October contents: Time to Take Stock Now......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
Time to Plan your Plot - 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 nowof 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 yearwhile 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. The fashionable thing to call that way of gardening now is polyplanting - but when I started gardening it was called inter-cropping and catch cropping. Long before that the French call it 'potager gardening'! Plus ca change! 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! 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, far more nutritious and not washed and bagged! Add that up over a year and you will 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 I first came here in 1982 - 35 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 meningitis - so 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 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 muddy hands - and even occasionally chewed by some puppy or other! There are a few bits missing - but they 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 this year I did 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 soil, bringing it back to the abundant life and health it's full of now. I also talked a bit about how I made my raised 'no-dig' deep beds. You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjN30StFsf0
Time to Take Stock Now
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 had a slight frost last night and there's a distinct chill in the air lately in the mornings, 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 soaking wet 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!
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. This 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 - then 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 collect.
Talking of covering things - make sure thatif you have bags of seed or potting compost outside they are securely coveredwith 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've used many different composts over the years - but this is truly the best of any sort - organic, non-organic peat-free, or peat-based, that I have ever found. Plants absolutely love it - making terrific root systems - and I have 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 as growth is slowing. Plants are like us - their immune systems don't always function as well as the light fades and it gets colder. Peat-free is not always the cheapest - but it's definitely the best from every 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. I can't recommend Klassman Deilmann peat-free compost that I use highly enough - It's just fantastic!
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 off 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.
Worms are My Co-workers
I do minimum or 'worm dig'! That gives me the maximum return for minimum work! Let the worms do your work for you! 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.
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 and leave the worms to do most of the work.
There is so much more about soil science that we are still discovering - but one thing we do know without question, is that you need a healthy soil to grow healthy plants. Healthy plants grow healthy people and animals - and so the cycle of Nature goes round. Chemical fertilisers and weedkillers actually kill soil life (and aquatic life like frogs) - science is proving that daily, even here in Ireland on our own doorstep! Non-organic gardeners tend to think of soil as 'dirt' (what an insult!) - which just holds up plants which are then fed and kept alive with chemicals. That's a bit like people expecting to be healthy when fed just on vitamins, minerals and protein supplements! There's still so much we don't know - and having read the books of the Late great L.D.Hills - I knew that over 40 years ago when my children were small and I started growing organically. Luckily they've grown up pretty healthy - now it's up to them - but I gave them the best start I could. If only every child could have that instead of eating so much off-the-shelf, processed rubbish and fast food junk! What is also emerging from all current scientific trials is that organic vegetables, grown in a living, organically fed soil are far higher in all the health giving phytochemicals and antioxidants than non-organic vegetables. Us organic gardeners have always known this - but some people can take a bit of convincing!It's only common sense if you think about it - since that's the way Nature evolved everything to be! Some people seem to be afraid of Nature and need to feel 'in control' of everything - a dangerous illusion! Man is very stupid if he thinks he knows better than Nature! Trust and encouragement - not control is the key. Working with and not against Nature is ultimately the only way for us and the planet. New discoveries are made every day - but we are still a million miles away from understanding exactly how all the life in the soil works and interacts, or indeed how everything else on the planet works together to create a healthy environment for life. But no matter how large or small your plot - you can do your bit to make our world healthier and also yourself - by growing organically.
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 manuresor put some sort of cover, on any ground that won't be carrying a crop over the winterand 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!
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!
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 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. And don't compost any bought onion peelings either - 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. 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 has broken my shoulder, 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 nice soft soil of raised beds if they have the shelter of a few grassy weeds. Then the following spring the dirty little brown caterpillar like grubs 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 keep forking the ground over for a few days before planting in early spring - and let all the wild birds scratch them up. 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!
Talking of hens - I think theyreally 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. 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!
Large organic egg producers are getting very little more for their eggs than I was getting for mine 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 that entails. In addition to that government rules mean that you have a dedicated packing house and machines that can pack so many hundreds of eggs per hour! 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! Our six girls have a lovely new house now - it's a re-purposed new '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 in the past! I 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! The Blue Rocks are particularly handsome - I call them my 'Lavender Ladies' and they're much more placid than the flightier Black and Partridge Rocks - though they're all the best layers I've ever had. 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 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. They have a system of seven permanent large runs in total now - that 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 all the time and keeping an eye on the hens already! I've heard several 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. NIgella and her flock of followers would all be dead and inside a fox with a few days if they weren't in wire-protected runs!
Frankly - just leaving hens to wander around, often because people can't be bothered to fence them in, is just hen abuse! In their lovely clean runs our girls 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 podcast interview I did with Gerry Kelly on his Late Lunch show a while ago - you'll find the link 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 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! I could just about send an email 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 did what I thought I would have wanted when I first started growing. 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 hurricane Ophelia happening!
Anyway - thank you 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.)
As I write this I'm listening to Hurricane Ophelia raging over us! I've decided to update this as it helps to take my mind off my own polytunnels and also stops my eyes from looking out of the windows. Also I thought I'd do it while we still have power, which usually goes off here in even minor storms! There has already been a lot of damage countrywide. My trees are currently bending double and although we've been through some serious storms here before and we've done everything we can to prepare - this storm is an unknown quantity. Sadly with increasing climate change, I doubt if this will be the last of these storms we will see in our lifetime - but I won't go into that argument here!
I sincerely hope that all your tunnels are safe - but if not - I do hope that any damage is minimal and that my suggestions below may be of some help and possibly save the cover of your tunnel. More gales are forecast for this weekend, so if there is even the slightest of small tears in covers - it's worth strengthening them NOW with tunnel tape. This method will also save greenhouse glass too if there are cracks or even complete panes broken - something which again I've experienced here.
There were some suggestions on Twitter yesterday evening and this morning that it was better to leave tunnel doors open in rough weather - but from my own experience it is far better to keep them as tightly closed as possible. Winds in such strong storms can be very unpredictable and can change direction very suddenly. If you leave the downwind doors open as one or two people suggested - I know from my own experience that the tunnel can just take off if the wind suddenly gusts from a direction that wasn't predicted. I lost my very first polytunnel in the Great Storm of 1987 because the cheap roll up door blew in and then up through the roof! Then I lost another polytunnel two years later that had been put up by a man who said he was experienced at erecting polytunnels - it turned out that he wasn't! He had tacked the polythene on at one end before he realised there wasn't enough to reach to the other end - he then forced it to stretch too much and pulled it too tight - slightly bending the frame. At the first sign of any wind it just collapsed like a house of cards. I lost not just the polythene but also the frame as well -so it was an expensive lesson. Although he had been recommended by my polytunnel suppliers at the time - I very stupidly didn't ask for other references!
So I know how upsetting it is to lose a tunnel completely - I did 30 years ago! If you've been unfortunate enough to lose yours I can sympathise - but all is not completely lost - because even if the frame is weakened, it can still be useful. I now use that old frame as a fruit cage and chicken run instead!
Since then I've always got the suppliers themselves to erect them as I describe later - then they are responsible if it's not done properly! I also have properly closing doors on both of my new stronger-framed tunnels - one has sliding doors and the other has a hinged-type opening door. I definitely think that the more expensive option of the sliding door is worth every single cent! It's very easy to vary the width of the opening to allow the doors to be opened in even quite windy weather, depending on direction, which you can't do with the hinged doors.
Here's a list of what you will need:
1. A large roll of see-through tunnel tape. You should be able to get this from your local farm supplies shop, they' usually have them in stock as there are so many tunnels around now. Or if your polytunnel supplier is near enough, they're sure to have it. There is a type of Sellotape sold in DIY stores for garden use - but the rolls are smaller and not quite so effective in my experience.
