The Polytunnel Potager October/November - 2020

Oct/Nov Contents: Gardening is often like Gambling  - and well-planned inter-planting like hedging your bets! Organic polytunnels - a great resource for winter wildlife.... Pot on seedlings if planting is delayed.... Peat-free compost and protecting winter salads.... Planting winter lettuce to avoid the common problem of stem rot..... Growing winter salads in containers.... A few seeds saved now means a lot of money saved on seed later.... Saving seeds may even give you your very own new variety! 
Chinese cabbage Scarlette interplanted with leeks in a tub
Sweetcorn late September - pollinated and swelling nicely. Inter-planted with 'Scarlette' Chinese cabbage Chinese cabbage Scarlette interplanted with leeks in a tub
Celery Tall Green Utah with watercress running around underneath Red lettuce Strikeforce and endive White Curled looking as colourful as any carpet bedding scheme!
Celery Tall Green Utah with watercress running around underneath Red lettuce Strikeforce and endive White Curled looking as colourful as any carpet bedding scheme!
Gardening is often like Gambling - and well-planned inter-planting like hedging your bets!
Over the years I've discovered many combinations of crops that work well together - flexibility is key to growing our own food in a time of climate change, and interplanting gives us that. I've always loved the French 'Potager' gardens, which were just as productive, but a little more organised and decorative than the classic, sometimes chaotic English cottage gardens, and that is how I try to plant my 'Polytunnel Potager'.  Last year, having started so late due to breaking my ankle badly in March - I sowed many summer crops much later than usual. That makes them much more dependent on good late summer and autumn weather to produce a crop at all - even in a polytunnel. The sweetcorn 'Lark F1' pictured above wasn't sown until mid-June - when in a normal year I would have sown it in pots in late April!  My usual method of sowing 3 seeds to a pot, and planting them out in their clumps about a metre apart always works, and they pollinated really well - despite not flowering until early September. I had a great crop. and the beautiful Chinese cabbage 'Scarlette F1' - seemed to really enjoy being in the slight shade of the taller plants. It made lovely firm heads and was very welcome in autumn and winter salads. I usually throw a few of it's outer leaves into 'Chinese-style' stir fries, because the crunchy inner heads are far too beautiful to cook, and also far more nutritious eaten raw with an olive oil dressing, which helps us to absorb the polyphenols in it's colourful leaves. I always inter-plant taller, more upright polytunnel crops with something low-growing, as every year is different, and experience has taught me that even if one crop is a disaster I won't have wasted that ground space completely. The secret is obviously to choose those which like the same growing conditions, whatever those happen to be.
Celery and watercress, which both like moist soil conditions, always seem to really enjoy growing together, interplanted, and the watercress doesn't mind the little bit of shade from the celery. They are one of my most important winter pairings - both being so useful in the kitchen. Sugar Loaf Chicory and garlic also work well, the garlic growing on to maturity into summer, long after the Chicory has been harvested. Garlic also grows well between lettuce and endive, as again the garlic is tall and upright, and doesn't shade the other plants too much.  In the photo above of the red lettuce Strikeforce ( a Lollo hybrid) and endive White Curled - they have been interplanted with garlic, which won't show for another couple of weeks yet. Perennial Welsh onions or scallions are another good plant for intercropping with anything leafy, as again they are upright, and you can cut them as you need them rather than pull them, so as not to disturb the roots of whatever they're growing with, and possibly cause 'bolting'.  Of course edible flowers are also a must everywhere - as not only do they provide valuable phytonutrients, like lutein for good eyesight, in the case of Calendula and Nasturtiums, but they also attract beneficial insects.  
These plantings can look really beautiful too - an aspect of growing vegetables which is often forgotten, but which is so cheering when it's a dark, midwinter's day outside - and is so beneficial for mental health.  It's a win-win in every way growing like this, just as long as you make sure that you always maintain good air circulation - which is especially important in winter. The other really good aspect of this way of growing is that it confuses pests if there are any around, as there is never one huge monocrop for them to aim at!  It's also a much more natural way of growing, because Nature doesn't do monocrops.  Even in a desert there's always plenty of biodiversity, which is good for soil and any soil-dwelling life!  So have fun, experiment, come up with your own colourful combinations!
As it gets colder - the polytunnel is a great resource for many insects and the birds like Blue Tits which hunt them. Intricately-marked and beautiful Shield Bug hiding under a leaf!
As it gets colder - the polytunnel is a great resource for many insects and the birds like Blue Tits which hunt them. Intricately-marked and beautiful Shield Bug hiding under a leaf!
Organic Polytunnels (or greenhouses) - a great resource for Winter Wildlife
At this time of year, when late summer runs into early autumn in the polytunnels, and the weather outside gets colder, it becomes very obvious that polytunnels are not just a great resource for us but also a wonderful resource for wildlife. That's one of the reasons that I always grow so many flowers among my crops as I often mention.  Growing flowers and a wide variety of crops - rather than just one or two - attracts many insects which help with pest control, and then those naturally attract the other wildlife which preys on them. This way of combining crops helps to make the polytunnel almost an entire functioning ecosystem in miniature - with everything naturally connected just as it is outside. That's why I almost never see any pests. I've barely seen any Blue Tits except briefly for months as they've been busy finding plenty of food in the garden outside - but yesterday as I was clearing up the last scruffy bits of the tomato plants which have finished cropping - there was a pair eagerly hunting for any insects they could find wherever I was disturbing the leaves. Luckily the beautiful shield bug pictured above had the good sense to keep moving under the leaves when it sensed me trying to photograph it - so it was quite difficult to get a good picture! I do hope the Blue Tit didn't eventually find it - it was so intricately marked, incredibly beautiful and almost jewel-like! Nature is endlessly fascinating!
Wild birds become surprisingly tame once they realise that you're not a threat - and that in fact you're even helping them by moving plants and uncovering potential food sources. There were loudly cursing Wrens in the polytunnel too, emitting their sharply staccato  "Don't come near, don't come near" cries (incredibly loud for such small birds) and a very friendly Robin closely following my every move in case I produced a worm or two while pulling up the plants. They are so entrancing that I never lose my joy in watching them all. They so clearly enjoy being in my 'Narnia' as much as I do - their antics were such a distraction that I spent a lot of time time just watching them all instead of getting on with my work. but I don't mind!  It gives me so much satisfaction to feel accepted as part of their world and to know that I'm helping all of them to thrive by gardening organically. 
 A young plant of Chinese Cabbage 'Scarlette' contrasts beautifully with lemon Pak Choi from Real Seeds 'Vibrant Joy' mix
A young plant of Chinese Cabbage 'Scarlette F1' contrasts beautifully with lemon Pak Choi from Real Seeds 'Vibrant Joy' mix
There are some very exciting new Oriental vegetables

Oriental vegetables are becoming much more popular and well known now - mainly thanks to the wonderful books written by Joy Larkcom - who I mention again later.  I've always found them very useful for fast-growing autumn and early spring cropping in the polytunnel. One very new Oriental vegetable that I trialled in the polytunnel three years ago is this stunning Chinese cabbage Scarlette F1, pictured above growing alongside a beautiful lemon Pak Choi from the new Pak Choi mix called 'Vibrant Joy' from Real Seeds in the UK. 'Scarlette' was only released in 2015 and is the first red Chinese cabbage. Actually 'red' really doesn't do it justice - and neither does a photo. The outside leaves are actually an incredibly deep crimson, shading to cherry-pink which is almost neon-like in sunlight - and the hearts with the tightly-wrapped inside leaves are also gorgeous shades of ;paler pink as you can see below. It has the most fantastically sweet, 'more-ish' taste too - delicious in salads or lightly stir-fried and of course a very unusual colour - a first for Chinese cabbage. The deep crimson colour means it's obviously higher in beneficial polyphenol phytonutrients, so even better for our health than the more usual green Chinese cabbage, and it's definitely one of the most exciting vegetables I've found in years. I've been experimenting with growing it in various ways over the last two years.
I grew three crops of it last year - a spring one, a late summer crop outside and a late autumn one in the tunnel - although it's only actually recommended for sowing outside in May. The late autumn on got attacked by late cabbage root fly sadly and I lost about half of them - although I was still able to use the younger un-hearted plants that had been attacked in salads. Wilting in sunshine is always a dead give-away for root fly - but it's always too late to prevent them by then. Chinese cabbage can't be lifted and replanted which can work with some winter brassicas - because they would bolt. So rather than waste the plants I just used them as small leaves before they died.This year I kept them covered with enviromesh to keep the root fly out - which seems to have worked - although somehow a fat green cabbage white caterpillar appeared on a leaf this morning! Easily spotted against the dark red background as it did rather stand out and was quickly dispatched!  
This year I've planted Scarlette in a tube with leeks to see how they do - they're certainly looking very happy and colourful at the moment!  I love to experiment with different crops and it's fun trying to push the boundaries with all kinds of crops in the polytunnel. Every year the weather is different and as long as we have fairly even temperatures, with not too many wild swings or hard frosts - I'm hoping that Scarlette will give me a decent crop again before Christmas and avoid the worst of the weather. It stores quite well for 2-3 weeks in a cool place once it's picked, which is useful - although this year I may try covering it with fleece if the weather is cold in December. 
Chinese cabbage Scarlette halved - showing it's stunning heart New Chinese cabbage Scarlette
Chinese cabbage Scarlette halved - showing it's stunning heart New Chinese cabbage Scarlette outside in late spring 2016


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

Pot on plants if planting is delayed


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


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


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


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


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



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

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

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

 Using peat-free composts

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


Protecting winter salads  

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

Growing winter salads in containers

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

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

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

Saving seeds may even give you your own new variety!

I've been saving seeds of all sorts of plants for many years. It's such a satisfying and fun thing to do - and I'm always so surprised and delighted when they germinate the following year - even after all these years of gardening!   Nature is wonderful!  Over the years I've saved some varieties that would otherwise have been lost altogether, and that's even more satisfying. Why not try doing it yourself - if you don't already. It's great fun! You can save seed from anything that's not an F1 hybrid - whether vegetables or flowers. Who knows - Nature may even give you the gift of a new variety - as happened in the case of the several new kales I have grown which are descended from an interesting looking seedling that I was too curious to weed out a few years ago while hand-weeding. I dislike hoeing for this very reason and always weed by hand. You're not close enough to recognise what you may be losing when you're hoeing!  Anyway - that original seedling was almost certainly a hybrid (or cross)  between my Ragged Jack Kale - which I've been saving my own seed of for around 35 years now - and a frilly leaved purple mustard, which the bees must have cross-pollinated.
I always leave my overwintered brassicas and Chinese leaves to flower in late winter early spring to provide early food for all the nectar loving early insects and vital pollinators.  In return - Nature gave me a most welcome and beautiful present!  Although I isolated it, pollinated it and saved seed from the original seedling when it grew up, it set very few seeds being a 'mule' - a millions-to-one chance as a very rare cross. I also tried to take cuttings but it wouldn't come from those as it's DNA was obviously leaning too much towards the biennial mustard end of the spectrum.  Mustard is determinedly biennial, whereas some kales can come from cuttings. It tasted horrible too - really hotly 'mustardy' which I don't like. I sowed some of the resultant seeds and you can see some the incredibly diverse and beautiful results below. 12 sown, 10 germinated, and every single one was different!  The following year I sowed the last few seeds and got 12 more beauties. I was hoping that these would come from cuttings, as they had a much more pronounced kale taste and were perhaps leaning more towards the kale end of the DNA spectrum.  Sadly gave the plants away to a well-known plant breeder who promised to raise them from cuttings but apparently didn't!  However - I still have some saved seed from those original hybrids and will sow them again next year. Luckily brassica seeds keep well for several years.
Perhaps I was far too trusting and naive? I certainly rue that decision now - although I'd hate to become too cynical. The sad moral of that tale is - that if you have something very special - don't just trustingly give it away like I did. Similarly - although many ideas in gardening have been handed down for countless centuries - some may be new - perhaps discovered through individual circumstances, gardens or climate. I always credit others if I use their original ideas - but sadly not everyone does. It's a lesson I've learnt over the last few years of writing my blog and from being on Twitter in particular - so perhaps you will understand the copyright notice that I put at the end of each blog page now - just to make people consider that a lot of work goes into it.
The pictures below of two of my lovely kale hybrids really don't do them justice!
Kale hybrid 1. contrasts stunningly with Anthemis E.C.Buxton - worthy of a place in any herbaceous border! 2.10.14

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

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

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

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

The Vegetable Garden in October - 2020

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

Amaranthus Red Army - grown as a larger seedling salad crop, to be harvested above first leaf joints Oregon Sugar Pod makes luscious shoots which can be cut several times for a seedling crop Pink kale seedlings - fast-growing, nutritious microgreens for winter salads.
Amaranthus Red Army - grown as a larger seedling salad crop, to be harvested above first leaf joints Oregon Sugar Pod makes luscious shoots which can be cut several times for a seedling crop Pink kale seedlings - fast-growing, nutritious microgreens for winter salads.

Gardenless Gardening or 'Micro-Gardening'


When you're thinking about seed orders for next year - why not get some seeds for growing as microgreens?  These are the super-nutritious baby vegetable shoots, packed full of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, which are frequently used as fancy garnishes in restaurants.  A valuable and fast-growing addition to your salad repertoire all year round, they are especially useful in mid-winter when garden salads are scarce - and you don't even need a garden or a polytunnel to grow them!  
Microgreens couldn't be easier to grow - just like the mustard and cress we all grew as children. If you have a sunny warm windowsill, they are ready to eat just 2-4 weeks after sowing, depending on what variety of veg seed you are using and also the time of year.  Alternatively, you can let them grow on past the initial seed leaves, or cotyledons, to produce their first true leaves and snip those off above the first true leaf joints above the cotyledons as a seedling crop. That stimulates the lowest growing buds to produce new growth which I have done with the Amaranth Red Army pictured above.  Oregon Sugar Pod mangetout pea makes luscious pea shoots can be grown on to a slightly larger size and cropped several times before leaving them to grow on and plant out for a later crop of pods.  Many edible plants can be grown as microgreens or larger seedling crops. Radish, beetroot, broccoli, basil, kale, coriander, onions, amaranth, spinach, chards, mustards, pea shoots and sunflower-greens are very commonly grown as microgreens.  The only limit really is your imagination and the edibility or not of their leaves! 
To start microgreens off, you will need a shallow tray with drainage holes and paper kitchen towel, or some used organic peat-free potting compost mixed with vermiculite as a base on which to grow them as they don't need a lot of nutrients. Alternatively you can buy a coir-based matting to grow them on from Fruit Hill Farm in Cork, this keeps them cleaner so that they won't need any rinsing off, but is not the cheapest option.  Those you intend to grow on to a larger size for cropping as a seedling crop, start off in an organic peat-free seed compost, as they will need slightly more nutrients. Scatter the seeds quite thickly but evenly over the surface, watering very gently to soak them well without disturbance, or just sit them in another tray of water for a minute or two, then let them drain. Cover them with a polythene bag or piece of glass to keep them humid, and mist over gently 2-3 times every day until they have germinated,  After germination, take off the polythene or glass cover, and water from the bottom when necessary, by sitting trays very briefly in water.
Unlike sprouted seeds, you only eat the stems and the leaves, not the seeds and root too.  They couldn't be easier to harvest! Just cut them off their base with scissors as needed and rinse them in a sieve.  Always use organic seeds as these won't have been treated with any nasty pesticides or fungicides either when growing or prior to being packaged. Many suitable varieties are now easily available online in bulk amounts and are really good value.  In spring you can save a few seedlings to plant out and save your own seed from them forever after that!

Contrast showing what happens in a week on the un-mulched soil. Weeds have germinated and moisture is evaporating
Contrast showing what happens in a week on the un-mulched soil. Weeds have germinated and moisture is evaporating
If you want to improve soil easily - then mulching is the answer!
Over the summer I saw a lot of people on Twitter complaining about having to water their crops too often or that they've gone away and came back to find that their crops have 'bolted' due to dry conditions - both could have been easily avoided by mulching.  In many cases, the pictures they posted of their soils showed light-coloured, carbon-poor, lifeless dust, with miserable, weed-infested crops that would have been so much healthier if only they had mulched with anything - rather than doing nothing.  I know that many allotment soils are carbon poor, as they have in many cases been chemically-fed for generations, which depletes soil-carbon that is the foundation of healthy soil life. As I'm always saying - nobody starts off with a perfect soil - but you can improve it quickly by mulching.  if you study Nature, it never leaves soil bare except in deserts - and you know what grows in deserts - nothing!  Returning plant wastes to soil by mulching prevents moisture loss from damaged, carbon-poor soils, keeps worms working and processing any plant wastes into carbon, taking it underground to feed themselves and soil microorganisms. This is what is known as soil-regeneration -and is how organic regenerative agriculture works when practiced on a larger scale. 
Mulching is a very easy and effective way to stop water evaporating and to keep soil moist in summer. Heavy mulching is also an effective way of clearing ground on weedy plots, or establishing a 'no-till' or 'no-dig' system. It's also valuable for keeping weeds down between rows of crops and around fruit bushed. A minimum of 3-4in/10cm deep mulch of any soft green matte such as short, seed-free grass clippings or chopped comfrey inhibits growth of annual weed seeds by blocking light and also makes removal of perennial weeds easier as the soil is much softer.
 In hot summers mulching is especially beneficial, as it reduces water evaporation, preventing heat stress by keeping soil cool and moist. It also adds organic matter, which encourages worm activity, improving and aerating soil structure, adding nutrients and preventing erosion in heavy rain. In exposed soil in summer worms go much deeper to cooler more moist soil. If you mulch they will stay working nearer to the surface.
Always ensure that soil is moist before adding any mulch. When planting through mulches, pull aside a small area to make a planting hole, ensuring that the mulch is a minimum of 10cm away from plant stems to avoid it touching them and starting any possible rotting. It's a very useful way to recycle chemical-free lawn clippings, so if you don't have enough of your own compost or grass clippings - you could always offer to cut a neighbour's chemical-free lawn free - in return for the free and very valuable mulch! Watering clippings immediately after laying them washes any free nitrogen into the soil, preventing atmospheric loss,burning of leaves and any sliminess developing. Watering immediately also helps grass-clipping mulches to knit together well, so that they're more effective in preventing weeds, turning the surface brown quickly which improves their appearance, making them less noticeable.
There was an interesting study published recently which showed that organic farming systems that use compost and cover crops to protect soil, store more soil carbon than conventionally, chemically-farmed soils. Storing carbon in the soil is a vital tool in helping to mitigate climate change.  It doesn't matter whether we're large scale farmers or back gardeners - we can all do our bit! Here's a link to that study:

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

My well-worn old garden plans from 38 years ago showing on left the six 30ft x 4ft raised, 'deep'/'no-dig' beds I started with here in 1982


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

It's almost the start of another gardening year already!  Next month all the seed catalogues will have arrived - some have already - and I never fail to find that exciting! What new excitements will they bring this year? While you can still remember - make a few notes now of what you want to grow less of, what you would like more of - or what you found difficult or expensive to buy that you didn't grow yourself but wished you had this year! 
Make a cropping plan for next year while you can still remember where everything was this year, what the weather was like and how particular vegetable varieties did.  A plan is much easier to do on graph paper - so that when the catalogues come - you will have a very good idea of exactly what you want to grow next year, where you're going to grow it and roughly how much seed you will need. That will help to stop you being tempted to buy too much - in theory - (Rarely works for me!)  Most catalogues calculate packets of things like peas and beans, for instance, for sowing a 15 ft or 4.5 m row. I find that sowing most seed into modules, rather than sowing direct in the ground, saves hugely on expensive seed. It's no more trouble and you use far less - and also lose far less seedlings, if any, to those slimy night-time visitors - or all the other disasters that can happen to seeds, like rotting in a cold wet soil!  
Working out exactly how much of anything you want to grow, knowing how many modules you need for a row or block of something - with a few to spare just in case - and approximately how long the crop will occupy the space is very useful. It allows you to calculate amounts, helps you to make the most efficient use of space, and consequently to get the best value out of your plot for the work you put in. With good planning and module sowing, even a very small plot can produce a surprising amount of good things to eat all year round, by overlapping crops and also inter-planting in succession as I've always done, surrounded by flowers and fruit, and keeping the plot full. That's how nature does it. Whatever - it's all about getting the very most out of your space - and also for me the aim always also been to save as much money as possible on the household budget!
The more you can grow yourself - the more you will save - and these days that's a big consideration!  After the long spring and summer drought and with Brexit looming - many vegetables may be more expensive, scarce or even non-existent!  So even if you only grow your own fresh salads - this could easily save you €25 a week without any problem - and they would be far fresher and far more nutritious, and in addition not chlorine-washed and bagged!   If you only buy one bag of vegetables per day - at the average price most organic veg or salads are - add that up over a year and you could actually have almost saved the price of a small polytunnel or greenhouse!  It would definitely buy you a super-duper cold frame!  There's also nothing like the good feeling that comes from being even to a very small extent self-sufficient and not having to buy expensive, often travel-weary organic vegetables from the shops - that's if they're available. It's so much healthier and far more satisfying to have your own really fresh, organically grown produce!  Making a good cropping plan also helps you to avoid growing things in the same place too often, which can attract pests and diseases. If you plan well, you'll only have to do it once - you won't have to scratch your head and do it every year!. Divide your plot into four and after that you just move everything round one space every year - and that's a four course rotation, or divide it into six and then the same crop only hits the same space once every six years and so on. Planning a proper rotation and growing as wide a range of crops in soil as possible is the best way to improve it. Planning always pays off. I know we haven't even got this gardening year over with yet - but believe me your success next year starts now - with good planning and forethought! 
When we first came here in 1982 - 38 years ago now - I'd already had the (rather painful) benefit of having been bed and then chair bound for several months after a back injury and then subsequent viral meningitis, possibly transmitted by a visitor - probably due to my immune system being low after all the pain-killing and anti-inflammatory drugs I was prescribed at the time.  I have never taken these since then, after researching their effects extensively as far as was possible at the time, and now prefer natural methods.  Luckily no other member of the family caught the virus at the time, but I discovered later that a woman living in the same road at the time sadly died of it - so I was extremely lucky. Anyway I kept myself amused by planning the whole garden and orchard in minute detail on huge sheets of graph paper while I could do little else, and reading everything I could get my hands on. I was so determined that I would get better and be able to garden and grow all our own organic food again. Those hours spent dreaming, reading and planning were some of the best spent hours ever - they've been paying off in time saved ever since!  They also gave me so much hope - and that benefited my mental health at a hugely difficult time.  The apple and cherry trees I planned then have now grown huge. You can only just about make out the writing on the very battered and scruffy old plans pictured above. They were often taken out into the garden so many times with very hopeful and often very muddy hands - and even occasionally chewed by some puppy or other! There are a few bits missing - but these old plans that encapsulate so many hopes and memories are so very precious!
To the bottom left of the plan,  you can just make out the words 'Deep Beds'. These were my first raised, 'no-dig' or 'deep' beds similar to those which I'd seen the late Geoff Hamilton making on Gardeners World. They were made initially by throwing up all the soil onto the beds from the paths. This immediately gave me higher raised beds which needed far less bending - something I knew I would probably never be able to do comfortably again with my spinal injury. They were also better drained and warmed up far more quickly in spring. Making lots of compost, mulching and using green manures gradually improved the degraded and abused soil we'd inherited and brought it back to life. The six beds later became twelve, when I began growing commercially a couple of years on......... and the rest - as they say - is history!  It was lovely to come across those old plans a couple of years ago - they bring back so many memories.
Early in 2017 I gave a talk at our National Botanic Gardens, in Glasnevin, Dublin, as part of the Irish launch of the 'European 'People for Soil' initiative. In it, I talked about how I restored my impoverished soil which had been impoverished by intensive farming, bringing it back to health and the abundant organic life that it is full of now. I also talked a bit about how I made my raised 'no-dig' deep beds. You can watch it here:

Time to Take Stock 

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

Keep a Weather Eye out Now!


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

It Could Soon be Time for a Major Cover Up!

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


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

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

Worms are My Co-workers

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

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

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

Autumn Pests 

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

There's a Permanent Hen Party in my Garden!

