The Vegetable Garden in April - 2018

April Topics: Sow super-fast seeds now for salad greens!....My 'loo roll' method of sowing parsnips and carrots.....Growing on onion seedlings to cheat the weather!..... 'Hardening off' early vegetables.....Stop weeds and slugs before they start!..... When growing your own - you can choose the best varieties for flavour and nutrients......Get your seeds sown!..... Another great thing about growing your own food is that you don't even need a garden! ....Last but not least - my thoughts on some 'so-called' scientists!
 
 
 
Rocket flowers taste deliciously of vanilla!
Rocket flowers taste deliciously of vanilla!

 

Sow some super-fast seeds now if you're desperate for fresh salad greens!

  
The weather so far this 'spring' (if you can call it that!) has been so appalling that most gardens are still far too wet and cold at the moment for sowing any seeds direct into the soil. Many soils have been flooded and are saturated if they weren't covered or carrying a crop over winter - and even if not they will have lost a lot of nutrients. So if you're craving something fresh and green - then sowing some fast-growing veg like spinach, baby leaf lettuce, pea shoots, rocket and Oriental veg into modules will gain you at least 2-3 weeks on anything you could sow outside now - even if you could! You will be eating all of these within 4-6 weeks! If you plant them out on the ends of your veg beds where they won't be in the way of any subsequent crops - then after you've picked their leaves for a few weeks - later on you can leave one or two plants to flower. Doing this provides very welcome early food for bees and other beneficial insects that help with pest control. Many of their flowers are also delicious in our summer salads - especially the rocket flowers above - which actually taste of vanilla believe it or not! The look really pretty on salads or even on chocolate desserts due to the beautiful dark-brown veining on their flowers! A double or triple whammy! The insects that help with pest control love these flowers as much as we do - they also like to feed their offspring a little protein on the side too! So while they're shopping for nectar and pollen - they'll also pick up a few greenfly or some early caterpillars! The most likely time you'll see any pests like greenfly in an organic garden is on the very young and succulent emerging shoots of some plants at this time of year - roses in particular seem prone to them. If you've been attracting beneficial insects into the garden though - and also feeding your garden birds all winter - then you'll already have a willing army of pest controllers ready and waiting to help you dispose of them! If there's too many greenfly for them to cope because their numbers haven't yet built up enough to cope with them all - then a quick spray with a jet of water from a garden hose does the job very effectively too - but importantly leaves then un-poisoned for birds and insects to feed to their young later!
 
  

My 'loo roll' method of sowing parsnips and carrots for guaranteed success!

 
Loo roll sown parsnips, hardened off and ready for planting
Loo roll sown parsnips, hardened-off and ready for planting
 
 
 
My 'loo roll' sown parsnips are already hardened off and begging to be planted, they have two nice first 'true' leaves and they're waiting impatiently now - first in the queue. They don't appreciate being delayed at all! There's still plenty of time to sow them in long modules like loo rolls though - if you haven't sown any yet. If you don't have a propagator - they'll germinate far quicker at room temperature in the house than they will in cold, wet ground. Then as soon as they're up and need light you can put them out into the greenhouse or a cold frame for a couple of weeks before planting out. They'll be way ahead of anything sown in the ground even 2-3 weeks ago - which may well have rotted due to the cold wet conditions - and they won't have been eaten by the slugs which are sadly still really active now despite the cold!
 
 
 
 
Parsnips multi-sown 3-4 seeds per module of peat-free compost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parsnips multi-sown 3-4 seeds per module of peat-free compost. 

If the soil is still too sticky in the raised beds, I'll do what the show vegetable people - like the wonderful Medwyn Williams do - and take out a trowel-full or so of soil, mix it with some organic peat-free potting compost to dry it out a bit, replace it and then plant into that. They'll really take off like rockets then. Nothing likes being planted into cold, sticky clay as firming them into it compacts and squashes the air out of it. Roots need a certain amount of air. The very first 'module' will need easing out very carefully from the corner of the mushroom box that's been their home for the last two months. I use two narrow trowels for doing this - either side of the first loo-roll module - in a sort of 'pincer' movement which lifts the loo roll with it's precious package out very gently. Then I lower it into it's hole - pushing the soil gently towards the sides rather than pushing down from the top, which would squash the loo roll down and disturb the contents. Lots of TLC is the secret - but it's worth it to get those lovely straight parsnips later!
 
 
In over 40 years of organic gardening - I've learnt a great many things from bitter experience! One of them is that when anything has been grown either in loo roll 'modules' or in paper pots - It's really important that the hole is deeper than the loo roll module. I can't stress enough that it must be buried well under the surface and not exposed to the air - otherwise it will dry out at the top and act like a wick!  Moisture will be drawn out of the module as the weather warms up and the soil dries out. The module will then also dry out and shrink - which can be a complete disaster! When well-buried under the surface, damp loo roll or paper modules will just rot away slowly, adding valuable carbon to the soil with no problems at all. 
 
 
After you've extracted the first module from the box or tray of seedlings - you'll find that they're then much easier to carefully remove intact. I just take them out of the mushroom box with one long narrow trowel at a slight angle so the already rotting loo roll is supported and doesn't fall apart. Then I plant in the same way, about a foot apart, as there's three plants to a module. After that they'll only need a minor weeding once, mulching afterwards (I use grass clippings) then the light excluding leaves will close over the soil and I won't need to touch them again at all, until they're ready to eat after the first frost in the autumn! 

 

Over the years I've found that my 'loo roll' module method is much the easiest way to get parsnips sown early enough to reach a really decent size. Small ones never have the same flavour or usefulness. The ground is usually far too wet and cold here in early spring for them to germinate well - even under cloches. We don't get much early warmth in Ireland - it's different in the south east of England or even in the midlands there, where most of the books that give gardening advice tend to be written!  They've been nearly 10 deg C warmer there for most of this last week!  Parsnips take about 3 weeks to germinate even in a warmish soil. That leaves them far more vulnerable to damage by slugs etc. before they're big enough to withstand the odd nibble. That's if they don't rot in the cold soil. I always get fabulous parsnips this way, three to a module planted like that in each planting spot - with only one or two that are a bit odd shaped or curled around the others!  Who knows, I may even grow show standard parsnips this year! Even if they're not - with parsnips at almost a euro each for decent sized organic ones that have any flavour - they're well worth that extra little bit of trouble. After planting they're pretty much trouble-free, apart from keeping them well-watered in the raised beds. They just get on with growing themselves until the autumn frosts, when they develop their sweet flavour and I lift them as I need them for the kitchen. You can raise carrots just like this too, sowing a tiny pinch into each module, again eventually getting nice clumps a foot or so apart - just right for lifting a perfect bunch for each meal. A lot of people find carrots a problem because again they take ages to germinate, and they're tiny 'grassy' seed leaves are very vulnerable to slug damage just as they're germinating. This totally avoids the problem - and is a great way to raise the very expensive seed of the new purple ones. After they've reached a decent size in the modules you can plant into clean, weed free soil, so you won't have to weed, which attracts carrot fly. All you need to do after that is to keep them permanently covered with a fine mesh like 'Enviromesh' to keep carrot flies out.
 
 

My rather unconventional method of growing on onion seedlings also cheats the weather!

 
 
Onions from seed are always far more successful than sets, particularly in a bad year - and of course they don't run the risk of bringing in any disease which sets can do. That can be even more likely in a wet year. The good news is - it's still not too late to sow them if you get a move on and sow them now!


 
Onion seedlings in a module tray, sitting on tray of compost
Onion seedlings in a module tray, sitting on tray of compost
I also have a neat trick up my sleeve for onions - and this one is really worth trying if you are ever delayed when something sensitive needs planting out from modules. I first thought of this when I was behind for some reason (weather, or back problems probably!) so that I couldn't plant out my onions and leeks at the right time - which meant they were in serious danger of becoming starved and root bound - which they hate and can cause bolting. The trick I use now is to sit the module tray on top of roughly an inch of fairly loose compost in a large plant tray. I put something like a sheet of newspaper on the bottom first - just to stop the compost falling through, then I put in 2-3cm of organic peat free potting compost - which I water well - and just sit the module tray on top. This completely avoids the fiddly and time consuming job of having to pot on over 100 modules just for the sake of a couple of weeks or so - and means that the onions, leeks or whatever get absolutely no check at all to their growth. They keep on growing - sending their roots out exploring downwards, happily unawares, and not being the least bit bothered at all. When I'm finally ready to plant them into the ground - I give them a good watering, very gently ease the tray up out of the compost - taking each plug of plants out of the module tray and plant as normal. I may get only one or two 'bolters' out of 3-400 onions - so it obviously doesn't bother them in the least! They will usually have put on a couple of centimetres or so of root into the compost underneath in this time - but by easing them very gently out they never even know they've been moved and don't receive any check at all. This was a great success four years ago, when the weather was so wet that many people's onions were a complete disaster. I had a terrific crop as a result of this trick, most of which ripened well and kept all winter long. 
 
 
  
OK. Like so many of things I do - it's not the most conventional way of doing things - but it works! Being 'conventional' has never bothered me much having been an organic gardener for 40 years! I've always felt that 'conventional' was always there to be challenged -  (not a trait my school teachers appreciated though)! The onion trick is something which I've learned works really well from experience - and experience is always the best teacher. Otherwise I would have to go to a lot of bother and time potting on - using a lot more compost. Saving time is often just as important as saving money for me!  If you don't sit them on compost, or don't pot them on and just leave them sitting on a hard surface, getting starved if their planting is delayed - then the roots will start going round and round inside the modules, becoming very congested. They will then be far less efficient, the plants won't grow as well as they should when you plant them out and they  may be more inclined to 'bolt'. If they're sitting on capillary matting - the effects can be even worse! This is because they start to root into the matting - then roots get broken off when you try to lift them up off the matting - and this can cause them to get such a shock that many of them will 'bolt' - running straight up to flower instead of producing a nice firm ripe bulb - which is a waste of all your work! 
 
 
 
Leeks aren't quite as sensitive as onions - so if you have to go away at short notice or are held up in some other way - you could row them out in a small patch of a veg. bed instead of doing this - and plant them out as usual later - but this trick works fantastically well for them as well. I actually do this every year now with my onions - I like to sow them early to get nice big plants so that I eventually get nice big well-ripened onions! I'm still using the last of last year's 'Golden Bear' and 'Red Baron' onions (Organic Catalogue) - and they are as firm as ever! It's really worth keeping this trick in mind nowadays, when we can't always rely on the weather to behave in the predictable way it always has done - and we are all so busy! Following the same advice given in old gardening manuals, just because that's how things were always done, is always worth challenging. And as I often say - that's the only way science progresses too - but more on that later!
 
 
 
 

'Hardening off' early vegetables sown under cover

 
 
'Hardening off' is a term which first time gardeners often find difficult to understand. It's just a gradual acclimatising of plants to the outside world - after being raised in nice warm conditions inside. At this time of year I tend to operate a kind of airport style 'holding pattern' with plants in various stages of hardening off - gradually moving closer and closer to being completely outside. Gradually is the key though!Always be prepared to put them back under cover quickly if severe weather is forecast. I use this method for everything that's sown early under cover - including my onions. The weather's so bad here today that the gales would have battered and destroyed anything like tender lettuces in trays. Typical April weather! It really is worth taking that little bit of extra trouble to properly harden off module grown plants. If it's well done, in a few weeks time you will have perfect beds full of beautiful, healthy salads and other veg to start harvesting.
 
 
Lettuces, onions, parsnips and mangetout peas - hardening off outside tunnel, raised on upturned plant crates to keep any hungry slugs at bay!
Lettuces, onions, parsnips and mangetout peas - hardening off outside tunnel, raised on upturned plant crates to keep any hungry slugs at bay!
At the moment I'm running in and out of the tunnels morning and evening - putting stuff out during the day that needs to begin the 'hardening off' process - bringing everything in again at night in case of a sudden unexpected frost. I have trays raised off the ground on upturned plant crates, so any slugs can't get them - or sneak underneath and be brought unintentionally into the tunnel at night. When weather improves - I shall leave them out day and night at the side of the tunnels just covered with some fleece at night for a few days. After that they can be planted into the raised beds - which are looking like a very inviting (but very cold and wet) blank canvas right now - most of the winter crops having been cleared. The surplus late leek seedlings 'Bandit' which I couldn't bear to waste last year I planted out pencil thin - 3 in a clump  in August or early Sept. - mulching them with grass clippings to keep the weeds down and the moisture in. 
 

 

Stop weeds and slugs before they start!

 
 
If you're an all year round gardener like methen you'll probably have already covered any ground vacated by any late winter crops lifted last month.  If you haven't done that - then do it fast now!This is important to stop the weeds merrily growing away while your back's turned doing something else! Otherwise you'll seriously regret it in a few weeks time - when trying to get a bed ready for sowing or planting takes a couple of hours because there's a jungle of weeds to remove - instead of the few minutes it would have taken if you'd covered it before they start growing! Don't forget that weeds tend to encourage slugs as well because they give them more places to hide! You can use the time that the ground's covered to lift the cover every so often and pick up any slugs - or just cut them in half if you really can't bear the slime!  Any light-excluding and also preferably rain-proof covering will do, to stop the weeds growing and keep the soil dry and in good condition until you can get round to preparing it for a new crop. As soon as we get better weather the weeds will simply leap out of the ground practically overnight! They're always the first to germinate at lower temperatures - that's why they're so successful!
 
 
Remember - Nature has strategies that can outwit even the best-laid plans of gardeners - that's why organic gardeners work with rather than against it Nature is always wisest in the long run and no matter how clever we may think we are - Nature will always have the last word!
 


With growth fast now - plots can quickly become an unmanageable mess if weeds are not dealt with promptly!

 
 
If that happens - then it's often the time when many first-time gardeners give up - thinking that this gardening lark's just far too difficult!  Either that or turn to weedkillers on the advice of chemical-minded gardeners!  This is a disaster for all the soil life and also for your health if you eat vegetables grown in chemically weed-killed soil!  Recently I bumped into a friend who opened some allotments on his farm - he said that several people had taken on far too much and ended up with a mess - so they've abandoned their allotments completely this year. That's a shame - with the right advice they wouldn't have been so disappointed. If that's happened to you in the past - but you're going to have another shot - then good for you but don't take on too much - a little bit of forward planning really pays off.
 
You're far better to get just one small area perfectly under control and cover the rest or just mow it for the time being. You can use the clippings to start a compost heap or for mulching potatoes to keep weeds down. They love the acidifying effect on the soil. While on the subject - only grow potatoes on one quarter of the plot - not everywhere as some 'know-it-all' people may advise! You could even grow some pumpkins, courgettes or even sweetcorn through any light-excluding cover later on too - or sit tubs on top to grow in this year.
 
If you spread manure or compost on the surface and just cover it until next year - you won't believe how much the soil will improve without you doing another thing - but it must be covered - not left open to the weather!  Don't make it hard for yourself and attempt to be self-sufficient in fruit and veg if you've only got a couple of hours a week to spare. Grow just a few things that are easy - or perhaps are expensive and hard to find fresh in the shops - or things that are better picked fresh just before you eat them like salads. Don't bother trying to grow bulk crops like main crop carrots, onions or potatoes if you haven't got much room or time - organically grown ones are easy to buy almost everywhere now. Grow some permanent fruit bushes which aren't as much trouble and as time-consuming as vegetables. And most importantly - and this sounds obvious - grow what you know you like and will actually eat!!
 
 

Growing your own means you can grow the best varieties for flavour and nutrients

 
Two types of Oca tubers - 1 scarlet with white eyes on left & 2 orange oca on right
Two types of Oca tubers - 1 scarlet with white eyes on left & 2 orange oca on right
Commercial growers often have to use varieties that crop heavily, travel well and have a long shelf life - which usually means far less flavour! I find that the most difficult thing of all for me is restricting myself to things which I know I will realistically have time to grow! I want to grow everything - including many of the more unusual and exotic things. But surely one does have to have a little bit of gardening fun sometimes - otherwise life could be very boring. I also like to experiment with growing new varieties of old favourites, it's an interesting and useful way of discovering better varieties. The great thing about gardening is you never stop learning - and doing it is the very best way to learn!  
 
 
Another great thing about growing your own is that you can try more unusual crops which are never available in the shops. I've tried many unusual crops over the years - some successful - others not so! One of them was Oca - (oxalis tuberosa) - an ancient Andean crop. The steamed tubers taste rather like a lemony/buttery floury new potato. You can also use the delicious, sharp lemony-tasting leaves and pretty yellow flowers sparingly in summer salads. Sparingly though - as like sorrel they have a high oxalic acid content which can cause kidney stones if eaten in excess! That's something that many experts fail to mention! There are several different coloured ocas - but I'm interested in the more highly coloured ones for their possible higher antioxidant content. They're fascinating little tubers and very pretty plants - but I found they made masses of tiny tubers wherever the stems touched the soil as well as bigger ones - and I have a funny feeling they may become as invasive and hard to get rid of as Jerusalem artichokes! They're popping up everywhere now, wherever they've been grown previously, despite being cleared up thoroughly - or so I thought! They don't form their tubers until really late in the season - November or so - but they make an interesting alternative break crop in the tunnel rotation where they were obviously very happy in 2012, and also outside for the last few years!

 
 

Get your seeds sown on time!

 
 
You can get on with lots of seed sowing now - the list is elsewhere in the blog. If you're short of time - (and who isn't these days?) then sow your seeds before you do anything else. As I've mentioned before - you can catch up with everything else when you have time - but seeds must always be sown at the right time otherwise you'll miss the boat!  It can be a fine balance - I often make two sowings of a really important staple crop as an insurance policy. If sown too early some things may get a check if we get a sudden cold spell - then run up to flower and seed almost straight away instead of cropping properly. Alternatively if sown too late - they may often never have time to develop a crop at all - especially if we have a really poor summer. In Ireland, we're lucky enough to live in a climate where it's possible to grow most things in most years given a little care.
 
 
Seeds of some food plants like spinach and lettuce which grow best in cooler temperatures have a built in germination inhibitor that is triggered by high temperatures - so it's best to keep them fairly cool for the first 24 hours or so after sowing. Don't try to hurry them more by putting them in a heated propagator as they may not germinate at all. At 30 deg C the seed actually becomes dormant - this is nature's clever way of ensuring that they don't germinate in unsuitable 
conditions and have the best possible chance of growing on to adulthood and producing seeds themselves. 
 
 

I know they look lovely, and we'd all love one - but the perfect picture book, 'Country Living' style old brick potting shed (as beautifully seen on Gardener's World) isn't really necessary, or even standing outside in a freezing cold greenhouse, with numb fingers trying to sow tiny seeds! I prefer to sow mine in comfort! I keep a large tray under my kitchen table at this time of year, with a few module trays and small pots, a bowl of seed compost, some vermiculite and a few labels, ready to snatch a few minutes between other jobs, whenever I can, to sow some seeds. The tray is actually a 'grow bag' tray - about 1m long by 45cm wide (a standard seed tray width) which I find is the ideal size. It has deep sides, conveniently keeps all the messy stuff together, is waterproof, and can be whipped off out of the way and shoved under the table at a moment's notice if someone arrives, or at mealtimes! I use a new cat litter tray to sit seed trays in for watering seedlings from below. You may think that sounds a bit scruffy but it's actually quite tidy, very convenient, and at least it stays where it's put - unlike the lambs, chicks or ducklings that often in the past frequented a snug cardboard box under the table in my nice warm kitchen, whenever they required a bit of TLC! I do rather miss those days now - and the children's delight with all our various little fluffy babies! It was a bit frantic sometimes though! Hey ho - life moves on.......
 
 
Yes - I know the books all tell us to sow seeds in a perfect 'friable seedbed'!  But like a lot of you I suspect, when I first moved here I spent endless fruitless hours and energy, making an already bad back worse, struggling to break up the compacted, concrete-like, clods of clay that passed for soil!  I was desperate to make 'the perfect seedbed' as recommended. That was before I discovered, more or less by accident, the more convenient and sure results that come from sowing seeds in modules, which I do most of the time now, even for many early root veg as I described earlier. Then I just made 'planting pockets' in the soil of the beds later, as I described in an earlier blog post. After years of cultivation my soil does now make a good seedbed - but I actually still sow most things in modules now because you can be more sure of the temperature, the weather and importantly - the absence of slugs!. Seeds are so expensive now that one can't afford to waste them - and the one thing that is totally beyond our control is the weather. The earliest sowings are inside in my polytunnel, and later outside sowing is done in modules in a raised, slug proof, outside propagating area. You could also make a raised seedbed, if you wanted to but I still find that sowing in modules avoids the setbacks and occasional damage which can be caused by 'pricking out', uprooting and transplanting. Plants establish so much better, far more quickly and more reliably if they already have a really good root ball.
 
 

Another great thing about growing your own food is that you don't even need a garden to do it!

 
As my stepladder garden and containers prove in the polytunnel diary this month, growing some of your own food is easy, really satisfying and can save you a lot of money. There's a lot of information here I know - but you don't have to do everything here! I just try to give the advice and encouragement that I know I would have found really useful when I was starting my gardening life. I hope that you can benefit from my 40 years experience of growing food for my family and for my veg box and co-op customers years ago (can't believe it!). Many customers became friends for life - because an interest in healthy food is something we have in common - as indeed so have you! 
  
No matter how busy you are in the garden - I hope you'll take time to enjoy every moment of this wonderful spring time - it's such a joyous and hopeful time of year! The garden is bursting with hope. Planting a garden is really planting hope! That's something we all need plenty of - and it's something that we can renew afresh each year. Aren't we gardeners lucky?! 
 
 
 
Last but not least! My thoughts on some so-called 'scientists' - after all, if science hadn't been challenged centuries ago - then we'd all still think the earth was flat wouldn't we? 
 