2. A large roll of a good absorbent kitchen paper towel.
3. A large pair of scissors.
4. A stable stepladder that won't wobble if the damage is not within easy reach.
5. Someone to help hold the stepladder steady for you - (most important!) and also to hold an umbrella over you if it's raining while you're working outside as the polythene must be kept dry while you're working on it or the tape won't stick!
To mend a small or middle sized tear:
Mending a hole or tear up to about 4-5ins long that's within reach is pretty easy - but needs to be done immediately to avoid the wind catching it and causing possible further damage.
Get all your equipment ready and keep it dry in a bag or bucket - don't put down on damp ground.
Start on outside of the tunnel first if it's within reach.
First wipe dry the area all around the tear - to about 4-5inches 10cm or so from damage - with 3-4 large pieces of kitchen towel. Do this twice with two changes of towel to ensure it's as dry as poss.
If it's only a small tear or hole just cut off enough tape to mend to about 2ins-3ins either side of the damage and press the tape gently onto the area, working from the middle of the tear out, to avoid air bubbles which will attract moisture and gradually undo the mend. Once you've it stuck to the tunnel, use the rounded handle of the scissors to gently rub all over the area, working along the length of the taped bit, as if you were brass rubbing! This really seals the tape mend and squeezes out any small air pockets. You will see the area gradually become clearer, which means it's really stuck.
Then do exactly the same inside immediately, repeating the process of drying off the area thoroughly etc. again. You may think it's dry enough in the tunnel, but even your breath will create humidity which will affect the area to be mended, and will make the seal less effective.
To mend a larger hole or tear:
Go through the same process again of drying off, starting on the outside.
Cut enough of the tape to 'stitch' across the tear to about 4-5ins either side of the damage, start in the middle, pulling it together, then work out from there either side, and literally doing large 'cartoon' stiches across the damage first. If it's really large, having another pair of hands to pull the tear together really helps - but I have often done this on my own.
Make sure the damaged/stitched area is still dry enough, if you're not sure then rub with kitchen towel again and then go along the whole of the damage length ways, going further out from the stitches over the whole area with the tape. This is because if you don't - wet can get under the stitches and the whole area may come undone if it gets wet inside. Again rub over the whole area with handle end of scissors - (or the back of a large tablespoon as a person suggested to me recently who had mended her polytunnel using my advice.
If you have someone to help - get them to stay outside while you repeat the process again on the inside, getting them to hold their hands flat over the area, to give you some thing to work against when putting on the tape and ensuring it sticks. You ideally want as few air bubbles as possible under the polytunnel tape when doing this. Don't try to skimp on the tunnel tape when doing this - more is definitely better and is a helluva lot cheaper than having to buy a new polytunnel cover!
To mend a tear in a tunnel roof where you can't get at the top outside without a cherry picker!
Make sure you've got someone to hold the ladder - the voice of bitter experience here!
Go through the same process as for the larger tear or hole, making sure it's really dry, getting a piece of tape to stitch across the middle of the tear first. It it's large enough to get your hand through to the outside and you can reach, put one hand on the outside and then you can push against it.
Once you have done that - the first strip of tape should hold the area steady enough to enable you to get the rest of the tape on, again 'stitching' across larger areas first. Then going along. It will also be strong enough to rub the handle of the scissors over the area as before. It's also often a good idea to reinforce a large area with additional polythene if you have some handy. Doing this can give you a good seal which will last for years - I promise! Believe me I've mended some really huge holes this way, and they've lasted until the tunnels were due for re-covering several years later.
If you're just putting up a new a tunnel - it can be really useful to save all those off-cuts of the polythene that may seem too small to be useful! They can come in really handy later on for mending large, difficult tears. I'm an avid recycler (some would say hoarder!) and I can guarantee that if I throw something out - I'll probably want it a couple of weeks later. 'Sod's Law'! If you don't have any off-cuts - then go to a local bed store like Harvey Norman's and ask them very nicely for a polythene mattress cover (threatening to weep helps if they're mean - but they're usually very nice!). They'll always have these hanging around from new show bed mattresses etc. The polythene is normally strong enough to cope with mending a large hole if well put on - and the're actually also just the right size and really useful for covering areas of my 4ft wide raised beds in spring, to dry them off a bit!!
If the tear is too big to attempt to repair in any way at all - even without using a large extra patch of polythene - then sadly the best thing you can do is to literally just cut your losses, get a sharp knife and cut off all the polythene completely. If you leave it flapping around in the wind like a sail - it will gradually distort the frame, weakening it and it will be useless for using as a polytunnel again. Sorry! Not complete despair though - you could still use it as a fruit cage or hen run!
My polytunnel history!
I put up my very first tiny 6 x 8 polytunnel/plastic 'Garden Relax' brand polythene greenhouse in our very first garden about 39 years ago! That was the beginning of a love affair with these incredibly productive and useful things. When we moved to our current home, I started growing organic veg commercially. After losing three greenhouses, I decided that polytunnels were the only option here, as they can flex and move just a little, which a greenhouses can't. One crack and a greenhouse is gone in a high wind. I learnt as I went along. The first one that I lost in Hurricane Charlie produced great crops. It was one of those 13ft x 65ft ones, where you could only grow tall crops in the middle and the sides were very low. The only problem was that on our very windy site, the roll-up doors could potentially catch in the wind and blow inside the tunnel, going up through the roof! That was how I lost that one in the hurricane!
After that I got two more of that size as they were the cheapest option. As I earned enough from all my hard work, I would buy another - ending up with 3 of those smaller ones, and then an 18ft x 54ft much taller one at the bottom of the hill where it was more sheltered. That was luxury indeed! These served me well until I gave up commercial growing in the mid '90's, mainly to look after my late mother who had increasing dementia and also to pursue my dream of becoming a sculptor - which enabled me to be around the house more for my mother. I still grew all my own food in the old larger tunnel, and promised myself that if I ever had the chance - then I would one day buy the very best I could possibly afford, with sturdy real doors - not the 'roll up' ones which so easily catch in the wind.
I come from a farming family and used to breed horses as a hobby until very recently. Sadly I haven't been allowed to ride for over 30 years or so now due to increasing spinal problems, but I loved having horses around, and luckily they've always earned their keep! Just in case you might think we're millionaires - I had a bit of good fortune a few years ago. I happened to sell one extremely well, so I finally decided to go for it and realise my long-held dream of a buying two polytunnels that would last as long as me. These will hopefully enable me to still go on gardening - growing food both for us and for nature and bringing me a lot of joy - even if sooner or later I become increasingly disabled as doctors have predicted! Having learnt so much about polytunnels over the years - I went for the strongest and biggest I could afford, both with a really heavy gauge steel frame, cladding strips to hold the polythene along the sides to make re-covering easier if and when necessary, with the toughest heavy polythene covers and they proper sliding and hinged-opening doors.
I bless my good fortune, my lovely old mare (now sadly deceased) and my two polytunnels every day! Even on the very worst of days when the weather is foul or if I can barely bend - I can still sit on a stool and plant or weed, getting my daily dose of light and birdsong! It's the most wonderfully relaxing therapy as all you gardeners know and is also a reason to keep moving when sometimes it might seem easier not to! The tunnels are also incredibly productive as you can see from all the pictures elsewhere. They provide most of our food here, as well as raising chicks, rescuing hedgehogs, even drying the washing - you name it - they do it! I know that greenhouses are more beautiful - but on our very windy hill here they sadly weren't an option, and they are twice the price anyway. I hope you will agree that I've tried to make mine as beautiful as possible. They're also brilliant for bees, butterflies and all other sorts of wildlife who benefit all year round from all the nectar and pollen producing flowers while providing me with nature's free pest control! I just couldn't live without them!