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

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

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

What to Sow in October - 2020

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

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

You can also sow all of the above undercover, in a polytunnel or frameThey will grow much more quickly in the warmer and more protected environment. You can also sow mangetout pea 'Oregon Giant' and sugar peas such as 'Delikett' and 'Delikata' - directly into tunnel soil if you have space, or in large pots and containers - all for pea shoots now, taking two or three cuts of shoots then leaving to grow on in spring to produce pods. With a little warmth you can also still sow Italian giant flat leaf parsley which is hardier, more productive, and has far better flavour than the curled varieties. 
Sow all seeds into modules thinly to avoid overcrowding, ensure good air circulation and good drainage in order to avoid possible 'damping off' diseases in the cooler autumn weather. Lettuce in particular can be very prone to disease now, so either sow individually - or thin carefully to the one strongest seedling without damaging others, as soon as they are big enough to handle. You can also sow directly into containers under cover. Be very careful not to over-water seedlings now, always water modules from underneath by sitting in water just for a few seconds if necessary, until you can feel the compost beginning to absorb it.  Watering modules from the top may also possibly encourage disease and damage vulnerable seedlings.
(* Sow early Oct.  ** Sow late Oct.)
You can also still plant rooted watercress cuttings in rich soil in a damp shady spot in the tunnel or outside under cloches - watercress is actually a perennial and will crop for a year or longer if fed, watered and picked regularly to prevent flowering. I take fresh cuttings of healthy plants every year in early autumn to provide my winter crops - removing it from the polytunnel and planting it elsewhere in a shady spot for summer. My current plants have been producing well for at least 10 years now! Cover with fleece if a hard frost is forecast.
Garlic cloves can be sown/planted now both outside and also in tunnels 
For a really early crop of big bulbs next year - choose firm, plump and healthy outside cloves from your this year's crop, or buy certified virus-free ones from garden centres - not supermarket bought bulbs which will most likely be unsuitable for this climate or may bring in diseases. Be careful to go through the packs in garden centres and choose the really plump firm ones. Don't buy any that feel soft, sunken or squashy as these have rotted and may be diseased. 'Christo' is weather resistant, reliable, a very good keeper and very hardy both inside and out which can also be spring planted, 'Thermidrome' and 'Marco are 'autumn planting' varieties which are both excellent for growing in the tunnel, where they produce huge bulbs planted now. Both have excellent flavour and are good keepers. All three are good in tunnels - whereas some varieties prefer outside only. The very centre cloves from the bulbs, which do not produce good bulbs later on, can be planted into pots to provide leafy green garlic shoots for cutting for salads etc. - rather than wasting them.
Saffron bulbs can still be planted - many companies have good value offers now as this is late to be planting them. Bulbs will flower this year and then like many other flower bulbs may then take a year off - but if well-fed when in green leaf after flowering, they may not do this and will then flower again as normal next year.
None of these are hard and fast rules, as the weather is so unpredictable now. Climates can vary widely in individual gardens and different parts of the country. You have to play it by ear depending on the conditions and you may need to adapt these instructions in order to take into account your particular garden microclimate - it's aspect and soil, as well as current weather forecasts. Conditions can deteriorate suddenly at this time of year, and every garden is different - you will know your own local climate best.
It's also worth saving some of your own seed from non-F1 hybrid varieties of crops. This will save a lot of money and may even preserve hard to get, or disappearing varieties - which is happening increasingly now with small seed companies being swallowed up  by the bigger Agrichemical/Pharmaceutical giants! 
Below is a picture of a young plant of 'McGregor's Favourite' beetroot - a variety which I saved from extinction in the late 1980s when Carters were taken over by Dobies/Suttons and it was deleted from their catalogue. It's an extremely valuable, high-polyphenol phytonutrient cultivar which I use for salad leaves.
 Young plant McGregor's Favourite beet PTP poss IG
Young plant McGregor's Favourite beetroot
Note on compost
I always use an organic peat-free seed compost for sowing all my seeds - Klasmann which is available from Fruit Hill Farm or from White's Agri in Lusk, here in Ireland.  It's an excellent, free-draining compost for seedlings - I never lose any to 'damping-off' disease. 
Using peat composts causes the release of large amounts of carbon, which contributes to climate change and destroys much biodiversity - including many plants which bees, insects and other creatures depend upon - thereby causing loss of biodiversity. Destroying peat bogs also leads to increased flooding, as the carbon contained in bogs acts like a giant sponge - absorbing water and then releasing it much more slowly into the environment. Peat composts are not a natural environment for plants as they are also sterile, with no microbial life, and they contain synthetic, fossil fuel-derived chemical nutrients, which also accelerate climate change. 
Make a cropping plan and start to make rough drafts of your seed orders as soon as the catalogues arrive or are available online. Go through this year's remaining seeds to see what will still be good for sowing next year. This avoids duplication, over-buying and prevents potential waste.
Growing tips for October - as well as more information on seed varieties, growing fruit, wildlife gardening etc. can be found under the relevant diary entries for each month as they are added to the diary.
 (P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard-won experience. Thank you.) 

The Fruit Garden and Orchard in September/October - 2020

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

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


The joy of seasonal eating -"To everything there is a season".  -  Autumn is such a gloriously fruitful season, full of Nature's abundant riches...."Mellow fruitfulness" to quote the poet - surrounds us everywhere!

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

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

Nowadays the only apples available in supermarkets are almost without exception tough-skinned, tasteless, sugary sweet varieties like Gala or Pink Lady. These bear so little resemblance to the apples I grew up eating from our own orchard that they might as well have been grown on the moon! And frankly most taste like they have been! Primarily this has a lot to do with new breeding programmes, often in the USA, and promotion of patented varieties - which I won't go into here or you'd be reading this for a month! They're bred for high production, uniformity of shape, disease-resistance and consumer 'eye appeal' - but rarely for flavour!  Very few have the complex, aromatic flavours and character of the older varieties - or even some of the newer, less popular ones. Even Braeburn, a relatively new, tasty variety from New Zealand, has very little flavour when grown non-organically, picked immature before properly ripe, to meet supermarket specifications, then stored for months or even years in climate-controlled warehouses in an almost cryogenic-like suspension!   

 Tickled Pink apple, has fabulous crimson flesh colour & tastes of cherries!Occasionally, one of the supermarkets may have an English Apple promotion for a week or so in the autumn and you may find the odd russet if you're lucky. So many people are put off by the rough brownish colour and have no idea what they taste like, that you often see them lingering on the shelves. And as I've already mentioned  - these won't have developed their proper, very distinctive flavours, because they're picked well before they're ripe. Yet when eaten in their natural season and fully ripe - varieties like Egremont Russet or Ashmead's Kernel have some of the most complex, richly-aromatic flavours imaginable!  With no doubt the complex phytochemicals to match - since that's where their aromatic flavours originate. My mouth waters just thinking of them! It will be another week or so before the first of my russets - Egremont Russet is properly ripe - and yet only yesterday I read on Twitter that some supermarkets are selling them already. What an abomination! No wonder they taste bitter and foul - with nothing like the sun-warmed, sweet spiciness that they should have! Luckily some of these older varieties are still available in a few farmer's markets - and trees are also increasingly available from good fruit tree nurseries and a few of the better garden centres. 
With that I'm not saying that all new varieties are bad - they're not. There are some really terrific new, non-GM varieties being naturally bred now for specific qualities like higher amounts of desirable antioxidant phytonutrients and disease-resistance. The new high-anthocyanin phytochemical variety 'Tickled Pink' pictured above is one such example. It has delicious crimson flesh which tastes amazingly of sour cherries!  For those like me - who like a more tart and less sweet apple - it is delicious when really ripe but it also makes an excellent cooker - it makes spectacular 'Tarte Tatin'!  Red Devil is another high antioxidant variety with red-stained, crisp flesh and it is a fabulous-tasting, heavy-cropping, disease-resistant variety which picked in early October will keep in normal cold home storage until Christmas most years and is perfect for organic growing. It's also an excellent and reliable pollinator for other varieties, as being a flowering group 3 cultivar, it will pollinate those varieties which are in the groups either side of it's flowering season and will overlap with it's flowering time. What more could you ask? 

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


The Fruits of Memory

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

The Vegetable Garden September/October - 2020

September contents:  "Civilisation is only nine meals away from anarchy"..... Brexit-proof your kitchen garden and larder!...'Winter-proof' soil NOW - before bad weather!.....The secret to growing healthy vegetables or healthy flowers isn't a secret!.....Heavy manure rant!......More seeds to save before other creatures help themselves!.....Out with the old...... And in with the new - Potatoes for Christmas and New Year crops......Colourful cabbage bursting with health!.... Beware of bringing in the dreaded onion white rot!


A busy shady bench! Seedlings in modules and young plants sheltered by a north wall waiting for potting on or planting outside in the raised beds or polytunnel


 "Civilisation is only nine meals away from anarchy" - said the head of the UK's Countryside Agency, Lord Cameron of Dillington, in 2007, warning that on day three, "there will be rats, mayhem and even murder." 


I hope that wasn't a premonition!  According to the latest news - it's looking increasingly likely that in the UK and Ireland we may well face shortages of those fresh foods which can't be stored - in the event of a 'No Deal Brexit'.  Much of the fresh produce sold in shops here in the winter in Ireland comes from the EU via the UK, and in the event of 'No Deal' happening both Ireland and the UK may experience shortages of many goods.  The British Retail Consortium said recently that 85% of lettuce sold in the UK in November comes from the EU - a pretty staggering statistic when you consider that it can be so easily grown in the UK.  Sky News also reported that there could be a 6 month delay in some food supplies if the worst happens.  Luckily after Christmas us gardeners will be into a new year with increasingly good light and conditions for growing things - so we won't be without fresh veg supplies for too long. According to the UK government there won't be any problems - but frankly I don't trust them any more and I think that whoever you believe, or whatever you think may happen, it's important to ensure that your kitchen garden if you have one and your larder are Brexit-ready and resilient.  If not - then here's a few suggestions as to what you could still do now, to prepare for a worst case scenario. And even if it doesn't come to that - it's still a great feeling to know that whatever happens - you can still feed your family on healthy food.  So don't be caught out with your larder or garden empty!  


Brexit-proof your kitchen garden and larder!


I've always tried to make sure that whatever happens, we have enough food growing in the ground and stored in the larder here to cope with several months of unavailability of either fresh foods, or dry goods, to keep us well-fed on healthy foods.  Healthy food that boosts our immune system is also our best insurance against the usual winter illnesses like colds and flu - as well as the very virulent COVID19 virus.  Whatever nasty bugs there are around - we're far more likely to resist them or get a less serious dose of them if our immune systems are healthy.  Speaking of which - possible shortages of medicines are another thing which the British Government's leaked 'Yellowhammer report' last year warned may happen, so stocking  up on whatever your favourite cough and cold remedies are is also a good idea.  I was also warned recently by one of the wholefood/health food stores which I go to, that many supplements may either be unavailable or rise in price by as much as 65% after Brexit. So it makes sense to stock up on any of those that you regularly use. 


Some people have accused me of having a 'siege mentality' or being 'depressing' - but burying one's head in the sand and ignoring reality is frankly never a sensible thing to do whatever our problems!  I prefer to meet them head on, deal with them by trying to do something proactive, and be prepared!  It's better to be safe than sorry!  Whether your worries are about climate change, Brexit, or some other insecurity - being as well-prepared as possible for every eventuality is a very comforting feeling, and can at least take away some worries which you can do something positive about. I've always been a realist, and having been through many serious recessions, rough times, and shortages - and come out the other side much stronger and wiser, I know without doubt that anything you can grow or store now will be a godsend this winter - even if we don't have to deal with 'worst case scenarios' outlined in the rather worrying 'files'.


In terms of fresh produce which you could still start to grow now outside if you get a move on - there are still plenty of things - especially salads. Even if you don't have a garden, but only a balcony or path, as long as there is enough light you can grow almost everything in large containers.  It's often much easier to grow some things that way, as this keeps them safe from menacing slugs!  In the picture above you can see the beautiful Chinese cabbage Scarlette - which is so much easier to keep slug-free when grown in containers.  Those nasty little grey slugs always manage to get right into the heart of them and ruin them when they're growing in the ground.  They are interplanted with baby leeks which as they're upright don't bother the Chinese cabbage and will go on to produce a crop long after the cabbage has finished.   Mixing crops in containers can be fun and often quite decorative.


This year thanks to the plague of field mice which invaded as soon as the crops around us were harvested - the tomatoes which I always grow in tubs in one of my tunnels were decimated overnight!  Normally those tomatoes in containers would often go on cropping until late October, but there's no point in prolonging the agony now just for the sake of the one or two tomatoes which remain, as I already have plenty dehydrated and frozen.  As a result I now have a lot of  unemployed containers to gradually replant - so I shall experiment with growing some new container crops which I haven't tried before.  To be honest for me at the moment I'm rather glad to be doing that - because trying to get even raised beds ready when one is on sticks and not able to carry much is not easy!  I can just sit on a stool and plant the containers!  Suggestions for fast-growing crops are on my 'What to sow Now' page, which I update at the beginning of every month. link here:  - There's still time to sow most of those mentioned if you can't buy plants. 


Everything naturally grows much better and faster with shelter and cover over winter - but if you don't have a polytunnel, don't despair.  While cloches may be of some help to crops in the ground, they can often be too low, and not offer enough frost protection. If you don't have a garden you can easily make a taller and much more useful homemade 'grow frame' - as I did over 40 years ago, before I had either a greenhouse or polytunnel. It was very effective and although I'm not much good at DIY, and it was made out of 'skip-found' recycled materials,  it still lasted several years before finally collapsing!  I found it really useful all year round, and even when I didn't have much garden - it worked just as well sitting on a concrete path against a wall.  It housed various recycled pots, tubs and even recycled fish boxes!   


Plan of my grow frame. Sides A-B were left open and uncovered so it could be used either on the flat or against a wallPlan of my grow-frame. Sides A-B were left open and uncovered so it could be used either on the flat or against a wall


Sadly I don't have any pictures of it.  It never occurred to me that I might need them and I was also coping with 2 lively toddlers then!  I find it rather amusing now that everyone takes pictures of everything with an eye to becoming an Instagram 'expert' or social-media influencer'!    How fast things have changed!  But anyway - here's a rough drawing I made to give you an idea of what it looked like. Side A the diagram here, and the base were left uncovered and open, and the rest was covered with clear polythene. In summer, it could be used standing up against the wall for growing taller, cordon tomato plants, or used on the flat as on the left in the diagram to cover bush tomato plants or peppers and aubergines in tubs to keep blight-inducing rain off. In both cases it was slightly raised on bricks, and also pulled away from the wall slightly, in order to give good air circulation.  In winter it had to be held down with guy ropes, as we lived near the sea then and our small garden was very windy!  But it did the job very efficiently and allowed me to grow some of my best aubergines ever!  What more could you ask?  As for pots, you don't need to buy them unless you're worried about appearance!  There's really nothing you can't grow food in - as long as it has drainage holes in the bottom and enough depth of soil/compost to support the plant's roots.  

Please don't use peat composts or any 'multipurpose composts' which contain peat - they may be cheaper to buy but they are very expensive in terms of their cost to the environment, accelerating climate change and loss of biodiversity. 


When it comes to dry goods for the pantry and stored produce for the larder - only you will know what your daily staples are that you won't be able to manage without.  As I cook everything from scratch here - including our bread, I've already made sure that I have enough supplies of Irish-grown organic flour, and other organic pantry staples which I buy that come directly from the UK, that I don't want to be without, and which will store for several months.  We'll have plenty of apples stored in my recycled dead freezers - more than enough for 'an apple a day' anyway! That's something you could do too, and even if you don't grow your own - you may know of someone with excess fruits, or perhaps a pick-your-own orchard.  If they're picked carefully and treated gently, most apples that are ready from October onwards will keep for several months, if you have somewhere to store them like a cool garage. Earlier apples won't keep for more than a week or so, but if you have a local source of them, it's worth getting some as they all dehydrate well, or can be frozen as puree and fruit leathers. 


Don't forget that Irish or UK-grown apples have a very short season in the shops, and the rest of the year they're imported, so may well be in short supply later in the winter. Exotic fruits like lemons and oranges can be frozen, and although I grow some for fun - as they're serious larder staples I always have a few frozen, so that I'm never without them. Root veg can be stored in damp sand if you've grown them yourself and know that they're sound and won't rot.  But if you haven't grown them, make sure that you buy them unwashed - most important or they quickly rot - and direct from the grower if possible.  They will need checking over every week or so for any rots etc, but if they're sound going in - it's rare that you will have any such problems.


If you've always fancied trying to keep a few hens to supply you with eggs, you don't really need a lot of room.  You can easily keep a few very healthy and happy hens, even if you only have a very small garden. Growing greens for them is most important, even if you have a lot of space for them, because in winter grass and other pasture plants are much less nutritious. That's why I grow leafy things like kale and chicory all year round just to keep them healthy. Greens also ensure the eggs high in things like vitamin A, choline, lutein and other essential nutrients, which are vital for our health too.  Our hens also get all the scruffy leaves of lettuce and other leaves that most people would normally discard into the compost bin. Here's a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago:

“Keeping Back Garden Hens for Organic Egg Production - the Basics" -


In over 40 years of living in Ireland, we've been through several recessions, and on some occasions were even snowed in for up to three weeks. Those times taught me a lot about real resilience. I was raised by parents who both came from farming backgrounds and had also been through the deprivations of the Second World War.  They made sure that our family never wanted for anything, and that even the tiniest scrap of anything was never wasted. Even though I was born well after that - the example of self-sufficiency I inherited from them has stood me in good stead.  Having a child with very serious food allergies was also a great motivator to start practicing what I call my 'organic, micro self-sufficiency'!   It really is such a satisfying feeling knowing that whatever happens - you can feed your family. We've all become so used to being able to buy anything we want at virtually a moment's notice from shops - or at the press of a button - that we've been spoiled compared to people of decades ago.  We've been lulled into a false sense of food security!  I think if we can make ourselves more food-resilient though, by producing as much of our own produce as possible, it can only be a good thing.


 Leeks inter-planted with lettuce. In the foreground Oriental radishes & Chinese cabbage Scarlette - keeping the soil well-covered.

 Leeks inter-planted with lettuce. In the foreground Oriental radishes & Chinese cabbage Scarlette - keeping the soil well-covered.


It's quite cold this morning and feeling very 'autumn-y'!  The misty evenings also suddenly seem to have drawn in quickly. The robins are already singing their sweet winter songs quietly as I work in the garden, just as in Keats evocative poem, and the hens are now going to roost just after 8 pm - rather than staying out late like naughty children who won't go to bed until 11 pm!  Around these parts even then, there is also still a more modern sound - the constant drone of combine harvesters and tractors working frantically day and night - and there's an air of urgency to get the last of the crops in.  Frantic harvesting of crops and storing some of them for less abundant winter times is the main priority here too!  Every year, as soon as the last of the crops in the fields surrounding us are harvested - creatures that were out there all summer start looking for alternative sources of food and can decimate root crops left in the ground. As I 've already mentioned above - every rodent in the neighbourhood seems to move en-masse into the garden to picnic as soon as all the cereal crops surrounding us are harvested - so time is of the essence - as well as keeping an eye out for rodents!  


Chinese cabbage Scarlette halved - showing it's stunning heartChinese cabbage Scarlette halved - showing it's stunning heart

The main priority now is to get the remains of the summer crops cleared and finish planting any autumn and winter crops not yet in, while the soil is still in good enough condition to work, and before harsher weather. There are still some seedlings waiting around for enough space to plant them. They're in the shade and shelter of the north wall of the stables, so that they don't come on too quickly if the weather is warm.  Any brassica seedlings are covered with 'Enviromesh' to keep out the cabbage root fly which is still very active now in mild weather.  I've sown even more than usual this year to make sure that neither us or the hens will go short of food!  In my newer raised beds, my heavy clay soil has taken a few years to become really humus-rich and workable most of the time. It must not be worked if it's wet and sticky, so time is of the essence!  Winter salads in the two new beds being planted now just get a very light dressing of well rotted compost. Before growth slows up too much the plants will take up those nutrients so that they can't wash away in heavy winter rain. My original soil is a neutral to acid very heavy County Meath clay, with a pH of about 6-6.5, but it quickly improves with mulching in the summer to protect the structure and light dressings of good compost before planting. Once a year it gets a light dressing of calcified seaweed to provide a slow acting calcium to raise the pH slightly - doing this encourages worms and helps plants to access all the nutrients they need. It also supplies valuable trace elements and is gentle on all soil organisms and plants   


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


If you have winter crops in the vegetable garden with a lot of bare soil between them right now - then why not grow a cover crop between them?  Or perhaps inter-crop with something fast-growing like lettuce, Oriental salad mixes, baby leaf spinach or even radishes. This is something I've recommended here on my blog for a long time now - and I see many other people recommending it too now, which is a good thing for soil and the climate. Doing this protects and covers soil - studies show that doing this helps to stop nutrients leaching and being lost in heavy autumn rains and may also give you a useful crop from your space instead of just hoeing to keep weeds down. I always grow lettuce or spinach between my leeks as you can see in the picture above. Until the leeks are quite large they have a very upright habit - so the two crops don't interfere with each other in any way by competing or grabbing each other's light. 


At this time of year - most people are starting to clear and compost remains of crops which have finished. They then often tend to leave ground bare all winter - which is not how Nature does it!  Nature knows better - and will already be trying to grow lots of weed cover to replace what was there. The soil is so warm now after the summer that if you have any empty space in vegetable beds which won't be used over the winter - it's also a very good idea to sow some fast growing green manures now wherever you can - there's still plenty of time for them to grow well before growth slows up dramatically at the end of next month. A cover crop like clover will also add valuable nutrients to the soil via the nitrogen-fixing nodules on it's roots. Other green manures take up any nutrients left in the soil after crops, and hold onto these - stopping nutrient loss and possible leaching. 


Green manures will feed worms too, which are still very active, and as they're broken down by worms they'll add humus and carbon to the soil.  Humus is the sticky 'glue' of decaying plant materials which feeds the billions of vital soil microorganisms and prevents soil erosion by literally 'sticking' soil together. Adding soluble chemical fertilisers to soil doesn't do this and also adversely affect soil-dwelling microbes. Chemical fertilisers and also pesticides kill some of the microbial life that turns plant remains into humus and by doing that cause the soil to become impoverished - with crops 'mining' of any remaining carbon in the soil until there's no longer enough left for them to be healthy. The soil becomes lifeless and devoid of all the vital microorganisms which are needed to interact with plant roots and feed healthy plants. The absence of humus and carbon also gradually causes soil erosion, as the lifeless mineral dust that remains no longer has anything to hold it together and washes away more easily - eventually ending up in rivers and seas. In dry climates this can even cause the dry soil dust to be blown literally thousands of miles around the globe - possibly carrying a cargo of pesticides too. Remember the Sahara dust many years ago that appeared in Ireland? 


All around the world now you can see the increasingly disastrous effects of this type of 'soil abuse' - the world is losing fertile, carbon-rich topsoil at an extremely dangerous rate, due mainly to the soil damage caused by intensive chemical agriculture.  In the hotter countries of the world the effects can be seen even more quickly - where ground is cleared of native forest and precious biodiversity is lost in order to produce food for a greedy, developed world wanting more and more meat or other crops like palm oil. A world that wastes so much unwanted food without a thought - since almost half of all food currently produced in the world is actually wasted!! 


Long before we run out of oil or even clean water - we will run out of soil to grow food crops. If we keep pouring on artificial man made chemicals - what is left will be devoid of all the essential life it needs to sustain healthy crops!  Soil health is vital to human health - that's how Nature designed it. Hydroponic farms where crops are fed with solutions of chemicals are not the answer - they can't produce the naturally healthy food that nature intended us to eat. But in our own gardens - there IS something we can each personally do about it! 


A healthy soil which has all the right nutrients for the plant to choose from, with the right structure and pH to enable the plant to use them will produce a healthy plant - whether it's a vegetable or any other type of plant. And healthy plants make healthy food for healthy people! I often hear people say things like "Oh I don't grow vegetables - I don't know anything about them - I just grow herbs or flowers".  Vegetables are just plants - like any other plant - they just happen to be plants that we like to eat!  Growing them well is no different to growing any other plant well. It's just purely a matter of learning the environment that each type of plant needs in order to be happy and healthy - and that includes what particular type of soil each prefers. Healthy, naturally-grown plants feed healthy animals and people and they also don't attract as many pests!  Organic gardeners need to understand what plants need in order to grow them successfully. And organic gardening isn't just about growing vegetables - it's about growing everything naturally - working with nature and trying to achieve a healthy ecologically balanced environment within your soil as well as above ground in the wider garden. 


The secret to growing healthy vegetables or healthy flowers isn't a secret!


Just feed your soil and it's microbial community naturally - as Nature would. If you feed your plants directly with man made chemicals - at the same time you're both poisoning soil microbes and starving them to death!  Green manures are an easy and valuable way to do this. Make sure that you do your homework though, and consult your garden plan (you should have one!) to decide on the green manure you might want to use - in order to ensure that it fits into your minimum 4 year rotations. The 'Caliente' mustard, for instance - so helpful in improving the soil after tomatoes - and which I've mentioned several times when talking about green manures, is a brassica and this must be taken into account when deciding where to use it. It is a very effective way to clean up soil after tomato crops - but you wouldn't for instance want to use it where you're planning to grow other brassicas (cabbage family) next year, as I unbelievably saw one organic gardening 'expert' recommending!  Red clover, lupins and winter tares are nitrogen-fixing legumes which 'fix', or absorb, 'free' nitrogen out of the air - so they would actually be a far better choice. But again - don't use those where you want to grow peas and beans next year - do you get the picture? Otherwise you will have potential pests and diseases all 'tee'd up' (in 'golfspeak'), already 'on the starting blocks' and ready to go early next year! There are plenty of catalogues online if you 'Google' green manure seeds - and they're full of really good free information, so I won't go into it all here.


All it takes to grow green manures is a minimal bit of planning. They are well worth the very little trouble they are to grow and they increase biological activity in your soil hugely. The populations of worms and smaller microbial life will increase, making soil much healthier. Contrary to what many people think - worms like green food to eat - just like us. The reason you see so many in manure and compost is because they've already been there for a while at that stage, chomping away on any edible green bits and breeding like mad!  When plant remains have been processed by worms, they are full of beneficial bacteria and something like 9 times richer in nutrients like potash than they were before - which is a stunning statistic!  So worms are really your best friends - do all you can to encourage and feed them. If you're continuously using your soil for food crops and won't be leaving any 'fallow' just to grow green manures, then having a home worm bin is a very valuable adjunct to the garden. What it produces is so much richer in nutrients than the contents of your normal compost heap - and it also adds beneficial microbes, fungi and enzymes to the soil.


Green manures also increase carbon in the soil - sequestering  (holding onto) soil carbon as opposed to releasing it into the atmosphere as bare soil does. They protect the mineral surface of the soil and stop it washing away in heavy rain.  If you cover the softer green manures like mustard after they get hit by the first frosts - the worms will gradually draw the rotting plant material down into the soil over the winter - leaving a lovely 'tilth' as it's called. Tilth is 'garden speak' for a nice crumbly surface and just the sort of place that if you were a seed - you'd really like to be sown! This fine tilth is perfect for sowing the root crops which would naturally follow brassicas in the classic four course rotation. Getting your worms to do free work for you in return for their food - is a win/win situation!  Some people advocate covering soil with heavy layers of wood chips but unless your soil is already very rich in soluble nitrogen, or you mix them with a high nitrogen manure like chicken litter, wood chips can rob your soil of nitrogen, as they need it in order to break down - and this can unbalance the soil environment. Dumping loads of compost or manure on top of the soil and leaving it, is equally as bad! Nature doesn't dump loads of anything in one go - it adds things very gradually over time. There are no 'quick fixes' in Nature - but there are some very quick ways to ruin precious soil - so take care of yours! 


Heavy manure rant! 


