing veg for crops for harvesting through late autumn up to Christmas, or even continuous cropping throughout the winter into early spring 2016 - so check out my 'What to Sow Now' list and get sowing now!  The longer you delay the less things will crop before the New Year - so don't delay! - You'll be so glad you have them during less productive times outside in the winter vegetable garden, and when organic salads in particular are almost non-existent in shops
Seedlings for autumn & winter tunnel productionSeedlings for autumn & winter tunnel production 
It's already too late for some crops to produce well this winter - but there's still time for quite a few - and there's absolutely no time to lose! Don't waste precious tunnel space! I never forget the great piece of advice I was given many years ago - "Whatever else you don't do - SOW THE SEEDS" - everything else you can catch up on - but not sowing seeds. They have their own timetable and must be sown at the right time, no matter what the other distractions - or you won't have any winter crops under cover!  
 Winter crops in particular can save you a small fortune, which may surprise you, particularly if you're the sort of gardener who usually loses interest after the summer crops - buying your winter veg in the supermarket which has been flown in from Spain or somewhere. It's not rocket science - it just takes a little more trouble, planning and thought - but it's well worth it. So give winter tunnel or greenhouse gardening a try if you haven't done it before - I promise you won't be sorry!  Even if you don't have a polytunnel - many crops can also be grown under large cold frames - so there's no excuse.  Long  before I had polytunnels, I grew all my winter salads under large homemade cold frames - which I made from recycled skip-found timber and some large pieces of polythene I begged from a bed store years ago! 

Some fast growing crops like summer spinach, Oriental vegetables, quick salad mixes, kohl rabi and rocket etc. will all crop by November if sown now - and may possibly go on cropping through the winter if it's mild. If you tend to get very hard frosts where you live you can cover them on cold nights with fleece but do uncover during the day to allow any dampness to dry off and hang the damp fleeces up to dry - then you won't get any disease which is encouraged by humid conditions,. Lettuce, land cress, lambs lettuce, loose leaf cabbage greens etc. are a little slower growing but must be sown NOW so that they can establish really good root systems and make enough growth to just keep 'ticking over' through the winter - these will be your mainstays - allowing you to pick leaves every few days, or every day if you have plenty of plants, and they'll give you a slow but continuous crop throughout the winter. This is why sowing into modules and containers is such a good idea. If you wait until after current crops are finished and cleared to think about sowing things, it will be far too late. Having good plants in modules or pots ready and waiting, to go straight in as soon as summer crops are cleared, makes the most efficient use of very valuable tunnel space. 

It will still be much too hot on any sunny days to sow or even plant many of the winter salads in the tunnel even if there is room - a couple of hours of very high temperatures can literally 'cook' them - so sowing outside in pots or modules is the best option. I usually do two sowings of my favourite crops as insurance. The only things I always sow in mid-late July are Swiss chards and chicories as they are slower - everything else I sow from mid-August to mid-Sept., so that they are small enough not to bolt or run up to seed in a warm autumn but will still make a big enough plant to crop well through the winter - even a cold one! It's a fine balance, and will vary slightly from year to year depending on the autumn weather and also your local climate.  In the milder south you may be able to sow some things a couple of weeks later, in the north you may be better sowing a week or two earlier, but it's light that mostly governs healthy growth - so I find that's about right. 

Why it's well worth using a good quality peat-free compost!

The one thing I can never stress enough is just how important it is to use a good, peat-free organic seed compost in order to have really strong, healthy disease-free seedlings. Again, as I've mentioned before - my favourite is the Klassman organic peat-free seed compost which I get from Fruit Hill Farm, via my local distributor White's Agri. At this time of year it's very easy to lose seedlings to 'damping off' diseases if the compost you're using isn't up to scratch - but I can guarantee I never lose seedlings in that compost, unless it's through my own carelessness. If I have to pot anything on to avoid a check if it's allotted tunnel space isn't yet available - then I use their excellent peat-free potting compost too. Their composts are made from composted organic green waste grown specifically for it's production in Germany. Both the seed and the potting compost produce excellent results, the plants make really good root systems and are always healthy. 
I've tried so many other dreadful peat-free organic and non-organic composts which caused much waste of expensive seedWith some it was almost impossible to have any healthy seedlings at all. I love the Klasmann compost though, it outperforms any that I've ever tried. Over the years, I was never comfortable about using any peat at all or even coir fibre due to it's carbon footprint - especially when they contained synthetic chemical fertilisers. But there hadn't been a really good alternative until the last few years. Now there is plenty of choice - and there is absolutely no excuse to use peat!
OK, so a good peat-free compost is a little bit more expensive - but is that really an excuse for destroying bogs and along with them the huge amount of biodiversity they sustain - when you're actually saving so much money by growing your own? I personally believe it's worth every cent because of the great results it produces! Chemically-fed plants in peat based composts are far more susceptible to disease in my 40 plus years of experience. Sadly even some of the peat-free composts made from composted bark are truly dreadful and are not organic. NEVER economise on good seed compost - doing so is a false economy as it can not only waste valuable seed but even more importantly at this time of year - may lose you valuable time!! If you lose seedlings now - for many it's too late to sow again!
This can be a really tricky time of year for managing vulnerable winter salad and other veg seedlings. They're getting blown out of their modules one minute - drenched with torrential the next - and then even perhaps baked!  It does sometimes seem like an awful lot of bother looking after them - but come the middle of winter, when there's so few decent organic salads, spinach, chards, broccoli or other veg to buy in the shops that you could easily be growing in your greenhouse or tunnel - you'll be so glad you did! I sometimes may even have to pot some of them on twice before tunnel planting - but again it's well worth doing. 
Gardening's like life - you only get out what you put in - as I'm always saying! 
Just to remind you, or if you didn't happen read my spring sowing instructions - when sowing into modules - I fill them, firm gently, water them and then make a small hole (1/4 inch or less depending on what I'm sowing) in each module with the end of a pencil or something, sow the seeds either individually or multi-sow for things like kale and salad mixes, then cover the hole with vermiculite. This keeps air circulating around the seedling stem and the surface is just slightly drier as vermiculite promotes better drainage - so it helps to prevent damping off. Cover lightly with polythene for 3 or 4 days until you can see the seedlings starting to push through the surface - then remove the cover immediately. After this - only ever water from underneath, by sitting the seed tray or modules in a tray of water for a minute or so - don't allow them to become saturated!!  Follow these instructions, use a good quality compost and you won't have a problem.