Whether you have to beg, borrow or steal for a polytunnel - or just pay for it by the sheer sweat of your brow as I did - they are well worth it. I worked out a few years ago that any size polytunnel should more than easily pay for itself in produce within 3 years. And if it doesn't - then you're not using it properly and really you don't deserve it!! If you're eating your 5-a-day it should save you at least €25-€35 per week on your household budget for a family of four - multiply that by 12 and that's the price of a small polytunnel over a year! My polytunnels save me a huge amount on my food bill and everything that they produce is always organic, local, super-fresh and full of all the nutrients that Nature intended and which are often lost in shop-bought fruit and vegetables.
(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.)
October Contents: Pot on plants 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!
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 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 last autumn 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 as I said to Gerry Kelly on our tunnel walk last week - and neither does a photo. The outside leaves are actually an incredibly deep cherry-pink which is almost neon-like in sunlight - and the hearts with the tightly-wrapped inside leaves are also a gorgeous shade of 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. It's definitely one of the most exciting vegetables I've found in years and I've been experimenting with growing it in various ways over the last two years.
The purple-crimson colour means that it's much higher in healthy anthocyanin phytonutrients than the more normal green ones. 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 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 and as Chinese cabbage can't be lifted and replanted which can work with some winter brassicas - because they would bolt anyway - rather than waste them I used them 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 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 it 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 outside in late spring 2016
I'm also hoping that this year I'll have far fewer slug problems inside the hearts! Unfortunately the slugs 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 those and keep my lovely blackbirds and hedgehogs than be without them forever - which may happen if we son't stop poisoning the things they eat! How was it 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 by now but have had to pot on some of them, as they're 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 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. 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 and more hardy than most people think. 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 from the early 1990's. I make a display with 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, which I organised at The National Botanic Gardens in 1991. (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 here are so unlike the usual 'Halloween'-type carving pumpkins - the flesh of those is pretty watery and tasteless.These pumpkins 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 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 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. Even a slice just baked on its own with garlic and butter or olive oil makes an easy filling meal.
One fast-growing oriental veg that I'm sure Joy would love is the multi-coloured Pak Choi 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 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. Oriental radishes are other brassicas that are very good for your health and a recent new favourite 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 in Kimchi too! The leaves are also very mild and tender enough to use in salads.
You can still sow Oriental winter radishes like Pink Dragon in the tunnel too (see what to sow in Oct list). They won't be as large but are still useful and the leaves are delicious and nutritiou too.While you're at it - do 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 compost and protecting winter salads
All the different winter salad seedlings have done really well in the peat free organic compost 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!
Always have some fleece at the ready from now on - cut to the size of your beds - in case we get hard frosts. It 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.
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 absolutelykey 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 after 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 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 winter-flowering violas which provide nectar for any late beneficial insects, 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 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"!
After planting I put wire cloche hoops at intervals along the newly planted beds, so that they're in place and ready for suspending fleecejust 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!
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 youthough - 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.
I needed some extra growing space when I grew so many tomatoes (46 varieties!) for my Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2012 and 2013 - that 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!
The 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! 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!
One of the other things I've been doing in 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!!) Even this 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!
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 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 of years ago while hand weeding. I dislike hoeing for this very reason. You're not close enough to recognise what you may be losing! 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 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 mustard end of the spectrum, and mustard is determinedly biennial, whereas kale should come from cuttings. It tasted horrible too - really hotly 'mustardy' which I don't like. I sowed some of the resulting 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'm hoping that these will come from cuttings, as they taste much more 'kaley' and are perhaps leaning more towards the kale end of the DNA spectrum.
The pics below of three of them just don't do them justice!
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 3. Verdigris colour under leaves just visible where twisting upwards like one of their grandparents, Ragged Jack
Gerry Kelly & I chatting about seasonal crops & planting for winter - in our 'From Tunnel to Table' Autumn Special
As it's late autumn and so many people have asked me about winter polytunnel crops - this month I've decided to depart from my usual format and share the notes with you which I always send to Gerry Kelly before our programme on LMFM Radio - which aired last week. Gerry then chooses what he wants to talk about. The notes are a full run down of what's in the tunnels right now - which I've slightly amended to make them more intelligible (I hope) because Gerry is used to my notes by now - but they're still slightly in shorthand compared to my usual style of writing! I think they do give a flavour of what's going on in there at the moment though. As time for adverts always tends to cut down on our air time too - a lot tends to get left out - which is a pity but can't be helped! I will put the more usual stuff on the blog in the next few days. You can listen to our chat and the more 'ad lib' programme here: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/listen
Polytunnel - general comments
Firstly - as I'm always saying - this garden isn't a show garden it's a food-producing garden. It never has huge swathes with neat rows of crops as 1. I no longer grow commercially and 2. I never did plant like that! It does however grow plenty of food for my family - with enough spare to often share with friends and also for wildlife. It's therefore always a work 'in progress'! If you came to see it - you would probably be hugely disappointed - as it looks far from perfect!
Autumn planting is well under way in the polytunnels - it's sad to see the end of summer but we're looking forward to some great winter food not just for us but also for any bumblebees that will venture out on mild days. I have lots of flowers planted for them too. With lots of flowers all around the polytunnels to attract in bees & beneficial insects - that's why I almost never see any pests. The hoverflies, frogs, sparrows and other small birds that come in, because of the insects attracted by the flowers, are a very effective army of pest controllers.
All the flowers in the polytunnels also lift my spirits in winter - a time when many people feel a bit low. Many studies have shown that spending some time outside every day with gentle exercise, even in winter, is good for our mental and physical health. So a spot of gardening in a nice warm, dry space, with some colourful flowers to look at, bees buzzing and birdsong to listen to as well, is just what the doctor ordered and something we really need in the middle of winter!
There are also clumps of nettles in odd corners which provide nettle aphids which are very valuable early spring food for ladybirds. Those aphids are specific to nettles and don't live on anything else - but ladybirds are so grateful for them when there's little other food around, as they can eat all sorts of aphids! When the ladybird larvae have chomped their way through the nettle aphids - which are normally the earliest to appear every year - then there is often other food for them to eat. Or at least I think there must be - because I rarely see any aphids around after that! Some butterflies also over winter on the nettles as chrysalises which then hatch out in spring.
Just as I do in the garden outside - I try to make my polytunnels as natural an ecosystem as possible - just mimicking nature in miniature really - because everything in nature is connected - with everything living depending on everything else. In that way it all works well in a wonderfully evolved symbiosis - or mutually beneficial relationship - which helps me to grow all of our food as naturally as possible - without any pesticides.It's a sort of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" situation! (ps - This is an aside not in the programme notes! - I was furious a few years ago when a very rude visitor remarked behind my back to his wife on seeing all the nettles - "that if this was his garden - he would do a bit of weeding"! Unfortunately for him my son was at the back of the party I was showing round the garden and heard that remark! With hindsight now I laugh about it as he was demonstrating not just his bad manners in return for my hospitality - but also showing his total ignorance of how nature works. Not surprising I suppose though - for someone who sold a lot of pesticides!!!