The other thing I've seen some people advocating is to dump heavy loads of manure or compost onto your garden - just leaving it uncovered over the winter. This is so totally irresponsible and selfish that it makes me extremely angry! The last thing you should ever do is to cover your soil with farmyard manure, or a heavy layer of compost and leave it open to the elements for any length of time - let alone all winter!  A couple of years ago I was contacted by someone who said that I was completely wrong to tell people that they shouldn't cover ground with manure or compost at this time of year and leave it uncovered all winter!  This was because a particular 'expert', who does it, had said that it was perfectly OK to do so, as leaching of nutrients did not actually happen, and that a lot of organic people had got it wrong! (And presumably all the many scientific studies which have also found the same to be the case!) 


The 'expert' also apparently stated that if nutrients were lost by leaching, then the earth would never have grown anything, would be completely barren - and life wouldn't exist - so that proved that leaching didn't happen.  Sorry to disagree - but that's complete rubbish! That attempt at justification really does not hold water!! (sorry for the pun!)  Leaching of nutrients, whether they are natural or chemical, will happen over time if there's nothing growing to 'mop up' the nutrients and if the soil, or surface of the manure covering it, is left open to the weather. The fact that the expert's crops apparently still grew well the following year, without adding more nutrients as apparently stated - even though compost and manure had been left uncovered - is perhaps more a testament to the horrendous amount of compost/manure perhaps used in the first place!  In other words - that in spite of the undoubted leaching into groundwater which would definitely have taken place - there were still enough nutrients left in the underlying soil to sustain crops. That however is NOT proof that leaching doesn't happen - as stated!  I personally worry about the waste of valuable nutrients, the wider environment, pollution of groundwater, water courses, rivers and of course wells - which many of us have in Ireland. This is happening all over the world and the pollution is destroying life in the oceans too with algal blooms etc! The Great Barrier Reef is dying and experts now think that it is mainly due to artificial fertilisers - phosphates in particular - leaching and eventually polluting seawater. We may not think that our little bit makes any difference - but all those little bits add up to a lot of pollution on a larger scale! Think globally but act locally as the Greens mantra has always said.


Organic growing tries in every way possible to work along with Nature, to grow crops in a sustainable way,  damaging the earth and all the precious life that inhabits it as little as possible.  We shouldn't just selfishly focus on how well my own crops grow now, without giving a damn about the health of the wider environment - because that eventually affects us anyway - perhaps in the lack of availability of certain species of fish for instance. As I'm always saying - everything is connected!  I think that the majority of organic gardeners care about biodiversity and the wider environment too - and don't just care about not eating chemicals in their food. Growing crops and gardening generally is not a totally natural activity anyway - man invented it many thousands of years ago. 


It's man that causes soil disturbance, damage and degradation - erosion, nutrient loss and pollution. Only man that takes more than he needs, causing food waste, carbon loss, leaching of nutrients and also methane emissions when food waste is dumped. Nature doesn't pollute and thoughtlessly dump rubbish everywhere like humans - it continually recycles everything quite naturally - but gradually. Have you ever watched how a cowpat changes quickly over time? - a classic example. Along comes a whole community of creatures like manure beetles and other insects to start on the recycling job immediately!  That Nature abhors a vacuum is a very true saying. It has evolved a perfect system, which never leaves soil bare where there is even the minutest amount of nutrient. Nature covers soil with plants if it can - not manure or compost!  Even when it covers the soil with leaves in the autumn - the trees have withdrawn the nutrients from the leaves before they fall - that is why we have autumn colour. It is also why leaf mould is high in carbon but lacking in nutrients - as that is how Nature ensures that leaf mould doesn't pollute or leach nutrients, and that carbon is returned to the earth from whence it came. 


So Nature has it all beautifully worked out because Nature invented it  - or rather - evolved it - so that's no surprise!  Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of ecology surely knows that! They also know that something will grow in even the most unlikely or impossible of niches. Look at environments such as the limestone pavements of the Burren in the West of Ireland for instance, or the Arctic, where even the tiniest amount of soil will have something growing in it. Even apparently barren deserts will spring to abundant colourful life after rain. The only places on this planet that are completely barren are where pollution and soil degradation have been caused by the activities of man.  Anyone can see how leaching happens after heavy rain - in Ireland we have plenty of opportunity to observe that - with fish kills happening regularly in rivers, and the water in some places so undrinkable that people are now having to rely on bottled water!  So I will continue to cover my soil either with a green manure or crop, or even compost covered with a waterproof cover - (if I will need that bed early in the year). I have seen with my own eyes precious nutrients leaching out of it if compost or manure is left uncovered for any length of time. 


The old fashioned way of leaving bare ground open to the weather may undoubtedly give you a very nice frost-induced tilth in the spring, but is that any justification for selfishly ignoring possible pollution worries? I think not!  Frost here is becoming more rare and wetter winters are becoming the norm with increasing climate change. I rest my case! 


More seeds to save before other creatures help themselves!


Another thing that needs to be done at this time of year is seed saving, before dried out seeds get damp again and possibly go mouldy -  or little furry creatures help themselves to them!  You can save seeds of any non-F1 hybrid varieties of anything - it's fun to try and it's enormously satisfying to grow things from your home saved seed. Always store seed in envelopes or paper bags. I never put seeds in the fridge as recommended by some books - mine is far too damp! I've always had great success with just keeping them in a very cool room.  I find that all my home-saved seed lasts for years, far longer than commercially produced seed, and it saves a lot of money. Don't do what I did though a few years ago - and put them in a safe place - then promptly forget where that is!  This year I sowed some of my rare McGregor's Favourite beetroot seed, which I saved back in 2009!  At 11 years old, it still germinated like mustard and cress, and beetroot seed is notorious for not keeping long!


Mouse damage of precious Purple Podded peas - the joys of seed saving!Mouse damage of precious Purple Podded peas - the joys of seed saving!

A few years ago I finally managed to find the 'Duke of Albany' Victorian pea seeds which I'd put in a safe place (fatal in my case as I've mentioned!)  It's an old-fashioned very tall and tasty, main-crop pea - an incredibly rare variety and not available anywhere. I grew it in the tunnel a few years ago and when I went to collect the seed, all the mice had left me was just one pod, containing 6 seeds! Anyway, when I eventually found those 6 in the 'safe place'!  I sowed them - this time into a large pot which I then brought into the tunnel to ripen safely. From those 6 seeds - I had 122.  I was thrilled!  Enough for a 15ft/5m row in the garden this year (about 70 seeds) while making sure I have enough to carry over to next year if any of next year's seed gets robbed!  I now never sow all of any very rare variety, as an insurance against total loss. This winter I shall put the D of A with the rest of my rare seed, in an old cake tin with holes punched in - rather than in that safe place where mice got them before!!    


Out with the old -


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


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


We're looking forward to a festive treat for the taste buds! Over the years I've found the old-fashioned Duke of York and Sharpe's Express to be the best for producing Christmas new potatoes - but I've also had great success with Mayan gold - which is delicious-flavoured and also Lady Christl too.  I love experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what's possible. They were all tubers held back from last year's crops that were not planted in spring. I kept them very cool - though not in the fridge, in an unused room with no heating, and just lightly covered the crate they were in with cloth - rather than polythene which would sweat. I think the seed companies who have potato tubers for Christmas planting probably keep them in cold storage - but they look nearly as wrinkled as mine, so they're definitely last year's crop! No matter - as long as they're alive - potatoes are always mad keen to grow. I planted some on 22nd August, and a few more a couple of weeks later. 


All an early or second early potato needs to have some sort of crop underneath it is no frost and 10-12 weeks of growing, and at this time of year after that they'll just be 'ticking over' anyway. As soon as frost threatens I'll bring them in to the coolest end of the tunnel, where they'll be covered with fleece if it's very cold. Last year I tried Violetta which I grew for the first time 6 years ago and saved seed tubers from this spring. After lifting the spring crop, I put them in a pot ready to take into the shed and then promptly forgot them! The other day I discovered them in their pot still sitting waiting for me on a seat in the garden bless them - but now sprouting because of the rain! Not wanting to disappoint them - I've now potted them up! I think they should do well. I grow several different types of purple potatoes now as they have so many health benefits due to the anthocyanins they contain which gives them their wonderful colour. They're also delicious!


Other crops


I lifted the last of the garlic a couple of weeks ago. The variety 'Cristo' is one which I always grow every year as I find it the most reliable, even in a very wet year.  You can plant Cristo in autumn or spring - but I find late October/November best for the biggest bulbs. 'Thermidrome' is another very good variety for autumn planting - but that seems to prefer the warmth of the tunnel - where it makes absolutely massive bulbs. Both of them are really good strong-flavoured bulbs. I really can't see any point in growing mild garlic - just use less! The house rule here is you can never have too much garlic in anything - except when the pesto is so strong it burns your mouth - which has been known to happen just occasionally! I shall save the biggest outside cloves from the outside of the largest, healthiest looking bulbs to plant in a few weeks time - and so the cycle begins again. They'll be in the shops soon - so keep an eye out for them!


Lettuce planted after cabbage cleared - garlic will be planted in October

In this picture you can see that I've planted several different varieties of lettuce. I like to have lots of different salads all year round - I get bored with just one variety. I always tend to plant alternate 'heading' and 'loose leaf' lettuces so that I can pick the heads, leaving the others to keep on producing for as long as possible. In this bed are 'Little Gem', a good crispy loose leaf variety called 'Fristina', a butterhead and good old 'Lollo Rossa' - which I always find is quite hardy. When any heading ones have been cut, next year's garlic crop will be planted between the remaining loose-leaf lettuce which crops for longer. This makes continuous use of the space in a way that I call 'layered cropping'. 'Inter-cropping' or 'catch cropping' doesn't really describe it well enough for me. It's a bit like layering bulbs with a continuity of herbaceous plants in a border. 


There's usually a 2,3 or 4 variety continuity of overlapping crops in all my beds if possible. It isn't really as complicated as it sounds, once you've planned it the first time - you just keep moving it all around your veg plot as part of your normal rotation. Things like growing together - as long as they have the space each one needs to develop properly - and making sure you don't plant 'thugs' with more timid crops!  It's a far more natural way of growing - again just as Nature does it. It also means there's less of one particular crop for any pests to aim at - a problem faced by some of the huge monoculture farms one sees now. This particularly happens if all the hedges have been removed so that pest-controlling beneficial insects have no habitat left, or have all been wiped out by pesticides!  My way of planting the raised beds keeps them looking nice and full too, and what I aim for is a 'raised ornamental potager' effect - just as I do in the polytunnel. It's much easier to achieve when you're not actually eating any of it though!  As I always say to visitors - this isn't a show garden - it's a working garden which hopes to make us as self-sufficient as possible all year round.


As I said earlier - it's still not too late to sow some fast-growing salads - there's a good variety available from seed now which will crop in late autumn and overwinter, particularly if you can give them the shelter of some cloches.  Also make sure you have a few good pieces of fleece on standby for the first frosts.  For most of the last few years, we seem to have got one sharp frost around 6th October - and then not much more frost before Christmas. But it pays to be prepared. A couple of layers of fleece if it's really bad, then covered with clear polythene or cloches, will do a lot to save your crops even if we have a very hard frost.


Colourful cabbage - bursting with health!  


A cabbage I grew for the first time a few years ago was an old Eastern European variety 'Kalibos' - pictured here - which has huge beautifully perfect, pointed heads which have a gorgeous deep colour.  It was really delicious, slightly milder-flavoured than many of the round varieties like the old Red Drumhead and with slightly thinner leaves.  It's only drawback is that it takes up a huge amount of room - a bit more than usual. It's one worth putting on your seed list for 2021 though - if you're a red cabbage fan like me. Another excellent new variety of red cabbage which I tried a couple of years ago is 'Red Rookie'. Cropping now, it makes lovely tight heads with no sign of splitting so far - but I'll have to keep an eye on it if we get a lot of rain which can cause that to happen.


Cabbage 'Red Rookie' on right - 2 euro coin sitting on top for comparison.
Cabbage 'Red Rookie' on right - 2 euro coin sitting on top for comparison.

We ate the first of the red cabbage a few nights ago -'Red Rookie' is certainly is very early, already having made huge, tightly wrapped heads of crisp, easy to slice leaves. Like Kalibos - it's really delicious made into a coleslaw or just gently sauteed in a little apple juice and butter - a lovely fresh taste and not too overpowering. I didn't do the 'full on' spice thing yet - that's for later on - for cold late November and December evenings when we feel the need for some warming spices and richer meals. Two years ago it stood really well without splitting, gradually getting larger but we harvested it before we got a deluge of autumn rain and it stored well on into winter. Red cabbage is actually more nutritious than green cabbage - especially raw which preserves all it's vitamin C and anthocyanin phytonutrients intact. A recent programme in the 'Trust Me I'm A Doctor' series on the BBC - presented by Dr Michael Moseley - showed that the vitamin C in cabbage also helps us to absorb its iron - so eating it raw regularly is important too.


Beware of bringing in dreaded onion white rot!


I won't be tempted to plant non-organic autumn onion sets which I saw someone mention on Twitter recently.  I don't want to take the chance of bringing in onion white rot!  A few years ago I was very cross with a particular TV presenter, when he said rotations didn't matter and he didn't bother with them!  Then the next year though  - he was actually honest enough at the end of the year to admit that he now had onion white rot (a couple of Brownie points for that) . The only problem was though that after he admitted that - he then went on to say that it would be fine to plant onions again in 3 years! Sorry but that's complete rubbish!  IT WILL DEFINITELY NOT BE OK!  Onion white rot can survive for up to 20 years in the soil, during which time you cannot grow ANY of the allium (onion) family in that spot or they will die, and it can actually be carried all around your garden on your boots and tools too - so never risk it.  If you want early onions - then plant some organic onion sets, which are widely available now, or plant non-organic ones in tubs, that way if they are infected - they won't infect your garden soil!  But also remember that unlike organic growers who have to be scrupulous about having a proper approved rotation plan for their crops - conventional growers don't have to worry about rotations - so non-organic onion sets will have been grown using many toxic pesticides and fungicides - and I certainly wouldn't want to risk even eating tiny amounts of those!  Wet winter weather after planting also encourages onion white rot. Growing onions from seed in early spring is so easy that I think it's simply not worth the risk! I always sow mine in March in modules, multi-sown 5 or 7 seeds to each block of compost, planting the blocks out in April. I get great crops growing them this way every year - which keep very well. 


Onions ripening in late August Onions ripened, harvested and drying off well in the polytunnel.


Now's the time to start planning your veg garden for next year - while this year's successes or failures are still fresh in your mind.  Get your seeds ordered early - don't wait until next March! 


One of the many wonderful things about gardening as I've said so often, is that unlike in many areas of life - each fresh year brings you another chance to get it just right!  And if there's only one thing more satisfying or beautiful than a garden full of gorgeously-coloured organic vegetables - then that is sitting down to a delicious plateful of them, smug with the satisfying knowledge that you have all of the summer's goodness stored up for the leaner months ahead! With that in mind - I'd better get out and do some more harvesting on this lovely sunny day!


My earlier comment about time being so short reminded me that many people have asked me if I ever open the garden to visitors. I don't want to seem like an anti-social grouch.....but sadly I'm not able to - and if I did - I think visitors might well be very disappointed!  This isn't a 'show garden' run purely as a perfectly-groomed example of organic growing - as I said earlier!  If it was it would be an awful lot tidier!  It's a proper working garden that produces most of our food all year round. Combined with cooking everything from scratch, looking after various livestock and also storing produce - that's a full time job in itself! That's without writing detailed blog posts 4-5 times a month, doing my radio programme 'From Tunnel to Table' and other features, writing a monthly column for The Irish Garden magazine, doing talks, inventing and testing new recipes, putting daily organic gardening tips on Twitter and time-consuming extras like Tomato Festivals!  This year I've been delayed by my dodgy ankle and knee too!  However I'm not complaining - it all makes life interesting. And it's especially rewarding that in my small way - perhaps I'm helping to make the world a better place for Nature.


I don't have any help here - apart from my son who does all the mowing now since I broke my right shoulder very badly a few years ago. Also because of that injury, many gardening jobs take me quite a bit longer now - like tying up tomatoes!  Much as I really love meeting other gardeners and exchanging ideas - there simply aren't enough hours in the day, or days in the week, to open the garden as well and to show people round in addition to all of the other things I do. So I'm really sorry - thank you so much for your interest - but please no more emails asking me if you can visit - as that entails me having to use up more very precious and limited time in having to reply. While I'm on the subject by the way - I also don't sell plants either as one emailer recently asked me. All of the varieties I talk about on Twitter and here on my blog are available online if you search for them.


Do you know that someone actually said to me a few years ago "Wouldn't it just be easier to go and buy it all in Tesco?" .........My answer was unprintable as you can imagine!!  Apart from anything else - no supermarket or any other store sells the satisfying variety of vegetables and fruits that I grow here - especially in a soil which has been organic for over 39 years now!  I love this poem which is so evocative of the abundance of this time of year.......


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

....Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

(John Keats)


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

The Polytunnel Potager September - October 2020

September contents: Any veg you can grow now is like money in the bank - whatever happens!.... Now is really the last chance for serious seed sowing!.... A Wonderful Memory from 2019 - Tomatoes truly without borders!....  Why I started the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival and why it's needed now more than ever!.....  Future Food Security depends on us all helping to preserve Genetic Diversity.....  Polytunnels come into their own even more now.... Why it's well worth using a good quality peat-free compost....  My top crops for winter productivity in the tunnel....  Brassicas undercover.... Sweet potatoes..... Feeding Soil for Winter Crops.... Save money by saving Seed.... Tunnel fruits.... Don't forget bees need winter food too!
Blaue Annaliese - still looking healthy in the polytunnel A basket of Blaue Anneliese gathered for supper - 22.8.20
Blaue Annaliese - still looking healthy in the polytunnel A basket of Blaue Anneliese gathered for supper - 22.8.20

Any veg you grow now is like money in the bank for the winter - whatever happens

The weather this August and the first couple of days of September has thrown everything at us! Despite one or two days when it was like high summer - with unbearably hot temperatures in the polytunnel - it's mostly been wet, windy, chilly and autumn-like - even down to 0degC in there a few nights ago. It feels as if autumn has already well and truly arrived already!  I've had water running through the polytunnel several times over the last three weeks, so I'm grateful for any crops that are surviving without going down with disease! The French bean Cobra really hated it - turning up their toes fairly quickly, despite giving them all the air circulation possible!   The Rosada tomatoes have as always been simply wonderful. One of the best aspects of that variety is the more than usually well-spaced foliage - which allows for a lot more air to circulate and keep the bushes disease-free. It's such a pity that it's no longer available thanks to the greed of the big seed companies!
The most astonishing crop of all is the potato Blaue Anneliese - it's without doubt a paragon of a potato and one that will become a mainstay here from now on!  Started off in pots on the 23rd March, as I could barely walk at the time due to my ankle being so bad, I planted it about a month later, and it's been looking beautiful and growing vigorously ever since. In fact it's been making a takeover bid for the entire tunnel!  I kept looking for blight but never even found a single spot.  It's without doubt the tastiest, healthiest potato I've ever grown - especially of the blue/purple ones which are so beneficial for our health. Many of those are fussy divas though - and are not very blight-resistant wherever you grow them - but especially in the polytunnel.  Although I've dug up a couple of plants to save seed from, just in case we get an invasion of rodents which often happens when the cereal crops are harvested around us - I've been loath to dig up the rest while they are growing so well, and obviously swelling the crop!  I'll have to bite the bullet in the next week or so though - as I have loads of things ike lettuces, chicories and other leafy greens which I've already potted on once, otherwise they would have become root bound, but they really must be planted in the next couple of weeks to get established well before the autumn equinox. Light is already decreasing dramatically and the hens are even going up to roost just after 8pm - especially on the darker wet evenings.  
At this time of year so many people are content to just wind down and enjoy the last delights of the summer crops.  Here I'm also still doing that - but also thinking ahead, to when fresh vegetables won't be so easy to grow, or perhaps to find a good variety of, in shops or farmer's markets - especially if there are shortages due to a possible 'no-deal' Brexit!  Any fast-growing veg which I haven't already sown in the last month is being sown now, or in the queue for sowing as soon as possible!  I'm also planting more potatoes in pots as I grew none outside this year due to dodgy ankle. So when the Blaue Anneliese ar finished, it will only be new, pot-grown potatoes until next spring - but I don't think anyone will be complaining!
It's very easy among all this abundance to forget that winter is literally only just around the corner!  The light is visibly decreasing rapidly now though and growth is also winding down a lot from the hectic pace of summer. With so much of summer's bounty still to be harvested and preserved, it's so easy to forget that winter crops need attention right now - or we won't have any!  Even this year - we're still facing the possibility of a 'No Deal Brexit' - despite the political gymnastics currently going on in the UK Parliament!  If the UK does crash out without a deal, the British Retail Consortium who have studied the possible effects of a 'No Deal Brexit' - say that it WILL cause shortages of fresh food, due to delays at ports. Many people don't realise that a vast amount of fresh produce both in the UK and Ireland is imported, and much of our supply comes through the UK. But 'No Deal' won't mean no fresh veg here!  If you haven't already sown some winter salads and fast growing veg - you've still just got time to sow some types of leaves to have some fresh salads if they're in short supply - but only if you do it NOW!
I sometimes get criticised by people on Twitter - saying that my blog posts assume that everyone has a garden - which is very unfair criticism because I don't!  When we rented a small semi-detached house for 2 years while we were in transition from our first garden, before we moved here, I only had a really tiny garden - but I still grew all of our own veg in pots.  I learned a huge amount from that, and understand only too well the limitations of trying to produce as much food as possible in small, or no gardens. Even now I still grow a lot of things in large pots, as it's a great way to avoid slug damage - very important when I want to photograph crops for my Irish Garden Magazine articles. It doesn't matter if you don't have a polytunnel or even a garden - as long as you even have the smallest bit of outside space you can sow something useful, fresh and super-nutritious - even if you can't be self-sufficient as much as possible as I try to be.  It really takes very little effort - but I suspect that many of those criticising me are the "I can't" brigade, who assume that is the case - without even trying!  I often feel that if people just made the effort - it would massively benefit their mental health - which often seems not the best from the way they attack me!  There is no space so small that you cannot grow something that wiull make a real contribution to your diet and health - unless you live in a hole in the ground without even a door or a window!
The most important thing which all plants need is really good top light though - they won't really be happy on a windowsill for more than a few days.  This is because they're unable to photosynthesise properly and turn sunlight into the sugars they need to grow.  Lack of light makes them become weak, sickly and spindly, more prone to diseases and also far less nutritious.  A windowsill is fine for houseplants - but really no use for food plants - as it can't produce enough food for it to be worth the trouble. If you happen to live in an apartment without even a balcony though - then sprouting seeds or growing microgreens can produce valuable, highly nutritious crops to help supplement your diet. I used to produce mung bean sprouts, alfalfa, and sunflower greens etc. for the Dublin Food Coop 35 years ago, when I was growing commercially, and they are really very easy to grow.  They do need regular consistent care though - rinsing very well several times a day - to avoid the build-up of moulds and bacteria which can cause spoilage and even potentially cause food-poisoning! 
I've written several articles here on the blog over the years on how you can grow in pots and tubs, or even in recycled boxes on a stepladder.  There's very little that you can't grow in large pots - although some plants with very long tap roots aren't too happy in pots unless they're dustbin or skip bag sized! But I've grown in those too!  Here's a link to a blog post I wrote this April - "What if you don't have a polytunnel or garden, can you grow anything?"  it includes a link to my stepladder gardens article elsewhere on the blog : 
Now is really the last chance for serious seed sowing!
There's still time early this month to sow winter lettuce, oriental salads, and many other fast developing veg for crops for harvesting through late autumn up to Christmas, or even continuous cropping throughout the winter into early spring 2016 - so check out my 'What to Sow Now' list and get sowing now!  The longer you delay the less things will crop before the New Year - so don't delay! - You'll be so glad you have them during less productive times outside in the winter vegetable garden, and when organic salads in particular are almost non-existent in shops
Seedlings for autumn & winter tunnel production
It's already too late for some crops to produce well this winter - but there's still time for quite a few - so there's absolutely no time to lose!  Don't waste precious tunnel space!  I never forget the great piece of advice I was given many years ago - "Whatever else you don't do - SOW THE SEEDS" - everything else you can catch up on - but not sowing seeds. They have their own timetable and must be sown at the right time, no matter what the other distractions - or you won't have any winter crops under cover!  
   Winter crops in particular can save you a small fortune, which may surprise you, particularly if you're the sort of gardener who usually loses interest after the summer crops - buying your winter veg in the supermarket which has been flown in from Spain or somewhere. It's not rocket science - it just takes a little more trouble, planning and thought - but it's well worth it. So give winter tunnel or greenhouse gardening a try if you haven't done it before - I promise you won't be sorry!  
Even if you don't have a polytunnel - many crops can also be grown in tubs and pots under large cold frames - or even on a balcony in good light - so there's no excuse.  Long  before I had polytunnels, I grew all my winter salads under large homemade cold frames - which I made from recycled skip-found timber and some large pieces of double bed-sized polythene covers which I begged from a bed store years ago! 

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


It will still be much too hot on any sunny days to sow or even plant many of the winter salads in the tunnel even if there is room - a couple of hours of very high temperatures can literally 'cook' them - so sowing outside in pots or modules is the best option. I usually do two sowings of my favourite crops as insurance. The only things I always sow in mid-late July without fail are Swiss chards and chicories as they are slower - everything else I sow from mid-August to mid-Sept., so that they are small enough not to bolt or run up to seed in a warm autumn but will still make a big enough plant to crop well through the winter - even a cold one! It's a fine balance, and will vary slightly from year to year depending on the autumn weather and also your local climate.  In the milder south you may be able to sow some things a couple of weeks later, in the north you may be better sowing a week or two earlier, but it's light that mostly governs healthy growth - so I find that's about right.

And most importantly - NEVER economise on good seed compost - doing so is a false economy as it can not only waste valuable seed but even more importantly at this time of year - may lose you valuable time!! If you lose seedlings now - for many it's too late to sow again!  And talking of which.....


