"Human welfare is fundamentally linked with Mother Earth.....not just because the soil is the primary source of most of our food....but because it occupies a key position in the rhythmic cycle of life itself." - Stanley Whitehead. (
from Mother Earth - the Journal of The Soil Association, Winter 1947-48)
The dead and impoverished 'soil' I inherited 35 years ago
A lump of that original soil sitting on my lovely soil now!
The two pictures above show an example of how any soil can be healed - even one so badly degraded by industrial chemical agriculture that it's almost devoid of all life!
The picture on the left shows the totally exhausted soil which I started off with here 35 years ago - so badly degraded and impoverished that not even weeds wanted to grow! The one on the right shows a lump of that very same soil sitting on a bed of the soil which I now have - a vitally alive, healthy, humus-rich soil full of the vital microbial life that keeps both plants and us healthy. I'm not superwoman, I'm partially disabled and I don't have any help here. It won't take you 35 years - it can be done! And from the moment you start to heal your soil you will become part of the solution - and not part of the problem. The health of the entire planet - as well as the health of all biodiversity including humans - depends on a healthy soil. Without a healthy soil - we cannot grow healthy crops full of the vital nutrients which we evolved to eat to keep us healthy.
Last year I had the great honour of being invited by 'The Environmental Pillar' (an advocacy coalition of 28 Irish environmental groups) to give a presentation at the Irish launch of the European 'People4Soils' initiative at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, on Monday 5th December. They asked me if I would talk about what practical action gardeners could take to help to restore soils. I was delighted to accept their invitation as soil is a subject very close to my heart and which I am absolutely passionate about. It was with the above quote that I began my presentation. Looking back through over 36 years of photographs, to find the best ones which illustrated the points in my presentation, brought back so many memories for me and it was a great pleasure. For the benefit of those who weren't able to attend, I'm repeating my opening and closing few words here. The talk was filmed - and you can watch it here (apologies for the sound quality and background noise!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjN30StFsf0
The enthusiasm and energy from all of the people who attended was infectious. A wide diversity of environmental groups were represented - not just organic farming organisations. I sincerely hope that they will all go on and continue to spread the awareness that soil is not just essential to growing healthy food for us - but also that restoring soil carbon, by regenerative organic farming methods, is absolutely key in helping to mitigate climate change. In the last 30 years we have lost approximately 30% of our soils globally, mostly through the destruction caused by intensive chemical agriculture. Felling forests, drainage and destruction of wetlands is also not just adding to this loss of carbon-fixing humus but also causing emissions of even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As the living soils in forests and peat bogs are major carbon sinks, this is having a massive effect on accelerating climate change. But there is hope that we can do something and this is what I wanted to get across. We can ALL do something!
The well-known and highly esteemed soil scientist Rattan Lal, from Ohio State University estimated a few years ago that just by restoring 2% of global soil carbon - we could mop up ALL of our current greenhouse gas emissions from whatever source....What a stunning statistic! Regenerative, sustainable organic farming and growing is the ONLY method of agriculture which can do it. Just putting back some plant wastes into soil but still continuing to use fossil fuel-derived, soil-destroying chemicals can't do that. A combination of the two simply doesn't work, as one will cancel out the other! Agricultural chemicals destroy the soil life which is vital to making carbon-fixing humus in the soil. In addition - using chemicals literally 'mines' carbon from the soil and also depletes it of many nutrients which are vital to our health and that of all other creatures.
In 1963, the late Rachel Carson - author of Silent Spring and heroine of the environmental movement said "I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with Nature, and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature - but of ourselves." - Sadly too few heeded her timely and much-needed warning. The lure of chemical farming and cheap fossil fuels proved too seductive. We thought had it all - and like irresponsible teenagers we squandered the riches of our Mother Earth to the point were in many places soil can no longer do the job it evolved to do - which is to sustain healthy life on this planet.....But like irresponsible teenagers we now have to grow up, prove our maturity and urgently take responsibility for our actions!
In the autumn of 1992 - just after the first Rio Earth Summit - I organised a lecture at the National Botanic Gardens which was given by Alan Gear - who was then Chief Executive of HDRA - now called Garden Organic, which the largest organic gardening organisation in Europe. His lecture was entitled - "The Road From Rio". His warning was again stark - that we ignore the value of soil at our peril! Hearing his motivating talk, many of us were re-energised and went home determined to do whatever we could to help raise awareness of how valuable soil is and what a vitally important contribution organic farming could make to a more sustainable future. Not just for growing healthy food but also in mitigating climate change.
I went home from Alan Gear's lecture and planted 300 more trees - many of them biomass willows, oaks, hawthorns, hornbeam and birches.I'm so glad I planted them. They've been so useful for shelter for animals and plants, for fuel and for making soil-healing compost from the smaller prunings. They're also a wonderful year-round resource for all kinds of bees, insects and other biodiversity vitally important in the connected web of life. If you only do a couple of things for our children's future and for the planet - please plant a tree or two, use peat-free compost and try to support organic agriculture if you don't have somewhere to grow your own organic food. Don't put it off until tomorrow - do it now! I know organic produce isn't cheap - but the more people who buy it the cheaper it will become and the more governments globally will sit up and take notice! Consumer power works!
Intensive farming is costing us the earth - quite literally! Fast forward over 50 years since Rachel Carson's dire warning....and the words of Rattan Lal give us hope that we CAN do something to avoid total catastrophe - and that the answer to doing that lies in the soil. But only in a healthy, living soil. It's no good us burying our heads in the sand and saying that it's all too depressing, there's nothing we can personally do, so we'll just go on ignoring it as usual! That's a mistake! It's no good either just "talking the talk" without "walking the walk" too! As gardeners or even just as consumers we can all do something. Act globally but think locally. It begins at home - we all have to eatl! We can't turn back the clock - but we CAN ensure a future infinitely better than it otherwise will be if we do nothing.
The soil that gave us life and nurtured us holds the key to our past - and the evidence of may past civilizations who didn't heed the warning signs of impending disaster........that soil also holds the key to the future of life on this beautiful earth as we know it.......and THAT KEY is now in OUR hands!
Despite low light levels at this time of year - there's still plenty of healthy food to eat in the polytunnel
The sun is very close now to reaching it's lowest point in our sky and at this time of year us gardeners are eagerly looking forward to the solstice. That's when the year will turn the corner and life giving light starts to return to our little corner of the planet, heralding a new gardening year to come. Like most of you - I can't wait! At the moment - some days are so gloomy that they barely seem to get properly light at all. Despite this, as you can see - there's still lots of lovely 'squeaky-fresh' vegetables to pick in the tunnel beds - or even just growing in containers - as you can see from the pictures here.
One of this year's beds of luscious loose-leaf winter lettuce
Home bred purple kale hybrids & Sugar Loaf chicory.
NW beds in east tunnel 2015. Broccoli in side bed cropping. Lettuce interplanted with spinach
Red curly kale picked as baby leaves for salads is also happy in a container
Salad mix Colour & Spice planted with red-stemmed cutting celery
Watercress gives lots of nutritious lush leaves even in a large tub
Lovely luscious leaves
I don't know why more people don't grow at least a container or two of mixed leaves,even if all they have is a balcony or windowsill. It's so easy if you choose the right varieties - and it needn't be very expensive. Mixed salads or lettuce mixes are always the cheapest seeds - you get far more for your money - and you can grow in almost anything that will hold compost once it's deep enough for the roots! You don't need to fill it right up with expensive peat free compost - save broken polystyrene or plastic plant trays, or even tougher un-rotted plant remains from your compost heap, and fill up the bottom with those. They'll give you good drainage as well. Most salad plants are very happy with just 10 - 12 inches of good compost to put their roots into as long as you keep them sufficiently watered. You can mix some soil into the lower layers as well - which gives the compost more water holding capacity and makes it cheaper again! When you compare it with your outlay - even just one or two meals would easily more than cover the cost of doing it! Make an early New Year's resolution for 2018 - and if you're only a summer gardener - then vow to make next year the year that you will have salads all through the winter too. Brussels sprouts and parsnips may be delicious comfort food from outside I grant you - but somehow they don't feel quite as vibrantly bursting with health as a salad picked five minutes before you eat it! I look forward to mine every day.
Planning ahead and remembering to sow winter veg. in August and September is often difficult to remember while dealing with summer gluts, but it really pays off now. Loose leaf lettuces, chicory, chards, spinach, kales, watercress, lamb's lettuce, Chinese leaves, rocket etc. are all really useful winter salads that I'm cutting now. What isn't quite perfect for the table - the hens get - which keeps them healthy and laying eggs with lovely orange yolks all winter! I would never want to be without my winter tunnel crops - you can really feel the crisp, green lusciousness doing you good! Vegetables that are often taken for granted in summer because they're plentiful, become treasures to be relied on in winter! It's so nice to be able to go out and 'pick & mix' a really varied salad every day - sort of 'dowsing' the salad beds to see what feels just right for you on that particular day! There are only pathetic organic salad or spinach bags in the shops right now and - at the moment it's mostly just baby spinach which is tired, several days old and often already practically composting in the bags! Frankly, I can think of far better ways of spending €3!
Lately my daily salad of choice has always included watercress, - which is full of healthy phytonutrients and goes well with everything. When I walk into the tunnel the watercress seems to just be screaming - "me...me...I'm the best choose me!" - it always looks so vigorous and lush. Very few people seem to grow watercress over the winter in the tunnel - although it's easy and incredibly productive. It grows very easily from seed or cuttings, grows very quickly once it gets going and just needs a constantly moist spot to thrive - even in shade. If you can find any really fresh bunches in greengrocers shops or in supermarket bags, then it's well worth trying from cuttings - that way you'll get plants a lot faster. Pinch the lower leaves off, then put the stems into a jar of water on the warm kitchen windowsill for a few days, where they should produce some fine white roots very quickly. You can then pot them up in pots or plant into the ground in your greenhouse or tunnel and keep them well watered - just covering with fleece if hard frost is forecast. Remember that watercress is a member of the brassica (cabbage family) - so take that into account in your rotation plan. As you can see here - it will even grow happily in tubs if well watered! An indispensable plant. Not only fast-growing but also one of the most nutritious salads you can eat!
Watercress is far higher in important phytonutrients than winter lettuce. Like all members of the brassica family - it's chock full of healthy nutrients - iron, Vit C and phytonutrients like sulforaphane (said to be active against cancer) and incredibly good for your health. It's recorded that the Greek physician Hippocrates even sited his clinic beside a stream in order to take advantage of being able to grow watercress in the water. He must have known something - as it was he who coined the phrase "Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food" - I'm a great believer in that. There is a common misconception that you need running water to grow watercress - but you actually don't! Just never let it dry out and it will be very happy. It's also great to grow in the polytunnel in the winter as it doesn't mind the damp atmosphere - which can kill other plants like lettuce. In fact it loves the damp and grows so thickly that it blocks out light too - not allowing any weeds a chance! Unlike among the wider spaced lettuce where the generally mild autumn here has encouraged determined self sown claytonia seedlings to keep on coming up between the more widely-spaced plants! It's really important to keep on top of weed growth at this time of year because even just a few low patches can really restrict air circulation. Weeds like chickweed in particular can hang onto moisture and encourage disease in vulnerable plants like lettuce. So keep your winter tunnel salads well weeded.
Keep ventilating the tunnel every day for at least a couple of hours if you can to avoid moist stagnant air building up - air circulation is really important to avoid diseases. Watercress is the only crop which I make sure is kept really moist at the roots at this time of year. There's barely any other watering to be done now in the tunnel - but if you think the soil looks very dry - then just scratch around just under the surface with the tip of your finger - you'll often find that it's moist enough there so needs no water. But if it feels really 'dust' dry - then just dribble a little water between plants like lettuce etc., being very careful not to go close to or splash plants, as this can cause rotting very quickly. I's also a good idea to keep an eye on the weather forecast and try to water on a day when it's forecast to be milder for a couple of days. Don't drench anything though - as with low light levels and cold temperature at this time of year things are growing very slowly and won't use it. If they're sitting in cold wet soil their roots may rot, or stems may rot at soil level.
Isuppose to some it may seem like quite a lot of faffing around, uncovering the salad beds in the tunnels in the mornings and hanging up the fleeces on the crop support bars to dry! But when you get into a routine - it only takes about 10 minutes or so and it's well worth doing when temperatures are very low. The fleeces can get very wet on some nights and left on all the time would stop air circulation, encouraging more damp air and possibly causing grey mould and rots. I use a very blunt ended bamboo cane, a bit like a long arm, to help lift the opposite side of the fleece up, wind it up and then to push the ends up and hang them over the crop support bars - as it's impossible for one person to be on both sides of the bed at once! If it's been a very cold night I wait until the tunnel temperature comes up to about 1deg C before I take fleeces off. I put the fleeces back on again in the afternoon about 3pm at the moment - closing the tunnels before temperatures dip and frost sets in. I know it's a bit of trouble but if you're at home anyway and can do it - it really makes a huge difference to what will grow well over the winter, lettuce in particular really appreciates it. Things like lamb's lettuce, claytonia and land cress don't really need it as they're very hardy - but everything grows so much better for that extra bit of TLC! Such a lovely sight greets me when I uncover the beds - it does my heart good to see so many healthy and colourful things growing so beautifully when it feels like the North Pole outside! It's almost like unwrapping a Christmas present every day - and it definitely is the best present you can give to your health, eating a good mixture of raw green leaves every day! I use old cloche hoops to rest the fleeces on which suspends them slightly over crops. I find doing that gives much better air circulation - and it the weather's really Arctic I can put a double or even triple layer on without weighing the plants down.
Another of my 'old reliables' in winter is Calabrese or summer broccoli. I've been growing the very productive variety 'Green Magic' since it was first on the market. It's the best I've found for winter tunnel production and after the main heads are cut in mid-late November from a late July sowing - it slowly produces deliciously sweet, smaller side shoots all winter long, which are lovely either raw in salads and dips or stir-fried. It's quite happy given some protection with fleece if severe frost is forecast - but otherwise doesn't need any more protection than just being inside in the tunnel. I grow it throughout the year - in mid-late January I'll sow more which will give me an early tunnel crop - and then another sowing in late March or April will see me through the summer nicely. Again it's another crop I wouldn't be without as it's so full of healthy nutrients
Our weather may soon possibly turn a lot colder - there's possible snow forecast for the end of the week! It was this week in 2010 that we got the last spell of serious snow - and although there's only light snow forecast for the North in odd places and frost down here at the weekend - it's as well to be prepared! If we do happen to get snow - it's really important to keep gently clearing as much snow as possible off tunnels, because if it's allowed to build up too much and it becomes heavy - the weight of it could split the polythene or even make the tunnel collapse! Remember gently is the watchword - polythene is much more brittle when it's very cold, particularly if it's a couple of years old. Late morning to midday seems to be the best time, because it's the warmest (ha!) time of the day inside the tunnel and it will slide off fairly easily then. I shall be happy if we get just a little snow sometime during this winter - because couple of years ago I discovered it's a very effective way of cleaning algae off the tunnels! As it slips down it scours the algae off - leaving the polythene sparklingly clear! You can encourage it by using a very soft, long handle cobweb brush. It's the only time one gets used in this house! I bought it specifically for clearing tunnel snow!
You can start sowing seeds again in late December
If you're desperate for a gardening 'fix' and want to try a few giant onions, shallots or leeks for some early crops or whoppers for next autumn's flower shows why not try sowing a few if you have somewhere warm to germinate them? It would be a waste of precious energy to use a propagator now - but they'll only need about 55/60 deg.F or 10/15 deg.C. After germination they'll be quite happy growing on quietly as long as you can give them above 45 deg.F or 7/8 deg.C with good light, protected from frost. A bright windowsill in the house is fine as long as it's not too cold, remember to turn them every day - so they get an equal amount of light on all sides and also remember to bring them inside the room before you close the curtains at night, so they don't get chilled. Another trick you can use is to fix some tin foil around one side of the pot, using a couple of small canes or barbecue skewers to fix it to so that it reflects the light. Most plants don't need very high temperatures - but they do need the very best light you can give them. If they get 'drawn' and spindly they're much more susceptible to disease. Sow them thinly, spacing them out if possible, and don't over water. In about 4- 6 weeks or so you can prick them out individually into small finger pots or modules, planting out at the end of March when they're growing strongly - or even earlier in the tunnel. Even if you don't want to enter competitions - you'll still have some really early!
Good housekeeping keeps down disease - so keep clearing up any rubbish!
As I mentioned earlier - this is particularly important at this time of year - keep clearing up any dodgy looking, mouldy, or dead and rotting leaves the minute you see them - to keep diseases at bay. Open the doors and ventilate for a few hours every day if at all possible. Even at this time of year air circulation is really important - it helps to keep the atmosphere inside from being too damp which otherwise would encourage disease. Keep a sharp eye out for those nasty little grey slugs too - there's nothing more disappointing than finding that a perfect looking lettuce is filthy and slug ridden inside! They tend to be braver in winter as the low light fools them into thinking it's dusk! Putting a few pieces of broken slate at various spots along the beds always traps them as they think they're safe hiding under those! Snip them in half or throw them to your hens if you have them - they really love the extra protein! My hens always inspect everything for slugs first before starting on the 'side' of green veg when I throw them any scraps from the tunnel! Or chuck them outside the tunnel to take their chance instead! - Well it is the season of goodwill after all - but any hungry birds will be quick to spot them too!
Don't forget next winter too - while you're busy thinking about next summer's crops
As I mentioned earlier - if you planned well back in midsummer - you should have plenty of salads, chards, kales and celery etc in the tunnel now for the winter. It's very easy to forget that winter veg does grow a lot more slowly, so you need far more of each plant for a continuous crop than you would normally plant in the summer. At least 3 times as much I would say. It's often something one only learns from experience though. When I started my 'organic box scheme' 35 years ago (the first one in Dublin), one of the first things I learnt from experience was that you must plan well - in order to have something available for customers all year round. If you don't they go somewhere else! I know it seems a long time away - but if you leave it until midsummer, you may not be able to get many of the varieties you want even by mail order, and most of the garden centres take out their seed displays in July.So when you're doing your seed orders in the next few weeks, think about next winter's veg too!
Looking after biodiversity is important - even in a polytunnel!
The tunnel is a lovely sheltered place to sit and relax and get one's recommended daily 20 mins of daylight - even in the very depths of winter. Particularly if all the cheery Christmas crowds and constant 'muzak' get a bit much! Definitely 'inheavenly peace' I can't bear shopping centres at Christmas - or in fact at any other time! At midday on a frosty but sunny day one can almost believe it's spring - with a few winter pansies, cyclamen, primroses or perennial wallflowers in full bloom, wafting their scent around you - and the birds singing while waiting for their turn on the feeders just outside the doors! Hellebores in pots are already flowering. I have my chair arranged so that I can watch their antics. A robin always appears hopefully as soon as I venture inside - he's expecting me to start hoeing! Growing mini-gardens full of wildlife friendly flowers and herbs at the ends and in the corners looks lovely and doesn't cast any shade on crops. It creates a far more natural environment - attracting in all manner of beneficial creatures. A couple of days ago on a still, mild day - there was even a brave bumble bee in there - so I was glad there were some flowers for her. Adventurous bees are so grateful for any winter flowers.
Putting an old upturned clay pot or a pile of stones in various spots, with a shallow dish of water or even a mini-pond will attract frogs too and they will often hibernate in the tunnel. They love shady damp places, and seem to just appear from nowhere! They're great for eating the tiny grey slugs which ruin lettuce hearts.
A pile of stones will give cover to ground beetles too - also voracious small slug hunters. I often find Devil's coach horse beetles in my 'mini-cairns' - they are fierce predators too. You'll just be amazed at the amount of beneficial wildlife these mini-gardens attract! Even in my smallest tunnels I always did that because it really helps to make a huge difference in controlling the pest population.
Small birds like Dunnocks, Sparrows, Robins and Wrens often spend hours in winter hunting around the edges of the tunnel - they don't mind me and I love to see them in there being busy too. It's fascinating being able to watch them closely - and it really makes you appreciate them even more.
I see the space just inside the doors wasted in so many tunnels. That space should be working for you - just like every other inch! Why not think of planting a grapevine or a kiwi fruit next year to train up and over the door. I love my Lakemont seedless grape arch and it's so productive in space that would otherwise just be empty!
Many people lose interest in the winter and leave their tunnels full of the sad, dead and disease-ridden remains of last summer's crops! Doing this is just storing up trouble for next year! A tunnel or greenhouse is a very expensive investment - every possible inch of it should be used positively and productively all year round!
Lastly - one of the most important items to have in a polytunnel is the comfortable seat in a sunny spot at one end! There, you can sit and make plans for next year - dreaming of all the abundant and delicious riches to come - snug as you like in the winter sun! Who needs a carbon-guzzling expensive winter sun holiday when you can have a sunny and productive polytunnel instead? - Not me!!
I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and many years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's very satisfying and also most complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work. But if you do happen to copy it, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would mention that it originally came from me. Thank you.
On the kitchen windowsill you can sow sprouting seeds - or 'microgreen' baby salads. They're nutritious and easy to grow in small trays of organic compost or paper towels - just as we all used to grow mustard and cress as children. Seeds such as sunflower, red amaranth, beetroot, basil, broccoli, kale, radish and of course mustard and cress etc. are all suitable and started now may be ready for Christmas. Sprouting seeds in jars is also easy to do, and can be a highly nutritious and healthy addition to winter salads. Make sure you rinse them well and regularly though if you do them in jars in a warm place - preferably rinse them 2/3 times a day, with filtered water, to avoid bacteria or disease building up.
'St. Stephen's' - or 'Boxing Day' has always been the traditional day for sowing giant exhibition onions and pot leeks - if you're into those! I prefer mine a bit smaller and tastier! Although it's a very neat way to avoid any washing up perhaps - and cold turkey might be a bit more appealing after an hour or two outside!
If you're absolutely desperate to sow something this month and have a greenhouse or tunnel with a heated mat or propagator that provides very gentle bottom heat - no more than 50 deg F/10 deg C then you could in theory sow suitable types of winter lettuces like 'Winter Gem Vaila' (little gem type) and 'Rosetta' - (a reliable indoor winter butter head) Seed of these F1 hybrids is very expensive and you don't get many in a packet - so sowing individually into modules is definitely the most cost-effective method. Sowing individually in modules also gives seedlings better air circulation, avoids any damage from 'pricking out' seedlings and possible 'damping off disease'. Having larger plants in modules for planting later also reduces the risk of slug damage.
Frankly though, the light levels are so poor now that it's really not worth risking expensive F1 seed! - Those sown in another month or so will easily catch up, be much healthier and far more sturdy, because light levels will be better. Commercial growers would obviously give these artificial light and heat - but I don't think that any lettuce grown with so much artificial heat and light is worth the resulting climate changing greenhouse gas emissions - particularly if we get a sudden very cold spell. You could try a few cheap lettuce, oriental salad mixes or other salad leaves like rocket if you want to, or even broad beans or peas in pots if you haven't done any yet - germinating inside in the warm initially and then putting them out into the light as soon as they've appeared. Realistically though you're not really going to gain very much if at all by sowing right now - wait until the very end of the month or early January - and they stand a far better chance of successfully growing on and being productive. Most things are barely 'ticking over' right now. In another month - with light levels increasing they will start to grow far better even though it's still cold.
Better to spend your time instead making a really good cropping plan, comparing the catalogues, ordering seeds and seed potatoes. Popular varieties always sell out quickly. Sorting pots and seed trays into sizes and cleaning them is also a great job you can do now to be prepared for seed sowing later.
You can sow any perennial tree or shrub seeds that may require stratification (frost exposure) in cold weather outside. Many hardy seeds need a really cold spell to germinate. Make sure you protect them well from any hungry rodents!
It's well worth trying trees and shrubs from seed - many germinate far better from fresh seed than they will from any you can ever buy from catalogues.
Garlic cloves can still be sown/planted now both outside and also in tunnels, greenhouses or cold frames, for a really early crop of big bulbs next year - most varieties need some cold weather for good root development. Thermidrome and Cristo are my varieties of choice to plant before the New Year - both are strong flavoured. The only one I've ever grown really successfully from a spring planting though is 'Cristo'.
Choose firm, plump and healthy outside cloves from 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 even bring in diseases like onion white rot. This can survive in the soil for up to 20 years and be spread around the garden on your boots! For the same reason I don't use onion sets outside in the garden.
If you want some extra early onions - then grow some sets in pots or containers. That way they'll be even earlier than they would be if grown in the ground and if you're unlucky enough to get any diseases you can just throw the compost into the food/green waste recycling bin - rather than spreading it around the garden! I grow all my onions from seed sown in early March - this avoids the possibility of onion white rot. There is some evidence now which suggests that garlic may gradually adjust to local climates - so if you find one when you're on holiday that you like and fancy growing it - then plant it in a pot the first year to make absolutely sure it's healthy - and later on plant it out in the garden. Always make sure it has really healthy looking green leaves - not yellow and stunted, twisted or yellow spotted which would indicate virus infection. Similarly, if you see any evidence of disease or virus on any bought in garlic or onion sets pull them up immediately and dispose of in the bin - not onto your compost heap!
St. Stephen's Day was also when many of the old gardeners used to plant their shallots. I prefer to wait a couple of months because onion white rot is encouraged by low soil temperatures combined with wet weather and if I'm buying in shallots sets I want to minimize that risk as far as possible. They can also be started off in pots like garlic, planting out later for extra big clumps at harvest time, or grown on in containers.