Be extra careful with all tunnel watering now. Over-wet compost is the main reason that 'damping off' happens, that and poor air circulation. Only 'just moist'  is the rule. If somehow by accident compost gets really saturated there is something you can do - a simple trick I came up with many years ago. Only common sense really - but surprising how many people just wouldn't think of doing it! A few years ago a gardener friend, who opens her lovely garden full of rare plants and sells many of them, was terribly upset because her automatic watering system had gone wrong (I hate them!) and had practically drowned all her plants. Even though she'd taken them out of the water and tried to drain them off to rescue them - they were so wet that they were starting to rot off and she said she would probably lose the lot. As she was a keen recycler, I told her to get every newspaper she could lay her hands on and sit the pots on a piece of kitchen towel placed on top of several layers of newspapers for a few days. It works brilliantly!  You do need a piece of kitchen towel under each pot though - it seems to act like a kind of wick  - newspaper on it's own doesn't work as well, or as quickly. Granted, you may lose some water soluble nutrients to a certain extent by doing this - but you won't lose all the plants! You can always replace any nutrients lost if necessary - but it's often hard to replace plants lost through rotting.
My top crops for winter productivity in the tunnel 
Autumn can be a tricky season for growing, as the weather can be so unpredictable, so I usually do two sowings of my favourite crops as insurance. The rewards for taking a little trouble are great though. There are many crops which really enjoy winter in the polytunnel. Ruby and white Swiss chards, sugar loaf chicory, endives, lettuce, lamb's lettuce, oriental leaves like mustard and mizuna, rocket, land cress, winter spinach, watercress and claytonia - which I never have to sow now as it obligingly appears everywhere all by itself anyway!  If you grow it once - you will find that it's one of the most enthusiastic self-seeders and you'll rarely have to sow it again. You just weed it out where you don't want it. It even makes a great green manure which the worms really love.To me there's not point just sowing stuff that will sit there all winter and then crop only in the spring. Many soft herbs like parsley and also perennial herbs like thyme are also more productive inside. I want to be able to pick a good mixed salad every day over winter - and have a brassica of some sort to eat at least 3 times a week.
I like to have plenty of green leaves to feed my hens all winter too. They get extra greens all year round but it's especially important in the winter as it keeps the egg yolks a really deep orange meaning they're much higher in nutrients like Vitamin A and lutein. Unlike conventionally made hen ration - organic hen food is not allowed to contain any artifical colourants to make yolks yellow. If they don't get extra greens or are not on good pasture with fresh grass to eat every day like some poor, non-organic, 'so-called' free range hens - then the yolks are much paler as grass grows less in the winter and that means that the hens are less healthy too. Mine are bursting with good health all year round!
French beans Cobra producing a lighter but useful second crop French beans Cobra producing a lighter but useful second crop
French bean Cobra is once again producing a second flush of crop right now - lighter than the first but nonetheless welcome now.  As I've often mentioned before - the way to get them to do this is to strip off all  the leaves once the first crop is finished, feed and water well and soon they'll produce new flower buds in the leaf axils which will give you a second crop. Cobra is my 'wouldn't be without'  bean, delicious, stringless, incredibly productive and reliable. It's also brilliant for freezing and we've frozen tons again this year. It's really important to keep climbing beans well tidied up at this time of year - taking off any mouldy looking or dead leaves immediately in order to stop any disease spreading. If they're still cropping - they won't go on much longer as temperatures dip, but keep picking them anyway to keep any beans already set developing to their full size.



The value of growing brassicas undercover

You might think it strange to be growing kale and other brassicas under cover. They will grow outside I grant you - but kale won't be anything like as productive. In a tunnel it continuously produces huge crops! Outside in most winters you'll only get a few pickings from it even if the weather isn't too bad - neither freezing it solid, nor drowning it. I would need probably four times the space outside to produce the same amount of crop as I get from plants growing inside. With protection from the elements, kale thoroughly enjoys the sheltered life under cover (who wouldn't?) and that allows you to pick continuously throughout the winter. I grow Cavallo Nero, red curly kale and my own strain of Ragged Jack kale, which I've been growing for over 30 years now - originally from HDRA Heritage Seed Library - saving my own seed every couple of years. I've also bred my own hybrid strain of different coloured kales which I'm trialling at the moment.They all have great flavour. Kale and broccoli are two of the top crops you can grow for your health. They are very nutritious - being chock-full of vitamins, minerals and beneficial phytonutrients like isothiocyanates which have been shown to prevent many diseases such as cancer. I like to have plenty of them to eat all year round - both as baby leaves to use in salads and smoothies, or lightly steamed when they're larger. Or even as 'kale crisps' (a yummy treat!). My own particular strain of Ragged Jack kale - which I've been saving now for about 35 years also produces really delicious flower shoots in early spring. These are far more tender and delicious than any sprouting broccoli - almost like asparagus!
In the other brassica bed I will be growing Green Magic calabrese. In a mild winter it will produce a large central head in the late autumn and then lots of smaller side shoots slowly but steadily until the following spring. 'Green Magic' is the one I've found best for this - and it wouldn't normally grow at all outside over the winter. If you sow it a the end of July it will produce a really good tunnel crop in late autumn - but even sown now it will still go on to produce small sweet shoots all winter that are delicious for picking raw or lightly steaming. Some years ago I found that following brassicas with sweet potatoes works very well - because sweet potatoes enjoy a little bit of hardship to start with!  If you're too kind to them when they're first planted they produce wild masses of luxuriant leaves - with very little in the way of tubers underneath later on. I experimented by leaving a row kale down the middle of the bed - it used up a lot of the nutrients and stopped the sweet potatoes growing too lushly at first. The kale can be left in the ground when you're planting the sweet potatoes - still producing well into the summer if they're watered regularly. If it gets too tall you can just chop off it's head with a pair of loppers. It doesn't mind a bit and will re-sprout lovely fresh young growth from the truncated stalks - even when it's quite hot in the tunnel. 
I love to experiment with different kinds of inter-cropping and overlapping of crops.  I often find unexpected things that work well as part of my rotations - which make the best use of the space and completely do away with the so called spring 'Hungry Gap' everyone complains about. There's no such thing here - there's always something good to eat. The permaculture people have invented a new name for doing this - they call it 'polyculture'. Essentially, it's exactly the same inter-cropping, catch cropping and overlapping of crops that I've been doing for over 40 years now - growing all sorts of things all together, growing flowers and permanent top fruit in the tunnel too - making the most of every possible inch. This is even more important undercover, where space comes at a price! 
Making the most of your space under cover is all down to good forward planning - you should be thinking several months ahead to the following crops whenever you're planting anything. Valuable tunnel space should be as productive as possible all year round.