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

Be extra careful with watering seedlings and all tunnel watering now. Over-wet compost is the main reason that 'damping off' happens, that and poor air circulation. Only 'just moist'  is the ruleIf somehow by accident compost gets really saturated, then there is something you can do - a simple trick I came up with many years ago. Only common sense really - but surprising how many people just wouldn't think of doing it!  A few years ago a gardener friend, who opens her lovely garden full of rare plants and sells many of them, was terribly upset because her automatic watering system had gone wrong (I hate them!) and had practically drowned all of her plants. Even though she'd taken them out of the water and tried to drain them off to rescue them - they were so wet that they were starting to rot off and she said she would probably lose the lot. As she was a keen recycler, I told her to get every newspaper she could lay her hands on and sit the pots on a piece of kitchen towel placed on top of several layers of newspapers for a few days. It works brilliantly!  You do need a piece of kitchen towel under each pot though as it seems to act like a kind of wick  - newspaper on it's own doesn't work as well, or as quickly. Granted, you may lose some water soluble nutrients to a certain extent by doing this - but you won't lose all the plants! You can always replace any nutrients lost if necessary - but it's often hard to replace plants lost through rotting.
My top crops for winter productivity in the tunnel 
Autumn can be a tricky season for growing, as the weather can be so unpredictable, so I usually do two sowings of my favourite crops as insurance.  I want to be able to pick a good mixed salad at a moment's notice every day over winter - and also to have a brassica of some sort to eat at least 3 times a week.The rewards for taking a little trouble are great though. There are many crops which really enjoy the winter shelter in the polytunnel. Ruby and white Swiss chards, sugar loaf chicory, celery. Welsh onions (scallions), endives, lettuce, lamb's lettuce, Oriental leaves like mustard and mizuna, rocket, land cress, winter spinach, watercress and claytonia - which I never have to sow now as it obligingly appears everywhere all by itself anyway!  If you grow it once - you will find that it's one of the most enthusiastic self-seeders and you'll rarely have to sow it again. You just weed it out where you don't want it. It even makes a great green manure which the worms really love. To me there's no point just sowing stuff that will sit there all winter and then crop only in the spring. Many indispensable soft herbs like parsley and also perennial herbs like thyme are also far more productive inside.
I like to have plenty of green leaves to feed my hens all winter too. They get extra greens all year round but it's especially important in the winter as it keeps the egg yolks a really deep orange, meaning they're much higher in nutrients like Vitamin A and lutein. Unlike conventionally-produced hen ration - organic hen food is not allowed to contain any artificial colourants to make yolks yellow. If they don't get extra greens or are not on good pasture with fresh grass to eat every day, like some poor, non-organic, 'so-called' free range hens - then the yolks are much paler as grass grows more slowly and is less nutritious in the winter and that means that the hens are less healthy too. My hens are happy and bursting with organic good health all year round!
A Wonderful Memory from 2019 - Tomatoes truly without borders!

View of both sides of the World Record-Breaking Exhibition of Tomatoes for the 2019 Totally Terrific Tomato Festival which was held in The National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin in Dublin

I'm really missing 'The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' this year, which we couldn't hold due to Covid19 pandemic
So I'm repeating the pictures from last year -  when we didn't just have one great day - but once again two  fantastic weeks, thanks to our wonderful National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin, their dynamic director Dr. Matthew Jebb and his hardworking staff.  It was a stunning sight, all beautifully displayed sitting in terracotta pots. A new world record of  261 varieties was set - surpassing the 2018 total of 258!  There was an incredible diversity of almost every possible combination of shape, size and colour of the rainbow!  It was beyond my wildest dreams that we could ever have achieved this when I originally conceived the idea of holding the first 'TTTomFest', as it is now known, back in 2012! 
For me - the most wonderful thing of all was watching the faces of people from all over the world, full of wonder as they gazed at the fantastically diverse array of colours, shapes and sizes of tomatoes! Just like children looking at Christmas trees!  I met interested people from all over the world again - all who loved tomatoes - and even some who didn't think they did until they saw these!  The truly great thing about tomatoes, as I've so often said, is that almost everyone eats them and cooks with them - and almost anyone who has a garden also grows them. So we all have instant common ground no matter where we hail from!  
The really encouraging thing was that people were all so interested and grateful when I explained that the reason why I started the original Tomato Festival was to highlight the issue of the loss of vital crop genetic diversity - not only in tomatoes. Tomatoes just happen to be a very visually appealing and fun way to demonstrate that richly valuable and irreplaceable diversity.  After all - different varieties of wheat, for instance, all look pretty much the same don't they? So they wouldn't be as much fun to most people - unlike these gorgeous, plumptious, incredibly diverse beauties!  The wonderful thing about tomatoes is that it doesn't matter where people are from - most people eat some tomatoes occasionally (or a lot in our case!).  As Dr Matthew Jebb said a couple of years ago in his Tomato Talk at Killruddery - the entire human race eats half its own weight in tomatoes every single year. That is a staggering statistic - and if that doesn't give us something in common with practically every other person on the planet - I don't know what does!  
Everyone eats - and what is most relevant is that whatever 'diet' we eat - whether it's healthy or not - completely depends on the original seeds needed to grow a particular crop. This is of course the major reason why the huge multinational agri-chemical/seed giants want to gain control over the supply of our seeds, and are increasingly buying up smaller seed companies in order to control seed availability and increase their profits. Forget money, forget oil and forget politics.  Owning the supply of seeds which produces all of our food globally is the surest way to ultimate power over the human race!
(You can hear why and how it all originally came about and why - here in this interview which Dr. Matthew Jebb and I did with my Tunnel to Table co-host Gerry Kelly in 2018 - on his LMFM Late Lunch Show here: - We did another interview last year, and Gerry Kelly was thrilled to be able to contribute 5 tomato cultivars (as varieties are correctly known) which helped us to reach our amazing new World Record total of 261!

It was another fantastic demonstration of just what a lot of keen growers can do when they get together to work towards one goal - and such a delight that it was hard to tear my eyes away from such a gloriously colourful panorama!  Let's hope that next year the Pandemic will be over and we'll be able to hold this fantastic event again - and make it even bigger and better!
I truly feel that 'The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' is now in the safest possible hands - many years after I held my first 'Tomato Day' at the National Botanic Gardens in the early 1990s, which was the original seed of this wonderful Festival.  It has now returned to its roots - back to the original place where it was first conceived.  I am so grateful and thrilled and feel confident that it's future is assured..... And I can't tell you what a good feeling that is!
Why I started the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival and why it's needed now more than ever!
This is a short extract from my 'Tomato Talk' on the main tomato day.  I first organised what I then called a 'Tomato Day' back in 1993 at the National Botanic Gardens, at Glasnevin in Dublin.  Many of us organic growers and gardeners had already been aware for some time of the loss of 1000s of seed varieties since the mid 70's when Lawrence Hills first established the Heritage Seed Library of the HDRA -  and were aware even then of the urgency of preserving as many older varieties of seed as possible.  After the original tomato day I held at The National Botanic Gardens in 1993 - although there was some interest - it wasn't really enough to bring it to the attention of the wider public. So there it rested for a couple of decades. 
Fast forward to 2012 - and I began to feel that people here were beginning to become far more interested not just in where their food came from, but also in the different flavours, culinary and health-promoting qualities of the many Heritage varieties that were still in existence. By a stroke of pure luck - that year the amazing high-anthocyanin black tomato Indigo Rose also became available to amateur gardeners for the very first time. I knew as soon as I saw it that January that it would be an instant attention grabber, so sent off to the USA for seed, and I believe became the first person in Europe to grow it!  I also knew that by then, preserving genetic diversity was becoming ever more urgent. With increasing climate change and the attempted takeover of global food systems by huge and aggressive multinational agrochemical/seed corporations.  It's now more vital than ever to preserve genetic diversity in all food crops including tomatoes - with such huge economic and dietary relevance. Anyway - I knew I could no longer stand idly by and watch this happening without feeling that I was at least trying to do something. I am only one person and can only do so much - but if each individual does one small something then that can add up to a very positive BIG something!  
I don't know who actually first said "That it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness" - but I believe that to be very true. In 2012, I felt I had to have another try to light that candle while there was still time - to help raise awareness of how important genetic diversity was - and how it was increasingly being threatened by global 'Big Ag'.  So the 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' was re-born under its current name.  The candle is now burning brightly thanks to our wonderful National Botanic Gardens - to my lasting gratitude.
Future Food Security depends on us all helping to preserve Genetic Diversity
Genetic diversity should not be entrusted to the 'care' of a few large multinational chemical/seed corporations who have been gobbling up smaller seed companies systematically since the 1970s. They are only interested in profit and selling the varieties which they have bred or happen to own the patents to! We have already lost far too many crop varieties because of this. Profit for the privileged few who control our food system could mean starvation for the many.  We have no idea what the future may bring and we each need to do our bit - however small that may be - if we care about future generations.
But food security isn't just about tomatoes - useful and delicious as they are! Recently I posted this tweet on Twitter:
"If you're buying #seeds to sow winter veg try to support small & organic seed companies if you can - seed diversity helps to ensure future food security - Global multinational chemical/seed companies are buying up smaller seed companies - closing them & dropping varieties!"
Judging from the amount of retweets - it seems that perhaps people may at last be waking up to the fact that we cannot trust the security of the future of our food supply to the avaricious clutches of a few, self-seeking giant multinational seed/chemical companies. We have no idea what challenges the future may hold in terms of pests and diseases - especially with the challenges of a changing climate - so it is extremely dangerous to narrow the choice of genes (or characteristics) - present in different varieties of any staple crop which is vital to the future of human health, or possibly even survival. If we allow that to happen by doing nothing, we are gradually allowing what is essentially our own life-support system of crop varieties to gradually be eroded. 
As I have highlighted so often in the past - our choice of varieties in the various crops we grow is now being continually eroded by these companies. Their motivation is profit NOW - not the future of genetic diversity! They are continually buying up smaller seed companies, then closing them down, taking over their seed lists, reducing their diversity, and gradually dropping older varieties of important crops which are perhaps genetically more valuable, in favour of their one patented F1 Hybrid or GMO/GE varieties. They can't patent old varieties - so they plunder them for a few genes or characteristics which are useful for breeding newer varieties to which they can then own the patent. That's where the money is - not in selling much loved and reliable old varieties like the ones pictured below -which have been grown perhaps for centuries!

Ananas Noir

Green Cherokee

Ananas Noir not easy but delicious!

 Green Cherokee another favourite beefsteak with great taste.

 Nyagous  Pantano Romanesco
 Nyagous - unusual rich smoky flavour.  Pantano Romanesco my 'desert island' beefsteak if forced to choose only one!
Polytunnels come into their own even more now 
After the excitement of the Tomato Festival it's certainly back to earth with a bump - but earth is just where I like to be!!  Now I've recovered a bit, I need to catch up on some of the work here that was more than a bit neglected over the last week or so.  It very urgently needs doing now - if we're going to eat any homegrown food this winter!  
September is when we tough, 'all weather' polytunnelers really get going! If you put the thought, work and care in now, you'll be enjoying the delights of abundant crops from the polytunnel not just in summer - but all winter long too - harvesting far more than the 'fair weather, summer only'  gardeners ever thought possible!  Not an inch of valuable polytunnel space should be wasted - especially in winter . Every inch should be growing something delicious either for us, or valuable food for non-hibernating bees - and it's quite possible to do both! 

The value of growing brassicas undercover

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

More on sweet potatoes

It's time to give your sweet potatoes a bit more TLC now. They need feeding with tomato fertiliser once a week from now on if they are to produce plenty of large tubers. 'Osmo' certified organic feed is perfect - again something I've been using for years now. Everything loves it and you never get any nutrient imbalances as you often can do with other, non-organic feeds. You could use home made comfrey feed if it's made from the high potash variety 'Bocking 14' developed by Garden Organic founder Lawrence Hills. Other varieties wouldn't be much good for this as they're far lower in potash. Sweet potatoes are dead easy to grow - the trick is not to feed them much at first but wait until the days start to shorten in August, because that's when they start developing their tubers. They're a fantastic 'break crop' in the tunnel rotation, because they're unrelated to anything else and the worms just love the little thread like bits of root left behind after harvesting. I always see a huge increase in worm activity after growing them in any bed. Worms obviously have a sweet tooth too! 
I've tried lots of newer varieties - but I always return to my old reliable 'Beauregarde'. I save a few of the tubers for producing 'slips' to plant next year. I did that very successfully again last year and gave them to several friends. I must hide a few so that we don't eat them all!. If they're stored above 50 deg F, they'll keep very well into next spring and beyond. I've even kept the purple ones for a year and then taken shoots or slips from them! Never keep sweet potatoes in the fridge as they actually die of hypothermia!  Many people don't realise that vegetables are still alive after they're harvested. How else do you think we grow potatoes? You don't necessarily have to grow sweet potatoes in the ground either - but they do like a deep root run, so they like a large container filled with well drained compost. I often grow them in recycled log/skip bags and they revel in them - producing huge crops.The foliage hangs over the edge, hiding the bags, and they look really decorative with marigolds and purple basil planted in them too - especially when they produce their beautiful, convulvulus-like mauve flowers..
Feeding Soil for Winter Crops
It pays to keep some your very best garden or worm compost for the beds where your winter salad crops are to grow.  Many of them have fine root systems which appreciate a little bit of comfort and if you're as kind as possible to them they will keep cropping for much longer in the early spring, before running up to flower. I just scratch a light covering in and then water it in lightly to firm the soil before planting. You could possibly add a very light dressing of a general organic fertiliser like 'Osmo Universal' granular fertiliser - which is certified organic - if you think the ground is particularly hungry.  It's available in several garden centres. Never over-feed winter crops though - just give them enough to get going without being starved. Lashing on manure, compost or compound fertilisers is wasteful, often polluting and can be counter productive - as there isn't enough light for the plants to photosynthesise efficiently in order to turn the available nitrates into sugars to give them the energy to grow. This has the result that crops can often taste bitter due to high nitrate content in leaves. Overfeeding can also promote soft, sappy, disease-prone growth that is much more attractive to pests too. I've thought for many years that overfeeding with nitrogen is why non-organic vegetables can taste bitter and smell really disgusting when cooked, especially in the winter. This is particularly the case with Brussels sprouts - and I think this is why so many people hate them! I've never had organically grown sprouts that taste bitter like chemically grown ones. Organic ones are always really sweet as long as they're not overfed with nitrate-rich manures too late in the season. 
Funnily enough many years ago when I used to have my small children's Montessori friends for meals - they would often eat things like spinach and cabbage here which they would never normally touch at home, if they weren't people who normally ate organic food.  An instinctive natural discrimination perhaps - an evolutionary warning not to eat things that taste at all bitter in case they're poisonous? And naturally - fruit and other wild things are far sweeter and have maximum nutrients when they are properly ripe. Perhaps this is why children seem to prefer chemical-free organic food, before their taste buds and instinctive discrimination are 'civilised', dulled and destroyed by junk foods?  I definitely think so - I never had any so-called,  'picky eating' problems with my kids. They ate everything!  Anyway - my children's schoolmates parents were all simply astonished - but when I explained that my vegetables were actually sweeter because they were organic - many of them asked if they could buy them, and then became long-standing customers when I started growing commercially. Most, more than 35 years later, are still committed organic consumers even though their offspring, like mine, have long since flown their respective nests!

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


Save money by saving your own seed

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


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

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

Don't forget bees need winter food too!

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

What to sow in September 2020

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

On any empty patches of ground already cleared of crops that won't be used over winter - 
Sow green manures now such as alfalfa, red clover, mustard (a brassica so watch rotations) winter tares, field beans, fenugreek, phacelia and Hungarian grazing rye. These will help to protect and improve soil, mop up nutrients to stop them leaching in heavy rain, being lost and polluting groundwater. Green manures or even weeds will 'lock-up' carbon and feed worms later when cut down and covered. Dig them in or cut down and leave on surface later after the first frosts, then cover to protect the soil, prevent nutrient loss and possible pollution. The worms will then work on incorporating the plant material into the soil over the winter - leaving you a perfect, weed free, warmer,  more friable and more fertile soil to start your spring sowings next year. Don't leave manure or mulches uncovered now - you will cause pollution!
Also sow a few hardy annuals, to flower early next year for bees and other pollinators. Bees need all the help they can get now!
If you want new potatoes for Christmas - 
You could also still plant a few sprouted potato tubers in pots before mid-Sept. - to bring into the greenhouse or tunnel later.  'Autumn planting ready' types are available now in garden centres - or if you have any small tubers of 1st or 2nd earlies you've kept from your spring crop, or 'Mayan Gold' or 'Apache' lifted in spring/summer - put them in the fridge for a couple of weeks - then bring into the warm and keep dark for a few days - this will initiate sprouting of shoots - Mayan Gold and Apache are great-tasting potatoes which are not day-length sensitive and will grow quite happily at any season of the year. Lady Christl is also good and always the fastest to bulk up but Sharpe's Express and Duke of York are also good. The sooner you plant them the better now. Give them really good air circulation once they are above the surface - to avoid late blight and don't wet the leaves when watering as doing this encourages it.  
*Best sown in early September
And don't forget there's still just time to plant some saffron bulbs (see last month).

Here is something I've put together for any Late Lunch Show listeners and others who may be new to 'Growing Your Own'


If you're growing something for the first time, I hope you will find this blog post useful.  If it seems a bit disjointed or there are repetitions in some places further on - apologies because some of it was sort of 'stitched together' in a hurry from my programme notes, and also from several older blog posts.

I think that the Corona-virus pandemic will undoubtedly have had an effect on the mental health of all of us - to a greater or lesser degree.  Gardening can be extremely therapeutic, and in these stressful times, growing even a small amount of our own healthy food feels such a positive thing to do. I hope for some that this blog post may be the start of an absorbing and satisfying habit that could last a lifetime. For other, more experienced gardeners, I hope this may give you some more ideas for getting that little bit more out of your space - and space is something us gardeners never seem to have enough of for everything that we want to grow!  

Gardening isn't just a relaxing hobby which distracts us, while we concentrate mindfully on what we're doing.  It is also great exercise, and if we're outside in the fresh air, using an organic compost or digging in some healthy living soil, then additionally it means that we are breathing in the naturally beneficial soil microbe Mycobacterium vaccae.  M.vaccae has been scientifically proven to help lift our mood, and make us feel more positive, by stimulating our brains to release Serotonin - the 'feel-good' hormone.  If gardening can help to alleviate the stress which we're all experiencing right now even slightly - then it's surely got to be a really positive thing.  Enjoying our first fresh, homegrown produce is also an experience like nothing else.  That thrill of achievement and satisfaction never goes away, no matter how long one does it.  Another benefit is that it can also save a considerable amount of money!
So Why bother to grow your own Food in Winter?

I am constantly amazed at the number of people who only get round to clearing up the remains of the previous year's mouldy and disease-ridden old tomato and cucumber stems in spring when they get the urge to grow something!  Especially when they could have been eating delicious home-produced salads and other veg all winter.  Not only are they completely wasting precious and expensive cropping space for at least one third of the year - but they then wonder why their lovely summer crops almost immediately get hit by pests and diseases as soon as they plant out this year's crops!  This is because the spores of fungal diseases like botrytis etc which have overwintered on the rubbish left from last summer will be flying around the minute they go to clear up the mess!  Any protected cropping space is so valuable - and often so hugely expensive to put up initially - that every inch of it it should be earning its keep, and producing helathy food for you all year round! 


Why I use peat-free seed and potting 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 really is a 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 absolutely dreadful!  And 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, both 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 -  (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 - 
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 the cost of those would have paid for a bag of decent compost!  Being peat-free you can also feel good about not destroying peat bogs and the fact that you're also helping to preserve biodiversity and slow climate change too! And before you say that making it miles away in Germany isn't very environmentally friendly - making it in bulk, from organic, specially 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, irreplaceable and 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 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 or so then you can always split it with a friend. Although if it is 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 buy saturated compost that has 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 of certain nutrients, or become 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. 

Veg without limits - container growing

Lush, fast-growing mixed Oriental salads in a large potMy 'stepladder garden' beside the recycled skip bag raised beds

Salads in a large pot will start to crop in 6-8 weeks if sown now - and my stepladder salad garden and recycled skip-bag raised beds will fit onto a path

Veg Without Limits - Container Growing

This year I've been unable to grow as much outside in the garden as I normally do,  with my ankle surgery having been postponed due to hospitals having cancelled all elective surgery in order to make more space for patients with Covid-19.  As a result, I'm prioritising container-growing of veg which either I know I wouldn't be able to buy in shops, or those which are eaten fresh and uncooked, like salads. This is not just because homegrown is much fresher, but also to avoid any contamination with the virus - as far as is humanly possible.  I generally prioritise salad growing, as they are all so much better for us when eaten as fresh as possible, and picked just prior to eating - which you can only really do if you grow them yourself. Fresh raw green vegetables also feed our gut bacteria, which turn them into compounds which keep us healthy.


A couple of months ago, while doing extensive research trying to discover how long it was estimated the virus might last on fresh produce, I found a very concerning study which was carried out in 2013, on the SARS and MERS Corona Viruses, which are both related to but slightly less virulent than Covid-19, and the study also included the influenza virus. The study showed that they can all survive for up to 10 days on fresh, uncooked produce such as lettuce or strawberries - those fresh foods which we are encouraged to eat the most of for health reasons! The virus can only be killed either by cooking or washing thoroughly, with soap or disinfectant - neither of which you can obviously do with soft produce like lettuce or strawberries, but which you could possibly do with harder produce like apples or peppers. As a result - I feel that erring on the side of caution, and treating any fresh produce you haven't grown yourself as if it may potentially be contaminated, is the most sensible option. It's better to be safe than sorry - especially when so much of the veg in shops is either imported from abroad, or even grown and packed in our own country by people who may not yet be unwell, but who could perhaps be carrying the illness in a mild form as someone as some are, or may be developing it - when it can be spread to others before one is aware that one may even be ill. It is for that reason that I think growing your own fresh salads which you will eat raw has never been more important.  Another concern is that workers in some countries that fruit and vegetables may be imported from in many cases have very poor living and working conditions, and are also not provided with adequate PPE - which means they can obviously contaminate any produce they touch.


It's most important to stress here that as far as we know and I can ascertain from extensive research - NONE of these viruses can survive in properly cooked food. But while I don't want to panic anyone - no one currently seems to be highlighting the possible surface contamination of fresh produce as a potential source of infection, as far as I've seen. Evidence also shows that it can be passed on through contaminated faecal matter - so once again it's absolutely vital to stress the importance of repeated and effective hand-washing.   If you're preparing food that will be eaten uncooked, or even after you've prepared any fresh produce that will be cooked - wash your hands thoroughly before you do touch ANYTHING else!  I know we're already probably thoroughly sick of hearing it - but it can't be repeated often enough, if it may save lives. 

Here is a link to the study I've mentioned: - "Survival of Respiratory Viruses on Fresh Produce"


So What can you grow in Containers - if you don't have a Garden? 

This is something which I'm asked about a lot and the answer, perhaps surprisingly, is - quite a lot!  In fact - pretty much anything that you can grow in a polytunnel, or outside in the garden - you can grow in containers - but obviously just on a smaller scale.  You won't be self-sufficient in fresh vegetables and fruit by growing it all in containers - but you'd be surprised at just how much you CAN grow!  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?  Some people live in a flat which may have a balcony - and that can be a very useful space. 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 windowsill or a balcony - there's still no excuse not to grow at least something which will be far fresher than anything you could buy, a lot healthier and save you some money for very little effort. And I don't mean just an unhappy-looking pot of herbs on your kitchen windowsill!  If you've got a path with room to walk on - then the good news is that you've got room to grow at least some healthy salad veg in containers. 
So What Type of Containers are Suitable?
Basically you can use anything which will hold enough depth of soil and has a few holes for drainage.  Plants like lettuce, spinach and many other salads are quite happy with about 6 ins/15cm of compost or soil, because they make a very fine mass of fine roots which spread out - rather than a long single 'tap' root. But the deeper it is the better - then you won't have to water and feed plants as often. I grew my whole veg garden in containers 40 years ago, before we moved here, because I had a severely allergic child who needed chemical-free, organic food. In those days organic veg wasn't available in shops anywhere - so I had no choice!  In the second year as I got better at container gardening - I grew French and runner beans in strong carrier bags and froze 40lbs of them! Granted I spent a lot of my time feeding and watering - but it was worth it as we were pretty much self sufficient in veg. As I was at home with two toddlers then and not working or writing blog posts - I had plenty of time then compared to now.  It's amazing what spaces you can find to grow things in if you're determined - and it's great fun experimenting!  Even though I have a large garden now - I still love to experiment and find new ways of growing things!
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 department of my local supermarket and they happened to be an ideal size to fit onto each step, but still not too heavy to move - even with a soil/compost mix in them.
I've tried growing almost everything in the mushroom boxes and some veg do better than others. Most things are happy in them as long as they get enough food and water - even small, stump-rooted varieties of carrots - but veg with long roots that go deep, like parsnips, large cabbages and leeks don't like them, they need deeper containers like old dustbins or skip bags to grow happily. It would cost far too much to fill these up with just compost, but you can fill up to 2/3rds of larger containers with any garden or kitchen waste which you would normally put into a compost heap. Things like twiggy prunings, annual weeds, veg peelings, newspapers and cardboard are suitable, and also grass clippings - as long as they are from a lawn which hasn't been treated with weedkillers. The bonus is - that in a few month's time, all that stuff will have mostly broken down into perfect compost, to which you can either add more material and then another top layer of potting compost to grow more plants in - or you can tip it all out to use somewhere else in the garden or sieve and use in another container as the top layer.
I grew lettuce, herbs, chilies, Maskotka bush tomatoes, radishes, celery leaves, rocket, spinach etc. in those boxes on the steps a few years ago.  I also put a couple of large 10 litre 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 in late March shows what you can do in a very small space, with lettuce, spinach, celery leaf, peas & herbs. Large attractive pots, if you can afford them, are very nice to look at - but if you're trying to save money, then 10 litre recycled mayo or coleslaw buckets from the local supermarket deli are good too, and they always have those at every deli counter. Ask nicely and you'll be amazed at what they have. 
Once you start on the "What can I fit some soil into?"  route - then frankly the only limit is your imagination - and of course any desire for tidiness! That's not something that bothers me greatly, I have to say, if I'm getting wonderful veg - and you can always hide the bucket by growing something trailing in it! In fact you can grow in anything that you can fit soil or compost into!  If containers are large you don't have to fill the whole thing up with good compost. You can fill up the bottom with any kind of garden rubbish that you would normally put on the compost heap, to bring up the level. Things like soft prunings, old pot plants (only organic ones as others may contain nasty chemicals), last year's container soil/compost etc. perhaps mixed up with cardboard and newspapers - and if you mix in some garden soil as well this will all compost down nicely at the same time!
As long as you have about 30 cm or a 1 ft or so of depth of a nice soil/organic compost mix as the top layer, then anything will be delighted to grow in that. If containers are tall I find it useful for the sake of stability to also mix the lower layer with garden soil which is heavier. This is particularly important if the containers are in a windy spot or you're going to grow tall crops like runner beans or tall peas. The advantage of tall containers like skip bags is that not only do deeper rooting crops like chard etc have more room - but also dwarf mangetout peas or trailing courgettes can also drape attractively down the sides, making them more attractive - maybe mixed with a few trailing nasturtiums to attract bees and beneficial insects. The sky's the limit as my article on stepladder gardening here in the link below shows! 
Many years ago, I did a lot of experiments with growing in all sorts of containers, even using dustbins, old sinks and recycled carrier bags! The reason mainly was because we were in the process of moving to where we live now, but I still wanted to continue growing organic veg as I couldn't buy any then. Over the course of 2 years I grew an entire vegetable garden in various containers of one sort or another. Some were a bit 'Heath-Robinson' - but it all worked and I got great crops! I even filled the freezer with 40 lbs of French beans! You can grow in pretty much anything as long as there's enough room for the roots and some drainage holes. Be inventive! Of course they do need a little more watering, looking after and feeding occasionally - but picking your daily salad should remind you to water them anyway! Containers tend to be a bit warmer too - particularly if they're sited in the sun, so crops are often earlier, meaning that you'll get more out of them over the course of a spring and summer, although they can freeze in the winter if you're in a very cold area. I've even protected containers in winter by wrapping them up with old duvets - but that's going a bit far for some people and can tend to look a bit untidy! 
You don't need a polytunnel for container growing - but if you want to grow more tender veg like tomatoes, aubergines or cucumbers, you can now get small, cheap mini-tunnel/greenhouses in most garden/DIY stores and in the discount supermarkets very cheaply, or get a cloche which will fit over your container. 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 even 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!  If you don't have much space - there's really no point growing things like carrots and potatoes which you will still be able to buy in shops. 