The seed catalogues are arriving through the letterbox now - I read them eagerly by the fire in the evenings. Although I prefer a catalogue that I can have in my hand - the choice available online is almost limitless now. Some serious self-control and realism is needed to curb my wildly over-optimistic plantaholic tendencies! They're all just so tempting that moderation is extremely difficult! I discovered a website actually selling 600 varieties of tomatoes 2 years ago - OMG! I left the site after about 15 minutes of painfully groaning...."I want that one - and that one - and that one"! Hard to believe that I swore 5 years ago that I never, ever wanted to grow tomatoes again (or at least not for a very long time) after growing almost 50 varieties for the Tomato Festival in the difficult 'summer' of 2012! Then having to cook all of them afterwards for the freezer - I'd really had enough of them! The problem is, there's always that enticing possibility that I might just find an even better one!...... A bit like childbirth I suppose ...... it's amazing how quickly one forgets!! But seriously - do get your seed orders done early now - before Christmas. Growing your own has never been more popular and the best varieties - or those recommended in magazines - not always the best varieties - but often those the seed companies want to push - will sell out quickly.
You may have your own favourites that do well in your particular local climate and conditions. Although each year I try a few new things, or new variations of old favourites that look as if they may be promising - as a rule I generally only recommend varieties that I've grown successfully for at least 3 years, as that generally gives me a good idea of how they'll perform. So many of the seed companies and garden writers who review the catalogues live in the south of the UK - where temperatures and conditions there are normally very different to here in Ireland! Prices tend to vary a lot too - some varieties can vary by as much as €2 a packet - so it's worth doing comparisons and shopping around! You'll kick yourself if you order something and then discover it's far cheaper somewhere else! It's surprising how costs mount up when you're doing a big seed order.
Sharing an order with friends is a good idea too - particularly since seed companies often put far too much seed in the packets sold for amateur gardeners -who on earth needs between 200-400 seeds of celery for instance? Or 300 cape gooseberry seeds! Couldn't they just reduce the price? Particularly since seed of some things like celery, carrots, parsnips etc, don't keep for very long - losing their viability very quickly once opened. If you're on holiday in Europe - it's worth seeking out a garden centre and looking at the seeds available there. A few years ago on my last holiday abroad (I only have a 'fly to' one every 7 or 8 years - hard to justify the carbon!) I found seeds incredibly cheap - just a euro for massive 'grower' sized packets. Make sure they're varieties you recognise though - or said to be early maturing ones, as some may need a much warmer climate. Not worth wasting space for a whole season on something that produces too late to ripen, or to crop well - if at all.
I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and many years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's very satisfying and also most complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work. But if you do happen to copy it, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would mention that it originally came from me. Thank you.
November contents:Storing Apples......Pruning grapes is an urgent job.....How to Prune unruly Grapes.....How to take grapevine cuttings - the easy no-fuss way.....On 'Buying Irish' or local......Reminder - time to plant bare root trees - what to do if conditions aren't suitable?....More thoughts on rootstocks......Choosing Varieties
It's a delight to pick out a daily treasure from among the 14 delicious varieties currently in my recycled old freezer 'apple store'!
It's a standing joke in this house that if you stand still for long enough then 'She' (meaning me!) will probably recycle you! I have to admit I am a big fan of recycling as much as possible and I often tend to hang onto things 'just in case' which can cause a few space problems occasionally! One of the things I've often found though is that if I throw out something which I've hung on to for years - the very next week I'll find the perfect use for it and then will no longer have it!! Possibly a form of insecurity? But it's often amazing how many things can be re-purposed with just a little imagination and ingenuity. It's not only frugal but also very satisfying being able to re-purpose something rather than just throwing it away thoughtlessly as so many people do!
One of the things I never throw out is old fridges and freezers that aren't working and can't be mended- which is always the preferred option. Their uses are myriad! While they may not be the most attractive items in the world and are definitely not as beautiful as those expensive 'artisan'-crafted, wooden slatted, apple stores - they make fantastic rodent-proof, well-insulated, variable humidity apple stores among many other things. This year I've put many of the eating apples into my late mother's old upright freezer, which finally broke down only about 3 years ago after being fixed several times over the last 25 years. It was the perfect excuse to buy a much-needed new, far more environmentally-friendly and energy-efficient one. Re-located into a cold outhouse this old one is perfect for storing smaller numbers of eating apples that ripen at various different times - from their picking time in October up until April. I also houses some of the less-damaged windfalls in a separate drawer - some of which need checking over daily. With only a few of several varieties, I've arranged different varieties in each of the drawers with the earliest ripening at the top, so that the rising ethylene gas given off by the ripening fruits doesn't set off the others off into ripening too. In the past I've learnt that this is something that can happen if you have many different varieties with different ripening times stored together. The drawers are easy to pull out to inspect them and check for any fast-ripening or damaged ones which could rot quickly if left in there and also damage others. This can happen no matter how carefully one picks them - even wind can bruise ripening apples while still on the tree and this may not be evident at the time when they're just picked.
G.K.Chesterton once said "To learn how to value something - imagine losing it". This is so true and applies to so many things -but for me - especially to orchard fruit like apples, as I've often mentioned. For several years since our neighboring farmer started growing cereals, my poor trees had been affected by the spray-drift from his hormone weedkillers every spring and so all their flower buds dropped off. Result - no apples! Having been brought up with an abundance of old heritage varieties, I missed them desperately - especially since the apples available in supermarkets are just tasteless, sugar-filled orb with tough, often bitter skins. This year however was different. With oilseed rape growing on the other side of the hedge to my orchard, the weather was a bit odd and the spraying regime was not the same. As a result, Nature worked her magic, the irreplaceable bees have done their job well and I now have enough tasty apples stored - both eaters and cookers - to see me through until the end of March.
Every day one of these treasures is picked out carefully, polished and admired like the jewel it is for an hour or so - then to be consumed at lunchtime with much appreciation! There are so few things in life that one can lose and then regain. I am so grateful for every single one of these delicious apples, with all of their deeply aromatic flavours, for along with them come so many precious memories that encompass my whole life. I went to a very interesting lecture on scent years ago that was given by an expert from the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens to the Irish Garden Plant Society - he explained that scent goes directly to the limbic system, is in fact the first sense that we gain at birth and normally the last thing that we lose. That explains why scent can be so evocative for us. G.K.Chesterton was indeed a wise man, who understood that some things are worth more than money. In fact - money can't buy these apples. If you want to eat them - then you will probably have to grow them yourself - because you definitely won't find them in any shops!
Pruning grapes is an urgent job - after the winter solstice things start to wake up again!
Pruning grapevines is reallythe most urgent job polytunnel fruit to do now - as soon as the leaves have died back and are falling - the earlier the better! Once we're in December it's a job that's so easy to forget with all the hectic preparations to be done for the festive season and then the New Year! Don't leave it until late December or early January because if we have a very mild winter, as many have been recently, the sap can start rising early - particularly with the warmer environment and soil in a polytunnel. If you prune when the sap has started rising you can seriously weaken, or may even kill a vine. While you're pruning you could even turn some of the lengths of wood that you've pruned into new plants by using them as cuttings as described below. Then you might have some young vines next year to increase your stock or give away as Christmas presents to other gardeners! You can also twist the pliable pruned lengths into a base for making a lovely Christmas wreath for your own front door - or as a thoughtful home-made present for someone else!
Pruning vine side shoots 2-3 buds from main stem or rod as it's known.
Vine cuttings from this year's pruning, lower one prepared ready for propagation.
Last year's rooted cuttings, ready to tip out, gently separate and pot up.
How to Prune unruly Grapes
People so often panic about pruning vines and then do nothing - just letting them ramble and go wild everywhere! The then become a tangled, unproductive mess with long leafy shoots growing everywhere very fast! I know it looks really difficult to know where to start when you're surrounded by a tangled mess of shoots and branches growing wildly all over the place! Believe me - I've been there!! But even if your vine is a real mess like many I've seen - it really is easy to rescue it and untangle the mess! Whatever you do to it at this time of year - you can't possibly kill it. But if you delay and leave it too late until the sap's rising - then you just might!
I now grow almost all of my vines in 'T' shapes - with branches or 'rods' as they are known branching out either side at the top of the 'T' - and trained along the sides of my polytunnel at about one metre high. Training like this means that they have a good length of stem for producing the side shoots or 'spurs' which will produce the grapes. As vines come into leaf late - in April - they don't shade any other crops this way. They're also within easy reach to pinch back the soft green side growths which will grow out from those fruiting spurs regularly over the summer - you will need to do that continually over the summer prevent another mess. Unlike woody growth, soft green growth can be pinched back at any time of year and the vines won't bleed. This is the way to keep them properly under control.
Growing them along the sides also makes use of every bit of tunnel space very productively. I don't recommend training them overhead as some people so - because doing that will shade any crops underneath and also be extremely hard to reach and difficult to deal with when they need lots of 'pinching out' of fast growing excess leafy shoots etc during the growing season in order to produce decent grapes. Grown my way they're always within easy reach and jobs don't become a major production - involving stepladders and a lot of time. (Been there - done that - fallen off the ladder!) The way I grow them is far more simple and it's far easier to keep under control. Believe me I get more grapes than I know what to do with every year - and you'll be lucky to get any if you let them become a mess - because that restricts the air circulation too - which means any bunches that do develop get disease and go mouldy!
If you're starting with a new vine then just prune at the top at about one metre or slightly lower, and next year allow two branches to grow out either side. These will be the beginning of your permanent main 'T' shaped framework. However - if you're starting on a mess - stand back and look at it for a while to 'get your eye in' and then select one or two of the strongest woody branches to be the main stems from now on, one to train either side, and then just prune any other growth back to two buds from those two main stems. The buds on these side growths from the main stem - or 'spurs', as they are called, will produce your bunches of grapes next year, and every year after that. You can alternatively just grow them as a bush if they're in a pot and allow 5 or 6 side shoots to grow out from the main trunk to form permanent branches that will produce one or two bunches of grapes each. It's up to you - vines are very flexible and will do whatever you want. The one thing you must remember is to keep on top of the pruning all summer too. It's not rocket science - dead easy! Keep it simple is my motto - and it works for me. Believe me - you won't regret doing it - just be brave!!
While I'm doing this year's pruning - I'm going to take some cuttings of the Flame Seedless grape in the east tunnel. After looking a bit 'iffy' for a couple of years - only producing one or two bunches - it's finally decided it likes it here, has at last settled down and cropped really well again this year. It's a very late variety, ripening throughout October depending how warm the autumn is, so it really stretches the grape season well. It even seems to be continuing to ripen after picking the last bunches 2 weeks ago. We're still eating the last bunches fresh as they keep really well in a cool larder or airy cool place. The other grape that has a long season is Lakemont Seedless, we're still eating the last of those fresh too.
The last fresh grapes of the year. Lakemont Seedless and Flame Seedless
How to take grapevine cuttings - the easy no-fuss way
You can use some of the pruned material as cuttings to make more vines using newly ripened wood from this year's growth.Just choose pencil thick (or more) hardened (brown and woody) shoots that you've just pruned from this year's growth, with three good buds on. You'll need a pot or bucket of old, free draining, firm gritty compost - no need to break it up or fork it over. I usually use one of the containers that grew aubergines, tomatoes, or something similar, as the nutrients will have been used up. You don't want to put cuttings into nutrient-rich compost as this can deter them from rooting. Cut off whatever now dead plant was in there before obviously - tomato, aubergine or whatever! Then just push the cuttings/twigs down firmly into the compost around the sides of the pot or container, about an inch or so from the sides, with the lowest bud buried, the middle bud just at or just below the soil surface, and the top bud about 3-4ins or 10cm above the compost - ensuring they're the right way up - naturally! Water them in well, put them somewhere fairly shaded in the tunnel like under the staging and forget them for a couple of months. Alternatively - you could put the cuttings into individual long 'vine' or rose pots to start with - but that's a lot of bother when not all of them will 'strike' and form roots. Probably 80-90% of them should strike. In spring, when they start to show signs of growth, water them carefully every so often - but never over water as they may rot before they have formed proper roots. Protect them from any early frosts with fleece. Then there's nothing else to do until next winter - apart from occasional watering so they don't completely dry out. Then you can tip them out and separate them gently, potting them up individually into a nice, free draining compost.
Dead easy! That's next year's Christmas presents for nothing - from something you would otherwise have just thrown away! Now that's what I really call saving money!! Another frugal idea I came up with a few years ago was to use the long bendy prunings to make decorative wreaths. The long pliable shoots wind easily around each other and can be secured with a little raffia or string - then you can decorate them with whatever you feel like. Pine cones, berries, seashells or even cookies or other little gifts. These make another lovely Christmas present that can be re-used year after year! It beats expensive shop-bought ones!
On 'Buying Irish' or local
Talking of which - I'm often criticised for not exclusively promoting Irish nurseries and garden centres. That criticism is unfair however, as I do promote them whenever they offer reasonable value and a good choice, as anyone who has been reading this blog for long will know. One of the reasons I started this blog, some years ago, was to share the the money saving tips I've discovered over the years with other gardeners. After more than 35 years of being a keen organic gardener growing your own food, and seeking out the best value in what you don't grow - you learn quite a few good tips! While I'm all for supporting Irish business as it benefits all of us - I don't support anyone who tries to take advantage of the the 'grow you own' boom to rip people off, either by charging double the UK price, or supplying inferior products just because they can if they have little or no competition here!I've always looked for the best value. That's important when you're trying to feed a family a healthy organic diet on a limited budget, whether you're trying to grow it or buy it. Organic choices can be more expensive - even when they don't need to be.
Some cynical retailers, particularly some of the supermarkets, still seem to think that eating healthily and buying organic food is a 'luxury lifestyle choice' by well-off nature lovers, who will tolerate constantly rising prices. The reality is actually very different when you have a small child who very nearly died from multiple allergies - like I had years ago. We've always avoided all household chemicals, and always had to buy any organic food which we couldn't grow ourselves for that very reason. (Certainly not a luxury lifestyle believe me - holidays were a rarity too!).
Similarly - some nurseries and garden centres seem to have that same attitude towards people who want to grow their own food. I was looking around the fruit catalogues recently to see what new varieties there were - and came across an Irish garden centre charging double UK prices for their fruit trees etc! Now maths has never been my strong point - but even I can count the difference between fruit trees that cost 45/49 euros here plus delivery - and exactly the same fruit trees that cost 25 pounds sterling (that includes a generous currency conversion) plus delivery from one of my favourite nurseries - Ken Muir's in the UK or Deacons Nursery on the Isle of Wight. I've been buying plants and trees from both of them for over 30 years - and I can honestly say they have the greatest range of top quality fruit available at the most competitive prices, as I've often mentioned before. Since I recently discovered the Parcel Motel - even the delivery charges are much cheaper for many items too. You just give the Parcel Motel Belfast address so that you only pay UK postage - they then transfer your items here by courier at a small charge and you pick them up from one of their dedicated lockers at various convenient points around the Republic, which you open by using a pin number they send to your mobile phone. Brilliantly simple - and saves a lot of money! Even I can manage to do it!!
Here's another cost cutting tip if you're ordering from the UK and have a convenient friend in theNorth of Ireland - again cheaper UK postage applies naturally. If you live near enough to go and pick your stuff up from there - it still works out cheaper. Planting the trees will more than offset the carbon if that bothers you! (you could car-share the shopping trip with a pal to buy organic goodies there that you won't get here too! Again - I know all the stuff about buying Irish - but when Irish shops sell what I want to buy - then I will! If it's not available here - then I will buy it somewhere else. I keep on asking for things here but some shops just can't be bothered! Some supermarkets and shops get away with charging exorbitant prices for a very restricted range of produce just because they can!! 'Every little bit helps' - but mostly their profits!!) When it comes to plants - in these days of EU wide plant certification, there are no worries about plant health importation restrictions or other problems. In just one or two cases you may possibly contravene plant breeders rights, by bringing certain potato varieties here which nurseries won't send by mail order to Eire - but My blog is about saving you money and also recommending the best varieties to grow from my experience.
Some organic wholefoods are also cheaper in the UK, although I find most of what I need now in The Organic Supermarket - which has 3 brilliant stores in Dublin now - one only about 10 miles from us. In addition to all the dry goods you could need, they also have a very good range of organic fruits and vegetables. Being an all organic shop - these don't have to be individually wrapped in plastic - something that people often complain about! When organic produce is sold in shops that also sell non-organic produce - then these have to be packaged separately so that there's no likelihood of them being mixed up with any non-organic produce. Either accidentally or deliberately! As we've eaten only organic food here for over 40 years - for many years I had to venture over 50 miles to Northern Ireland 2-3 times a year to buy any dry goods that I couldn't get here. So I'm naturally delighted that we now have a really good store so near to us. They also sell online and deliver anywhere in Ireland. I rarely praise shops - but this one is worth mentioning. And no - I don't get any freebies!!
The Organic Supermarket is also good value for packaged and fresh foods and because they only sell organic foods - these don't have to be packed in plastic as they are in supermarkets - where they have to be kept separate and distinct from non-organic. I know for a fact (because I used to supply them with organic eggs) that there are certain other Irish health stores which have been putting a minimum 100% mark up on all dried foods for many years!So there's no contest! Feeding my family as healthily as possible - on a small budget, by necessity, has always been my priority!
Reminder - time to plant bare root trees - what to do if conditions aren't suitable?
The season for bare root tree planting is really on us in earnest now - the nurseries are starting to send out their first orders. If you're thinking about ordering bare root trees or fruit bushes - get on with it fast or you'll be at the back of the queue and get the tail end of the nursery stock early next year! If you've already ordered some - when you trees or bushes arrive get them into the ground as soon as possible. Anything you can plant now while the soil is warmer will get a far better start than anything planted in the New Year after a lot more wet weather as long as the soil is in good condition when planting. If you can't plant for a few days because of frosty weather - then unwrap the plants, put them into a sack or bin bag somewhere frost free like a garage or shed, and fill loosely with compost or put damp newspaper around the roots so that they don't dry out. They'll be fine for up to a couple of weeks like this - particularly if they're in compost - but don't leave them any longer or they may suffer. If you think you may have to leave them for much longer than that then it's a good idea to bring in some soil now to dry out - either into your tunnel or greenhouse or even a garage. You'll need about enough to mix half and half with a good peat-free organic compost. If you pot them up into large pots using this mix they will already be acclimatised to your soil. If you're not sure how much just measure it out into your pots according to the number of trees you will have to plant.
It can be surprising to see that even dormant, apparently dead-looking plants will still be doing their job of trying to grow at the roots - with tender new white roots growing out from the existing brown ones trying to find some soil. They are never doing nothing - unless they're actually dead! The new young roots are very brittle and can easily be knocked off when handling or planting. This is why it's so important to get them either into the ground or into large pots of the soil mix as soon as possible after arrival. If the roots are miles too big for the pots then find bigger pots - never wind them around. If one or two of the roots are only just too big then prune those back slightly so that they just fit in. If a root is cleanly pruned then it will start to make several new roots out from the tip in just the same way that branches do. I've found that on the M26 root stock trees are very happy in large pots, until you have time to plant them out when weather conditions are more suitable or in spring. If you add micorrhizae onto the roots as well when potting them up, then they will start to make nice root systems. Also don't forget that the 'graft union a minimum of 4 inches or 10 cm above the soil' still applies - whether you're planting into the ground or into a pot. It's astonishing how many tree sold in garden centres are potted up too deeply by people who should know better!
I described my normal method of planting last month's Oct. diary - but something I forgot to add was that if you're on a seriously heavy clay soil where water can tend to lie on the surface a bit in winter - it's also helpful to add a few shovelfuls of grit or pea gravel to the planting area too - working these into the compost/soil mix which is going back into the hole and then working it in around the roots. The pea gravel is almost more important on a heavy clay soil than adding compost to the mix. That's one of the things I learnt from well-known plantswoman Beth Chatto many years ago. Adding too much compost or manure - even if it's really well rotted - can often be a really bad thing. It can lead to poor drainage and soft, sappy growth caused by an excess of nitrogen, which can then make plants much more susceptible to disease.
All plants are grateful for good drainage - roots need airor they can rot - particularly in our often wetter climate here in Ireland. Unless they're bog plants, they don't like their feet constantly wet, and the vital microbes that live in the soil around their roots can't do their job of making nutrients available to the plants in those conditions. Pea gravel or grit is cheaper in bulk bags and it's permanent - so if you're making a long term investment in good fruit trees then it's well worth buying some. Unlike compost or humus - grit doesn't graduallydisappear - it's there forever. It doesn't matter where you use it in the garden - everything seems to love growing in it - and it opens up the structure of the soil permanently. It's well worth going to the trouble of digging it in when you're preparing the soil, particularly if you're on a heavy clay soil like we have here. You will only have to do it once - and you won't get the chance to do it again. It will also raise the level of the soil slightly which is another plus. Our winters seem set to become wetter in future with climate change - so take that into account whenever you're planting anything permanent.
I always find this time of year so exciting. As a keen 'pomologist (fruit lover) I just have to plant one or two new varieties each year - particularly as I've started to plant a new orchard as a shelter belt around the hen runs (good excuse!) - actually hens love a bit of shade and shelter whatever the weather.
More thoughts on rootstocks
Roots are the foundations of the plant - and just like building a house - if the foundations are not good then sooner or later problems will arise. If trees are planted badly, on the wrong sort of soil, in poor conditions - or if they're on the wrong root stock for your soil and climate - that can lead to poor root development, with diseases becoming more of a problem or perhaps the whole tree collapsing when carrying a heavy crop of fruit! That happened to me many years ago - when in my innocence I planted a couple of trees which I now realise were obviously on M9 root stocks - having been assured by the nurseries I got them from here that they were M26 - ha! After a few years when the tops were heavy - a couple fell over in a gale as the roots weren't vigorous enough on that particular rootstock. After 30 years, those trees are still small, miserable, disease-prone and never produce more than half a dozen apples. You learn by your mistakes - but those were expensive ones! Always ask what root stocks the trees are on - before you tell them which you want! M26 or the slightly more vigorous MM106 are by far the best here, and recent trials at RHS Rosemoor Garden in the west country of the UK have proved that M26 will grow quite happily and be productive for many years in pots or containers. I'm still reserving judgement on the 'Coronet' grafted apples in the ornamental potager until I've grown them for a couple more years! So far, I'm not sure they're very healthy in our damp Irish weather!
The variety 'Red Windsor' pictured here (on the 'Coronet' rootstock) was bred from Cox and is said to be more disease resistant. I suppose it's a bit soon to judge as I only planted it 4 years ago. It does have a very good flavour - but also has some scab so the fruit wouldn't keep as well as it should. It's early days - so we shall see! The very best Cox alternative is 'Holstein' or 'Queen Cox'. It has the same wonderful flavour and keeping qualities as Cox's Orange Pippin - but unlike C.O.P. it's very disease-resistant and is a far larger apple. As it's what is known as a 'triploid' apple. That means it has no good pollen of it's own so it needs two other pollinator varieties. 'James Grieve'' - a nice, slightly earlier eating apple and 'Grenadier' a good early season cooker - are good pollination partners for it. In fact they are good pollinators for many other apples. If you're choosing pollinators - always check that they are in the same pollination group (flowering time). Any good nursery catalogue will always tell you this. Some nurseries are also selling what they call 'Self fertile Queen Cox' now. I haven't tried it personally but even if it is - apple trees always crop better when another nearby tree is flowering at the same time as pollination is far more reliable.
Buying bare root is always much cheaper - and all types of fruit will establish far better planted this way. Some varieties of fruit are available in pots in garden centres, but there's very little choice of varieties, and they're often potted incorrectly - with the root stock too close to the top of the compost. The graft 'union' which looks like a large bulge on the stem must be 4in/10cm above the top of the compost - otherwise the variety may be able root out into the soil - by-passing the dwarfing rootstock - which means you lose the benefit of that. They're also often in peat composts which means they don't establish as well because the roots are used to pure peat or are going round and round in circles as they are restricted in the pot, and many available here are not good varieties for our climate either. The other thing is that if you're a bit late ordering and the plants aren't sent out until Feb/Mar.- then no matter how well they're packed, if they're delayed at all the plants may begin to shoot, and if the package is handled roughly these shoots can break off as I've already mentioned. Some carriers are better than others, but it's far wiser to order in plenty of time so they travel while they're still completely dormant, rather than when preparing to grow any minute!
Most mail order fruit nurseries now sell fruit trees asfirst year feathered maidens or 'whips'. They're much cheaper (often a third of the price) and establish much better as the roots are younger and primed to react more quickly because they have far more growth hormone in their root tips. Feathered maidens are just a single stem with possibly a few small side shoots and with roots which are generally about 30cm across their total width when spread out. I know it's tempting to plant larger ones bought in containers from garden centres, so you'll have a crop sooner, but in actual fact the others will very soon catch up and then overtake them within a year or so. I know - I've done it! Often many of the ones in garden centresare already badly 'pot bound', with too much root going round and round in a circle in the pot, and at least every other one I see is also planted at the wrong depth in the pot - often with the graft union too close to or even - unbelievably - under the surface of the compost! The graft union is the swollen 'scarred looking' bit above the roots, which should be at least 4in/10cm or more above the roots and surface of the soil/compost, otherwise the variety may eventually root past the graft union - particularly if growing in long grass, and you will lose the dwarfing/fruit producing influence of whichever root stock the variety is grafted onto, and for which you are paying most of your hard earned cash! Again - buying bare root plants avoids this danger.