More on sweet potatoes

It's time to give your sweet potatoes a bit more TLC now. They need feeding with tomato fertiliser once a week from now on if they are to produce plenty of large tubers. 'Osmo' certified organic feed is perfect - again something I've been using for years now. Everything loves it and you never get any nutrient imbalances as you often can do with other, non-organic feeds. You could use home made comfrey feed if it's made from the high potash variety 'Bocking 14' developed by Garden Organic founder Lawrence Hills. Other varieties wouldn't be much good for this as they're far lower in potash. Sweet potatoes are dead easy to grow - the trick is not to feed them much at first but wait until the days start to shorten in August, because that's when they start developing their tubers. They're a fantastic 'break crop' in the tunnel rotation as they're unrelated to anything else and the worms just love the little thread like bits of root left behind after harvesting. I always see a huge increase in worm activity after growing them in a bed. Worms obviously have a sweet tooth too! 
I've tried lots of newer varieties - but I always return to my old reliable 'Beauregarde'. I save a few of the tubers for producing 'slips' to plant next year. I did that very successfully again last year and gave them to several friends. I must hide a few so that we don't eat them all!. If they're kept above 50 deg F, they'll keep very well into next spring and beyond. I've even kept the purple ones for a year and then taken shoots or slips from them! Never keep sweet potatoes in the fridge as they actually die of hypothermia! Many people don't realise that vegetables are still alive after they're harvested. How else do you think we grow potatoes? You don't necessarily have to grow sweet potatoes in the ground either - but they do like a deep root run, so they like a large container filled with well drained compost. I often grow them in recycled log/skip bags and they revel in them - producing huge crops.The foliage hangs over the edge, hiding the bags, and they look really decorative with marigolds and purple basil planted in them too.
Feeding Soil for Winter Crops
It pays to keep some your very best garden or worm compost for the beds where your winter salad crops are to grow. Many of them have fine root systems which appreciate a little bit of comfort and if you're as kind as possible to them they will keep cropping for much longer in the early spring, before running up to flower. I just scratch a light covering in and then water it in lightly to firm the soil before planting. You could possibly add a very light dressing of a general organic fertilise like 'Osmo Universal' granular fertiliser - which is certified organic - if you think the ground is particularly hungry. It's available in several garden centres. Never over-feed winter crops though. Lashing on manure, compost or compound fertilisers is wasteful, is often polluting and can be counter productive - as there isn't enough light for the plants to photosynthesise efficiently in order to turn the available nitrates into sugars to give them the energy to grow. This has the result that crops can often taste bitter due to high nitrate content in leaves. Overfeeding can also promote soft, sappy, disease-prone growth that is much more attractive to pests too. I've thought for many years that overfeeding with nitrogen is why non-organic vegetables can taste bitter and smell really disgusting when cooked, especially in the winter. This is particularly the case with Brussels sprouts - and I think this is why so many people hate them! I've never had organically grown sprouts that taste bitter like chemically grown ones. Organic ones are always really sweet as long as they're not overfed with nitrate-rich manures too late in the season. 
Funnily enough many years ago when I used to have my small children's Montessori friends for meals - they would often eat things like spinach and cabbage here which they would never normally touch at home, if they weren't people who normally ate organic food. An instinctive natural discrimination perhaps - an evolutionary warning not to eat things that taste at all bitter in case they're poisonous? And naturally - fruit and other wild things are be far sweeter and have maximum nutrients when they are properly ripe. Perhaps this is why children seem to prefer chemical-free organic food, before their taste buds and instinctive discrimination are 'civilised', dulled and destroyed by junk??  I definitely think so. Anyway - their parents were all simply astonished - but when I explained that my vegetables were actually sweeter because they were organic - many of them asked if they could buy them and then became long standing customers when I started growing commercially. Most, more than 35 years later, are still committed organic consumers even though their offspring, like mine, have long since flown their respective nests!

Ventilation, careful watering & good housekeeping are essential now to keep diseases at bay
In this "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" that it's easy to get so distracted with enjoying all the "fruitfulness" that one forgets that the "mists" can hang around all day - particularly in a polytunnel!  Only water if you absolutely have to - and if you do then do it in the morning if possible and do it between - not directly onto plants. This give surface moisture a chance to evaporate before the night time closing of doors. Scrupulous housekeeping is absolutely vital now too. Remove every single scrap of dead or diseased plant material immediately to avoid fungal diseases developing that could infect the winter crops you'll be planting over the next month or so. Good ventilation is absolutely essential too, I only close the doors at night (necessary to keep out foxes and badgers that are particularly partial to the strawberries and late peaches that are still cropping well) and I open them again first thing in the morning. as long as it's not too windy


Save money by saving seed

A truss of 'Pantano Romanesco' - the largest 4 fruits weighed 11-14ozs each!A truss of 'Pantano Romanesco' - the largest 4 fruits weighed 11-14ozs each!


Now is the time of year for saving tomato seed. You can save a lot of money doing this - and you don't need to go to a lot of fuss and bother soaking, washing or doing anything else - just do what nature does - let it rot!  Nature doesn't rinse seed in chlorinated water. The natural ripening process and then fermention as the fruit starts to rot is what the seed needs to overcome any innate germination inhibitors.  Pick the ripest possible fruit - put it on your kitchen windowsill in the sun in a yogurt pot or something - and just leave it to fester!! Put it somewhere where mice won't get into it and the inevitable fruit flies won't bother you.  Sorry if you're of a delicate disposition - but if you're one of those people who has to have ghastly, asthma-inducing air fresheners everywhere to mask perfectly natural smells, then you probably won't be reading this anyway! When it's really smelly and rotten - then you can just squish the seed out into a small sieve, rinse under a running tap for a moment stirring the messy flesh around a bit to get rid of any fleshy bits and then tip onto a couple of layers of kitchen paper towels. Then put the paper towels onto a cake drying rack or something similar somewhere for a few days to dry. If you're doing several varieties at once - then write the name of the variety onto the paper towel with indelible marker! When everything's completely dry - then just fold up the paper and put into a marked envelope. Simple! It works a treat, and the seed lasts for years stuck to it's piece of kitchen towel from where you can peel off the seed individually. If you don't even want to rinse the smelly flesh off - you can in fact just squish the seeds straight onto the paper without rinsing at all and this is usually successful! 

Do bear in mind that you can't save seed from F1 Hybrid varieties, as these are crosses made between two specific known parents. If you do save seed from them, they will just produce hundreds of different mongrels - mostly tasteless, possibly even bitter and usually not worth growing!  In a normal tunnel environment though - non F1 tomato seed will normally stay true to type - so you can save seed quite safely from those varieties and save yourself lots of money! Google them to check if they're F1's if you don't have the seed packet and you're not sure. The gorgeous flavoured Italian beefsteak variety Pantano Romanesco (my desert island tomato!) pictured here, is one you can easily save seed from.
Tunnel fruits in abundance still
late peaches - variety unknown
This is the sensational late peach that I bought quite by accident! I have no idea what variety it is - I got it in Lidl labelled as a nectarine, but it's the best flavoured peach I have! It ripens a bit more slowly that the earlier summer one does which is better and means we can eat more fresh rather than having to deal with a huge glut. The only problem in a wet autumn is that the fruit can tend to split with all the water at their roots though - which they're doing now - so they still need to be dealt with fast to avoid wasting them! I'm currently dehydrating the last of the peach crop as fast as possible - as since the field beside the tunnels was harvested - we also now have a plague of hungry mice and our useless cat was no deterrent whatsoever - so it's now been re-homed to a very sweet old lady who lost hers and was delighted to have our very fussy and affectionate lap-cat!! By the way - the cat's also delighted!
The potted autumn raspberries are still fruiting exceptionally well in the same pots with very little feeding! They have the advantage of being both totally safe from marauding blackbirds and also from autumn gales and torrential rain - which often batter and ruin late crops outside here. I'm loving the Sugana raspberry from breeders Lubera - which is incredibly productive and really delicious. Although expensive to buy initially - it's already more than earned it's keep in huge crops of enormous fruits which also freeze well! I'm also growing my favourite Joan J in pots too - again hugely productive and which I think just has the edge on flavour. It's a way of stretching the season which is very useful. One big plus that 'Joan J' has in it's favour is that it's stems are completely smooth and spine free - important when working at close quarters in a tunnel or if you have small children who like raspberries!
The grapes are ripening fast now too and again we're eating as many fresh as we can. Mice are particularly fond of grapes - especially the best seeded black ones like Muscat Bleu. As they ripen - all the grapes will be frozen loose for smoothies etc. or made into sultanas or raisins by dehydrating in my Sedona dehydrator. The spring-sown cape gooseberries are ripening fast and will keep on going until December now all being well with the occasional high potash feed. They keep well for months in their little paper lantern cases which so far the mice conveniently haven't discovered! I wonder how long that will last?
The Albion perpetual strawberries are still reliably producing their delicious berries - people must be tired of me saying what a wonderful strawberry it is. It won't stop fruiting until it gets really cold in November. Sticking to my rule of never wasting an inch of precious polytunnel space - at this time of year even my propagating benches get re-purposed as yet another fruit growing opportunity! Albion is on there right now producing more strawberries in large pots and tubs!