So What Varieties are Good for Growing in Containers?

Lettuce - loose-leaf types like oak-leaf and Lollo will give you the longest harvest by picking individual leaves rather than the whole head. Cheap lettuce mixes usually contain these and other varieties.
Summer spinach - very fast-growing and can crop in 4 weeks as baby leaves at this time of year.
Radishes everyone knows - but not many people know they can be sauteed in butter when they're delicious!
Perpetual spinach beet and Swiss chard are some of the most productive and nutritious veg. They need a shady spot and a deep container, but will go on cropping for months if well watered and fed.
Courgettes - can be sown now for growing inside or in late April for outside. They like plenty of root room, so a skip bag or dustbin is best for them.
Tomatoes - bush varieties Maskotka and Tumbler both have terrific flavour and are easy. There's still just time to sow those for a good crop this summer here. But you could also beg a cutting of a side shoot of any tomato variety from a friend, root it in a jar of water in a few days and grow it on in a large container even in a sunny porch.
Broccoli - grows well in bucket-sized containers. Green Magic is a great variety,continually producing sweet side shoots after the main head is harvested, if you keep feeding and watering it.
Kales - also grow well this way, are fast-growing and can be harvested as baby leaves.
Oriental seed mixes containing veg like mustard, Mizuna, Pak Choi etc are very fast-growing and productive.
All herbs are happy in containers and if you don't want to grow them from seed - you can buy herb plants in supermarkets - where they are generally cheaper than in garden centres. You can also split pots of basil and coriander to give yo several plants from one potful. Don't split parsley though - as this can make it bolt or run up to seed.
Potatoes and Jerusalem Artichokes also grow well in large containers.
Watercress - easy to root from the shoots found in salad bags - just pop into water for a few days - they'll sprout roots fast which can be planted into a container. Keep well-watered after that and it will produce harvests literally forever - as it is a perennial plant that can be constantly reproduced from cuttings. There's just a few ideas for you!
A word here about sowing seeds
It's worth taking a little bit of time and trouble to be really careful with sowing seeds, so as not to waste them. They are as precious as gold dust right now - some small suppliers have already sold out, or can't keep up with the demand for sorting orders and posting them. Some garden centres or nurseries may still have seed or even small plants of vegetables like tomatoes or lettuces - but some have already closed here in Ireland.  Even if you're growing in containers, to avoid wasting seed it's worth starting them off in modules of a good quality, preferably peat-free, seed compost. For best results, don't use a multi-purpose one which says you can sow seeds in it but which will often give disappointing results, or may possibly even kill some sensitive seeds due to too much artificial nutrient, or even high levels of nitrogen in an organic compost. When potting on or planting in your containers - you can use a compost which says it's specifically a 'potting' compost. This will contain more nutrients which will sustain plants for longer, before they will need further feeding. 

Just a warning - I've seen some people online recommending the use of mushroom compost for preparing vegetable beds and planting vegetables. If you are trying to avoid toxic chemicals and grow organically DON'T use it!  It will undoubtedly contain very nasty toxic chemicals which are used in the compost to kill fungus flies - the most common pest of mushroom growing. Not only that - but the 'substrate' or growing medium will have been made using non-organic straw which has already been treated many times with seriously toxic pesticides including Glyphosate. While this may not show up as damage to your produce, the various combinations of most of these many chemicals have never been tested to determine their effects on our bodies when we consume them, the only tests which have been done show that just Glyphosate, combined with the adjuvant always used in commercial formulations to make them more effective, makes the Glyphosate itself at least 1,000 times more toxic!  Although it may be tempting - long and sometimes bitter experience has taught me that it's false economy to use cheap, DIY chain composts containing peat and artificial fertilisers as they are not a natural medium for plants.  I won't talk about the environmental reasons for not using peat composts here, as I do that elsewhere.


When you've been growing in any compost for a few weeks, as plants get bigger they will need some extra feeding as the compost in small containers will quickly become exhausted, especially when plants start to crop.  I make a very nutrient-rich worm compost tea which is excellent for that purpose, but if you don't have room - there are several good organic liquid feeds which are suitable. Osmo is the one I always recommend, as I have had great results with it when growing in containers - especially when I grew 48 different varieties of tomatoes for the first Totally Terrific Tomato Festival which I founded in 2012 - but there are others.  Osmo also make an excellent and very convenient granular organic fertiliser, but it comes in very large bags - although you could share these with another gardening friend. I buy my organic peat-free seed compost and potting compost from White's Agri in Lusk, who are also the main Irish distributors for Osmo products. I called them a few days ago to ensure that they are still open to gardeners. They also have a website which takes online orders for delivery. 


The propagating bench is where all the action is currently!On the bench pictured here I have two cheap Lidl cold frames sitting on a roll-out heated mat - which is a bit like an electric blanket - (from Fruit  Hill Farm). It keeps things at a 'just warm enough' 50/55 degF or 10 degC. The mat sits on a recycled door supported by trestles. To cover then at night I roll out double fleece and a large piece of recycled bubble wrap. So as you can see - it's not very hi-tech but it's actually very effective!  This is a great set-up for growing large amounts of seedlings - but you won't need anything like this for growing in containers.


The advice below is repeated from earlier blogs I've written - so although I've amended it in places - you may find some repetition, but it remains exactly the same and can't be repeated often enough if you want good results!  In a normal year, from March until about June, most garden centres will have module-raised lettuce and other veg plants, so if you're a beginner you can get used to growing the veg plants first, without the hassle of raising stuff from seed - also good news for any of us who are late starters in the vegetable growing season.  But this year, as I've already said - both plants and seeds are selling out fast because people naturally want to ensure some food security due to the worries generated by the Covid-19 situation - so buy any plants or seeds and get sowing asap!  


My General advice for Sowing all types of Vegetable Seeds:


You can raise most plants on windowsills, but contrary to what many people think - sunny windowsills are not the best - as most seeds are quite happy to germinate at a temperature of around 60 degF or 15 deg Celcius.  If you put seed trays on a sunny windowsill, on a warm day even in March the temperature can shoot up dangerously high very quickly and literally cook seeds!  Young seedlings are also far better off on a cooler windowsill - perhaps with a backing of tin foil behind them to reflect light so that they don't become too tall, leggy and weak. As soon as the weather is not freezing - everything but tomatoes and other tender seedlings will be fine outside 

If you're impatient to get an early start, you can steal a march in spring by sowing a few early seeds if you have a warm light enough windowsill indoors, or much better still a heated propagator in a greenhouse or polytunnel where the light will be better.  In autumn you can do the reverse, sowing your seeds in pots or modules outside on a bench or table, for perhaps planting in a tunnel or greenhouse later on.  There's a list each month on my "What you can sow" page. But whatever the time of year - it's always a good idea to have everything ready to go when you do, as it makes life a lot easier and your more likely to do it on time from experience!  I love sowing seeds - it's such a hopeful and positive thing to do - it's an investment in the future, short or long term, which pays off in abundance. 
The same advice applies whether you only have a cold frame or just a warm windowsill.  I sow nearly all my crops in modules now though - as that allows me to get ahead whatever the weather, which means I can plan better, and it helps to make the most of valuable growing space. Obviously the most important thing to do is to always adapt any guidelines to suit your own local climate and soil. That can vary hugely depending on exactly where in the country you live - and often even in individual gardens in the same area. For instance - early spring can arrive in the very north of Ireland up to three weeks later than in the warmer south - and the same goes for the UK. Even within a few miles it can vary surprisingly. Where I live now - 400 feet above sea level on a south west facing slope in the teeth of the prevailing SW wind - the season is at least ten days later than where I lived 35 years ago - down near the sea only 9 miles away.
I sow most things in modules all year round now - as it wastes far less seed and I know I can be more sure of the results! The only exception to this would be root crops like parsnips or carrots - which are really much easier to sow direct in the ground, if you can protect them from hungry slugs!. I only sow these into my recycled 'loo roll middle'  modules if I want to make a really early start - or if their allotted space isn't free yet. As I mention later - doing this really makes the best use of your space, as the minute you have a crop cleared - you have another ready and waiting to be planted. By sowing in modules you're not spending time waiting for seed to germinate in ground which early in the year may be far too wet and cold. Carrots and parsnips like quite a warm seedbed and can be very slow and even rot if the ground is too cold. They can also take up to three weeks to appear and with carrots - the tiny early seed leaves are so fine that they're quite difficult to see - so often slugs will have eaten them before you've even noticed they were actually germinating! 
If you're planning to sow any crops early outside in spring, and their planned future space is free - then it's a good idea to cover it with some black polythene or something else waterproof, then you can uncover it every so often and clear up any slugs which are lurking around just underneath and get ahead of them too! You'll be amazed how many you'll find hiding under there - they won't bother going underground if they can hide in the dark somewhere damp and snug where they think they're out of sight! 
If you leave soil uncovered, as some people advocate - the slugs also just hide underground or around edges of beds. They've evolved to hide from hungry birds and hedgehogs - not hungry gardeners!  So be clever and outsmart them - it's always a good idea to trap and dispose of as many slugs as possible before you actually start the growing season, or if you're starting a new bed - that gets you well ahead ahead of the game! 
Please don't be lazy and thoughtlessly use slug pellets - they kill all slug-eating wildlife too and traces of the poisonous metaldehyde they contain are increasingly being found in our drinking water as well!  If you have ducks they're the very best slug hunters of the lot - they seem to have slug radar in the tips of their beaks - and they'll even eat the really big Spanish ones like rubber tyres which hens won't eat. But beware - as ducks are also extremely fond of anything edible, luscious and green - so don't let them near any lettuces etc. Also be careful if your soil is a heavy clay as they'll pack it down with their webbed feet - causing compaction, 'souring' and acidification - so don't leave them on any patch of ground for too long. After you've sown crops - a strip of black polythene, or a piece of slate at various points along the bed will give any remaining slugs a place to hide - so that you can then go along every so often, scoop them off and dispose of them - or cut them up with sharp scissors and leave them for wildlife to enjoy! When you've got rid of most of the slugs, then you can put some clear polythene on to the bed. This will allow the soil underneath to warm up so that it's all ready. If you see any weed seeds germinating at this point - a flame weeder can be very useful for burning off any tiny seedlings to make what's known as a 'stale seedbed' - which is perfectly clean on the surface and ideal for carrots and other small seeds.(If you're of a nasty frame of mind - a flame weeder is also great for barbecuing slugs!) - Remember - weed killers aren't just toxic - they don't actually kill weed seeds, so they're pointless poisoning!

Seed Sowing in Modules 

(This applies to all vegetables, herbs and flowers, whether they're for planting outside later, or for under cover - whatever the time of year.)
 It may seem a bit fiddly sowing things into modules like plug trays, pots, or seed trays, but it's what I call my 'guaranteed one-step method to perfect plants'! This method of sowing means you don't have to handle them again until you actually plant them out. Seed germination is far more reliable in the better conditions. I do most of my sowing into modules all year round now. It means I'm not waiting for a patch to be free before I can sow seeds - and I can have something ready to go straight into the ground the minute any crop is cleared - that way I get loads more veg. out of my space. In essence what I'm doing is continuously overlapping crops. By not taking up ground just waiting for seeds to germinate - over the course of a year I gain several extra weeks of growing time out of my ground space and I can fit in another quick growing crop. I've been doing this for years since I first started off in a small garden and it's an even more valuable way to grow things if you only have a small space. 
Module sowing also involves far less handling of the seedlings and avoids the risks of 'pricking out' seedlings from large seed trays - the less you handle them, the less chance there is of wasting seed through possible damage, which can cause setbacks, fungal diseases or even death. The only time when I would sow a few seeds into pots or small seed trays might be when seeds need a much higher temperature for germination - things like aubergines or tomatoes. I otherwise wouldn't have enough space for everything in the small heated propagator - because I grow so many. The other really great thing about module sowing is that I can do all my seed sowing inside on the kitchen table - in the warm! I keep all the 'doings' neatly on a grow bag tray under the table - then whenever I have five minutes - I just pull it out and sow something! For me, this also means that things are far more likely to get sown at the right time. I don't have to plan to set aside a whole day to do it all at once - making it much easier to fit into a very busy life! Remember - you can catch up on everything else - but if you don't sow the seeds at the right time - there's no catching up on that. Time waits for no man! (or woman!)
Carrots sown in loo roll middles - early Feb.Planting out modules when they're ready also means that the plants are already growing strongly, are bigger and as a result better able to withstand the occasional nibble from any slugs or other pests without being completely destroyed. And there's always one or two that escape my early scissor forays!  I often get questions from people who think they bought bad seed and it didn't germinate - but usually the reason seeds don't appear is because either the soil was too cold and wet in early spring so they rotted, or they dried out in summer, or slugs ate them as they came up!  Sowing into modules avoids all those problems. Bad seed that doesn't germinate at all is thankfully extremely rare. Whatever pot or module you choose to sow in is up to you, there are masses of things which can be recycled for this purpose, and as usual the choice is only limited by one's imagination!  The important thing is to make sure they're clean, have good drainage holes in the bottom and that the young plants will come out quite easily, without disturbing the root ball if you gently push them up from the bottom - otherwise you lose the whole point of modules - which is to avoid any disturbance which causes setbacks! 
Just a word on using loo roll middles as pictured above.  I find these brilliant for long rooted things like very early carrots and parsnips because they can be planted out intact as they are - completely avoiding root disturbance - but I don't find them quite as good for other things like lettuce or other leafy crops which have a fine root ball - I think this is because the cardboard rolls are so high in carbon - which needs nitrogen to break down naturally - so it tends to rob this from the surrounding soil or compost as it does so - and also possibly any young plant that is growing in them. 
The other thing to remember about using cardboard tubes like loo roll middles is that they MUST be planted with the cardboard of the loo roll BELOW soil level - if exposed to the air they will act like a wick, drying out and shrinking - evaporating moisture from around the young plants ans fine roots with possibly disastrous results! The same goes for using paper pots. I get a lot of questions about this from people who have tried i and had disappointing results - but I've never seen anyone mentioning the danger of this happening. I know it does take a little extra compost sowing this way, but sowing into modules also means I don't waste expensive seed - which more than balances out the small cost of the extra compost used. It also means I have larger plants ready to go without losses to slugs. That again also means that I can plan the use of space much better - planting out neat, attractive-looking rows, instead of perhaps having unsightly gaps!  I really love that kind of instant potager gardeningIt's very satisfying to stand back and look at the results!

The importance of using a good peat-free seed compost

Sorry if I'm repeating myself - bu it makes sense to use a good proprietary organic peat-free seed compost - NOT a multipurpose compost containing peat! A good peat-free seed compost will have been specially formulated to be suitable for small seedlings for their first few weeks when their tiny hair-like roots are very sensitive - and is worth it's weight in gold!  Many seedlings dislike a high nutrient content in composts - so using one specifically for seed sowing is really important - otherwise too high a nutrient content in the compost could inhibit germination, giving disappointing results. I never found those 'seed & potting' multi-purpose peat composts good for that particular reason when I had no choice but to use them many years ago. They also tend to attract root-eating soil pests like Sciarid flies too - because all composts containing peat do that!  I haven't used them for many years as I only use an organic peat-free compost now.
Peat is only a natural medium for plants which grow in bogs - and it should stay in the bogs where it belongs!  Using it is a very selfish choice! It supports enormous biodiversity and also acts a very effective carbon sink.  It should not be be dug up for the convenience of thoughtless gardeners who are just looking for the cheapest option - especially when growing your own food actually saves so much money anyway!  In terms of damage to the planet and accelerating climate change - using peat certainly isn't the cheap option eventually!  Any short term financial gain from using cheap, easily available peat is wiped out many times by the loss of important habitat for biodiversity, and also the inevitable flooding caused by reducing the land's water-holding capacity. Bogs act like enormous sponges - capturing rainfall and slowing up huge volumes of water that would otherwise immediately run off the land surface, overwhelming natural drainage systems and flooding not just farmland but also peoples houses and gardens.,
As I've mentioned previously - I use a really good, peat free, certified organic compost. This is available in Ireland from Fruit Hill Farm - (call them for local stockists - getting one bag by post is expensive!). It's also available from White's Agri, at Ballough, Lusk. The compost is produced by Klassman in Germany, from composted organic green waste. It's utterly brilliant and is the very best compost of any sort that I've found in over 40 years of growing. It's also available in the UK, and it's worth investigating if you live there. There are a quite a few other peat-free organic composts available there now too - but I haven't tried them, so can't recommend them. I would always prefer an organic compost - as those containing artificial fertilisers don't produce the most healthy plants in my experience. They are far more likely to attract aphids and other pests as the plant's immune defence systems aren't as healthy. 
Once you've used the Klassman organic peat-free compost - I promise you won't ever use anything else! (I wish I had shares in it!)  It's the best compost of any sort that I've ever used. Whether you're organic or not - believe me - this compost is worth every cent! Plants really thrive in it - I think possibly because it contains a good range of beneficial bacteria, having been made with organically grown green waste, composted specifically for this purpose. But whichever brand you choose, don't use a potting compost for sowing seeds - it will be far too high in nutrients that inhibit germination and burn the roots of the tiny seedlings as soon as they emerge. They may then be sickly, or possibly even keel over and die!  I grow a lot of rare plants - many of which are fussy and the seed expensive. I can't afford to risk wasting seed. These days no one can - so always go for a reliable, good quality seed compost - and choose peat free preferably - if you care about the environment. 
In addition - make sure that any compost is this year's freshly-delivered batch of compost too! Not old, saturated compost that's been sitting around outside in the garden centre all winter since the previous year!  That would be stale, will have lost many of it's nutrients and may well harbour moulds and diseases. I always make sure that I have a couple of spare bags put by in a dry place so that I have plenty for early sowings the following year. Also don't use garden soil for sowing in pots - it's false economy - especially if you're a beginner gardener.  It will contain weed seeds and perhaps pests too, and the texture is unlikely to be suitable for sowing small seeds in pots or modules. I know good compost isn't cheap - but actually most bags these days cost no more than two or three packets of seeds and you won't need a huge amount. If you're careful a little will go a very long way, and you'll get far better results. You'll avoid wasting expensive seed and precious time too. 
Another point I'd like to mention here is that although some gardeners in the UK don't like using British produced peat composts - some of them don't seem have a problem using Irish extracted peat. I just don't understand that 'NIMBY' attitude, because it's every bit as damaging to the environment and to biodiversity, and releases just as much climate-changing carbon which affects the whole planet. So please have a re-think if that applies to you! I think it's a bit like thoughtlessly throwing away your rubbish out of the car window and ensuring that it becomes someone else's problem!
Remember the piece of advice "Whatever else you don't get time for - always sow the seed - you can catch up on everything else except that". - One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given - well worth remembering - and another good reason for sowing in modules so that you're not delayed by the weather or by waiting for another crop to be finished. This is often something that's really hard to remember in the middle of summer, when you're enjoying an abundance of glorious vegetables! If you don't sow many things in June, July and August - you'll have very little to eat in the winter!  Don't spend ages waiting around to get ground perfectly ready either, particularly in a wet year, or you may find it's then too late to sow the seed. Sow the seed first, in modules if necessary, and then catch up with all the other jobs later while your seedlings are growing on nicely somewhere else, until they're big enough for planting.