Walking in at the south end - the propagating/potting tables on either side of the door
Lots of veg seedlings still sitting around in pots or modules waiting for the last of the summer crops to come out before they can be planted. Things like multi-sown Ragged Jack kale - this is a useful way of sowing for lots of things to be cropped as baby salad leaves. As I always save my own seed of this and many other salads - I can be generous with the seed. Lots of things can be sown this way - especially things like fast growing Oriental salad mixes and spinach - which by the way can still be sown now. (These can also be left to flower early next spring to provide welcome early pollen and nectar for bees.) You have to be careful with multi-sowing things like lettuces though - as these need slightly better spacing and air circulation or they can get diseases caused by damp. I always sow three to a module with these - to make sure I have them - and then thin them to just one seedling per module as soon as they're large enough to handle without damaging the others. There are also peas sown a week ago in pots (to avoid mouse damage) - for a late crop of pea shoots - these are Oregon Sugar Pod which is a good variety for doing this in winter. The leaves are tasty and it seems hardier than most.
There is also garlic sprouting in modules - a variety called Lautrec which I've wanted to try for a while. I always start garlic off like this if I don't know the source of it - then if it looks virused or diseased I don't plant it. When it's sprouted - if it looks healthy then I shall plant it in a container for this year. (I found this in the Avoca shop in Dunboyne. They sell a great variety of organic veg there & also have a lovely garden centre & cafe if you're in the locality.) There are also some tomato cuttings I rooted in water a few weeks ago - these will be potted on now and brought into the house in the next week or so before frosts, where I hope they will come through the winter and be very early next year as the Rosada did last year.
In addition there are also some Violetta and Red Emmalie potatoes for Christmas - up out of the way of marauding mice on a small stepladder - (last week they dug up and ate some of the Red Duke of York I had planted earlier!) They are both second-early varieties which usually do well. Mice can't reach them up there! It's what's known as the organic 'barrier method' of pest prevention!!
Middle S.E. Bed on right
All the beds have moved round in their yearly rotation so this bed is now winter lettuce - mostly a great variety called Jack Ice a lovely crisp variety like a non-hearting Iceberg type lettuce - this means it's more nutritious as all the leaves are green - not blanched and white like an Iceberg lettuce!' Also Red Oak Leaf lettuce in the middle. It's all inter-planted with a garlic variety called Morado - an organic high-Allicin producing variety which I got from Fruit Hill Farm which is available online. Allicin is the strongly-smelling active ingredient in garlic which is very good for our health - boosting our immune system and circulation - and keeping away colds & flu. The garlic will continue to grow on after the lettuce has all been harvested in early spring and will be harvested as soon as it produces usable bulbs in late spring/earl;y summer and our stored bulbs are finished. Green garlic - with the leaves still green - has a delicious flavour. I think the garlic may also even possibly help to keep root aphids away.
There's celery planted at the door end where it is slightly lower and cooler, as this was planted while the weather was quite warm and kept well-watered. I only grow a few plants and only ever cut sticks as I need them - I never cut whole plants. This way there's always outside sticks available for cooking throughout the winter - with some more tender, inner ones for salads. At the other end of the bed near the middle of the tunnel there is purple Perilla - a lovely spicy herb with an indefinable curry/basil/anise/lemony taste which is fabulous in salads and other dishes. I always leave it to do it's own thing and seed itself where it likes. I then dig up any seedlings I want as for some reason it's very difficult to grow from seed and does it far better itself!
Inter-planting is something which I've done for 40 years now. A few years ago someone re-named it polyculture - but basically it's the same thing! I first discovered it was a great way to grow things when I only had a tiny garden - and as I've already mentioned - I still plant every part of my garden and even the polytunnels like that. Just like a tiny garden that I have to cram as much as possible into! It makes the most of the available space by growing something very upright that will crop later in between something like lettuce which is harvested earlier. Then there are also the perennials - like grapevines and peaches in the tunnels too.
Far right S.E. bed - side of tunnel
I'll be sowing a green manure called Phacelia in this bed next week to improve it's fertility and humus content - as it tends to dry out quite quickly. This is a much better way to improve soil fertility than just lashing on masses of manure! Too much nitrogen unbalances the nutrients in soil and can cause some important soil bacteria and other soil life to die out. When it's cut down and forked in lightly early in the New Year, the worms will gradually work it in - magnifying it's nutrients and turning it into moisture-retaining humus.
Left-hand S.W. bed
This is all brassicas - the cabbage family - broccoli, Chinese greens etc. this year - this bed will be tomatoes next year as they follow on well from brassicas.
It's important to plan your rotations well even in a small polytunnel as this is another good way to prevent a build-up of pests and diseases. Growing veg in rotation means making sure that you don't grow any veg family in the same spot more than once every four years. With things like the tomato family (solanaceae) sometimes this can be a problem as there's so many of that family that we want to grow - tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, potatoes etc - I overcome this by growing some of them in containers - especially peppers and aubergines which seem to do better in containers - I think that's because the roots are warmer and the drainage is much better.
Growing right next to path here where it's easy to pick anytime is watercress - a plant that most people don't realise is actually a member of the cabbage family - this is one of the mainstays of our winter diet. It's higher in healthy nutrients than any other green veg - lovely raw in salads and also great for soups and sauces - it's so versatile that we use it a lot.
Next to that is the multi-coloured Pak Choi called 'Vibrant Joy' (from Real Seeds)with very tender juicy leaves - again great in salads. Next to that in the middle of the bed is the Chinese Cabbage Scarlette - a fabulous-coloured, sweet-tasting new variety I grew for the first time last year - very high in phytonutrients. It's great in stir fries and salads.
On the left of these will be Green Magic broccoli - coming on nicely in modules now and soon to be planted. That will crop until late April/early May.
To the far left of these at the side of the tunnel waiting to be planted are lots more plants and seedlings in pots and modules - looking a bit of a mess really!
The last grapes are ripening - a late seedless variety called Flame. These are trained at 1m high along the sides where they don't shade anything & produce huge crops.
Top right middle bed
Courgettes - yellow Atena & a green one Ambassador (some of which we eat in the pizza recipe for the programme) - these have been cropping well since early May and should go on another few weeks unless we get really cold weather. I always plant two varieties to ensure I get good pollination (explained in programme) After they come out I have a terrific winter spinach called Viroflex (again Real Seeds) - growing on in modules which will crop until next April and some more lettuce. If they're still cropping I shall pot the spinach on into small pots.
Far right N.E. bed
This will also be brassicas - multi-sown Ragged Jack Kale to provide baby leaves for salads or stir fries all through the winter and then delicious flower shoots like broccoli in spring. Currently there is some green oak leaf lettuce cropping there and also some loose-leaf winter 'collard' cabbage to harvest after Christmas. There's also some late-sown purple sprouting broccoli - all still growing on in modules at the moment. Both are much more productive in the tunnel in late winter as we can be very windy here. As I have eight beds in the polytunnel - a four course rotation works well in here.
Left middle bed
All the tomatoes have gone now and have been replaced by Ruby Chard Vulcan - another very nutritious mainstay of our winter diet. This is planted either side of the bed with Sugar Loaf chicory down the middle. The hens love the outside leaves of this and we eat the smaller middle leaves and hearts in salads all winter until April. There are Welsh onions to provide tasty salad and stir-fry green onions planted between the chard - and again this bed is also inter-planted with garlic. 'Layering' and 'inter-planting' crops again.
Far left bed
Here the brilliant bush tomato variety Chiquito is still ripening late fruit - this is wonderful for cooking and also freezing for cooking over the winter. We're eating some of this in the sauce which is an ingredient of today's recipe.