Don't forget bees need winter food too!

Do think about planting some winter flowers like winter-flowering violas and pansies for non-hibernating overwintering bumblebees and any other vitally important pollinators that may happen to be around if it's a mild autumn. You'll be surprised how many will come into your tunnel once they know you have flowers in there all winter and it's great to see them and know you're helping them to survive! Without them we wouldn't have much food! Keep annual flowers like marigolds, borage, scabious etc. flowering for as long as possible now by deadheading or cutting back a bit so that they don't go to seed - there's lots of hoverflies, butterflies, moths and bees still about which are really appreciating the nectar and clearing up any pests. There's also plenty of young frogs now busily hopping along the 'frog corridors' of weeds which I leave between the boards at the back edges of the side raised beds and the sides of the tunnel. They appreciate the damp conditions there and the abundant small insects, as well as their little 'pond gardens' at the ends of the tunnel. They are great for clearing up those nasty little grey slugs that get into lettuce hearts and ruin them. I just keep the weeds clipped to bed level, between the bed and the side of the tunnel to stop them seeding, rather than pulling them out - and find that far from encouraging pests - they encourage the creatures that eat them! Leave one or two Marigold and Tagetes plants to seed though - so that you'll have some for next year. 
Holding infinity in the palm of my hand' once more.....
A couple of years ago a listener called after our August radio show to say that it sounded more like the Gerry Kelly Food Showthan 'The Late Lunch Show' because we literally ate our way round the tunnels!  I think that's why Gerry suggested we should change the title to 'From Tunnel to Table' last year and do a bit of cooking as well - or rather his clever producer did!  The polytunnels don't just grow food for us to eat though. The stinging nettle 'butterfly nurseries' that I showed Gerry in the corners of the tunnels earlier in the year have produced their annual crop of butterflies once again. I love them so much - they are magical, and so good for the soul!  There's been a succession of Painted Ladies, various Fritillaries, Peacocks and Tortoiseshells - and now in the last week or so a lot of Red Admirals have hatched. They're now fluttering around the tunnels enjoying all the nectar in the flowers. They kept landing on us as we walked around last year - one even landed on Gerry's microphone while we were recording the show - a definite seal of approval - I hope that means some good 'Karma' for us!
Organic gardening isn't just about growing healthy, chemical-free food for us!
It's also about encouraging all the wonderful wildlife that helps us to do that without chemicals and helping it to survive. A healthy chemical-free garden sustains so many lives that matter in the web of life - not just ours. Growing food without using pesticides that harm nature helps to preserve the earth's incredible biodiversity in all it's incredible richness. The tunnels are such a joyful celebration of Nature's abundant generosity at this season. It's biodiversity brought to richly productive and beautiful fruition.  
At the moment in the tunnels with all the beautiful colours of the crops and flowers, so many gorgeous butterflies fluttering around everywhere and happy bees buzzing - it truly is like "walking into the magical land of Narnia" - as Irish Times journalist Fionnuala Fallon so kindly remarked a few years ago. It does seem a bit like a fairyland - with delicious food and incredible beauty everywhere you look...........If I ever go to any sort of heaven - I really hope it's like this!
 (P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)

What to sow in September 2018

"Remember - always sow the seeds. You can catch up on everything else - but if you get behind on that, there's nothing you can do about it."  ....That means do it now! Every day the light is getting shorter and growth is slowing.
 Growing home-saved seed & supporting independent organic seed companies ensures diversity in seed supply & future food security
Growing home-saved seed & supporting independent organic seed companies ensures diversity in seed supply & future food security
Sow outdoors in pots or modules - for later planting in the tunnel or greenhouse when summer crops are cleared and space is available - or direct sow in tunnel now if not too hot:
Cabbages 'Greensleeves', 'Greyhound' & other leafy non-hearting spring types, carrots ('Nantes' and other early finger types, possibly in long modules for transplanting), kales such as Cavalo Nero, dwarf green curled and Ragged Jack (or Red Russian) for baby leaves, lettuces (non-hearting leafy types such as green & red Lollo, Batavian, Jack Ice and Lattughino, Winter 'Gem' & winter butterheads), lamb's lettuce (corn salad), endives*, Swiss chards & 'perpetual leaf beets*, beetroot 'Bull's Blood' & 'McGregor's favourite' (for salad leaves*), peas (for pea shoots - Oregon Sugar Pod a good variety), Claytonia* (also called miner's lettuce or winter purslane), American Landcress*, leaf chicories*, rocket, brocoletto 'Cima di Rapa', all oriental greens such as mizuna, pak choi*, Choy Sum, mustards, Komatsuna, Tatsoi etc, summer turnips*, summer spinach, salad onions*, leafy salad mixes, coriander*, chervil*, plain leaved and curly parsley* and broad leaved sorrel*. 
Covering all young seedlings while in seed trays outdoors with a fine mesh-covered frame or cloche will give them protection from pests, early autumn strong winds or heavy rain. Cabbage root fly is still active in early Sept. and can devastate brassica crops. Be extra careful with watering and ventilation of seedlings now, in the damp autumn air.
Outdoors, sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop - To possibly to cover with cloches or frames later on in autumn:
Early summer cauliflowers for next year, brocoletto 'Cima di Rapa', fast-growing early 'Nantes' type carrots for a late autumn crop, cabbages (red ball head, 'Greyhound' and leafy non-hearting spring types), leaf chicories*, endives*, salad onions*, Claytonia (winter purslane)*, lamb's lettuce*, American Landcress*, winter lettuces*, kales*, radishes,Oriental radish such as green skinned red fleshed Mantanhong, or Pink Dragon  (a great variety), rocket, summer spinach*, Swiss chard* and leaf beets*, oriental greens such as Choy Sum, Pak choi*, mibuna, mizuna, mustards 'Red & Green Frills', Chinese kale (Kailaan), Komatsuna*, and any fast-maturing salad leaf mixes.

On any empty patches of ground already cleared of crops that won't be used over winter - 
Sow green manures now such as alfalfa, red clover, mustard (a brassica so watch rotations) winter tares, field beans, fenugreek, phacelia and Hungarian grazing rye. These will help to protect and improve soil, mop up nutrients to stop them leaching in heavy rain, being lost and polluting groundwater. Green manures or even weeds will 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms later when cut down and covered. Dig them in or cut down and leave on surface later after the first frosts, then cover to protect the soil, prevent nutrient loss and possible pollution. The worms will then work on incorporating the plant material into the soil over the winter - leaving you a perfect, weed free, warmer,  more friable and more fertile soil to start your spring sowings next year. Don't leave manure or mulches uncovered now - you will cause pollution!