 
Sadly too many so-called scientists refuse to accept that something they may have been taught in college may actually now have been proved wrong. This can particularly be the case if their science is biased by having a financial vested interest in maintaining the current status quo - as many of those scientists employed (either openly or covertly) by the globally-dominant, multinational seed and pesticide manufacturers have. In fact - today some science is for sale to the highest bidder and does not have the integrity it should! It's a case of "Give me the money - and I'll give you the results you want" - rather than what may be the actual truth! Some scientists on social media may not always be what they appear to be - their often amusing public faces may disguise a much darker, self-interested side.
 
 
Saying such things obviously doesn't make me popular in some quarters - but that's never bothered me! In fact I was even threatened by DM - (a private direct message) on Twitter some months ago by one extremely arrogant but very popular and well-known proponent of industrial chemical agriculture and GMOs. This was despite the fact that I had only mentioned "some scientists" - in a tweet referring to my feelings about such obvious financially motivated bias - and had not mentioned their particular scientific discipline! This proved to me that particular person had a vested interest at the time - and events since then have proved me to be quite correct! 
 
 
To such people - using the hashtags #organic, #wholefood, #processedfood or #realfood - seems to be like waving a red rag at a bull - they become almost apoplectic with rage! Their tweets infer that the proponents of sustainable organic agriculture are Luddites and hippies - using such hashtags as #SenseAboutScience, or #FactsNotFear - real favourites of the biased, pro-chemical farming brigade! Some pro-chemical journalists even say that we are suffering from 'orthorexia' - a curious one that - since if you look at the Greek etymology of that word it actually means 'right diet'! They're clearly not fans of evolutionary science - since if we weren't eating the 'right diet' - surely humans wouldn't have got as far as the 20th century?
 
 
It was only in the 20th century that the chemicals which are now being used as pesticides 
were invented. They were originally used as poisonous nerve agents - weapons of warfare just like those being used in Syria and other regions where there are wars now
! If scientists are so confident that their way is the right way and that their chemicals don't harm biodiversity or people's health - you would think that advocates of organic farming wouldn't bother them in the slightest!.... Wouldn't you?
 
 
As I've said - it doesn't make me too popular to question them - and those who prefer a quiet life probably wouldn't. But it's too easy to look the other way and allow another Silent Spring to happen. Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of good scientists out there who are as deeply worried as I am about the future.  What makes me unpopular is questioning those who only appear to care about amassing as much money as possible now - regardless of what harm it may do! But I don't care about being popular - what I care about is the future of our children, their health and also that of Nature and the planet. Surely anyone who has children must care about such things? 
 
Those are the only vested interests I have to declare. And I don't keep them hidden - unlike some people!
 
 
(Please note. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you.)

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in April - 2018

April contents: The importance of pollinators......Thinning peaches and apricots is vital for good crops......Dwarf Cherries? I don't think so!.....What kinds of fruit can you grow in a north-facing site?....Tunnel fruits - grapes, strawberries and figs......Other fruit jobs.....
 
Blackthorn blossom against an intensely blue sky
Blackthorn blossom in full flower against the  blue April sky - 20.4.16 Blackthorn blossom  against the blue April sky only one flower open, the rest still in bud - 20.4.18
 
 

"In this Month your Garden appears in it's greatest Beauty, the Blossoms of the Fruit-trees prognosticate the plenty of Fruits for all the succeeding Summer Months, unless prevented by untimely Frosts or Blights. The bees now buzz in every corner.... to seek for food: the Birds sing in every Bush and the sweet Nightingale tunes her warbling Notes in your solitary Walks, whilst the other Birds are at their rest..... The air is Wholesome, and the Earth pleasant, beginning now to be clothed with Nature's best Array, exceeding all Art's Glory." - (Worlidge, 1688)  
 
 
I love this quote above!  How pristine and beautiful that relatively unspoiled countryside must have been. What a contrast to our countryside now! How much I would love to have seen it. I long for a time machine - so that I could go back and see the abundant beauty of that world before we humans destroyed so much of it in our ignorance. There's no nightingales here sadly! 
 
 
This year the blackthorn is only just coming into bloom - again what a huge contrast to this day in 2016 when it was already in full bloom! In a couple of weeks though it will look just like that pictured in 2016 and will look stunning once more against the cloudless cerulean blue skies. There are still the charms of Goldfinches sitting in the blackthorn thickets singing -  and the noisy starlings still chattering there as usual where my lovely Feckitt used to sit sunning herself with her friends - so that's some consolation. But the pictures above remind us of just how uncertain and erratic our weather is becoming now - thanks to climate change. The late blossom has been caused by the cold soil temperatures due to last winter's extremely cold and wet weather. Hopefully, things will start to warm up now we have some sunny weather - Nature will fast-forward things and the plums shouldn't be too far behind. They are of course the same family. The pear and apple blossom buds are swelling now too. So much promise in those buds!  We'll be so grateful for the hardworking bees when they all come into flower - whatever would we do without them?  We'd have very little fruit! 
 
 
 
The importance of pollinators 
 
Bee on peach blossom in the polytunnel
Bee on peach blossom in the polytunnel
 
 
 
Back in the 17th century, one could take the predictability of the seasons for granted. Gardeners back then could also take for granted that there would always be plenty of bees and other pollinators every year to pollinate our fruit trees and other important crops. Our seasons are becoming quite unpredictable now and bee numbers are declining rapidly everywhere, mainly due to insect damaging pesticides and habitat loss but also erratic weather due to climate change.  It's in our interests to do everything we can to help all pollinators right now, to try to halt this decline, by providing different habitats for overwintering and breeding, with flowers for nectar and pollen - and by not using any pesticides. 
 
 
If bees and other pollinating insects disappear - so will all the food crops which are pollinated by them. That's an awful lot of our everyday foods - and we wouldn't last too long without them! 
 
 
 
Apricot fruitlets developing on the dwarf potted trees. Now for thinning!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apricot fruitlets developing on the
dwarf potted trees. Now for thinning!
Thankfully, despite the frosty nights, over the last few sunny days there seem to be quite a few different species of both bumblebees and solitary bees around in the garden and the tunnels. Yesterday, the tunnels were bee central! There were masses of them in there, pollinating the last of the dwarf peaches, apricots and nectarines in the west (fruit) tunnel, and enjoying all the flowers in both tunnels, some of which I grow specifically just for them. Last summer's warm dry weather was a good one for them again and despite the fact that we're surrounded by intensive agriculture and so much habitat destruction, I like to think that all the work I've done here over the last 30 or so years to provide lots of different habitat for bees and insects is now paying off. Particularly the well-drained B&B bank as I call it - that seems to have been a great success, with so many bee nests in it that I had to stop tidying it the other day. Agitated bumblebees were flying around me everywhere as I tried to tidy the roughest of the grasses up a bit. So I left them to it and resigned myself to it looking what some very tidy gardeners would consider to be a mess.  Essentially my garden was planted over 30 years ago with wildlife in mind - because insects, wasps and bees are the organic gardener's best friends. They don't just carry out valuable pollination but also vital pest control - just as nature intended. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Apple blossom 'James Grieve'
Apple blossom 'James Grieve'
Many people don't know that bees, moths and other pollinating insects don't just need flowers for food, but also grasses, dry banks, leaves and woodpiles to nest in and to shelter overwinter. A friend told me the other day that the new 'Glas' scheme for farmers here includes a module on attracting pollinating insects and solitary bees - so that's very good news. Although we left it as late as we could, to allow for hibernating bees, I felt rather guilty when we were mowing the strips across the wildlife meadow at this time two years ago, prior to planting the new orchard. Quite a few bees crawled out from the tall clumps of grasses - but the strips are only about a metre and a half wide - I'm leaving the rest of the rough grass so there was plenty of habitat for them to crawl back into. I'll also be planting lots of meadow wildflowers between the trees to provide even more food for them and to attract plenty of pollinators so that our trees are pollinated. So far the new orchard is doing well and we got a good crop last year.
 
 
 
  
There are still very few native black honeybees around at the moment though - usually the pussy willow catkins are smothered with them at this time of year. I see fewer every year which is really worrying. I did see one yesterday in the tunnel on the wallflowers, so I was thrilled. If anything will attract them those will - the scent when I open the polytunnel doors in the morning now is just amazing - it smells like a perfume shop!. There are already plenty of hoverflies around in the last few days. Hoverflies aren't just brilliant pest controllers - really gobbling up the aphids - but they're also great pollinators. Once again this shows the enormous value of growing flowers in your tunnel - in case anyone thought it was a waste of space, or a bit 'girly'! Growing flowers outside around your fruit areas or in orchards is important too. That way pollinating bees and other insects get to know where there's food for them and they remember it's location - so then they'll keep returning to do their job and then there'll more fruit for you too! Hopefully we can look forward to another summer full of a wide range of delicious fruit. The bees and hoverflies have done a good job of pollinating the early peaches and apricots, occasionally with a little help from me, and they're are now swelling fast! 
 
 
 
Thinning peaches and apricots is vital for good crops
 
 
Developing peach fruitlets in tunnel
Developing peach fruitlets in the polytunnel
 
The peach and apricot fruitlets, which are about the size of large peas, will have to be thinned as soon as they reach pea size, and thinned again in a few weeks when walnut-sized, leaving them at least 4-6 ins/10cm apart eventually - a fiddly job I really hate - especially now I only have one arm which will reach above shoulder height since breaking my right shoulder 4 years ago!  I also can't bear picking off all those furry little babies - that potential fruit - but I have to steel myself, because otherwise I know that they won't develop properly! Most will turn yellow and drop off as the tree can't cope with that many. By thinning you stop that fruit drop and those left will develop properly to full size. It's hard fiddly work doing all that thinning but I congratulate myself when I bite into that first delicious really ripe peach and the juice runs down my chin. It will be peaches for breakfast for several weeks in the summer! The outside ones are two or three weeks behind, so if you have any flowering now, protect them at night with fleece if severe frost is forecast.
 
 
Dwarf cherries? I don't think so!
 
 
Most years the cherries come into flower later this month. The dwarf (ha!) 'Stella' cherries were the first fruit trees to be planted in the garden 34 years ago,  as small sticks less than 2 feet high, in the bare field. Now when they're in full flower they resemble a beautiful arching cathedral of blossom and are as tall as the house! Not dwarf sadly - but still worth growing for the blossom - and the birds naturally appreciate the fruit! They can reach it - I can't! Sitting at my computer, I can see over the half door out of the kitchen, through the courtyard gate and straight down what I rather grandly called the 'cherry walk'. The trees should be literally dripping with blossom in another couple of weeks. They're under-planted with bulbs, hellebores, primroses and a multitude of other shade loving spring flowers, so they're a wonderful sight every year! They fruit prolifically, but I hardly ever get more than one or two delicious cherries, the birds get the lot, as they're far too high to cover. Even if I could - the blackbirds in this garden seem to be a particularly ingenious and determined lot, no matter what I try to do to deter them. I've even tried covering some lower branches with old tights before the cherries start to colour (not the most attractive garden ornament!), but my blackbirds aren't fooled by a bit of old hosiery, they just peck at them through the tights and still ruin them anyway! Some people say it's because they could be thirsty - but there's always plenty of water around here for them to drink and that doesn't stop them. So I have to be content with just one or two of my favourite fruit - if I'm very lucky. However, I suppose there is a little compensation in the form of melodious bird song for much of the year. Right now I can hear them competing with the thrushes, goldfinches and chaffinches for 'best spring song of 2018'!  A joyous concert -  although a pretty expensive one thanks to some of them - if you count the cost of the cherries!!
 
 
Blue Sky Cherry Blossom
  Blue Sky Cherry Blossom
 
 
Six years ago I had another try, buying more sweet cherry trees on a new, much-vaunted 'extra-dwarfing rootstock' - Gisela.  Sadly it doesn't seem any more dwarf than the others but perhaps with constant attention and pruning, which I don't have time for - it might possibly work? They're showing every sign of being just as vigorous as the others!  Last year I invested in some more really dwarf fruit trees - this time to grow permanently in pots. I'm growing those in my fruit tunnel, so they'll get more attention while watering etc. and they'll also be protected from hungry birds - so I'm hoping that I may finally enjoy more than one or two cherries!  A couple of years ago I had the idea of putting empty netting log bags around many of the fruiting branches of the trees outside with some success but they're too difficult to reach now! The only cherries I will really be sure of getting outside are the Morellos which I planted 6 years ago on the back wall of the stables, which faces north. I can net them there. Their blossom won't be out for another week or so, but the buds promise a big crop on what are still quite small trees. 
 
 
 
 
What kinds of fruit can you grow in a north facing site?
 
 
On the subject of cherries - Morellos are a very good, reliable crop trained as fans on a north-facing wall. They are much more easily kept within bounds than sweet cherries, as like peaches, they fruit on the previous year's growth, so a certain amount of the old wood must be pruned out each year to keep them productive.  Against a wall it's much easier to keep the birds off by putting netting over them at the right time. I'm anticipating all sorts of future cherry deliciousness, not the least of which is what I call my 'Vodkatopf' - my corruption of the traditional Austrian 'Rumtopf' - which an Austrian friend of mine makes.  Being tasteless - vodka doesn't detract from the flavour of the fruit and I think it's much nicer. I just pile cherries (after pricking each a few times with a cocktail stick) into a large old glass sweet jar with a lid, fill about half way up with sugar, depending on the sweetness of the fruit, and then just top up with Vodka. Sainsbury's do a very good, cheap, organic Vodka - so I can still feel almost virtuous when I'm enjoying a shot or two!  Not forgetting of course all those wonderfully healthy phytochemicals too - perhaps they cancel the alcohol out hopefully? Cherry juice is an acknowledged natural preventative and cure for gout and arthritis. My method works well for all fruit, especially peaches, damsons, strawberries - particularly alpine strawberries if you have enough - blackberries and blackcurrants, everything really. Then the fruit makes great sorbets too! - Yum!
 
 
There are plenty of different fruits that will grow very well trained against a north wall or in a north facing garden - so don't despair if you have a small sunless back garden. Good light is essential, so you don't want a site overhung by trees, but direct sunlight is not essential. Even if you have a sunny garden, using a north facing site for some of your fruit is a good way of spreading or lengthening the season of many fruits, as it delays their cropping by a couple of weeks - so that they're not all ready at once. That's what they used to do in the big old walled gardens, often covering ripe fruit like currants and gooseberries with straw matting to keep them on the bushes until late autumn!  A north wall is potentially a great food producing space which is often wasted, because people think it's useless for fruit growing, so it's usually only occupied by ivy or something similar. I remember vividly the wonderfully productive morello cherries trained against the high, north facing wall of the mews at the end of the late dress designer Sybil Connolly's beautiful small garden, off Merrion Square in Dublin - one of Dublin's best kept horticultural secrets many years ago. It was a real gem of a garden - where I used to enjoy helping Sybil out occasionally with pruning etc.
 
 
As well as Morello cherries - loganberries and Tayberries, currants, gooseberries, and blackberries will all fruit very well facing north, but just a couple of weeks later than in a sunnier part of the garden. They all actually make great 'Vodkatopf' too - I've tried them all! Blackberry is particularly good. If you're planting blackberries though, do be very careful that you don't plant a very vigorous variety if you only have a small space. Although 'Himalayan Giant' is probably the best-tasting variety, it really does live up to its name - and more!! It should come with a health warning, as it's territorial ambitions know no bounds! It will grow at least 30ft/10m annually in every direction if allowed to, and if the birds can get to the ripe berries, after digesting them they will drop the resulting undigested seeds in every corner of the garden, which you may not notice until a vigorous shoot, taller than you and as thick as your wrist, is suddenly waving at you happily, having planted itself in a lovely fertile spot, under something particularly precious which hates being moved!  It's enormous thorns can easily pierce even the toughest of leather gardening gloves or wellington boots and if it gets out of hand it is an extreme pruning nightmare. It can be a menace - you have been warned!  I will admit it that it really tastes fabulous though, and carries huge crops!  For all it's faults and vicious habits - I wouldn't be without it!  Every year I fill my freezers with huge carrier bags full to enjoy in smoothies and everything else you can think of all winter long! The great thing about freezing berries too - is that the phytonutrients in them become more available to our bodies when they've been frozen as this breaks down the skins.

 
Himalayan Giant really tastes fantastic, better than any other blackberry. It never needs feeding (very foolhardy - don't encourage it!) it's reliable even when all else fails and is amazingly productive. The bees really love the blossom too. Although I curse it for most of the year - I love it is when I'm loading the freezer with countless bags full of fruit for winter smoothies, crumbles etc., especially when I've just been looking at their price of about 4 or 5 euros for 250gm little plastic punnets in the supermarket (unbelievable)!  It makes wonderful ice cream and sorbets, the berries' gelatinous qualities making them extra smooth, they're full of heart-healthy ellagic acid and many other phytochemicals, and are far more nutritious than blueberries, according to recent scientific studies. They're certainly a hell of a lot easier to grow!  Blackberries just haven't had the same expensive PR campaign, since many people just pick them from hedgerows!  Although having said that - Himalayan Giant has a far better flavour than most hedge-picked brambles. The loose frozen fruit is great for filling air pockets in the freezer too, as it fits nicely around everything else.  So it even saves energy and money! However, when it started to take over the neglected old hen run (own fault - too busy), and I had to get a man with a digger to remove about 1/4 acre of it - I was awfully tempted to get rid of the lot. Now I now keep it under very strict house arrest, never taking my eye off it for very long - severely trained along a fence! Gerry Kelly begged me for a root of it four years ago after tasting it. I'm never short of a root or two as any end of a shoot that touches the ground for longer than ten seconds will root  - so if you hear that Drogheda has been taken over by a rampant thorny nightmare - I did warn him!!
 
 
Other fruit jobs 
 
 
You can plant all types of fruit from containers now, as it's too late for bare-root planting. Make sure they're nice young plants, not 'pot-bound' as they are more difficult to establish well. Gently tease a few roots loose around the bottom when planting, so they get the idea. Be careful to make sure that any graft union on fruit trees is at least 3-4 ins/10cm above ground level. I often see potted trees in garden centres with the graft union practically in the compost - those are a disaster waiting to happen for the unaware.  If the fruiting top part of the tree roots past the dwarfing rootstock, as can happen if it's too close to soil level, then the dwarfing effect of the root stock is lost altogether! Don't forget if space is short that you can also plant all sorts of fruit in containers too!  If you have a high 'pH' (limey) soil, this is in fact the best way to grow fussy acid-loving blueberries, always watering with rainwater - never tap water if you're in a hard water area. This is where many people go wrong
 
 
You can also prune to shape young and trained trees of stone fruits like plums and cherries now that the sap is rising. If pruned in the winter, they may possibly develop 'silver leaf' or bacterial canker disease.
 
 
Keep a eye out for any blackcurrant, redcurrant and gooseberry leaves which start to appear like lace - small holes appearing between the leaf veins. This is caused by gooseberry sawfly caterpillars. It's often a problem on young bushes just recently bought from nurseries, as it seems to be endemic in them! The best way to cope with these is not to spray! Just squash any caterpillars you find as soon as possible, and if you have space, put a temporary chicken wire fence around your currant patch and get a couple of chickens or even bantams to scratch around over the winter and pick up the eggs and grubs - that's how I got rid of it. A bit more protein to produce some nice eggs for you! The blackcurrants in particular will appreciate the extra nitrogen that the chicken's droppings will provide - and I can guarantee you won't have any more trouble with sawfly. Just make sure you move the chickens somewhere else in the spring, before the bushes start to fruit, or you won't have any fruit either!!
 
 
Feed and mulch all fruit trees and bushes if you haven't already done so. If you have wood ash available from a wood burning stove - all fruits particularly apples and pears, will appreciate the highly soluble, fruit inducing potash it provides - except blueberries, as it raises the 'ph' of the soil - use seaweed meal and/or comfrey mulch on these. Fruit trees and bushes in containers would also appreciate a feed of an organic general purpose fruit fertiliser and a nice mulch to preserve moisture at the roots if you have room.
 
 
Don't forget that any fruit grown in containers is totally dependent on you for it's food and water, so from now on keep an eye on watering too. If short of water, most fruit will immediately drop their fruits if allowed to wilt at all. Don't over water either - or the roots may rot unless the compost is free draining. Keep on top of weeds, but be careful hoeing raspberry beds, better to hand weed, as there may be new shoots appearing from ground level. Prune out some of the older fruited canes of autumn fruiting varieties (see March).
 
 
 
Tunnel fruits - grapes, early strawberries and figs
 
 
Inside the tunnel - grapes will be producing nice juicy looking shoots on the spurs now, with the flower bunches clearly visible. By the end of the month or before, you should pinch out the tips of all the shoots on the spurs (side shoots) after they have produced two leaves beyond the developing flower bunch. That is all except the very end two shoots, on grapes grown on a permanent rod (stem) system. These will draw the sap along the branch system and provide extension growth if necessary. Always leave two shoots in case one gets damaged or broken. In the case of 'Guyot' pruned grapes, also leave two shoots to develop at the base of the current fruiting branch to develop fully, those will make replacement flowering branches which will fruit next year. Next winter you will cut out this year's fruited branch completely, leaving the stems which developed from those two shoots at the base which grew this spring. I think the permanent rod system works best for amateur gardeners though - it's easier and less work.
 