Seed sowing - the basics

It's stating the obvious to repeat that most seed these days is expensive - a little care will make your seed go a lot further and therefore your money too! My apologies to all you 'old timers' out there like me who know all this stuff - but maybe you may actually do it differently - and there's no harm in reassessing the way we do things occasionally is there? Gardening is an occupation where you never stop learning, that's what makes it so interesting.
1. First fill your modules, pots or whatever with good seed compost, firming it gently but not ramming it down too hard. Then make suitably sized small depressions in the top of each one with the end of a old pencil, pen, or whatever's handy. Seed differs in the depth it prefers to be sown, so consult your seed packet on this one, there isn't enough room here! Generally I find a depression of about 1/2-1 cm is suitable for module sowing of most things depending on the size of the seed. A very rough rule of thumb though is to sow at about twice the depth of the seed. As some really fine seed like celery or Nicotiana prefers to be sown on the surface and not covered at all - If you're going to sow very fine small seed it's a good idea to water the containers before sowing, to avoid washing tiny seed either too deeply into the compost, or alternatively washing it completely out of the compost! Some brands of seed composts can be quite difficult to wet if they've become exceptionally dry - so when sowing anything it's probably a idea good to moisten all composts a bit first - and letting any excess drain away.
2. Next, after you've prepared your modules, before you even handle the seed packet make sure your hands are absolutely clean and dry!  Don't attempt to open the packet with dirty wet hands from preparing your compost, soil or whatever! Unless you're going to sow all the seed at once, which is unlikely, you need to take care that the atmosphere around the remaining seed in the packet is as dry and clean as possible. Most people with average-sized gardens won't need to sow a whole packet of seed at once - despite what the packet tells you! (obviously they're trying to sell seed!) When you've taken all the seed you need, squeeze as much air out as possible, seal with sellotape, write on the date it was opened, and store somewhere really cool and dry. Most seed except carrot and parsnip will last well for at least a couple of years this way. People always say "but the experts say store them in the fridge" - all I can say is those 'experts' must have nothing else in their fridges - or have dedicated seed fridges!  Since when were most household fridges absolutely bone dry? But then perhaps yours is a bit tidier than mine! Frankly - I'd sooner tidy my polytunnel any day than my fridge!
3. When you're opening the packet of seed, make sure that all the seed is shaken down to the bottom first. Then slit it open with a sharp knife or with scissors rather than just tearing off the top - this makes it much easier to do up neatly again afterwards. The seed may also be in a 'stay-fresh' foil packet inside the paper packet, so open that carefully too, then when you've finished, re-seal afterwards in the way described. It always says on the packet "Do not re-seal" - pay no attention whatsoever to that!  Seeds will just absorb atmospheric moisture far more easily if you don't re-seal them properly - then you'll have to buy more seed because it won't germinate nearly as well!
Lettuce - sown 2 per module - now ready for thinning. 21st. Feb.Lettuce - sown 2 per module - now ready for thinning. 21st. Feb.4. Tip a very small amount of seed - slightly less than you think you'll need - into the dry palm of your hand or onto a saucer and carefully sow the amount you want into each module. Never put seed back in if you've tipped out too much into your hand, unless your hand is very clean and dry! I sow lettuce, brassicas etc. in two's or three's thinning to the strongest one when the seed leaves (cotyledons) are fully expanded and there's one 'true' leaf just showing, then you can judge which is the strongest, or if any are 'blind'(which can sometimes happen with cabbage family/brassicas in particular) - then pull the others out very gently and carefully. Beetroot or chards can be sown singly - they are multi-seeded - producing several seedlings in a clump from just one lumpy seed, which you don't have to thin too much unless you want to - I never do - I normally leave three chards in a clump! They grow perfectly well as normal - and I'm greedy! Some modern F1 varieties of beetroot are 'mono-seeded' - these are useful if you just want one seed per station and bigger roots eventually - but the seed is usually much more expensive and I don't want massive roots. I prefer medium sized or baby beets to pickle or roast - so I use normal varieties and I leave them in clumps of 3 or 5. They will push each other apart quite happily as they grow and find their own growing space.
Peas and beans sown in a variety of recycled containers - mid. Feb.
I sow my onions in 3's, 5's or 7's according to what size I want them to grow to. The more you sow into the module, and the closer you grow them on, the smaller the onions will obviously be. Three seeds to a module sown in early to mid March will generally give me onions of around 4-5oz - a medium size which I generally find are the most useful for the kitchen. Red Baron onions I sow in 5's as I like smaller whole red onions for roasting. They're planted out later about 20-30cm apart in late March or early April. They will then push each other apart quite happily as they grow, giving you a much bigger, more reliable crop. Early carrots (a small pinch) and parsnips (in 3's) can be sown into loo roll or 1/2 kitchen roll middles and easily planted out carefully using a long trowel later. Peas and beans can be sown in large yogurt pots - as shown on the polytunnel page and here - also 1/2 milk cartons, fruit punnets etc - all with good drainage holes made in them. You can see how I sow mine in the polytunnel diary as well.  Some people sow into old half drainpipes but I find they're too shallow, they don't have much root room, then if planting out is delayed by bad weather, as it often is at this time of year, plants may get a setback and won't crop as well as they should later on. The roots can often go along instead of down.The RHS recommends shallow drainpipes with holes drilled into them - but again delays can be a problem and the roots may start coming through the drainage holes - making it harder to slide them out easily and possibly tearing roots off when you try to slide them out. The peas and beans pictured above here are growing in a variety of recycled containers in mid-February
5. Cover the smaller vegetable seeds with vermiculite, which is available in all good garden centres now in small packs (if it's too much, split it with a friend - it lasts years as it's sterile and you don't need that much). This promotes really good drainage and air circulation around seedlings which is vital and usually avoids nasty 'damping off' diseases, which can otherwise be a big problem with early seedlings in particular (but never in peat-free composts). Sit the seed tray, pots or modules in a tray of water for a few seconds (new cat litter trays are a good size for standard seed trays, and much cheaper than something similar sold in garden centres!) but don't let the modules or trays get saturated. If by mistake they do - then a good tip is to sit them on a folded up newspaper with a bit of kitchen paper on top, which acts like blotting paper to draw out excess moisture - newspaper on it's own doesn't work quite so well. Don't forget that if things are too wet - even if they're warm - they're far more likely to rot. Bigger seeds like peas and beans can be covered with compost and then watered from above initially. I put my early peas and beans onto damp kitchen paper on a covered plate or tray somewhere warm to germinate them first. Usually the back of my range cooker where I can keep an eye on them. This is particularly good for French beans later on in spring - which can be very prone to rotting if sitting in wet compost for too long. I then put the sprouted seeds into a pot in the usual way and cover them with seed compost. I then water them lightly at first, again making sure I don't saturate!
6. Cover the seed tray or modules after sowing by putting in a clear polythene bag, under a sheet of clingfilm or glass to keep them moist and stop them drying out, and put them in a suitably warm place. Check the optimum germination temperature on the seed packet - as not everything likes to be too warm. This particularly applies to lettuces and spinach. Then check every day for germination, and as soon as they appear, uncover them immediately and put them into good light - but not strong sunlight as this could burn them and kill them very quickly. If they're in the house on a windowsill, turn them round a bit every day so all the seedlings get equal light to prevent them getting etiolated (or drawn up and spindly), which weakens them and makes them much more prone to disease. You could also make a light reflector of tin foil fixed to a couple of barbecue skewers at the back of the pot as I used to years ago! At night then bring them into the room before you close the curtains otherwise they could be frost damaged. If they're in a cold frame, greenhouse or tunnel outside, shade them lightly from very bright midday sun - which can be surprisingly strong through glass, even at this time of year. Again, do make sure they're protected from frost at night with fleece suspended over them - not resting on them - or newspaper. Wire hoops are useful for this, also recycled old freezer baskets, a propagator lid or cloches etc.
7. Always water trays of young growing seedlings from underneath when necessary - sitting them in a tray as described above, using clean, ambient temperature water if possible. Watering them from above with a watering can again encourage damping off diseases. I keep clean rainwater in a barrel in the tunnel for watering, which is usually not too cold. Seedlings don't enjoy sitting in a freezing cold bath any more than you do!  And they enjoy rainwater best of all. Like all plants, they didn't evolve to appreciate chlorine, or anything else that may be in tap water!
8. After germination, grow on seedlings of tender veg. like tomatoes etc. at a slightly lower temperature but still in a warm light place- where they won't get chilled if it's cold at night. A roll-out heat mat which you can put on a greenhouse bench is convenient for this - or if you're good at DIY - you could make a cheaper large area of gentle bottom warmth by using soil warming cables buried in sand.  Be careful that propagators don't overheat, get them set up and going for a few hours before you start sowing your seeds, because just as too little warmth can damage seedlings - so can overheating. It can can seriously damage their cropping potential.  From March onwards all small seedlings will need some shade at midday under glass or in a tunnel - fleece also makes a good temporary sun shield. A small max-min thermometer is well worth buying, they're far more useful in the garden than a soil thermometer, and cheaper. As I've already said - you don't need a soil thermometer out in the garden to tell you when the soil outside is warm enough for sowing - all the weed seeds germinating will reliably tell you that!

Sowing early seeds in modules

To make sure I have something to plant as soon as the winter crops are finished both in the tunnel and outside, I always start sowing a few early crops in mid-January. Details of what you can sow now are in the 'What to Sow' sections for each month, so I won't repeat them here. Things like onions, leeks, beetroot etc. can be multi-sown in the modules - in 3's or 5's - depending on how many you want in a clump - or how big you want your onions (less in a clump for bigger onions) and they're planted out later without thinning. These will push each other apart as they grow and develop quite normally. You can do the same with summer spinach, chards and 'baby leaf' or salad mixes. Rather than use an expensive propagator at this time of year I germinate everything near the back of my range cooker - which keep things at a steady 65-70 deg F/16-20 deg C. As soon as the first seedlings are showing they need good light, so then I put them out in the polytunnel, on a roll-out heated mat which provides very gentle bottom heat of about 50 degF/10 deg C - or just above during the day - and is very economical to run. This is all most things need to grow on nicely without forcing. In another 2 weeks in the warmer propagator I shall sow my aubergines Bonica F1, (the very best and most reliable one) these develop quite slowly at first and need a long growing season. I'll also be sowing my earliest tomatoes - Maskotka, Latah and John Baer. These are always ripe in the first week or so of June. I can't wait for ripe tomatoes again! Talking of which - there may be some very exciting news soon on the tomato front - but can't reveal it yet!!

What are 'Blind seedlings' that don't develop?

Occasionally there are seedlings that develop they're first seed leaves or cotyledons as they are known - but after that they don't grow any more new leaves.  These are known as blind seedlings. In cases where you may only want one plant per space - like lettuces or hybrid calabrese - it's normal to thin seedlings to one per module, but only do this after they have clearly developed their first 'true' leaves - not the seedling/cotyledon leaves - as 'blind seedlings they will never develop 'true' leaves and grow on. This is quite common with brassicas and if it happens you could waste space on a seedling which will never develop any further - so don't thin them too early! With calabrese seed in particular - which can be expensive - it also wastes seed and money!  I've never seen any of the 'so-called' experts telling you this - they always tell you to thin as soon as you can handle the seedlings! Over 40 years of experience (OMG can't believe it!) does actually teach one a few useful things!

Sowing peas and broad beans in pots

Sprouted broad beans being sown in  500g  yogurt pots -  12.1.12
 Sprouted broad beans sown in 500g yogurt pots              
Sprouted 'Oregon Sugar Pod' mangetout being sown for pea shoots and later pods - 31.1.12
Sprouted mangetouts sown for pea shoots and pods

I always soak my broad beans and peas for a couple of hours before then sprouting them on damp kitchen paper on a plate covered with cling film and put in a warmish place. I always get the best germination this way. It saves the seed sitting in cold wet compost for too long and possibly rotting. They sprout in about 2-3 days and then as soon as the 'radicle' or main tap root  appears - I then sow them in large pots as you can see above (I use recycled 500 ml yogurt pots - they're the perfect size!). 3 broad beans to a pot or a small handful of peas (don't count them) per pot. I don't thin the beans or the peas as it's totally unnecessary - I've tried doing it over the years but the plants produce just the same crop per plant - so obviously crop more per sq.ft/m if on a deep, raised bed. Thinning them after germination is not only totally unnecessary, but is also time-consuming and wastes valuable seed. These potfuls will be planted out about 30cm/1ft. apart when big enough. 


I am always amazed at just how much better the germination is with home-saved seed. I got 100% germination of the yummy Crimson Flowered Broad Bean as per usual (good job as we've just finished the last from the freezer!). Beans and peas are the only things I cover with organic peat-free seed compost after sowing - everything else is covered with vermiculite - which promotes good air circulation and drainage around the seedling stem, virtually guaranteeing no 'damping off' disease - as long as you are careful with your watering. After sowing anything - only ever water again from underneath. This is easy to do by sitting the tray or module in a tray of water for a few seconds. And as I've often said before - if you do happen to overdo it by mistake - and we all do it occasionally - don't despair and leave them to rot in cold wet compost!  It's very simple - just sit the tray of seedlings on a newspaper for 1/2 hour or so which acts like a wick to draw out the excess. All seeds need is a good seed compost, a little thought and plenty of TLC to grow - it's not rocket science! 

Despite all the years I've been gardening - I never cease to be surprised, thrilled and full of wonder at Nature's miracle of a tiny seed and it's determination to grow. That perfect little pre-programmed parcel of DNA - full of ancient history and priceless, unique and irreplaceable genes. And best of all - packed with a delicious promise of healthy food!   


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

(I recently came across one of my best tomato photographs - one that I took to publicise the very first 'Totally Terrific Tomato Festival' - being used online, as the profile picture on someone else's Twitter account. Quite unbelievable cheek and legally that is plagiarism! Needless to say that person was otherwise anonymous!)

The Fruit Garden and Orchard August - September 2020

August contents: "The times they are a'changing"...... Berried Treasure - Blackberry fields forever!.........Preserving the joys of summer!......Magnificent Melons.........Raspberries all summer long?.....'Tis the season of wasps!......Other fruit jobs
The Sea Buckthorn bushes are loaded and starting to ripen their super-nutritious berries Emneth Early was just ripe and had set it's skins when the torrential rain of last few days caused it to literally burst!
The Sea Buckthorn bushes are loaded and starting to ripen their super-nutritious berries Emneth Early was just ripe and had set it's skins when the torrential rain of last few days caused it to literally burst!

"The sun being now in it's southern declination the Air begins to cool, and it is become very pleasant to walk after a thunder shower. Although the beauties of the Fields and Gardens begin to fade, yet the profits now flow in.... the Avenues and walks of your Gardens now furnish the most curious palates with the most delicate Fruits....Little is now to be done in a Garden, besides gathering in the Fruits of former Labours." 
 (From A calendar of Gardener's Lore - August, 1688)   
"The times they are a'changing " - (to quote Bob Dylan)
I love those old gardening quotes, which echo the familiar fellow feelings we share with all the other gardeners who have preceded us down over the centuries. They valued the abundance of summer and autumn fruits just as much as we do now. They knew that fruit was healthy food - even though their knowledge was based on observations which didn't include using magnetic resonance imaging or high-throughput sequencing - the electron microscopy tools that we have more recently acquired!  I wonder how they would have coped with the erratic swings in weather and storms we have had recently - undoubtedly caused by progressive climate change?  How I wish I could go back and ask them! I'm sure that they would have had some clever ways to overcome problems - ways which didn't involve pouring massive amounts of chemicals all over plants and the soil in an attempt to cope with the pest and disease problems that are a direct result of destroying biodiversity. The erratic swings in weather of climate change are causing stress to plants, and making them more vulnerable. Those biodiversity-destroying chemicals are one of the major elements which are directly responsible for accelerating climate change, which is making growing food increasingly difficult. 
Someone once said that there's no point looking back unless you can learn from it, and that is so true. As I said at the beginning - times are a'changing and we have no choice now but to take it on the chin, adapt to our changing situation, grow 'by the seat of our pants', as I'm always saying, take the bad, but be grateful for any good.  And also try to discover new ways of growing healthy food.
Grape harvest - 6 early varieties ripe now. From top left clockwise - Chasselas D'Or, Regent, Muscat Bleu, Black Strawberry, Lakemont Seedless & Rose Dream
Grape harvest - 6 early varieties ripe now. From top left clockwise - Chasselas D'Or, Regent, Muscat Bleu, Black Strawberry, Lakemont Seedless & Rose Dream
I really hate it when people ask me -"If you could have, say, only one grape, one tomato, one apple or other crop - then which would you choose?" I always feel it's a bit like being asked which is my favourite child! It's impossible to choose!  And why would you want to?   It depends so much on what you want that fruit for - whether it's for cooking, eating fresh and raw, dehydrating or whatever.  Every fruit behaves differently and a method which may suit some really well doesn't always suit other varieties. The wonderful thing is that there are so many different cultivars of every possible kind of seasonal fruit and other crops available which have been handed down to us over centuries, that we enjoy a fantastically wide choice and that is a luxury that most of our forebears didn't have. But there's also a serious point to that, and that is that we have a responsibility to ensure that we don't lose that diversity - we must make sure we preserve as many of them as possible.  When old varieties fall out of favour or possibly disappear altogether - we are losing a precious genetic resource which may possibly be vital in future breeding programmes, because it may have pest or disease-resistance - or an ability to adapt to a changing climate. 
There are always of course many new varieties of fruit being bred because it can now be extremely profitable to own the patent and collect the royalties on a new variety of any food crop.  Being able to patent a new variety is a relatively new phenomenon, compared to the countless centuries over which most fruits were preserved by people who just valued their qualities and thought them worth handing down to future generations. But the new varieties are not always good ones.  A case in point is the Rose Dream grape above - very sweet and watery, almost insipid, and welcome enough in early August because it's always the first grape to ripen here - but with very little real flavour. Breeders now seem to think that everyone wants sweeter and sweeter fruits - but in fact what I'm always looking for is exceptional flavour. A rich, aromatic depth of flavour indicates a complex concentration of phytochemicals - and that is what interests me, as I want to grow the most nutritious food. Sadly supermarket demands for easy to package, evenly-sized fruit that doesn't bruise when travelling, and has a long shelf-life, has caused many older traditional and far better-tasting varieties to become unavailable by making it not worth the commercial growers while to grow them. As gardeners we don't have to worry about shelf-life - we worry about our own lives - so we can grow the very best and tastiest varieties, which are often the most nutritious too.
Berried Treasure -  Blackberry Fields Forever!
The huge ripe fruits of my 'Himalayan Giant' x wild bramble hybrid - always the earliest. Plump and delicious!The huge ripe fruits of my 'Himalayan Giant' x wild bramble hybrid - always the earliest. Plump and delicious!
The heavy rain of the last couple of weeks has brought a bit of a damp chill in the evenings and it's feeling very 'autumn'-y! The first rain a few weeks ago was very welcome relief after a long dry spell, but the last few days have been ceaselessly grey.  It really feels like the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. However - on the bright side - the rain came just at the right time for this year's blackberry crop after the drought! The first berries started to swell about three weeks ago but they were still a bit 'pippy' and dry. They've started to swell up nicely now and the plumptious, glossy black berries are ripening faster than we can pick them - or the birds can eat them! The cultivated types like Himalayan Giant always start to ripen earlier - at least a month before the smaller wild species. One or two of the 'bird sown', bee cross-pollinated hybrids I've found here over the last few years tend to ripen even a few days earlier than those. One plant in particular has that real wild 'bramble' taste, combined with the depth of flavour, acidity and much larger size of the cultivated varieties. It's the best I've tasted and has a far better flavour than any of the hybrids you can currently buy. I've tried most of the varieties on offer and been very disappointed with their taste. Himalayan Giant - which I've often talked about before - is really the very best-tasting variety but it's a bit of a thug and can be an absolute nightmare in a small garden - or even a large one if left to its own devices! Fine though, if you've got plenty of room and you want a productive, very effective vandal proof hedge!  A good alternative to Himalayan Giant for a small garden - not quite as deeply flavoured but still very nice - is the new variety 'Reuben' which is a primocane variety. Being a primocane means that unlike other blackberries - it will fruit in its first year of cane growth. I've been growing it for over 4 years now since it first became available commercially and have found that by growing it in a large tub in the polytunnel I can even get it to fruit twice a year - picking huge fresh juicy berries for much longer. 
Blackberries are a nutritional powerhouse and a mainstay of breakfasts, muffins, puddings, salad dressings, ice cream and many other delights all year round here.  Combined with green leaves like spinach and kale, some kefir, and a handful of walnuts or almonds - they make the most delicious gut and brain-healthy phytonutrient-rich smoothies too!  I've enjoyed them like that for over 40 years - but I have to say that using a Nutribullet or other similar type blender , make that a lot easier. The rich taste of blackberries makes them a healthy base for any number of things and they're also high in other nutrients and fibre. In fact - blackberries have been shown to have one of the highest antioxidant contents of any food tested and studies have indicated that regular consumption of them may have a positive impact on health - lowering the risk of many diseases. Their high level of anthocyanin phytonutrients - which gives them their dark purple colour - have been shown to protect the brain from oxidative stress, and may even reduce the effects of age-related conditions like Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Other studies have shown that they may also protect against cancers of the colon. They are high in potassium, ellagic acid (an immune-stimulating nutrient) as well as many other vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. 
We don't tend to eat jam here as we avoid too much sugar - so to preserve blackberries I freeze any berries not eaten immediately. They can then be thrown straight into yoghurt or kefir to make ice cream or half-frozen smoothies, if you have one of those powerful Nutribullet-type blenders. You can't buy frozen organic blackberries anywhere - at least I've never seen them. Even the chemically-laden ones - which I wouldn't touch - are incredibly expensive both fresh and frozen, so it makes sense to grow your own, and they really couldn't be any easier!  Picking Is the hardest thing - but any of the family who are around always get drafted in for that job - they want to eat them after all!  Anyway who doesn't love a bit of leisurely blackberry picking in warm early autumn sunshine - and the delicious benefits are many!  I certainly wouldn't agree with the "little is now to be done" in the above quote - but "the profits are definitely now flowing in" - we're certainly enjoying "gathering in the fruits of former labours" right now, as the quote says! ...
So far we've picked and frozen 12.5 kg of blackberries - that's €600 worth at the current price for organic fresh berries! - And even the conventionally-grown ones, which are sprayed with a lot of pesticides, aren't much cheaper, because even though they're seasonal as they're mostly grown in huge polytunnels or greenhouses, being such a high value fruit. So it's well worth the sometimes uncomfortable effort of picking your own, to have such nutrient-rich organic fruit available all year round!  When I finally ran out of the frozen berries a few weeks ago - I really missed them. Even the amount we already have would provide one person with one 'portion' of their five a day - on every other day of the year - and there's loads more still to be picked!  Blackberries are even energy efficient!  Freezing them loose and then bagging them up into very large bags is best, as it means that when loose frozen like that they'll fit very conveniently around all the bigger, lumpier things in the freezer - filling in any gaps and air pockets and therefore making your freezer as energy efficient as possible, as well as taking up less room. Important when there's so many seasonal goodies to try to fit in!
Anyone who has ever tried to clear brambles knows that blackberries will grow vigorously almost anywhere - but they particularly appreciate a heavy fertile soil and plenty of sun to ripen the berries and give them flavour.  I noticed the first blackberries were ripe on the early Himalayan Giant hybrid about a month ago, while I was mowing nearby. I meant to go out in the evening and pick them - but something happened as usual and by the time I remembered next morning and went out, one of our secretive fruit gourmets - the badger or the fox - had paid us one of their regular visits, which they do nightly at this time of year. Everything that's ripe, from 'large Labrador nose height' down was gone!!  My dogs have always loved them too and even the hens love them! They know what's good for them! That blackberry is trained along a fence which backs onto a lawn, and is about 8 feet high so I find it impossible to cover. That means that the badgers, foxes and birds get a massive amount of fruit each year. 
Covering blackberries is extremely difficult - and fraught with danger due to the vicious thorns. It's also practically impossible to get the net off again, as it gets caught on all the thorns, so I don't bother to even try any more. I would need an enormous fruit cage to contain just one plant of Himalayan Giant and as it grows at an exponential rate - exploring through any netting very quickly!  We always have more than enough anyway. Badgers and foxes love all fruit - and on their night time forays help themselves to any juicy fruits conveniently growing at their level. I don't mind though - heaven knows they have a hard enough time surviving these days. Unfortunately though, badgers and foxes are also very partial to plums, which are not so plentiful! They obviously must stand on their hind legs to eat those - carefully hoovering off all they can reach in a neatly cropped circle all around the lower branches of the tree - not a lot I can do about that!  
Preserving the fruity joys of summer!
I always start to feel a bit like a squirrel at this hectic time of year - as while there's more than enough fruit to eat fresh now - it's very nice to know that there's also plenty of fruit preserved in different ways to add a bit of joy to the cold, dark winter months and to keep the colds at bay. This is the only time I miss the very hot, dry late summers of my childhood in the English shires, which seemed to last forever in hindsight. Our wonderful Victoria plums were as big as duck eggs from the huge old trees - and oh, the scent of the greengage walk in the kitchen garden! As soon as you walked anywhere near - you could smell when they were ripe!.....You never get that wonderful aromatic scent from greengages unless you grow them yourself because they're never left to ripen on the trees. They need to have a yellowish hue, be slightly soft and to be cracking slightly around the stem at the top. Then they taste like nectar for the Gods! The same goes for melons - most of the ones sold in shops are picked well before they're ripe or they wouldn't travel - but the taste of a properly ripe homegrown melon makes all the hard work worthwhile! The summer's been kind to us this year - and all the fruit in the garden is cropping really well. It certainly appreciated the bit of rain we've had recently - it came just at the right time - all the berry fruits are extra-large and juicy and the apples in the new orchard are swelling fast. 
There have been so many peaches again this year in the polytunnel - a surprise after the freezing-cold weather when they were flowering! The unknown variety of late, white fleshed, free-stone peach in the polytunnel had a fantastic crop on it again this year. After eating as many as we can fresh, and freezing a few, I semi-dehydrate and then freeze them, after dipping them first in lemon juice to stop the cut pieces browning due to them oxidising. It's a very successful way to reduce their bulk in the freezer while still retaining their nutrients and delicious taste. In fact - doing this actually concentrates their flavour and they add a welcome extra deliciousness to winter salads, smoothies and many other dishes. The only problem I find is not eating them all immediately as they are so scrumptious - with that really concentrated peach flavour! When I was a child an uncle living in South Africa used to send us a huge box of candied glace fruits every Christmas as a present and they were such a delicious luxury then - though they were very high in sugar! These peach pieces have the same concentrated flavour but no sugar at all apart from what the fruit originally contained - so they're much healthier. Picking them very slightly under-ripe also means they contain a little less sugar and they're also firmer and easier to deal with when cutting in half. Another great use for the dehydrator!
Magnificent Melons
Melon 'Emir'Melon 'Emir'
Melons for breakfast - so sweet that they are almost (but not quite) too sweet - are such a luxury! The best and most reliable varieties I've found for tunnel growing so far are Lidl's Charentais (great value seed), 'Emir' which last year produced an exceptional crop of dozens of incredibly deliciously aromatic fruits and Alvaro which is similar. They are definitely the best I have ever grown!  The fruits are just the right size for two people to halve for a starter, pudding or breakfast - but naturally, being us, we have one each! Well we have to - we couldn't possibly waste them as they go off so quickly when really ripe - and don't store other than freezing well as a sorbet (with the judicious addition of a little drop of 'Melone' liqueur too - yum!).  I never harvest melons until they come away from the stalk at the top of the fruit with the slightest touch - that's when they are at their luscious peak of maximum perfection. Do try these varieties - they're terrific in a polytunnel - and this year might have been good outside too, with the amount of sun we've had here, especially if one grew them under a cold frame or cloches.  In the UK - particularly in the south east which all summer is normally between 6-10 degrees warmer than we are here - it would definitely do very well outside.
If you want an easy watermelon, Sugar Baby is a good reliable one - and more like the size of a canteloupe. They do need a longer season that canteloupes to be successful though - I always sow them in mid-late February. One or two are already looking very promising and won't be long before they're ripe! You can grow the huge ones from seed too if you start them early. About 35 years ago I grew some from seed saved from a shop-bought watermelon as it was hard to get seed then. They actually grew - I was astonished! I took a few slices to an organic conference - making some people very envious and a couple of good friends very happy!
In the picture below I've raised some of the melon fruits up off the ground on 2 litre pots. This keeps them away from any possible slug damage and being raised up in the sun also helps them to ripen as the black pots also trap heat. 
The three melons you can see below are, from l-r - Charentais, Country Taste and Emir.
Melon 'Emir' ripening on an upturned 2litre pot 20.8.13 Melon 'Country Taste' climbing through grape 'Muscat Bleu' 21.8.13 2 'Lidl Charentais' & 'Emir' (at back) melons on 2.litre pots 20.8.13



Raspberries all summer long? 