In Ireland and other similar damp climates like the West Country in England, I think the M26 rootstock is definitely best for most purposes, both M9 and M27 are much weaker, as I've often said before. Both of those were developed in the warmer and far drier East of England, for 'super perfect' growing conditions, and how many of us can provide those, particularly in these times of unpredictable weather caused by erratic climate swings? Most of the books written by fruit 'experts' these days seem to be written by people living in the East of England too! It's one of the things I find really annoying, that these 'experts' rarely, if ever, take account of the fact that our local climates can differ vastly from region to region, or even within individual gardens! In Ireland, even in a small garden I would plant on M26, as it will tolerate a less than perfect soil, will produce very good crops and can be pruned to keep it whatever size you want, even trained into cordons or espaliers - or the MM106 which is just slightly more vigorous and often better for a wetter soil. M26 is fine for most varieties and easily kept within bounds, or trained by pruning. Do make sure that wherever you buy them, they can show you proof of not just the variety, but also the rootstock!! (In my experience - garden centres rarely can - and most look at you as if you've got two heads if you ask them what rootstock the trees are on!) Either that, or buy them mail order from a reputable nursery. I was looking at the Future Forests website recently - they seem to have a good selection of trees on M26 and MM106 and are based near Bantry, Co. Cork. www.futureforests.net I haven't personally got trees from them but they seem to have a good list of trees on M26 & MM106 and they also give their pollination groups - which is important, as to get the best crops they must be compatible - flowering at similar times. I checked out a couple of friends who got trees from them in the past and say they've been reliable. They also sell some Irish Heritage varieties - but the few that I've tried so far have been a bit disappointing flavour-wise. Being an essentially practical person - I want an apple that produces well, keeps well and is as disease-free as possible. Each to his own.
On the subject of pollination -I'm not mad about those so called partner pollinating 'family trees'. In most garden centres where I've seen them - they haven't been pruned properly and the specific branches carrying the individual varieties were not clearly labelled. Or even in some cases actually not labelled at all! Most people find it difficult enough to understand the intricacies of apple pruning at the best of times - but with those family trees it's a nightmare if they're not labelled - as not all varieties have the same habit of growth, so they could quickly become an unproductive, chaotic mess if you're confused and so do nothing at all!
Grafted 'family' trees are very expensive too. Buying two or three feathered maiden/first year whips on M26 would cost about the sameor even less and take up exactly the same amount or even less space grown as cordons. The would also eventually be far more productive! Even in a tiny garden you could have quite a few different varieties, spreading the apple season, if you grow them as sloping cordons against a fence.
I received an email some time ago asking me to recommend three apple varieties, an early season for eating off the tree, a mid-season variety and a late keeper. I can only recommend those I've grown myself and therefore know will grow well in our often difficult Irish climate. 'Discovery' is a beautiful late August/Sept-ish ripening apple, with juicy aromatic pinkish flesh, which stays really crisp and good for eating all through September. 'Katy' is another very reliable, huge cropper, deep red and ripening around the same time, but it needs to be eaten almost straight off the tree, as after a couple of weeks of keeping it tastes like nothing, with a bitter skin if it's been picked too long! Apple juice made from a fresh picked combination of the two is a fantastic, beautiful deep pink colour, delicious and freezes well if you have room. It also combines very well with juice of the early cooker 'Grenadier', a heavy cropper, which will pollinate both the other two and also many other varieties. 'Grenadier' is a cooker which cooks to a lovely froth, with a good flavour, but loses it's good acid flavour if kept after mid-October - which is the whole point of 'cookers'! Apples that ripen before the end of Sept. won't keep at their very best for longer than a couple of weeks at most. 'James Grieve' is a late Sept. early Oct ripening dual-purpose cooker/eater, crisp, juicy and a good pollinator for many others also.
The later keeping apples are normally picked mid-late Oct. depending on the season and how early you get severe frost or gales. It also depends on how long the birds will leave them alone! Blackbirds and thrushes can be an absolute pest - they know the exact moment the fruit is right to pick - going straight for the pink coloured bits! You spend all your time encouraging them, feeding them all winter - and that's how they repay you!! Good mid-season ripening apples are 'Holstein or Queen Cox'(exactly the same flavour as Cox's Orange Pippin - but three times the size - much healthier and more productive - but it's a vigorous triploid so not suitable for training but makes a beautiful bush tree about 15ft/4m-ish high on M26), 'Elstar' is good, or 'Egremont Russet' (if you like crisp russets like me) which keeps until December and is delicious with some good cheese at Christmas! 'Bramley's Seedling' is my mid-season cooker of choice, which we all know, picked end of Oct. it will keep until March. Good very late eaters would be 'Ashmead's Kernal', a scab resistant, heavy cropping crisp russet, picked end Oct.- ripening end Dec. it keeps really well until the end of Feb. and also 'Tydeman's LateOrange' again picked end Oct. ripening end Dec., which will keep until April. Both of these last two are actually mouth-puckeringly inedible until after Christmas! A very good late keeping cooker is 'Annie Elizabeth', also resistant to scab, which has a good acid balance and flavour. That's ready end Dec. and often keeps as late as the following June! I grow a lot more varieties as I planned my orchard carefully in order to have my own apples for as much of the year as possible. I also find them utterly irrisistable and very addictive - so I just keep finding more varieties that I want! A bit like stamp collecting! There's thousands more - it would take several books! The one thing that's very important to look for in our Irish climate is scab-resistant varieties, as our damp, mild winters encourage it. Apples with scab won't store - so this is particularly important for the late keepers.
You can also take hardwood cuttings of many other fruit bushes now - as soon as the leaves have dropped. Just stick them about 2/3rds int the ground somewhere well-drained and sheltered and leave them alone for a year. By then they will normally have made good roots. Very easy! Prune out old fruited canes of blackberries and loganberries now and tie in the new ones grown this year, to stop them being damaged in winter gales.
DON'T start to winter prune apples until all the leaves have fallen. Then clear up all leaves and any 'mummified' fruits to stop diseases re-infecting and possibly spreading next year. This is much easier to do by just mowing closely under the trees and the clippings can all be composted. Save any younger pruned shoots as they are rich in potash. Burn them when dry and save the ash.
If you've had problems with winter moth caterpillars damaging fruit - put grease/glue bands on the trees NOW! These are available online from The Organic Gardening Catalogue UK - or ask in garden centres.
I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and many years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's very satisfying and also most complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work. But if you do happen to copy it, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would mention that it originally came from me. Thank you.
Wonderful, wiggly Dendrobaena worms - busy turningour kitchen waste into black gold!
Black gold - worm compost ready to go. Superfood for plants!
Do you have worms? That is not a personal question you understand - but I mean actually in your garden? If you don't - then you may possibly have New Zealand Flatworm. I normally love worms but that's a worm that I really hate! I've had it in my garden for well about 15 years now. They look disgusting, a bit like an 'ironed-out' strip of liver, pointed at both ends, with a pink 'go faster' stripe along either side. They gobble up every earthworm in sight - with the resulting destruction of the soil drainage - because deep-tunneling earthworms are no longer there to do their vital job. Believe me - you learn to value your worms then! One of the reasons I make worm compost is to compensate for the fact that I no longer have enough worms working through my garden soil outside any more. They are vital to a healthy soil and their actions make plant foods more available to all the gazillions of soil bacteria, which act just like a digestive system in the 'gut' of the soil, making nutrients readily available for plant roots to absorb. It is a vitally important process. Without worms, their associated bacteria, and all the other billions of soil organisms such as mycorrhizal funghi - plant debris does not break down into what is known as humus.
In fact - 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 and doing their part in Nature's perfectly balanced ecosystem, if you put any compost or a mulch onto the surface then it will just stay there in exactly the same state, instead of gradually disappearing as it should, as worms gradually pull it down under the surface.
Years ago, when I was growing commercially, I used to make tons of worm compost in a huge bin made of pallets which was about 2m x 1m x 1m high. Sadly though, after I unwittingly imported New Zealand flatworms into the garden in some plants from a well-known Rhododendron nursery in the North (I am 100% certain), they then settled in and decided they liked the place - bred like wildfire and very quickly went through my worm bin for a short cut - followed by most of the garden too! I don't think I'll ever get rid of them entirely now - I've just learned to work around them. Interestingly enough, I had a long chat with the man at Finnis worms who sell worm bins and the worms to stock them - who said that masses of people all over Ireland are buying the earthworms he now also sells, specifically to replace those eaten by flatworms - interesting as I've only ever heard of one other place in Ireland that actually admits to having them at all! People seem somehow to be ashamed to admit it! Almost as if they have some deadly disease or think you can't be properly organic if you have them! Silly - as it's not your fault if you have them if you've introduced them unwittingly. It probably means that you like unusual plants like me and you can blame the 'globalisation' of the horticulture industry for importing them - and also the fact that we don't have Kiwis or any other Antipodean predators to eat them - even my chickens won't eat them! Yet another reason for avoiding those plants that come with a big carbon footprint! Flatworms also love organic gardens even more - because there's a lot more worms in them (before they get in there!). The only thing is - unless you get rid of the flatworm before you buy more worms to put outside in your garden - all you're doing is providing fast food take away for them because they're a siting target! Though I'm sure anyone selling earthworms won't tell you that!! I've been doing a lot of research and experiments on how to deal with New Zealand Flatworm. How how to avoid getting them in the first place, how to deal with their serious effects on your soil if you do and eventually restore your worm population, and I'll talk more about in another article.
I bought one of those small 'high rise', stacking worm compost bins a few years ago and they do actually work very well for making small amounts. As they're really only suitable for small amounts of waste though, and as we try top be self-sufficient here and I needed a lot more worm compost. So I decided to make a slightly bigger, indoor system that I could put in the old stables so that it would be safe from any marauding flatworms. Those stacking bins are rather expensive too - all types being at least around €150 - so I looked around for a larger alternative. I found some big bench-sized storage bins with lids (on offer at the time in B&Q at 28 euros but available generally in most DIY shops). These were ideal, as they also had ventilation holes hidden in the handle wells. First I made drainage holes in the bottom at one end, by cutting off a couple of the extruded feet with a small hacksaw, then put the bin on a base of wood laths on a slight slope - with a small plastic tray under the drainage holes at the lower end to collect any run off - which makes a very good liquid feed. I then covered the base with gravel, covered that with some slotted plastic windbreak but anything similar would do, then put a double layer of ground cover material over that to stop any worms escaping - or broken down compost clogging the drainage. (Worms seem to be like sheep - hell bent on escaping at every possible opportunity - and believe me, all my birds would certainly appreciate them if they did - they wouldn't last too long!) I then made a dividing mesh fence for the middle, so that I could put food waste into one half until that is full, then swap to using the other side, encouraging the worms to move to the new side by exposing them to light on the worked, 'full' up side.
After setting the bin up, I made some nice soft bedding for the worms, from leaf mould and shredded damp newspaper, putting about 10cm of this to cover the bottom of the bin both sides - and it was all ready to receive it's new residents - 2 kilos of worms! When they arrived in the post, I put them gently into the bin, talked to them nicely, and covered them with a duvet of thoroughly damp newspaper to keep them moist. (They seem to like The Guardian best!) I gave them a couple of days to settle in and recover from 'post lag' and then started feeding them with a small amount of food at a time - after a few days they were eagerly racing through all the food. By the way - I couldn't believe at first that the leaflet from Finnis worms even actually recommended keeping the light on at night for a few days at first to help them settle in - I thought that was maybe taking anthropomorphism a little bit too far?!! But actually this is based on science - as worms naturally move away from the light, they are more likely to stay in the bin and not try to make a run for it and escape to go back home! Once they're happy and decide that they like you they will be too busy all the time chomping away on all the yummy goodies you provide, so they won't want to escape.
You can then take out the sweet-smelling, well-processed, worm-free material whenever you wish. It is a ready to go, rich source of soil microbes and plant micro-nutrients that can be added straight to soil when planting, scattered around plants as a tonic or made into an incredibly nutritious 'compost super-tea' in a large bucket or other container, by adding a small amount of the worm compost as a starter, then water and some molasses to feed all the microbes, stirring and fermenting for 24 hours, then watering onto the soil around plants.
I took a few pictures as I was setting up the bin which show the simple basic layout:
Worm compost is just like rocket fuel for plants - and the worms really are worth their weight in gold! My son caught me seemingly talking to myself in the old stable/potting shed some years ago (I do it all the time!) - and I explained I was talking to my new worm best friends - the Dendrobaena - 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 there could actually be worse things to talk to - anyway I love my worms - they are doing such a fantastic job and I was just telling them so!! Hey - I talk to plants, so what's wrong with worms? They react suddenly to loud noises, so why might they not respond to my positive and encouraging dulcet tones?!!
I've had the Dendrobaena worms for a few years now - they are doing a fantastic job of processing our kitchen waste with relish. I got them mail order from Finnis worms in the North. 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. Their favourite food in the whole world is either carrot or sweet potato peelings - as they clearly have a sweet tooth! They're quite partial to a rotting avocado too if you get a bad one. They will even eat mouldy bread and left over pasta if you have any (without sauce!), neither of which you can put onto the compost heap.
You must never put meat scraps into the worms - but our lovely rescue dogs enjoy those. They don't like otherfats or dairy leftovers either, orcitrus rinds either as they're too acid. Apart from that they're not that fussy. I cook all our eggshells in the bottom oven of the range and scrunch them up really small to provide a source of calcium for the worms as they like a pH of about 7 and also use the small grit they provide to grind up their food. So the only food waste here that can't be recycled and actually goes into the brown recycling bin now are any bones. That's of course after making my famous stock or 'bone-broth' as it is now known - per the current US fashion! I was making it long before most of the current 'food fashionistas' were even born!! I've often wondered 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 naturally of course makes my archaeologist son very happy - especially when they're a few thousand years old! Sometimes when I'm digging to plant something, I'm still finding old bones in the garden which my darling old labrador Lara (the children's nanny!) buried in her favourite spots more than thirty years ago! Those and the half-eaten tennis balls I come across from her and various other dogs that have shared our lives over the years bring back so many happy memories!........
Anyway - REMEMBER - LOVE AND RESPECT YOUR WORMS! They are your best friends! Don't kill them by using weedkillers, artificial fertilisers and pesticides which are death to all soil life - not only worms! A healthy living soil full of life is vital for our own health and also the health of everything else on the planet.
I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and many years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's very satisfying and also most complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work. But if you do happen to copy it, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would mention that it originally came from me. Thank you.
November contents list:It's the season of winter comfort food!....A crispy crunchy sort of lettuce - hardy 'Jack Ice'.....Be careful of wet soil.....A Heavy Manure rant!....Be ready for a quick cover-up....Beware of Slimy characters!....Planting garlic and Onion Sets....Brace your Brassicas!... Carry on composting!........This is 'Dream-time' for gardeners....
Leeks interplanted with Pak Choi - keep soil covered, protecting the surface & stopping nutrients from leaching in heavy rain
Supermarket price squeezes may give you cheaper veg - but it comes at a price eventually!
Sadly as usual it's not the growers who make a big profit but the supermarkets who cynically seem to think they can charge what they like for organic produce. Although some discounters such as Aldi are stocking more organic produce now - unfortunately many supermarkets are squeezing what they pay to growers in order to keep their prices artificially low. If supermarkets squeeze grower's prices too much - they will go under as many have done already. This means that the fewer growers that are left even are more vulnerable to the bullying of the supermarkets - and can leave us with less choice too! I spent many years as a commercial organic grower and I know how tough it is - particularly when supermarkets only want sizes and shapes to fit their stipulations for packaging - or pay you a minimum of three months AFTER you have supplied your produce!
Supermarket packaging requirements generate a huge amount of food waste. I used to end up with at least a third of my cucumbers either just a bit too long or just a bit too curvy for their ridiculous criteria - which naturally only refer to appearance and packaging convenience for them! My answer to that was to establish the first ever organic box scheme in Dublin - back in the early 1980's. Although it was incredibly hard work and very time consuming - one of the really great things about doing it was that it gave me the chance to really inform people about the benefits of organic food on a one-to-one basis and to answer any questions. To explain why organic is not just better for us - but also for the environment and for biodiversity too. Many of my original customers are still my friends now after over 30 years - and all are still committed organic consumers. Buying produce direct from a local grower or farmer's market is also a really nice thing to do. It's fresher and often cheaper as you're cutting out the middle man - and the growers make more too as they're not being squeezed by greedy supermarkets. But don't forget that they're very busy people who work long hours - and much as they would love to chat all day they really don't have time! Although obviously things that can't be grown here or in the UK have to be imported - shopping locally and organic is the very best way - this supports a cleaner environment and biodiversity in your own neighbourhood! A win / win for everybody - except the supermarkets!
This is a problem I've highlighted for many years - so it's good to see high profile celebrities getting now involved in the food waste issue. They can give the problem a much higher profile. I watched a programme on TV last year which showed leeks being trimmed and packed ready for supermarkets - they cut off almost all of the lovely green tops - which are actually the most nutritious bit - wasting about 2/3rds of the leek and leaving just the white shank. The leeks wouldn't fit the supermarket packaging otherwise! That's one of the best things about growing your own - you can grow the best-flavoured varieties, and use every single nutritious bit! Eating seasonally and growing your own also gives you the pleasure of looking forward to things as they come to the absolute peak of nutrition and deliciousness. These days, in our overly homogenised and globalised world where every bland tasting thing is available all year round, from who knows where, that mouthwatering anticipation of looking forward to eating the very first of anything is stolen from many of us. I think it destroys a lot of the pleasure we should take from eating seasonal food and from contact with nature. You can't homogenise Nature! My April blog past explaining exactly why eating seasonal, organic and local food is better for us is here: http://nickykylegardening.com/index.php/blog/492-for-the-highest-nutrients-in-fruits-and-veg-timing-is-everything
It's been such a mild autumn up until recently that my second year of 'late crop' autumn spinach trial in the north east bed outside in the veg garden has been a great success again. All three of the varieties are continuing to grow and crop really well. The varieties I've grow are Matador, Missouri and Viroflex. This last one wins hands down for texture, flavour and on frost-resistance too! This is the fourth year I've grown it. I was delighted with it last year especially the later crop in the polytunnel - which went on cropping far longer than any of the others - well into April. In fact I had to take it out before it was finished as I needed it's space! It's a hybrid of the old French variety Monstreux de Viroflay - and the family voted it by far the most delicious both raw and cooked. It's actually a variety specifically for autumn sowing to overwinter outside and it has very large, thick, fleshy and firm leaves. The others are summer varieties which I grew for comparison, but there is a marked difference in the texture of their leaves. Compared to Viroflex they're both much thinner-leaved, not as tasty and are far more vulnerable to frost. In addition - neither of them did as well in the polytunnel last winter either - running up to flower much faster in the spring. Viroflex is available from organic seed producers Real Seeds in the UK.
In 2012 and 2013 and 2016 we had already had - 6 deg. C suddenly at the very beginning of November. The same happened again this year! We need a few good frosts now for the parsnips. I don't think they're ever any good until they've had a couple of decent frosts to trigger them into converting their starches into sugars. By the way - don't forget that those sugars are wrapped up in the complete package of the vegetable - with all the other nutrients and fibre - so it's a bit unfair to compare them to pure sugar as some 'low-carbers' do - especially since they contain a lot prebiotic fibre and other important phytonutrients as well. As we don't add nutritionless 'free' sugar to anything - I think we can be allowed a few nutritious parsnips! Perhaps it seems odd to some people to be looking forward to colder weather - but the parsnips are looking so good that I can't wait to eat them! My favourite way is roasted - but parsnips are very versatile and can be used in so many different ways - even in rare cakes! They're one of the seasonal veg I would never want to be without, but they're so expensive to buy in the shops if you want organic - always about one euro per parsnip!
It's the season of winter comfort food!
I'm not lifting any parsnips yet - but here's a photo of the new variety of celeriac I tried for the first time a couple of years ago - called Albin. Sown on 21st February again this year - it's made large, delicious roots ideal for roasting, mashing or using in winter coleslaws. The other vegetable I Iove in winter slaws or feremnts is red cabbage - and the variety pictured here is called 'Red Rookie' (Marshalls) which I wrote about earlier this year. It's the earliest variety ever bred and was ready to use in August. It has a lovely flavour and has really impressed me since, with it's ability to resist splitting after some of the heavy rain we've had. It's just gone on getting bigger instead. The two pictured here which I cut this morning weighed almost 6lbs/2.5kg each! It's definitely one I shall continue to grow from now on. It's siblings will now be cut and stored in the cold shed for winter use. (There's a recipe for my 'Rainbow Cabbage Slaw' in the recipe section), I also use it for pickles and to make my delicious spiced, slow-cooked braised red cabbage - lovely with rich meats like goose or duck, and also, oddly, with lasagne. Funny how food brings back memories - I first tasted lasagne and stewed red cabbage together many years ago at a friend's 21st - and that evening always comes to mind whenever I eat them together. It also pairs very well with roast or mashed parsnips. I've tried nearly all the F1 Hybrid parsnip varieties now - and although they are admittedly more vigorous and uniform - newer is not always better. I don't think any have the same flavour as the old-fashioned varieties.The ultimate comfort food for me at this time of year is a huge dish of parsnips, beetroot, carrots, red onions and sweet potatoes - tossed in good olive oil with some thyme leaves and then roasted in a hot oven until they're just tender and sweetly caramelised around the edges. Irresistible - either hot or cold! A delicious guilt free treat that can be enjoyed throughout the winter! Every time I walk past the parsnip bed now - with their broad white tops looking so promising - my mouth waters at the prospect! Roll on another good frost!!
A crispy crunchy sort of lettuce - hardy 'Jack Ice'
A fairly new lettuce I've grown for 5 years now is the delicious 'Jack Ice' - again from Real Seeds (pictured here) - it's been cropping well outside all summer again. For the last 2 years it's also proved to be a really good winter lettuce for the tunnel. I'm growing it again in the tunnel this year. It's leaves are firm like the outside of an Iceberg and are crunchily delicious. So far it's proved to be disease-resistant as well. It has all the crispiness of the outside leaves of an iceberg - with a far better, really sweet flavour that everyone loves. It doesn't make a heart at all and goes on cropping for ages, as you just snap off leaves from the outside when you need them. Being green right through - it's also far more nutritious than an Iceberg lettuce and is a very good alternative for a Caesar salad if you don't have the classic crispy leaved Romaine lettuce or any Little Gem which I also like for this. It's one of my favourite lettuces now and one I shall continue to grow now. It's definitely one for your seed orders if you like crisp lettuce like me - and can't stand those wimpy, floppy butter head ones that wilt quickly in salads! A couple of years ago, I even experimented with transplanting quite large Jack Ice into the tunnel at this time of year from outside - with a good, big root ball. It didn't mind a bit and seemed to appreciate the shelter - so I shall do the same with any good ones still left outside now, as more frost is forecast in the next few days. You couldn't get away with doing that in the spring or they would immediately bolt - but at this time of year growth is slowing and it's not a problem. Far better than leaving perfectly good lettuce, with potentially a few more weeks of cropping, outside at the mercy of frosts or marauding pigeons! I'm going to clear the rest of the outside lettuce in the next day or so and cover the vacated bed with black polythene to keep weeds down and stop nutrients being lost in any heavy winter rains. I'll need it early next year, so that will stop the bed getting any wetter and nutrients being lost by leaching in winter rain.
Be careful of wet soil now
If your soil is very wet after all the rain we've had lately - then don't do any planting even if you grow on raised beds like me, and don't walk on ground at all if you grow on the flat - you'll do more harm than good. The old gardener's adage that still applies is "If soil sticks to your boots- thenthat means it's too wetto work"! - Or even to walk on! All you will do is seriously damage the soil structure, compacting it and squashing air out. That reduces it's drainage capacity, making it much harder for plant roots to penetrate and to find the nutrients they need. Soil is a living thing - it also needs air, and protecting it's structure is just as important as protecting your plants - in fact more so. A good soil structure that contains air is vital to all the microorganisms living within it - along with nutrient and humus-rich compost and animal manures.
A Heavy Manure rant!
A few years ago I was taken to task by someone quoting a particular 'expert' - who piles compost and manure onto empty veg beds, leaving it open and vulnerable to all the elements over the winter. Apparently the 'expert' was saying that "some organic people don't know what they're talking about"when they say that this leads to nutrient loss and pollution! Could the 'expert' then please explain exactly why doing this on a farm scale is now in fact illegal under EU law during the autumn and winter - precisely because of the potential risks I mention? As a former member of the Irish Organic Standards Committee - I know the Certification Panel would never give Certified Organic Status to any farmer or grower doing this - even on a small scale. Organic farmers have to be extremely careful to practise good manure management, or they could conceivably cause just as much pollution as non-organic farmers. Back gardeners and allotmenteers shouldn't be doing it either! To say that doing it on a garden scale "doesn't matter" - or "that 'well made' organic compost holds on to all it's nutrients", even when heavy rain is pouring through it, is quite frankly utter nonsense!
That's a bit like saying that "using a few slug pellets doesn't matter" (same expert!) - after all they only kill wildlife and pollute groundwater don't they? Or perhaps saying that "using a little bit of peat doesn't matter" !! After all - using peat only destroys bogs and all their related biodiversity - releasing as much or more stored carbon than cutting down rain forests! And also allowing flood waters to drain into river systems much faster than normal - with consequent flooding!)
To me the attitude 'that my/our little bit doesn't make a difference' is selfish in the extreme - and frankly often seems to me to be courting cheap popularity - at the expense of our health, that of the environment and contribute to climate change. I prefer instead to perhaps risk unpopularity by saying the things that really need to be said!