 
 
Side shoot off main rod of seedless grape 'Rose Dream' - showing end of shoot pinched out 2 leaf joints beyond prospective bunch
Side shoot off main rod of seedless grape 'Rose Dream' - showing end of shoot pinched out 2 leaf joints beyond prospective bunch

Grapes are very amenable to training and are also easy to grow in large bucket-sized pots grown as a small bush. Allowing several branches to develop rather than just one main branch. They take up very little room this way and most people could grow them. You can get a surprising amount of different varieties into quite a small space this way and have a good spread of cropping time from July to November or even later. I experiment a lot with different varieties of grapes and various methods of pruning and training. Seedless grapes don't need the bunches thinning - whereas if you don't thin some of the seeded ones - the bunches can become crowded and diseased prone. I don't juice them any more because what you're left with is just a lot of sugar in most cases, without all the valuable nutrients in the whole fruit. I blitz the whole lot in a food processor or powerful Nutribullet blender now if I want a smoothie - so that I get all the skins, pips and important fibre from the fruit too. Grape pips and skins in particular are very high in a phytochemical called Resveratrol - which studies show is extremely good for vein health and circulation. This especially high in black or dark red grapes. My favourite black grape is Muscat Hamburgh, which has the same fabulous taste as those huge Moscatel raisins that are only available before Christmas. Another good black grape is Muscat Bleu, it has the same delicious flavour as Muscat Hamburg but also has the advantage of self-spacing bunches - with the individual grapes slightly further apart, which promotes good air circulation - so it is ideal for growing in polytunnels where the atmosphere is more humid.  A new seedless one I planted a few years ago is 'Rose Dream'. It fruits extremely well, is very early in the tunnel and very sweet. 'Lakemont Seedless' - is a deliciously sweet early green dessert grape that carries large bunches and is a really good variety for organic gardeners as it's very disease-resistant. It's available from many suppliers now. That's the one I use for making scrumptious sultanas in my dehydrator! It makes a lovely feature climbing over the door at the south end of my large tunnel in space that would otherwise be wasted. Growing them in a tunnel also means that it's far easier to keep the birds away from them too.

 

 
Perpetual Strawberry 'Albion' in tunnel
  Perpetual Strawberry 'Albion' in tunnel
All the varieties of perpetual strawberries in the tunnel are starting to flower well now.  They rarely produce runners after their first year, so if you want to increase your stock, let some runners develop. The catalogues or labels never tell you this of course, they tell you to cut them off - well they want to sell more don't they?! As long as the plants are strong and well fed - it won't affect them at all - and after all that's how they naturally grow. Many of the more modern summer fruiting varieties seem to behave the same way, 'Christine' is an early, great flavoured one I grow, which does the same, so it's safer to take one good runner from each plant in it's first year, that way you're sure of keeping them. Cut off any which develop after those, to avoid weakening the plant. 
 
 
 
Protect flowers of early fruiting varieties from frost with fleece at night - remove during the day for bees to pollinate. Liquid feed weekly once the fruits are developing, with a high potash organic food like comfrey liquid, or the excellent 'Osmo' organic tomato food (available from White's Agri at Lusk, Co. Dublin and many garden centres). If you're just planting a new bed of more than one variety, make sure you just grow one variety per bed, to keep them distinctly separated. I find an early one like 'Christine', grown both inside and outside, with another one or two perpetual varieties, like 'Everest' and 'Albion' again grown both inside and outside, and an alpine one provide plenty of delicious strawberries to eat fresh and to freeze, from May until November. I've also brought pots of 'Gariguette' into the tunnel this year. I've grown it for years but never tried forcing it before. It's the French version of the famous old 'Royal Sovereign' - so I'm looking forward to supreme flavour. Why on earth would anybody want to buy the tasteless, disgusting, chemically-grown ones grown out of season, imported from half way across the world - when it's so nice to look forward to them in their proper season - just helped along a little in a polytunnel? By the way 'Albion' freezes particularly well too - not going quite as mushy as some other varieties.
 
 
  
Cape Gooseberry - small plants ready to pot on to larger pots

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Cape Gooseberry - small plants ready to pot on to larger pots 
The Physalis (golden berry, Pichu berry or Cape Gooseberry - whatever you like to call it!) will have to be potted on this week into larger pots as they've grown well. They'll be fruiting by late August/September and will go on until December. After that the fruits will keep for literally months in the salad drawer of the fridge - so they're well worth growing from seed and are a really easy fruit to grow. They have a delicious citrussy-sherbetty taste (even writing about them makes my mouth water!) - and they're very high in antioxidants lutein and vitamin C. They're even easier to grow than bush tomatoes, do really well in tubs or large pots, seem not to be bothered by any pests at all, the bees really love the flowers and the birds haven't sussed them yet! What's not to like? I've seen the dwarf version for sale in garden centres - but they produce so little fruit they're a complete waste of space - and I don't know anyone who's been successful with them. Some of last year's plants have overwintered well in the tunnel due to the mild winter, I gave them a feed about a month ago and they are now producing lots of nice new shoots at the bottom, and even flowering already on the few long branches which didn't die back. As a result I'm hopeful of some really early, very welcome fruits.
 
 
 
Frosty nights can be particularly difficult for any tender fruit growing in the tunnels. On the very bright sunny days after a clear night's frost the temperatures can rise at an alarming rate - so I have to watch the ventilation very carefully - trying as far as possible to even out the day/night temperatures - not always easy! There's a good crop of early figs developing fast on all the trees - many of the figlets overwintered without any damage. Those that are in any way damaged won't develop and eventually will turn brown and drop off. It's a good idea to take those off so that they don't develop rots and spread diseases to the healthy younger ones. I'm taking a lot of care to cover them with fleece at night as all the new growth is very young and tender now. In the picture you can see the early figs on last year's darker coloured growth - the late summer's crop will develop on the new growth made this spring and summer. I'm being very careful to keep them evenly moist now too - if they dry out and wilt even the slightest bit - figs will ditch all their fruit without fail - usually about two weeks later - when you've completely forgotten that you possibly neglected them on just one occasion! The same goes for all potted fruit. Figs also like good drainage too, hating to be too wet - so they're temperamental devils in pots but well worth it, when even non-organic fresh figs are about a euro each in the smart fruit and veg. shops! I should have my first ripe figs in mid May and will then have a second, bigger crop on this years new green growth, on most of the varieties I grow.
 
 
The scent of the citrus flowers is filling the tunnel even though there's only a couple of trees flowering!  A real scent of approaching summer. I must pick the last of the fruits on the lemons, oranges and grapefruit - I always hate doing it as they look so beautiful. Daft really isn't it?  If I leave them on though - they will stop the new fruits developing even if the flowers are pollinated. They're also being protected at night as the dark red young growth is very soft and vulnerable to frost. They're getting a low strength 'Osmo' liquid feed mixed with tunnel temperature rainwater at every watering now - they hate limey, high pH tap water!  I do wish garden centres wouldn't water them with a hose though! I they are in the garden centres for too long - the leaves start to turn yellow and drop off, as the staff don't know that they prefer the 'gentle rain' that 'droppeth mercifully from Heaven'!  Talking of which - I really had such a laugh on one of my much dreaded twice yearly ventures into Dublin! I wonder what on earth would Shakespeare have said at being quoted on an M&S food carrier bag? - "If music be the food of love play on"! on a bright purple, recyclable bag - Whatever next!?

 
Twelfth Night - Act 1, scene 1.- Duke Orsino:
 
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

 
Music and food would certainly be pretty high on my list of priorities. And I really love all kinds of fruit. I wonder if Shakespeare liked figs? 'Duke Orsino' would certainly have prized them as a Mediterranean man. I don't think you could ever die from eating them - but too many could possibly be a little uncomfortable!  I find half a dozen just enough per day, any more is too many - but they're so delicious that they're very hard to resist. Anyway, I could never fall out of love with figs - they're one of my favourite fruits. Problem is - so is almost everything - each in it's own season! Though sometimes it almost seems that the more fussily difficult things are to grow - the better they taste. But then isn't that the real joy of gardening - that you can actually taste the achievement a little too?!

 
Early figs forming from the overwintered buds on last year's darker growth - 13.4.12
 

Early figs forming from the overwintered buds on last year's darker 'woody' growth. New shoots will carry a later crop on most varieties of figs in tunnels.

 

Strong red-flushed young growth, overwintered fruit  and flowers on lemons in tunnel  -13.4.12
 

Strong red-flushed young growth, overwintered fruit and flowers on lemons in the tunnel

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

The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in April 2018

April Polytunnel Topics:  

 
The health benefits of growing your own..... What can you grow if you don't have a polytunnel or even a garden?.... What you could be eating now from the polytunnel if you've planned well..... Not planted any potatoes outside yet?- Don't panic there's still time my way!.... Managing your polytunnel environment....Dealing with pest problems in spring polytunnels.... Polytunnels as an integral part of the whole garden ecosystem.
 
 
Equinox polytunnel at dawn 2 wks ago - full of good things to eat & flowers for bees.
Spring Equinox polytunnel at dawn - full of good things to eat & flowers for bees and beneficial insects.
 
 

The list of health benefits from growing your own veg grows longer every day! 

 
 
Overwintered Matador spinach
Overwintered spinach cropping nicely now
 
 
April is one of the busiest months of the gardening year, with so much work to do both inside and outside but ultimately it will all be worth it - because what you're doing is growing your own health! Scientists now say that exercise and spending time out of doors in the natural environment and contact with the soil are the keys to good physical and mental health.  Not a problem if you're a gardener!  Although we're unaware of it - when we're gardening we absorb vital healthy Mycobacteria vaccae from our soil and environment. Studies have shown that as M.vaccae is inhaled it triggers the release of serotonin in the brain and that this is significant enough for it to be referred to as an antidepressant! This benefit, as well as the fresh air we're breathing is something that people who spend their lives mostly indoors miss out on. So us organic gardeners have it right don't we? We're saving money while at the same time we're growing our own health - and also getting a huge sense of achievement, with enjoyable, stress-reducing healthy exercise! No wonder organic gardeners are such contented folk! 
 
 
 
 
 
Given that a recent Newcastle University study also found that organically grown fruit and veg are at least 60% higher in antioxidants, with far fewer residues of toxins like heavy metals and pesticides - then growing them ourselves organically, or buying organic is surely an absolute 'no-brainer' and a winner from every point of view!  After all - why would you buy chemically-grown veg when it's so easy to grow even just a bit of luscious veg like this spinach like you can see pictured in my polytunnel just a couple of weeks ago? Not only that - you're getting the freshest food possible and you can eat it when it's at it's absolute peak of healthy nutrition! If you haven't read my recent blog post about when is the best time to harvest your produce - here's the link: 
 
 
 
Even more great news for all of us keen gardeners who grow lots of our own food is that a recent study by University College London in the 'Journal of Epidemiology and Health' stated that the more veg and fruit you can eat, the more beneficial it is for your health. As I reported a couple of years ago - most experts think now that 7 or even 9 a day - rather than 5 a day is the very best total to eat. That's no problem if you grow your own - and it couldn't be fresher picked straight from your own garden. The only dressing that home-grown, deliciously fresh veg requires is a little butter - or quite a lot in my case - which scientists also now say isn't bad for you after all. Or use a good oil like extra virgin olive oil, or nut oils - not industrially-processed veg oils! Thank heavens finally for some commonsense about fat!  We never ate anything but organic butter and natural, cold-pressed organic oils here!  For salads we mostly use olive, avocado and nut oils - all delicious - and which all help your body to absorb all the healthy nutrients from salads. 
 
 
Filling up on veg also means you can cut down a bit on expensive organic meat too and you don't need the carbs from loads of potatoes to make you feel satisfied after meals! Much better for our health. In our house - actually finding room on the plate for the meat is often a problem, so we have side plates for extra veg too if necessary. We're so greedy for our lovely fresh veg here and for most of the year there's always plenty of choice. We still eat potatoes occasionally - but we eat far fewer heavy carbs like bread, potatoes and pasta here now than we used to, since we started on mostly LCHF - or low carbohydrate high healthy fat eating. We still occasionally enjoy the odd healthy cake or pud made from wholegrain flours as we always have done - but not every day! We don't go overboard and we don't exclude anything forever more - but we do all agree that we feel much better for it. The one thing that I am absolutist about however - is that absolutely everything must be organic! After 40 years of research into how to feed my family the healthiest food possible - believe me I know far too much about the chemicals used on non-organic crops and the health effects of them on the animals and animal products that we eat! Never forget that what they eat - we are ultimately eating too!
 
 

Growing your own is not just healthier for you but your budget too!

 
 
Thank heavens for polytunnels - where we can make a start on growing crops destined for outside by starting them off undercover to plant out later  - and they'll be all the healthier and stronger for it! The weather here's been so wet on and off all winter and early spring - every time it looked as if it was drying up - then we had yet another deluge! Even though things have really started growing in the last couple of weeks outside - it's still far too wet to do any useful gardening.  But in the polytunnel - spring is already well and truly underway, growth is accelerating and no matter what the weather outside - there's always something good to eat - for us and the many bees that have been constant visitors to all the flowers in there over the last few weeks! 
 
 
Despite the recent snow and freezing weather - there is still a glorious profusion of healthy salads to eat in the polytunnel right now. If I only picked just one leaf from each different type of plant there would still be too much to fit onto a plate! It really shows the benefit of planning well now for winter salads this time next year.  All the overwintered plants are cropping really well, producing a final burst of growth encouraged by the increasing light, before they try to flower in order to reproduce themselves. When they finally do  - I shall leave many of the flowers for the bees and hoverflies which are already busy helping to pollinate my fruit crops and control insects. Even in a polytunnel - organic gardening is all about doing everything possible to encourage Nature to work with you - and it's happy to do so if given the chance! In fact it's getting hard to keep up with eating all the lovely salads - but the hens enjoy helping out too and all the healthy greens supercharge their eggs with all that captured sunshine! 
 
 
I never cease to be grateful for my lovely polytunnels that I worked so hard for - they were worth all the effort and they certainly save me a lot of money all year round!  Why do so many people lose interest in their polytunnels over the winter and then only start to use them again in spring? They could be saving an absolute fortune on the household budget - and eating a far healthier diet too! When I see the tired and miserable-looking, increasingly nutrient-depleted selection of imported salad leaves which are available in supermarkets - usually just spinach or rocket which is probably 2-3 days old at least - I feel so sorry for people who have no choice but to buy them! (see earlier link). They're expensive too - most packs are around €3 and they would barely feed two people!  Last week when, browsing in M&S to see what they had in their organic section, I came across bagged organic spinach grown in Italy - only about 250g for €3 per bag! That is positively criminal! There is absolutely no good reason whatsoever why that couldn't have been grown here in the British Isles in a cold greenhouse - saving carbon and being far fresher! And there's no reason why you couldn't grow your own even if you only have a tiny outside space - as my stepladder garden pictured below proves - and that's even better for your budget!
 
 

But what if you don't have a polytunnel - or even a garden - can you grow anything? 

 
 
The answer - perhaps surprisingly is YES - quite a lot!  Anything that you can grow in a polytunnel, you can grow in containers - but just on a smaller scale.  If you're short of space and think you can't grow your own veg - then think again! You'll be amazed at what will grow even in quite small containers. I know that not everyone is lucky enough to have a polytunnel or sometimes even a garden - but many people have a path outside their house - and if they have - then perhaps there's space for a tub or two?  So often I hear people saying "I don't have an allotment - so I can't grow anything".  Many people have tiny gardens now - especially in new housing schemes where space is expensive. Even if you don't have a garden at all - perhaps only a balcony - there's still no excuse not to grow at least something which will be fresher, healthier and save you some money for very little effort. And I don't mean just an unhappy pot of herbs on your kitchen windowsill! If you've got a path with room to walk on it, then you've got room for at least some veg in containers. For instance, there's my stepladder/mushroom box garden which I invented a few years ago (much copied since!). This will fit into anyone's front porch or on a balcony. It takes up less than a half a square metre and you'd be absolutely amazed just how much produce I got from it last year!  I picked up the used mushroom boxes, which are nice and deep, in the veg dept. of my local supermarket and they happened to be an ideal size to fit on each step, but still not too heavy to move - even with a soil/compost mix in them. 
 
 
I grew lettuce, herbs, chilies, Maskotka bush tomatoes, radishes, celery leaves, rocket, spinach etc. in those boxes on the steps 2 years ago.  I also put a couple of large 10l buckets either side of the stepladder, each fitted half-way underneath, one was planted with a Sungold tomato and the other with a watermelon Sugar Baby. I got terrific crops from both by training them up either side of the stepladder, tying them up to it as they grew!  Next to it in the picture here there's also some recycled skip-bag raised beds which are equally space-saving. The two bags fitted onto a large 'grow-bag' tray, but grew far more than you would ever be able to grow in a normal sized grow bag -and of course they were organic. I grew a fantastic crop of early potatoes, broad beans, Swiss chard, spinach, mangetout peas and then sweet potatoes in those last year - multi-planting so that there were two or three things growing in the bags all at the same time, apart from the very early potatoes in one bag which were on their own - as they were obviously going to be dug up, which would have disturbed the roots of anything else with them. I got several crops of fast growing radishes by 'catch-cropping' between slower growing things before they grew too big and shaded them. The sweet potatoes were the last crop of the autumn and they really appreciated the depth of soil in the bags - producing an incredible crop in November.
 
 
My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds - late March. Shows what you can do in a very small space. Lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs.
My 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds - late March. Shows what you can do in a very small space. Lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs.
Large attractive pots, if you can afford them, are obviously very nice to look at - but if you're trying to save money, then 10 litre recycled mayo or coleslaw buckets from the local supermarket deli are good too, and they always have those at every deli counter. Ask nicely and you'll be amazed at what they have. Once you start on the "What can I fit some soil into?"  route - the only limit is your imagination - and of course any desire for tidiness! That's not something that bothers me greatly, I have to say, if I'm getting wonderful veg - but you can always hide the bucket by growing something trailing in it! In fact you can grow in anything that you can fit soil or compost into! If containers are large you don't have to fill the whole thing up with good compost. You can fill up the bottom with any king of garden rubbish that you would normally put on the compost heap, to bring up the level. Things like soft prunings, old pot plants (only organic ones as others may contain nasty chemicals), last year's container soil/compost etc. perhaps mixed up with cardboard and newspapers - and if you mix in some garden soil as well this will all compost nicely at the same time!
 
As long as you have about 30cm or a 1ft or so of depth of a nice soil/organic compost mix as the top layer, then anything will be delighted to grow in that. If containers are tall I find it useful for the sake of stability to also mix the lower layer with garden soil which is heavier. This is particularly important if the containers are in a windy spot or you're going to grow tall crops like runner beans or tall peas. The advantage of tall containers like skip bags is that not only do deeper rooting crops like chard etc have more room - but also dwarf mangetout peas or trailing courgettes can also drape attractively down the sides, making them more attractive - maybe mixed with a few trailing nasturtiums to attract bees and beneficial insects. The sky's the limit as my article on stepladder gardening here in the link below shows! 
 
 
 
Many years ago, I did a lot of experiments with growing in all sorts of containers, even using dustbins, old sinks and recycled carrier bags! The reason mainly was because we were in the process of moving to where we live now, but I still wanted to continue growing organic veg as I couldn't buy it then. Over the course of 2 years I grew an entire vegetable garden in various containers of one sort or another. Some were a bit 'Heath Robinson' - but it all worked and I got great crops! I even filled the freezer with 40lbs of French beans! You can grow in pretty much anything as long as there's enough room for the roots and some drainage holes. Be inventive! Of course they do need a little more watering, looking after and feeding occasionally - but picking your daily salad should remind you to water them anyway! Containers tend to be a bit warmer too - particularly if they're sited in the sun, so crops are often earlier, meaning that you'll get more out of them over the course of a spring and summer, although they can freeze in the winter if you're in a very cold area. I've even protected containers in winter by wrapping them up with old duvets - but that's going a bit far for some people and can tend to look a bit untidy! 
 
 
You don't need a tunnel for container growing - but you can now get small, cheap mini-tunnel/greenhouses in most garden/DIY stores and in the discount supermarkets for upwards of £20 or €25. They can really increase the range of things you can grow over the year and allow you to grow more tender crops like tomatoes and aubergines. Or you could make your own - as I did years ago out of 2 x 1 inch wooden laths and recycled polythene, begged off a mattress from a furniture store!  They often have loads stashed in skips around the back if you ask nicely - the ones off the double beds are best and last for years if you're careful! Anything you can grow in a large polytunnel, you can grow in one of these, allowing for the head space needed. They do need anchoring down well though in any wind but apart from that they're very effective. The really big plus with containers for most people is that slugs and snails are usually are far less of a problem - you may get the odd adventurous one - but there are plenty of organic ways and means of dealing with them! 
 
 
What you could be eating now from the polytunnel if you've planned well
 
 
'Equinox Celebration Salad'  34 different leaves plus edible flowers all picked from the polytunnel
 
'Equinox Celebration Salad' 34 different leaves plus edible flowers all picked from the polytunnel
 
You wouldn't think that tunnel could be incredibly productive at this time of year would you? I decided last year to take a walk round the tunnel one morning to see what variety there was available to eat, at what is normally a pretty meagre time of year outside in the veg garden.I took this picture above on the morning of the Equinox on the 21st March! Believe me - it really tasted just as good as it looks! Here's the list from my large east tunnel in no particular order - but just as I happen to walk past it!  Calabrese, curly parsley, Ruby and silver Swiss chards, giant scallion 'Shimonita', pea shoots, 4 different kinds of radishes, coriander, Giant Italian flat-leaf parsley, 3 kinds of spinach, salad/spring onions, rhubarb, 'Sugar Loaf' chicory, red-veined sorrel, celery leaves, rocket, lamb's lettuce, claytonia, thyme, oregano, salad burnet, curly endive, 5 different kinds of lettuce, watercress, mizuna, pak choi leaves and flower buds (delicious and something few people think of because normally they cut the whole thing whereas if you pick individual leaves carefully they'll crop all winter), other assorted mixed oriental salad mixes, red stemmed leaf radish, frilly purple kale, Orychophragma Violaceus (Joy Larkcom's Chinese Feb. orchid) for salad leaves and beautiful flowers, Ragged Jack kale for baby salad leaves, then larger leaves and now also flowering shoots (like broccoli but better) beet leaves - 'Bull's Blood and McGregor's favourite - baby beetroot, and delicious giant garlic chives - a treasured gift again from Joy Larkcom when she came to stay here a few years ago. 
 