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


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

Raspberry Joan J - size comparison with 1 euro coinRaspberry Joan J - size comparison with 1 euro coin
Autumn raspberry 'Joan J' is a wonderful variety - so far removed from the old 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss' types that it's almost another fruit altogether.  Joy Larkcom originally recommended it to me as she'd been given some to trial a few years ago and she loved it. When she was staying here some years ago for a talk she was doing locally, she tried another new one called 'Brice', which I had growing here which is another really good variety. Anyway, I'm so pleased with 'Joan J' that I took a photo to show you it's size. It tastes every bit as good as the summer ones and unlike them - it's another so-called 'primocane' variety - and it will actually crop again next year, lower down on the same canes which have fruited this autumn. It really earns its space in the garden even more than summer ones - producing two crops rather than just the one in the same amount of space. The flavour of these two newer autumn varieties is fantastic and completely different to the older types which I think are mostly pretty insipid and tasteless. This year I'm trialling a new variety - which is looking even better than both of those - with a lovely rich flavour and very productive - but I won't reveal it's name just yet - until I'm sure it's good all round. 
Although years ago I suppose one was glad of any late soft fruit - which was why I originally planted them, the older varieties like Heritage and Autumn Bliss are complete weeds here, and are a real nuisance in the garden now, coming up literally everywhere.  I certainly wouldn't recommend anyone to plant them.  Their berries really aren't big or well-flavoured enough to warrant their aggressive behaviour! I really wish I'd never planted them!  I keep persistently digging them out and replanting them down in my woodland for the birds - but I don't think I'll ever fully get rid of them. Being organic I don't use weedkillers - so digging them out constantly is the only option - and not an easy one with my bad back! Anyway, the wildlife is grateful - that's why there's so many birds here. Although that can be a curse too at times when blackbirds start pecking at the shoulders of the apples as soon as they show any colour - and that can destroy quite a lot!
Raspberry Black Jewel                                                                                                                                  
The jury's really still out for me on the expensive summer raspberry 'Black Jewel' which some of the fruit catalogues have now. Their photographs look so enticing, and black raspberries are supposed to contain anti-cancer phytonutrient ellagic acid and anthocyanins like blackberries - but you'd need an awful lot of them to benefit. I planted some four years ago and they fruited for the first time 4 years ago. Last year they produced what I presume would be a good crop for them - but sadly not for me! The small fruit were a nightmare to pick as the plants are very thorny - and when you get hold of the pippy little fruits to pick them - they just disintegrate between your fingers into the separate little globules containing the pips, or whatever they're called! The few you can actually get enough of to taste do have an unusual sort of sherbetty/fizzy flavour, like old fashioned raspberry sweets - but I think they may well be joining the older autumn raspberries down in the woodland fairly soon - especially since they look alarmingly like rubus Cockburnianus - a decorative white-stemmed species of rubus that is another complete nightmare here and which has taken over half an acre of the garden! Naturally you see 'celebrity' gardeners or botanists retained by the big-ag owned seed companies promoting them - but they're paid to!  But frankly folks - they're an expensive oddity! Grow blackberries instead if it's health you want - and your pocket will be healthier too!
Black Jewel can go and do it's thing where it can't take over too much or do too much damage - in the woodland! I'll just eat lots more raspberries and blackberries together to get mostly the same nutrients and flavour - which I do already!  This year I compared the taste as they all happened to be fruiting at the same time and actually - if you eat blackberries and raspberries together in the same mouthful, then they taste exactly like the black raspberries! They're expensive to buy and a bit too 'Emperor's New Clothes'  - like for me!  If you only have a small space though you want to make the very best use of it - and frankly despite their much-vaunted health claims - I think that black raspberries are not a value for money fruit - since in addition - they only fruit once in summer!
'Tis the season of wasps!
Seedless grape 'Rose Dream'
 Early grape Rose Dream
When the first of the grapes are ripening I can always guarantee the first wasps suddenly appear - as if by magic! Every year they time it to perfection! It's a good time now to hang wasp traps around the garden near the grapes - I shall be doing that this week as I'm starting to notice a lot of young ones around so there must be a nest somewhere.  I know wasps do a lot of good in the garden - but I do like to get at least some grapes! The earliest tunnel grapes - the seedless Rose Dream pictured here is already completely smothered with wasps. They never touch them until the berries at the top on the shoulders of the bunch are starting to ripen - then they can destroy whole bunches incredibly fast.  When they finish that one - they will move onto the other varieties as they ripen - so it's definitely time for the traps! I've tried all sorts of methods of protecting them - but short of putting individual bags around each bunch - which I could do if I had an army of gardeners like the walled gardens of old had - then there's very little I can do! I just try to get there before they do!  I might try vacuuming them off every day in the tunnels for a week or so - sounds daft I know - but it's very effective for many pests as I've mentioned before. I don't begrudge them a little fruit...... just not all of it!  It's a bit of a quandary really - I don't want to get rid of all of them - as wasps actually do a lot of good work controlling aphids, caterpillars and other pests in the garden - and they're also good pollinators. This is something many people don't know, thinking that they're only a nuisance. I remember about 20 years ago hearing a very loud buzzing beside me in the cabbage bed where I was kneeling down weeding at the time. I looked to where the sound was coming from, just in time to see a wasp desperately trying to take off and fly away with a very large green caterpillar in its jaws - about twice as big as itself. The loud buzzing was its wings beating as it made the huge effort! It eventually managed it - flying off to its nest to feed it's hard-won trophy to it's young grubs.

Other fruit jobs
When loganberries and summer raspberries have finished cropping, cut out all the old fruited canes, give a balanced high potash organic feed, water well and mulch. If you haven't done  so already, you can now cut out the old twice-fruited (darker brown) canes of autumn raspberries as well, to give this autumn's new (pale green) canes more room light and air to grow.

As soon as stone fruits such as plums, cherries and peaches have finished cropping - get any pruning done as soon as possible. Do it on a dry day to prevent possible infection entering wounds before they heal. Remember when pruning that peaches tend to fruit mostly on the new green wood they've made this year - so prune back to that to keep them within bounds. Peaches and nectarines in particular can get out of control very quickly if you don't do this - especially if trained as fans (or what I call 'fushes' - fan/bushes in my case!) in greenhouses or tunnels. The late peach in the tunnel is starting to colour up now so I'll be watering very carefully from now on - not soaking them - so that they don't split. 
You may need to protect ripening late peaches and other fruit from the wasps now if they're a problem, as well as from the birds. Old net curtains, or something like 'Enviromesh', fixed securely with clothes pegs are good for this. Ordinary garden netting isn't fine enough.
I'm potting up the last of the strawberry runners for next year's plants this month - I like the early tunnel ones like 'Christine' (the best for early tunnel use) to get properly established in their 2 litre pots during the autumn - they'll crop far better next year then. In their first year, perpetual strawberries make a lot of runners too. You must propagate these in their first year, as in their second year most perpetuals tend not to produce as many - if any runners at all. That being so - it's very easy to lose them. Always choose really healthy looking runners - don't use anything with distorted, yellow spotted or twisted leaves - this can often be a sign of virus passed on by aphids. Alpine strawberries are different, and are propagated either by division or from seed. Clean up fruited summer strawberry beds now - cutting off any old tired foliage. Lift off protective netting so the birds can get in to clean up any pests like vine weevils that may be lurking around. The perpetual strawberry Albion is still fruiting steadily in the stepladder garden and elsewhere. If I only grew one strawberry it would be this one. It fruits prolifically from May until November if you give it the occasional feed of tomato food like Osmo organic, and it's firm and really delicious. I can't recommend it highly enough.  
All fruit in containers needs careful and consistent watering nowIf some are still developing fruits - add a high potash liquid feed such as the brilliant Osmo organic tomato feed. Remember that with fruits ripening - erratic watering often causes fruits to split - so consistency and a good moisture retaining mulch if they're growing in the ground is key to avoiding this problem!
If you're thinking of ordering fruit trees or other fruit this autumn - do it now - even though autumn still seems like ages away. Nurseries start lifting plants in late October.  If you order now and get ahead of the posse - you will be first in the queue when the orders go out, things should arrive when the soil is still in a fit state to plant, and still warm from the summer. They will establish so much better than plants or trees planted in early spring when the soil is cold and wet and possibly even unworkable. They will also make bigger root systems, as they have more time to develop roots without having to support any new top growth for several months. Many nurseries have good offers right now before the end of August. These are for pre-orders of bare-root trees which they then start lifting in November. 
Look up good mail order catalogues and online now. Even if you don't order anything, they are a valuable and free mine of information  - and I'm all for that!  Good catalogues are the stuff of dreams for most of us gardeners - and remember - dreams are free too!
Early apple George CaveEarly apple George Cave
I don't have many apples in my old orchard this year, due to next door's spraying regime and the bad drought in spring. Just a handful on one or two of the trees - certainly not enough to store loads for the winter as I often do. Sadly one of my earliest dual-purpose apples, Emneth Early, has burst the already ripened skins on many of its fruits, due to pressure of water building up in them from the heavy rain over the last couple of weeks.  There were a few windfalls after the storms and I'll be making chutney and stewing those rather than throwing them out for the wildlife - I'm so grateful for anything! The wonderful early cooker Grenadier also has some fruit on it too - so I'm looking forward to some crumbles! There's a few on the lovely early dessert apple George Cave - bred in Essex in 1923. It's one of the very best of the early apples and always the first to ripen here. Often ripe by the end of July - it's now fully ripe, as it's seeds have now turned from white to brown - which is how you know. When apples are properly ripe their seeds are always brown. It has crisp juicy fruit with a well-balanced, almost Cox-like, slightly sharp and 'cidery' aromatic taste. Now all I have to do is keep the birds off a few of them! 

For many years now I've had very few apples in the orchard I planted when we first came here, 38 years ago, and I've missed them so much. The orchard was planned to give us a spread of fruit that ripened over a whole year, both freshly picked and then from storage - and I had wonderful crops for about 15 years until the farm next door was sold - and all of the fields were ploughed up to grow grain. Five years ago I finally gave up hope of ever having any again, so started planting a new orchard on the other side of the property - much further away from the horrible hormone weedkillers that abort the flowers on my fruit trees every year. Somewhat ironic eh!  The young orchard is now looking promising, and we had quite a lot of fruit from it last year - but this year due to drought while the fruits were developing, there will be very little as most of the young fruitlets dropped very early on. The trees have grown well though and I'm very pleased with them. It's very noticeable that bare root trees always establish far better though. All of my trees are on the brilliant M26 root stock - which is semi-dwarfing, early-fruiting and productive - and suitable for all soils but particularly good on my heavy wet clay. 
I hope you will all have some apples to enjoy or can find an organic orchard near you where you can buy some, or pick your own. Like blackberries - they're one of the healthiest fruits you can eat - and together they are simply sublime! Blackberry and apple crumble is a favourite here!
I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work.  But if you do happen to copy any of my material - including photographs - or repeat it in any way online, I would remind you that it is copyright and would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you. (I recently came across one of my best tomato photographs - one that I took to publicise the first Tomato Festival - being used online, as the picture on someone else's Twitter profile. Simply unbelievable cheek and legally that is plagiarism! Needless to say that person was otherwise anonymous!)

The Vegetable Garden August/September - 2020

August contents:  How to grow your own saffron.....  Planning ahead is the best way to have healthy food all year round..... Sowing salad crops in modules now means the best conditions for germination.....  Growing your own means zero food miles, fresher, cleaner and cheaper too.....  Keeping crops harvested is vitally important now.....  Mulching well looks after vitally important worms and protects soil fertility......


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

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

Saffron is extremely expensive to buy but is actually incredibly easy to grow!  It's simply a type of hardy crocus, and you can grow Saffron bulbs in exactly the same way as any other crocus. In the Middle Ages - Saffron Waldon in Essex was the centre of saffron production in England - hence its name. One of the reasons was the very dry, sunny climate there - which is a curse for many vegetable gardeners, but is just perfect for saffron production, as warm, dry and sunny conditions are exactly what it likes. This is why it is such a commercially important crop in Middle Eastern countries, which have the perfect climate for it. Originating in the eastern Mediterranean - Saffron has been valued both for cooking and for its medicinal properties since the Bronze Age, and was depicted in the Minoan cave paintings of Crete.
A warning here!  It is vitally important to remember that it is ONLY Crocus Sativus (to give it it's correct botanical name) which is the kind of crocus with edible stigmas!  Other members of the crocus family are toxic if eaten!  It is also the orange-coloured, thread-like stigmas that produce the saffron NOT the stamens as I heard one so-called 'food expert' say recently!  (You can see them very clearly in the picture above).
The part which we buy as dried saffron is the dried stigma of the flower, and each flower will have at least one of these which splits into three as it emerges from the flower. These are best picked before midday, when the flower is dry. If it becomes wet, then the stigmas can become runny and the saffron is ruined, as much of the flavour and important nutrients are lost. This is why I grow it in pots in my polytunnel in our damp Irish climate. Saffron is rich in flavonoids, vitamins and unique carotenoid phytochemicals, which recent research has shown may be therapeutic for many conditions including depression, may have an anti-aging effect on our cells, and is also cytotoxic - meaning it has been shown to kill cancer cells in the laboratory. I've certainly always thought of it as an uplifting, 'feel-good' spice. I believe that a saffron-rich Paella or risotto is one of the most comforting dishes in the world - and it's sunny colour alone is definitely a 'mood-lifter' in winter when many of us need a sunny-feeling uplift!
Saffron bulbs are available for planting now in some garden centres, but you can also easily get them online which I prefer, as the ones sold in the packs which available garden centres are not the biggest bulbs - and larger bulbs will give more flowers immediately - therefore more saffron. in the Netherlands sells organic bulbs. I prefer to buy organic bulbs for the obvious reason that a flower produced from any bulb or plant will contain a combination of all of the systemic chemicals and pesticides used in it's production, which are absorbed by the plant's tissues as it builds itself up to produce it's flowers for next year. All organic herbs, spices and other edible plants have also been proven to contain up to 70% more of the active phytochemicals which give them their flavour and health benefits - so it's well worth buying organic if only from that perspective. Of course organic farmers don't use any pesticides which harm bees and other endangered important biodiversity, and they also maintain soil fertility and restore soil carbon so vital in the fight against climate change - so it's worth supporting organic production from every perspective.
Bulbs need planting as soon as possible now, as they are available from August onwards, but some suppliers will often have cheaper offers in September, when they may want to get rid of any leftover stock. They may have even cheaper offers once the correct planting time is over - but these bulbs are still worth planting, because they will actually flower in their first year. After that they may possibly take a year off, just producing leaves and building up the bulb's strength again for flowering, just as many flower bulbs will if planted late. As they are perennial bulbs, they will flower again the year afterwards, if fed well while in leaf, and every year thereafter. In fact if you're really kind and feed them well when they're in green leaf after flowering and are still growing and building up their reserves - they may even not take a year off at all!
They need planting at a depth of about 15 cm or 5-6ins, and about 10 cm or 3-4ins apart, then covered with soil, in a very well-drained spot in full sun.  This can be either outdoors in well-drained soil or even in a well-drained container on a balcony!  Alternatively - you can grow them in a tub in a polytunnel as I do where they enjoy the summer heat to ripen the bulbs. Alternatively they can be grown in the tunnel permanently, but as they don't like being shaded by other crops and are very hardy, I find a container in the tunnel is best.  Then you can move it outside if more space is needed. The container can be put outside in full sun somewhere out of the way once their crop has been harvested in November, but never let them get waterlogged or they will rot. The other very good reason for growing them in a tunnel is that the flowers are protected from rain when they're flowering, so the stigmas are dry. This is very important - because there's nothing worse than watching all that lovely saffron-coloured liquid running down the flower stems after heavy rain!  In a polytunnel or under a cloche they're completely protected and your valuable saffron won't be ruined!
Each flower will produce three orange stigmas from around mid-October through to November. Pick them as early as possible in the morning by parting the petals and pulling them out of the centre of the flower very gently by hand. It's very fiddly to do - which is why it's such an expensive spice. No one has yet discovered a way of mechanically harvesting it - it is all done by hand - and it must be really hard labour bending over to pick an entire field of it! I prefer to harvest it this way rather than picking the whole flower as they do when it's grown commercially - later all sitting around tables in the traditional way and chatting while they separate the saffron from the flowers. If you don't pick the flower - this remains lovely to look at for longer as you've removed the stigmas, and the flower can then die down as it naturally would afterwards - returning it's nutrients to the bulb. I harvest the stigmas directly onto paper kitchen towels in a tray, which I then place on a cake tray or something similar to dry them for a few days. Then I just fold up the paper and store them on it in an envelope, or in a glass jar protected from light, once they are thoroughly dry.
Just as with any other bulb - the thin leaves that appear with, or just after, the flowers should never be cut off - they will die down naturally at the right time the following spring. They are there to make food for the plant and to build up the strength of the bulb for next year. While the bulb is still in leaf it's a good idea to give an organic liquid feed a few times, in order to build up the bulb's energy for flowering the following year. As they originate in dry mountain ranges where they're baked in summer and very cold, but very well drained in winter - give them conditions as near as possible to those and they will thrive - producing up to 3 offsets (baby bulbs) each year which increases your stock gradually. You can lift the bulbs when the leaves have died down and replant the new offsets, which will take a couple of years to reach flowering size themselves. Alternatively, you can just leave the clumps of bulbs until they appear overcrowded, then just lift them, split them up and replant.
The only pest I have ever experienced with growing saffron is mice - and they really are an absolute curse!  Particularly at this time of year after the adjacent fields are harvested and they're looking for more food to store for the winter!  They just love the bulbs and will dig loads of them up and eat them all overnight. Even covering with small mesh wire netting doesn't work unless the mesh is minute - as they can squeeze through - so mousetraps are sadly the only option if you're growing at ground level! Put traps down as soon as you plant the bulbs, but make sure these won't kill small birds by covering the traps with small mesh wire netting! 

Mouse-proof Saffron growing in tubs on grow bag trays resting on upturned buckets sitting in water in grow bag trays - mice hate water!The photo here shows my mouse-proof way of Saffron growing - in tubs on grow bag trays resting on upturned buckets sitting in water in grow bag trays. A bit complicated but it works, because mice HATE water!
The other alternative if you have a rodent problem is to grow the bulbs raised off the ground or staging, either in hanging baskets or pots sitting on top of upturned pots, so that the mice can't climb up!  A few years ago, I invented my 'Moat Method' - which I also use to protect valuable auriculas or seedlings from vine weevil and slugs. I grew the Saffron bulbs in tubs on 'grow bag' trays, resting on upturned buckets sitting in water in grow bag trays - mice really  hate water!  It was easy enough to do and worked perfectly - none stolen!
I know it seems a lot of bother for what seems like a very small crop - but when you consider how much saffron costs, and experience a luscious Risotto or Paella made with your very own full-flavoured, home-grown saffron - you'll feel so proud and know exactly why you went to all the trouble!

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


Although this is a really hectic time for gathering and preserving summer crops both outside and in polytunnels - thinking ahead is really key at this time of year. Good planning now will really pay off in late autumn and winter. If you don't have protected space like a tunnel or greenhouse - and haven't so far sown any winter crops - then this month is really your very last chance to sow many crops that you will get a decent return from in the open ground over the autumn and winter - perhaps given the extra protection of frames or cloches. There are plenty of suggestions in the sowing list for this month.
I also always try to make sure that all the ground in the vegetable garden is covered either with something that will give a crop in late autumn and over winter, or with a green manure which will improve and protect it's fertility and structure. That may then later be covered with a rainproof dark cover of some kind to kill off the top of the green manure used and let the worms begin to work on decomposing it and pulling the plant material in. Then all I have to do to prepare ground for early crops in early spring is just scratch over the surface which by then will be nice and crumbly - the worms having done most of the work! I know it's difficult to think about the winter when we still hope to enjoy some more summer - but if you don't think ahead now - then you'll be very sorry later. I always start to sow my winter salads and other important crops at the end of July - when the last thing one wants to think about is winter! The thing is though - a lot of late autumn and winter crops like chicories, kale, pea shoots etc. all need a long growing season even for growing undercover. Just sowing a couple of weeks later means you'll get far later and smaller crops - or you may possibly not get a worthwhile crop at all. Faster-growing things like Oriental salads and other leafy veg like spinach and watercress can be left until the end of this month or even early September to be sown. 
Sowing salad crops in modules now means the best conditions for germination
At this time of year, sowing in modules is particularly valuable for crops that prefer cooler conditions while germinating. Crops like lettuce and spinach will germinate more easily, since you can give them ideal conditions - something you can't always be sure of in the open ground.  Germination of some crops, particularly lettuce, can be inhibited by too high a temperature in the first 48 hours after sowing - so I tend to sow lettuce and spinach in particular, in the afternoon or evening, and then keep the modules in the shade of a north facing wall for a few days until they're all well germinated. This is the main reason people can find lettuce difficult at this time of year - and sowing in modules in the cool this way completely avoids that problem. After they're all well germinated - then I move them into better light, still shading from the sun a bit as it can be very strong at this time of year. Sowing into modules also means you can give plants more protection from slugs, which is the other major cause of seedling losses. Plants in modules or pots also tend to grow on a bit faster, which is useful if you're a bit behind with your seed sowing and they're also out of reach of slug damage if they're on a table or other structure raised off the ground!  Starting off your winter salads this way means that as soon as a summer crop is finished - you'll have lovely big plants in modules that you can plant into nice neat rows with no gaps and away you go! 
Lettuce 'Jack Ice' -  early Sept.                         Endive White Curled One  of the best overwintering lettuces - 'Lattughino'
Lettuce 'Jack Ice' in early September.                    Endive 'White Curled'                       Lattughino - one of the best winter lettuces
With the price that vegetables may well be in the shops - if they're available at all in the event of a 'No Deal' Brexit at the end of this year - and possible lack of availability of many other crops due to the Pandemic - it really makes sense to grow all that we possibly can ourselves. Salads are particularly important crops to grow in winter - when there is almost nothing other than baby leaf spinach in the shops - and even then it's at least two days old at best, and already losing vital nutrients. Anyway - I could never bring myself to buy any sort of bagged salad. If I had no option - I would buy organic baby leaf spinach but only for cooking - never for eating raw!
Growing your own means zero food miles, fresher, cleaner and cheaper too.
Farmer's markets are the only other alternative if you want to buy a better selection of organic vegetables.  But make sure they're genuinely certified organic by asking what organisation they are certified by - and checking, if you have any doubts. (They should always display their organic certification number on their stand. They won't mind you asking in the least if they're genuine organic producers, because checking the validity of produce is good for them as well, protecting them from fraudsters. They pay a hefty licence fee to be inspected and verified every year - so the last thing they want is anyone trying to cheat - by trying to pass off their produce as organic if it's not!)  As salads are so easy to grow yourself though - they are always my first priority for sowing all year round. As soon as one crop is planted from modules - then another is sown in order to keep up the continuity - gradually changing over to sowing tunnel crops at the end of this month and throughout September.  I'd far rather have too much than not enough - the hens are always grateful for any surplus and all the greens make for healthy hens which lay wonderful eggs with fabulous, orange-coloured, carotene-rich yolks! 
My 'stepladder' garden, beside the log bag raised beds - end of March
There are some really good varieties of overwintering lettuce now - and you've still just got time to order them! Varieties like Jack Ice (from Real Seeds UK), 'Fristina', 'Belize' and 'Lattughino' are excellent. The Organic Catalogue in the UK luckily still has the wonderful winter lettuce Lattughino available this year - but how much longer they will have it is hard to know, now that it's been taken over by Suttons/Dobies - who are in fact owned by the global multinational seed giant Groupe Limagraine! If you grow Lattughino this year though - you can save your own seed next year as it's not an F1 hybrid.  It crops for months - from late September until the following May, by just picking individual leaves from the outside every so often rather than the whole head,and also watering well in spring as the weather warms up. Another terrific lettuce for winter growing is 'Jack Ice', which I discovered a few years ago, and is from Real Seeds. It's a really good-flavoured, crunchy, loose-leaved lettuce with leaves like an 'Iceberg' but which don't make a heart - so you can go on picking the lovely crisp leaves all winter long. In addition to that, as the leaves are all green, they are far more nutritious than 'Iceberg'. So far I've found it to be very hardy both in the tunnel and outside - and I also find it doesn't bolt easily all year round - so it's at the top of my list now, along with Lattughino.  
Even the very cheap 'value' ranges of lettuce seeds are also good for over winter. They're cheap because they're usually open-pollinated, easy-to-grow varieties that are tough, hardy and grow like weeds! I mean seriously - where else could you potentially get 1200 lettuces for 60 cents - if all of them germinate? That's about 5 year's supply at least by my reckoning!  I buy those to grow for my hens, to supply some of their winter greens when grass is short - but we often end up eating them ourselves too! Those I tend to sow in a pinch of 5-6 seeds per module and don't bother to thin at all, planting them out just as they are, because they seem to mostly be the loose-leaf types which don't mind this treatment one bit. Endive is another great winter salad that crops all winter. White Curled is a very good variety that will go on cropping well into early spring - under cloches, in a cold frame or in a polytunnel.
If you don't have a garden, then it's easy to grow salads in pots, in a good peat-free organic compost. If you're short of space you could even try my 'stepladder garden' idea which produces an amazing amount of salads throughout the winter from plants growing in recycled mushroom boxes, again filled with peat-free organic compost, on each step! Recycled skip or log bags make great raised beds too. The picture above was taken in March but they're useful all year round, being warmer and more well drained than anything growing in the ground in winter, particularly if they're sited against a south-facing wall. Lamb's lettuce is another good, very hardy winter salad for outside - and even watercress can be grown from seed or from cuttings. It's much hardier than many people think - it should overwinter well under cloches.  It does so brilliantly in the tunnel and you can keep picking it all winter. 
This year I've planted a Brexit stepladder garden, crammed with as many fast growing salad leaves as possible, to prove that you can grow something useful even in the smallest space to supplement your diet.  Fresh veg may be in short supply, as Brexit may affect fresh food supplies from the EU - where a lot of veg imported into the UK and Ireland comes from now.  Get some seeds sown in modules and in Sept I'll show you how to plant it up. - So watch this space!
Why not try some Claytonia (also called miner's lettuce or Winter Purslane), if you haven't done before?  It's higher in Vitamin C than anything else you can eat in the winter. It's also very hardy, very attractive in salads and if left to go to seed in the spring, you will have it forevermore, so you'll never have to buy seed again! One well known garden writer who came to stay here a few years ago said that she thought it was an absolute nuisance - but I love it and any stray seedlings are easily hoed out. If ground is bare it also sows itself around conveniently making an instant, well-behaved and quickly biodegradable green manure which worms absolutely adore! It's a really good-natured and adaptable plant that I would really hate to be without! 
Another staple of mine here both in the tunnel and outside is chard - which is almost two vegetables in one, with delicious spinach-tasting leaves and crunchy coloured stems. Ruby, Silver or Golden stemmed Swiss chards are all easy to grow - I sow them two seeds to a module and then thin to leave three plants per module. My favourite is Ruby Chard which is more nutritious than the plain white variety, being higher in phytonutrients. Chard seeds are really clusters of seeds - so you may often get 3 or 4 plants from one seed but you can't always guarantee that - so that's why I always sow 2 as you can't afford to lose time by having to sow more at this time of year. When they're big enough, I plant out about 45cm/18ins apart both outside and in the tunnels and they produce a far bigger crop this way than thinned to one plant per spot. Although they're a very hardy crop - they really appreciate some protection from wind and cold and will crop reliably all winter. The same goes for perpetual spinach beet. My other winter favourite that I'm never without is my own wonderful strain of Ragged Jack kale, which is one of the most useful vegetables I grow. I multi-sow it in blocks at this time of year, plant the block out as they are - not thinning, and then pick it all winter, both in the tunnel and outside. First as baby salad leaves, then as bigger leaves and then finally it bears wonderful flower buds in spring which we like better than sprouting broccoli. It's an absolute paragon of a vegetable!