Poor Gerry missed the hundreds of peaches! We've had a phenomenal crop - the best ever! I spent about 4 weeks dehydrating a crate of them every night during August and early Sept. The older branches will be pruned out next week - I haven't had time to do this yet - then the younger green shoots which will carry the crop next year will be pulled down into a horizontal position. I do this while the shoots are still pliable and before the buds start to swell each year.
Just worth mentioning here is that peaches grow really well in a polytunnel or greenhouse because they never get peach leaf curl which is caused by rain washing fungus spores into the buds as they open in spring if they're growing outside. They're easy to keep as small as you want them to be too, as they have to be pruned every year to take out the older growth. Peaches fruit best on the younger green wood formed the previous year. I wouldn't be without them - they're a real treat and with organic peaches at least €1 each even in the height of summer - we harvested about €400 worth this year! I've now got masses of semi-dehydrated peaches in the freezer
Already I'm thinking ahead to next year's crops. It's a good idea to buy seed or order online as soon as the new catalogues come out - some varieties sell out quickly & with Christmas in between it's so easy to forget to do it!
Our recipe used some of the last of the courgette glut - new courgette recipes are always great to have at this time of year because anyone who grows them has a glut sooner or later! You can find the recipe here: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/recipes
You can still sow these directly into the ground - covering with cloches later in the month in cold gardens. Alternatively - I always sow into modules at this time of year - germination is much quicker, there's less chance of seed rotting in cold, wet ground and less chance of pest damage. It's more economical with expensive seed and 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), 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, fixing and adding vital carbon, holding onto nutrients and preventing possible leaching in heavy rain. Field beans and winter tares (both legumes which will also fix 'free' nitrogen from the air) mustard (a 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 the 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 until you can feel the compost beginning to absorb it. Watering modules from the top may 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 - watercress is actually a perennial and will crop for a year or longer if fed, watered and picked regularly to stop it 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 9 years!
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.
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-Deilmann which is available from Fruit Hill Farm or from White's Agri here in Ireland. There is more choice in the UK. 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.)
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!
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 - 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: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/492-for-the-highest-nutrients-in-fruits-and-veg-timing-is-everything) 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, industrially-grown, picked when they're immature, often long before their proper season, washed and disinfected to be free of any naturally occurring bacteria, benign or otherwise and then often treated with a preservative fungicidal wax. This is purely in order that they survive longer in industrialised, climate-controlled cold stores and subsequently on supermarket shelves. This early picking and long storage means that even the organically-grown ones are nutritionally depleted to start with - but it also means that they're virtually tasteless!
Those apples on supermarket shelves look so glossy and incredibly attractive - with their perfectly selected uniformity and convenient 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. The only alternative is to grow one or two trees ourselves, as I mention later on. 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!
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 new 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 the hopeful young 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, 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. Of those, many are also the same varieties which I planted here 35 years ago - in order to give us a good selection of apples for for as long a part of the year as possible. I only have about a month or so every year without some home-grown fresh 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!
It's the apple season - but why can't we buy a variety of fresh, local apples in shops - now and all year round?
Nowadays the only apples available in supermarkets are almost without exception tough-skinned, tasteless, sugary sweet varietieslike 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!
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, less sweet apple - it is delicious when really ripe but it also makes an excellent cooker - making 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 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?
The consumer does have to bear some responsibility forfor 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 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, 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 orchard 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.
It's time to order new apples and other tree fruit now!
This year has been a fantastic year for all fruit, so you should have masses if you have 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 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 - don't buy the trees or they may be a 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 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 have found Deacons Nursery on the Isle of Wight good for sourcing old varieties mail order and also Ken Muir 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!
(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.)
Do you know that every single year the entire human race eats half it's own weight in tomatoes? This astonishing fact was revealed to us by Dr. Matthew Jebb - Director of our National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin in Dublin - during his fascinating and entertaining talk at the 2016 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival'. Not only are tomatoes clearly a vitally important crop in economic terms - given how many are consumed globally - but when you look at all their many and varied health benefits they may well also be responsible more than most other fruits and vegetables for maintaining our health too! Can you imagine a life without tomatoes and all the wonderful dishes we can make with them? Imagine a curry or Bolognese sauce without them - or even just bog-standard good old tomato sauce on your burger and chips? I certainly can't! A life completely devoid of tomatoes would be unthinkable - and for me they are the absolute essence of summer!
It was for this reason that I came up with the idea of holding the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival back in 2012 - as a way of not just celebrating their enormous and fascinating diversity but also to show how vitally important it is to preserve as much as possible of that genetic diversity. In the future, some as yet unknown disease may possibly threaten the survival of all tomatoes as a food crop - and if we have preserved their varied and valuable genetic diversity, there might just possibly be one gene - in one particular tomato variety somewhere - which could be resistant to that disease. This gene could then possibly hold the key to the survival of all tomatoes, as it could then be used to breed a new race of disease-resistant varieties. That's why genetic diversity really matters both in scientific and economic terms. In terms of our everyday lives though - it also means that we have a delicious and diverse kaleidoscope of tomato colours, shapes, textures and flavours to choose from - all with a wide range of scientifically proven health benefits!
So why exactly are tomatoes so good for us?
Tomatoes are very high in health-protecting, carotenoid plant phytonutrients. The most important of those healthy nutrients is Lycopene - tomatoes are the richest dietary source of this. It is a very effective antioxidant phytochemical that can protect our body's cells from oxidative damage and from many degenerative diseases such as heart disease, premature aging, skin cancer and eye cataracts. It is also well known for it's protective action against many other cancers including kidney and prostate cancer.
Although cooking does reduces the vitamin C in tomatoes - this heat processing can dramatically increase the bioavailability of beneficial lycopene by up to 164%! This is especially the case when combined with a natural oil or fat. So It's important when eating or cooking tomatoes to use olive oil or some other natural fat, as this increases our ability to absorb the valuable lycopene and other healthy carotenoid nutrients such as vitamin A.
Interest in the health-protecting effects of phytochemicals is growing and new phytochemicals are being discovered almost daily. There's now a great deal of interest in a relatively recently discovered compound called Tomatidine. Scientists at the University of Iowa have found that this can stimulate muscle growth and has potential as a treatment for muscle weakness due to aging and injury. So don't worry if you have lots of green tomatoes left at the end of the summer. Although they're far too acidic to eat raw - you could use them in cooked dishes as an effective anti-aging medicine! Fried green tomatoes is one famous example.
Tomatoes contain many other healthy nutrients - here's a chart showing the main ones:
Tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum), red, ripe, raw, Nutrition value per 100 g. (Source: USDA National Nutrient database)
Percentage of RDA
When cooking all my tomato dishes - or anything else requiring onions - I also only ever use organic red onions. Thesehave by far the best flavour and are proven to be far higher in important antioxident phytonutrients than the white varieties of onions. Interestingly, some very recently published research by our own scientists here in Ireland - at Teagasc and UCC - proved that after a study of several years in all weather conditions - organically grown onions are in fact a massive 75% higher in these important antioxidant phytonutrients than conventionally grown crops! The same naturally applies to the garlic that we use in tomato dishes.