 
Radish 'Rudi' crunchy, delicious & easy to grow
Radish 'Rudi' crunchy, delicious & easy to grow
In the West (fruit) tunnel there's also the Sutton's loose leaf lettuce mix planted in recycled containers, along with pea shoots and spinach. The lettuce seeds are fantastic value at just 60 cents for 1300 seeds - and are a good mix of colours and leaf shapes. Lettuce all summer long for half of nothing!  In another couple of weeks there will be the first new potatoes - although I still have a handful of 'Mayan Gold' left in a pot from the Christmas grown ones which I saved up and may eat this week!. So there's plenty to choose from. Actually I must tell you that radish 'Rudi' from unbelievably cheap Lidl seed was a real find a few years ago! Not usually a fan of radishes, I decided to train my palate on the basis that if something tastes foul - then it must be good for you! I did that with rocket a few years ago - and while not a huge fan I'm getting better about eating it, and in fact the flowers are absolutely delicious in salads - tasting of vanilla!  I sowed the first radishes in modules in the propagator in late January and they've been cropping for about 3 weeks now, getting bigger every day. With regular watering radishes don't tend to taste as hot, although it also depends on variety, and 'Rudi' isn't hot at all - even at almost golf ball size which some now are - I promise you! Chopped into 4 or even 8 in salads it's sweet, tender and crunchily delicious. I've just had some for lunch. I think that variety of texture as well as flavour is so important in vegetables, particularly salads. Then you don't get bored by eating the same old thing every day. Oh! I nearly forgot the other edible flowers of course - pansies, violas, primroses and borage - all delicious and flowering right now!


The above list doesn't include all the stored veg we still have available now - a few red onions which are still crisp and firm, the last of the potatoes left over from those kept for seed - and also fruit and veg in the freezer, French beans, peas, broccoli, broad beans, sweet corn, basil & parsley (in copious amounts!), peaches, strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, damsons and blackberries. We also still have a few leeks and parsnips still in the ground outside in the vegetable garden. Spoiled for choice really - all easily home-grown organically without toxic chemicals. They would cost a fortune in the shops if you could buy them but you wouldn't find even a fraction of these in any shop! I would go without veg if I couldn't grow them or buy them organically, so I make sure we always have plenty all year round. (Many people aren't aware that we share up to 40% of our genes with many insects, worms and even slugs - so anything that kills or affects them also eventually has an effect on us, especially since science is now proving that they have a cumulative 'cocktail' effect!). Most of the time we almost have too much choice - but the hens are always most grateful for any that we can't eat -  they then produce those delicious eggs!
 
 

If you haven't yet planted any potatoes outside because of wet soil don't panic! 

 

You can still cheat the weather, gain a few weeks and catch up by planting into pots now inside in the tunnel, which will bring them on quickly, then hardening off gradually and planting outside later, as I described last month - protecting them from frost with fleece. These will still be much earlier than any planted on the traditional St. Patrick's day outside into cold wet ground - especially with such cold soil temperatures after the recent snow and freezing weather. If you don't get round to planting them then - they will actually be quite happy in a 2 litre pot for their whole lifetime until you eat them, or you can pot them on into larger ones. They obviously won't have as big a crop in pots and the tubers may be smaller - but I grow all the ones I keep for seed in 2 litre pots. That way they stay together, and don't get mixed up or stolen by hungry rodents in the autumn. When blight eventually strikes - I just take off the tops immediately, turn them on their sides so the blight spores don't wash down onto the tubers and let them dry out. They'll keep well all winter like that somewhere frost (& rodent!) free. Then I have them ready to plant the following spring.

 

April is one of the most difficult months for managing the polytunnel environment.

 
Gerry Kelly - my co-host on our 'Tunnel to Table' radio series on LMFM Radio's  'Late Lunch Show' - helping to pollinate the peach trees 2 years ago.
Gerry Kelly - my co-host on our 'Tunnel to Table' radio series on LMFM Radio's  'Late Lunch Show' - helping to pollinate the peach trees a few years ago. 
It really feels like spring now on sunny days in the tunnels - in fact it almost feels like summer on some days at noon! The scent of all the flowers blooming in there when I open the doors is amazing. Even on frosty days it's lovely to work or sit in there. Brilliantly sunny days are lovely but temperatures can shoot up alarmingly high very quickly though. Then the sudden violent showers and gales gusting around in every direction can make ventilation a nightmare. I shouldn't complain though, I know how lucky I am to have my tunnels at home here - where I can dash out to open or shut doors in between bursts of writing.  I ran up just now to open the doors again and spotted two new species of hoverfly on the early potato leaves. Yesterday there were masses of them on the flowers of the peach trees - along with a couple of bumblebees too - so I won't need to do much if any pollinating.  All the oriental veg flowers look like a natural firework display and also smell divine! I always leave the oriental salad mixes to run up to flower now as the early hoverflies, bees and other insects really go mad for them. When Gerry Kelly and I were in the tunnel the week before last there were a couple of bumblebees in there, as there are most days, and many of the flowers on the dwarf peaches, nectarines and apricots in pots, and also the peach tress planted in the ground, have been pollinated already. Bees love to come into the tunnels where they're sheltered from strong winds. Happily they seem to have already done a pretty thorough job - lots of the flowers have turned dark pink already - so we're looking forward to lots of lovely juicy peaches again. Pollinating peach trees is a job all visitors love doing - and of course eating the odd fruit later on! In truth though - the ever wonderful bees do most of it!
 
 
  
 
Dealing with spring pest problems in polytunnels
 
 
I've already covered propagation over the last two months so there's no need to repeat that here. The first thing to say about pests is that if you see them in any numbers - it usually means that plants aren't healthy and happy and are stressed in some way, which weakens them and make them more attractive to pests. It can also mean that you don't have a healthy balanced ecology in the environment wherever the plant is growing - whether it's inside or outside. This can often be because they're in a hot dry conservatory or greenhouse, perhaps with no flowers - or that the soil isn't healthy. I always make sure that I have as much variety of flowers and plants as possible, growing in a healthy, living, microbe rich soil with plenty of fresh air. If plants have those conditions, they rarely suffer from pests and diseases. Plants are like us - if they're being fed too much or too little and are shut up in an unnatural environment without fresh air - they are far more likely to be unhealthy! Wherever you're growing plants, if you have lots of single flowers to attract insect predators like hoverflies, ladybirds, lacewings and wasps, and if you also have open vents, windows and doors where they can get in - then they will generally deal with any pests. The insects in their turn will also attract small birds like wrens, sparrows, blue tits and robins - which are only too delighted to help with pest control - particularly at this time of year when they're feeding babies. Aphids are ideal small baby bird food! Polytunnels are basically an unnatural environment, so doing all you can to create as natural and varied an environment as possible, with a balance of pest and predator, is the key to happy pest-free plants.
 
 
There's so many birds here in this garden now and so much competition for food that I almost never see a pest - but unfortunately that also means they eat caterpillars of in some cases increasingly rare butterflies - so I have to protect those by covering the clumps of nettles I grow in the tunnels with netting! Yes! I do grow nettles in my tunnels in out of the way spots - they're ideal habitat for butterfly caterpillars and early ladybird larvae. Most of the year I have the tunnel doors open, as long as it's not too windy, so small birds are grateful to hunt in there for insects - particularly in winter. I have large pea and bean netting up at the doors to keep hungry pigeons and pheasants out! The larger netting also allows bees in to do their vital job of pollination. 
 
 
Although last summer was a good one for some butterflies - one of the most worrying effects of the last few year's wet summers, and the increasing use of pesticides, is the lack of bees and other vitally important pollinating insects in our gardens. This is something many people may not even give a thought to - until there aren't any and they have no fruit for instance! If the climate continues to be as erratic and wildly unpredictable in the future - then I believe that this is the single most important factor that we will have to learn to deal with if we want to continue to grow food - whether we are organic or not. You may be able to kill pests with poisonous chemicals - but if you do so you will also kill vital pollinating insects. You can't then manufacture bees and hoverflies out of thin air!  (Although I read this week that Monsanto are now trying to produce GM bees - another money-making idea! Their stupidity and irresponsibility knows no bounds!) Although it's hard work, you may be able to pollinate some fruit trees by hand on a small scale - but not huge fields of oil seed rape. I think some farmers tend to forget that fact when they're thoughtlessly sloshing around the pesticides!  All insect populations have plummeted over the last few years, due to the recent disastrously wet summers when they needed good weather and plenty of food for breeding, erratic winters seesawing wildly back and forth from unusually mild spells to severe cold - and of course increasing use of pesticides. Consequently bird populations have also dropped. Coming on top of all the pesticides used by farmers, decreasing habitats, hedges, wildflowers and sheltered breeding places - the changing climate could prove to be the last straw for some pollinators - and bees in particular. Without them there won't be much to eat! Many people aren't aware that we share up to 40% of our genes with many insects, worms and even slugs - so anything that kills or affects them also eventually has an effect on us, especially since science is now proving that they have a cumulative 'cocktail' effect! 
 
 

Polytunnels are an integral part of the whole garden ecosystem.

 
 
My B&B border as I call it - made specifically for bees, butterflies, bats and birds, is a large question mark shaped border I put in a few years ago that wraps around the north end of both of my tunnels! I planted it specifically for wildlife, and I think that the insects, birds and bats that it encourages must deal with a lot of pests - both outside and inside the tunnels. The bank's also an ideal nesting site for solitary bees too, as it's south facing and well drained, being made mostly of gravel and bark chip mixed with sub-soil, so as it's just at the top end of the polytunnels - I'm never short of pollinators. On any mild day in winter there's always a few bumble bees in the tunnels foraging for pollen and nectar for their broods. You could build a bee and insect hotel or make a well-drained soil mound topped by an evergreen shrub even in the smallest garden, and this will provide shelter for hibernation and nesting sites for insects. In front of the border is a 'lawn' made mostly of perennial white cover, which is alive with bees when it's in flower and has the most fabulous scent. It's a lovely place to sit in the evenings in summer when it's planted with scented Nicotiana and Verbena Bonariensis, especially when bats are flying just overhead to catch the moths and insects that the flowers attract. My little Eden!
 
 
The first insect pests you may see in any numbers in a tunnel or greenhouse at this time of year may well be aphids (this is even more likely if your neighbours aren't organic!). You can easily deal with these by just brushing off with a soft paintbrush if the numbers aren't too high, or by washing off with a hose or under the tap for pot plants. If the winter's been a hard one and the predator population hasn't recovered enough in time to deal with them - then you may end up having to buy in biological controls like ladybirds. These aren't cheap, but the good news is that you will probably only have to do this once, because if you do as I suggest and grow lots of flowers in your tunnel - some beneficial insects will breed and stay in there permanently then. I don't like to use even organic insecticidal soap sprays as these affect all insects. You couldn't use them on anything you are going to eat anyway and even on things like lemons they can actually damage the young shoots in spring. As I said in an earlier article this year though - soap sprays are the only way to deal with scale insect on citrus trees. 
 
 
Using chemical pesticides would prevent any chance of the ecological balance of the tunnel recovering for years. We need to do everything we can in our gardens to encourage and help all insects - whether you consider them good or bad - because they are all vital links in the natural food chain - and everything is connected. Birds, frogs, hedgehogs, bats etc. all the gardener's friends - all depend on insects  For the organic polytunnel or greenhouse gardener this is even more important - pests can multiply at an alarming rate in the warm, sheltered conditions of a tunnel.  Just in case there are a few predatory beneficial insects around in a week or so - it's a good idea to let some overwintered salads like mizuna and rocket run up to flower now and also to sow a few annual flowers like calendula, Virginian stock etc for later on. You could also perhaps plant a few perennials like Bowles mauve wallflower, nepeta or scabious. They've been a huge success with hoverflies, butterflies and bees over the years in my tunnels - and they're flowering really well now.
 
 
Peacock butterfly on endive in tunnel early last year. Many butterflies, moths, bees etc. are becoming increasingly rare due to pesticides.
Peacock butterfly on endive in tunnel early last year. Many butterflies, moths, bees etc. are becoming increasingly rare due to pesticides.
 
 
Scientists are warning there's even more compelling evidence now linking the collapse of bee colonies to the widespread use of neonicotinoid and other systemic pesticides. These nerve poisons affect the foraging bee's navigation system - making them unable to find their way home, feed their colonies properly or to produce queens to breed new healthy colonies. Any surviving bees gradually become underweight, weakened, more vulnerable to virus diseases and die. Beekeepers say we're running out of time to halt the bee's decline and we're all being used as guinea pigs. Amen to that!  It's no coincidence that global chemical giant Syngenta are also currently investing huge sums of money into farming bumblebees - they see it as the next multi-billion dollar business opportunity. Neat eh? Killing off all the competition would leave the field clear for their farmed bees - quite literally! Of course I doubt if it's occurred to many farmers yet that if they kill off pollinating insects by using pesticides - that  they won't have any bees left to pollinate crops like oil seed rape etc. - so then they'll have to buy bees instead!  
 
 
 
 
 
It certainly doesn't seem to have occurred to a neighbour of mine - who keeps complaining that he's got no bees, no worms and no drainage! He also blames my trees and hedges for harbouring birds that eat his crops and thinks organic people are all completely barmy - a myth deliberately propagated by pro-chemical and GM interests!  Now more vigorously than ever! Of course they're now getting worried that more people might actually start thinking for themselves instead of blindly accepting the deliberately packaged, misleading and often downright untrue information put out by the pro GM lobbyists!  Like many others - I've been convinced for years that the various combinations and 'cocktails' of nerve poisons and other pesticides being used in industrial agriculture may build up in our own systems, causing the cancers and other diseases which seem to be ever more prevalent - but who is going to prove that - when the chemical companies in most cases are the ones who are producing their own safety data - and constantly lobbying government scientific committees to pass their products as safe for sale? That's if their products have been tested at all - and many chemicals used in everyday household products have never been tested. Profits and shareholders are the only things that concern the chemical companies - not our future - whatever they may say. Would you let them pour their pesticides straight onto your doorstep? That is in essence what they're doing - our planet is our home address - and also our children's future!! What was it the visionary Chief Seattle said ? "Whatever befalls the earth - befalls the sons of the earth. - If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves".  
 
 
The WHO and The United Nations are now seriously worried enough about some pesticides in every day use and also possible 'chemical cocktails' that two years ago that they called for re-testing of many products - it's taken them long enough! But it keeps being delayed. Will it happen? - Who will do it? - Will the data be transparent?  And how long will it take? As a result of this re-evaluation - Monsanto have really stepped up their lobbying campaign in favour of Glyphosate/Roundup. Reading their website you would think it was totally innocuous and completely harmless!  Forgive me if I'm just a little sceptical - I've read the research and even know personally of cases where people were made severely ill by being careless! Everyday now there is mounting evidence that it probably the most noxious chemicals ever invented - some scientists now even consider it to be worse than DDT!

 
In the meantime - the safest thing you can do if you're concerned, is to grow your own food organically or buy organic if you can't grow it. OK - I do personally know how hard it can be to remember the bigger picture when we're all so understandably concerned about how to make ends meet - but some things are more important than money, and health is one of them. Money can't buy health - and growing our own healthy chemical-free food - fresh and burstingly full of vital nutrients - is such a positive thing we can all do for our families which also makes a huge contribution to the household budget in these more cost conscious times. I enjoy giving advice to people about how to grow clean and healthy organic food - and it's something I can personally do to help more people to be just that bit more independent of big business and the supermarkets! But who knows what's next? Maybe governments will start taxing the veg. we grow in our gardens - on the grounds that it deprives the supermarkets and chemical companies of profits and therefore deprives the taxman too!! Who knows? The one thing that we can be sure of though is that by growing as much food as we can ourselves - we can be more self-sufficient and much less dependent on imported produce. Many experts are now warning that when Brexit happens - a lot of imported produce will become more expensive - but I for one won't be worrying about that! 
 
 
 
Close up of salads - lettuces Lattughino, Fristina, Cherokee,  claytonia, mizuna, lamb's lettuce, landcress, Bull's Blood beet leaves, spinach, parsley coriander etc
Close up of salads - lettuces Lattughino, Fristina, Cherokee, claytonia, mizuna, lamb's lettuce, landcress, Bull's Blood beet leaves, spinach, parsley coriander etc
Maybe they'll soon be sending someone round to count the carrots and lettuces! Talking of which - here's some pics of the wonderfully luscious salads we've been enjoying since last autumn all winter long, from the tunnel. You could be enjoying crops like this too - even if you only have a large cold frame or two. It takes very little effort really - but saves an absolute fortune!  There seem to be a lot of people putting up new polytunnels at the moment and I've had quite a few questions about them. All advice naturally also applies to cold frames or outside too - but new polytunnels in particular can be a problem for a little while - before they 'settle down' and develop a balanced ecology of pest and predator, because any pests multiply far more rapidly in the warmer, more protected environment. So here's a bit more about pests that I wrote in the blog a couple of years ago. Some of it I may have already covered, but hopefully it may deal with anything else you might be looking for that I haven't already mentioned. Can you believe that someone recently complained that I actually write too much?? Ungrateful since this is free! You can't please everyone can you?  
 
 
 
If you're getting short of warm space in the tunnel this month and any really early tomatoes are looking like they need potting on again - as mine are now - then just give them a half strength general liquid feed of something like the certified organic 'Universal Plant Food' from Osmo - available now in most garden centres. It's still far too early to plant out in the tunnel at the moment - the night temperature needs to be a constant minimum average of about 50deF/10degC - so mine will be staying on the gently heated mat for a bit longer, ensuring they have good air circulation around them to prevent disease and not allowing them to get starved. That way they can wait another week or so in their small pots while the weather's still cold at night. If delayed I'll pot them on again into larger pots - my recycled milk cartons which are easy to label individually with an indelible marker pen so they don't get mixed up! Then I'll leave them on the heated mat for another week or so - I won't risk them in any unheated space until the weather improves a lot. I always like to have really early tomatoes - so I don't want them to get a check. Planting out too early often means they'll get a severe check and be delayed.
 
 
 
(Please note. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)

What to sow in April 2018

Growing heritage seeds & supporting independent organic seed companies ensures diversity in seed supply & future food security

Growing heritage seeds & supporting independent organic seed companies ensures diversity in seed supply & future food security

 
"Remember - always sow the seeds. You can catch up on everything else - but if you get behind on that, then there's nothing whatsoever you can do about it."  (A great piece of gardening advice I was given many years ago) 
 
 
Also remember - this is just a checklist to remind you of what you could possibly sow now if you want to. Not what you have to! So please don't complain that it all looks far too much to do - as one person did! I still find this list a helpful reminder even though I've been growing my own food for over 40 years!
 
 
Another good piece of old advice is that if you can see weed seeds germinating - then it means the soil is warm enough to sow some of the hardier things, and it will definitely be warm enough for planting hardy veg plants. I find sowing in modules or pots of peat-free organic seed compost best for almost everything now. It gains me at least 2-3 weeks of extra growing time at either end of the year. It also means I can plant out much bigger plants that are far more slug-resistant and will withstand the odd night-time nibble without total destruction! 
 
 

Here's what you can sow now outside if conditions are suitable - or inside now for planting outside later:

In modules under cover without heat, or in a cold frame - (covering with fleece on frosty nights) - or under cloches, or if the soil's warm enough in the garden
 
 
Asparagus, globe artichokes, beetroot, broad beans, carrots, claytonia, mangetout, maincrop peas, sugar snap, mangetout and early peas, parsnips, summer and autumn cabbages, savoy cabbages, Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers, calabrese and summer sprouting broccoli, Hamburg parsley, onions (sow seed early in April (don't plant sets in the ground - you may bring in disease. Plant in containers instead for an earlier crop if you need it), leeks, spring onions (scallions), lettuces (keep cool for first 24 hours after sowing - too high a temperature can cause poor germination or trigger dormancy), kohl rabi, Ragged Jack, Cavolo Nero or other kales for baby leaves, radishes, Swiss chard, summer spinach, seakale, white turnips, landcress, watercress, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes, 'soft' herbs like borage, parsley, dill, fennel, Greek oregano and coriander. Remember - parsley likes to be warm and can take about 3 weeks to germinate anytime - always just when you think it's not going to! 
 
 
As the light is increasing now - this month many hardy crops can still be hurried up a bit by sowing in warmth which will enable you to catch up if you're a bit behind because of the weather - but remember to reduce the temperature after germination and harden off gradually so that they don't get a shock or check, which could possibly initiate bolting (this particularly applies to cauliflowers and calabrese/broccoli). Rhubarb can also be sown from seed now - Unwins early red and Glaskin's perpetual (low oxalic acid variety) are both good varieties from seed. Asparagus peas, cardoons and New Zealand spinach can be sown outside from mid-April in warmer areas.
 
 
It's also worth sowing some single, early flowering annuals in the open ground or in modules - such as limnanthes (poached egg plant), calendula, cerinthe, convulvulus tricolor, phacelia or even red clover and buckwheat normally used as green manures (bees love them) etc. All these will attract beneficial insects to help with pest control, encourage bees, butterflies, moths and other insects into the garden and polytunnel for pollination, and also provide nectar for overwintered butterflies. Any insects will then in turn also attract wildlife like birds and bats.
 