If composts and manures didn't contain nutrients that were water soluble - then plants wouldn't be able to grow! Some are more immediately soluble than others, so to demonstrate this I took a handful of my precious 2 year matured 'well-made' organic compost (I defy anyone to produce better!) - from it's heap which has always been covered except when taking some out. I put it in a jar with some water, stirred it, and left it to settle for 4 hours. You can see the result clearly pictured here. Heavy organic matter settled at the bottom, lighter fibres of insoluble carbon at the top, and nutrient-rich water in between - which naturally would be the first to leach out if the compost was left out in all weathers! Over the course of a normal winter - many of the other nutrients in the heavier layer at the bottom would also be broken down gradually by the action of soil bacteria, fungi and microbes - it would also then leach out. Try the experiment yourself if you don't believe me! (The jam jar one - not leaving tons of manure or compost uncovered all winter outside!!)
2 yr-old compost stirred into water. After settling it shows heavy organic solids at bottom, lighter carbon material top with water soluble nutrients in between
Five star, 2 year old mature compost. Almost edible - it smells deliciously sweet!
I know it's very often difficult for some people to accept that something they may have been doing for years - and also advising others to do - could perhaps be wrong. But I have to say that such a blinkered and rather selfish 'refusal to accept reality' attitude, particularly when it applies to possible pollution, reminds me somewhat of the 60's and the passionate advocates of the pesticide DDT! As you know it was later banned! 40 years ago people like me were labelled as 'organic fascists' and 'extreme nutcases' by many agricultural journalists and the farmers who read their columns! Now a much more enlightened Irish Farmer's Journal actually has it's very own dedicated organic section!! The climate change and antibiotic-resistance that we were also warning about over 35 years ago are sadly also now an accepted fact. Although again - we were called extremists and nutcases at the time for voicing our concerns about their overuse - especially their use as gut-microbe destroying growth promoters in livestock, purely in order to extract more profit!
I hope it doesn't take as long to ban the poisonous DNA damaging EDC (endocrine disrupting) pesticides and weedkillers like Roundup/Glyphosate which I believe are responsible for many of our modern n on-communicable diseases like cancer and Type 2 diabetes - but sadly it's a constant fight against vested commercial interests, corrupt politicians and sadly even many of the scientists who are in their pocket! However, time and science move on, and hopefully we also learn! Perhaps gardening 'experts' who lash on the manure think that the EU experts and scientists also don't know what they're talking about? I'm not always well known for being a supporter of EU legislation - particularly when it comes to things like seed and plant patents etc. - but I wholeheartedly agree with any legislation which stops pollution! Unfortunately the protections of EU environmental law may no longer protect the UK after the Brexit decision. The environment will be under even more threat when the UK is keen to placate the vociferous pro-chemical farming lobby and also cultivate USA trade and the large multinationals who don't give a damn about anything other than profit!
Just another 'geeky' fact to back up my argument - under Irish implementation of EU wide legislation - it is actually illegal to spread manure or composts onto land after 15th October, and illegal to inject slurry after 31st October.According to the Irish farm advisory service Teagasc's expert Stephen Alexander - even in warm sunny weather, heavy gaseous ammonia (nitrogen) losses into the atmosphere can also occur - so leaving manure or compost uncovered is not actually a good idea at ANY time of year - as I've so often said! I rest my case!
DON'Tdig in manure and then leave ground bare over winter either, as suggested by all the old-fashioned gardening books written in another era and also those 'to do' lists copied straight out of them, by many of today's supposedly informed columnists in garden magazines!. This may seem to be the easy route to a good soil structure with frost breaking up heavy clods of clay to a fine 'tilth' - but as I've just mentioned - there is absolutely no doubt that doing this does lead to leaching of nutrients, pollution of ground water and carbon loss. It costs us all vast sums of money in taxes to clean up our drinking water and rivers etc. which are polluted by organic nutrients, as well as by agricultural chemicals such as the metaldehyde slug pellets and weedkillers etc. used in conventional farming. Ground should always be covered either by a current crop, a 'cover-crop', a green manure or even just weeds, as these will hold onto nutrients and protect the surface of the soil. Otherwise cover it with polythene, old carpet etc. - or anything that will stop rain washing through it! The worms will then do just the same job that frost and piles of manure would have done - with the added benefit that if we get a mild winter - the ground won't get covered with slug-encouraging weed growth while you're back's turned! This is terribly important in Ireland with our normally mild, wetter winters. Winters everywhere seem to be getting wetter now as a consequence of climate change - and we have to change our gardening methods to take account of that - not stay stuck in a very different past!
A healthy living soil - full of everything plants need to be healthy is the basis of all successful organic gardening. Take care of your soil - and your soil will then take care of your plants - ensuring that they have all the nutrients they require and as a consequence are healthy! Those healthy plants will in turn take care of you!
When you're ordering seeds - buy some green manure seeds to sow after clearing summer crops next year, on any ground that may be empty and won't be needed too early in 2017. In Ireland our early spring weather can often be mild but too wet to allow the digging in of more fibrous green manures like Hungarian grazing rye early enough for them to have time to rot down sufficiently before sowing early crops, so cover ground you will need for any very early sowing or planting with a light layer of good compost, and then black polythene, which will block the light and stop weeds growing. This will keep the worms working snugly undercover all winter - leaving a perfect weed-free, nutrient-rich crumbly surface that will not require the action of frost to break it down in order to be ready for minimal cultivation - the work will all be done for you, and all you will need to do in spring is just scratch over the surface with a hand cultivator, or fork it over very lightly. My favourite garden tool is a long handle three pronged cultivator that has a hoe on the reverse - I've had it for about 30 years and it's brilliant - almost the only tool I ever use. It's ideal for shallow cultivation. I've had to renew the handle quite a few times! I only use my father's lovely sharp old garden spade for planting trees.
Uncover the ground a few timesover the winter on dry days - the birds will be delighted to clear up any slugs and their eggs etc, but be sure to re-cover securely again before any rain. If you have ducks you can let them in to clear up slugs too. I kept Khaki Campbells and other rare breed ducks for many years - and if I just touched a piece of polythene in the garden - the ducks would come running, quacking excitedly and all piling in almost before I'd uncovered the bed! All rushing to be the first to gorge on any slugs - their favourite gourmet food! Their next favourite is anything soft and green - like juicy lettuce. I was a bit amused to see poor Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall losing his lettuces to the ducks that some 'expert' had advised him to get to clear up his slug problem a couple of years ago, on one of those River Cottage TV programmes. Anyone who's ever actually kept ducks could have told him that lettuce is what they really love to eat! I do miss my ducks, they were such chatty, intelligent and sociable companions in the garden. I lost so many to the foxes though that I just couldn't bear the heartbreak any longer - particularly of losing the children's pet ones that they used to carry around under their arm. I wouldn't keep them in small pens - ducks can't bear being shut up in a small area - they pine and it's terribly cruel to them. I was terribly upset a few years ago to see ducks in a Bloom show garden penned into their minute pond all day - cruelly forced to swim round and round because there wasn't even room to get out to sit on any dry land at the side. They also had no plants to shade them from the blisteringly hot sun which they hate. It was torture for them, and was a disgraceful example to the public - making them think that it was the way you should keep ducks! I complained several times but was as usual treated like some kind of extreme nutcase. Some people seem to think that poultry are just ornaments and don't have feelings! When in reality they are highly intelligent and ducks will even answer to their individual names!
Be ready for a quick cover-up
Now I knowsome of you don't like using polythene but I've been re-using most of mine for well over 20 years, which is perfectly possible if you put it away carefully out of the light when it's not needed, instead of leaving it lying around untidily in the garden like some I've seen! If you can't get hold of any to recycle, then silage covers can be bought relatively cheaply from farm supply shops - and are much better value than small packs from garden centre or DIY stores. Get together with a few friends and buy one - it's easy to cut to the size of your beds as it comes neatly folded and then rolled up - just unroll and cut across the width of the folds - that's a neat way to cut bed sized lengths! Perhaps your local GIY group could get together and buy a roll. Make sure you cut it wider than your beds so that rain will run off and you can secure it either side with planks, blocks or something else heavy.
Make sure you have plenty of fleece to enable you to always have a dry one ready to cover things if frost is forecast if you don't have cloches - which can be expensive. Wooden clothes pegs are useful too, for securing fleece to canes or wire hoops - rather than resting it on the crop. It can often be quite breezy in the evening - then the wind suddenly drops around midnight and there can be a hard frost. Plastic pegs don't work as well. A home made frame or cloche can be just as effective - but you will still need to take it off or raise it to ventilate at times - otherwise the damp cold air will cause rots very quickly in salad crops. It's not that much bother - when you think how much money you will save on buying organic lettuce - imported and minimum 3-4 days old - even if you can find it! It really lifts the spirits on a cold, grey, cheerless November day to see the vibrant colours of some of the winter salads when I walk past their bed on the way up to the tunnels every day.
Beware of Slimy characters!
Continue to keep a sharp eye out for slugs and snails - checking at dusk and early morning is a good idea if you can - you'll catch most then. Keep weeds down which encourage them, and also if you have grass paths keep them clipped very closely so the slugs don't have anywhere to hide - they don't like crossing clear ground. I find putting large stones or slates on beds every so often is a very effective way to trap them - slugs will often hide under them and you can remove and dispose of them however you like! If you put down beer traps then cover them with a slanting roof of slate too - or they will get diluted with rain and be useless. Don't just retreat into the house and do nothing at this time of year - as so many people seem to do! Slugs will just keep multiplying if it's mild - and you'll have an even bigger problem next year! If you have a really serious problem - then growing salads in a raised bed with a ring of copper wire or tape around it is a good idea - this deters them. Other crops are not so vulnerable! Encourage birds into the garden by feeding them - blackbirds and thrushes love snails in particular - you can often hear the 'tap-tap' sound they make as they break snail shells using a big stone as an anvil! But don't chuck any snails over the fence into next door's garden - scientists have now proved that they have a homing instinct and will keep coming back like boomerangs! ...... But just a little bit slower!
Planting garlic and Onion Sets
You can plant garlic now in well drained soil in a sunny spot and in raised beds or containers. November is your last chance if you want really big bulbs with nice fat cloves. Garlic is actually very hardy and most varieties in fact need a cold spell for proper root development - but it hates sitting in water and will rot. The only variety that I've found so far that makes equally good bulbs if planted after the New Year is 'Christo'. There may be others but I haven't found them yet. If the soil is too wet then, you can plant the cloves into individual modules or small pots - planting out later on in March. I did that this year and the 'Christo' made huge bulbs with many really big cloves. It has a good strong flavour and it's always my most reliable cropper. I tried planting 'Thermidrome' after the New Year a few years ago as an experiment, but just ended up with large single clove-less bulbs like Elephant garlic! - Many varieties will do that if not planted in the autumn.
Be sure to buy virus free bulbs from garden centres or online - organic if possible. Organic bulbs are much less likely to be carrying diseases as organic growers have to operate a proper rotation - unlike chemical growers who can grow the same crop in the same place year after year - a practice that can cause the build-up of many pests and diseases. For the same reason - never plant cloves from supermarket bulbs as they may bring diseases and viruses into your garden. Onion white rot can last 20 years in the soil, and spread around the garden on your boots! The same goes for onion and shallot sets - these are actually much better grown from seed sown early in spring which is very easy
If you want to grow from sets to get some really early onions - then grow them in pots or containers as in the picture above. Plant the sets about 2 - 3 ins/10 cm apart - as they grow they will make their own room and make nice fat medium to large sized bulbs if they're watered regularly. That way if you're unlucky enough to get any disease - you can throw the compost into the food/greenwaste recycling bin - NOT onto the compost heap!!
I plant my garlic finger deep and 1ft/30cm apart each way outside so that I can inter-crop with spring lettuce or other fast growing salads. This doesn't affect the vigour of the garlic at all and protects the soil surface. As you can see in the picture at the very beginning - I also do this with leeks. My beds are 4ft wide so I get 5 rows of garlic across - it looks neat and works well - if you plant at the recommended 7-8ins/10cm apart, there isn't really room to inter-crop, which actually protects the surface of the soil and keeps weeds down between the rows of garlic due to blocking out light. I've tried inter-cropping with carrots - but it didn't keep carrot fly down! Around here the only way is to cover carrots permanently with mesh or fleece, so I grow them separately.
Brace your Brassicas!
Stake brassicas like Brussels sprouts now to stop them rocking about in strong winds - this can create a hole which fills with water and rots roots. Also make sure your brassicas and lettuce are netted now to keep hungry pigeons off! Keep an eye out for grey aphids which may be a problem after the mild October - deal with them immediately and don't let them build up or they can be quite difficult to get rid of because they hide in all the crevices of Brussels sprouts and broccoli etc. Preferably give them a sharp spray with your finger over the end of the hosepipe to dislodge them - that's usually enough. They won't crawl back up and the birds will eat them - so encourage your garden birds by feeding them close to the veg. plot. Or use an organic insecticidal soap if you must. Also clear up any leaves that are yellowing or rotting - don't leave them lying around to spread disease - put them onto the compost heap or feed them to hens if you have any. Mine really appreciate the extra greens in the winter and don't mind a bit if they're less than perfect!
Carry on composting!
Keep making compost - try to get a good varied mix of material - not thick layers of too much soft stuff like grass clippings. If you have a wood-burning stove - you can add the ash to the heap as well - scattering on the layers - this way any soluble potash they contain is retained in the compost and released slowly. If you're clearing up leaves, instead of the recommended piling into wire mesh cylinders, try doing what I discovered many years ago. Mix up the leaves with grass clippings in a bin or enclosure and cover with black polythene or put in a bag. This vastly improves the carbon/nitrogen ration so that they will rot down really quickly into a nice, friable, weed free compost, as long as the grass was short and not containing any weed seeds. Don't use any from chemically treated lawns for this, or in your other compost bin. Those weed and Feed lawn treatments are highly toxic and are believed to even cause cancer in pets! (I'm sure you won't be using moss and weedkillers - but sometimes 'well-meaning' friends may try to dump grass clippings on you!) Could someone please tell me just what's wrong with a few so called 'weeds' in a lawn?Is there a law against daisies and dandelions - after all - they're vital food for bees, butterflies and other insect pollinators which desperately need our help! Is using lawn weedkillers to achieve a perfect grass-only surface some sort of 'control' substitute for a frustrated 'hunter gatherer' instinct? You wouldn't believe how many emails I get from people who can't persuade their partners not to use weedkillers - believe me - I know that difficulty only too well!
If friends REALLY want to help you ask them to start saving you all their used yogurt pots, plastic trays, large plastic bottles for mini- cloches etc. - in fact anything which might be useful. Pots, seed trays and labels etc are very expensive and mostly unnecessary. Hang round your local veg. dept when they're refilling the shelves early on busy days - there's masses of useful stuff you can recycle - ask nicely and explain why you want boxes etc. most people are usually only too happy to help. The real prize is those deep plastic mushroom boxes, which are great for sowing carrots, etc. in loo roll middles, they're nice and deep. I also use them on thje steps of my stepladder garden. The 10lt mayonnaise and coleslaw buckets from deli. departments are also useful - great for growing tomatoes or in fact anything in! I've never had such good aubergines since I started growing them in those free buckets!
This is 'Dream-time' for gardeners already looking forward to next year. It's not far away!
This time of year is 'dreamtime' for gardeners. Sitting in front of a crackling log fire on a winter evening with a seed catalogue, imagining long warm summer days and abundant harvests to come is always one of my favourite occupations. I always mark far too many things though - so after I've done that - I then go through my collections of seed packets left over from this year, to make sure I'm not duplicating and also checking if any are well out of date. These days you need to order seeds fairly quickly, as the popular or new varieties often sell out by the end of January. Some people don't even think about next year's vegetable gardening until well into the New Year, when it can be too late. I've been caught out several times in the past by not ordering early enough!
Another thing you can do on cold winter nights is to draw up next year's cropping plan (I use graph paper), using not less than a four course rotation. That is - making sure that no crop is grown on a particular piece of ground more than once in four years, to avoid a possible build up of disease and specific nutrient depletion. A conventional rotation would be potatoes followed by peas and beans(legumes), followed by cabbage family (brassicas), then roots. This is much easier to plan on a bed system. Outside in the kitchen garden, I use at least a five year rotation taking into account crops like sweetcorn, marrows etc. In the polytunnel it is hard to stick to four! Try to write down what was good or not this year, while it's still all fresh in your mind.
If you're only just starting out on growing vegetables or fruit - don't try to take on too much - that's why most people give up. Just do one square metre really well the first year. It's amazing what you can grow in such a small area. Success will encourage you and you will learn a lot - a weedy mess may discourage you for years! Starting on a small scale also allows you to understand your plants and their individual needs better - doing this is the key to becoming a successful gardener.
Order lots of seed catalogues, they're free, and full of really useful information like cropping times, space needed etc. - even if you don't buy from them. I still prefer catalogues in my hand, rather than looking online. Not only do they often have a lot more info. in them, but it's also much easier to compare prices unless you're going to spend hours writing them down! It's amazing how much the price of the same seeds can vary - some catalogues will have far more seed for less money. The first catalogues for 2018 arrived a couple of weeks ago - I always look forward to them!
The same applies to seed potatoes. If you can't find the particular varieties you want here in Ireland - you can order these online from the UK now too - all with EU plant certs. If they won't send them to Ireland - then you can use Parcel Motel like I do now for many things - particularly organic nuts and other things that are often four times the price in Irish health food shops, if you can get them, than they are postage free from Amazon!! I use a Parcel Motel address in Belfast (UK) and then they transport them down here and leave them in a personalised secure locker for you at one of their depots. Tah Dah!! The seed companies start to send potatoes out in December, depending on the weather. Don't put off ordering until you feel the sap starting to rise in the spring - like a lot of gardeners do - it will be too late to get the potatoes sprouting early enough! The Organic Gardening Catalogue UK do a good list and are worth supporting being organic - but there are plenty of other suppliers too.
One tip though - they all usually wait until they have the whole order together before sending - soif you haven't saved tubers from your spring-planted first earlies and want to get a variety to do my 'extra-early' plantingin order to have new potatoes for Easter - then order the early variety separately to any maincrops, as that seed often doesn't come into the suppliers from the seed-potato growers until later - and then it may be too late to get any really earlies in. I get around this by saving a few of my best 'extra earlies' to use as seed the following year, as I've mentioned before. I've often planted them a couple of days after Christmas some years - and you'll be lucky to see seed potatoes for sale anywhere here until at least late Feb. or March. My standard 'wouldn't be without' earlies are usually Apache, Red Duke of York, and Lady Christl (which is the earliest to bulk up - I will be cropping these in the polytunnel in mid April from a mid January planting) The last couple of years I've also grown Mayan Gold as an 'extra early' - we were eating them only a week after the Lady Christl in mid April this year!
If you're doing an autumn pH test before possible liming - don't lime where you will be growing potatoes next year - it can cause potato scab. They prefer a slightly acid soil. Calcified seaweed or dolomite lime are preferable and more slow release than ordinary garden lime bought from garden centres. They also add other valuable minerals and trace elements. Adding lime to soil every year as a matter of course, as some gardeners do can eventually lead to an excess of calcium building up in the soil. This can cause 'chlorosis' - when nutrients become 'locked up' and unavailable to plants because of too high a pH. A soil test is well worth doing and a cheap test kit for pH can be bought in any garden centre or DIY shop these days. Too little lime (calcium) in the soil and a low pH discourages earthworms and actually encourages the dreaded, earthworm-devouring New Zealand flatworm which prefers an acid soil - which you do not want!
I enjoy sharing my original ideas and experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and also complimentary that others find "inspiration" in my work. If you do happen to use it or repeat it in any way - I would appreciate very much if you mention that it came from me. Thank you.
November contents: Thoughts on Polytunnel Purpose and 'Style'....My polytunnel years....Getting started with a polytunnel....choosing....erecting....deciding on layout....improving soil...other Nov. jobs.
View of east tunnel from south showing winter crops.
View on same day a year later
Some thoughts on Polytunnel Purpose and Style
My polytunnel style is what I would call 'Polytunnel Potager' - or in other words - how to produce more delicious food than you ever thought possible in a more beautiful space than you could imagine - a sort of 'Grow your own Paradise'! Some may think that 'style' and 'polytunnels do not naturally belong in the same sentence! I can agree with that when I see some examples of winter polytunnels. Unlike the lovely Victorian glasshouses - polytunnels are really more practical rather than beautiful structures even if full of crops. But as I've often said - if you use a polytunnel well all year round - then you want it to be as nice a place as possible to spend what may be quite a lot of your time. I think that when your eyes are filled with the abundant beauty and productivity inside a polytunnel planted my way - then it's the beauty of all the plants that demands attention - not the less than beautiful structure that's protecting them from the elements. When I harvest some of the luscious crops, hear bees buzzing happily in November, catch a waft of wallflower scent, or watch robins and wrens hopping around looking for insects - then the more utilitarian aspects of the polytunnel tend to sink into the background and I enjoy such precious moments in my Narnia!
As you can see from the pictures above taken in different years - my main polytunnel is really a potager or kitchen garden in miniature - but sadly it never looks perfectly organised like a show garden would - with rigidly organised rows of neat vegetables all identical and with bare soil in between rows. Every inch is full of as much colourful, nutrient-packed food as possible all year round, so it can often look a bit of a muddle to some people's eyes, because there are so many different vegetables, fruits and herbs crammed into every possible space! In addition to that - anywhere there is even a tiny space, flowers are planted - many edible - which liven up winter salads and also feed any non-hibernating bees or other vital insects that may venture out on mild days.
Believe it or not - there are good reasons for this seemingly and deceptively uncontrolled lack of 'neatness'! One is that despite being essentially an artificial indoor environment - it's still a 'real' garden, which grows real food, for a real family all year round! As crops are harvested, something else is always somewhere in the wings in modules or pots waiting to take it's place. The other reason for what can appear to be a 'muddle' is that Nature doesn't grow things in perfectly neat rows of just one kind of plant - it mixes things up a bit. I like to copy the way Nature grows things as nearly as possible, as I've found that has always given me the best results, with no pests or diseases and with the soil improving every year. Another reason is that different plants have different root structures and their associated microbial communities which all use the soil differently. The late Lawrence Hills, who started the HDRA -,now re-named Garden Organic (who I was lucky enough to meet and later sculpt a portrait of) said that the soil is like the gut of the plant - and this is something which I have always believed to be true even before science began to prove this theory to be correct.The latest soil science is now beginning to show that growing plants as varied communities, rather than in single species rows, is far better for soil and produces much healthier plants. To me though - that's surely common sense! Just as in every other community in Nature - even our gut - there is healthy and strength in ecological diversity!
The one thing I am fairly strict about though is rotations - as despite what I've heard some gardeners say recently - my 40 plus years of organic gardening experience have taught me that rotations are a vital tool in helping to keep down soil-borne pests and diseases. They also stop the build up, or conversely, gradual depletion of particular nutrients. In practice - a four-course rotation isn't that complicated - it just means that everything moves around the tunnel so that nothing is grown in the same bed more than once in four years. So if I have certain crops which I find work well together, then they move around together every year. It can be harder to ensure this in a polytunnel though - and this is why it's vital to do a detailed cropping plan every year. It's all too easy to forget where you grew something three years ago, when one's growing so many things!
This year, just like last year, been a strange autumn weather-wise alternating from boiling hot to freezing and back again for a couple of months! Perhaps this is what we may expect in the future from climate change? Not all lovely and warm all the time which is what some people perhaps hoped - but more erratic, wild swings and even hurricanes like Ophelia a couple of weeks ago! Like all of you I haven't found it easy to easy to cope with growing all our own veg, especially in a vulnerable polytunnel. I've also been very busy with a family member having been unwell and needing a lot of time and care - so some things were planted a bit later than usual and some still remain to be planted. But these days experience has taught me not to panic - because I know that things will catch up as long as they're well-fed and watered if they are still in pots and I'm happy that we'll still have plenty of our most important winter tunnel crops again. Especially plenty of the healthy seasonal green salads, which we eat endless variations of at lunchtime every day. This is one of the other things I'm very strict about as they are full of fibre and antioxidant phytonutrients which are vital to our health all year round. It's such a joy to walk away from the computer and out to pick fresh salads for lunch - and to be met at the polytunnels by the dear little robin that seems to hang around there all day waiting for me!
There are few things more rewarding than growing food in a polytunnel at any time of year, but right now it's even more satisfying to see it bursting with good things to eat in autumn and winter. Knowing that there's always something to eat come what may is such a good feeling - and is doubtless something our ancestors felt too - when they knew they had their winter larders well stocked. Unlike us however - they weren't lucky enough to have polytunnels! In summer it's relatively easy - stick pretty much anything into the ground and it will grow - almost in spite of you! At this time of year though - things can be a bit trickier so need a little more care. But any care is more than handsomely repaid by being able to extend the growing season so much at both ends - and by defying the weather outside. I would say polytunnels give you at least another month of growing time! If you get it right - you can pick a huge range of wonderfully healthy fresh salads and many other vegetables such as chards, spinach, more tender kales and calabrese all winter long. At most times of year there's very little choice in the shops compared to what you could grow at home or perhaps find in a farmer's market. In winter the choice is even more restricted - with almost never any salads other than bagged baby spinach! The organic produce sold in farmers markets can never be as fresh and vitally alive as something you picked just a few minutes ago in your own garden! In a polytunnel, even hardy vegetable plants grow far better and are so much more productive and more juicily tender than they are outside. More than just the occasional higher temperature - it's the shelter from the howling cold winds and often torrential rain that autumn and winter can bring that plants really appreciate. After walking through a miserably cold and wet garden on a grey winter's day - it gives my spirits such a lift to open the tunnel doors and survey all of the deliciousness and beauty growing away quietly inside. To me it's like opening a box full of horticultural delights - with a wide choice of different salads and other vegetables and fruit to harvest every day.