In addition to using oil or fat - I always use plenty of freshly ground, organic black peppercorns when either cooking with tomatoes or eating them fresh. Organic peppercorns have the most incredible aroma and really bring food alive - giving it a fabulous flavour!Whole black peppercorns are also now known to contain important phytochemicals such as Piperine & Terpenoids. Exciting new research is now investigating these naturally occurring compounds for their apparent ability to stimulate our digestive tract - thereby increasing our absorption of the healthy nutrients in tomatoes.and all other foods - as well as stimulating better absorption of many pharmaceutical medicines. As with all plant foods that we eat - organically-grown plants have been scientifically proven to be around 60% higher in all health-protecting phytochemical compounds - so the more you can add to your food the better! (If you can't find organic black peppercorns in your local supermarket - they are easily available online and well worth any slight difference in price)
How I grow Totally Terrific Tomatoes:
I've been growing tomatoes organically in Ireland for over forty years now and I never grow tired of their endless variety. They are such a generous fruit that even beginners can easily grow them and achieve decent crops. Each variety has different qualities and every year I'm excited by the possibility of finding an even better one for a particular use - whether it's for eating fresh, cooking, freezing or dehydrating. Below are links to my comprehensive blog post on how I grow them and also to my 'Tomato Report' - which I update at the end of the tomato season every year:
Here is the link to my Tomato Report - these are the varieties which I have found grow well in Ireland in a polytunnel, in our less than ideal climate and which in my opinion have the best flavour. If they grow well and taste good here - then they will do pretty much anywhere - trust me!:
Whether you grow your own tomatoes or buy them in a shop - the first rule of storing tomatoes for just even a few days is NEVER to keep them in the fridge! I always feel like screaming when I see this done in shops! It absolutely ruins their flavour because it stops the action of the compounds that contribute to their flavour and also stops them ripening any more. Always keep them above 10 deg C/55 deg F and below 29.5 deg C/85 deg F as below or above those temperatures stops them ripening. If you keep them out of the fridge at normal kitchen temperature - then even if they are the usual not-so-tasty, shop-bought tomatoes which are usually picked slightly under-ripe - they should go on ripening a bit more. Placing them in a bag with a brown over-ripe banana may also help if they are very unripe, as the banana gives off ethylene gas which triggers ripening in all fruit. (Works for avocados too)
I don't make jams or chutneys with tomatoes here because these generally require a lot of sugar to make them. We try limit our consumption of added sugars here to an absolute minimum - eating as few insulin-stimulating highly processed carbohydrates and free sugars as possible, within practical limits.
Apart from being frozen cooked, as sauces, roast ratatouille etc, you can also actually freeze all un-cooked tomatoes without blanching, either whole small cherry types or larger ones like beefsteaks simply cut into pieces. Just clean and dry them - cut out any bad or woody bits from the stalk ends and loose freeze them on trays. You can then bag or box them up later when frozen - which is very convenient for just taking a few out at a time. This is a very useful way of preventing waste when you're too busy to make sauces - as you can freeze any good bits of tomatoes, throwing away just any bad bits - rather than wasting the whole tomato because it may have a bad spot. As with many other fruits - the action of freezing on the plant's cells makes most of their important phytonutrients such as lycopene much more available and more easily absorbed by our bodies. It does reduce a small amount of the vitamin C but this can easily be replaced from other sources, or by adding more fresh tomatoesor lemon juice to pasta sauces at the end of cooking - which gives a nice freshness to dishes.
DO NOT REMOVE SKINS before freezing, even if you don't like tomato skins! If you then want to use frozen tomatoes for cooking in sauces, just thaw them, pour off any water that results during the thawing process as this usefully gets rid of some of the water they contain - so will reduce their cooking time. Then simply blitz them to a fine puree in a blender before adding them to your other ingredients. As I've mentioned before - the skins and flesh immediately beneath them contain most of the nutrients in tomatoes - and if you're blitzing them well in a food-processor or Nutribullet - these are very finely ground. In addition to the nutrients the skins contain - they are also a very useful source of important gut-friendly fibre and hidden in a sauce I promise you won't notice them! Whole cherry tomatoes can also be used straight from frozen for adding Roast Ratatouille, Roast Mediterranean Peppers and other dishes calling for the addition of whole tomatoes. Once they're cooked - you won't notice any difference. If you insist that you must remove the skins for some dishes - these slip off very easily when the frozen tomatoes are run under the tap for a few seconds! Don't wast them though - re-freeze them for blitzing into other dishes like stews and soups to add flavour and nutrients!
I'm a big fan of dehydrating many fruits and vegetables - it's a terrific way to preserve the goodness of your summer crops for use in winter - but I never dehydrate anything to 'paper dry' stage as most people do, as doing that destroys far more nutrients and also flavour. Instead I semi-dehydrate to what is known as 'soft-leather stage and then freeze them - otherwise they wouldn't keep safely, without developing food spoiling organisms, for more than a few days. Dehydrating effectively reduces their volume by more than a quarter, so it makes it easier to find space to store them in the freezer - and gives far more delicious results. It also increases the lycopene content. My favourite tomatoes for dehydrating are Rosada, Chiquito and Incas. I don't dehydrate any fruits or vegetables to a completely 'paper-dry' state which I think ruins the flavour of fruits in particular.
There are many books out there now which recommend dehydrating to a totally dry state in order to store fruits and vegetables - but as I've already said - this can reduce their nutrients and another thing that they all fail to mention is that the variety of fruit - especially in tomatoes - has an enormous bearing on their resulting flavour when dehydrated. Not exactly rocket science one might think - even common sense? This makes me wonder just how much experience of dehydrating some authors really have! I've been doing it for many years and have experimented with processing dozens of varieties of tomatoes this way. I have found from often bitter (!) experience that dehydrating tomatoes naturally concentrates all of the various elements of their flavour. This means that not all varieties of tomatoes are good for dehydrating. If a tomato has a deliciously mouthwatering acidity to balance it's sweetness when eaten fresh - any acidity will tend to concentrate on dehydrating. In some varieties this acidity can dominate the taste very unpleasantly after dehydrating - completely ruining them! I'm thinking here of tomatoes such as Sungold or Maskotka - which have a deliciously mouthwatering taste when fresh - and even cook very well - but dehydrating makes them almost inedible and certainly not enjoyable to eat! The reverse is true of paste tomatoes such as Amish Paste and Incas or some of the black-skinned, high-anthocyanin tomatoes such as Indigo Rose - which tend not to have the strongest flavour when fresh. The taste of these varieties hugely improves on cooking and they also dehydrate extremely well - their often rather bland taste intensifying a great deal. I always find that it's well worth do a small 'test run' of any new variety which I haven't dehydrated before - no matter how delicious it may be when fresh. This is easy to do when you're processing something else and it can save an awful lot of waste and heartache! My absolute favourite tomatoes for dehydrating are Rosada, Chiquito and Incas. These are always reliable and give very good results. Some of the larger beef tomatoes are quite good too - cut into quarters and dehydrated skin side down on the dehydrator sheets.
To prepare tomatoes for dehydrating - I remove any stalks, wash, dry and halve them - even the smaller cherry plum varieties. I try to ensure that I process similar sizes together. If some are a lot smaller they will dry quicker and may be spoiled - so I will put smaller nes on one tray so that I can remove them a it earlier than larger ones of the same variety from the dehydrator. I space them out as evenly as possible on the dehydrator trays and process at a temperature of 135 deg F - usually for an average of about 14 hours. This usually semi-dehydrates to what is known as the 'soft-leather stage which I prefer. This depends on how large the pieces are but I find it generally takes an average of 14 hours. I then loose freeze them and bag them up later - this is because as I only semi-dehydrate them to preserve more of their flavour and nutrients - they otherwise they wouldn't keep safely for more than a few days being still a bit moist - even if stored in oil.