 

What you can sow now for growing on in the polytunnel or greenhouse:

 
In a heated propagator, for cropping later in the tunnel (or some for planting outside later) - Alpine strawberries (Reugen - Chiltern Seeds best var.), globe artichokes, asparagus, celery, celeriac (early in month or won't grow to decent size), Florence fennel, dwarf and climbing French beans for cropping in polytunnel beds ('Cobra F1' is a very heavy cropping, thoroughly reliable climbing variety - it's a round-podded, stringless, improved form of the old 'Blue Lake' - available in the B&Q range at half the price of all other seed companies! Purple Cascade is another delicious var.), tomatoes, chillies and other peppers (soon as poss for a decent crop), physalis (Cape gooseberries), early courgettes, melons, cucumbers and early sweetcorn for tunnel cropping. Don't forget melons and cucumbers need to be grown on in consistently warmer conditions than tomatoes to be successful. Don't sow courgettes, marrows, pumpkins, squashes or other very fast developing vegetables such as sweet corn, French or runner beans which are destined for planting outside until at least mid to late April, so they can then grow on without any checks, as they are fast growers. Also in gentle warmth you can now sow basil (water very carefully after germination, always from bottom by sitting in tray rather than drenching from top! Over watering, particularly in cold conditions, will kill basil faster than anything - I get more questions about growing basil than almost anything else!). 
 
 
Also sow some single-flowered more tender annuals such as Cosmos, Tagetes, French marigolds (T&M 'Tall Citrus Mixed' is good), also nasturtiums etc.- these attract many bees and beneficial insects which will help with pest control and pollination both in the tunnel and outside. It's vitally important that they are single-flowered, as bees, hoverflies and other insects can't access the nectaries of double flowers. This means they are completely useless to them, in which case they won't hang around for long. It also means they can waste precious energy trying to get at the nectar in the flowers!
 
 
In modules in the tunnel without heat, or direct in soil now, you can sow - Beetroot, broad beans and peas for planting outside, summer cabbages, calabrese, cauliflowers, carrots, white turnips and radishes (in the soil for an early tunnel crop), onions, chives, Welsh onions, scallions, leeks. Quick growing salad mixes (early in the month) to give some young leaves fast, leaf radishes, also summer spinach, kales, rocket, spinach and coloured Swiss chards etc. for baby leaves. Fennel and other 'soft herbs' like borage, chives, parsley, dill, Greek oregano, salad burnet and coriander. Single-flowered, insect-attracting hardy annuals like limnanthes, convulvulus tricolour and calendula can also be sown direct into the soil in beds now.
 
  

If you still haven't yet planted any potatoes outside don't panic! 

 
You can speed them up a bit and catch up by planting into pots now inside, which will bring them on quickly. You can then harden them off gradually and plant outside into their cropping positions later - protecting any exposed young shoots with fleece if necessary. These will still be far earlier than any planted on the traditional St. Patrick's day outside into cold wet ground, where they'll still be sulking and vulnerable to pests or rotting - particularly after a long spell of cold weather!
 I grow all my potatoes this way now, as it ensure that I always have a fairly good crop underneath them by the time potato blight hits - which can be any time from early June onwards depending on weather.
 
 
And the same goes for garlic!
 
 
You've also just got time plant some spring planting varieties of garlic early in the month - check pack to make sure they are varieties suitable for spring planting! Garlic needs cold weather to develop roots, or it may produce a large bulb rather than cloves. I find that planting in modules or pots and keeping in a cold spot, like against a north wall, until they're well-rooted, is a good way to start late plantings off - then I plant them out as normal. Cristo is the best variety which I've found for spring planting and it has a good strong flavour.
 
 
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in March - 2018

March Contents: Some advice for new peach tree owners!......Pollinating peach trees is vital if you want fruit......Last chance now for pruning most things.....Autumn Raspberry pruning.....Still time to plant soft fruits.....Birds help to keep pests down.....Growing grapes and figs in polytunnels.....Cape Gooseberries.....Citrus tree care...
 
 
  •  
Buds of early crop on potted blackberry 'Reuben' Buds of pear Beurre d'Alexandre Lucas Fat buds on red-leaved peach  bursting with promise
Figlets - baby figs developing on Nero d'Italia Furry vine leaves  cradling a bunch of delicious seedless black grapes! Masses of flower buds on the potted dwarf Morello cherry
 
The promising fat buds of last year picture above, are about 2-3 weeks away still outside 
 
 
But the fruit in the polytunnel isn't too far behind. Even after the freezing snowstorms of barely 2 weeks ago and many freezing nights since - it's surprising just how fast they'll catch up! The frosty but bright and sunny days have warmed the tunnels and it's been feeling very spring-like in there. The fruit in there is almost on cue - but outside in the orchard, things are looking about 2-3 weeks behind - because the temperature of the saturated ground is currently well below normal for the time of year. That's just as well - as this St. Patrick's weekend is forecast to get a lot colder again, and frost can do a lot of damage to plum and pear buds in particular - because they tend to flower earlier than the apples. 
 
 

One of the things I love most about this time of year is the fruit buds - so burstingly full with the promise of all the deliciousness to come later in the year! Nature's wonderful example of hope and energy. At this time of year you can almost see buds everywhere are growing visibly every day - and I would dearly love to have a time-lapse camera! It makes good sense to grow as much organic fruit as we possibly can ourselves and not be too dependent on buying imported produce, whether it's just a few berries, or if it's tree fruits like pears or peaches. Imported organic fruit like peaches and apricots in particular are always scarce and expensive in the shops or markets. Locally grown peaches - especially organic, are simply non-existent here in Ireland!  One or occasionally perhaps two varieties of apples are available but you never see the very best tasting varieties - only those that have been bred to travel well without bruising and produce huge, cosmetically perfect crops for supermarkets! Your own fruit from your back garden or allotment is tastier, fresher, far more full of nutrients and has a much lower carbon footprint than any you could ever buy!  If you're also an organic gardener like me - then it additionally has no nasty toxic chemicals, either in it or sprayed onto it after harvesting in order to preserve it! 

 

 

Spring is always early in the fruit tunnel

 

 

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

 

Some Advice for New Peach Tree Owners!

 
March  peach blossom on a young tree  in the polytunnel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 A 3 year old developing 'fush' - aka a fan/bush - flowering in March              

For anyone who just bought the great value peach trees from Lidl Ireland this week - here's a few tips on how to grow them! 

You won't believe how easy it is to grow peaches in Ireland! And if you grow them undercover in a polytunnel, where they are protected from rain - then they won't get the dreaded 'peach leaf curl' disease. They're not fussy about soil - but like good drainage. Just fork over soil, add a little compost, and a small handful of seaweed meal to provide potash and encourage biological activity, and another small handful of bone meal to provide phosphate for root development, working them into the soil. It's also useful to sprinkle some Root Growdirectly onto the roots when they're in the hole, before covering them. This preparation is widely available in garden centres now and it's a mixture of mycorrhizal fungi which develop a network of very fine fungal threads that work symbiotically with the plant's roots - enabling them to be far more effective in taking up nutrients from the soil.

Peaches and Nectarines can easily be kept as small as you like by pruning - and this is especially important to do immediately after planting, in order to give the tree time to develop a good root system which will help the tree to fruit much better later in life. 

If you're planting a young tree in spring - you MUST prune every branch back immediately, selecting the best to give your tree a good shape by leaving just 2 or 3 buds on each of the larger growths. Try to imagine the shape your tree will grow. The buds will then grow out vigorously and produce lots of fruit next year. I grow my trees as what I call 'Fushes' - a sort of cross between a fan and a bush. They produce far more fruit than fan -trained trees - but don't take up as much room as a round, 'mop-headed' tree. This also means they don't need laborious 'tying-in' to supports! Don't be tempted not to prune and to leave branches un-pruned the first year - hoping you'll get fruit this year as a friend of mine once did, against my advice! She lost her tree altogether, as although it flowered the first year - it couldn't cope with trying to establish roots and produce fruit at the same time and she killed it!  It's a common mistake many impatient people make sadly! Patience always pays off!

Peaches fruit best on the young green growth formed the previous year - not on the brown, older wood. So it's important to prune them every year immediately after fruiting. Pruning like this also means that they're easy to keep within bounds to the size that you want. Even quite old trees will produce new buds out from their trunk - a very useful attribute if they get too big because it means that you can be quite brutal and prune them right down to the trunk!.

 

Pollinating peach trees is vital if you want fruit   

 

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

 

This year I've only seen one or two bumblebees around so far - so it looks like I'll have to do a lot more pollinating myself this year if I want a good early crop in July! The early peach growing in the bed at the top of the east tunnel is just starting to flower, and the dwarf peaches in pots in the west tunnel are already in full bloom as they're always earlier. These will have to be protected on the coldest nights - but the dwarf ones are easy to cover with fleece, being only shoulder height. The early peach in the ground is a bit more difficult. The blossom still needs protection on the coldest nights if a severe frost is forecast, so I use a big sheet of fleece to cover as much as I can of the tree, using a 5 ft long blunt ended bamboo cane to help reach the topmost part of the tree. I use the same cane for 'fleecing' most things this year - it makes a useful extra arm now - since my accident 3 years ago when I smashed my right arm and shoulder, I can't extend my right arm above shoulder height to reach things which is a bit of a nuisance to put it mildly!  But one gets used to it and there's ways around most things with a little initiative. One just has to think laterally, be inventive and learn to do things differently! Determination is really all you need - and I refuse to be beaten by anything!

 

 

For the last few days, whenever it's sunny and the wind has dropped enough to have the tunnel doors open, there's been a few bumblebees busily helping with the pollination so insects are starting to wake up. That's just one of the reasons I grow so many flowers in there - the insects are attracted to the nectar in them and then I get the benefit of them pollinating the peaches as well!  I re-homed a couple of ladybirds the other day that I'd found crawling up a sunny wall. I put them on the nettles I always leave in the corner of the tunnel, where they should find some early nettle aphids for breakfast and they're safer from the keen-eyed birds. Small birds like Wrens, Robins, Sparrows and Dunnocks always come into the tunnel at every opportunity, as they know there's always insect food in there that they won't find outside just yet. There still aren't that many bees around though, and if you have early peach or apricot trees in the tunnel they'll need pollinating during the middle of the day, while the polytunnel is as warm as possible and the pollen is 'running'. The best time to do this is around midday if you can. The trees will then need protection at night with a light covering of fleece if a very severe frost is forecast, to protect the developing embryo fruit. I know it seems like a lot of fuss and bother - but when you sink your teeth into that very first late June peach - you'll be so glad you did!  I always save the very last of my frozen peaches from the previous summer to eat now - just to remind me of how utterly delicious they are, Then all the pollinating doesn't seem quite so much of a chore! Accompanied by a tiny glass of home made peach Schnapps, I just fly along pollinating!
 
 
 
 
Pale pink unpollinated peach flower
A. It's easy to tell which flowers to pollinate. This pale pink flower has only just opened and is not yet pollinated.
Peach flower with deeper pink staining in centre - clearly indicating pollination has taken place
B. This older flower has deep pink staining in centre - which indicates that pollination has taken place - so no need to brush that flower
Pollinating peach blossom gently with soft paintbrush
C. Pollinating peach blossom gently at midday with a soft paintbrush fixed to a cane so I can reach the top ones!
 
 
 
I'll be pollinating my two fan trained peach trees and the dwarf potted peaches and apricots every day for the next couple of weeks. I don't just rely hopefully on any early bees, because the fruit is far too precious and only available once a year! I work over the trees with a soft paintbrush fixed on the end of a bamboo cane so I can reach right to the top, very gently transferring pollen from one blossom to the next. Midday is generally the driest time in a tunnel when it's been open for a few hours and the humidity lessens, so that's the most effective time because if the pollen is wet it won't work. A day or so after pollination - you'll see some flowers develop a deeper pink staining in the centre of the flower which you can see pictured above. This means they've been pollinated and the fruitlets have set successfully. It's quite easy to see then which ones you've done already - so you don't have to do every single flower again, just the very pale flowers which have only recently fully opened. It's a very fiddly job and being an impatient person it's not one I look forward to - but actually it only takes about 15-20mins to do quite a large fan trained tree - so I just steel myself and think about warm summer peaches. 
 
 
To encourage myself over the last few years, I've got into the habit of leaving the very last of the frozen peaches from the previous summer to eat now  - that reminds me of exactly why I'm doing such a fiddly job! They really taste fabulous, especially semi-dehydrated - which concentrates their flavour - and then half frozen to preserve them as although frying them completely would preserve them - it ruins their fabulous taste - which is the absolute essence of summer! Last year I tried to count the fruit on both of my 8ft wide 15ft high fans planted either side of the north door of the large east tunnel - but I gave it up as a bad job at well over 200 fruit on each! The dwarf trees in pots won't produce as many but they'll be a bit earlier, so the peach crop is spread over about 2 months.
 


Last chance now for pruning most things

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

 

Autumn raspberry pruning

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

Still time to plant soft fruits 

  
I did a bit of my favourite sort of retail therapy a few days ago! Not for me handbags and shoes!! Strawberries are the sort of retail therapy that makes me happy!  Ken Muir's Nursery in the UK have a new variety of perpetual strawberry called Finesse! Squeals!! I'm so excited - their wonderful variety Albion has been a great favourite of mine for many years, it's so reliable and delicious that I've given up most other varieties! Being a 'perpetual fruiting' variety - it fruits from early May until November in the tunnel and I think it has the best taste of any strawberry apart from the old variety Gento, which I brought here from the garden I where I grew up. Gento was bred in France in the 1960's and is without doubt the nearest in taste to wild strawberries. It has that meltingly delicious and incomparable flavour. It doesn't travel well though because it bruises easily and starts to deteriorate the minute it's picked, which is probably why it fell out of favour.  It hasn't been available as plants for about 30 years at least, so I really treasure mine - quite apart from the sentimental value. I grew up eating it and so did my children - and I've been propagating from those same original plants for almost 40 years now! Don't believe those who say you shouldn't do that! As long as you only ever propagate from the healthiest and most productive plants and then rotate them around the garden - changing their location every few years to avoid any build up of pests and diseases - then it's perfectly possible!  Gento is actually one of the parents of Mara des Bois - which has inherited much of it's flavour but is smaller and not quite as productive.  Albion is a good alternative - it's very productive, delicious and a great choice if you want a really good strawberry that fruits all summer long. It freezes well too as it's juicy berries are nice and firm. 
 
 
Ken Muir's Nursery are the best fruit nursery I've ever dealt with and their people on the other end of the phone are also by far the nicest.  I've been buying fruit of all kinds from them for about 35 years and they are thoroughly reliable. I can't recommend them highly enough. Many people have asked me where I got Albion and they've always been happy with both their plants and their customer service. (and no - I don't get anything free or even a special price! I just like to give credit where it's due and always try to recommend good retailers to you!)  I'm really looking forward to trying this new strawberry Finesse. In their words it is: 
 
"An outstanding perpetual variety which combines heavy yields with great fruit quality, excellent flavour and good disease resistance. ‘Finesse’ produces bright red, medium to large heart-shaped berries which are both sweet and juicy. Plants are vigorous, producing very few energy-sapping runners, resulting in heavy crops of up to 1.2kg (2.6lb) per plant."
 
So there you have it - straight from the horse's mouth! I can't wait for my new plants to arrive in a few days time - it will be just like Christmas again!!  
 
 
Many of the mail order nurseries have good offers right now. Prepare the ground well and then water and mulch after planting.  Never mulch dry soil - always water first. A few years ago I was asked to visit a garden to give some advice on pruning raspberries, and discovered that sadly, the person asking had planted autumn and summer ones right next door to each other - with the result that they had all become so mixed up that it was absolutely impossible to tell which was which! 
 
 
Never plant summer and autumn fruiting raspberries close together always keep autumn varieties segregated and under strict 'house arrest'. The summer ones are slightly more genteel, and don't have quite such territorial ambitions! Autumn varieties in particular can spread sideways at a very alarming rate once they've settled in, and the two varieties can easily become muddled up and indistinguishable very quickly!  A few year's ago a friend called me to ask if I would show him how to prune his raspberries. When I went to his garden I saw that he'd actually planted them close together and they were a complete muddle! Enough said!
 
 
 Birds help to keep fruit pests down - until they become pests themselves!
 
 
Talking of greedy feeders - don't put fruit cage netting back up yet, wait until the fruit is forming. The birds need to be able to get in to the fruit bushes and canes to help clear up any pests like blackcurrant blister aphid or gooseberry sawfly caterpillars (which can completely defoliate a large black or red currant bush literally within hours!) Hang a peanut feeder in there to attract the the birds, and they'll also do a good job 'working over' the bushes while they await their turn!  
 
 
DON'T use nasty detergent-based washing up liquid sprays on them as I saw one gardener on a TV programme doing a few years ago - they unbelievably claimed they were biodynamic gardeners!!!? Washing-up liquids contain formaldehyde and other nasty chemicals in many cases - but even if they're organic - they're unnecessary and can harm beneficial insects. If you have bantams or chickens, You can use an old fashioned organic method that I remember my father using every winter in the kitchen garden of the house where I grew up. He used to run some of our poultry into the fruit cages throughout most of the winter. Chickens are amazingly efficient pest clearer-uppers and scratching around under bushes for grubs is their natural behaviour since the come from the jungle!  I had a bad case of sawfly many years ago when I first planted some new bushes which were obviously carrying it. The chickens cleared up the pupae that overwinter on the ground very efficiently over the following winter - eating all the grubs before they could crawl up and do any damage to the bushes. I've never had a problem with it since! Poultry also gradually supply a good hit of nitrogen for the following spring and keep weeds down, doing three jobs at once! Don't leave them on ground too long though - always take them out before early spring - or they will 'sour' it with too much nitrogen.

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

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

 

Growing grapes in polytunnels or outside

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

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

Figs in tunnels or greenhouses need feeding and tidying up now

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Cape Gooseberries

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

Citrus tree care in early spring

 

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

The Vegetable Garden in March - 2018

March contents:   How to get ahead with you r veg gardening even if it's too wet outside.....Time to sow leeks......My unconventional method of sowing onions and leeks to cheat the weather!.....Dealing with slugs and snails - some organic suggestions......Make sure there's no hiding place for slugs.....How to make an protected propagating area outside if you don't have a greenhouse or polytunnel.....My easy, slug-proof 'Moat Method' to keep slugs out of propagating areas!.....Improving difficult Soil.....Soil Matters!.....My peculiar method of planting potatoes in pots to transplant for outdoor cropping!
 
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Leek 'Bandit' with chicory behind & McGregors Favourite beet in the foreground. Rest of bed covered with clear polythene
Leek 'Bandit' with chicory behind & McGregors Favourite beet in the foreground. Rest of bed covered with clear polythene
 
 
The last two or three days have been almost wall to wall glorious sunshine here and quite spring-like after some very cold frosty mornings!  We could do with a couple of weeks of this lovely weather now to dry things up enough to do any work outside. After the huge amount of snow which Storm Emma dumped on us - the soil here is still so saturated that in many well-trodden places I'm walking around in gloupy mud up to my ankles and we still have snow drifts lingering in some shadier spots! The route that I use up to feed the hens and collect eggs every day is really treacherous at the moment with all the mud! It's currently impossible to do anything useful in the kitchen garden - so all my efforts for the next week or so will be concentrated on sowing more seeds into modules, so that I have nice, big slug-proof plants hardened off and ready to go when things dry up enough to finally start planting. 
 
 
As usual - I shall be starting all my potatoes off in pots which I talk about below. Planting them on the traditional day of St Patrick's Day here would mean them sitting in the now icy-cold saturated ground for quite a long time before they even venture to put their snouts above the ground! I always try to 'think like a plant' when growing anything - and frankly if I was a tender plant like a potato I think I'd sulk for ages planted like that after all the snow we've had!  Anyway - mine will be ready at least a month ahead of any tubers direct planted. OK it's a bit more trouble - but I believe it's well worth the small amount of trouble to do this, as it means I reliably get good crops without ever spraying for blight.
 
 
Three days ago while I was tidying up a bit in the polytunnel, I saw my very first bumblebees and ladybirds of 2018 - always such a welcome sight and sound. They were no doubt venturing out into the relatively warm midday sun, hoping to see if there might be any early aphids for a spring brunch or some nectar from all the tunnel flowers. Their appearance reminded me that there are still a lot more of the organic gardeners' good friends hiding from the weather and from hungry birds among the dry leaves - so it's a mistake to try to tidy up too much yet. I stopped my housekeeping and left them alone, to concentrate on the last of the peach pruning instead. With the scent of all the wallflowers, narcissi and primroses wafting up from underneath the peach trees - and the burgeoning pink blossom - it really began to feel like Spring had finally arrived at last - even if outside has still some catching up to do. I'd felt the 'gardeners sap' rising yesterday in the early March sunshine and was keen to get out and feel my fingers in the soil - but it was a timely reminder that it's still very early days yet! We seem to have had very hard frosts alternating with saturating heavy rain for the last two months at least, so not only is the soil far too wet but the soil temperature is also still colder than normal. It would be a complete waste of both time and seed trying to sow anything into it even in the raised beds! A couple of weeks of being covered with clear polythene now will work wonders though in the places where I need to do any early sowings of carrots etc. so I'm not panicking.  Over the years I've learnt that it's always a mistake to sow too early - as it often results in seeds just sitting miserably there doing nothing and even perhaps rotting. Any gardening - here at least - will have to be restricted to the polytunnels at the moment - but there's plenty to do in there! After the winter storms over the UK and Ireland - I suspect it's the same for most people!
 
 
There is plenty we can do though, to prepare for when the weather changes. March is the serious start of major production in the garden - up to now anything sown indoors has just been the rehearsal!  Anything we can do to get ahead now, despite the weather, will save a lot of time and hassle later - and lay the foundations for good crops. Otherwise work starts to pile up - and if it does gardening can become a bit of a stressful chore if you're trying to grow all your own food, as we like to do here. It's meant to be enjoyable as well as productive!  The birds are already gearing up for the breeding season though. The sparrows are all chasing each other round and arguing over nesting sites as usual and it's almost impossible to concentrate on writing, because the starlings are performing their noisy morning ablutions in the gutter just above the back door, accompanied by much splashing, cat calling and 'wolf-whistles'! I can see them from my kitchen table 'desk' beside the kitchen window and they are so entertaining! 
 