Also sow a few hardy annuals, to flower early next year for bees and other pollinators. Bees need all the help they can get now!
If you want new potatoes for Christmas - 
You could also still plant a few sprouted potato tubers in pots before mid-Sept. - to bring into the greenhouse or tunnel later.  'Autumn planting ready' types are available now in garden centres - or if you have any small tubers of 1st or 2nd earlies you've kept from your spring crop, or 'Mayan Gold' or 'Apache' lifted in spring/summer - put them in the fridge for a couple of weeks - then bring into the warm and keep dark for a few days - this will initiate sprouting of shoots - Mayan Gold and Apache are great-tasting potatoes which are not day-length sensitive and will grow quite happily at any season of the year. Lady Christl is also good and always the fastest to bulk up but Sharpe's Express and Duke of York are also good. The sooner you plant them the better now. Give them really good air circulation once they are above the surface - to avoid late blight and don't wet the leaves when watering as doing this encourages it.  
*Best sown in early September
And don't forget there's still just time to plant some saffron bulbs (see last month).
A friendly 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 - including photographs - or repeat it in any way online, I would remind you that it is copyright and 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.
(I recently came across one of my best tomato photographs - one that I took to publicise the first 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' - being used online, as the profile picture on someone else's Twitter account. Quite unbelievable cheek and legally that is plagiarism! Needless to say that person was otherwise anonymous!)

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in August - 2018

August contents: Berried Treasure - Blackberry fields forever!.........Preserving the joys of summer!......Magnificent Melons.........Raspberries all summer long?.....'Tis the season of wasps!......Other fruit jobs
 Grape harvest - 6 early varieties ripe now. From top left clockwise - Chasselas D'Or, Regent, Muscat Bleu, Black Strawberry, Lakemont Seedless & Rose Dream
Grape harvest - 6 early varieties ripe now. From top left clockwise - Chasselas D'Or, Regent, Muscat Bleu, Black Strawberry, Lakemont Seedless & Rose Dream