Keeping crops harvested regularly is vitally important

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

Mulching well looks after vitally important worms and also soil fertility

One of the main reasons for mulching is that if soil is bare at this time of year your worms will also go much deeper to avoid dryness and high temperatures, which they don't like, so mulching to keep soil cool and moist is a must. You really want worms to stay in the upper layers of the soil, working through organic matter to make any plant foods available for your crops. Although there's an increasing awareness now about how vital bees are, which is excellent, worms - like bees, are absolutely vital to the whole ecology of the garden and in fact of the whole planet! Many people don't appreciate this. A friend rang me a while ago to say she had just read a book on pests and diseases which actually listed worms as a pest, because they make worm casts on lawns! Absolutely unbelievable.- When you think about it, after people kill all the worms in their croquet lawns or bowling greens (why else could you possibly want an immaculately smooth lawn?) they must have terrible drainage problems - having to scarify, to kill the moss growth caused by the lack of drainage, spike them to aerate and then add sand, then fertilise!  What a palaver and what an amount of chemicals - all just to get a smooth green lawn!  Worms would have done all that for free - if you let them!  Thereby saving an awful lot of man-hours, pollution and carbon! You can just sweep the worm casts in with a good stiff bristled yard brush - they're a free natural fertiliser of the very best kind. Ditto golf courses! These days one might describe the game of golf - ("a good walk spoiled" as someone once aptly described it) - as also coming with a massive carbon footprint - despite the fact that golf courses need grass which in theory absorbs carbon! 
Pesticides and herbicides don't just kill bees! These toxic man-made chemicals also kill worms and other essential soil life - without which mankind won't be healthy for very long.  Next time you walk on the earth - don't think of it as just so much dirt under your feet. Think of it as the living, breathing, complex and multi-layered world, full of the life-giving organisms contained in it - and give it the respect it truly deserves! We depend on the earth for our survival and abuse it at our peril! There's a lot of talk about vertical farms and hydroponics lately - but plants drip-fed with nutrient solutions can't produce healthy food, as they by-pass all of the vital soil-dwelling organisms that plants need to keep both themselves and us healthy, and which also fix climate-changing carbon from the atmosphere.
The actions of worms makes plant foods more available to all the billions of soil bacteria which then act like a digestive system in the 'gut' of the soil to make nutrients readily available for plant roots to absorb. A healthy range of bacteria in the soil helps the plant's immune system to function correctly in exactly the same way that a healthy gut is essential for our immune system. You may remember this is something I talked about in more depth a couple of months ago. It's a vitally important process. Without worms and their associated bacteria, and other soil organisms like mycorrhizal fungi, plant debris does not break down into what is known as humus, which is gradually absorbed into the soil and fixes carbon. Without worms globally - we would all be literally buried under millions of tons of unrotted plant debris lying around everywhere in a very short time. Without worms working in your garden soil - when you put compost or a mulch onto the surface - it just stays there in exactly the same state, instead of gradually disappearing as it should. Nature worked out this perfect ecological balance - where everything works together.
My son caught me apparently talking to myself in the potting shed several years ago (I do it all the time!) I explained that I was talking to the worms in my homemade worm bin - Dendrobaenas - which work through food waste much faster than the more usual red tiger worms. He raised his eyes to heaven and said "OMG Mum - your obituary will be entitled "The Woman Who Talked To Worms"!  I replied that I would be delighted as there could actually be far worse things to talk to!  Anyway I love my worms - they're doing such a great job and I was just telling them so!!  Hey - I talk to plants, so what's wrong with talking to worms? I mean I can see them actually doing something! They do react suddenly to loud noises, so they can in effect hear or feel sound waves - so why might they not react to my positive and encouraging dulcet tones?!!  I've had those Dendrobaena worms for a few years now - they do a fantastic job of processing our kitchen waste with great gusto. I got them mail order from Finnis worms in the North of Ireland. Dendrobaena are in fact a type of earthworm, but not the 'deep tunnelling' type. They live in the top few centimetres of soil, processing plant wastes, a job at which they are the most efficient of all worms. Most municipal composting systems now use them exclusively. They will even eat mouldy bread and left over pasta - which you can't put onto the normal compost heap. 
You mustn't put meat scraps, fat or dairy leftovers into worm bins - so our dogs get those, but you can put finely-ground eggshells into it as this is beneficial and provides calcium which worms need, as they prefer a soil pH of about 7.  I dry them out in the bottom oven of the range oven first and then put them in a tough plastic bag and stamp on them. Doing a bit of creative visualisation at the same time - it's very therapeutic - especially if someone has annoyed me! I'm particularly thinking here of people who keep lifting ideas, content and even sometimes photographs from my blog, barely disguising stuff and presenting it as their own work with no attribution or credit to me!  The other people who seriously annoy me are the pro-glyphosate nutcases who just keep quoting mindlessly straight from the Monsanto PR playbook and refuse to read studies showing how toxic the stuff is!  - Anyway - the only thing here that actually goes into the brown recycling bin now is bones - after stock making of course (or broth as some trendy people now call it!)  I wonder if there's a sort of domestic scale grinder out there which would turn them into bonemeal fertiliser? (Sadly bones don't break down in the soil - which means I'm still finding bones in the garden which my old labrador Lara - the children's gentle nanny for 14 years - buried in her favourite spots more than thirty years ago! Those and the old half-eaten tennis balls I come across occasionally bring back so many happy memories and make me smile - so they're now serving another purpose!
Remember - love and respect your worms!  They make it possible for us to exist.  Don't kill them by using weedkillers, artificial fertilisers and poisonous pesticides which are death to all soil life - not just worms! Remember that a healthy living soil is vital for our health too. Perhaps we could instigate a 'Wonderful Worms Week' to make people more aware of their importance and celebrate them, instead of trying to get rid of them because they think they're a nuisance. Now there's an idea!
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material - or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)

The Polytunnel Potager - August/September - 2020

August contents:  A gloriously abundant - but hectic time in the polytunnel!.... Growing new potatoes for Christmas..... Barely controlled chaos!..... Aubergines, Peppers and Tomatoes..... How to get second crops of Climbing French Beans.....Time to think about winter now!..... Routine jobs......

 A small selection of just some of the produce currently available from the polytunnel.  It's a sumptuous feast for the eyes, the body and the brain!

 A small selection of just some of the produce currently available here.  It's a sumptuous feast for the eyes, the body and the brain!


A gloriously abundant - but hectic time in the polytunnel!


At the moment every day seems to be a mad dash to get some crops preserved - and to think up some new recipes for using the produce which just can't wait another minute to be picked and eaten NOW!  But time and the days are getting shorter for gardeners and polytunnel growers.  We urgently need to think ahead to winter and possible shortages of veg later on.  If you haven't already got more than enough seedlings to fill your tunnel or greenhouse for the winter, then sow some more while there is still some chance that they will make enough growth to give you good crops over the winter, or you won't have any until early spring.  I always think that it's far better to have too many in case I have a disaster with one crop - rather than not enough.  And if I end up with too many seedlings, surplus to requirements - then there are always plenty of delighted recipients!  I've already sown crops like Sugar-Loaf chicory, kales, perpetual spinach beet, and chards etc which I find so useful over winter, and I've also rooted lots of new watercress plants - but there are still plenty of faster growing crops you can sow now that will give you useful crops this autumn, as well as continuing on through the winter if we have a mild one. With our winters having been so wet over the last few years, I've tended to rely on the polytunnel more and more as the most reliable source of fresh winter food - particularly salads. I'll be sowing more of those this month.  


Before our supper every evening - I like to mindfully say the 'grace' which I unthinkingly repeated parrot-fashion, as fast as possible, before every meal while at school - but which now has so much more meaning..... "For what we are about to receive - may we be truly grateful" -  Because we truly are so grateful to Nature for her abundant generosity, and to all of the wonderful creatures which help us to grow such vibrantly life-giving food.


Growing new potatoes for Christmas



What a colour! Fab blue smashed potatoes - 'Blaue Anneliese'
What a colour! Fab blue smashed potatoes - 'Blaue Anneliese'

I've already potted up some potatoes for Christmas - especially important for us this year, as I grew all of my potatoes in pots and none outside in the ground.  This was because the surgery for my dodgy ankle was postponed due to Covid19, and I wasn't able to get enough ground ready early enough, so we've eaten a lot of those already. The only potatoes which I did plant in the ground were planted in the polytunnel, quite late for me, on 23rd March, as they didn't arrive early enough to be sprouted well before that. I planted just one row of the healthy, anthocyanin-rich, maincrop variety 'Blaue Anneliese' down one side of one of the raised beds.  I can't tell you how impressed I am with this potato from Fruit Hill Farm in Co Cork - it's a new variety to me -- but is without doubt the best-tasting and best-textured blue/purple variety I've ever grown.  It's fluffy when just cooked, and yet oddly enough - waxy and firm when cold.  Not qualities usually found combined in one potato, but which make it very useful. It makes fabulous potato salad, wonderful saute potatoes and deliciously fluffy purple smashed potatoes - what more could one ask of any potato? 


In addition to that though, so far it's also the healthiest looking, and clearly the most disease-resistant of all the purple potatoes I've grown over the last 35 years I've grown them!  It is still growing so strongly and looking so healthy that I'm leaving it be for now, until we've eaten all of the rest in pots.  It's more than happy to be left alone, with just an occasional careful watering at the roots and never wetting the foliage, which would cause blight.  At this stage it has already covered the entire bed and is now half covering the main centre path on the opposite side of the bed, and still looking astonishingly healthy!  I could really do with the space to plant some autumn and winter crops now - but far be it from me to upset a potato which is clearly so thoroughly still enjoying itself at this time of year!  I think I shall leave it to grow for as long as it wants to - as an experiment. It will be interesting to see if it finally goes down with blight - although the Fruit Hill Farm website said that it is resistant to late blight. We shall see - currently it is looking resistant to everything - although I usually lift all my potatoes before the end of August because rodents often become a problem, and I doubt it will be resistant to them!.


You can use any sprouted potatoes to plant for Christmas potatoes, as all of them will grow, but first and second early types are the most reliable if you have any left from early crops. Alternatively you can buy suitable tubers for growing Christmas crops from garden centres now - although these may not necessarily be the best-flavoured types. These are just tubers which have been kept in cold storage from the same spring planting seed tuber crops that suppliers would have been selling in spring.  I do that every year with some of my spring planting tubers saved from the previous year - which by this time look shrivelled and often have very long sprouts on them - often 30 cm or a foot long!  Long sprouts aren't a problem though - I just lay them on their side and wind them gently around the pots - usually using 2 or 3 litre pots for these Christmas crops. They soon take off like rockets as they're so delighted to finally be planted. I also normally save healthy some small, healthy-looking tubers from the current year's early crops. Either way works just fine. 


If I'm saving some of my early crop from the same year for doing this - I dry them off in the sun for a few days and let them go green, then I put them in the fridge to chill them for a week or so before planting in the pots.  But I'm not sure doing that is strictly necessary.  Potatoes are always keen to grow whatever the time of year - as anyone who has ever accidentally left a forgotten bag of them half-finished at the back of the veg cupboard will know!  When they're potted, just keep them outside for a few weeks somewhere where they'll get good air circulation, to hopefully avoid late blight. Then bring them into the polytunnel as soon as any frost is forecast.  From then on always cover them at night with fleece just in case, and don't over-water or they may rot at this stage as they won't be growing strongly any more - just 'ticking over'. It may seem like a bit of a faff I know - but at Christmas your 'new' potatoes will be a real treat - and you'll be so glad that you went to the trouble of doing them!


If the variety you are growing isn't a first or second-early one, and isn't ready in time for the festive season - then just as long as you don't let them get damaged by frost, and keep covering them at night with some fleece - then they'll just keep growing on after Christmas, through a few more weeks until they are finally ready. I've often done that depending on what variety I'm growing - and in fact they'll be even more welcome in a dismal, dark January than they will be at Christmas - when there are so many other goodies to eat! I may even plant some more of the 'Blaue Anneliese' to see what they do - although they're a late maturing, maincrop really, so I doubt they'll be ready for Christmas.  They're also so vigorous that they're not very happy in pots either - but I might put a few in very large tubs as an experiment.  Apart from the obvious advantage of growing our own fresh food, especially varieties which I could never buy - experimenting is what keeps me interested in gardening.  Finding new and better varieties and new ways of growing them is always exciting.  When I stop being excited by that - then I shall give up! 



The most important place in my Polytunnel Potager - my seat under the peach trees. Here I sit and think - surrounded by scented herbs & flowers, with lemon verbena either side of me, Nicotiana behind me - bees buzzing, butterflies dancing around me and birdsong.... This is my personal Narnia - pure Paradise!


Barely Controlled Chaos best describes the polytunnel right now!
The picture above shows a small selection of some of the produce which I'm picking from my polytunnel now. Trying to take a picture that shows you the entire polytunnel would be absolutely impossible - you wouldn't be able to see a thing, except leafy jungly abundance!  It's a veritable fruit and veg festival at the moment - stuffed with good things to eat in every possible corner - in every nutritious colour of the rainbow! And the kitchen is full of crates of produce being preserved for the winter - so that's even more chaotic!  The picture shows just how much fabulous produce it's possible to grow in a polytunnel without using any chemicals - just by working with Nature and a bit of TLC. I love to take lots of pics at this time of year - it's so nice to have them to cheer myself up in the depths of a long wet Irish winter!  It's also nice to have lots of produce stored for the winter. Anything that doesn't get eaten fresh makes it's way either into the freezer or dehydrator. There are 11 varieties of tomatoes in the picture, most of which are either made into my 'Totally Terrific Tomato Sauce' and frozen in portions (recipe in that section) - or just frozen whole for saucing later, if I'm short of time. Only Rosada and Incas dehydrate really well - but Blush is quite good too. And all the fruit makes a really special treat when semi-dehydrated to soft 'leather' stage into chewy fruit sweeties! They're the only kind of sweets that get eaten here - with the occasional bit dunked into melted dark chocolate - now that's serious decadence!


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

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


The picture above provides a small 'vignette' of my polytunnel potager garden - which is repeated in various combinations all around.  I try to have a balanced ecology which echoes the garden outside and because of this it's almost impossible for anyone to get a true picture of what's really happening in there - especially at this time of year. Unless one examined it inch by inch - it's so like a jungle that it's impossible to see it all! So many things are growing through things, around things, underneath and up and over things - just as Nature grows things. There's a riot of vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs, with happily buzzing bees and butterflies everywhere - and also sparrows and other small birds flitting around hunting for insects to feed their broods. There's even a few resident frogs. 


It's very hectic and really difficult to see anything too clearly, and to get a sense of just how much is really going on - one just sort of 'feels' the energy of it.  There are no neat rows of crops with wide, uncultivated bare spaces in between, as one sees in so many polytunnels, because that's not how Nature grows things. I think the best term for it is 'controlled chaos' - barely!  It's a fine line I know - and one has to take care that things don't sometimes get smothered, or that by reducing air circulation too much one encourages disease. Science is now proving what I always knew in my gut from observing Nature - and that is that communities of plants are actually much healthier than monocrops of just one type of plant.  Plants are just much happier growing together. I don't give the way I grow any special title - like Permaculture or No Dig or Agroecology, because I don't feel the need for a 'badge' - and because it's all of those things and more. It's just gardening with Nature without synthetic chemicals, how Nature does it.  Which is just what I originally learnt that organic gardening is!


So often the photos of my vegetable beds look more like flower borders - but then that's just how Nature loves to grow things - and that's why the plants are happy and healthy!  Sadly though, it does make it rather difficult to take photos that don't just end up looking like one great big colourful and leafy blur!  You can see what I mean about being hectic from the picture of the sweet potato bed above! They actually have very beautiful flowers too. So as a result - this month, my polytunnel looks like a very colourful jungle! But there's a very fine line between trying to make every possible inch productive, or the whole lot descending into total chaos - and believe me - it's not far from that right now!! Hardly any space to walk around the tunnel at all without tripping over or walking on something!

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


Aubergines, Peppers and Tomatoes 


Aubergine 'Bonica'Aubergine 'Bonica' (pictured here) is as usual cropping really well. The fruits look so beautiful it's almost a shame to pick them!. Each of the plants has already produced 5 or 6 fruits and has loads of babies developing. Many companies sell the seed of this one and it's the best variety I've ever grown - it's thoroughly reliable and I now grow really good aubergines every year - despite our unreliable climate here in Ireland.
'Bonica' came out top of the Royal Horticultural Society trials about 10 years ago and it's easy to see why. It's currently producing huge, beautiful minimum 12-13oz plus aubergines faster than we can use them - some weigh over a pound or around 500g!  I freeze any that I don't use immediately. They're sliced - brushed with olive oil and frozen on sheets of grease-proof paper, then bagged for winter use. They can then be oven roasted straight from frozen.  By the way - I never salt them - it's not necessary with home grown ones and ruins their sweet, almost meaty flavour. Considering that even non-organic, chemically sprayed ones are over a euro each at least in some supermarkets - they're well worth the extra TLC and they're very happy in the recycled coleslaw buckets as you can see from the picture here! Aubergines need careful watering - never soaking them near the stem as they are very susceptible to stems rotting near the base. Peppers need the same careful cultivation and watering for the best results.
Tomato art!Tomato art! Some favourite delicious beefsteaks.
We always look forward to our first Caprese salad of the year with huge anticipation!  This year because of the heatwave we enjoyed it earlier than usual - and we've had several since. Although our absolute favourite for this is Pantano Romanesco - which has no equal for flavour if it gets plenty of sun as it has done this year - I discovered a lovely new variety of tomato a few years ago. It's a heritage variety called Moonglow which came from Simpsons seeds and has a lovely fruity, quite unusual, almost 'apricotty' flavour. We really enjoyed it with Green Cherokee, Nyagous and with a huge slice of Ananas Noir in the centre of each plate - it looked almost too good to eat, as it looked so pretty - but we managed to force ourselves!  Our classic Caprese though is usually thick slices of juicy beefsteaks Pantano Romanesco and John Baer (a wonderful very early tomato from Plants of Distinction with a split personality which produces some beefsteak-like and some classic medium tomatoes with a fabulous flavour). With it we have some really good yieldingly-soft buffalo mozzarella (pizza standard cow mozzarella just won't do for this salad!) - dressed with my pesto dressing (a frozen pesto cube dropped into in more olive oil which thaws and dilutes it), a few grinds of black pepper and prettified with some shredded basil.  Accompanied by some crusty home-made ciabatta still warm from the oven, to mop up the juices, it's heaven on earth. One is instantly transported to the Med.!  What more could you want?  You can close your eyes and feel that you're perhaps sitting in a little sun-warmed piazza somewhere in Italy, in late evening - and almost imagine that when you open them again you will see a gilded campanile silhouetted against a cloudless turquoise sky!............Ah well.......dreams cost nothing!
Tomato 'Amish Paste' - the best for tomato sauce Tomato 'Green Cherokee' - great flavoured huge emerald green beefsteak - 4.8.13 Tomato 'Indigo Rose' growing  with tagetes, basil & red clover - 6.8.13
Tomatoes Amish Paste, Green Cherokee and Indigo Rose 
I can't believe that it's already time to 'stop' the tops of the tomato plants. This year seems to have flown. When the plants have reached the top of the 8 ft bamboo canes which support them - normally when they have 7 or 8 trusses on them depending on the variety - I cut the tops off. I like to keep a bit of air circulating above the tops of the plants, so I don't like to let them grow right up to the roof of the tunnel, as many people do. Usually the plants won't ripen more than eight trusses anyway in a polytunnel in our climate here, because the air becomes more humid and the light much less as autumn approaches. In a tunnel which is only growing tomatoes, where you can keep the air much drier for them, you could allow them to carry more, by training them up twine which you let out, lowering the stem along diagonally - I used to do this when growing commercially. But most gardeners want to grow a wide range of different crops in their tunnels at the same time - this makes it more difficult to keep the air as dry as possible for crops like tomatoes, aubergines and peppers. Some other crops like cucumbers and melons need more watering - making the air much more humid, so it's really a bit of a juggling act. At this time of year it becomes even more important to be really careful with your watering - watering in the mornings if possible to allow the atmosphere to dry out a bit - rather than watering late in the evening - particularly when a cold night is forecast - as this will hasten the demise of most tender summer crops! Careful watering will ensure they last that bit longer without disease.
Pantano Romanesco - in my opinion the easiest and best tasting beefsteakPantano Romanesco - in my opinion the easiest and also the best tasting beefsteak
I walk round at least two or three times a week now with a large bucket, cutting off any damaged, diseased, or dead foliage (the 3 D's), or whenever I see something as I'm picking crops. Using a knife or scissors for a clean cut - otherwise stems may tear and then let in disease. This is really important. Diseases, particularly grey mould (botrytis) can spread like wildfire on the muggy, gloomy grey days we often get in August here in Ireland, even with all possible ventilation. It's a particular problem where we live - where we can get a sort of low cloud/sea mist for days on end, which often only lifts for an hour or two around lunchtime, often descending again around 3pm. Tomatoes really hate that sort of weather! 
The continental beefsteak types are the most vulnerable, and must be watched really carefully. I actually pick them with secateurs to avoid tearing the truss stems. Take a look at them every day and pick off anything dodgy-looking immediately. You'll often see the shrivelled dead flower petals still clinging to the end of the swelling fruit, it's a good idea to gently pick these off, it is a bit fiddly - but if you don't - disease can often start there and very quickly turn the whole fruit mouldy and rotting, and then spread to the rest of the truss. The trusses need to be kept really clean and free of any detritus. As I've said before, they are not really that happy growing here in polytunnels, they'd really much prefer the hot summers and brilliant light of the Med. - but their wonderful flavour makes a bit of extra TLC worthwhile! That thought keeps me going through the winter. You can't buy a tomato that tastes anything like them anywhere in Ireland - but they do bruise incredibly easily when properly ripened.  The commercially grown types are bred for 'travel-ability' and shelf life - not tender, melting, luscious flavour! Basil is a bit fussy too, but if you're really careful with watering, pick off browning or diseased leaves immediately and keep pinching out the flower buds - it should keep going well all summer.

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




Get a second crop of Climbing French Beans 

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

Delicious white flowered runner bean Moonlight 

A few years ago I tried another bean experiment! As you'll know if you're a regular reader - I love experimenting with different ways of growing. I also love the taste of fresh runner beans, but I live in a windy spot here - and every year, when growing runner beans outside, as soon as they're carrying a full crop in August, along come the early autumn gales and destroy them. Literally blowing them to bits - no matter how well-supported they are! So I decided to try some inside!  As white-flowered runner beans tend to set pods more easily, and I always have a lot of bees in the tunnel anyway, I thought it might be worth trying what was then a new partially self-fertile variety called Moonlight - bred by crossing a French bean and a runner bean - thinking they might be amenable to growing in the tunnel. Lo and behold - I was right! I know most people grow them easily outside - but we seem to get particularly strong 'autumn' winds up here in mid-August. Since there are always plenty of bees in the tunnels because I grow so many flowers in them - there is no problem with pollination and for the last 6 years I've had delicious runner beans from them. Moonlight is a stringless and really delicious variety - which I think has just as good a flavour as Painted Lady which was always my favourite - but sadly it didn't really like tunnel cultivation.
Time to think about winter now!
An old freezer basket covered with fine Enviromesh protecting seedlings from bad weather and pests
An old freezer basket covered with fine Enviromesh protecting seedlings from bad weather and pests
In the midst of all this glorious abundance though - it's time for a serious reality check!  I just want to remind you that you really have to start thinking really seriously NOW about winter tunnel crops- if you want any! This month is your last chance to sow many of them if you want a really good selection of salads and other crops throughout the winter.  Although there won't be room for some time yet to plant most in the tunnel and it may also be still much too hot for them on any warmer days, if you don't start sowing winter crops now - it will be too late by the time you actually have the polytunnel space clear for them. There is a marked difference between many crops sown now and the same ones sown in early September.  Sown now - most things will start to crop well in late autumn and be productive through the winter - but put it off for another month and they may not start cropping until well after Christmas. This particularly applies to calabrese (broccoli), Swiss chards, Sugar Loaf chicory and some types of lettuce. I generally do two sowings of all these veg. as a 'fail-safe' method to ensure I have them, just in case some disaster befalls the first lot I've sown.  If they all survive successfully - you'll find a space to fit them in somewhere and will be so glad of them in deepest winter! You can start sowing these in modules outside now (if you haven't done so already) then bring them in as their space becomes available as summer crops are cleared. By the way - if you have any old freezer baskets never throw them out - they're endlessly useful!  At this time of year I use them to protect small seedlings which need to be outside, but are very vulnerable to slugs or cabbage root fly, which is still very active at this time of year! An old freezer basket covered with fine Enviromesh is perfect for keeping them out completely, so that you're not disappointed by finding they have no roots, when you come to plant them in September!
Now is when good planning really pays off and it ensures that your polytunnel is as productive as it possibly can be all year round. To make the most of expensive tunnel space, you should always have something ready to plant as soon as a previous crop is cleared. There's a list of what you can sow now in the 'What to Sow in August' bit as usual. It's also a good idea to make a few notes now about this year's crops when things occur to you as you go round the tunnel - what's done well - what maybe needs a bit more space - or something you will do differently or maybe try next year, while it's still fresh in your mind. Keep a notebook and pencil in there - you'll forget by the time you get back to the house and something else interrupts your train of thought! This will help you to draw up an even better plan for next year's crops. You'll be ordering the seed for them this autumn if you want to get the best varieties as many quickly sell out.

Routine Jobs

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

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

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