 

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

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

Time to Sow Leeks 

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

My unconventional method of multi-sowing onions and leeks to cheat the weather!

 
 
Onions from seed are always crop far more successfully than sets, particularly in a bad year - and of course they don't run the risk of bringing in onion white rot disease which sets may sometimes do. That can be even more likely in a wet year - and as it can survive for up to 20 years in the soil, destroying all your onion crops - you really don't want it!. The good news is - it's still not too late to sow them, if you get a move on and sow them now! I've been multi-sowing my onions and leeks for about 35 years now. It saves pricking out and gives me exactly the size onions I want for various different kitchen uses.
 
 
I have a neat trick up my sleeve for onions - and this one is really worth trying if you are ever delayed when anything sensitive needs planting out from modules. After sowing them in module trays, as soon as the roots start to show through the bottom of the modules - I then sit the module tray into a larger tray of peat-free potting compost. This means that instead of wrapping around and around inside the modules - the roots will immediately start to explore a bit further. I find that despite this involving lifting them gently later in order to plant - I get far fewer 'bolters' this way. I also grow on my leek seedlings leeks this way too.
 
 
Onion seedlings in a module tray, sitting in a larger tray of peat-free compost
Onion seedlings in a module tray, sitting in a larger tray of peat-free compost
I first thought of this particular trick when I was behind with my work in the garden for some reason (weather, or back problems probably!) so that I couldn't plant out my onions and leeks at the right time. This meant they were in serious danger of becoming starved and root bound - which they hate and is far more likely to cause bolting. What I do is to sit the module tray on top of roughly an inch of fairly loose compost in a large plant tray. I put something like a sheet of newspaper on the bottom first - just to stop the compost falling through, then I put in 2-3cm of organic peat free potting compost - which I water well - and then just sit the module tray on top. This completely avoids the fiddly and time consuming job of having to pot on over 100 modules just for the sake of a couple of weeks or so - and means that the onions, leeks or whatever get absolutely no check at all to their growth. They keep on growing - sending their roots out exploring downwards, happily completely unawares and not being the least bit bothered at all. When I'm finally ready to plant them into the ground - I give them a good watering, very gently ease the tray up out of the compost - take each plug of multi-sown plants out of the module tray and plant as normal. I may get only one or two 'bolters' out of 3-400 onions - so it obviously doesn't bother them in the least! They will usually have put on a couple of centimetres or so of root into the compost underneath in this time - but by easing them very gently out they never even know they've been moved and don't receive any check at all. This was a great success a few years ago, when the weather was so wet that many people's onions were a complete disaster. I had a terrific crop as usual as a result of this trick, most of which ripened well and kept all winter long. 
 
 
  
Experience is always the best teacher - and like many of the odd things I do, it may not be not the most conventional way of doing things!  Being 'conventional' has never bothered me very much though!  I've always felt that 'conventional' was there to be challenged - particularly if it didn't suit my hectic lifestyle with so many other things to do! Given that we now also have to cope with unpredictable and erratic weather patterns brought on by climate change too - it means that we can often be delayed and unable to do jobs when we would like to! The onion trick is something which I've learned works really well from experience. I would otherwise often have to go to a lot of bother and time potting on to avoid plants getting a check - using a lot more compost. Saving time is often as important as saving money for me! If you don't do this, or don't pot them on and just leave them sitting on a hard surface getting starved if their planting is delayed - then the roots will start going round and round inside the modules, becoming very congested. As a result - they will then be far less efficient, the plants will get a check and won't grow as well as they should when you plant them out and may be more likely to 'bolt'. If they're sitting on capillary matting - the effects can be even worse! This is because they will start to root into the matting - the roots then get broken off when you try to lift them up off the matting - and this can cause them to get such a severe shock that many of them will definitely 'bolt' - running straight up to flower instead of producing the nice firm, ripe, long-keeping bulbs that you want.  I actually do this every year now with my onions - I like to sow them early to get nice big plants so that I eventually get nice big well-ripened onions! I'm still using the last of last year's 'Golden Bear' and 'Red Baron' onions and they are as firm as ever! It's really worth keeping this trick in mind, when we can't always rely on the weather to behave in the predictable way it always did - and we are all so busy! 
 
 
Although leeks aren't quite as sensitive to being moved as onions - this is still a very useful trick that works for them too - especially if you have to go away at short notice or are held up in some other way. If you have time beforehand you could row them out in a small patch of a veg. bed if they are large enough instead of doing this and plant them out as usual later - but if they're still small that's risky as they're far more vulnerable to slugs!  This way success is guaranteed!
 
 
Following the same advice given in old gardening manuals just because that's how it was always done is rather outdated now. Our climate is definitely changing and we'd better learn to be adaptable and think laterally. I call it 'seat of the pants' gardening!
 
 
 

Dealing with slugs and snails - some organic suggestions

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

Make sure there's no Hiding Place for slugs!

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

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

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

My easy slug-proof 'Moat Method' to keep slugs out of propagation areas!

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

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


Improving difficult soil 

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

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

 

Soil Matters!

 

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

 
 
 

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

 

You could plant well chitted early varieties of potatoes in well-drained soil later this month (is there any after this winter?)!! That's if you've had covers on the soil to warm it up. Remember - even the early ones will take at least 10-12 weeks from planting to cropping but you may have to cover with fleece once they're above ground, if frost is forecast.

I now grow all my outdoor potatoes by starting them off in pots, as it guarantees that I will miss early blight and it's really useful if the ground is still too wet and cold. It's well worth it, as we've had early blight here at the end of May once or twice over the last few years. Some of the potatoes I grow are extremely rare and hard to replace varieties, so doing this guarantees that I won't lose them.  OK - so it may be a bit of a 'faff' starting them off in pots and then planting them out - but no more so than planting out bedding plants - and few people have a problem with that! It just requires a change of mindset that's all! They may occasionally have to be covered with fleece if frost is forecast - but doing this it means that I never have to spray with anything - not even copper based organic fungicides.  My soil is heavy clay and copper can build up in soil creating imbalances and causing other problems. 

 

I also live in an area which grows a lot of horticultural crops including potatoes - and these are often left in the ground and sometimes not even lifted if it's not financially worth it - with the result that there is more and more early blight around here now. There are also more aggressive new 'super-strains' of potato blight emerging due precisely to this bad practice I believe, which are more resistant to chemical fungicides (as always happens eventually with most chemicals) - so planting early before the weather warms up enough for blight is the only way to avoid it, and absolutely guarantees a crop. As regular readers may know - I'm not keen of the 'Sarpo' varieties, as in my experience here in my local climate, they're really not much more blight-resistant than many of the other varieties I grow. I also happen to think that the Sarpo's are not that tasty either really - so really what's the point? We don't eat tons of potatoes every day as they're very high in carbs -we probably only eat them about twice a week. So despite being able to lower their carb content by about 50% by retrogradation - I would still sooner go to the extra trouble of just starting off my favourite potato varieties in pots just a bit earlier.  I grow about 20 different varieties of great-flavoured potatoes each year, some very rare - especially the purple ones.  I'll be starting all of them off in pots over the next week or so.

 

People often think that the difference between the earlies, second earlies and maincrops is the time that you plant them - it isn't. The name is what tells you how long it will take them to crop. Early and second early potatoes are the fastest growing and need the shortest time to produce a useful crop, but most will keep just as well as the maincrop varieties. Many become floury and mash well too - particularly Red Duke of York. I also start my maincrops off now too - because they take longer to produce a decent harvest. 

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

 

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

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

 
 

The Polytunnel and Greenhouse in March 2018

The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival
Saturday August 18th to Sunday 2nd September 2018 

The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival is coming to the National Botanic Gardens. The festival will run over the weekend of the 18th and 19th August and an exhibition of tomato cultivars as well as their relatives - tobacco, potatoes, chillies, petunias and even deadly nightshade - will be displayed in the Teak House for a fortnight. There will be a series of talks – Tomato Tales – amongst the speakers will be tomato-addict Nicky Kyle, who will tell us all about growing, eating and enjoying tomatoes. Daily in the Teak House
 
 
Dr. Matthew Jebb & I, with the wonderful array of tomatoes he carefully transported from the 2017 Tomato Festival to display in the beautiful glasshouse at The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin

Dr. Matthew Jebb & I, with the wonderful array of tomatoes he carefully transported from the 2017 Tomato Festival to display in the beautiful glasshouse at The National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin

I can't tell you how thrilled I am to finally be able to announce this!

Dr. Matthew Jebb - director of The National Botanic Gardens, journalist Jane Powers and I had been discussing this exciting possibility since January - but I couldn't let the cat out of the bag until now!! Above is the notice in the National Botanic Gardens Events Guide - the link to that is below. 

I'm so incredibly grateful to Dr. Matthew Jebb for bravely deciding to take on the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival this year. Last year, he carefully packed up all the tomatoes after the exhibition had finished at Killruddery and took them all back to display at Glasnevin - where many more people got the chance to see them in all their beauty, and to marvel at the wonders of their abundant diversity. Many of those in last year's tomato display - which numbered over 200 varieties - were grown at the Botanic Gardens from seed which I had donated earlier in the year. Many others were grown by enthusiastic and dedicated gardeners who came from the four corners of Ireland! It was wonderful to each them displayed so beautifully there on the upturned terracotta pots - an inspired idea!  http://www.botanicgardens.ie/news/events.htm

  

Once again I'd like to repeat that I will also be forever grateful to Sunday Times Gardening Correspondent Jane Powers, who came to the second TTTFest in 2013.  It was her brilliant idea to resurrect it in 2016 after my shoulder-breaking accident had prevented me from organising it for a couple of years. Jane was so passionate about not letting it wither and die altogether, that she enthused me again too. She was utterly determined that what she termed "This joyous celebration of tomatoes" should happen again, and the abundant enthusiasm, hard work and energy of Jane and everyone at Killruddery - combined with the enthusiastic growers who contributed tomatoes from all over the country - once again made last year's event a huge success. Jane, more than anybody else, put a vast amount of energy into both the 2016 and 2017 Festivals, encouraging  growers, chasing them up prior to the Festival and logging them all in with awe-insipiring military precision on arrival, with the help of volunteers. But last year there was an even bigger display of tomatoes and it was evident that managing such an event was a really huge undertaking - and that no single person could possibly take on coordinating the event. 

 

 

As this year as it will be held at our wonderful National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin - we're hoping that it will go on to even bigger and better things!  We're hoping that many of you who exhibited last year will once again grow some tomatoes for it this year? Everyone and every tomato will be welcome  - and we'd love your help to make it an even bigger success!  Perhaps some people may consider coming over from the UK to exhibit - and perhaps even incorporate it into a mini-break? We'd really love to see you - there are lots of great B&B's and hotels close by and so much to see - especially if you've never been to Dublin before! Not forgetting of course our world-famous and historic National Botanic Gardens. Do try to make it - you'd be in for a real treat - and so would we!

 

 

So why is genetic diversity in tomatoes important? Well - whether we grow them or not - most of us eat them! 

 
'Ebony and Ivory' - the contrasting colours of tomatoes Indigo Rose & White Queen
'Ebony and Ivory' - the contrasting colours of tomatoes Indigo Rose & White Queen
 
The fact that we eat plant foods means that genetic diversity - not just in tomatoes but all food crops is a hugely important issue that potentially affects all of us. It's daily becoming even more vitally important - with climate change, soil loss, destruction of habitats with subsequent loss of wild crop relatives. It's a subject which I've always cared passionately about. Tomatoes are a wonderfully colourful and joyous celebration of nature's abundance - in fact they're a really 'Terrific' (!) way to illustrate genetic diversity in all it's surprising and eye-popping abundance, to a public who often only know the plastic-wrapped, plastic-tasting imposters that pass for tomatoes on today's supermarket shelves! 
 
 
To the best of my knowledge - the variety Indigo Rose, pictured here, was grown and also seen for the very first time in the British Isles at the 2012 Tomato Festival! I was browsing the internet looking for tomato seeds in early 2012 - as you do - and came across this stunning new variety. I had run a smaller version of the TomFest at the National Botanic Gardens back in the early 1990's - but that was really just a tiny seed of the idea - which waited in the background and germinated immediately I saw Indigo Rose - which then sowed the idea of the newer version of the TomFest as a brilliant way to show the wider public the importance of genetic diversity! It was originally bred by Oregon State University, while seeking to breed tomatoes with naturally higher levels of health-promoting antioxidants and it was released in the US for the very first time in 2012.  It's not a Genetically Modified or engineered variety (or GMO) produced in a laboratory. It was naturally bred from a wild tomato growing in the Andes which had very high levels of the purple-coloured anthocyanin phytochemicals in it's leaves and fruit, and it is now the forerunner of many other black tomatoes that have been naturally bred since then. 
 
 
Anthocyanin antioxidants help to give plants protection against many diseases and also protect their skins from sun damage. They do exactly the same for us when we eat them! Antioxidant anthocyanin phytonutrients are found in many purple vegetables and fruits - and as I often mention - these have been scientifically proven to boost our circulation and our immune system. This is why it's so important to include plenty of them in our diets. They are clearly very effective because it's definitely one of the healthiest tomatoes I've ever grown - so I can forgive it's slightly 'less than fabulous' flavour!  In all we had almost 100 varieties at that first Festival. People were amazed by the unusual look of the Indigo Rose tomatoes and even asked if they were giant blackcurrants! It looks stunning contrasted here with the beefsteak White Queen. Celebrity chefs eat your hearts out!  I must say I found it irresistible when I saw it - it was what gave me the initial idea for the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival in 2012. I would be the first to admit that it's not the most tasty tomato - but what it lacks in flavour it more than makes up for in looks! It does improve on dehydrating though, which concentrates the flavour! But of course it's main attribute is that it is naturally so high in healthy anthocyanins.
 
 
It's always such fun showing people the amazing genetic diversity that there is to choose from - and watching the wonder on their faces when they realise that what they're looking at are actually tomatoes! It's also vital to convey how important it is for our future food security that we preserve the genetic heritage in all our food crops. If we only grow the commercial varieties that we see in supermarkets - before very long we could be in serious trouble. Just one of the many genes in wild or naturally-bred tomatoes could be vital for using in future natural breeding programmes. They could possibly even be the saviour of all tomatoes or other crops, if they were to be threatened in the future by some as yet unknown disease.
 
 
Who could possibly imagine a future without tomatoes? Impossible isn't it? I simply couldn't imagine my summer without eating them fresh - or my winter without delicious and healthy tomato sauces or semi-dried tomatoes to use in all sorts of treats! Journalist Fionnuala Fallon asked me a few years ago to name my absolute favourite variety for an article that she was writing for the Irish Times magazine. But as I said to her - it's a bit like asking someone to name their favourite child - impossible, as they all have their different qualities and I love them all!  I definitely get an uncontrollable urge to hit all the 'buy' buttons whenever I look at websites selling unusual varieties I haven't tried! Anyway - someone did say once that my epitaph should be "She never did anything by halves"!  Hmm.... They may have a point there!  I think there could be a happy medium somewhere! I really am a hopeless case! But being a tomatoholic/tomatophile isn't really such a bad thing is it? Given that there's about 12,000 varieties of tomatoes out there - I'll definitely never run out of new ones to try!
 
 
The importance of genetic diversity is something that I've been trying hard to make people more aware of for over 35 years now, by running various events - tomato, pumpkin and potato festivals - and also by giving talks at various venues like the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, the Dublin Food Co-op, various farm walks and open days etc.  I had great support in the 1980s and early '90s from the HDRA in this - now Garden Organic - and was given seed of many unusual varieties by their Heritage Seed Library to help in this effort. Potatoes, pumpkins and tomatoes are such colourful, attractive and easy subjects to grow for festivals. They're so well-known and almost everyone grows them. People can also easily understand how important they are to our diet - as everyone eats them. But genetic diversity is important in other food crops too and it's really vital to grow the old, so-called Heritage varieties, always being careful to keep them true to type. We don't know when we made need any of the qualities in them, like frost or heat resistance, what changes and challenges climate change may bring about in our weather patterns - and what new pests or diseases changing weather patterns may bring. Everything has evolved to grow somewhere - so there will always be some varieties of staple food crops that are suitable to grow somewhere, just as long as we make sure we keep all their precious genes in case we may need them in the future. Not only that, they are part of our social history too. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all those who went before and saved these seeds to pass them on down to us. We have an obligation to them to keep their precious legacy going and growing for future generations to come.
 
 
 

Despite the snow and now flooding, believe it or not - it's now officially spring! Except nobody told the weather gods! 

 
Some premature tomato babies for TTTomFest18 enjoying their first taste of sunshine! Looking bit stretched but they'll soon strengthen up.
Some premature tomato babies for TTTomFest18 enjoying their first taste of sunshine! Looking bit stretched but they'll soon strengthen up.
Never have the benefits of polytunnels been shown more clearly than over the last week! Despite experiencing almost a metre of snow I've still been picking salads and other veg like broccoli and chards from the polytunnel.  Somewhat surreal - considering I had to go out for several days and spend hours carefully persuading the snow to slide off the polytunnels - otherwise they surely would have collapsed under it's enormous weight!  It's sunny this morning - but it still feels more like winter! We were without electricity to the polytunnels at one point, so after my horror at discovering they had unknown to me spent a night at 0 deg C - I had to hastily bring all my tiny newly emerged tomato seedlings into the house for a few days, until I sorted out an alternative source by running an extension from the outhouse where the freezers live!  As a result - they're looking a little bit stretched to say the least - but they'll soon straighten-up and grow stronger in a few days, now they're getting some proper light again. 
 
 
March is always such an exciting month in the polytunnel - it's my horticultural Narnia and a very different world to the one outside!  In there it's a very different story, spring is already everywhere. As -  Primulas, narcissi, violas, feverfew and wallflowers flowering at both ends, and in the little gardens planted around the foot of the grapevines halfway along the sides.There were even a couple of bumblebees in there over the last couple of weeks before the snow - anytime there was a rare mild day and the sun warmed the tunnel!  I'm so glad that as always, I'd planted some early flowers in there to attract them in - the scent of primulas and wallflowers is wonderful when I open the door. The peach buds are already swelling and In three or four weeks they will be in full flower. Encouraging bees to visit the tunnel to do some of the pollination by growing flowers for them will mean plenty of juicily delicious peaches again come July - although that seems a long way away right now! 
 
 
The soil temperature outside in the open garden is still very low, and it's so saturated now after all the snow, that there's very little you can usefully do outside at the moment - but to get ahead you can start lots of things off in modules and pots inside for planting out in the garden later. Even if you don't have a greenhouse or tunnel and are only dreaming about one at the moment - there's still a lot of things you could sow on your windowsill that could go out into a cold frame or in a protected propagating area outside, once they've germinated in a week or two. I describe how to organise one made from an old table in this month's Vegetable Garden Diary. That's how I used to do all my seed sowing before I had my first tiny polytunnel - a 6ft x 8ft. Yes - I've been there - and it encourages you to use your space very efficiently and inventively - something I've never forgotten! I still don't waste an inch in my polytunnel. You can't afford to - they're not cheap items. I worked out a few years ago that any polytunnel, if it's well organised and properly cultivated all year round, should easily pay for itself within 3 years! Even if you only saved yourself £20 or 25 euros a week on fruit and veg. - within a year you'd have enough for quite a decent tunnel. Think about that!
 
 

 

This is how I'm sowing my TTTomFest '18 Tomatoes - and other tender crops

 

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

 

Buying peat-free seed composts

 
I can't stress enough just how important it is to use a really reliable SEED compost. Don't use a 'multi-purpose' compost as they may contain far too much fertiliser which may burn the young roots. Many seeds are very sensitive to a high nutrient level in the compost - and seed is expensive so you can't afford to waste it!  I always try to share my money saving tips here in my blog - but compost is one example where trying to save money is false economy. In my experience - you get what you pay for!  There are a few peat-free composts available now from DIY multiples, but I've tried most of them and they were all dreadful! They weren't organic either! I personally prefer organic as artificial fertilisers discourage soil life - something that organic gardeners always try to encourage.Several garden centres here are now stocking my favourite organic peat-free composts  - made by Klassman, botht the seed and the potting composts. They are by a very long way the very best composts of any sort that I've ever used!  In Ireland, Klassman composts are available by mail order from Fruit Hill Farm -  https://www.fruithillfarm.com/  (the Irish importers) but the postage is quite expensive and will cost you as much as just one bag of the compost!  If your local garden centre doesn't stock it then ask them to! If you're anywhere near north Dublin,  White's Agri at Ballough, Lusk, Co Dublin (on the old main Dublin-Belfast road) also stock it now too - http://www.whitesagri.ie/Products/GardenAllot.aspx. 
 
 
Organic peat-free compost is a bit more expensive than some of the others I'll grant you - but believe me it's worth every single cent. I wouldn't sow valuable seed into anything else. Seed is so expensive now that you only have to lose a couple of packets and that would have paid for a bag of decent compost!  Being peat-free you can also feel good about not destroying peat bogs and preserving biodiversity too! And before you say that making it miles away in Germany isn't very environmentally friendly - making it in bulk, from organically grown plant material, is actually a carbon-friendly activity - and shipping it in bulk to the UK and Ireland is many times less destructive, less carbon-emitting and so much better than digging up our precious, biodiversity-rich peat bogs!
 