" The sun being now in it's southern declination the Air begins to cool, and it is become very pleasant to walk after a thunder shower. Although the beauties of the Fields and Gardens begin to fade, yet the profits now flow in.... the Avenues and walks of your Gardens now furnish the most curious palates with the most delicate Fruits....Little is now to be done in a Garden, besides gathering in the Fruits of former Labours." 
 (From A calendar of Gardener's Lore - August, 1688) -  I love those old gardening quotes, which echo the familiar fellow feelings we share with all the other gardeners who have preceded us overt the centuries. They valued the abundance of summer and autumn fruits just as much as we do now. They knew that fruit was healthy food - even though their knowledge was based on observations that didn't include using the magnetic resonance imaging or high-throughput, electron microscopy tools that we have more recently acquired! 
I really hate it when people ask me -"If you could have, say, only one grape, one tomato or other crop - then which would you choose?" I always feel it's a bit like being asked which is my favourite child! It's so difficult to choose! And why would you want to? The wonderful thing is that there are so many different cultivars of every possible kind of seasonal fruit and other crops available which have been handed down to us over centuries, and we must make sure we preserve as many of them as possible. When old varieties fall out of favour or possibly disappear altogether - we are losing a precious genetic resource which may possibly be vital in future breeding programmes, because it may have pest or disease-resistance - or an ability to adapt to a very different climate. Where have you heard that before? When I'm talking about tomatoes of course! Because exactly the same applies to them too.  
And while I'm on the subject of tomatoes - apologies for this month's fruit blog-post being a bit later than usual - but as I'm sure most of you know - I've been heavily involved in the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival currently being held at the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin -and  the reason I started #TTTomFest  (the abbreviated Twitter hashtag for it) many years ago was to highlight the importance of preserving all the vital genetic diversity which is so important to the future security of our food crops.
There are always of course many new varieties of fruit being bred because it can now be extremely profitable to own the patent and collect the royalties on a new variety of any food crop.  Being able to patent a new variety is a relatively new phenomenon, compared to the countless centuries over which most fruits were preserved by people who just valued their qualities and thought them worth handing down to future generations. But the new varieties are not always good ones. A case in point is the Rose Dream grape above - very sweet and watery, almost insipid, and welcome enough in early August because it's always the first grape to ripen here - but with very little real flavour. Breeders now seem to think that everyone wants sweeter and sweeter fruits - but in fact what I'm always looking for is exceptional flavour. A rich, aromatic depth of flavour indicates a complex concentration of phytochemicals - and that is what interests me. Sadly supermarket demands for easy to package, evenly-sized fruit that doesn't bruise when travelling, and has a long shelf-life has caused many older traditional and far better-tasting varieties to become unavailable by making it not worth the commercial growers while to grow them. As gardeners we don't have to worry about shelf-life - we worry about our own lives - so we can grow the very best and tastiest varieties!
I may be controversial and get into trouble with the 'sugar police' for saying this - but those who say we shouldn't eat fruit really are talking complete and utter rubbish! Fruit is more than just fructose (which is what many say) - and if we weren't meant to eat it - then Nature wouldn't have made it so delicious for us to eat!  You don't see morbidly obese or Type 2 diabetic badgers, birds or foxes do you? That's because they eat exactly what Nature provided. They don't eat processed junk-food, full of genetically modified artificial sugars like high fructose corn syrup or sweeteners and other unnatural additives - and neither should we!  Clever old Nature evolved fruit into such beautiful and delicious packages that we and other creatures just can't resist ensure the continued propagation of whatever species of fruit it happens to be. We're just the means to an end really!  Nature also packed fruit with many health-promoting phytochemicals and fibre too - so that we stay healthily alive to continue propagating them! How beautifully everything in Nature is organised!
Berried Treasure -  Blackberry Fields Forever!
 The huge ripe fruits of my 'Himalayan Giant' x wild bramble hybrid - always the earliest. Plump and delicious!
The huge ripe fruits of my 'Himalayan Giant' x wild bramble hybrid - always the earliest. Plump and delicious!
The heavy rain of the last couple of weeks has brought a bit of a damp chill in the evenings and it's feeling very 'autumn'-y! The first rain was very welcome relief after such a long drought, but the last few days have been ceaselessly grey and it really feels like the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. However - on the bright side - the rain came just at the right time for this year's blackberry crop after the drought! The first berries started to swell about three weeks ago but they were still a bit 'pippy' and dry. They've starting to swell up nicely now and the plumptious, glossy black berries are ripening faster than we can pick them - or the birds can eat them! The cultivated types like Himalayan Giant always start to ripen earlier - at least a month before the smaller wild species. One or two of the 'bird sown', bee cross-pollinated hybrids I've found here over the last few years tend to ripen even a few days earlier than those. One plant in particular has that real wild 'bramble' taste, combined with the depth of flavour, acidity and much larger size of the cultivated varieties. It's the best I've tasted and has a far better flavour than any of the hybrids you can currently buy. I've tried most of the varieties on offer and been very disappointed with their taste. Himalayan Giant - which I've often talked about before - is really the very best-tasting variety but it's a bit of a thug and can be an absolute nightmare in a small garden - or even a large one if left to it's own devices! Fine though, if you've got plenty of room and you want a productive, very effective vandal proof hedge!  A good alternative to Himalayan Giant for a small garden - not quite as deeply flavoured but still very nice - is the new variety 'Reuben' which is a primocane variety. Being a primocane means that unlike other blackberries - it will fruit in it's first year of cane growth. I've been growing it for over 4 years now since it first became available commercially and have found that by growing it in a large tub in the polytunnel I can even get it to fruit twice a year - picking huge fresh juicy berries for much longer. 
Blackberries are a nutritional powerhouse and a mainstay of breakfasts, muffins, puddings, salad dressings, ice cream and many other delights all year round here.  Combined with green leaves like spinach and kale and a handful of walnuts or almonds - they make the most delicious gut and brain-healthy phytonutrient-rich smoothies too! Their rich taste makes them a healthy base for any number of things and they're also high in other nutrients and fibre. In fact - blackberries have been shown to have one of the highest antioxidant contents of any food tested and studies have indicated that regular consumption of them may have a positive impact on health - lowering the risk of many diseases. Their high level of anthocyanin phytonutrients, which gives them their dark purple colour, have been shown to protect the brain from oxidative stress, and may even reduce the effects of age-related conditions like Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Other studies have shown that they may also protect against cancers of the colon. They are high in potassium, ellagic acid (an immune-stimulating nutrient) as well as many other vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. 
We don't tend to eat jam here as we avoid too much sugar - so to preserve blackberries I freeze any berries not eaten immediately. They can then be thrown straight into yoghurt or kefir to make ice cream or half-frozen smoothies, if you have one of those powerful Nutribullet-type blenders. You can't buy frozen organic blackberries anywhere - at least I've never seen them. Even the chemically-laden ones - which I wouldn't touch - are incredibly expensive both fresh and frozen, so it makes sense to grow your own, and they really couldn't be any easier!  Picking's the hardest thing - but any of the family who are around always get drafted in for that job - they want to eat them after all!  Anyway who doesn't love a bit of leisurely blackberry picking in warm early autumn sunshine - and the delicious benefits are many!  I certainly wouldn't agree with the "little is now to be done" in the above quote - but "the profits are definitely now flowing in" - we're certainly enjoying "gathering in the fruits of former labours" right now, as the quote says! ....So far we've picked and frozen 12.5 kg of blackberries - that's €600 worth at current the price for organic fresh berries - and even the conventionally-grown ones, which are sprayed with a lot of pesticides aren't much cheaper, because even though they're seasonal as they're mostly grown in huge polytunnels or greenhouses, being such a high value fruit. So it's well worth the sometimes uncomfortable effort of picking your own, to have such nutrient-rich organic fruit available all year round! When I finally ran out of the frozen berries a few weeks ago - I really missed them. Even the amount we already have would provide one person with one 'portion' of their five a day - on every other day of the year - and there's loads more still to be picked!  Blackberries are even energy efficient!  Freezing them loose and then bagging them up into very large bags is best, as it means that when loose frozen like that they'll fit very conveniently around all the bigger, lumpier things in the freezer - filling in any gaps and air pockets and therefore making your freezer as energy efficient as possible, as well as taking up less room. Important when there's so many seasonal goodies to try to fit in!
Anyone who has ever tried to clear brambles knows that blackberries will grow vigorously almost anywhere - but they particularly appreciate a heavy fertile soil and plenty of sun to ripen the berries and give them flavour.  I noticed the first blackberries were ripe on the early Himalayan Giant hybrid about a month ago, while I was mowing nearby. I meant to go out in the evening and pick them - but something happened as usual and by the time I remembered next morning and went out, our secretive fruit gourmet - the badger - had paid us his regular visit - which he does nightly at this time of year. Everything that's ripe, from 'large Labrador nose height' down was gone!!  My dogs have always loved them too and even the hens love them! They know what's good for them! That blackberry is trained along a fence which backs onto a lawn, and is about 8 feet high so I find it impossible to cover. That means that the badgers, foxes and birds get a massive amount of fruit each year. Covering blackberries is extremely difficult - and fraught with danger due to the vicious thorns. It's also practically impossible to get the net off again too, as it gets caught on all the thorns, so I don't bother to even try any more. I would need an enormous fruit cage to contain just one plant of Himalayan Giant and as it grows at an exponential rate - exploring through any netting very quickly! We always have more than enough anyway! Badgers and foxes love all fruit - and on their night time forays help themselves to any juicy fruits conveniently growing at their level. I don't mind though - heaven knows they have a hard enough time surviving these days. Unfortunately though, badgers and foxes are also very partial to plums, which are not so plentiful! They obviously must stand on their hind legs to eat those - carefully hoovering off all they can reach in a neatly cropped circle all around the tree - not a lot I can do about that!  
Preserving the fruity joys of summer!
I always start to feel a bit like a squirrel at this hectic time of year - as while there's more than enough fruit to eat fresh now - it's very nice to know that there's also plenty of fruit preserved in different ways to add a bit of joy to the cold, dark winter months and to keep the colds at bay. This is the only time I miss the very hot, dry late summers of my childhood in the English shires, which seemed to last forever in hindsight. Our wonderful Victoria plums were as big as duck eggs from the huge old trees - and oh, the scent of the greengage walk in the kitchen garden! As soon as you walked anywhere near - you could smell when they were ripe!.....You never get that wonderful aromatic scent from greengages unless you grow them yourself because they're never left to ripen on the trees. They need to have a yellowish hue, be slightly soft and to be cracking slightly around the stem at the top. Then they taste like nectar for the Gods! The same goes for melons - most of the ones sold in shops are picked well before they're ripe or they wouldn't travel - but the taste of a properly ripe homegrown melon makes all the hard work worthwhile! The summer's been kind to us this year - and all the fruit in the garden is cropping really well. It certainly appreciated the bit of rain we've had recently - it came just at the right time - all the berry fruits are extra-large and juicy and the apples in the new orchard are swelling fast. 
There have been so many peaches again this year in the polytunnel - a surprise after the freezing-cold weather and even snow when they were flowering! The unknown variety of late, white fleshed, free-stone peach in the polytunnel has a fantastic crop on it again this year. After eating as many as we can fresh, and freezing a few, I semi-dehydrate and then freeze them, after dipping them first in lemon juice to stop the cut pieces browning due to oxidisation. It's a very successful way to reduce their bulk in the freezer while still retaining their nutrients and delicious taste. In fact - doing this actually concentrates their flavour and they add a welcome extra deliciousness to winter salads, smoothies and other dishes. The only problem I find is not eating them all immediately as they are so scrumptious - with that really concentrated peach flavour! When I was a child an uncle living in South Africa used to send us a huge box of candied glace fruits every Christmas as a present and they were such a delicious luxury then - though they were very high in sugar! These peach pieces have the same concentrated flavour but no sugar at all apart from what the fruit originally contained - so they're much healthier. Picking them very slightly under-ripe also means they contain a little less sugar and they're also firmer and easier to deal with when cutting in half. Another great use for the dehydrator!
Magnificent Melons
Melon 'Emir'Melon 'Emir'
Melons for breakfast - so sweet that they are almost (but not quite) too sweet - are such a luxury! The best and most reliable varieties I've found for tunnel growing so far are Lidl's Charentais (great value seed), 'Emir' which last year produced an exceptional crop of dozens of incredibly deliciously aromatic fruits and Alvaro which is similar. They are definitely the best I have ever grown!  The fruits are just the right size for two people to halve for a starter, pudding or breakfast - but naturally, being us, we have one each! Well we have to - we couldn't possibly waste them as they go off so quickly when really ripe - and don't store other than freezing well as a sorbet (with the judicious addition of a little drop of 'Melone' liqueur too - yum!).  I never harvest melons until they come away from the stalk at the top of the fruit with the slightest touch - that's when they are at their luscious peak of maximum perfection. Do try these varieties - they're terrific in a polytunnel - and this year might have been good outside too, with the amount of sun we've had here, especially if one grew them under a cold frame or cloches.  In the UK - particularly in the south east which all summer is normally between 6-10 degrees warmer than we are here - it would definitely do very well outside.
If you want an easy watermelon, Sugar Baby is a good reliable one - and more like the size of a canteloupe. They do need a longer season that canteloupes to be successful though - I always sow them in mid-late February. One or two are already looking very promising and won't be long before they're ripe! You can grow the huge ones from seed too if you start them early. About 35 years ago I grew some from seed saved from a shop-bought watermelon as it was hard to get seed then. They actually grew - I was astonished! I took a few slices to an organic conference - making some people very envious and a couple of good friends very happy!
In the picture below I've raised some of the melon fruits up off the ground on 2 litre pots. This keeps them away from any possible slug damage and being raised up in the sun also helps them to ripen as the black pots also trap heat. 
The three melons you can see below are, from l-r - Charentais, Country Taste and Emir.
Melon 'Emir' ripening on an upturned 2litre pot 20.8.13 Melon 'Country Taste' climbing through grape 'Muscat Bleu' 21.8.13 2 'Lidl Charentais' & 'Emir' (at back) melons on 2.litre pots 20.8.13