The great Victorian designer William Morris once famously said "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful". Polytunnels are undoubtedly useful! Although admittedly - they're not the most aesthetically pleasing of structures! I try to make my tunnels as beautiful as possible all year round. As an artist, the shapes and colours of plants are important to me - the bonus is that they're all delicious and nutritious too. So many food plants are decorative as well as good to eat, that it's hard to choose what to grow. As an organic gardener, I want to attract as many beneficial insects and bees as I can to deal with any pests and to pollinate crops - so the flowers serve that purpose too. I try to tuck treasures into every corner - mixing flowers and vegetables together and never wasting an inch or leaving soil bare. That is in fact exactly what Nature does too. All plants are much happier growing together in a varied community, this is how they evolved to grow, happily co-existing in a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. Planting this way is better for soil too, as it encourages a broad natural diversity of microbial life - soil bacteria, fungi and beneficial insects. These are a vital part of the healthy and balanced soil ecology you need to make things work in an organic garden and to give you the most nutrients in your crops. It helps you to achieve an whole ecosystem that's as natural as possible - in an unnatural space - and it works pretty well, given that our intervention by growing crops together from all parts of the world is a bit unnatural in the first place!.
My polytunnel years - early days
Before anyone says "Well it's alright for you - you can afford a big tunnel - I can't!" -which someone said to me once - I want to tell you something. I originally started of in a very small garden in the mid 1970's, and after a couple of years as a beginner gardener, just learning to grow my own food, I put up a tiny, cheap 6 x 8ft polythene greenhouse as they were called then. I think Garden Relax was the make if I remember correctly. It was such bliss - I could actually walk into it!! But before I even had one of those I had already made myself a tall polythene cold frame from skip-reclaimed 2 x 1 inch rough timber & polythene, which was about 8 x 6 x 4ft high. This was placed against a south-facing wall, the side against the wall being open and uncovered, so that when pulled away slightly and raised on bricks - it had good ventilation but also provided a lot of warmth and good shelter. I grew my best aubergines ever in that frame against a south-facing wall! So please - no 'I can'ts!' from anyone - it's not a phrase I've ever allowed myself to use! My motto is - 'if I can't do it that way - then maybe there's an alternative'! When we moved to where we live now and I began growing organic veg commercially in the early 1980's I bought my first 13ft x 65ft polytunnel. It was relatively cheap as it had a very light frame. Something I would regret years later when it disappeared over the horizon in Hurricane Charlie! As I went along - I made sure that every single one of my tunnels paid for itself as my gardening life progressed and expanded.
Eventually, I ended up with three 13 x 65 ft tunnels and a much stronger, much higher one which was 18 x 55 ft - and was growing commercially in a serious way, supplying the Dublin Food Coop and establishing Dublin's first organic box scheme.The bigger polytunnel was a real luxury with far better air circulation and far more head space which allowed me to grow taller crops like French beans and tomatoes - and even grapevines! Each tunnel was only bought when I had made enough money from my growing activities to fund the next one - both by selling my organic produce commercially and of course saving a lot on the household budget by feeding the family. It was hard work but very worthwhile. Of course growing so many crops and having a lot of livestock back then - sheep, hens for laying, chickens for meat, ducks etc. naturally also meant no holidays! So that saved money and helped a bit too. Anyway sitting on a beach doing nothing in the sun was never my thing! A couple of days snatched down in Cork, at the ever-wonderful Ballymaloe was all we could manage for our annual holidays when the children were small. The wonderful classic French cooking of Ballymaloe founder Myrtle Allen was a such a treat for me. Local, fresh and much of it organic - it was pure 'foodie heaven'. I'd grown up eating the best of food as we had a large kitchen garden and orchards and my parents were great food lovers who enjoyed eating out from time to time at well known restaurants. Good plain cooking is how I would describe my own efforts! I had naturally always been interested in the health benefits of food though as I had a severely allergic child who could only eat organic - and as a child I was eating wholefoods like muesli long before anyone else had ever heard of it! Ballymaloe is actually the only hotel I have ever seen that has properly made Bircher muesli on the breakfast menu. In addition - I save money by not updating to the latest expensive technology every five minutes, have the cheapest and most ancient phone ever, I use everything until it wears out, rarely buy new clothes or make up and rarely need to go shopping at all! Boring? No, not at all - we eat the best food in the world here & enjoy nature!
But back to the point! Seven years ago - I had already been retired from commercial growing for some time due to back problems and because I wanted to concentrate on my sculpture. After 20 years, my old tunnels had been re-covered several times, were now in tatters and the lighter-framed cheaper ones weren't worth covering again. They were also increasingly shaded by the shelter belt I was forced to plant in the late '80s to protect the garden from the neighbouring farmer's spray drift! Having learned quite a lot about growing in polytunnels over the intervening years, I decided to put up two new ones, with much stronger frames, in a better location than the others - in order to be able to continue growing all our own food for as long as I can. I also wanted raised beds in them which I already had outside, because I've had progressive degenerative back problems for over 35 years now since a horse-riding accident necessitated surgery many years ago. Having the raised beds means that no matter how bad I'm feeling, I can still garden - and it's such a positive thing to do. I can also sit out in the tunnel for a little while every day in winter - getting my much needed daily dose of light and looking at a very satisfying range of crops!
Back to the future - and a salutary soil lesson. There IS life after starting on a building site!
7 years on. A bit of a difference! I now have a humus-rich soil full of active, healthy, happy worms!
There is hope after builders! This is the 'soil' I started off with 7 years ago in my new tunnels!!
Summer is normally the best time to put up a tunnel, because the polythene is more flexible when it's warm and can be stretched across the frame better. Unfortunately for us though - we chose a bad time to put them up - but 7 years ago the Celtic Tiger was just about still roaring! The polytunnel people were very busy then. They insisted on coming to put them up in the worst weather possible - during the wettest July days on record! Something like 7 inches of rain fell here in 4 hours, rivers were bursting their banks everywhere and many people's homes were flooded. They also insisted on re-spreading all the lovely topsoil we had carefully piled on one side - saying they couldn't get their levels right otherwise - which was frankly complete rubbish - but they threatened to go home unless I allowed them to do that! Well, to cut a very long story short - they got the tunnels up anyway. My lovely topsoil has been all mixed with awful sub-soil and it was like sticky glue! I left it all to dry out which literally took months while I just grew a few things in containers in there!
The following New Year I tried to get a spade into the dried out soil and I broke the spade! I just sat down cried! Not something I'm normally given to - but I'd not long before that dislocated my shoulder! So I then called a builder friend and asked if he could help. He brought along his mini-digger, thinking he'd have all the soil turned over in about 10 minutes. The surface had set just like concrete! Two hours of the digger rearing-up later - he'd managed to break the surface but it was still in huge concrete clods, most about a foot across! More tears! I called another friend to ask if he knew anyone with a big rotovator - not something I would normally approve of as a mostly no-dig or what I prefer to call 'minimum-dig' gardener. But but faced with what amounted to a building site - I had absolutely no choice though. My friend kindly borrowed a commercial one, arrived with it on a trailer and spent all day going up and down inside the tunnel until most of it was as broken up as he could get it - given that the machine was bouncing off the concrete clods and threatening to go through the side of the tunnel! It was still so bad that I had to loosen the hard pan underneath with a long fork, excavate pockets where I could, fill them with compost and plant things in them as if they were in pots! It's amazing what plants can do! That was almost 8 years ago. Now, after much compost, constant mulching and green manuring - and nature having time to do it's work - the soil is utterly transformed and wonderful. It's full of life, full of worms and getting better every year. You can see the transformation above.The crops speak volumes about the health of the soil. So don't despair if the same happens to you. An abused soil is never beyond remediation - it can always be retrieved with hope, time & compost! I can never express my gratitude enough to those two good friends whose hard work initially enabled the magic to happen! Even if I'd bought in topsoil and just sat it on top in raised beds - crops would never have been as good without loosening the hard pan underneath really well first so that the vital fungal threads supplying nutrients to plants could spread widely and plants could draw up valuable minerals from low down in the soil profile.
Fast forward 7 years - and on 28th October 2014 - I welcomed Irish Times gardening correspondent Fionnuala Fallon and her photographer husband Richard Johnston here to do an article on winter food growing for publication in the Irish Times magazine on Saturday 15th November 2014. Link here:
They'd already been here before several times to do various articles over the years - though sadly not all are retrievable from the Irish Times archive - so it's nice to be able to link to this one. It's always great to swap stories with such knowledgeable and observant gardeners - but also slightly scary too - as you know they'll spot any messy bits!! Being very nice people though and gardeners themselves - of course they pretend not to notice! All gardens have messy bits - and mine is definitely no exception! It also produces some delicious food though, as you can see from the photo below which I took on the day. As most gardeners do of course - I wished they'd been here a week or so later! Gardeners are never happy! Pictured in the basket from the left clockwise - Lettuce Jack Ice, leaves of home-bred hybrid kale, ruby chard, purple and green pak choi, oakleaf lettuce Navarra, Oriental radish Pink Dragon, endive White Curled, courgette Atena, with claytonia in centre. On table - sweet potato Evangeline, strawberries Gento and Albion, cape gooseberries and 3 different varieties of figs -looking rather sad as it was a foul day with torrential rain and we were dashing between tunnels! - Of course I naturally found far better ones after they were gone!! What was that about gardeners?
Getting started with a polytunnel?
If you're thinking about getting your first polytunnel and you're also an absolute beginner gardener, I would advise perhaps putting up something quite small and cheap to start - so that you can learn to grow things on a small scale first and also make your mistakes small scale too. Taking on too much initially is often the main reason why most people give up, because they find they simply can't cope, particularly with the speed that things happen in a polytunnel. In a tunnel everything grows at least twice as fast - and that also applies to weeds!! The great thing is that you don't need a huge tunnel or greenhouse to grow things - you can even grow quite a useful amount of salads in a couple of containers in a small lean-to structure or cold frame, as I did, or even a well-lit porch. If you're a beginner at organic gardening - this is often the easiest way to learn how to grow things. Smaller mistakes are cheaper! One thing you rarely have much of a problem with in containers is slugs - and that makes things a lot easier for a start! I've done lots of experiments over the years on growing in containers. Many years ago, before we moved here, I grew an entire vegetable garden in a crazy selection of them as we had to be ready to move at a moment's notice! It doesn't matter what they are - as long as they have enough room for the roots, and have drainage holes in the bottom, something will be more than happy to grow!
What I call my "law of handbags" definitely applies to polytunnels!! Meaning that like handbags and also freezers, the bigger a polytunnel is - the more you want to put in them! Speaking from experience - no matter how big they are they're never big enough for all the things you will want to grow when you really get going! Bigger tunnels are higher too - which gives you more headroom for tall crops, much better air circulation and more space to grow things like tender fruit trees and vines. I grow peaches at the north end of mine, where they don't shade anything, they take up very little space, and I get an average of roughly 200 large peaches from both of the trees every year. Those would probably cost you a minimum of 1 euro each, if you could buy them, and you'll never get anything that tastes like they do! In contrast - you'd be lucky to get any peaches outside in Ireland as our climate is too wet, which causes peach leaf curl disease - the main problem in peaches. We have abundant container-grown figs from May until October too - outside you'd be lucky to get a crop in September most years. I grow grapes along the sides of both of the tunnels, with the long branches or rods, as they're called, trained at a height of about 1 metre, so that they don't shade anything. Now I get such huge crops of green seedless grapes that I make my own sultanas in my dehydrator. Their intense flavour is indescribable!
A few years ago I worked out that if you spend an average of 25 euros a week on organic vegetables that you could be growing yourself - then even a medium-sized polytunnel will pay for itself quite quickly.That meansif any size of polytunnel doesn't pay for itself within roughly 2 years in terms of produce & money save on the food budget - then it's not being properly utilised! Although initially they seem quite an investment - believe me it's an investment you will never regret. Although a good one that will last isn't cheap, you can always divert a few euros from other things such as the gym sub (not needed as you'll get plenty of healthy exercise!), maybe even pass on the holiday for a year or two (not needed - how many other places can you think of where you can sit in the sun all year round in this part of the world, getting your daily dose of sunlight and vit D?), or even give up the therapist if you use one (not needed - as the latest research proves that spending time outdoors doing something satisfying is extremely beneficial for our mental health.)
I've been strongly of the opinion for many years that a small polytunnel should be available free on prescription to everyone - but I can dream on can't I? The vast improvements in people's diet and health would pay for them very quickly, as it would certainly encourage more people to eat their daily quota of fruit and veg. There's nothing quite like picking your own super fresh organic produce - it tastes totally different!It's been a strange autumn weather-wise here this year - alternating from boiling hot to freezing cold and back again for the last couple of months! I've also been very busy with a family member having been unwell following an accident and needing a lot of time and care - so some things were planted a bit later than usual and some still remain to be planted - but nevertheless I'm happy that we'll have plenty of our most important winter tunnel crops again - especially plenty of the healthy seasonal green salads which we eat endless variations of at lunchtime every day. This is one of the other things I'm very strict about as they are full of fibre and antioxidant phytonutrients which are vital to our health all year round. The most fantastic aspect of polytunnela for me is that I can work whatever the weather - so they make food growing a lot easier to fit into an often frantic lifestyle!
So, have I persuaded you yet? If so - then here's a few points to consider if you think that a polytunnel is a good idea. Just what occurs to me right now from experience - not an exhaustive list. Before you even start looking at makes, types etc. and invest hard-earned cash - first investigate if you need any local planning permissions etc.
Choosing your tunnel
Just a couple of things that occur to me - and that are often not mentioned in books. Buy the biggest tunnel you can possibly afford - as I've already said it will pay for itself very quickly if you use it well. Also get it covered in the heaviest polythene you can - it will last years longer. The 'grip-strips' along the base that clamp the polythene on are far better than having to dig up the outside every time it needs re-covering, so they're a good long-term investment. Again they're not cheap - but they're so much easier and a real time and labour-saver. Speaking from experience - it's amazing how hard it is to find help that is of any use when digging up and re-covering a tunnel of the 'buried polythene' type! If it's not done properly and it's left loose - polythene can easily work loose and then all rip to shreds. I feel that cost-wise it's often roundabouts and swings - and that seeming to save money one way can often turn out even more expensive another- especially when a tunnel is full of valuable winter crops!
Choose a reasonably level site, sloping just gently to the south if you can. This is ideal for air circulation, as the hotter air tends to rise and frost can slip out downhill on very cold nights if the lower door is open. You need reasonable sheltered from the prevailing winds or strong wind from any direction - but not too over-hung by trees either - which could stop light, or even worse branches could break off and puncture your tunnel!
Good ventilation is absolutely essential so it's vital to have a door at either end however small your tunnel is - ideally a sliding door as the ventilation can be varied far more easily according to the weather conditions. They're expensive though - often as expensive as a very small tunnel - but worth every cent on my very windy site! The hinge opening doors are fine but have to be fixed wide-open all the time. As we live on a very windy hill with wind often gusting from different directions on the same of subsequent days - this isn't always ideal. We can get vicious side winds that can threaten the structure of the polytunnel - meaning that doors may have to be closed altogether - which is not ideal for ventilation. Roll up doors are a nightmare! That's how I lost my very first tunnel in Hurricane Charley! they can catch in the wind, double back inside and go up through the roof - which is what happened to mine. The tunnel's a total gonner then and very often the frame too!
Putting up a new polytunnel
I would always advise getting the suppliers to erect the tunnel for you themselves and to guarantee their work despite my bad experience! It can often be easier to get a good deal from the makers for them to erect it during the winter when business is generally quieter for them. Don't expect to get a good deal in March or April when everyone suddenly gets keen on grow your own and wants them! It may cost a bit more but it's well worth it as your tunnel will last years longer before it will need re-covering if it's put up properly in the first place. It's false economy to try to do it yourself if you've never done it before. It looks simple - but it's not! Years ago I lost a smaller tunnel that had been badly put up by someone recommended by the supplier - it turned out that he'd actually never done it before despite saying that he had! I lost not just the polythene cover but also the entire tunnel! The frame twisted and distorted so badly that it could not be re-covered again and so was a useless waste of money. So be warned! The larger tunnels also have much stronger frames and if covered with a good heavy gauge polythene and properly erected by the supplier, they will last for many years before they may need covering again.
Next step - decide on the layout
Deciding how to organise your tunnel can be difficult if you haven't had one before, so here's a couple of suggestions you may find useful. Once you've got your tunnel up it's a good idea to rotovate the soil to open it up if it's become compacted during the process of putting it up, as I described above happened to mine. Borrow or hire a rotavator as you'll only need to do this once - after this the worms will do all the hard work for you! You won't want to disturb the soil surface too much by digging once it starts to establish plenty of life in it - as there are fungi which live in the soil and help plant roots to forage further and they don't appreciate too much disturbance! I would advise making permanent raised beds, four or more, so that you can organise the tunnel easily into a simple four course rotation. This keeps the soil healthy, as you will then only grow any plant family like tomatoes say, brassicas, or onions in the same soil only once every four years or more - thus avoiding a build up of pests and diseases. Next skim off the soil where you want your paths, throwing it up onto the beds. Hey presto - instant raised beds! One metre or 3 - 4ft wide beds are easy to work from the paths on either side and as they are raised - that makes the work even easier as you never walk on the soil again. They're bliss if you suffer from back problems! You can put in boards along the sides to edge the beds neatly and keep the soil in, and then things will really start to look organised.
Improving your tunnel soil
The next thing to do is to check the pH to see how much lime there is in the soil.Don't get hung up on testing for deficiencies of this, that, or the other - it's not necessary. You can do more harm than good by adding unnecessary extras. Just do a soil test to get the pH (acidity/alkalinity) right and after that Nature will gradually do the rest itself. You can test for pH very simply with cheap kit which you can get in any garden centre. Generally speaking, a range of 5.5 - 7.5 is ideal, most vegetables and fruit are happy with this, but do bear in mind that it's always a lot easier to raise the pH than to lower it. Then if necessary, apply something gentle like calcified seaweed, or ground dolomitic limestone, rather than ordinary garden lime. Calcified seaweed raises the pH gently, making the soil less acid. It also supplies minerals and trace elements, and you can use it at any time of year as it doesn't burn roots. Never add ordinary garden lime just as a matter of course each year - doing this can raise the pH far too much and 'lock up' important nutrients in the soil, making them unavailable to plants.
If you garden organically using a wide variety of composted plant wastes, green manures and mulches, you will be giving plants a varied buffet to choose from. This will gradually increase the fertility of the soil and build up the microscopic life that plants need to keep them healthy. In the world of plants - one size doesn't fit all. Each plant has it's own specific requirements, and can only take exactly what it needs if it has the right ingredients to choose from, and the right soil pH. They know far better than humans what they need! People can do far more harm than good by adding specific supplements and trace elements, such as boron for example, that some some 'expert' suggested might 'do the trick'! Adding them can seriously unbalance the soil for many years or even be poisonous to soil life as well as plants. If the soil is too acid or too alkaline, or lacking in vital microorganisms, then often these elements aren't easily available to plants. Just get the pH right, add composts etc, and then trust in Nature - it will do the rest! Most people think that the only things that live in soil are worms - but there's a whole world of other microscopic workers in soil just waiting for the right conditions and the right kind of food to encourage them to do the work for you. These vital microorganisms convert plant wastes and animal manures into humus and other foods that plants can use. They are like the probiotics of the soil. Plants need all these good microbes to have a healthy immune system, just as much as humans do. Artificial fertilisers and pesticides like weedkillers damage this soil life. If you use them either in the soil or in seed and potting composts - you will end up with a dead soil and unhealthy plants that are far more susceptible to pests and diseases.
Don't be tempted to pile tons of manure onto your tunnel soil which some people may advise either. More is not necessarily better! This is a huge mistake which many first-time growers make. Adding too much nitrogen-rich manure will unbalance soil nutrients and encourage lots of soft unhealthy growth. It will also encourage manure flies, shore flies, and aphids etc. Taking the time to gradually build up a healthy ecosystem in your new polytunnel, with everything in balance, will pay off in the future. If you have time and can get hold of some really well-rotted manure or compost with plenty of worms in it - then you could spread 2-3ins of it on the surface and fork it in or just leave it on the surface and cover with something to stop it drying out - the worms will work it in gradually and do a lot of the work for you. Just cover it with black polythene or something else to block out light and prevent weeds growing - then leave it alone for a few weeks.
When you uncover it again to plant things - it will be utterly transformed. The worms will have worked their magic! All you will need to do then is give the surface a light scratch over - or if it's badly compacted fork it lightly - and it will be ready to plant. Slugs can often be a big problem in a new tunnel, so the other advantage of this approach is that you can uncover it from time to time and snip any slugs you'll find on the surface with a long sharp pair of scissors. If you're too squeamish for that - then get a couple of ducks and they'll dispose of them with great alacrity! After a while slugs won't be too much bother if you deal with them regularly. If you want to grow things in the meantime - then put a few containers on top of the black polythene of other cover and grow stuff in those. You may still be able to find a few plants of lettuce, herbs, brassicas etc. in garden centres - and even if it's too late to plant them outside they may still produce a crop inside. Even if it's only leaves they're still edible! Or you could try sowing some of the seeds I suggest in my 'What to Sow' list for this month.
Still no time to relax - here's a few suggestions for other November jobs!
As I mentioned last month - at this time of year, watering is something I'm always extremely careful about. If I have to do any, I always water the ground between plants - never directly on or around the necks of plants. If you gave the soil a really good soaking before planting your winter veg in the tunnel earlier in the autumn - it shouldn't really need too much watering now. If you think you may need to water it's always a good idea to scratch under the soil with your finger about 3 cm or an inch down to see if it's dry at root level. If it feels dry then water, but don't saturate roots of plants now, as lettuces in particular can keel over very quickly with the cold nights and shorter days. I try to water early in the morning on a sunny day if possible, when the top of the soil will have a chance to dry off a bit so that there is as little moisture as possible hanging around in the atmosphere overnight. Winter lettuce is one of the most vulnerable plants - it can go down with botrytis (grey mould) very quickly if it's too damp around the plants.
Another winter salad that's coming on nicely now but doesn't mind damp soil is watercress - which I've already picked from several times despite only being planted for just over a month. It grows very fast in a tunnel and needs the shoots picking regularly as doing that keeps it productive and stops it from flowering. It also needs to be kept constantly moist to produce it's lush peppery leaves all winter. It appreciates a bit of fleece draped over it on the very coldest nights, being slightly more tender than landcress. It's worth the TLC though - as I think the flavour is far better than land-cress which has a more 'rocket like' flavour. Watercress will go on cropping well for months as long as you keep watering it and it's higher in healthy phytonutrients than any other green vegetable. There are plenty of other salads coming on now too - lamb's lettuce, claytonia, many different oriental leaves and lettuces, sugar loaf chicory, endives, beet leaves, silver and ruby chards, herbs like giant flat leaf parsley and multi-sown 'Ragged Jack' kale for baby leaves - which will eventually grow on in spring to become full size - producing it's delicious, asparagus-like flower buds in early spring, which are far tastier than sprouting broccoli.
Beet leaves McGregor's favourite, frizzy endive & lettuce Jack Ice
Watercress - is sown early Sept, or grown from cuttings
Mild autumn weather can encourage chickweed and other weed seedlings - and these are an ideal damp place for those nasty little grey slugs to hide - the ones that get right into lettuce hearts and destroy them! Chickweed tends to hang on to droplets of moisture too - making the atmosphere around salad plants much more damp and potentially causing disease. For this reason it's vital to keep on top of weeds now. Keep hoeing or hand weeding between plants until the leaves fill their space and block out the light between the plants. In another month growth will also slow up a lot more so weeds won't be so much of a problem then.
As I've mentioned - I like to be able to pick a mixed salad for lunch every day - even in the coldest weather. I grow mostly loose-leaf types of lettuce and many other types of leaves for picking individually, so that there's always something to pick every day. At the moment the nasturtiums are still looking very bright and cheerful too, releasing a lovely scent as you walk into the tunnel on sunny days. One doesn't notice the scent quite so much in the summer when so many other things are flowering. Non-hibernating bees are very grateful for them too and the leaves and flowers make a welcome contribution to salads, as frost rarely seems to affect them much in the tunnel. It pays to be organised though and keep the fleeces always at the ready to cover things - just in case the weather turns really cold. If you have Christmas potatoes growing in pots these should be covered with a double layer of fleece at nights if even only a light frost is forecast, as they're particularly vulnerable.
Early mornings are the ideal time to catch those nasty little grey slugs in the tunnel. They are a particular problem in new tunnels, but after a while they become less troublesome if long as you keep weeds down and don't let everything run wild over the winter as so many people do! Put a few pieces of slate or large stones along beds at intervals and they will hide underneath - then you can just scoop them up.If you have time for a five minute scissor foray - on misty grey days they will even stay on the surface for an hour or so after dawn. So that's a good time to catch them. Even better you don't have to get up so early at this time of year! I try to keep on top of them as they can do an awful lot of damage - particularly to 'hearting' vegetables like Chinese cabbage, Pak Choi or Sugar Loaf chicory if they get right into the hearts. My frogs have disappeared off to their winter quarters now - I haven't seen any for a week or so. All of a sudden I'm seeing just a few more very tiny slugs - encouraged by the damp air and lack of predators. I think it's time to take the fine netting off the doors now too - to let the smaller birds like wrens, robins and dunnocks in. They love to look for insects and small beetles in the tunnel during the winter - it's a valuable source of food for them. I'll leave the large squared pea and bean netting up to keep the pigeons and pheasants out though - and hopefully this year's crop of blackbirds won't try to get in and eat all my worms! They soon learn to fly through the gaps when they can see strawberries inside - but those are almost finished now. The 'Albion' strawberries in large pots are still ripening their very last fruits and they seem less vulnerable to cold than other varieties - they're still tasting really sweet.