I've found very few books which give any useful instructions for using them from a dehydrated state - so again I've experimented a lot over the years! My method of semi-dehydrating reduces their volume by more than a quarter, so it makes it much easier to find space to store in the freezer - and because it also concentrates their flavour so much they are even more delicious! I like to use them either simply thawed and added chopped to salads or re-hydrated slightly in extra virgin olive oil. I also add them to pizzas and all sorts of cooked dishes to bump up the flavour. They can also be cooked, very gently straight from frozen, in olive oil. This results in an incredibly deep-flavoured tomato salsa or sauce which makes a sensational addition to traditional fried breakfasts, a filling for omelettes, or an accompaniment to many other meals! You will never find that fantastic flavour from any shop-bought fresh tomatoes - either in winter or summer!
I use a Sedona dehydrator. Excalibur is also a good brand. I chose the Sedona because the drying compartment can be reduced in size by closing off half of it when processing smaller amounts. That saves energy and is more environmentally friendly - even though most of my electricity now comes from wind energy. Although at this time of year the dehydrator tends to be chock full most of the time! If you're a dehydrating novice, starting with one of the much smaller and cheaper models is perhaps a good idea - although they don't give such good results, some are only around €40 and will give you some idea of what you can do and if you like the results. Oven-drying is possible on a very low setting - but I've never had much success with it. Most ovens are too warm and also waste a lot of energy doing this - especially if leaving the door partially open as recommended. They use a great deal more energy when compared to a dehydrator - for doing the same task but with not quite such successful results.
1. 'Rosada' tomatoes - halved and spaced out on the mesh sheet ready for dehydrating.
2. The same 'Rosada' - 14 hours of gentle dehydrating later. Semi-dried and succulently sweet!
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.
September contents:It's time to 'winter-proof' your 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 dreaded onion white rot!
Leeks inter-planted with lettuce. In the foreground are Oriental radishes & Chinese cabbage Scarlette - keeping the soil covered.
Summer seems to have left us in a hurry again - it's cold this morning and just like last year - we've had several torrential rainstorms over the last day or so! Yesterday everywhere was flooded and the ground is already saturated! The misty evenings suddenly seem to have drawn in quickly, the hens are going up to roost before 8 pm now and when I'm letting them out in the early mornings are it's mostly chilly. The robins are already singing their sweet winter song quietly as I work in the garden, just as in Keats evocative poem. Around these parts, there is also a more modern sound - the constant drone of combine harvesters working frantically day and night, and there's an air of urgency to get the crops in. Looking back at last year's diary - the weather pattern was very similar. 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! Most of the winter tunnel crops have been sown 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 small slug holes in the outside of these due to me being very busy with the tomato festival stuff and not checking for slugs - but the unusual deep pink hearts are unaffected and so sweetly delicious. It was an experimental crop for me last year and a real find! It's really delicious in salads - seems almost a shame to cook it!
It's time to 'winter-proof' your 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 radishes. This helps to cover soil, stop any nutrients being lost in heavy autumn rains and 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 cropswhich 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 likeclover 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 kill microbial life that turns plant remains into humus and by doing that cause 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 dust that remains no longer has humus to hold it together and washes away more easily into 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, and again early the year before last?
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. A world that wastes so much unwanted food without a thought - 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 - and that which is left will be devoid of all the essential life it needs to sustain healthy crops! Hydroponic farms where crops are fed with solutions of chemicals aren't the answer - they can't produce the naturally healthy food that nature intended us to eat. But let's get back to our own gardens - where 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 a healthy plant 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 what each type pf 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! 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 in the wider garden.
The secret to growing healthy vegetables or healthy flowers isn't a secret!
Justfeed 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, 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's 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 recently! Red clover, lupins and winter tares are nitrogen fixing legumes which 'fix', or absorb, 'free' nitrogen out of the air - so they would 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 and fungi 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 too rich in 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. 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 soil - so take care of yours!
Heavy manure rant!
The other thing I've seen some people advocating is to dump loads of manure on your garden and just leave 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 eventually is destroying life in the oceans too! 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.
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. I don't just selfishly focus on how well my own crops grow - without giving a damn the wider environment!! I think that the majority of organic gardeners care about the 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 dump rubbish everywhere like humans - it recycles everything quite naturally immediately - 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 withdraw the nutrients from the leaves before they fall - that is why we have autumn colour, and leaf mould is high in carbon but lacking in nutrients 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 - 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 undrinkable 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 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 reason to ignore 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!
As far as my own garden goes - the mainpriority now is to get the remains of the summer crops cleared and finish planting any autumn and winter cropsnot yet in, while the soil is still in good enough condition to work. Even in my new raised beds, my heavy clay soil has taken a couple of years to become really humus-rich and workable most of the time. It mustn't 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 - then plants can access all the nutrients they need. It also supplies valuable trace elements and is gentle on all soil organisms and plants.
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 it in a safe place - then promptly forget where it is!
A couple of 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!) An old-fashioned very tall, tasty, maincrop pea - it's an incredibly rare variety and not available anywhere. I grew it in the tunnel about six years ago. 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 them in the 'safe place'! I sowed them last year - 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 nownever 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 seed, in an old cake tin with holes punched in - rather than in that safe place where mice got them before!! Talking of losing some - I'd given away so much of the HDRA Heritage seed library Purple Podded seed that I've been saving for about 25 years, that last year I grew some just to save seed. One morning a friend and I went out to pick her some runner beans - and the row of purple podded peas - that were the day before so full of promising, rapidly ripening, purple-brown pods - had been absolutely decimated! Almost all that was left were stalks! You can imagine quite how 'blue' the air was!! I managed to find a pod with four ripe seeds left, a couple of half eaten ones and three stems with two pods on each not quite ripened - I picked them and hung them up on netting in the tunnel hoping they would ripen enough to be viable. Mice really love peas. I do wish the buzzards would concentrate their attentions on the cursed rodent population - instead of spending all their time cruising around above the garden, trying to pick off my lovely swallows! All the rodents in the neighbourhood seem to move en masse into the garden to picnic as soon as all the wheat fields behind us are harvested!
Out with the old -
The next job is to finish lifting all the potatoes that were covered after blight hit. It was later than the last couple of years - so there's a good crop underneath what's left of them that we haven't yet eaten!. The tops were first 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, 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 very good natured. Not being day length sensitive - it's more than happy to grow at any time of year. I love experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what's possible. This year I'm trying a few varieties - seven to be exact! They were all tubers held back from last year's crop 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. The most enthusiastic by far is the tasty Apache - which happens to be my favourite of the white potatoes now - almost...I think.....! It has everything and is great for every purpose in the kitchen. it's already up about 10cm/3in. All an early or second early potato needs to have some sort of crop under 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 ried Violetta which I grew for the first time 18 months 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!
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!
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 the heading ones have been cut, next year's garlic crop will be planted between the remaining lettuce. 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 - 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 no. This particularly happens if all the hedges have been removed so that beneficial insects have no habitat left! 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. It's much easier to achieve when you're not actually eating any of it though!
It's still not too late to sow fast growing salads - there's a good variety 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!
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 2018 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.
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.
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!
I love unusual veg and particularly unusual 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 anything unusual and different that might 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 to get variety Violetta is just as purple-coloured so must have similar benefits. Knowing that butter is now considered to be a health food and no longer bad for us - I enjoy them even more! For my part I never doubted for a minute that natural organic butter was better than ghastly factory made low fat spreads! It's only natural! Organic butter is much higher in good Omega-3 fats than non-organic butter though - as I'm always saying. Recent research is now showing that it's not butter that raises bad cholesterol after all. It's those unnatural artificially- hardened, hydrogenated fats like margarine. I'm delighted as I never ate them - they taste absolutely disgusting - like axle grease!!