Raspberries all summer long? 


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


I'm very pleased with my latest autumn raspberry experiment in the fruit tunnel. I potted up a couple of Sugana plants 3 years ago to see how they would do grown under cover. Sugana is the very latest new autumn raspberry - supposedly 'twice fruiting' - but as you know if you've read this blog before - I originally discovered many years ago by accident that all autumn raspberries will do that, if you leave some of the previous year's older fruited canes on the plants to fruit again the following midsummer. This is a tip I've shared widely - and I now see it being repeated everywhere! Sugana does seem more vigorous than most though, it's producing the most magnificent huge berries with a wonderful flavour. I made the mistake of putting two plants into a huge 20 litre tub as they were quite small when they came and I was a bit short of room. They've grown massively since then - producing lots of new canes which they will be fruiting on for some weeks - so when they eventually stop I shall split them up into 6 and replant them as they need watering every 5 minutes! The flavour is almost as good as my favourite Joan J - and also seems just a tad earlier. Growing both varieties - both inside and outside could spread the season even more and possibly give a really good crop of raspberries for most of the summer. I love raspberries - and they freeze so well. I've frozen some of the Sugana for a healthy festive treat - but last year Joan J went on fruiting a bit right up until Christmas

Raspberry Joan J - size comparison with 1 euro coinRaspberry Joan J - size comparison with 1 euro coin
Autumn raspberry 'Joan J' is a wonderful variety - so far removed from the old 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss' types that it's almost another fruit altogether. Joy Larkcom originally recommended it to me as she'd been given some to trial a few years ago and she loved it. When she was staying here some years ago for a talk she was doing locally, she tried another new one called 'Brice', which I had growing here which is another really good variety. Anyway, I'm so pleased with 'Joan J' that I took a photo to show you it's size. It tastes every bit as good as the summer ones and unlike them - it's another so-called 'primocane' variety - and it will actually crop again next year on the same canes which have fruited this autumn. It really earns its space in the garden even more than summer ones - producing two crops rather than just the one in the same amount of space. The flavour of these two newer autumn varieties is fantastic and completely different to the older types which I think are mostly pretty insipid and tasteless. This year I'm trialling a new variety - which is looking even better than both of those - with a lovely rich flavour and very productive - but I won't reveal it's name just yet - until I'm sure it's good all round. 
Although years ago I suppose one was glad of any late soft fruit - which was why I originally planted them, the older varieties like Heritage and Autumn Bliss are complete weeds here, and are a real nuisance in the garden now, coming up literally everywhere. Their berries really aren't big or well-flavoured enough to warrant their aggressive behaviour! really wish I'd never planted them! I keep persistently digging them out and replanting them down in my woodland for the birds - but I don't think I'll ever fully get rid of them. Being organic I don't use weedkillers - so digging them out constantly is the only option - and not an easy one with my bad back! Anyway, the wildlife is grateful - that's why there's so many birds here. Although that can be a curse too at times when blackbirds start pecking at the shoulders of the apples as soon as they show any colour - and that can destroy quite a lot!
Raspberry Black Jewel                                                                                                                                   Raspberry Black Jewel
The jury's really still out for me on the expensive summer raspberry 'Black Jewel' which some of the fruit catalogues have now. Their photographs look so enticing, and black raspberries are supposed to contain anti-cancer phytonutrient ellagic acid and anthocyanins like blackberries - but you'd need an awful lot of them to benefit. I planted some four years ago and they fruited for the first time 3 years ago. Last year they produced what I presume would be a good crop for them - but sadly not for me! The small fruit were a nightmare to pick as the plants are very thorny - and when you get hold of the pippy little fruits to pick them - they just disintegrate between your fingers into the separate little globules containing the pips, or whatever they're called! The few you can actually get enough of to taste do have an unusual sort of sherbetty/fizzy flavour, like old fashioned raspberry sweets - but I think they may well be joining the older autumn raspberries down in the woodland fairly soon - especially since they look alarmingly like rubus Cockburnianus - a decorative white-stemmed species of rubus that is a complete nightmare here and has taken over half an acre! Naturally you see 'celebrity' gardeners or botanists retained by the big seed companies promoting them - they're paid to!  But frankly folks - they're an expensive oddity! Grow blackberries instead if it's health you want - and your pocket will be healthier too!
Black Jewel can go and do it's thing where it can't take over too much or do too much damage - in the woodland! I'll just eat lots more raspberries and blackberries together to get mostly the same nutrients and flavour - which I do already! This year I compared the taste as they all happened to be fruiting at the same time and actually - if you eat blackberries and raspberries together in the same mouthful - then they taste exactly like the black raspberries! They're expensive to buy and a bit too 'Emperors New Clothes' for my liking! If you only have a small space though you want to make the very best use of it - and frankly despite their much-vaunted health claims - I think that black raspberries are not a value for money fruit, since in addition - they only fruit once in summer!
'Tis the season of wasps!
Seedless grape 'Rose Dream'
 Early grape Rose Dream
When the first of the grapes are ripening I can always guarantee the first wasps suddenly appear - as if buy magic! Every year they time it to perfection! It's a good time now to hang wasp traps around the garden - I shall be doing that this week as I'm starting to notice a lot of young ones around so there must be a nest somewhere. The earliest tunnel grapes - the seedless Rose Dream pictured here is already completely smothered with wasps. They never touch them until the berries at the top on the shoulders of the bunch are starting to ripen - then they can destroy whole bunches incredibly quickly.  When they finish that one - they will move onto the other varieties as they ripen - so it's definitely time for the traps! I've tried all sorts of methods of protecting them - but short of putting individual bags around each bunch - which I could do if I had an army of gardeners like the walled gardens of old had - then there's very little I can do! I just try to get there before they do!  I might try vacuuming them off every day in the tunnels for a week or so - sounds daft I know - but it's very effective for many pests as I've mentioned before. I don't begrudge them a little fruit...... just not all of it!  It's a bit of a quandary really - I don't want to get rid of all of them - as wasps actually do a lot of good work controlling aphids, caterpillars and other pests in the garden - and they're also good pollinators. This is something many people don't know, thinking that they're only a nuisance. I remember about 20 years ago hearing a very loud buzzing beside me in the cabbage bed where I was kneeling down weeding at the time. I looked to where the sound was coming from, just in time to see a wasp desperately trying to take off and fly away with a very large green caterpillar in it's jaws - about twice as big as itself. The loud buzzing was it's wings beating as it made the huge effort! It eventually managed it - flying off to its nest to feed it's hard-won trophy to it's young grubs.