Only water anything now if absolutely necessary and if the ground seems very dry. Dig around a bit with your finger in the soil if you're not sure. Water well then, preferably in the morning to let the surface of the soil dry out a bit during the day. Over watering, with condensation and damp air hanging around in the tunnel can cause disease. For the same reason, ventilate as much as possible unless it's really too windy. Close the doors well before the sun goes down, or around 3pm at this time of year, in order to retain some warmth. Good housekeeping is essential too - tidiness pays off. Pick off any mildewed, mouldy, yellowing or otherwise dodgy looking leaves immediately - disease can spread like wildfire when plants are growing much more slowly in the damp winter air. Put diseased leaves and other rubbish onto the compost heap or into your worm bin.
While there's a bit less to do in the garden - it's a good time to sort out your stock of seed trays and pots.A good money-saving tip - cultivate your local garden designer - offer to barter them some veg. next year for giving you all their old pots. They get through masses and often only throw them away. Recycle them! I have a garden designer friend and we've been bartering pots for years. They last almost forever if you're careful and it's a great way to save money - even half a dozen pots can cost a fortune in garden centres and DIY shops! Particularly the big tree-sized ones! If you don't need that many - then share them with the members of your local gardening club or GIY group. Scrub any pots and trays with hot water that you will need for seed sowing in the spring, and sort into stacks of each size. This will save you a lot of time later in the spring when things really get busy again.
Plant a few winter flowers for bees now. Apart from sowing a few early flowering hardy annuals to bring in pollinators and beneficial insects - you could also bring in some early flowering herbaceous perennials in pots - like Hellebores or primulas. They will flower weeks earlier in the tunnel. I've been growing Bowles Mauve perennial wallflower in my tunnels for years, as it's the most reliable 'flowerer' all through the winter. I was delighted to see that a recent survey confirming that bees love my choice! It even flowers most of the winter outside here too. There are often bees around on mild days during the winter - and they are so grateful for any nectar and pollen producing flowers when there's little else around for them. If you're sowing a few broad beans now in the tunnel - (which is the only sensible place in our usually monsoon-like winters) - having other flowers in there in early spring will attract bees in to help pollinate the beans. I'm sowing some of my Crimson Flowered broad bean now, a wonderful variety originally from the HDRA (now Garden Organic) Heritage Seed Library, which I've been saving the seed of for about 35 years. It does well in the tunnel over the winter and is so much more delicious than Aquadulce Claudia - the variety usually recommended for winter sowing. In my opinion that one's so tasteless that it's only fit for feeding to cattle!
The morning following Halloween earlier this week I went out to open the polytunnels and found a bumblebee that hadn't been able to find it's way out again after I closed up the tunnels in the late afternoon. It always makes me so happy knowing that because I've planted all the flowers - then even if that does happen, they won't starve to death and that there's always plenty of food in the tunnel to help them get up and away and back to their nests in the morning! I try to provide everything I can for these incredible creatures - because every single one of them is so very precious .......and they do so much for us in return for us making them welcome!
I enjoy sharing my original ideas and experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and also complimentary that others find "inspiration" in my work. If you do happen to use it or repeat it in any way - I would appreciate very much if you mention that it came from me. Thank you.
Photo of The Irish Times article on how I grow my extra-early potatoes - by Fionnuala Fallon. 20.1.11
Sowing anything into the open ground now - even under cloches - is pretty much a waste of time in my experience, as the weather is so unpredictable over recent winters that even if it germinates and grows on well for a while - poor weather later on in winter may destroy it and waste expensive seed. That is unless you live in a very mild area, with very well drained soil and don't have a slug problem (is there anyone who doesn't?. If you're lucky enough to have a well drained, warm soil and are desperate to sow something - you could sow varieties of overwintering broad beans and peas outside - but I've always found that sowing into modules or pots of peat-free compost in a greenhouse or on your windowsill in late Jan. or early Feb. next year is the most reliable method and will produce far healthier plants, with an equally early and usually far heavier crop. It's always far safer on my heavy soil - avoiding the risk of possible plant losses through unpredictable weather or slugs. Few of us want to spend cold evenings outdoors slug hunting - and they're still active unless the winter is bitterly cold! Spending a bit of time in a warm and cosy house, planning next year's rotations really well and choosing what varieties you want to grow is a far more useful and productive way to spend one's time!
What you can sow if you have a sheltered cold frame, greenhouse or tunnel
You could still sow suitable types ofwinter lettuces like 'Winter Gem Vaila' (little gem type), 'Rosetta' - (a reliable indoor winter butter head), and also old fashioned varieties such as 'Black Seeded Simpson' a huge loose-leaved butter head type which can be picked a leaf at a time. Seed is expensive and with expensive F1 seeds you don't get many in a packet - so individual seed-sowing into modules is by far the most cost-effective method even if your tunnel soil is still warm enough for germination of direct sown seeds in the soil. Sowing into modules also reduces the risk of slug or early woodlouse damage and provides better air circulation - thereby preventing 'damping off' diseases. Even the cheap 'value' lettuce or other salad mixes can still be successful sown thinly in early Nov. - I've often harvested these in the polytunnel until the following May! The reason those mixes are cheaper is because they are usually older, tried and tested, 'bog-standard' open-pollinated varieties (cheaper to produce), which can often be more disease and cold-resistant than expensively bred 'F1' hybrids.
You can still sow peas for pea shoots -'Meteor' or Oregon Sugar Pod are good varieties widely available. Soaking overnight and pre-sprouting somewhere warm first is helpful to prevent rotting or mouse attack! Some varieties of non-hearting leafy cabbage greens such as Unwins 'Greensleeves', that have been specially bred for winter sowing, could start to produce useful leaves in the tunnel early in the new year if sown now. 'Cavalo Nero' and 'Ragged Jack' or Russian Red kales can still be sown for baby leaves/micro salads, as can some of the hardier oriental greens like mizuna, mibuna, oriental mustards, cress and oriental salad mixes - depending on the weather these can grow on quite quickly now if it's mild. If the weather is very cold after they've germinated, they will still grow on slowly, with growth speeding up early in the new year when the light increases.
Seedling micro-green crops like mustard and cress grown on damp kitchen towel or in seed compost and sprouting seeds can also be a useful addition to winter salads - and this is easy to do in a warm kitchen. Make sure you rinse any jar-sprouted seeds well and regularly - preferably 2/3 times a day, with filtered water, to avoid bacteria, moulds or spoilage diseases building up. The warmer your kitchen - the more often you will need to rinse them - but the faster they will grow.
It's often worth sowing a fast-growing early carrot variety such as 'Early Nantes' or 'Amsterdam Forcing' in pots, deep containers, or even in long modules like loo roll middles, for planting out into the tunnel later - these will overwinter perfectly if covered with fleece and will crop in late winter/very early spring - thereby avoiding early carrot fly. With a little more warmth - say a kitchen windowsill, parsley can still be sown - the flat leaved variety 'Italian Giant' is much hardier and is by far the most productive and best-flavoured.
Sow some hardy annualsfor bees & to attract beneficial insects
Calendula, borage and limnanthes (poached egg plant) will all flower extra early next year if sown now and these will attract beneficial insects like hover flies to help with pest control and also bees to help with pollination of crops like early broad beans.
Germination of all of the above will naturally be far quicker given average room temperature in your house and the faster they germinate the less likelihood there is of seed rotting. If you germinate things in the house - you must put them out into the tunnel/greenhouse into good light as soon as they have germinated, otherwise they get drawn and spindly from lack of light - and they'll be far more prone to diseases. Another reminder that if it's necessary to water any seedlings in modules - then water them from below by sitting in a tray of water briefly for a minute or so. Never saturate them - and ventilate well. This will hugely cut down the risk of 'damping off' disease. Using a good organic, peat-free seed compost - like the Klassman which I use - is worthwhile too, I find that seedlings are far healthier in that. I then cover any seeds that need it with vermiculite which also promotes good drainage as well as air-circulation around seedling's delicate stems. If frost is forecast you can use fleece for overnight protection - but uncover them in the mornings to let the air in and dry the fleece well before using again otherwise it will give no protection.
There's still just time to sow a green manure crop, as soil temperatures are still above 50degF/10degC after a relatively mild autumn. Mustard, red clover, phacelia and Hungarian grazing rye are good ones to sow in the tunnel or greenhouse or for outside. Claytonia also makes a good green manure which encourages worm activity and is also a useful, fast-growing edible salad in winter. These are all for digging in in early spring. They provide protection and cover for soils to prevent leaching of nutrients, provide carbon which is food for worms and soil dwelling bacteria - eventually becoming humus which encourages beneficial soil microbes and benefits plant health. Clover and phacelia also have very pretty nectar producing flowers which attract bees and other beneficial insects if you leave some at the end of a bed to flower in spring. Overwintered biennial herbs such a s parsley and coriander will flower early next year and do the same. Borage also makes a very good green manure. It makes a lot of green matter which encourages worms and also has a long tap root which draws up useful magnesium from low down in the soil profile. If you leave one or two plants to grow on it also adds a nice cucumber flavour to healthy spring smoothies and salads! Keep green manure seed beds damp until germination occurs and if we have a very cold winter, cover with fleece if hard frost is forecast while the seedlings are still small. Sow all seeds thinly to avoid overcrowding.
Garlic cloves can be sown/planted now - both outside and also in tunnels
For a really early crop of big bulbs next year - most varieties need cold weather for good root development. Choose firm, plump and healthy outside cloves from this year's crop, or buy certified virus-free ones from garden centres - not supermarket bought bulbs which will be unsuitable for this climate and may even bring in diseases like onion white rot - this can survive in the soil for about 20 years and be spread around the garden on your boots - infecting all members of the onion family including leeks! For the same reason I don't use onion sets in the vegetable garden. If I want some extra early onions - then I grow some sets in pots or containers. This way they're much earlier than any grown in the ground - and if you're unlucky enough to get any disease you can just throw the remains, along with the compost they were grown in, into the food/green waste recycling bin - rather than composting them and again spreading disease around the garden! I grow all my main crop onions from seed sown in early March - it's very easy and by doing this I avoid the possibility of onion white rot. Seed-sown onions also are far less likely to 'bolt' in difficult weather - a major problem this year - and they always keep far better. Mine always keep until well into spring - if they last that long!
To produce your earliest ever crop of potatoes in the New Year
If you haven't saved any early or second early tubers from your own spring crop, then keep an eye out for suitable varieties of potatoes such as 'Annabelle' in the veg departments of shops before Christmas. As long as the tubers you buy haven't been treated with anti-sprouting chemicals - these will be raring to go and will happily send out nice, fat, eager-to-grow shoots, if you take them out of the bag and bring them into the warm. These can then be used for planting 'extra early' potatoes in pots in mid-January, so that you can have your first new potatoes at Easter! (M&S usually have the best quality 'Annabelle' which readily grow when planted).
Some seed suppliers such as Tuckers may also have Lady Christl available before Christmas - although sadly they no longer do mail order. I have grown this variety for many years and it's the fastest 'bulking up' variety I've ever found for doing these 'extra-earlies', having usable sized tubers underneath them after only 8 weeks of growth - well before any other early variety. I start them all off in 2 litre pots which are easier to keep together in a group which can be easily covered with fleece if frost threatens.
Duke of York, Apache, Sharpe's Express and the purple-fleshed variety Violetta are also good for doing these as they are second-early varieties - but any potato variety will do - it still works. Although others may not be as early - especially maincrop varieties. But whichever variety you have - if they're grown in a polytunnel or greenhouse - they will still be miles earlier than any grown outside, so are well-worth growing!
Below there's a link to an article written by Irish Times journalist Fionnuala Fallon in 2011 on how I plant my 'extra early' potatoes, sadly without the photos, so I've taken a picture of the main picture in the paper, which you can see above.
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard-won experience. Thank you.)
October contents: In praise of autumn raspberries and my special way of pruning them for the best crops.....This time of year is a non-stop fruit fest!..... Dehydrating is a good way to preserve some types of fruit.....Time to think about planting bare-root fruit trees and bushes......What rootstocks are best for apples? Do you homework first!....Choosing varieties.
It seems a long time since spring and bees busily pollinating the peach trees - what a crop we had again thanks to them!
Fruit production depends on Bees!
One of the many reasons I try to attract bees, butterflies and hoverflies into my garden, tunnels and orchards, by growing lots of single flowers for them all year round - is that pollinators and bees in particular, are vitally important to us. They pollinate almost all of our fruits. Without them there would be few of the most delicious and healthy foods we can eat! There would be no apples, pears, plums, blackcurrants, luscious peaches, apricots, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries or even almonds. The list of food crops they pollinate are almost limitless and while doing that they also produce fabulous honey. Not only would our diets be a lot more boring without them - but they would also be a lot less healthy. We can help them by growing suitable flowers all year round and by not using pesticides.
We depend on bees so much than many people realise. They pollinate a huge amount of our food and yet they are being increasingly threatened by pesticides, a lack of habitat and a lack of now uncontaminated wild food sources. They can't just buzz off and exist without any healthy food until we want them to appear again when it happens to suit us - and conveniently pollinate all our crops! They are increasingly under threat and I simply cannot understand how so many farmers fail to think about what would happen if there were no bees to pollinate rapeseed, flax, sunflowers and so many other of the seed crops that we grow as well as fruit. A few farmers are now growing wildflower margins in some fields because they get grants to do that. But while it may all look very impressive - it's no good if you're attracting the wonderful bees with nectar-rich flowers - only then to just poison them with pesticides in treated crops right beside them! Indeed there is also evidence now that even the wildflower margins are often actually contaminated by pesticides like neonicotinoids which are lethal to bees - and also weedkillers like Glyphosate - which are hugely damaging to all of the above and below ground biodiversity that we rely on for our own healthy food. There is scientific evidence now that are both carried over from one year to the next in contaminated soil - despite the fact that the makers predictably say that they are not!
In praise of autumn raspberries and my special way of pruning them for the best crops
Looking back in my diaries - this time three years ago the ground was littered with raspberries in the fruitgarden after a severe storm which did a lot of damage everywhere in the garden. The autumn raspberries were just carrying a really huge crop, and it was so sad to see so much fruit lying around wasted the next day. The same happened again this year with Storm Ophelia! We live on a very windy hill - often with wind coming from different directions on successive days and our autumn is often very wet too. So a few years ago - I decided to experiment with growing my favourite variety 'Joan J' in large,10 inch pots of peat-free compost in my fruit tunnel. I'm happy to say it's been a huge success, with plenty picked every day from just 10 potted plants on grow bag trays. They're a long way from finished yet too - there's still a lot more flower buds on the canes and we may yet still be picking raspberries at Christmas - as we have done for a couple of years. After the autumn crop is finished - pruning is what most people think about - and many years ago, quite by accident, I discovered a new way of pruning them!
If you prune your autumn raspberries my way - leaving some of this autumn's newly fruited canes to continue grow the next year, rather than cutting them out completely as recommended - those canes will actually fruit again in early summer the following year, slightly lower down on the canes! After they've finished producing their second crop - only then do you cut those twice-fruited canes right down to the ground. I prune all of my autumn raspberries this way now - only cutting down half the canes in spring and feeding the plants well. It works perfectly with all of them. I really don't understand why so many of the fruit 'experts' are still recommending cutting them all right to the base in winter or early spring. It's a waste of potential fruit and means that the plants probably only produce about 2/3 of the crop which they potentially could! Amazing what you find out by chance sometimes - or by not having time to prune at the recommended 'right time'! Autumn raspberries are always reliable croppers and even if they're relatively neglected, they'll go on cropping far longer than any of the summer varieties. If I only had a small garden - I would definitely grow autumn varieties rather than summer ones. They give you twice the value from your space!
All of the autumn varieties are incredibly vigorous though and some can become a bit of a nuisance in a small garden where space is at a premium.If you're prepared to feed and water regularly though - it's possible get very good crops from pots or tubs and even to lengthen the season by growing some in the sunnier spots in the garden and others in a more shady place. This has the effect of holding the shaded ones back a little. This is how many of the gardeners in the great old country houses used to lengthen the season of many fruits - they were masters at producing fruit and vegetables over as long a season as possible, their methods were often fascinating and many are still worth copying today. Growing pots in our modern polytunnels lengthens the season even more. I've tried many different varieties of autumn raspberries over the years - and I think the best two are currently Joan J and Brice. Both are equally good. If you want a good yellow one - Fall Gold is very tasty, with large berries and that again will also fruit twice a year if it's pruned my way.
This time of year is a non-stop 'Fruit Fest'!
Pictured here are just some of the 'soft' fruits which you could be eating from your garden in October, as well as orchard fruits like apples, pears etc. I like to have as big a range as possible all year round as I don't buy any. At the top of the picture is the authentic 'Black Hamburgh' grape - grown from a cutting from the original vine in Hampton Court Palace (no - not what you're thinking - wouldn't dream of it!!). Some years ago they were restoring the glasshouse that it grows in at Hampton Court and they propagated some for sale at Hampton Court flower show, to help pay for the restoration. Clockwise next to that is grape Muscat of Alexandria - the berries would be bigger if thinned - but my life really is too short to thin grapes!) then a large fruited alpine strawberry 'Reugen', physalis (cape gooseberry), blueberries 'Darrow' and 'Brigitta Blue', raspberries 'Brice' and 'Joan J', strawberries 'Albion' and 'Everest' and an unknown fig in the middle, that has a heavenly honeyed flavour! Figs are one of my passions - I've lost count of how many I grow at this stage - I must do a head count - but I think I have about 15 varieties now as I treated myself to two new ones recently. They grow really well and fruit best in large pots, so even the smallest garden could grow one. Brown Turkey is the most easily available and also one of the most reliable outside in a sunny spot. Under glass or polythene you can grow the more tender varieties which will crop twice in most years, in May and again in September and October.
Most people associate this time of year mainly with orchard fruits but as you can see - despite the fact that it's late-October there's still a huge range of other fruit that you can be eating now from the garden or polytunnel - quite apart from apples, pears and plums. Experts have been stressing for some time how important it is to get at least 'five-a-day'portions of fruit and vegetables. In addition to vegetables and other fruits - berries of every sort, either fresh or frozen are a vitally important part of a healthy diet. Now scientists say say that eight portions a day - or even more - is good, and that the more fresh fruit and veg you can eat the better. This is because all fruits contain a huge range of health-protecting phytonutrients like polyphenols, flavonoids and anthocyanins. So it makes even more sense to grow your own organically - particularly when you hear about non-organic soft fruit possibly being sprayed with antibiotics like streptomycin - which some people are allergic to. Of course this will never be declared on the pack - in the same way that no other chemicals are!
If you add in all the other pesticides, fungicides and weedkillers, used both on crops and on the surrounding soil ...... then basically - unless you buy organically grown fruit and veg, or grow your own - then you have no idea what you're eating! Apart from that anyway - I certainly wouldn't want to be paying even non-organic shop prices for something which I can so easily grow myself for very little trouble. It's simply unbelievable that in autumn when they are so abundant even in hedgerows - that blackberries can cost as much as 3.99 for 200gm!! It certainly makes my huge carrier bags full blackberries in the freezer look just like money in the bank - and it's money not spent. That's what I call genuinely 'Eating well for less' to quote that every inappropriately named TV programme! My only problem here is trying to find space for so much fruit at this time of year - but at least all the free-flow frozen berries fill up all the gaps and air pockets in freezers, making them much more energy efficient! Freezing isn't the only option though....
Dehydrating is a good way to preserve some types of fruit
This is something you can do with most fruits and lots of other things too. Blackberries are no good for doing this as they are horribly 'pippy' when dehydrated, but it works a treat with the seedless grapes you can see in the pictures here - and they are absolute heaven dipped, while still frozen, into some hot and deliciously runny baked Camembert or Brie - as I mentioned a few days ago on Twitter to some grape growers in the USA!
Irish organically-grown sultanas - who would believe it! Celebrity chefs please take note - if you're interested in buying these, they would cost at least 10 cent per sultana - but given the prices most still charge in their fancy restaurants even after the Celtic Tiger - I guess they could still afford them!! 6 lbs 8oz/ 2.95kg of seedless grapes reduced down to an intensely-flavoured 1lb 10oz/740gm! My son says they're such a luxury item that they should be covered with edible gold leaf in order to do them justice! They really are the most delectable thing in creation when semi-dried, but still slightly chewy. Grape sweeties! I'm going to have to put a lock on the freezer! Just like the Rosada baby plum tomatoes - they're so high in natural sugars when semi-dried that they don't freeze solid, which means that they are far too deliciously edible straight from the freezer - just as they are! Loose-freezing dehydrated berries is a great way of reducing the amount of space that fruit takes up in the freezer - and space is always at a premium at this time of year. We don't tend to eat much jam in this house - and there's only so much fruit you can actually eat fresh, so dehydrating is a very good alternative because this way, fruit takes up far less space. Everything usually dehydrates down to less that a quarter of it's original volume.
My precious sultanas don't get buried anonymously in cakes though, except in the case of very special ones - they're way too tasty for that! They're used on top of breakfast muesli, on salads, as garnishes, dipped in melted dark chocolate (only healthy 75% plus naturally!) or re-hydrated in a desert wine to go with home made pates at Christmas, or perhaps with some ripe 'Stinking Bishop'- the legendary soft cheese of 'Wallace & Gromit' fame from artisan cheese maker Charles Martell - who sadly doesn't do mail order but who conveniently just happens to farm very close to my cousin in Herefordshire! The Little Milk Company organic Irish Brie is a good alternative here in Ireland. Fruity preserves - especially fruit cheeses, which are more like thick 'cuttable' jellies - rather like quince paste, are also lovely with all manner of rich pates, cheeses, cold meats and game, and are sold for that purpose in very up-market cheese shops. I made some great damson cheese a few years ago which was delicious with my duck pate. Just the right amount of tart, mouthwatering 'fruitiness' to contrast with the rich fattiness of duck liver. It went down extremely well at my midwinter solstice party that year. Someone called in to LMFM Radio, after our 'Tips from the Tunnel' show a couple of years ago and said it was more like the 'Gerry Kelly eating' show! They were so right - we tend to munch our way round the tunnels trying everything! That's the truly great thing about growing your own. I could never buy most of the things that I grow in my garden from shops even if I wanted to. I love trying to grow all sorts of unusual fruits as well as the more normal ones - and I love eating them too! After opening up the polytunnels most mornings I've had at least 3 of my '5 a day' before I even get near the breakfast table!
Dehydrators really make the most fabulous healthy crisps too - no oil is needed for most things. I only very lightly spray things like parsnips with a little oil or lemon juice just to prevent them from discolouring. The main problem with dehydrated fruit and veg is stopping yourself from eating them all at once - they're just so delicious! I have a large Sedona dehydrator - and the reason I went for that particular one is that it gives you the option of closing off half of the drying cabinet if you just want to do a small amount of produce. That means it saves energy. There are lots of cheaper options though - with some starting at around as little as £30.00. Good for dipping a toe in the water to see how you like them, or if you only have a very small amount of produce. It's really not worth dehydrating some things though. For instance dehydrating black grapes into raisins as a snack is a bit ridiculous and not very cost effective if you only have one or two bunches - when even organic ones are readily available everywhere now. I have hundreds of bunches of grapes in a good year though - and I don't juice them as I'd be losing a lot of the precious nutrients in the skins, I don't make wine either. I prefer preserving any that we can't eat immediately by dehydrating or just freezing them to throw straight into smoothies or eat as frozen treats. I would thoroughly recommend a dehydrator as a great Christmas present for anyone who grows a lot of fruit. (Sorry to mention that word!)
Time to think about planting bare root fruit trees and bushes
Autumn is the best time to get bare-root fruit trees or bushes of all types planted- while the still is still relatively warm they'll get a head start, and if the winter is a wet one it may be your only chance to plant until well into next spring too! If you've ordered any, now is a good time to prepare the planting sites properly before the soil gets too wet. Dig over the soil well to improve it - you can't do no-dig here unless you have exceptionally good soil to start with. No fruit appreciates poor drainage, so you must prepare your planting site really well. For a young bare root tree - a single whip maiden tree (in other words a single stem with no side branches or just one or two very small ones) - I would prepare an area of about a metre or so square, gradually tapering my preparations into the surrounding soil so that it all seamlessly blends in. This may seem quite a lot of trouble to go to - but when you think that the tree will last for at least your lifetime and hopefully give you good crops every year - then it's well worth it. I started off with very badly degraded soil which was more akin to sub-soil - so believe me I'm speaking from experience when I say that preparing ground properly really pays off!
If I'm planting into new ground that has a covering of grass - I first strip off the top layer of grass, about the top 2-3 ins including the roots - over an area of about a metre for a small fruit tree. Then I set that to one side, dig out the top layer of soil, about 30-40cm, depending on the depth of the top soil, breaking it up as I go. You can see where top soil ends - the sub-soil is usually slightly lighter in colour as it's either less full or totally devoid of humus - although in many badly degraded soils on industrially farmed land, the topsoil and subsoil look exactly the same - as ours did when we first moved here! I then fork the bottom - pushing the fork in as far as possible several times around the base of the hole, wriggling it around a bit just to loosen - not to turn over - the compacted sub-soil, so that roots will be able to penetrate down more deeply.