 
I don't need as much of the seed compost as I do the potting compost, generally only getting through 2-3 bags a year even with a big garden and growing all our own food. If you only have a small garden and the bag of seed compost is more than you think you'll use in a year then you can always split it with a friend. Although if kept undercover I find it doesn't go 'off' like other composts, and will last for quite a long time - at least 2 years - as long as you keep it dry and cool.  I've even used 3 year old compost and it gave perfect results. Make sure that wherever you buy the compost, they have also kept it dry and cool. Never ever buy saturated composts that have been sitting out in winter weather without being covered! If the compost hasn't been stored properly - the natural ingredients in it will have changed and plants may either be starved or get diseased. White's Agri are also the Irish agents for my favourite organic plant foods - the 'Osmo' range. The liquid tomato feed is brilliant and thoroughly reliable, as are the other products. 
 
 

Potting on tomato seedlings 

 
My warm propagation area - where a heated mat sits on top of an insulated bench -  (a recycled door actually!)
My warm propagation area - where a heated mat sits on top of an insulated bench -  (a recycled door actually!)
I always move my tomato seedlings out of the warmest propagator (18degC./65deg.F+) and put them onto the more gently heated mat (about 10degC./50degF+) as soon as they have their first 'true' leaves showing - otherwise they can quickly become very 'leggy', (or etiolated) from too much warmth without enough light. After a few days - I separate all the seedlings out of the small square pots they were germinated in as soon as they are big enough to handle, potting them on individually into quite small pots like white plastic cups - which conveniently and vitally can be written on with permanent marker so I know what variety they are. These have a slit for drainage cut into either side across the cup bottom with scissors. I always pot on twice before planting as potting straight into a large volume of compost can lead to rotting, if the roots get too wet. It also means that the smaller pots take up far less valuable space on the heated mat. Warm space is always at a premium at this time of year and I don't like to waste energy. The plastic cup potting is an interim measure before their final potting on into recycled milk cartons - as these are far too big for very small seedlings. I find that milk cartons are deep enough to give them really good root room until planting later on and again are handy as you can write their name on each carton - rather than using a label which could get lost. Growing so many different varieties of tomatoes - in some Tomato Festival years as many as 48 - this is very important for me or they're easily mixed up! I start saving milk cartons now - the family know that from the beginning of March milk cartons are not to be put in the recycling bin or I scream! While they may not be the most attractive greenhouse feature in the world - they're very effective! 
 
 
 
I'm constantly shifting things around the heated space at this time of year - a bit like playing musical plants!  I know it seems a lot of bother - but it's very little trouble actually - and a pleasant job that's well worth doing to be able to eat really ripe tomatoes on 1st June!  No plastic-wrapped, carbon-intensive, imported imposter of a tomato can ever possibly compare with the flavour of a sun-warmed, home grown one, picked and eaten straight off the plant! The aubergines will be potted on in the same way. They'll all spend a few weeks inside the light plastic cold frame on the heated mat. This prevents possible cold draughts from the open tunnel doors. I have the top of the frame open - with bubble wrap pegged to canes higher up around the side for the first week or so. Then I remove that - and finally they'll all go out onto the other mat without the frame to make way for the cucumbers and peppers - which appreciate a bit more early warmth. Any bubble wrap you can salvage is really useful - always save it - even tiny amounts. It makes extra insulation for propagators tops at night - and even the smallest bits can be used to fill in any spaces between pots inside the propagator or on heated mats to stop heat escaping, thereby saving energy and also stopping it overheating through working too hard to replace any heat lost from gaps. It's amazing how many pictures I see on social media of propagators with a few pots sitting in the middle and with no insulation around them - this means that the propagator is losing heat the whole time. Filling up empty spaces with bubble wrap or some other insulation like fleece will save energy and saves money!
  
 
By the way - if you're using a heated propagator - it's important to wipe the moisture off the inside of the propagator lid every day - where it tends to condense. If you don't do that - it can drop down onto seedlings and possibly cause fungal diseases in the warm, moist atmosphere. Attention to detail is always the key to successful propagation, or in fact at any stage of growth. 
 
 

Protecting seedlings while providing good air circulation is key

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

Shading small seedlings is important from now on

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

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

 
 
Slime trails were still visible where a slug got in and vandalised my 'Purple Sun' carrots last year!
Slime trails were still visible where a slug got in and vandalised my 'Purple Sun' carrots last year! 
One other thing to look out for in propagation areas are those nasty little grey slugs which can sneak in, clinging to the bottom of seed trays or climb up the sides of the tunnel. I discovered one morning that one had snuck in and mown 1/3rd of my loo roll sown 'Purple Sun' carrot seedlings, which had all germinated beautifully. Good job you couldn't hear the fairly choice language ***** more appropriate for the stable I can tell you!! Probably my own fault for putting a potted plant on the heated mat to get it growing encouraged by the bottom heat. It was a plant of the beautiful silver foliage plant Plectranthus Argentatus. I was in a hurry the day I moved it and don't remember tipping it out of it's pot to check for any pests before putting it on the propagating mat. One learns far more by mistakes sadly!! Aren't I always saying that?
 
 
Purple Potatoes
 
I recently had a query about the purple potato Purple Majesty - someone asked me if the Sarpo Blue Danube potato also had purple flesh- because they couldn't get Purple Majesty. It doesn't - it has bright white flesh with a purple skin - so you definitely won't get electric blue mashed potatoes from that one! I grew it a few years ago when it first became available - it's one of the 'Sarpo' supposedly blight-resistant ones. Not only did it not have much flavour - but I didn't find it very blight resistant either!  In my opinion - there's no point in growing any potato unless it has a fantastic flavour - even if it has some blight resistance.
 
 
I've always grown for flavour rather than bulk because I like eating tasty spuds and we don't eat them more than a couple of times a week at the most because of their high carbohydrate content.  I always lower that though by about 50%, by a process known as 'retrogradation' - where I cook them all one day, chill them overnight in the fridge and reheat them for eating whenever I need them! This turns the starch in them into something known as resistant starch - which our gut bacteria love - so doing this is great for our gut health too, as I mentioned on Gerry Kelly's Late Lunch Show lately! It's also a great time-saving tip if you're busy during the week!  I know some who may disagree with me - but taste can be a very subjective and personal thing - often perhaps linked to the perception that 'newer' is better. Not always the case in my experience! Something to do with plant breeders rights means that unfortunately you couldn't get Purple Majesty seed here until this year - so I've always saved my own seed tubers. It has a fantastic 'old baked potato' flavour - despite being a new introduction only a few years ago. It's much the best flavoured purple fleshed potato too - and I've grown dozens of them over the years - having always been interested in the plant phytocyhemicals they contain. I'm happy to say that now though - you can get it by mail order from some UK seed companies. 
 
 
There are other purple potatoes I like too. A very old variety - Truffe de Chine - is a salad type with a similar same shape to 'Pink Fir Apple'. It's almost black and has a lovely flavour. You can sometimes find it in upmarket veg shops. I found mine well over 30 years ago in Harrods food hall - always worth investigating for interesting things to grow if you're in London! It's amazing what you find in there. Vitelotte is another delicious purple-fleshed one which is more blight-resistant than many and good for organic growing - some say this is actually Truffe de Chine - but I've found them to be slightly different. 3 years ago I grew Violetta for the first time - another deep purple one. I wasn't that impressed with the flavour of some non-organically grown Violetta I tried from a well-known Dublin shop - but growing them without chemicals made a huge difference to the taste - I really loved the ones I grew here! Now a lot more people are growing the purple or blue varieties. Salad Blue is another tasty, easily available variety. A few years ago the renowned potato expert Dave Langford, who lives in Co Mayo, gave me a few lovely old varieties, including a variety he bred himself - called Dave's All Blue 2011, which makes a very tasty mash although a bit blight-prone. Since I invented my method of starting potatoes off early in pots though - I have all the potatoes I need all year round using my method, and I never need to spray, even with copper sulphate.
 
 
Other Crops
 
Calabrese broccoli 'Green Magic' making good side shoots after central head cut
Calabrese broccoli 'Green Magic' making good side shoots after central head cut 
 
 
The overwintered calabrese 'Green Magic' (from Unwins) has yet again come up trumps (sorry!) and it's done really well despite a much colder winter than last year. On the very worst nights it was covered with a several layers of fleece. It's such a sweet variety and not just good for lightly steaming but also really good raw for dipping individual florets into hummus or any avocado dip. It's a terrific variety, thoroughly reliable and long- cropping all year round both in the tunnel and outside. It's the only one I b other to grow now in the tunnel. I sowed two dozen last month in the propagator - one dozen will be planted when big enough into the tunnel, and will crop by May. The other dozen will be hardened off and planted outside, which will make them crop about 3 weeks to a month later in a normal year. This is a good way to spread the cropping time of any crop.
 
 
Endive 'Riccia Pancallieri' - (blanched on right)
Endive 'Riccia Pancallieri' - (blanched on right)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
I like to be able to pick an interesting and varied salad every day all year round so I'm really grateful for luxury of a tunnel. There are still plenty of lettuce, endives and other leaves of various sorts - mostly loose leaf varieties that have cropped really well all winter. 'Lattughino' is one of my favourites - with crispy bronze-tinged leaves. Jack Ice is another - rather like an Iceberg but a loose-leaf type that you can pick all winter and then allow to form quite a nice heart from March onwards. 'Veneziana' an unusual sword shape Cos type and delicious, 'Belize' is another good one - an oak leaf that will also form fat hearts now. Fristina is another excellent crispy loose-leaf type. Good old 'Lollo Rossa' is great for some reliable red colour - and also the Cos varieties 'Marshall' and 'Nymans' - one's really spoilt for choice these days with so many new lettuce varieties every year - but you don't have to go for expensive F1 hybrids - some of the 'value' mixes - like B&Q's are fantastically cheap - 60 cents for 1200 seeds!  Great if you're watching the pennies - costing almost nothing per lettuce! The value mixes mostly contain older varieties that are easy, colourful and reliable for all year round growing - either sown thickly for baby leaves or as individual whole lettuces. The endive pictured here - an old Italian variety 'Riccia Pancallieri' is very bitter when green - which I don't like - but if you blanch it by covering it for 2-3 weeks under a large pot as the old Victorian gardeners did - it is beautiful and really delicious in a late winter salad - with a nice fruity/sweet dressing like my walnut oil/cider vinegar/honey & orange dressing which goes with everything and is full of healthy omega 3 oils. The photo above of the blanched and un-blanched endive side by side really shows what a difference blanching makes!
 
 
Last year on this weekend - after all the fuss about the lack of imported lettuces and other salad vegetables in shops due to the bad weather in Southern Europe, I decided to see exactly how many I could pick from my polytunnel.  Pictured below are 27 varieties which surprised even me - and when picking them to arrange this delicious display - I actually even forgot a couple like lamb's lettuce and Chinese chives! Here's the list - in no particular order:
 
 
Watercress, Chinese cabbage Scarlette, Giant Italian flat leaf parsley, Cos lettuce Nymans, Red leaf radish, Sorrel, red oak leaf lettuce, ruby chard Vulcan, green Mizuna, frilly leaf mustard, rocket, red-veined sorrel, endive White Curled, red cos lettuce Rosedale, chicory Sugar Loaf, bronze stemmed chard, mustard Yellow Frills, spinach, mustard Giant Red, lettuces Lattughino, Little Gem & Jack Ice, red Mizuna, claytonia, kale Ragged Jack, mustard Red Frills, beetroot leaves McGregor's Favourite.
 
27 different kinds of salad leaves - all picked from the polytunnel - 23.2.17
 27 different kinds of salad leaves - all picked from the polytunnel - 23.2.17
 

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

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

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

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

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

 
After a short break - it will be great fun welcoming Gerry Kelly back here again this month to continue our 'From Tunnel to Table' series on his 'Late Lunch Show' for LMFM Radio.  Once again, we'll be spending some time in the polytunnel again looking at what's going on and what's growing in there - and then we'll be heading back into the nice warm kitchen, to cook something using seasonal crops. (It's usually on on the third Friday of the month at 2.00pm - but this may change so keep an eye out). It's always fun showing other keen gardeners like Gerry around - the only problem I find is that there's always so much to talk about that it's impossible to fit everything into the time! We could literally spend all afternoon talking!  In my experience - when most gardeners get together they could literally talk the hind leg off a donkey! They're always dying to compare notes and top each other's stories - just as fishermen do!  It's horticultural 'one-upmanship' of the nicest possible kind though, where gardeners generously share ideas with each other without feeling that anyone's competing. There's always something new to learn about gardening from others and most gardeners tend to be generous folk. Every garden is different - no one ever knows it all! 
 
 
Don't forget that a polytunnel isn't just full of vegetables and seedlings at this time of year though - it's also full of hope too. That priceless thing we all need plenty of!  
 
There's always something good to look forward to in a well-planned and well-tended polytunnel.  Most importantly of all - there's always something good to eat too - whatever the weather, as you can see from the salads pictured above. I really couldn't garden without such a valuable space now, particularly after injuring my right shoulder badly over 4 yrs ago. It's always possible to have the soil in perfect condition whatever the weather's doing outside - that makes it so much easier to sow or plant into it. I can even garden when it's dark if I want to - with a light on! The thing one must remember at all times though - is that YOU have complete control and also of course, you have total responsibility. If you really take the trouble to look after things properly though - you will get great results. 
 
I always say that a tunnel is like life - you only get out what you put inAnd like life - with just a little bit of thought and effort you will be more than handsomely repaid!
 
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......but if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you!)
 

What to sow in March - 2018

Bumble bee on French marigold flower Hoverflies also love single French marigold flowers Moth on single marigold
 
What you can sow now In a heated propagator for growing in the polytunnel or greenhouse 
(for growing on later in the polytunnel or greenhouse) 
 
 
Aubergines - (early in the month - Bonica F1 is best - this top of RHS trials & AGM about 15 years ago - I don't bother to grow any other now as it's by far the most reliable), alpine strawberries (Reugen a great var.), globe artichokes, (if sown early in the month, they'll crop outside in autumn this year), dwarf French beans for cropping in pots or in tunnel beds later (choose a fast growing, disease-resistant variety suitable for early sowing), asparagus, celery, celeriac (early in month) tomatoes, chilli and other peppers, physalis (Cape gooseberries). From mid-March onwards you can sow early courgettes for tunnel growing, and then later in the month melons and cucumbers for warm tunnel cropping. Don't forget melons and cucumbers need to be grown on in consistently warmer conditions than tomatoes to be successful - they grow very fast and hate to be checked (this applies to pumpkins & squashes too - so wait until next month to sow them in pots for growing outside).
 
 
Also sow some single-flowered tender annuals now like Tagetes, single French marigolds (Tall Citrus Mixed' is a good variety), etc.- lots of vital beneficial insects like bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths really love these. Remember that by growing single flowers organically you won't just be helping to preserve them - but they will also help you - by helping with your pest control and pollination. 
 
Note - It's vitally important that they are SINGLE flowered, as bees, hoverflies and other insects can't access the nectaries of double flowers to feed - so those flowers are completely useless to them! They then have to fly elsewhere to find food. When their energy supplies are low, wasting time trying to get nectar from useless flowers can make the difference between life and death for many small insects!
 
 
In pots or modules in the polytunnel without heat, or direct in tunnel soil as soon as you feel it's warm enough:
(If weed seeds are germinating - then the soil is warm enough for most things that don't need very high temperatures for germination) 
 
 
Beetroot, broad beans and peas, spring and summer cabbage, calabrese, carrots, white turnips and radishes (in the soil for an early tunnel crop), onions, chives, Welsh (perennial salad) onions, scallions, leeks, lettuces and salad mixes early in the month, kales, rocket, spinach and coloured Swiss chards etc for baby leaves, fennel and 'soft herbs' like borage, parsley, dill, Greek oregano, salad burnet and coriander. 
 
 
Other single flowered annuals like limnanthes, convulvulus tricolour and calendula (pot marigold) can also be sown direct into the soil in beds now. Keep an eye out for hungry mice - they love pea and bean seeds - it's a good idea to put down a trap - but cover to avoid trapping small birds like wrens and robins.
 
 
 
If you have space now in the tunnel or greenhouse where you'll be planting tomatoes in May - then you just have time to sow a green manure:
 
'Caliente' mustard (generally available now, or from Marshalls and Unwins seeds - one packet will easily sow a bed about 20ft x 4ft.) This mustard is a very usefulgreen manure as it  acts as a 'biofumigant' by releasing a natural plant phytochemical as a gas - called isothiocyanate. This suppresses a range of soil-borne diseases and harmful nematodes - it also encourages beneficial bacteria and soil micro-organisms, adds nutrients and really encourages worm activity. It's particularly helpful where the soil has previously grown tomatoes before. A couple of weeks before planting the tomatoes - cut it down - chopping it up as finely as possible in order to release all it's beneficial compounds and then fork it in immediately - before the resulting gases escape. Then cover it with black polythene to seal the gases in. (see this month's polytunnel section).  As it's a member of the brassica (or cabbage) family - make sure that it fits into your minimum 4-course rotation even though it will only be there for a short time.
 
Phacelia is another fast-growing 'soft' green manure worth sowing now if you have space - this can also be dug in after just one months growth, will break down quickly and it isn't rotation sensitive, so it can be used anywhere. Leaving one or two plants to produce their pretty scented blue flowers later on will also really bring in the insects too! 
 
Red clover is also useful, as being a leguminous plant, it fixes 'free' atmospheric nitrogen which it concentrates in nodules on it's roots, made by beneficial microbes. This is then released for the following crop (leave a few to flower for bees - they adore them!). Studies also show that growing a legume crop between tomato plants boosts their disease-resistance.
 
Borage also makes a good, very fast growing green manure with a long tap root which draws up valuable minerals such as magnesium from lower down in the soil profile - it breaks down easily when dug in and encourages good worm activity, as does claytonia(or winter purslane).
 
 
What you can sow this month outside, if you have ground covered with cloches - or undercover now for planting outside later:
 
In modules under cover without heat, in a cold frame, or under cloches - or when the soil is dry enough and has warmed up later in the month, unprotected in the open (covering with fleece on frosty nights) you can sow: 
 
 
Beetroot, broad beans, carrots, mangetout and early peas, parsnips, late spring and summer cabbages, red cabbage, early Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers, calabrese and summer sprouting broccoli, onions (plant onion sets in pots for an early crop), leeks, spring onions, lettuces, kohl rabi, Ragged Jack and Cavolo Nero kales for baby leaves, radishes, Swiss chard, summer spinach, white turnips, American land cress, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes, 'soft' herbs like borage, parsley, dill, fennel, Greek oregano and coriander. There's a lot of nonsense talked about germinating parsley, but it just likes to be warm and usually takes about 3 weeks to germinate at anytime of year - it always appears just when you think it's not going to! 
 
 
It's also worth sowing some single, early flowering annuals in the open ground or in modules - such as limnanthes (poached egg plant), calendula, cerinthe, convulvulus tricolor, borage, red clover and phacelia. They'll attract beneficial insects to help with pest control, encourage bees into the garden for pollination and also look beautiful - which is very important too.
 
 
 
There's still just time to plant garlic early in the month. Only plant varieties clearly labelled as 'suitable for spring planting'now - such as 'Cristo'. 
 
 
Plant Jerusalem artichokes and also early potatoes in warm well drained soils protecting from frost with fleece later (see veg. garden section). These will crop early enough to completely avoid blight. If your ground conditions aren't suitable - you could alternatively start them off in pots for an early crop - I do this with all of mine now. You can also start off Yacon, Oca, Mashua and Ulluco tubers inside in pots of well-drained peat-free compost now for planting in the polytunnel or outside later - protect these carefully from frost when they start to produce shoots!
 
 
PS! Don't forget that these are just suggestions for what you could sow now - not what you must! I found a checklist/reminder like this invaluable when I was just starting many years ago - and I still do! Someone actually once complained that I gave far too much information!! So I thought I'd make that quite clear! You can't please everyone - and all the information is free!
 
 
AND REMEMBER MY ADVICE. - IF YOU'RE SHORT OF TIME - JUST GET THE SEEDS SOWN! YOU CAN CATCH UP WITH EVERYTHING ELSE LATER BUT NOT THAT! TIME WAITS FOR NO MAN! (Or woman!) 
 
Funny how we spend our time wishing away winter - then wishing everything would happen more slowly in spring - gardeners are never happy!
 
                                    
 
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in February - 2018

February contents: Exciting new Beginning to another Fruit Growing Year......Force Rhubarb Clumps......What are the best 'Autumn Fruiting' Raspberry Varieties?.....Woodland Gardening - or Just Feeding Wildlife?.....Ever Thought of Growing a Grapevine?.....Don't Prune Grapevines!.....Pests on Grapes.....There's still time to plant grapes.....Which Varieties are Best - Seedless or Seeded?.....Growing Physalis or Cape Gooseberry......Other jobs for Feb...

A wide variety of fruit can be sown or planted now to fruit this autumn!

A wide variety of fruit can be sown or planted now to fruit this autumn!

 
 
My name is Nicky Kyle and I'm a Fruitaholic - there, I've finally admitted it!
 
 
I just can't resist trying to grow and eat anything delicious and exciting in the fruit world - especially if recent scientific studies show it may have potential health benefits. - Not that I need an excuse! I could quite happily be what's known as a 'frugivore' most of the time - granted with the odd steak and bit of good cheese occasionally! It seems to be the fashion at the moment to dismiss fruit as just 'so much unnecessary added sugar' - but I'm afraid I have to disagree!  Those often repeating that particular dogma mostly know very little about plants or their physiology. I agree that added sugar isn't necessary - but I believe that including some fruit in our diet is. I invariably eat my fruit with something else - like a mixed salad, cheese or nuts etc. which slows down digestion of them. If you're not a salad fan - it's amazing how good they taste with fruit like apples, pears or pomegranates mixed in! Here's my midwinter Tunnel to Table recipe with Organic Cashel Blue cheese, pear, pomegranate and walnuts, which was utterly delicious! I'd eat it every day if I could - it's positively medicinal! -  http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/recipes
 
 
I've always believed that as Hippocrates said - food is the very best medicine! Surely Nature wouldn't have invented fruit if we weren't meant to eat it!  It's very helpful having a son who is both a zoologist and and archaeologist as he's an extremely useful source of information on both our evolution and early human diets - which he has particular interest in. (He's also my best critic at times!) We evolved originally from tree-dwelling apes which ate a lot of fruit as part of their diet. There is also later archaeological dental evidence that our ancestors also ate a lot of fruit. There are, however, two caveats with that ...... 
 