Other fruit jobs
When loganberries and summer raspberries have finished cropping, cut out all the old fruited canes, give a balanced high potash organic feed, water well and mulch. If you haven't done already, you can now cut out the old twice fruited (dark brown) canes of autumn raspberries as well, to give this autumn's new (pale green) canes more room light and air to grow.
As soon as stone fruits such as plums, cherries and peaches have finished cropping - get any pruning done as soon as possible. Do it on a dry day to prevent possible infection entering wounds before they heal. Remember when pruning that peaches tend to fruit mostly on the new green wood they've made this year - so prune back to that to keep them within bounds. Peaches and nectarines in particular can get out of control very quickly if you don't do this - especially if trained as fans (or what I call 'fushes' - fan/bushes in my case!) in greenhouses or tunnels. The late peach in the tunnel is starting to colour up now so I'll be watering very carefully from now on - not soaking them - so that they don't split. 
You may need to protect ripening late peaches and other fruit from the wasps now if they're a problem, as well as from the birds. Old net curtains, or something like 'Enviromesh', fixed securely with clothes pegs are good for this. Ordinary garden netting isn't fine enough.
I'm potting up the last of the strawberry runners for next year's plants this month - I like the early tunnel ones like 'Christine' (the best for early tunnel use) to get properly established in their 2 litre pots during the autumn - they'll crop far better next year then. In their first year, perpetual strawberries make a lot of runners too. You must propagate these in their first year, as in their second year most perpetuals tend not to produce as many - if any runners. That being so - it's very easy to lose them. Always choose really healthy looking runners - don't use anything with distorted, yellow spotted or twisted leaves - this can often be a sign of virus passed on by aphids. Alpine strawberries are different, and are propagated either by division or from seed. Clean up fruited summer strawberry beds now - cutting off any old tired foliage. Lift off protective netting so the birds can get in to clean up any pests like vine weevils that may be lurking around. The perpetual strawberry Albion is still fruiting steadily in the stepladder garden and elsewhere. If I only grew one strawberry it would be this one. It fruits prolifically from May until November if you give it the occasional feed of tomato food like Osmo organic, and it's firm and really delicious. I can't recommend it highly enough.  
 All fruit in containers needs careful and consistent watering now. If some are still developing fruits - add a high potash liquid feed such as the brilliant Osmo organic tomato feed. Remember that with fruits ripening - erratic watering often causes fruits to split - so consistency and a good moisture retaining mulch if they're growing in the ground is key to avoiding this problem!
Finally, if you're thinking of ordering fruit trees or other fruit this autumn - do it now - even though autumn still seems like ages away. Nurseries start lifting plants in late October - If you order now and get ahead of the posse - you will be first in the queue when the orders go out, things should arrive when the soil is still in a fit state to plant, and still warm from the summer. They will establish so much better than plants or trees planted in early spring when the soil is cold and wet and possibly even unworkable. They will also make bigger root systems, as they have more time to develop roots without having to support any new top growth for several months. Many nurseries have good offers on right now before the end of August. These are for pre-orders of bare-root trees which they then start lifting in November. 
Look up good mail order catalogues and online now. Even if you don't order anything, they are a valuable and free mine of information  - and I'm all for that!  Good catalogues are the stuff of dreams for most of us gardeners - and remember - dreams are free too!
Early apple George CaveEarly apple George Cave
I have a few apples in my old orchard again this year! Perhaps because of the strange weather patterns necessitating a different spraying regime on the next door farm again. Sod's law that the apples are on many of the early flowering and fruiting varieties like Katy - which is absolutely loaded - but which sadly don't keep. Anyway - I'm so grateful for small mercies and the wonderful early cooker Grenadier also has some fruit on it too - so I'm looking forward to some epic crumbles! There's quite a few on the lovely early dessert apple George Cave - bred in Essex in 1923. It's one of the very best of the early apples and always the first to ripen here. Often ripe by he end of July - it's now fully ripe, as it's seeds have now turned from white to brown - which is how you know - from looking at the inside of one of the fruits. When apples are properly ripe their seeds are always brown. It has crisp juicy fruit with a well-balanced, almost Cox-like, slightly sharp and almost 'cidery' aromatic taste. Now all I have to do is keep the birds off a few of them! 
For many years now I've had very few apples in the orchard I planted when we first came here, 36 years ago, and I've missed them so much. The orchard was planned to give us a spread of fruit that ripened over a whole year, both freshly picked and then from storage - and I had wonderful crops for about 15 years until the farm next door was sold - and all of the fields ploughed up to grow grain. Two years ago I finally gave up hope of ever having any again, so started planting a new orchard on the other side of the property - much further away from the horrible hormone weedkillers that abort the flowers on my fruit trees every year. Somewhat ironic eh!  The young orchard is now looking promising, and we had quite a lot of fruit from it last year - but this year due to the drought there will be very little as most of the fruitlets dropped. The trees have grown well though and I'm very pleased with them. It's very noticeable that bare root trees always establish better though. All of my trees are on the brilliant M26 root stock - which is semi-dwarfing, early-fruiting and productive - and suitable for all soils but particularly good on my heavy wet clay. 
I hope you will all have some apples to enjoy or can find an organic orchard near you where you can buy some, or pick your own. Like blackberries - they're one of the healthiest fruits you can eat - and together they are simply sublime!
 * 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 - including photographs - or repeat it in any way online, I would remind you that it is copyright and would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you. (I recently came across one of my best tomato photographs - one that I took to publicise the first Tomato Festival - being used online, as the picture on someone else's Twitter profile. Simply unbelievable cheek and legally that is plagiarism! Needless to say that person was otherwise anonymous!)

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