When preparing the planting hole I also scatter a couple of very small handfuls of bonemeal over the entire area (which supplies phosphates) and also seaweed meal (which supplies potash, soil-conditioning alginates and trace elements). These also encourage good root development, fruit bud formation and also stimulate biological activity in the soil. The microbial life in soil can be damaged by chemicals such as pesticides, artificial fertilisers and weedkillers and can take a while to recover - so it needs all the help it can get. Despite the manufacturer's claims - chemicals do kill soil life as I mentioned earlier this year, and also run off into the ground water killing a wide range of aquatic life too, including frogs (see studies on Roundup in the USA). A well-fed and vitally alive organic soil, full of all it's associated soil microorganisms and bacteria shouldn't need such additions - but if you're starting off on a new allotment site on possibly former agricultural land, then it definitely would!! Anyway - the more help your plant's roots to get established quickly the better - particularly in our now uncertain climate You'll only have the chance to do this once - so better to be safe than sorry and prepare your planting site really well. I can guarantee that it will pay off. It's a good idea to do a pH.test before you start too - if you don't already know the pH of your soil, as lack of calcium (lime) or poor calcium transport due to poor drainage and water-logging can cause bitter pit in apples - which means that they won't keep well. If your soil is 5.8 or less - then it will need some lime. I like to use Dolomite lime or calcified seaweed which are more slowly released and gentler than ordinary garden lime. They also supply other trace minerals. Or conversely, you may be planting something like blueberries which need an acid soil - in which case do the pH test before you buy them unless you're prepared to grow them in containers, which I think is too much faffing around unless you're prepared to always water with rainwater. Most tap water has far too high a pH. Next I put the turves of grass I've stripped off, grass side down in the hole, replace some of the topsoil mixed with only a very small amount of good homemade compost to provide microorganisms like beneficial bacteria and fungi. I then place the tree or bush on top of this mix.
As my soil is also very heavy clay, I also fork in a fair amount of pea gravel or grit over an area of about 5-6 times the width of the hole dug for the tree. This gives good permanent drainage - whereas compost will gradually disappear over the course of a few years. When it does the ground can sink and create a 'sump'. You may not have to use pea gravel if you're soil is reasonably well-drained. Always plant higher rather than lower to prevent a sump forming as the ground settles - and never use a lot of compost or manure which can promote soft sappy disease-prone growth.
Also at this point I sprinkle some beneficial micorrhizae powder directly onto the roots. Research has shown that doing this really 'supercharges' the roots - encouraging them to make a lot more roots quickly which will reach further. This means that the tree roots can forage much further for nutrients to feed the tree. The beneficial microorganisms help to kick start the soil life, which firstly helps tree roots to establish and then also establish an ongoing symbiosis that enables them to produce those healthy phytochemical compounds that both protect the trees from pests and diseases and which are also healthy for us. There is a product called called 'RootGrow' available now in most garden centres. You can buy it in small packets which will treat about 6 trees - or in larger amounts which works out better value. These supplements of micorrhizae are not cheap - but I think they're definitely worth it. Any trees that I've used them on have always established amazingly fast and well. After I've sprinkled the powder directly onto the roots, I then work more of the topsoil/compost mix gently around them.
It's vitally important not to overdo the compost in holes when planting trees as this has been show to discourage roots from foraging any further - this is particularly the case with container-grown trees, which I'm generally not keen on - although some potted in non-peat based composts are good. Container-grown trees from garden centres and nurseries have often sadly also been ignorantly planted with the root stock far too close to the top of the compost - or even buried altogether - which can cause endless problems and also negate the dwarfing effect of the root stock. For this reason you must make sure that the root stock is at least 4 inches/10cm above the eventual finished surface of the soil! Measure the depth before you start, by putting a bamboo cane or piece of wood across the hole after digging the hole, allow for a little bit of sinkage that will happen as soil settles - and then constantly check the depth as you fill it back in. Firm lightly.
Planting this way will leave a very slight mound which will settle just a bit gradually when firmed after planting. and it's no harm anyway as it helps water to drain away. Never plant anything into a hole lower than the surrounding area. Common sense, particularly in our increasingly wet climate - as apple trees don't grow in ponds!. If I'm preparing a hole in advance - I then cover the entire planting area with something to keep rain out and the weeds down, while I'm waiting for the plants or trees to arrive. This may seem like an awful lot of bother - but believe me good preparation will ensure rich rewards for many years to come! Preparing the planting sites in advance in this way means that you're not delayed by unpredictable weather and can put plants in as soon as they arrive.
What rootstocks are best for apples? Do your homework first!
I've talked about root stocks for Apple trees before - so all I'll repeat is that MM106 and M26 are without question the best semi-dwarfing rootstocks for healthy apple trees in our climate here in Ireland and in most of the UK too. They eventually grow to about 12-15ft, after 8-10 years, but can easily be pruned (particularly M26) to keep them small enough for training as smaller bush trees, spindles or even as cordons. The only exception to this are what is known as the 'triploid' varieties like Blenheim Orange, Bramley's Seedling, Jupiter and Holstein Cox, which tend to be much more vigorous and are not really suitable for training as espaliers or cordons, unless you want to spend your entire time pruning! Triploid is a bit of a technical term - but all you need to know is that a triploid produces no good pollen of it's own and will not cross-pollinate other trees. It also needs two other compatible pollinating trees which are flowering at the same time - in order to produce fruit itself. Good nursery catalogues give lists of which varieties are compatible with each tree. Unlike the smaller more dwarfing root stocks, MM106 and M26 don't need staking after the first year or so once established. More dwarfing rootstocks such as M9 and Coronet will give you a few fruits a little bit sooner - but far smaller crops eventually than the others. In my experience they are a complete disaster in our wet climate here - unless they're in very well drained spot. Even then trees the tree need to be permanently staked and never seem to be really healthy on them. The rootstock doesn't just dictate the size, but also the health of the tree as I mention later. As Jorrocks used to say about a horse's soundness a couple of centuries ago - "No foot - no 'oss!" - the same goes for fruit trees. No roots - no tree - for want of inventing a better quote!
As the root stock affects the vigour of the tree - they naturally affect it's health also. Both MM106 and M26 root stocks will give you the healthiest trees. In addition - the specific variety which is grafted on to that rootstock also naturally has an effect on that. If you're planting a variety that's particularly susceptible to a disease like scab or canker in our damp climate - then it's possibly still going to be somewhat susceptible, no matter what rootstock it's on - but preparing the planting site properly and making sure it's well drained, will go a long way to helping to prevent disease!
To use another 'horsey' analogy too - always ask the garden centre what root stock their trees are on - NEVER tell them what you want - or they may say that's what they are! If the tree doesn't have the particular root stock clearly printed on the label - if they're honest, the garden centre will say they don't know and in that case you can ask them to find out - but still don't tell them what you want. An apple tree is not cheap, it is a very long term investment. Don't just get palmed off with any old thing or you will be sorry, but you may not discover your mistake for several years! Again I speak from extremely bitter experience of wasting years by planting one or two trees which with hindsight were definitely NOT on M26 - but clearly on M9! About 5-6 years after planting, when carrying a sizable crop - they both keeled over in autumn gales. Not an experience I would ever want to repeat!
I think in general it's much better to go to specialist nurseries who have good catalogues - although one or two nurseries, like Johnstown Garden Centre here buy from a good UK supplier and also have their catalogue for you to choose from, if you make up your mind in late summer/early autumn. If you're buying from a catalogue - then look for varieties that do well on your type of soil, in your particular climate and on the right rootstock. That's particularly important here in Ireland with our often wet climate - and with weather predicted to become wetter with global warming/climate change then it's something we all need to think about.
Next, you also need to ensure that they will pollinate each other - unless you have plenty of apple trees nearby in other gardens. A lot of garden centres sell totally unsuitable varieties like Golden Delicious or Cox's just because that's what people see in supermarkets and so are the only names they know to ask for. Varieties like those are only truly happy and productive in a dry, warm climate somewhere like Kent, the south east of the UK or further afield in Europe. You may get a few apples from a Cox tree here in a very warm spot on warm, well-drained soil - but if you've only got a small garden why give space to a tree that's at best only going to produce a few miserable scabby apples? A much better alternative is 'Queen Cox' (also named Holstein Cox) which has exactly the same fantastic flavour, apples 3 or 4 times as big and is a very heavy cropper if you have other suitable pollinators (Discovery, James Grieve and Grenadier are good) or if there are apple trees close by in other gardens. It must have two other pollinators though as it's another 'triploid' variety, and so is not suitable for strict training. It can make a lovely bush-shaped tree though, up to 15ft/3m high and wide if kept under reasonable control, and it is hugely productive with fruit that keeps for months, until well after Christmas. I've given it to several friends over the years as a present if they have large gardens, and they all love it.
Bare root trees are definitely by far the best buy in the long run. It doesn't take nearly as long as you think it might to get fruit, even if you're planting what's known as a first year maiden whip (a single stick on roots in other words). These will start to fruit in their third year. This is not only the cheapest but by far the best way to buy apple trees. That way you can be sure that not only are they on the exact root stock that you want (from reputable nurseries) but also - as I've said before - they will establish more quickly and far better than anything with it's roots going round in circles in a container - and they're much cheaper too. Often half the price. It's a no brainer! Containerised trees often take several years to settle down and while you might get a few fruit immediately from planting a containerised tree - they will never establish quite as well and be as good as a bare-root planted tree and may need staking all their life - this is particularly the case if they were growing in an unsuitable peat-based compost. In that case I would wait until the tree is dormant and then shake as much of the compost off the roots as possible without damaging them - then spread them out and plant it in a similar way as I've described above. If you compare a 3 year old container tree and a tree that has been planted as a bare root 1 or 2 year old, in about 5 years time, I can guarantee that the bare root one will win hands down in terms of development and cropping!
If you haven't already got a few catalogues - get them fast! Many of the good nurseries have pre-season offers right now. Popular varieties sell out very quickly, so order as soon as possible. Good catalogues are a great free source of expert information and increasingly nurseries are selling wonderful old heritage varieties. In addition the good ones also tell you what regional climate they are suitable for. Deacon's Nursery on the Isle of Wight is a terrific catalogue. - although for some reason they seem more expensive than many to send to Southern Ireland by mail order - but if you have a friend in the North - you can offer them some future fruit in return for taking delivery of your precious trees. I've done that several times. There's not much I wouldn't do to get my hands on new or tasty fruit varieties as you've probably guessed by now! (It's a bit like stamp collecting - it's addictive!) Some nurseries will only send to UK addresses - so that gets round that problem too. R.V.Roger, of Yorkshire have the best range of blueberries I've seen - including 'Darrow' which I have and think is the best tasting ever - with huge tasty berries. Ken Muir's are great for strawberries, grapes and most other fruits - definitely the best quality plants by mail order I've ever bought (they have Albion strawberry - a brilliant perpetual variety) Dobies are good too - but a smaller range though. These are nurseries that I personally have experience of - but there are many more.
The range is sadly more limited from most Irish nurseries and many are still propagating apples on M9 root stocks which I would never buy again! They are a such disaster in our wet climate! At the risk of repeating myself - trees grafted onto M26 will fruit just as quickly, are far healthier and don't need permanent staking, MM106 is also good - especially if the variety being grafted onto the rootstock is a slightly weaker grower. It's just slightly more vigorous than M26 - but not hugely so. There are masses of varieties out there online, with more and more nurseries selling heritage trees. When you're buying those - you're buying historic varieties and preserving history and genetic diversity too! Some of my apple varieties here go back at least as far as 1100 AD or earlier - and one pear that I have - The Black Pear of Worcester - is said to date back to the Romans and has family connections for me! It fascinates me that like old roses, people have kept particular apple varieties going for hundreds of years! I always feel it's almost like holding the hand of someone going back over the centuries - because basically you're just touching the other end of the branch which they touched long ago! What an amazing connection! How interesting to hear Monty Don quoting that recently on Gardeners World in relation to roses - it's an expression I've often used here on my blog and one that my dear late father, a keen pomologist, often used!! Irish nurseries that I've heard good reports of are English's and Future Forests in Bantry, Co. Cork (they a great range and do mail order to UK as well as Ireland) http://www.futureforests.net/ . There are still plenty of Apple Days on at the moment around the UK and Ireland - so get out there and see the huge variety there is to choose from. You'll be amazed at their diversity - and equally amazed at their long history!
Apples don't just delight the eye or the palate - they hold history in their branches and often evoke fond memories - of other times, places and people. Other fruits can do the same. My now 41 year old stock of 'Gento' strawberries, from the long lost garden where I grew up, is still going strong. I would hate to lose the plants, and that special connection after all these years. They are still just as productive and as delicious as ever. However, being a bit sentimental - I don't just love them for the wonderful flavour. I can still vividly remember my toddlers rambling through the strawberry bed in our first home - accompanied by Lara our much loved, very greedy but very gentle labrador who was their constant companion! It didn't take her long to learn precisely how to elicit the delighted chuckles as they fed her those strawberries and other garden delights! How they laughed as her tickly velvet muzzle gently and delicately picked the treasure from their vulnerable little fingers! Peas were a great favourite of hers too. A gentle 'old soul' - Lara 'nannied' toddlers, puppies, kittens, chickens, ducks and lambs - all with equal love and caring tenderness. Almost human some might say - but actually better than most. That memory always makes me smile - and then brings a tear to my eye. As I sit here, I can see over the half door of the kitchen, right down through the cherry walk to the trees to the very bottom of the garden where our dear Lara is buried, under the 'Rambling Rector' rose, planted on the banks of the stream that she used to love to wade in on hot days. Rather appropriate now I come to think of it - always rambling - sometimes a bit undisciplined, and often slyly stealing food from the kitchen counter if no one was looking! But very much loved by all who knew her - for fifteen years......
Dreaming again! Where was I?.. Ah yes- fruit!!As soon as the fruits in your fruit cage have finished producing for this year - take the top netting off to let the birds in so they clear up any pests that may be lurking. If it's fox-proof, you could even put your hens in there if you have any - they work wonders! They are the very best way of getting rid of gooseberry sawfly if you've had it - as speaking from experience you often may do on first year, bought-in plants. Gooseberries and blackberries also greatly appreciate the extra nitrogen in the hen's droppings - but don't leave them in there more than four weeks or so - or they'll 'sour' and acidify the soil too much. It's wise to take off the top netting just in case we get snow too - (I hope not again!) - or the weight of it can actually collapse the whole fruit cage!
Make sure you take long enough now to really enjoy all the wonderful riches of the fruitgarden at this time of year. It's a feast for the eyes as well - there are potential 'still life' paintings everywhere one looks. I'm always longing to get my paintbrushes out, but never seem to have the time these days. Everywhere I look there is beauty just waiting to be captured in paint forever. Somehow photos don't really have that almost tactile - 'certain something'. Maybe a painting enhances the 'essence' of the personality of something in the same way that a really good sculpture does.
After all the fruit harvest is gathered - I have to content myself with picking a beautiful daily apple out of my rather unconventional old freezer fruit store! The scent of ripening apples when I open the door is simply incredible. I do wish you could smell it - it's pure aromatherapy!
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard-won experience. Thank you.)
October contents: Time to Take Stock Now......Keep a Weather Eye out Now!.....It Could Soon be Time for a Major Cover Up!.....Worms are My Co-workers....... To Bean or Not to Bean? - That is The Question!....Autumn Pests......There's a Permanent Hen Party in my Garden!....A Personal Harvest Festival and 'Thank You' to all of you!
My scruffy old garden plans from 35 years ago showing the six 30ft x 4ft raised, 'deep' or 'no-dig' beds I started with in 1982
Time to Plan your Plot - Planning Pays Off in Abundance!
It's almost the start of another gardening year already! Next month all the seed catalogues will have arrived - some have already - and I never fail to find that exciting! What new excitements will they bring this year? While you can still remember - make a few notes nowof what you want to grow less of, what you would like more of - or what you found difficult or expensive to buy that you didn't grow yourself but wished you had this year!
Make a cropping plan for next yearwhile you can still remember where everything was this year! This is much easier to do on graph paper - so that when the catalogues come - you will have a very good idea of exactly what you want to grow next year, where you're going to grow it and roughly how much seed you will need. That will help to stop you being tempted to buy too much - in theory - (Rarely works for me!) Most catalogues calculate packets of things like peas and beans, for instance, for sowing a 15 ft or 4.5 m row. I find that sowing most seed into modules, rather than sowing direct in the ground, saves hugely on expensive seed. It's no more trouble and you use far less - and also lose far less seedlings, if any, to those slimy night-time visitors - or all the other disasters that can happen to seeds, like rotting in a cold wet soil!
Working out exactly how much of anything you want to grow, knowing how many modules you need for a row or block of something - with a few to spare just in case - and approximately how long the crop will occupy the space is very useful. It allows you to calculate amounts, helps you to make the most efficient use of space, and consequently to get the best value out of your plot for the work you put in. With good planning and module sowing, even a very small plot can produce a surprising amount of good things to eat all year round, by overlapping crops and also inter-planting in succession as I've always done, surrounded by flowers and fruit, and keeping the plot full. That's how nature does it. The fashionable thing to call that way of gardening now is polyplanting - but when I started gardening it was called inter-cropping and catch cropping. Long before that the French call it 'potager gardening'! Plus ca change! Whatever - it's all about getting the very most out of your space - and also for me the aim always also been to save as much money as possible on the household budget!
The more you can grow yourself - the more you will save- and these days that's a big consideration! Even if you only grow your own fresh salads - this could easily save you €25 a week without any problem - and they would be far fresher, far more nutritious and not washed and bagged! Add that up over a year and you will actually have the price of a small polytunnel or greenhouse! There's also nothing like the good feeling that comes from being even to a small extent self-sufficient and not having to buy expensive, travel-weary organic vegetables from the shops - that's if they're available. It's so much healthier and far more satisfying to have your own really fresh, organically grown produce! Making a good cropping plan also helps you to avoid growing things in the same place too often, which can attract pests and diseases. If you the plan well, you'll only have to do it once - you won't have to scratch your head and do it every year!. Divide your plot into four and after that you just move everything round one space every year - and that's a four course rotation, or divide it into six and then the same crop only hits the same space once every six years and so on. Planning a proper rotation and growing as wide a range of crops in soil as possible is the best way to improve it. Planning always pays off. I know we haven't even got this gardening year over with yet - but believe me your success next year starts now - with good planning and forethought!
When I first came here in 1982 - 35 years ago now - I'd already had the (rather painful) benefit of having been bed and then chair bound for several months after a back injury and then subsequent meningitis - so I kept myself amused by planning the whole garden and orchard in minute detail on huge sheets of graph paper while I could do little else, and reading everything I could get my hands on. I was so determined that I would get better and be able to garden again. Those hours spent dreaming, reading and planning were some of the best spent hours ever - they've been paying off in time saved ever since! The apple and cherry trees i planned have grown huge. You can only just about make out the writing on the very battered and scruffy old plans pictured above. They were often taken out into the garden with very hopeful and often muddy hands - and even occasionally chewed by some puppy or other! There are a few bits missing - but they are so precious!
To the bottom left of the plan, you can just make out the words 'Deep Beds'. These were my first raised, 'no-dig' or 'deep' beds similar to those I'd seen the late Geoff Hamilton making on Gardener's World. They were made initially by throwing up all the soil onto the beds from the paths. This immediately gave me higher raised beds which needed far less bending - something I knew I would probably never be able to do comfortably again. They were also better drained and warmed up more quickly in spring. Making lots of compost and using green manures gradually improved the degraded and abused soil we'd inherited and brought it back to life. The six beds later became twelve, when I began growing commercially a couple of years on......... and the rest - as they say - is history! It was lovely to come across those old plans a couple of years ago - they bring back so many memories.
Early this year I did a talk at our National Botanic Gardens, in Glasnevin, Dublin, as part of the Irish launch of the 'European 'People for Soil' initiative. In it, I talked about how I restored my soil, bringing it back to the abundant life and health it's full of now. I also talked a bit about how I made my raised 'no-dig' deep beds. You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjN30StFsf0
Time to Take Stock Now
Many of the old gardener's 'Kalendars' of a couple of centuries ago made October the last month of their gardener's year. In a way I tend to agree with them. I always feel that when the most frost tender crops are safely gathered in and stored or preserved then the work winds down just a little. It's not so frantic trying to keep ahead of the weeds and the slugs - and everything is starting to grow quite a bit slower. This month is a really good time to take stock of the past year while we can still remember clearly any problems, any failures but hopefully too - the many successes. Even if you've had a few disasters (believe me we all have them) - there's always something new to learn from them, and maybe something else to feel good about. Perhaps it's a new variety that you've tried that was successful for you when you'd had none before - or a new vegetable you've grown for the very first time that you really love the taste of - like the lovely new Scarlette Chinese cabbage. Hopefully too - you have a freezer or larder filled to bursting with lots of stored goodies to see you through the autumn and winter! A gardener's work is never done - as all the books say. But take some time too, to enjoy and really savour the results of your labours. Give yourself a pat on the back for working so hard all summer - while you enjoy the beautiful, tasty and satisfying results of your labours - you've earned it!
Keep a Weather Eye out Now!
We had a slight frost last night and there's a distinct chill in the air lately in the mornings, so I hurriedly planted out the very last of the hardy salads last week that were sown in modules last month, before the soil gets really sticky and cold. My soil is heavy clay - sticky when wet - so growing all my veg in raised beds is ideal. I've been doing that ever since I first came here, because they're not just easier to reach when working - they're also far better drained and warmer than soaking wet ground surrounding them! They're easier to cover with fleece or cloches too. We often get one hard frost in the middle of October and then often no more serious ones until after December (I won't say the C word!). Unless your ground is prone to flooding or water-logging - things like parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, celeriac and leeks can stay in the ground quite happily and be used as you need them - I think they taste much better that way. I never start eating my parsnips until after the first frosts. Parsnips take a long time to grow and they need a good frost to develop their sweet flavour properly. I do hope that global warming won't mean warmer far wetter winters and tasteless parsnips! The Oriental veg outside will have appreciated the rain for the last two days even if we didn't. They were needing a good downpour in the raised potager beds. The Chinese cabbage are hearting up nicely, the Oriental radish Pink Dragon and Pak Choi Rubi are growing as satisfyingly fast as they always do - and I think we may even chance a stir-fry by the weekend, along with 'courgetti' noodles from the last of the gorgeous yellow Atena courgettes!
It Could Soon be Time for a Major Cover Up!
With weather so unpredictable in October it's best to be prepared - so I'm also checking over my fleece collection now. I will have to cut a few new ones as I generally stuff them into old compost bags over the summer when they're not needed - but the mice found some of them this year - they must have made a lovely soft nest - but now are totally wrecked! As usual the mice of course are thriving! I won't throw them away though - they'll still do for a top layer when the weather gets really cold and I may perhaps need two or three layers (I don't fancy 'mousey' fleece sitting on top of my salads!) - I'll just put the new clean ones on top of the lettuce or anything else that won't be cooked! I bought a huge roll of fleece from my local farm supply shop a few years ago and I cut off new bits as I need them.
I have a system that works very well now, of wire cloche hoops covered with netting secured with wooden clothes pegs. This always has to be over anything green here or it would all be eaten by pigeons or pheasants! Then on cold nights I put fleece over that too - resting on top of the net - using the clothes pegs to secure it all, as you can see from the picture on the left. The plastic netting nicely stops any heavy dew or rain weighing the fleece down onto the crops where it would often freeze solid on cold nights after heavy rain - then offering no protection at all to crops! This works well for me. I'm also cleaning my plastic cloches at the moment, to remove any dirt that might block the light - it's surprising just how much grime and dust they collect.
Talking of covering things - make sure thatif you have bags of seed or potting compost outside they are securely coveredwith something waterproof. They should be covered all the time - even in the summer - it's absolutely criminal to waste good organic compost, by leaving it open to the weather so that it deteriorates! And I've said before - I now use a really good peat-free, organic compost. I've used many different composts over the years - but this is truly the best of any sort - organic, non-organic peat-free, or peat-based, that I have ever found. Plants absolutely love it - making terrific root systems - and I have actually never had fewer losses in my autumn-sown seedlings. It's worth every cent when you think of it in terms of plant losses saved! This is always a dodgy time of year as growth is slowing. Plants are like us - their immune systems don't always function as well as the light fades and it gets colder. Peat-free is not always the cheapest - but it's definitely the best from every possible perspective! If you're careful with it and use module trays rather than more wasteful seed trays, you don't need that much anyway. I can't recommend Klassman Deilmann peat-free compost that I use highly enough - It's just fantastic!
Covering up is best for your compost heap too! That should always be covered to prevent leaching of nutrients! As we have such wet winters here in Ireland - at this time off year I like to spread a light dressing of good, well rotted home-made compost on any empty beds that I will need for my earliest sowings next year - then I cover them with black polythene to keep out heavy rain and stop weed growth by excluding the light. Underneath the cosy cover the worms will go on working for most of the winter - pulling the compost down into the soil, making it even richer and leaving a beautifully clean, weed free 'tilth' on the surface of the beds which is absolute bliss to work lightly in late winter/early spring.
Worms are My Co-workers
I do minimum or 'worm dig'! That gives me the maximum return for minimum work! Let the worms do your work for you! Completely 'no dig'is not actually possible if you take it literally - I mean, you do actually have to plant things! Worms won't just cultivate your soil for you - they will also enrich it with their nutritious worm casts - actually estimated to be at least 9 times higher in nutrients than what went into the worms! This encourages all the soil life and microorganisms that will make plant foods available to your crops next year. Those billions of micro-organisms are the soil's digestive system - so you want to encourage all those flora and fauna as much as you can - they are like 'probiotics' for plants - and you'll be amazed at the difference they make.