 
Caveat 1: Our distant ancestors didn't have juicers - so we were always meant to eat WHOLE fruits - not drink them juiced! Drinking pure fruit juices, or high sugar, tropical fruit juices and smoothies has a massive effect on raising our level of blood sugars very quickly - before our bodies have a chance to metabolise them properly. In addition to that - juicing wastes a huge amount of the healthy nutrients, especially the many, as yet still unknown, immune-boosting phytonutrients, which are contained within the pulp and fibre of the fruit. Some of which are not available from vegetables or other food sources. 
 
 
Caveat 2: The fruits our early ancestors ate were also mainly in season - although some fruits would have dried naturally in the sun. There is also evidence that Middle Eastern and Oriental cultures actively dried fruits in the sun as early as 12,000 BC. If fruit wasn't healthy for humans we wouldn't have evolved to eat it! BUT - the fruit that they ate and the season in which they ate it was mostly varied - and they didn't have all fruits easily available all year round as we have nowadays. All recent studies confirm that eating a varied diet is the key to good health - not restricting whole classes of food which we actually evolved to eat. 
 
 
I believe that eating fruit is a vital healthy part of any well-varied, wholefood diet and that we only overload our body's capacity to metabolise fructose and other carbohydrates when we are also eating a lot of artificially-made fructose along with processed, highly-refined carbohydrates in other processed foods. If our ancestors didn't evolve to eat fruit as part of their wholefood diet - then we wouldn't have arrived in the 21st century!  What is causing the epidemic of Type 2 Diabetes and associated health problems is not eating whole, naturally-grown, organic fruit - but all the other junk which we didn't evolve to eat, that we have increasingly been eating in the last 50 years or so! Surely that is a 'no-brainer'?
 
 

Exciting New Beginning to Another Fruit Growing Year!

 
I'm always so excited when new fruit trees arrive - like a child at Christmas! I'm planting more trees into the new orchard again this year, to add to those initial plantings of 2 years ago. I decided to start planting a new orchard last year because the 35 year old orchard of 55 heritage varieties, which I planted just after we moved here, had almost completely stopped producing fruit because my neighbour ploughed up all the old pasture behind us and started growing grain crops every year. His spraying with hormone weedkillers in spring makes virtually all the flower buds drop off the apple and plum trees. Very little escapes depending on the timing of the spraying! So last year - fed up with no decent apples - I started planting a new orchard on the other side of the property, on the eastern side, as far away from danger as possible! The first dozen trees have established very well and I'm hoping that in time, with the shelter of the now tall garden trees, the strip of maturing woodland I planted 26 years ago and the house and outbuildings as well - that I may finally get enough fruit again. Sod's law though! 
 
 
The ground is saturated at the moment and far too wet to plant in without damaging it's structure permanently - so any new arrivals that are un-potted 'bare-root' trees are being 'heeled in' into tubs of old potting compost on arrival. Snug in the large tubs of recycled organic peat-free potting compost in the shed they're frost free - and will stay there to await drier weather - hopefully before they start shooting in March!  If they look like starting into growth before the ground dries out enough - I shall pot them up in a soil/organic potting compost mix, dusting the roots with mycorrhizal fungi like RootGrow - so that they can start to establish a healthy new root system quickly. If moved after the tops have started into growth - they can get a setback. 
 
  
Apple d'Arcy Spice
Apple d'Arcy Spice
We've just finished the last of the wonderful crisp russet Ashmead's Kernal from my rather unconventional, re-purposed old freezer apple store. Every day from December to February every year I thank Dr. Ashmead - who bred this supreme, late-keeping eating apple in a village in Gloucestershire, way back in the 1700s. We've still got some of the even later-keeping apples, varieties like Kidd's Orange Red - an incredibly aromatic, almost pear-drop tasting, offspring of Cox's Orange Pippin - but happily much more healthy and disease resistant though, so has kept well. D'Arcy Spice is another delicious eating apple which is still crisp. We've also got plenty of the long-keeping cooking apple Bramley's Seedling stored too and also some Annie Elizabeth - a lovely tart cooking-apple that keeps well into April. This year I'm really looking forward to some new varieties, as last year I planted a few more heritage varieties which I haven't tasted before. That's a delicious treat to really look forward to! 
 
 
I find apples so addictive! In the home where I grew up, we had lovely old orchards and a large kitchen garden full of every kind of fruit - I really miss the huge variety we had. My father was a keen pomologist and an expert on apples and pears in particular. As far as apples go in shops these days, most are grown for ease of harvesting and packing - not for flavour or seasonal variety! It's very difficult to get anything more than Gala (tasteless), Pink Lady (too sweet) or Braeburn (picked unripe) grown organically - either in shops or farmer's markets - and organically grown Bramley's are totally non-existent. I've never seen any on sale anywhere!
 
 
 
Ashmead's Kernal in my very effective apple store - a re-purposed old broken freezer! A deliciously crunchy & aromatic  Ashmead's Kernal for an after lunch treat - 22.2.17
Ashmead's Kernal in my very effective apple store - a re-purposed old freezer!                                  Deliciously crunchy & aromatic Ashmead's Kernal
 
 
All the new apple trees I buy from nurseries are on the root stocks M26 or MM106 which are the best ones for early fruiting in less than ideal conditions- like my very heavy clay soil. These grow to mostly about 15 ft/ 3 metres high and wide, they're productive and are fairly easily controlled by pruning. I'm planting some of the trees, along with other fruit bushes like Jostaberries and gooseberries, around the perimeter of the hen runs as the hens really appreciate shelter from the wind and a bit of shade in summer. Trees around their runs provide the ideal habitat for them - as hens are jungle fowl originally, love scratching about among leaf litter under trees and shrubs and don't like to be out in the open too much. 
 
 
 
Force Rhubarb clumps
 
 
In February I always put an old broken dustbin stuffed with straw upside down over the larger clumps of rhubarb to force them into growth a bit earlier. Not nearly as beautiful as those lovely terracotta rhubarb forcers - but actually I think they're more effective at attracting any late winter sun and warming up more. 
 
 
Baby 'Livingstone' I presume - promisingly pink!
Baby 'Livingstone' - promisingly pink!
 
In autumn 2012 I bought a new variety of rhubarb - 'Livingstone' (new to me anyway but an old Victorian variety I believe) which produces lots of really red stalks in the autumn - unlike other varieties which are only producing green ones by then. It forces well in a large tub in the polytunnel and has a really good flavour. 
 
 
Traditionally in the old kitchen and cottage gardens, rhubarb was never pulled after English Derby day - which in the UK is in early June. This wasn't just because the plants needed a rest - but it was also because when the stalks are mostly green they are full of oxalic acid which is very bitter and could give you kidneys stones if you are susceptible!  You should never eat green rhubarb for this reason. I'm amazed that shops still sell it in summer and autumn - even when it's bright green - and unsuspecting people buy it! It probably needs about half a ton of sugar to make it at all palatable! But then - thinking about it - since when did shops ever worry about people's health?! The health of their balance sheets is all that really concerns them! 
 
 
 
 
Oxalic acid from rhubarb's green stalks and leaves can actually be made into a very effective pesticide - so that should surely tell us something? (although don't tell the EU - because it's actually illegal to make your own)! Odd that isn't it - when shops can actually sell it to us as a food?! Mind you - they also sell us food laced with other legal pesticides, many of which are so old that they've never even been properly tested for safety!  Anyway, as the ground was already far too wet to plant my new rhubarb - I planted it into one of those 10lt. recycled buckets I've used for growing tomatoes in for the last couple of years and put it in the tunnel. Pictured here last Feb it's looking quite perky and already has about 6in/10cm of juicy looking red stalks on it - but I resisted temptation and kept my hands off it - putting it outside for the rest of the year - to give it a chance to build up a nice crown. I brought it into the tunnel 2 weeks ago and put a large pot over the crown to encourage it. It's already making some small, mouth-wateringly deep pink shoots which I shall allow myself to sample this year. Not too many, as I shall pot it on soon into a larger tub to give it more root room, and feed it well - then it may crop well in the autumn, after a summer holiday. I'm not sure how long it will be happy in a tub - but it should be fine in a large tub in shady corner if kept well watered. Anything that makes use of difficult corners in a tunnel is very valuable - and it will hopefully stretch the fruit season at either end just that little bit further.
 
 
If you're just starting off a new fruit garden - there's still just time to plant bare root fruit trees and bushes into the ground, if soil conditions aren't too wet. Or heel them into pots as I mention in my apple piece above. Never attempt to plant anything - particularly fruit trees - into a wet sticky soil! Instead you could pot them up for now in a soil/compost mix. Make sure the pot is a lot larger than the roots to give them room to spread out instead of winding round. If you've read my blog before you'll know that I use large plastic carrier or bin bags for this - making drainage holes in the bottom. Don't use a pure peat compost - apart from destroying bogs by using peat (and you know my opinion on that!) the roots of large trees often never move out into the surrounding soil properly if they've been potted into peat composts - something you may not discover for a few years until they're carrying a heavy crop and the wind blows so hard it causes them to keel over! 
 
 

What are the Best 'Autumn-Fruiting' Raspberry Varieties?

 

 
Some fruit like autumn raspberries will even give you a good crop this year - if planted in really well prepared, fertile ground in a sunny spot or even in pots now. If your soil is still too wet to plant for the next few weeks - then you can pot them up for now and plant them later when conditions are better and they will still fruit well.  'Allgold', 'Brice' and 'Joan J' all have a fabulous flavour, and will fruit twice a year if you leave about half of the previous year's canes on the plants when you are doing your spring pruning. Those older canes left will crop again in June, then you cut them right down. After that you will then have a longer autumn cropping period from August to November, on all the new canes grown in the current year. Although vigorous - they are reasonably well-behaved varieties. This year I got a new variety of autumn fruiting raspberry called Erika from Ken Muir's Nursery - who I have always found to be a thoroughly reliable source of mail order fruit of all kinds. (They are the only nursery who I have never had anything from that wasn't the variety it was supposed to be. Several others have sent wrong varieties and one recently even had the gall to tell me I didn't know what I was talking about when I said that the variety they has sent me was not Ashmead's Kernal! The names of  apple varieties were taught to me by my father - a very keen and knowledgeable pomologist - when I was only about as high as the basket he was picking them into - they were practically the first words I learnt!)
 
 
The newer 'primocane' varieties like 'Joan J' seem to concentrate their energies a bit more into the fruit - unlike two of the older type of autumn varieties which I planted years ago - 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss'. Those two have much smaller fruit which doesn't have nearly such a good flavour. They also have serious territorial ambitions and seem to enjoy trying to run all over the garden, popping up in all sorts of unexpected places and becoming an absolute nuisance. I wouldn't dream of giving them away to friends though - knowing how much of a pest they can become! As I hate wasting anything I dig them up and plant them down in my small patch of woodland for the wildlife. There they can go back to their original woodland roots - running around and doing exactly what they really like - and while doing it they provide natural cover and food for the birds - who really enjoy them! Sadly though - it was a vain hope that if the birds have their very own fruit patch they'd leave mine alone!  Dream on - instead they just bring all their friends along to the party as well!!
 
 

Woodland Gardening - or Just Feeding wildlife? 

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

Ever Thought of Growing a Grapevine?

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

Don't Prune Grapevines!

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

Pests on grapes. 

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

There's Still Time to Plant Grapes 

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

 

Which Varieties are Best - Seedless or Seeded?

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

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

 
 
I like to visit garden centres to compare value - (strictly in the interests of research you understand - although I have been known to purchase the odd little thing occasionally!!)  It's amazing how much prices can differ for exactly the same plants - and the quality too. These days value for money is all important - and one of the things I have always tried to do here is to let you know about anything I think is good value! It's surprising the amount of savings you can make if you shop around.......The discount supermarkets Aldi and Lidl often have great value on fruit trees and bushes at this time of year - so cheap you really could plant them just for the birds if you were feeling generous! They're all good, reliable varieties well worth planting in your fruit garden - and a fraction of the price you will find them elsewhere! So keep your eyes open in the next couple of weeks!  As I've said before - their peach trees are exceptionally good value and I had a huge crop on the 8 year old trees last summer in the tunnel (well over 200 fruits on both trees!!) That's why I invested in my dehydrator - I adore dried peaches and there are only so many you can eat fresh - even though they do ripen over a couple of weeks! In the summer, time is always at a premium, bottling takes ages of 'faffing around' when you have least time - and freezer space is never plentiful enough here!
 
 
The peach Aldi had last year - was  'Red Haven' - which is hardy, disease resistant variety and very productive. If you don't have tunnel you can grow them as a fan against a south or west-facing wall and cover with a polythene frame in late winter/early spring to keep away peach leaf curl, and they will produce loads of fruit!  The ALDI price last year (bare root so you have to pot up or plant) - was just €4.99.  For comparison - in Homebase for exactly the same variety - a similar sized but potted tree - the price was €11.98, and in a well known garden centre - same again - €55!! They'll probably be even more this year as everything seems to have gone up in price! - Funny how things never seem to go the other way isn't it?? Anyway - If you see them in Aldi or Lidl - do buy them as soon as possible or they'll start to shoot in the warm shops - unpack them as soon as you get them home and pot up or plant immediately as they start into growth early - mine are already swelling their buds now. 
 
 
Make sure you immediately prune the branches back by at least two thirds after planting - so that the tree will start to form a good shaped branch system - don't be tempted to leave the branches alone and try to let it fruit this year as one friend of mine did a few years ago - despite my warnings.  If you do that it may well flower on the growth it made last year and you may think it's going to fruit - but in a couple of months it will drop any flowers that have 'set' as it simply doesn't have enough established roots to support any fruit. By doing that you've lost your early chance to force a good shape onto the tree and you may well permanently weaken and damage the tree. Pruning it back in it's first year will give it a chance to develop a good root system before it's asked to bear fruit or too many branches, so that next year you should get a good crop. Peaches always fruit on the new 'green' growth made the previous year - so you have to cut some of the fruited branches back every year to encourage new growth.(See last month's fruit diary)
 
 

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

 
Cape gooseberry - a comparison with €1 coin
Cape gooseberry - a comparison with €1 coin 
 
This is a fruit that must be sown now in a warm propagator if they're to fruit early enough to give a decent crop this autumn. I grow some from seed every year. They're dead easy and grow like weeds from seed. Someone said recently that they're difficult to germinate - they're not - just slow! They take about 3 weeks to come up and then do it all at once!  I was also reading somewhere recently that apparently they are the very latest Peruvian so-called 'super fruit'!  I've been growing them for at least 30 years! You're not going to believe this - but we're still eating those I picked last November - stored in the fridge! They're being strictly rationed now though!  They're a waste of time outside as they won't fruit early enough to bother with. I grow them in tubs in the tunnel, as this restricts root growth a bit which makes them fruit even earlier. Each year I overwinter some of the previous year's plants in the tunnel under fleece as they're actually half-hardy perennials. They fruit much earlier than those sown in February, and in that way I get a longer crop of these delicious, 'sherbetty'/'pineappley' tasting fruits. They're very high in Vitamin C and the phytochemical lutein (good for eyesight & which we can only obtain from plants) among many other good things - they grow like weeds, are really delicious and fruit generously for months. 
 
 
 
Although they're quite soft and sappy they are hardier than their tomato cousins and each year I leave a few in their tubs, overwintering them in the dry in a tunnel so that they fruit earlier the following year. They start to produce new shoots from the base around now, so I cut back the protecting, now defunct, older shoots and they'll start to fruit in July, instead of September, when the ones sown this year do. A good tomato feed like Osmo* when they show signs of growth and away they go - but after their second autumn I compost the two year old plants, as they tend to go downhill with age!  Although the leaves are reputed to be a folk remedy for diabetes in Africa - like other members of the Solanaceae (tomato) family - all parts of the plant, apart from the fruits, are highly toxic and dangerous if consumed! 
 
 
I read a very amusing article a few years ago by the food writer Susan Jane White - who likened the fruits to Victoria Beckham: "bright orange and deluded" (her words!). She may just possibly have been confusing their looks with the ornamental (inedible) type, as these are shown when you 'Google' them. At the same time, if you don't grow them yourself - they are very definitely extremely expensive and highly fashionable! The similarity ends there however, as they're really easy, good-natured, generous and not the least bit sulky, difficult or 'Prima Donna-ish'! They are one of the most productive annual fruits you can grow, and when you grow them yourself, not only are the fruits chemical free - but are usually larger than those you'll find as a garnish on your plate in fancy restaurants, as you can see from the picture here. 
 
  
NOTE - DO NOT CONFUSE THESE WITH THE ORNAMENTAL CHINESE LANTERNS WHICH ARE A VERY PRETTY DEEP ORANGE, and fruit in the autumn - harvest festival flower arrangements are all these are good for!  If you grow them yourself from seed, rather than buying them in a garden centre where the assistants sometimes don't know one plant from another, you will be sure that you're getting the edible one! The leaves are very similar - bu when the edible ones are ripe - the outer husk is a pale straw colour and the fruit inside is the ONLY thing that's bright orange.
 
 

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

 
 
The sap is starting to rise, and although things like apple trees don't bleed like grapes - you don't want to waste the plant's energy by letting it make shoots you will cut off later - concentrate it into the ones you want to grow. Don't prune any stone fruits like plums and damsons now - wait until late spring to do this - before then they are very susceptible to silver leaf infection. Keep any twiggy prunings somewhere dry until you can burn them later in the year - they are rich in valuable, very highly-soluble potash and can be used for feeding all fruit and veg. The same goes for the ash from wood burning stoves, although ash from bigger logs is not as high in potash as twiggy prunings but it's still valuable.  Bear in mind that all wood ash will raise the soil  'pH' slightly, so acid lovers won't like too much - use seaweed meal for them. The best way to use it is to mix it through the material you are putting onto the compost heap - I keep the ash from my stove in a bin to keep it dry and then sprinkle it one as I'm adding stuff to the heap. I get my properly seasoned 2 yr.old ash logs - cut to whatever size I specify - delivered in handy reusable skip bags from Peter Barry at www.logonfirewood.ie - much easier than having them dumped and having to stack them - saves a lot of time and backache!  It also means they arrive totally dry and ready to go - and they don't mess up your stove or chimney. Buying them in bulk means they're a lot cheaper than in small bags bought a few at a time - which are usually not dry, are unsuitable wood and not properly seasoned either - messing up your stove. The skip bags are then great for re-using to make leaf mould, compost, or even better as extra large grow bags/raised beds.
Look for scale insect now on the leaves of citrus or bay trees
 
 
Black sooty mould is a good sign that there may well be some. If you do find any - spraying them with an organic insecticidal soap or again coconut oil works like a treat. These are approved organic remedies which are perfectly safe for any food plants. They work by covering the insect's pores with fatty acids so that they suffocate.  Do it now. Don't spray it on lemons or other citrus when they're making the very tender little new pink shoots in a few weeks time - doing that can burn them - particularly in strong sunshine. If you don't do it now - then wait until the new shoots firm up a bit - although by then you may have a real infestation which may have weakened the plant!  It's much better done now. Don't ask advice at your local garden centre - in my experience they know nothing about citrus trees and also they'll just recommend some very nasty organo-phosphorus insecticide for use on house plants which will actually make your lemons poisonous. I think that anyone selling pesticides to people should first have to pass an exam to prove they actually know something about what they're selling, other than just from the instructions on the back of the bottle!
 
 
I simply could not believe my ears last year to hear someone who was supposed to be a gardening 'expert' (here I go again - but really!!) on the radio. He recommended that for scale insect on bay trees people should either use a systemic insecticide (scream!) - or that if they 'were organic' (weird in so many words) then they could use methylated spirits! OMG!!  Not only is that not remotely organic - but does he not know that people actually eat bay leaves??  I wouldn't fancy meths. in my stew thank you!  So called 'experts' who don't know anything about organic growing shouldn't pretend to - someone could be made seriously ill!  They should be honest and admit that they don't actually know if that's the case!  But so few of these 'experts' do. There's an old saying isn't there........?......"It's a wise man who knows what he doesn't know"!
 
 
Pot grown lemons beside climbing French beans and calabrese in spring
Pot grown lemons beside climbing French beans and calabrese in spring
 
Don't feed citrus trees yet - unless they're in a heated conservatory in which case they may be making new growth. I like to use a good high nitrogen fertiliser for citrus which also very slightly lowers the pH - just what they like. A couple of years ago I discovered the Osmo range of certified organic fertilisers*, I use them all the time for my citrus trees now, they are really good, and I use rain water (no shortage of that!) to make them up. Citrus plants are actually acid loving plants like rhododendrons - so never water them with tap water either. Always use rainwater. If they're looking sickly and yellow - it's something called 'chlorosis' - which they get if given tap water. If that's a problem - wait until they're starting to grow again and give them a dose of sequestered iron, mixed into rain water. That fixes the problem miraculously - greening them up again in no time. You'll find a product called 'Sequestrene' being sold in sachets in good garden centres. I'll be giving my lemons in the tunnel a very light watering of rainwater this week - not saturating them - as just like grapes they really hate sitting in wet soil. In another month or so they'll really start to growth - then I'll start to feed and water them a bit more. They won't go outside until at least the end of May though - the young shoots and flowers are vulnerable to frosts.
Fig 'Violetta' - a tasty variety

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig 'Violetta' - a tasty variety

 

 

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

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

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