Here's a photo I took a couple of 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 purple variety I grow. 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. 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 recipe 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'tbe 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 as 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.
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! 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 stuff, inventing and testing new recipes, putting daily organic gardening tips on Twitter and time-consuming extras like Tomato Festivals etc! 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. 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 and show people round in addition to all of that. 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 precious and very limited time in having to reply.
(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.)
September contents:Why I started the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival.........The future of our food security depends on us preserving as much remaining genetic diversity as possible......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...Saving money by saving seed....Tunnel fruits......Don't forget bees need winter food too!
I managed to snatch a rare quiet moment to take a photo of the incredible display of over 200 jewel-like tomatoes!
What a wonderful day it was once again at the 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival 2017'! It was simply amazing that we had over 200 varieties of tomatoes on display in almost every shape, size and colour of the rainbow - showing their incredible genetic diversity! It was beyond my wildest dreams that we could possibly ever achieve this when I conceived the idea of holding the first Tomato Festival back in 2012. Sadly the weather was not on our side on this occasion - but the tomatoes provided plenty of distilled sunshine and they were a fabulous kaleidoscope of colour and deliciousness! Enormous credit and thanks are due to Irish Sunday Times columnist and garden writer Jane Powers - who coordinated the tomato display both last year and this year. She worked incredibly hard, persuading growers from every corner of Ireland to contribute to the fantastic display and her military precision with which the tomatoes were labelled and logged in on the day was something to behold! Held in the exquisitely beautiful and historic surroundings of the Orangery at Killruddery House, that provided a fitting backdrop to such a display of historic Heritage varieties - it was very rewarding to see people gazing at such a huge diversity of tomatoes, like precious treasures in a jewellers window. Precious treasures they indeed are - and I really hope that many more people may get the chance to see them this week. On Sunday evening after the Festival closed Dr Matthew Jebb, Director of the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, carefully packed up all the tomatoes and they were taken back to go on display there for as long as they last. Many of the varieties had actually been grown at the Botanic Gardens, from seed which I donated earlier in the year. It was very rewarding to see them grown so well by the staff in the wonderful glasshouses at the Botanic Gardens. Many were clearly much happier there, than in my colder and more humid polytunnel up here on a windy hill 20 miles north of Glasnevin!
Earlier this year I suggested that it might be a good idea to invite multi-Chelsea Gold Medal-winning champion vegetable grower Medwyn Williams over to Ireland to judge the tomato competitions. I confess to having an ulterior motive - he is one of my long-time vegetable-growing heroes! A great raconteur - the room for his talk was packed and the audience listened with rapt attention as he gave us an utterly fascinating, colourful and often amusing tale of how he started growing vegetables and his evolution into a champion exhibition grower and giant vegetable expert - making his beautiful award-winning displays at top flower shows both in the UK and worldwide, ably assisted by his multi-talented and very artistic wife who also contributes to staging the displays. Clearly nothing daunts Medwyn - not even advising Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth on exactly how one should cook purple potatoes! Perhaps that's why he was awarded an MBE?! I enjoyed his informative talk hugely and so wish it had been recorded. Thank you Medwyn - and also many thanks to Killruddery for giving us the opportunity to enjoy meeting them. It was indeed an honour and a truly memorable experience for us all. You can find out more about Medwyn here: http://www.medwynsofanglesey.co.uk/about.php - and here is a link to their interesting 2017 seed catalogue: http://www.medwynsofanglesey.co.uk/
I also very much enjoyed meeting so many avid tomato lovers, growers and old friends before and after my talk. The people at Killruddery were taking the email addresses of those who attended in order to send them out afterwards. But if any of you didn't manage to get there - I will be posting much of the information contained in my talk, here on the blog, in the next day or two when I've caught up just a little!.
Why I started the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival and why it's needed now more than ever!
I first held what I then called a 'Tomato Day' back in the late 1980s in our National Botanic Gardens, at Glasnevin in Dublin. But although many of us organic growers - who were also members of the HDRA Heritage Seed Library - were already aware then of the urgency of preserving older varieties of seed - on the day I felt that perhaps it was a bit too early to catch most of the general public mood. So there it rested for a couple of decades.
In 2012 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 tomatoes like Indigo Rose also became available to amateur gardeners for the very first time. I knew as soon as I saw them that they would be an instant attention grabbers! I also knew that preserving genetic diversity was becoming ever more urgent. With increasing climate change and the attempted control 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 only tomatoes - despite their undoubted huge economic relevance - given that the human race eats half it's own weight in tomatoes every year! Anyway - I knew I could no longer stand idly by and watch this happening. 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 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 born!
The future of our food security depends on us preserving as much remaining genetic diversity as possible.
That genetic diversity should not be left in the hands of 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.
Polytunnels come into their own even more now
After the excitement of the day it was 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 to both!
Ananas Noir not easy but delicious!
Green Cherokee another favourite beefsteak with great taste.
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 so wet, windy and autumn-like that 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 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 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
It's already too late for some crops to produce well this winter - but there's still time for quite a few - butthere'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 isto 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 Deilmann certified 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 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 seed. With 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 - 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 penny because of the great results it produces! Chemically-fed plants in peat based composts are far more susceptible to disease in my 40 years experience. Sadly even some of the peat-free composts made from composted bark are truly dreadful. 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, orif 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 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 rotation - making the best use of the space and completely doing 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 fruit in the tunnel too, and 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 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. 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. Last year I grew some in recycled log/skip bags and they reveled in them - producing huge crops.The foliage hung over the edge, hiding the bags, and they looked really decorative with marigolds and purple basil planted in the skip bag raised beds too.
It pays to keep your very best garden compost for the beds where your winter salad crops are to grow. Many of them have fine root systems a which appreciate a little bit of comfort and if you're
It pays to keep your very best garden compost for the beds where your winter salad crops and soft herbs are to grow. Many of them have fine hairy 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 fork 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 to turn the available nitrates into sugars to give them the energy to grow - with 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 30 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.
Saving yourself money by saving some seed
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
This is the sensational late peach that I bought 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 lapcat!! By the way - the cat's also delighted!
The potted autumn raspberries I grew in the tunnel last yearas an experiment 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 gooseberriesare 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!
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 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.
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.)
"Remember - always sow the seeds. You can catch up on everything else - but if you get behind on that, then there's nothing you can do about it." ....That means now!... Everyday the light is getting shorter and growth is slowing.
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' (Unwins), 'Greyhound' & other leafy non-hearting spring types, carrots ('Nantes' and other early finger types, in long modules), 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, Batavians 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), 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, 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.
If you want new potatoes for Christmas - you could also still plant a few 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' 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 is a great tasting potato which will grow quite happily at any season of the year as it's not day-length sensitive. Lady Christl is always the fastest to bulk up and will give the best crop but Sharpe's Express and Duke of York are also good. The sooner you do it the better now. Give really good air circulation to avoid late blight and don't wet foliage when watering as this encourages it.
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 cropsthat 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 help to improve soil, mop up nutrients to stop them leaching, 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, friable and more fertile soil to start your spring sowings next year. Don't leave manure or mulches uncovered now.
Also remember to sow a few hardy annuals to flower early next year for bees and other pollinators. They need all the help they can get now!
*Best sown in early September
And don't forget there's still just time to plant some saffron bulbs (see last month).
(P.S. - I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you.)