The thing about all the so called 'no dig' experiments I've seen - is that they were actually comparing double-digging with the 'no dig'. So of course the results of digging are bound to look like rubbish! What's happening in the 'dug' bit is that lifeless, microbe-free sub-soil from two 'spits' down is being turned up to the top. Soil takes a long time to recover from this unnatural upheaval unless you're loading it with FYM or very good compost - so of course the results won't be comparable to soil just lightly forked over, fed with lovely compost and planted into! No wonder that 'No Dig' looks so good.
Nature doesn't do no dig' - it's dirty little secret is that it employs an army of mini-diggers in birds, squirrels, rats, worms, beetles, fungi, you name it - that evolved to tunnel, burrow and scratch etc.! I suppose you could say I use the 'wildlife mini-dig' method - scratching the soil over with a three prong cultivator if I need a loose surface. The worms do all the rest - with the help and encouragement of additional mulches. That way all the soil life stays in the same place - although it does need oxygen too - and aerating just it a little actually stimulates the microbes a bit. But even doing that breaks up the huge webs of fungal threads that develop under the soil - so it's all about achieving a natural balance, and imitating nature as much as possible. Even if I grow a green manure - I try to disturb the soil as little as possible, then I chop it down and leave the worms to do most of the work.
There is so much more about soil science that we are still discovering - but one thing we do know without question, is that you need a healthy soil to grow healthy plants. Healthy plants grow healthy people and animals - and so the cycle of Nature goes round. Chemical fertilisers and weedkillers actually kill soil life (and aquatic life like frogs) - science is proving that daily, even here in Ireland on our own doorstep! Non-organic gardeners tend to think of soil as 'dirt' (what an insult!) - which just holds up plants which are then fed and kept alive with chemicals. That's a bit like people expecting to be healthy when fed just on vitamins, minerals and protein supplements! There's still so much we don't know - and having read the books of the Late great L.D.Hills - I knew that over 40 years ago when my children were small and I started growing organically. Luckily they've grown up pretty healthy - now it's up to them - but I gave them the best start I could. If only every child could have that instead of eating so much off-the-shelf, processed rubbish and fast food junk! What is also emerging from all current scientific trials is that organic vegetables, grown in a living, organically fed soil are far higher in all the health giving phytochemicals and antioxidants than non-organic vegetables. Us organic gardeners have always known this - but some people can take a bit of convincing!It's only common sense if you think about it - since that's the way Nature evolved everything to be! Some people seem to be afraid of Nature and need to feel 'in control' of everything - a dangerous illusion! Man is very stupid if he thinks he knows better than Nature! Trust and encouragement - not control is the key. Working with and not against Nature is ultimately the only way for us and the planet. New discoveries are made every day - but we are still a million miles away from understanding exactly how all the life in the soil works and interacts, or indeed how everything else on the planet works together to create a healthy environment for life. But no matter how large or small your plot - you can do your bit to make our world healthier and also yourself - by growing organically.
To Bean or Not to Bean? - That is The Question!
A lot of people sow their broad beans and early peas at the end of this month or in early November. Although I've put them in the sowing list for this month and they may work for some people who live in drier areas with better drained soil, over the years, time and again I've proved that outside in my garden anyway, they are much better sown early in the year in pots and planted out after hardening off. Try a comparison yourself and see what you think. My soil is very heavy clay and their roots can often tend to rot in a very cold wet winter. We seem to get increasingly wetter winters now and I hate wasting time and seed. Those sown early next year always overtake and crop much better than any I've ever sown in the autumn.It's not worth risking expensive seed just to feel that something's happening out there! There's really nothing to gain and there are plenty of other positive things you can be doing instead.
Sow green manuresor put some sort of cover, on any ground that won't be carrying a crop over the winterand won't be needed too early next year. Don't forget that even these need to stick to your rotations. I find here that overwintered green manures don't work well on beds that will be needed for very early sowing or plantings as the weather is just too wet here in Ireland. The soil often doesn't dry out out enough to use until late March or early April - often even if it's covered early in the New Year. Most green manures need several weeks after covering to break down sufficiently and be pulled down into the soil by worms before you can successfully sow or plant into the beds. That can take quite a chunk out of the growing season. It works in the drier environment under cover in tunnels, but the growing space in there is so valuable, that most of it is covered with crops all year. So it's mulched and well fed with good compost to keep the worms happy and crops growing well - with occasional green manuring! Soil is like life - you only get out what you put in!
If you've had any pest problems such as aphids this year then sow a few hardy annuals into modules or pots now - like limnanthes, alyssum and calendula - or other single-flowered hardy annuals. These will flower really early next year, bringing in early bees for pollination and also attract any early hover flies to start the all important pest patrol. If you've grown alyssum in the garden this year - dig it up and transplant it into your polytunnel or greenhouse - it will flower all winter under cover.
Leave a patch of nettles somewhere too - for early ladybirds, whose larvae also voraciously eat early aphids, and also for butterflies to lay their eggs on later in spring.
Start feeding garden birds now to attract them in - unless you've already been doing it all year like me - in which case they're in the garden already. Peanuts and fat balls are good (remember to take the nets off!) There's more info on encouraging helpful wildlife in those sections of the diary. Pests thrive in a garden full of juicy vegetables with no predators to bother them. With no food, flowers or habitat to attract both pollinating insects and other vital creatures which control pests - they have a field day! I'm always amazed that some gardeners seem averse to growing flowers among their vegetables - particularly some men - who seem to think that flowers are a big girly! I honestly hardly ever see pests. Flowers are absolutely key to attracting beneficial insects. They look lovely too!
Keep on tidying up any dead and decaying leaves now too - to keep diseases down. Mould and rots can spread like wildfire in the damp, cold autumn weather. Make compost but don't - as I heard one garden expert recommending recently - put any blighted potatoes or tomato foliage into your compost heap! Unless that is it's an enormous heap that's almost hot enough to cook eggs on! The disease spores can survive anything less and will infect your crops even earlier next year. Put anything like that into your council green waste bin. And don't compost any bought onion peelings either - just in case they could be carrying onion white rot. It's always far better to be safe than sorry!
Keeping all weeds down on beds and keeping grass paths mown short is really important now - you don't want to give slugs and snails anywhere to hide from predators like birds, hedgehogs etc. Slugs and snails can breed and multiply at an alarming rate in wet autumn weather before the ground gets too cold. In the autumn of 2013 when I has broken my shoulder, I couldn't manage to keep the weeds and grass down on some beds - and believe me I paid for it! Slugs were quite a problem in some of the outside beds the following year.Crane fly larvae or leather jackets were an even bigger problem. They love to lay their eggs in the nice soft soil of raised beds if they have the shelter of a few grassy weeds. Then the following spring the dirty little brown caterpillar like grubs will eat through stems of young lettuce plants and other seedlings just below the soil surface. One day they look fine - the next they wilt and collapse. You probably won't know you've got them until this happens, and there's sadly nothing you can do to repair the damage! You can find a few in spring by forking over and picking them out - but birds are much more efficient at finding them. If you have a couple of hens or bantams and have a small movable coop - then let them onto your raised beds or put the coop and run onto your raised beds and let them at it. They'll scratch them up like crazy and have a whale of a time! If you don't have hens - then keep forking the ground over for a few days before planting in early spring - and let all the wild birds scratch them up. They'll be so hungry and very grateful in late winter/early spring.
As I mentioned earlier - I always have to put nets on all my green leafy crops now - to keep the pigeons off - and they'll be starting to get interested in them as the weather turns colder and growth everywhere else slows up! I have enough clover to keep them happy all summer here - that's what they really love - and they never bother with most of the crops apart from lettuce or peas until the winter. All my 'lawns' are practically pure clover here now, as we've never used artificial nitrogen on them, or anything else come to that. Artificial nitrogen discourages clover and soil microbes. I also need to cover beds with nets in case the hens escape. Hens and ducks can destroy a bed of lettuce or cabbage faster than you can say "cluck" or "quack" - leafy greens are their favourite food. Mine are always trained to come to call if I have an armful of green stuff - very useful if they get out by mistake - it's always a race to see which one of them can get at them first!
There's a Permanent Hen Party in my Garden!
Talking of hens - I think theyreally an integral part of any organic garden - they certainly are in mine. They clear up pests, scarify the moss and thatch from the grass, eat a lot of kitchen and garden waste and their droppings are a very valuable activator in the compost heaps! In addition to that they then produce the most fabulous orange-yolked organic eggs so much better than I could ever buy! Sadly organic poultry farmers have to keep a lot more hens on their ground than back garden poultry keepers like me do - otherwise it would not be economically viable to produce the eggs. I know this because I used to keep a couple of hundred organic laying hens. Many people simply won't pay the true cost of egg production as they're so used to cheap food. As I'm always saying - cheap food comes at a price! And all too often - it's the animals that pay that price in terms of poorer welfare!
Large organic egg producers are getting very little more for their eggs than I was getting for mine 30 years ago - when I was producing organic eggs commercially! Strange that people aren't prepared to pay a realistic price - when at the same time they want free-range and GMO free eggs - with all the extra expense that entails. In addition to that government rules mean that you have a dedicated packing house and machines that can pack so many hundreds of eggs per hour! A bit daft when you perhaps only have a hundred or so hens! I don't believe that hens should ever be kept in large flocks. From my observations of hens over my lifetime - the more hens you have over 100 - the fewer will venture outside. So that rather defeats the object of free-range doesn't it?.
A really good orange-yolked organic egg is the most perfect of Nature's foods. They are absolutely the best meal in the world - and also one of the cheapest and most nutritious! Our six girls have a lovely new house now - it's a re-purposed new 'Wendy house' which my son lined with wire netting so that the fox can't eat through the wood and get in to kill any hens - as has sadly happened in the past! I designed a new system of runs that fan out from their house like the spokes of a wheel - so that they can be changed into another fresh run every couple of weeks while still being protected from hungry foxes! Rotating the runs keeps the ground healthy and also the hens. When I open their door in the mornings they leg it out as fast as possible so they're first to find any bugs - they look so funny with their soft 'tutu-like' feather trousers bouncing about as they run! The Blue Rocks are particularly handsome - I call them my 'Lavender Ladies' and they're much more placid than the flightier Black and Partridge Rocks - though they're all the best layers I've ever had. Apart from all the lovely greens they get from the garden - I also feed them on a certified organic layers pellet which I get from my local farm shop White's Agri - which of course is GMO-free and antibiotic-free, as all organic animal feeds have to be under EU law.
Organic layers rations are more expensive - but that's because they are the only ones which can be absolutely guaranteed not to contain GM soya or maize, or grain which has been sprayed with chemicals like Glyphosate. They must use all organic grain - and so naturally all the ingredients that make up the feed are more expensive. I wouldn't ever dream of using anything else though! They hens lay really well on those rations all through most of the winter and if you sell even just a dozen a week, or perhaps barter them for something else as I do now - then that more than pays for their feed - so your eggs after that are actually free! They also get any vegetables which are surplus from the kitchen but too good for the compost heap. Their favourite food in the entire world though is currently cucumbers and lettuce! They really pile into those - after all they're very sweet and we love them too. They have a system of seven permanent large runs in total now - that means they've always got lots of fresh grass to eat and new bugs to find. It's the only way I can keep poultry here. The greedy foxes are about all the time and keeping an eye on the hens already! I've heard several very close by our back hedge in the last few days - so I could never risk their precious lives by just letting them wander around un-fenced. NIgella and her flock of followers would all be dead and inside a fox with a few days if they weren't in wire-protected runs!
Frankly - just leaving hens to wander around, often because people can't be bothered to fence them in, is just hen abuse! In their lovely clean runs our girls have shrubs and trees to shelter under from wind or rain, nice dry dusty spots to dust-bathe in which they love to do to keep their feathers in tip-top condition, and they have everything they would have in their natural habitat - which is originally South-East Asian jungle.There's more about keeping organic laying hens in the podcast interview I did with Gerry Kelly on his Late Lunch show a while ago - you'll find the link in the contents panel.
Well- as one book remarked on the month of October over 200 years ago - "The Gardener's year is a circle, for his labours are never at an end"..... But then another stated that - "There is more pleasure now in feeding on the fruits of your labour and industry, than in viewing the Ruines and Decays that this season hath made among Natures Glories" (la Quintinie - 1683) - A sentiment I heartily agree with!!
A Personal Harvest Festival and 'Thank You' to all of you!
This is the month for celebrating harvest festivals - and I have the end of another kind of year to mark in some way. The end of another year on the website - and a very different but just as satisfying harvest of emails to warm the heart, to personally give thanks for and to celebrate. So thank you to all of you who have sent them in the past. Sadly I don't have time to reply these days, or I'd never do all the work in the garden and polytunnels, write my blog and also write for The Irish Garden magazine, keep up to date on research, experiment with new ideas for healthy recipes to try out on my family and you - and also do my 'From Tunnel to Table' radio feature on LMFM radio with Gerry Kelly which is fun - but still work! You can still contact me very briefly on Twitter though - which takes a lot less time!
When I first started this blog in 2010 on journalist Fionnuala Fallon's suggestion I barely knew how to use a computer - let alone what a blog was! I actually hadn't read any! I could just about send an email as long as I didn't press any of the wrong buttons! Hard to believe I know, to all you techies out there - but I've always been more into the practical side of growing plants and animals! It was a steep learning curve! I just did what I thought I would have wanted when I first started growing. That was a few suggestions as to what to do in each part of the garden all year round and how to do it. The only problem with that is that it tied me to doing four blog posts every month. As I'm always experimenting and learning though - it's not hard to come up with new things to write about - although finding the time can often be difficult - especially when you have things like hurricane Ophelia happening!
Anyway - thank you for taking the time to read these ramblings from my garden. I've occasionally been told that I write too much! But as I've always replied - I don't believe in giving you only half the information - it's up to you how much you read! When I had only just started gardening and growing our own food - I was so grateful for checklists of things to do and how to do them. Articles I see these days - in magazines for instance - often leave out vital pieces of information necessary for success, or in some cases are even totally incorrect! Some of the information on blogs which people may have asked me to read, often seem to have been written using other people's articles, or from books - and not from direct personal experience - which I have always believed is the most valuable for other people. It's said that imitation is the best form of flattery though - and it's nice when kind people mention me. Thank you to those people for their generosity and good manners.
I get a lot of emails and twitter comments thanking me for sharing my knowledge. I can't begin to tell you how thrilled I am that by sharing my 40 plus years of hard-won experience of growing for my family, I may have inspired some of you to grow even a few things organically in your gardens, without harming Nature, to encourage wildlife and also to enjoy using some of your produce in my tried and trusted healthy recipes. No matter how long one has been gardening, there is always something new to learn - and I must say that I never stop learning from you people out there too. So here's a very big THANK YOU to all of you! x
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard-won experience. Thank you.)
As I write this I'm listening to Hurricane Ophelia raging over us! I've decided to update this as it helps to take my mind off my own polytunnels and also stops my eyes from looking out of the windows. Also I thought I'd do it while we still have power, which usually goes off here in even minor storms! There has already been a lot of damage countrywide. My trees are currently bending double and although we've been through some serious storms here before and we've done everything we can to prepare - this storm is an unknown quantity. Sadly with increasing climate change, I doubt if this will be the last of these storms we will see in our lifetime - but I won't go into that argument here!
I sincerely hope that all your tunnels are safe - but if not - I do hope that any damage is minimal and that my suggestions below may be of some help and possibly save the cover of your tunnel. More gales are forecast for this weekend, so if there is even the slightest of small tears in covers - it's worth strengthening them NOW with tunnel tape. This method will also save greenhouse glass too if there are cracks or even complete panes broken - something which again I've experienced here.
There were some suggestions on Twitter yesterday evening and this morning that it was better to leave tunnel doors open in rough weather - but from my own experience it is far better to keep them as tightly closed as possible. Winds in such strong storms can be very unpredictable and can change direction very suddenly. If you leave the downwind doors open as one or two people suggested - I know from my own experience that the tunnel can just take off if the wind suddenly gusts from a direction that wasn't predicted. I lost my very first polytunnel in the Great Storm of 1987 because the cheap roll up door blew in and then up through the roof! Then I lost another polytunnel two years later that had been put up by a man who said he was experienced at erecting polytunnels - it turned out that he wasn't! He had tacked the polythene on at one end before he realised there wasn't enough to reach to the other end - he then forced it to stretch too much and pulled it too tight - slightly bending the frame. At the first sign of any wind it just collapsed like a house of cards. I lost not just the polythene but also the frame as well -so it was an expensive lesson. Although he had been recommended by my polytunnel suppliers at the time - I very stupidly didn't ask for other references!
So I know how upsetting it is to lose a tunnel completely - I did 30 years ago! If you've been unfortunate enough to lose yours I can sympathise - but all is not completely lost - because even if the frame is weakened, it can still be useful. I now use that old frame as a fruit cage and chicken run instead!
Since then I've always got the suppliers themselves to erect them as I describe later - then they are responsible if it's not done properly! I also have properly closing doors on both of my new stronger-framed tunnels - one has sliding doors and the other has a hinged-type opening door. I definitely think that the more expensive option of the sliding door is worth every single cent! It's very easy to vary the width of the opening to allow the doors to be opened in even quite windy weather, depending on direction, which you can't do with the hinged doors.
Here's a list of what you will need:
1. A large roll of see-through tunnel tape. You should be able to get this from your local farm supplies shop, they' usually have them in stock as there are so many tunnels around now. Or if your polytunnel supplier is near enough, they're sure to have it. There is a type of Sellotape sold in DIY stores for garden use - but the rolls are smaller and not quite so effective in my experience.
2. A large roll of a good absorbent kitchen paper towel.
3. A large pair of scissors.
4. A stable stepladder that won't wobble if the damage is not within easy reach.
5. Someone to help hold the stepladder steady for you - (most important!) and also to hold an umbrella over you if it's raining while you're working outside as the polythene must be kept dry while you're working on it or the tape won't stick!
To mend a small or middle sized tear:
Mending a hole or tear up to about 4-5ins long that's within reach is pretty easy - but needs to be done immediately to avoid the wind catching it and causing possible further damage.
Get all your equipment ready and keep it dry in a bag or bucket - don't put down on damp ground.
Start on outside of the tunnel first if it's within reach.
First wipe dry the area all around the tear - to about 4-5inches 10cm or so from damage - with 3-4 large pieces of kitchen towel. Do this twice with two changes of towel to ensure it's as dry as poss.
If it's only a small tear or hole just cut off enough tape to mend to about 2ins-3ins either side of the damage and press the tape gently onto the area, working from the middle of the tear out, to avoid air bubbles which will attract moisture and gradually undo the mend. Once you've it stuck to the tunnel, use the rounded handle of the scissors to gently rub all over the area, working along the length of the taped bit, as if you were brass rubbing! This really seals the tape mend and squeezes out any small air pockets. You will see the area gradually become clearer, which means it's really stuck.
Then do exactly the same inside immediately, repeating the process of drying off the area thoroughly etc. again. You may think it's dry enough in the tunnel, but even your breath will create humidity which will affect the area to be mended, and will make the seal less effective.
To mend a larger hole or tear:
Go through the same process again of drying off, starting on the outside.
Cut enough of the tape to 'stitch' across the tear to about 4-5ins either side of the damage, start in the middle, pulling it together, then work out from there either side, and literally doing large 'cartoon' stiches across the damage first. If it's really large, having another pair of hands to pull the tear together really helps - but I have often done this on my own.
Make sure the damaged/stitched area is still dry enough, if you're not sure then rub with kitchen towel again and then go along the whole of the damage length ways, going further out from the stitches over the whole area with the tape. This is because if you don't - wet can get under the stitches and the whole area may come undone if it gets wet inside. Again rub over the whole area with handle end of scissors - (or the back of a large tablespoon as a person suggested to me recently who had mended her polytunnel using my advice.
If you have someone to help - get them to stay outside while you repeat the process again on the inside, getting them to hold their hands flat over the area, to give you some thing to work against when putting on the tape and ensuring it sticks. You ideally want as few air bubbles as possible under the polytunnel tape when doing this. Don't try to skimp on the tunnel tape when doing this - more is definitely better and is a helluva lot cheaper than having to buy a new polytunnel cover!
To mend a tear in a tunnel roof where you can't get at the top outside without a cherry picker!
Make sure you've got someone to hold the ladder - the voice of bitter experience here!
Go through the same process as for the larger tear or hole, making sure it's really dry, getting a piece of tape to stitch across the middle of the tear first. It it's large enough to get your hand through to the outside and you can reach, put one hand on the outside and then you can push against it.
Once you have done that - the first strip of tape should hold the area steady enough to enable you to get the rest of the tape on, again 'stitching' across larger areas first. Then going along. It will also be strong enough to rub the handle of the scissors over the area as before. It's also often a good idea to reinforce a large area with additional polythene if you have some handy. Doing this can give you a good seal which will last for years - I promise! Believe me I've mended some really huge holes this way, and they've lasted until the tunnels were due for re-covering several years later.
If you're just putting up a new a tunnel - it can be really useful to save all those off-cuts of the polythene that may seem too small to be useful! They can come in really handy later on for mending large, difficult tears. I'm an avid recycler (some would say hoarder!) and I can guarantee that if I throw something out - I'll probably want it a couple of weeks later. 'Sod's Law'! If you don't have any off-cuts - then go to a local bed store like Harvey Norman's and ask them very nicely for a polythene mattress cover (threatening to weep helps if they're mean - but they're usually very nice!). They'll always have these hanging around from new show bed mattresses etc. The polythene is normally strong enough to cope with mending a large hole if well put on - and the're actually also just the right size and really useful for covering areas of my 4ft wide raised beds in spring, to dry them off a bit!!
If the tear is too big to attempt to repair in any way at all - even without using a large extra patch of polythene - then sadly the best thing you can do is to literally just cut your losses, get a sharp knife and cut off all the polythene completely. If you leave it flapping around in the wind like a sail - it will gradually distort the frame, weakening it and it will be useless for using as a polytunnel again. Sorry! Not complete despair though - you could still use it as a fruit cage or hen run!
My polytunnel history!
I put up my very first tiny 6 x 8 polytunnel/plastic 'Garden Relax' brand polythene greenhouse in our very first garden about 39 years ago! That was the beginning of a love affair with these incredibly productive and useful things. When we moved to our current home, I started growing organic veg commercially. After losing three greenhouses, I decided that polytunnels were the only option here, as they can flex and move just a little, which a greenhouses can't. One crack and a greenhouse is gone in a high wind. I learnt as I went along. The first one that I lost in Hurricane Charlie produced great crops. It was one of those 13ft x 65ft ones, where you could only grow tall crops in the middle and the sides were very low. The only problem was that on our very windy site, the roll-up doors could potentially catch in the wind and blow inside the tunnel, going up through the roof! That was how I lost that one in the hurricane!
After that I got two more of that size as they were the cheapest option. As I earned enough from all my hard work, I would buy another - ending up with 3 of those smaller ones, and then an 18ft x 54ft much taller one at the bottom of the hill where it was more sheltered. That was luxury indeed! These served me well until I gave up commercial growing in the mid '90's, mainly to look after my late mother who had increasing dementia and also to pursue my dream of becoming a sculptor - which enabled me to be around the house more for my mother. I still grew all my own food in the old larger tunnel, and promised myself that if I ever had the chance - then I would one day buy the very best I could possibly afford, with sturdy real doors - not the 'roll up' ones which so easily catch in the wind.
I come from a farming family and used to breed horses as a hobby until very recently. Sadly I haven't been allowed to ride for over 30 years or so now due to increasing spinal problems, but I loved having horses around, and luckily they've always earned their keep! Just in case you might think we're millionaires - I had a bit of good fortune a few years ago. I happened to sell one extremely well, so I finally decided to go for it and realise my long-held dream of a buying two polytunnels that would last as long as me. These will hopefully enable me to still go on gardening - growing food both for us and for nature and bringing me a lot of joy - even if sooner or later I become increasingly disabled as doctors have predicted! Having learnt so much about polytunnels over the years - I went for the strongest and biggest I could afford, both with a really heavy gauge steel frame, cladding strips to hold the polythene along the sides to make re-covering easier if and when necessary, with the toughest heavy polythene covers and they proper sliding and hinged-opening doors.
I bless my good fortune, my lovely old mare (now sadly deceased) and my two polytunnels every day! Even on the very worst of days when the weather is foul or if I can barely bend - I can still sit on a stool and plant or weed, getting my daily dose of light and birdsong! It's the most wonderfully relaxing therapy as all you gardeners know and is also a reason to keep moving when sometimes it might seem easier not to! The tunnels are also incredibly productive as you can see from all the pictures elsewhere. They provide most of our food here, as well as raising chicks, rescuing hedgehogs, even drying the washing - you name it - they do it! I know that greenhouses are more beautiful - but on our very windy hill here they sadly weren't an option, and they are twice the price anyway. I hope you will agree that I've tried to make mine as beautiful as possible. They're also brilliant for bees, butterflies and all other sorts of wildlife who benefit all year round from all the nectar and pollen producing flowers while providing me with nature's free pest control! I just couldn't live without them!
Whether you have to beg, borrow or steal for a polytunnel - or just pay for it by the sheer sweat of your brow as I did - they are well worth it. I worked out a few years ago that any size polytunnel should more than easily pay for itself in produce within 3 years. And if it doesn't - then you're not using it properly and really you don't deserve it!! If you're eating your 5-a-day it should save you at least €25-€35 per week on your household budget for a family of four - multiply that by 12 and that's the price of a small polytunnel over a year! My polytunnels save me a huge amount on my food bill and everything that they produce is always organic, local, super-fresh and full of all the nutrients that Nature intended and which are often lost in shop-bought fruit and vegetables.
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard-won experience. Thank you.)